FLAGS i. Of Persia




"National flags” symbolizing political entities began to evolve from religious or military applications of dynastic “emblems” (also called “badges” or “devices”) with the Crusaders and more systematically with the rise of European states and their overseas expansion in the 16th century (Siegel, pp. 17-136, Pl. 17). In Persia, “imperial” banners were employed as early as Achaemenid times while the use of family “devices” on standards of feudal magnates of the Parthian and Sasanian periods is reflected in those attributed to the house of Rostam (a dragon), the house of Gōdarz (a golden lion), and to the Kayanid kings (a golden sun; see DERAFŠ). By the 6th century a “national flag” had emerged, called Derafš-e Kāvīān (q.v.), which consisted of a heavily bejeweled purple background, a star (aḵtar) as the emblem, and red, golden, and purple streamers (Šāh-nāma, Moscow, I, pp. 64-65; cf. ibid, III, p. 63, v. 11). Because of the emblem, it was also frequently called the Aḵtar-e Kāvīān (ibid, I, p. 65, v. 244; III, p. 42, v. 621, p. 173, v. 2654; IV, p. 97, v. 1375; p. 98, vv. 1385-90; V, p. 102, v. 294), emphasizing its symbolic meaning, since the term aḵtar signified both “star” and “fortune.” Its national significance was such that a Turanian hero could say: “It is that aḵtar wherein lies the strength of the Iranians (ān aḵtar ast, ke nīrū-ye Īrān bad-ū andar ast), and “If we seize that purple derafš,” we have won the day (ibid, IV, p. 98, v. 1390). Indeed the capture and destruction of this banner signaled the collapse of the Persian empire (Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 502-4). When, therefore, Yaʿqūb Layṯ claimed “the inheritance of the kings of Persia” and sought “to revive their glory,” a poem written on his behalf to send to the ʿAbbasid caliph said: “With me is the Derafš-e Kāvīān, through which I hope to rule the nations” (Abū Esḥāq Ebrāhīm b. Mamšād, cited by Stern, p. 541). He may have intended to recreate a banner similar to the ancient one (cf. Titley, pl. 15), but this never materialized. Nevertheless, star-studded banners remained popular in Persia (PLATE I; Figure 1, Figure 2 a-b) until the ascendancy of the lion and sun symbol on the flag.

The Omayyad banners were white (Ṭabarī, II, p. 1921; although Balʿamī, ed. Rowšan, II, p. 1024, says they were green). The Ašʿarī tribe (some of whose members settled in Qom) was reported to possess a small banner inherited from the Prophet Moḥammad, consisting of two streamers, one black and ornamented with a red crescent of the moon, the other white (Abu’l-Boḥtarī, cited by Qomī, p. 282; Figure 3). Abū Moslem (q.v.) raised two large banners, one black, the other white and inscribed with Koran 22:39 (Ṭabarī, II, p. 1954; Balʿamī, ed. Rowšan, II, pp. 1010-11; Figure 4). The imperial standard of the ʿAbbasid Caliphs (Figure 5) was black in color with the legend in white “Moḥammad is the Apostle of God” (Margoliouth and Amedroz, Eclipse I, p. 199). Opposition to ʿAbbasid rule was expressed by the discarding of black banners: the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt adopted the green (Sarre, p. 361f.); the ʿAlids and leaders of rebellions in Persia raised white banners (Gardīzī, pp. 172, 274, 278 f., 281; Qazvīnī, pp. 84, 240, 412, 421f., 426, 458, 462, 470-71, 475, 477, 559). When appointing ʿAlī al-Reżā (q.v.) as heir apparent, al-Maʾmūn adopted green, the ʿAlid color, for his banners and dress (Yaʿqūbī, Taʾrīkò II, pp. 545, 551; Balʿamī, ed. Rowšan, II, pp. 1241, 1250, cf. p. 962); whereupon he was accused of following ancient Persian traditions (ʿAbd-al-Jalīl Qazvīnī, pp. 384 f.), and soon reverted to the official ʿAbbasid black (Balʿamī, ed. Rowšan, II, pp. 1250; Yaʿqūbī, Taʾrīkò II, pp. 550 f.). Rulers of the ʿAbbasid client states received, as a sign of legitimacy, black banners which they carried along with their own dynastic standards (Ackerman, pp. 2773f.; Spuler, Iran, pp. 348f.). Exceptionally, ʿAżod-al-Dawla (q.v.) received on his investiture by the ʿAbbasid caliph two special banners, a white one normally assigned to army chiefs (omarāʾ al-joyūš), and a golden one indicating the rank of the heir to the throne (Helāl, p. 94). Before his death he allegedly inscribed his black banners with an Islamic invocation, as well as his intention to conquer Fatimid Egypt (Baḡdādī, p. 209).

