CYPRESS (sarv), Cupressus (Tourn.) L. The genus Cupressus is represented in Persia by one spe­cies (sempervirens L.), with three varieties: the cereiform (cereiformis Rehd.), called sarv-e nāz in Shiraz; the more common pyramidal or fastigiate, variously called sarv-e šīrāzī (Shiraz cypress) and sarv-e kāšī (Kāšān cypress); and the horizontal, known popularly by several names but usually referred to as zarbīn by modern Persian botanists. The first two varieties are usually propagated and planted as orna­mental evergreens, but the zarbīn grows wild in the Caspian forests from Arasbārān to Gorgān and, mingled with specimens of the sarv-e nāz, in southern Persia (Ṯābetī, pp. 296­-99; cf. Parsa, pp. 863-64; Ghahreman, pp. 123-26; Parsa and Maleki, pp. 475-77, distinguish only two varieties, pyramidal and horizontal; cf. Sāʿī, p. 250). A mountain pass (Tang-e Sarvak) in Kohgīlūya known for its Elymaean monuments contains a zarbīn forest (Jangal-e Sūlak/Sarvak) covering an area of ca. 1,000 ha (Varšovī and Ṣafarī; for the monuments, see Henning). The main imported species is the Arizona cypress, which was introduced in 1334 Š./1955-56 and is called sarv-e noqraʾī (silvery cypress) by horticul­turists; as the hardiest of all cypresses, it has been widely propagated and planted in Persian cities as an ornamental conifer (Ṯābetī, p. 296; for the numerous varieties of the Arizona cypress cultivated in Persia, see Ṭabāṭabāʾī, pp. 12-16; for the vaguely described varieties of sarv-e sahī, sarv-e āzād, and sarv-e nāz in Persian lexicons, see Dehḵodā, s.v. sarv).

Félix Lajard (p. 151) reported, on the authority of Carl Ritter (p. 568), that the pyramidal cypress also occurs in the vicinity of Herat and added that its cultivation there was introduced in remote antiquity. Modern botanical investigations, however, do not con­firm that any variety of Cupressus sempervirens is indigenous to Afghanistan (Riedl, p. 2). “A sort of gigantic cypress” reported in 1815 by Mountstuart Elphinstone (p. 146) as a native mountain tree in Afghanistan may have been, not a pyramidal cypress, as Ritter believed (p. 568), but a large, old specimen of juniper (sarv-e kūhī), several subspecies of which are indigenous to Afghanistan (Riedl, pp. 3-9).

In Persia the word sarv, also designates species of two other genera of the cypress family: the junipers (Sāʿī, pp. 253-55; Ṯābetī, p. 415), represented by six species in Persia, each with variant local names; and the arborvitae, referred to as nūš by Ḥabīb-Allāh Ṯābetī (pp. 523-25) and as sarv-e ḵomraʾī (barrel-like cy­press) by Reżā Ḥejāzī, who reported, in 1340 Š./1961, the existence of a specimen about 1,357 years old near Karaj (now reported dead). Borhān Rīāżī, of the Department of the environment (Sāzmān-e ḥefāẓat-e moḥīṭ-e zīst), Tehran, has communicated to this au­thor his discovery of an even older arborvitae near a cemetery at the village of Kāhū west of Mašhad; the estimated age is ca. 1,500 years, the circumference near the ground ca. 2 m. There is an arborvitae forest in the Kātūl valley in Gorgān (Sāʿī, p. 257; Ṯābetī, pp. 523-25).

