The Lion of Persia


Whose head is that?

The Lion and Sun (شیر و خورشید‎‎, Shir o Khorshid) emblem (holding a shamshir, scimitar) remained the official symbol of Iran until the 1979 revolution, when it was removed from public spaces and government organizations, and replaced by a coat of arms.

During the Safavid era, the lion and sun represented two foundations of the Persian society, the state and the Islamic religion. It became a national emblem during the Qajar era (1781-1925). The “lion”, of course, is the ancient sign of the sun in the house of Leo, a symbol traced to Babylonian astrology. For the Safavids, the Shah had two roles: king and holy man. This double meaning was associated with the genealogy of Iranian kings. Two males were key people in this paternity: Jamshid (sun) was the mythical founder of an ancient Persian kingdom, and Ali the Shi'te first Imam was affiliated with the lion (Zul-faqar). When the last Shah was removed a few decades ago, the nation no longer conferred two powers in one man and the nation became a theocratic democracy. In essence, the head was severed and the sun was consigned to be carried on the back of the lion. This caricature, intended or not, occasionally appears in the colorful tiles and artwork around the nation. (The shamshir is a curved sword originating in Arabic and Central Asian Turkic Muslim culture and has been associated with the city of Shamshir — which means "curved like the lion's claw" in Persian.)

I first encountered the lion emblem on a wall that is part of the royal dwellings and offices of the former Shahanshah of Iran ( the Shah, His Imperial Majesty). As usual, I encountered many facets and meanings connected to every symbolism and name attached to Persian historical personages and locations. The Pahlavi Dynasty is one such instance.

Palace foyer (no photographs)