In time, Iranian and Turkish symbolism combined with Islamic inscriptions to form banners of various colors, designs, and sizes. Two early representations are worth noting. (Those engraved on a “post-Sasanian” plate from Anikowa, originally produced in the 8th century but reworked a century or two later, Marschak, p. 322 with Pls. 209-11, are not relevant here). One is a dragon-shaped streamer floating from the mast of a boat (Figure 6) depicted on a 9th century lusterware from Nīšāpūr. Another is an inscribed banneret carried by a warrior painted on a 10th century bowl (Survey of Persian Art, Pl. 577). When Ḥasan b. Moḥammad b. Bozorg-Omīd established the Nezārī sect, “he raised four banners of red, gold, white, and green on the corners of the pulpit” and published his claim to the imamate (Tārīḵ-e gozīda, ed. Navāʾī, p. 523). According to an illustrated manuscript of Rašīd-al-Dīn’s history, Ghaznavid banners were usually red and often used checkered squares as emblems (Rice and Gray, Pls. 38, 44, 57, 60), but literary evidence suggests they bore figures of the homāy (q.v.) in gold or of a lion (Mīnovī, pp. 91-95 and Nafīsī, 1949, pp. 45, 48-58; Yūsofī, pp. 422 f.; Figure 7 Figure 8). According to Qazvīnī, who wrote ca. 560/1164, the Shiʿite kings had banners of white, green, and all other colors save black, while the Saljuq monarchs employed green, yellow, and red (p. 559).

The ascendancy of the Saljuqs, and especially of the Mongols, increased the diversity in shape, color, and size of banners. Some were what the Turks called parčam—a large tassel (tūḡ/ṭūq) made of the mane or tail of a yak (Persian ḡaž-ḡāv) or of a horse’s tail and fixed upon a lance (Pūr-e Dāwūd, pp. 288 ff.; Ackerman, p. 2777). Others were small angular silken pieces with one or more pennons and ornamented with floral or geometric designs (Figure 9a), circles (Figure 9b) and triplicate circles (Figure 9c; the latter probably representing Tīmūr’s banner; see Clavijo, p. 208), or with such emblematic figures as dragons (Figure 10), lions (Figure 11a), and homāys or sīmorḡ (Figure 11b). Others still were elaborate standards with ornamented fringes, bearing inscriptions—either religious invocations (Figures 12a-b) or the name and title of a king (Figure 13, Figure 14, Figure 15; for literary evidence see Ackerman, p. 2774; Nafīsī, 1949, p. 44) and with the background stiffened by square pieces of heavy fabric, and cut in one or more pennon-like streamers (Figure 1, Figure 7, Figure 12b). Their emblems included stars (Figure 2a), the moon (Nafīsī, 1949, pp. 46, 51), the sun (ibid, p. 57; see also the illustration in Lentz and Lowry, catalogue no. 46), dragons (Figures 10, 14; Nafīsī, 1949, pp. 29, 46; Mīnovī, p. 95), lion (Figures 8, 13; Nafīsī, 1949, pp. 47-57; Mīnovī, p. 94-97), and homāy or sīmorḡ (Figure 11b, Figure 16Figure 17; Nafīsī, 1949, pp. 46, 57; Mīnovī, pp. 90, 95), or even angels (Figures 12a, 13).

A vast amount of literary and archaeological evidence marshaled by Aḥmad Kasrawī (pp. 12-17), Mojtabā Mīnovī (pp. 91-97), and Saʿīd Nafīsī (1949, pp. 46-59) demonstrates that from the 12th century the ancient zodiacal sign of the sun in the house of Leo (well-known from illustrations in books on astronomy, e.g., Abū Maʿšar Balḵī’s treatise on astrology (MS Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, copied in ca. 637/1240; see Blochet, 1926, Pl. XXI) gained popularity as an emblematic figure. It appears on the coins of Sultan Ḡīāṯ-al-Dīn Kayḵosrow, the Saljuqid of Rūm (r. 634-44/1236-46), “probably to exemplify the ruler’s power” (Darley-Doran, p. 975). The report by Ebn ʿEbrī, first noticed by William Ouseley (III, p. 564) that here the sun symbolized the Georgian wife of the king, is a myth, for on one issue “the sun rests on the back of two lions rampant with their tails interlaced” (Darley-Doran, p. 975), and on some issues the sun appears as a male bust. Other chief occurrences of the sun and lion motif are: on a luster tile from Kāšān (now in the Louvre) dated 650/1267 (Survey of Persian Art IX, Pl. 721; cf. the bronze penbox dated 680/1281, ibid, Pl. 721 B4); on a Mamlūk steel mirror from Syria or Egypt (Köseoğlu, Pl. 109) dated 720-40/1320-40; on a ruined Arkhunid bridge near Baghdad of the 12-14th centuries, where the sun is represented as a male bust flanked by an inscription reading al-šams šarafa al-asad (Herzfeld, pp. 137-38); on a bronze ewer of the 12th-13th centuries (Golestān Palace Museum; Survey of Persian Art XIII, Pl. 1314A) where a rayed circle enclosing three female faces rests on a lion whose tail ends in a winged monster; and on some Il-khanid coins (references in Ackerman, p. 2778, n. 2).