The cypress is often mentioned in classical Persian poetry as a distinguished garden tree and occurs in a variety of metaphors (sarv-e ḵarāmān, sarv-e ravān, etc.) referring to the graceful figure and stately gait of the beloved (for more examples, see Moḥammad Pādšāh, III, pp. 2418-19; Dehḵodā, s.v. sarv; for representations of the pyramidal cypress, its symbolism, and its persistence in Persian art, see Survey of Persian Art, esp. I, pp. 292, 357-58, III, pp. 1427, 1437, IV, pp. 1500, 1593, V, pp. 2136-37, VI, pp. 2399-400; Lajard, pp. 21, 139-41, 272-82). Prominent among cypress motifs in the art of the Islamic period is the well-known bot(t)a jeqqa(ʾī) or būta ḵerqaʾī, which often occurs on shawls (termas), carpets, and other textiles and is believed by some scholars to be a stylized pyramidal cypress with the top bent by the wind (Lajard, p. 152; Nafīsī, p. 164; Ḥejāzī, p. 25; Nīlūfarī, pp. 4-5).

The cypress is mentioned in the Bundahišn (16.8, tr. Anklesaria, p. 147) only as one of the perennial plants producing nothing edible. There is evidence to sug­gest, however, that it had symbolic significance in pre-­Islamic Persia. According to a Zoroastrian tradition recorded by the Zoroastrian poet Daqīqī (Šāh-­nāma, Moscow, VI, pp. 68-71), a sapling of the “noble cypress” (sarv-e āzāda) was brought from paradise by Zoroaster to the Kayanid king Goštāsp, who planted it, as a memorial to his conversion to Zoroastrianism, near the first fire temple (Āḏar-e Mehr Borzīn; see ādur burzēn-mihr), in Kašmar/Kāšmar in Khorasan. According to the 14th-century Nozhat al-qolūb (p. 143), the Kāšmar cypress was planted by Jāmāsp, Zoroaster’s son-in-law and Goštāsp’s vizier.

The Parsi scholar J. C. Coyajee, in a compara­tive study of legends from the Šāh-nāma and their ancient Chinese parallels, pointed out “a striking resemblance” among the story of the cypress of Kāšmar, old Chinese beliefs, and the present-day beliefs of the people of Sīstān (pp. 27ff.). In his discussion of the ancient Chinese cult of the cypress he also mentioned the traces of a similar Persian cult in Sīstān, as ob­served by G. P. Tate in 1903-05 (I, pp. 188-90), and the two “very old and remarkable cypress trees” near Darg (a village in the district of Hōkat) in Afghan Sīstān (also reported in Gazetteer of Afghanistan II, p. 63), which, according to local traditions, were planted in the days of Anōšīravān (r. 531-79) and were regarded “with respect if not veneration by the Seistanis.” At about the turn of the century Sir Percy Sykes (p. 354) reported the existence of a gigantic cypress tree in the village of Sangūn near Zāhedān. It had a circumfer­ence of 25 feet at about 5 feet from the ground. Tate believed it not impossible that the cypresses of Darg and Sangūn “may have been propagated from the famous tree of Kishmar to commemorate some events of importance” (quoted in Jackson, p. 265).

According to Daqīqī, the tree grew so huge in a few years that “a lasso could not surround its trunk.” Then this cypress, the adjoining temple, and the magnificent golden palace later erected near them were declared an official place of pilgrimage by Goštāsp, who, conse­quently, bade the rulers and notables of “the world” to recant their former beliefs, come on foot as pilgrims to that holy place, adopt Zoroaster’s newly revealed religion, and especially marvel at the sarv-e Kāšmar, a miracle bearing witness to the truth and grandeur of the new faith. Ḥamza Eṣfahānī (10th century) re­ported in his partly preserved Mowāzana bayn al­-ʿarabī wa’l-ʿajamī that “in the time of the ʿAjam (Persian) kings there was at Nīšābūr a tree called sarv-­e sahī under which all Persian notables gathered for a few days every year to worship it; it served as Mecca to the ʿAjam. Several thousand people lived on the votive offerings and sacrifices to that tree, and several thousand pictures (naqš) and songs (ṣawt) had been made to describe it” (tr. Fozūnī Astarābādī, pp. 484-­85, who, however, does not seem to identify this description with the cypress in Kāšmar, to which he refers on pp. 486-87). Historical evidence from the Islamic period confirms the existence of this tree until it was sawed down by order of the caliph al-Motawakkel (r. 332-47/847-61). The earliest source about its fate is Ṯaʿālebī Nīšābūrī (350-429/961-1038; pp. 590-91), who called it the “cypress of Bost.” According to his report, the cypress originally planted by Yostāsef (i.e., Goštāsp) in the hamlet of Kešmīr in the Bost rostāq (rural district) of Nīšābūr had attained such beauty and size by the time of al-Motawakkel that it constituted one of the glories (mafāḵer) of Khorasan. It was so often vaunted to the caliph that he wished to see it, but, unable or unwilling to leave Baghdad, he ordered his governor in Khorasan, Ṭāher b. ʿAbd-Allāh Ḏu’l-Yamīnayn, to have the cypress felled and cut into pieces, which were to be sent to Baghdad so that carpenters might reassemble them for him. This ex­travagant order was carried out, despite the warnings of the caliph’s close friends that it would bode ill for him and despite the pleas of the residents of Bost and their pledge to pay a large sum to ransom their vener­ated tree. The augury came true: Al-Motawakkel was murdered before the 1,300 camels carrying the cypress pieces reached Baghdad. ʿAlī b. Zayd Bayhaqī (d. 565/1169-70) elaborated on the story (pp. 281-83). He related still another Zoroastrian tradition, according to which Zoroaster drew two auspicious ṭāleʿs (horo­scopes) for planting two cypresses, one at Kāšmar, the other in the village of Faryūmad in the district of Ṭūs.

Zoroastrians at Bost offered to pay 50,000 Nīšābūrī gold dinars to have their cypress, which they claimed was already 1,405 years old, spared. A long time was spent on necessary preparations, making a saw suit­able for cutting down a tree with a circumference of 34 cubits that could shelter more than 10,000 sheep; according to Ḥamza Eṣfahānī (tr. Fozūnī Astarābādī, pp. 486-87), it had “a girth of 120 gazes and as much height.” The fall of the tree caused great damage to buildings and underground water channels in the area. The pieces of the tree were loaded on 1,300 camels; the journey to Sāmarrāʾ took eighteen months and cost 500,000 dirhams. When the convoy was only one stage away from the capital, al-Motawakkel was assas­sinated and so did not have a chance to see the des­ecrated cypress (see also Enjū Šīrāzī, I, pp. 436-37). As for the fate of the cypress of Faryūmad, according to Bayhaqī (p. 283), it was 1,691 years old in 537/1142-43, when it was burned down by order of Amīr Yanāltekīn (Īnāltekīn) b. Ḵᵛārazmšāh, son of the Ḵᵛārazmšāh Qoṭb-al-Dīn Moḥammad, because “any king who would catch sight of it would be stricken by misfortune in the same year, an experience often re­peated in the past” (for the anachronisms in the accounts of Ṯaʿālebī and Bayhaqī, see Moʿīn, p. 342; Nafīsī, pp. 165-67; Taqīzāda, pp. 78 n., 159, 267 and his handwritten notes).

Although the funerary symbolism and use of the pyramidal cypress are not attested in the literature or sculpture of Assyrians and Persians in the pre-Islamic period (Lajard, pp. 293-347), the fact that cypresses are often found planted in cemeteries or represented on tombstones in Persia and Turkey (see, e.g., Ouseley, II, p. 93, who reported having seen such tombstones from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea and from Māzandarān to Constantinople) led Lajard to conclude (pp. 298ff.) that they probably reflected the continu­ation in Islam of ancient pagan belief and practice. In 1627 Thomas Herbert reported (p. 254) having wit­nessed Persian funeral ceremonies during which some mourners in the procession carried laurel or cypress twigs. Both the customs of carving pyramidal cy­presses on Muslim tombstones and of carrying cypress branches in funeral processions seem to have fallen into disuse, but cypresses are abundantly planted not only in public cemeteries but also in the precincts of the tombs of venerable personages all over Persia. Lajard’s assumption (p. 301) that the very cypresses that had flanked Zoroastrian fire temples in the Sasa­nian period continued to shade the tombs of emāmzādas and other holy shrines in the Islamic period may be partly true.