This symbol, which combined ancient Iranian, Arab, Turkish, and Mongol traditions, was destined to receive a specifically Shiʿite interpretation and become the national emblem of Persia. Its development may therefore be briefly traced. The sun (imagined as a male) had always been associated with Persian royalty: “a crystal image of the sun” identified the royal tent of Darius III (Quintus Curtius, 3.3, 8); the Arsacid banner was adorned with the figure of the sun (Tertullian, Apologeticum 16); Sasanian crowns were surmounted by a ball symbolizing the sun. Malalas (18.44) quotes the salutation of a letter from the “Persian king, the Sun of the East,” to the “Roman Caesar, the Moon of the West” and the Šāh-nāma (Moscow, V, p. 90, vv. 76f.) quotes the Turanian/Turkish hero-king Afrāsīāb (q.v.) as saying: “I have heard from wise men that when the Moon of the Turks rises up it will be harmed by the Sun of the Iranians (ke čōn māh-e Torkān barāyad boland, ze ḵoršīd-e Īrān-š āyad gazand). The lion, too, had a close association with Persian kingship: rows of lions passant ornamented the throne-covers and garments of the Achaemenian kings (Tilia, pp. 46-57 and figs. 3, 4, 6); the crown of Antiochus I of Commagene (r. 69-34 B.C.E.) was adorned with the image of a lion (Ghirshman, pp. 66f., Fig. 80); lions decorated the pectoral worn by Ardašīr I on his Naqš-e Rostam investiture relief (Hinz, Pl. 63); a similar ornament was made for ʿAżod-al-Dawla (Busse, p. 61). In some East Iranian dialects, the word šāh (king) was pronounced šēr, homonymous with šēr “lion” (from OIr. *šaγr°: Bartholomae, pp. 12-13); even Yaʿqūbī confused the two and translated Šēr-e Bāmīān as Asad al-Bāmīān (Markwart, Ērānšahr, pp. 79, 92 f., 300 f.). Islamic, Turkish, and Mongol traditions also stressed the symbolic association of the lion and royalty (Grünert; Kindermann; Ackerman; Köprülü; Spuler, Mongolen4, pp. 282 f.). They likewise reaffirmed the charismatic power of the sun (Milstein), and the Mongols re-introduced the veneration of the sun especially in its rising phase (Spuler, Mongolen4, pp. 140 f.). As a result of these developments the heraldic use of the lion and sun symbol gained popularity and was extended, appearing on banners (literary evidence in Mīnovī, p. 97) as well as on coins and textiles, metalwork, and luster tiles (Nafīsī, 1949, pp. 54-60). The earliest-known representation as a banner device (Figure 18) is from a miniature painting illustrating a copy, dated 826/1423, of the Šāh-nāma of Šams-al-Dīn Kāšānī—an epic composition on the Mongol conquest (Bibliothèque Nationale, suppl. no. 1443). It shows several (Mongol?) horsemen approaching a walled city (Nīšāpūr), and one of them carries a tall banner which is crowned by a spear-head within a crescent moon (the māhča-ye lewāʾ) and its square background bears a lion passant with a rising sun on its back and two floating pennons (Blochet, 1928, III, p. 180). A similar early depiction (Figure 19) is on a large, double-paged miniature dated ca. 865/1460 (Martin, Pls. 60 f.). Clavijo (pp. 207 f.) describes a palace which Tīmūr had seized from the former Chaghatay khans of Samarqand, and states that the lion and sun symbol ornamented the gateway of the main building and the arches around the courtyard. He was told (ibid, p. 208) that this emblem “was the armorial bearing of the former lords of Samarqand.” Tīmūr’s own emblem was “three circlets set thus to shape a triangle” (ibid.), as seen on the banner in Figure 9c and, frequently, on Ottoman royal garments (Tezcan and Delibas, Pls. 1 and passim). The sun and lion motif survived in Samarqand where it still decorates the main portal of the Šērdār madrasa built in 1028/1627 (Nafīsī, 1949, p. 62; Papadopoulo, p. 433, Fig. 457 with incorrect dating).

By the time the Safavids created a unified state and promoted Shiʿism as the national creed, the lion and sun had become a familiar sign everywhere—on copper coins, on banners, and on artworks. Thomas Herbert, who visited Persia during the last year of Shah ʿAbbās’ rule (1036/1627), was told that Shah Esmāʿīl’s grandfather, Shaikh Jonayd, had instituted the “new ensign” of the Persian banner, namely, a star, a lion couchant, and the sun orient in its face (Herbert, p. 239). This claim probably reflected a rationalization of the antiquity of the symbol as there is no evidence that the lion and sun was the emblem of Persia under Shah Esmāʿīl. His ʿalams captured by the Ottomans at Čālderān show no such emblem (EIr. I, p. 790). Qāsem Gonābādī refers to Shah Esmāʿīl’s “banners of green” (crowned) with the figure of the moon (Nayyer Nūrī, 1968, p. 72). The king is shown with his army battling the Turks in a fresco of the Čehel Sotūn (q.v.) of Isfahan made in 1028-31/1647-50 (Papadopoulo, Fig. 566), but his banner there is plain (Figure 20a) or red and purple and star-studded without the lion and sun symbol (Figure 20b; a similar ensign, Figure 2b, is found in a Šāh-nāma miniature made for Esmāʿīl II: Robinson, Pl. VIIIb). A miniature painting by a later Safavid artist illustrating an anonymous history of Shah Esmāʿīl shows him and his troops daringly crossing the River Kor (Titley, p. 114; Pl. 19). After his defeat at Čālderān, Shah Esmāʿīl is said to have used only black banners (as a sign of mourning) on which al-qeṣāṣ “revenge” was written in white (Falsafī, 1963, p. 81). Finally, other early Safavid banners (Figure 20c) and especially those depicted in the Šāh-nāma made for Shah Ṭahmāsb (Welch, Pls. on pp. 137, 165) lack the lion and sun symbol. However, Adam Olearius, who visited Persia in 1040/1636, remarked (I, p. 611): “Nowadays the Turks use the crescent moon (as their emblem), and the Persians the sun which is mostly placed above the lion.” In 1007/1601 Egedius Sadeler, a Flemish illustrator of books on emblems, painted a portrait of Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Beg Bayāt, whom Shah ʿAbbās the Great had sent to European courts. The portrait shows  the envoy under a Europeanized and curiously crowned lion with a sun rising from its back (Falsafī, 1955-67, IV, opp. p. 160).

It is thus clear that, although various ʿalams and banners were employed by the Safavids (see also below), the lion and sun symbol had become by the time of Shah ʿAbbās the recognized emblem of Persia (cf. its appearance on a Safavid steel horse-frontal, Survey of Persian Art XIII, Pl. 1407). The association may originally have been based on a learned interpretation of the Šāh-nāma’s references to the “the Sun of Iran” and “the Moon of the Turanians/Turks.” As noted earlier, the Sasanians had called their king “the Sun of the East” and the Roman (i.e., Byzantine) emperor “the Moon of the West.” The evidence of the Šāh-nāma was certainly well known to the Safavid kings. Since the crescent moon had been adopted as the dynastic and ultimately national emblem of the Ottoman sultans (Sarkisian; Ettinghausen, pp. 383 f.), who were the new sovereigns of “Rūm,” the Safavids of Persia, needing to have a dynastic and national emblem of their own, chose the lion and sun motif.

The often quoted account of Jean Chardin (V, pp. 485-87) gives the following details on Safavid ensigns (cited and translated by Ackerman, pp. 2780 f.; Nafīsī, 1949, pp. 65 f.). The banners were triangular pieces of rich fabric of various colors, bearing as emblem either religious invocations (cf also the fine example in Papadopoulo, Pl. 53) or the double-pointed sword of ʿAlī (see ḎU’l-FAQĀR), or a lion with a rising sun above it. The great standard was a swallow-tail pennon (PLATE II; PLATE III) carried by a high official called ʿalamdār-bāšī. There were also many other ʿalams for various ceremonial occasions, especially the Moḥarram rituals. Chardin specifically points out that the obverse of copper coins (folūs) imitated the emblem of the Persian flag in showing the sun and the lion symbol.