Many remarkable cypresses have been reported in Persia by foreign travelers. One of the earliest of these reports is the one by Engelbert Kaempfer (pp. 366-69), who mentioned the elegant cypresses of Shiraz, espe­cially those at the tomb precinct of the poet Ḥāfeẓ (see Figure 24). Herbert (p. 55) noted “exceedingly large” cypresses (planted as “trees of shade”) in the province of Lār in Fārs. Lajard mentioned (as proof of the conjecture above) the cypresses in the garden of the takīya of Haft Tanān in the vicinity of Shiraz.

Nowadays, apart from the renowned cypresses in Shiraz gardens (described and illustrated by Ārīānpūr, passim, especially the splendid sarv-e nāz in Bāḡ-e Eram, p. 379), many old and remarkable cy­presses are still found in the country. Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfī (Nozhat-al-qolūb, p. 122) mentioned in 740/1339 a magnificent cypress in the village of Abarqūh in Fārs, which seems to be the same tree that botanists believe to be more than 4,000 years old (Keyhān International, 23 July 1977, p. 2; Afšār, 1347 Š./1968, p. 332). If so, it is not only by far the oldest known tree in Persia but also one of the oldest living organisms in the world (for an illustration, see Afšār, 1347 Š./1968, p. 204; idem, 1348 Š./1970, p. 607). The 10th-century geographer Maqdesī (Moqaddasī) re­ferred to a wonderful cypress in Fasā in Fārs, which may be the magnificent old cypress that still stands near the village of Dereymī at Fasā. Forṣat Šīrāzī (p. 84), who passed through Fasā in 1307/1889, reported that about sixty people were resting in the shade of this tree, which stood 28-30 ḏaṛʿs (cubits) high; it was said to be revered by Zoroastrians (Pārsīān). There are also about thirty cypresses, most of them more than 300 years old, in the Bāḡ-e Šāh at Behšahr (according to the incomplete records of the former Sāzmān-e mellī-e ḥefāẓat-e āṯār-e bāstānī-e Īrān/National orga­nization for the conservation of the ancient monu­ments of Persia, which the author consulted at the Department of the environment, Tehran). The precinct of the Safavid palace Ṣafīābād in the same city abounds in cypresses. Another remarkable example (about 1,222 years old, with a height of more than 15 m and a girth of more than 4 m) was also recorded by the same organization in the precinct of the emāmzāda of Solṭān Mīr Aḥmad in Jārīān, a hamlet in Naṭanz šahrestān. Individual contemporary authors have also reported the existence of monumental cypresses in a variety of places (e.g., Bāstānī Pārīzī, pp. 255-58; Afšār, 1348 Š./1970, pp. 165, 227-28, 429, 524, 542, 640). An imposing sarv-e šīrāzī in Persia is to be found at Harzavīl, a village in the dehestān of Raḥmatābād (district of Rūdbār, Gīlān). According to the Sāzmān records, in 1348 Š./1969-70 it was 800 years old and 24 m high, with a circumference of 5.40 m and a diameter of 1.80 m at 1 m above ground. It has been officially declared “a protected tree” by the Department of the environment. “It is revered by all the inhabitants of the area” (Ḥejāzī, 1348 Š./1969, I, p. 26).



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Figure 24. Drawing of the precinct of the tomb of the poet Ḥāfeẓ in Shiraz. After Herbert, p. 369.

(Hūšang Aʿlam)

Originally Published: December 15, 1993

Last Updated: November 2, 2011

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