Chardin is thus the first to refer to the “Ḏu’l-faqār” banner even though Sultan Selim (Salīm) I and other Ottoman rulers had already employed similar ensigns (Ettinghausen, pp. 383f.; Pls. XVI/17, XVII, XVIII/19), and the Great Mughals of India had, by 1737, adopted it—along with stars and crescents—on their banners (Siegel, Pl. 49, no. 8). John Fryer, who visited Persia in 1677, describes (p. 356) the flag of Persia as being “a bloody sword with a double point in a white field.” In May 1737 the British agent at Gombroon (Bandar-e ʿAbbās[ī], q.v.) reported that Nāder Shah’s admiral had hoisted “his Flag, being a white ground with a red Persian Sword in the middle” (cited by Lockhart, p. 182). The term “Persian Sword” for Ḏu’l-faqār shows how this emblem had become incorporated into the Persian ideology of rulership. However, the primary position was given to the sun and lion flag. Maurice Herbette has collected contemporary records—including several paintings—of the arrival in 1714 of Moḥammad-Reżā Beg (reportedly sent by Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn) at the court of Louis XIV. The flag of Persia is several times mentioned (Herbette, pp. 65, 156, 158) and thrice represented (on pp. 115, 138f., 155; (PLATES II and III). These depictions document a pennon bearing as its device a large lion passant and a round female face surrounded by rays above it.

In seeking a possible Safavid interpretation of the sun and lion symbol several points need to be considered. Firstly, as is well known, the Shiʿites reserved the title Lion of God (Ar. Asad-Allāh, Pers. Šīr-e Ḵodā) for ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb (q.v.; see, e.g., Qazvīnī, pp. 165, 472). Secondly, the sun as the manifestation of God-given Glory (farr, q.v.) had been reinterpreted as “light” in Islamic Persia, and the Prophet and Imam ʿAlī had been credited with the possession of a divine light of lights (nūr al-anwār) of leadership, which was represented as a blazing halo (Milstein, pp. 536-40; cf. Qazvīnī, p. 165, where ʿAlī is called the “light of the eyes of the divine law,” nūr-e dīda-ye šarīʿat). The attribution of such qualities to ʿAlī and the tracing of the Shiʿite fourth Imam’s lineage to the royal Sasanian house (literature in Boyce, pp. 33-35), so infuriated Persian Sunnis that they accused the Shiʿites of having deserted Islamic traditions in favor of ancient Persian concepts: “Just as the Zoroastrians (gabrakān) consider sovereignty (molk) to be based on descent and divine glory (farr-e yazdān), so do the heretics (rawāfeż, deserters) base the caliphate on descent and replace divine glory with the idea of naṣṣ (explicit designation, divine nomination)” (Qazvīnī, pp. 406-7). Thirdly, the Safavids justified their claim to rulership on their alleged lineage from Imam ʿAlī (Kasrawī, 1944; Falsafī, 1955-67, I, pp. 3-4). Their veneration of ʿAlī is well documented. Shah Esmāʿīl referred to himself as ḡolām-e Ḥaydar “Haydar’s slave” (Falsafī, 1955-67, I, p. 4; ḥaydar “lion” being an epithet Shiʿites often used for ʿAlī), and Shah ʿAbbās the Great called himself kalb-e āstān-e ʿAlī, “the dog at ʿAlī’s threshold” (ibid., II, pp. 17 ff.). These considerations suggest that the Safavids had reinterpreted the lion as symbolizing Imam ʿAlī and the sun as typifying the “glory of religion,” a substitute for the ancient farr-e dīn.

A number of “Safavid” banners reproduced by Siegel (Pls. 49, nos. 7, 9; 60, no. 9; see also Jamālzāda, Figs. 1 2 3 4-5) are highly suspect. One has a gold background and bears three crescent moons, two of them set above the third; but exactly the same ensign is given (in red and blue) by Siegel (Pl. 47, nos. 6, 8) as Turkish and dated to between 1737 and1769. Another has three lions rampant, two positioned above the third (wrongly directed and supplied with swords in Jamālzāda, Fig. 1). They have every appearance of being European in origin. The third combines a single-bladed sword with rows of sun-rosettes, crescent moons, and even Christian crosses. It is almost identical to a “Ḏu’l-faqār” banner of the Great Mughals of India (Siegel, Pl. 49, no. 8) again dated 1737-69, and may well be of Indian origin.

Nāder Shah maintained two lofty imperial standards: “One of them was in stripes of red, blue and white, and the other of red, blue, white and yellow, without any other ornaments” (Hanway, I, p. 248). He appears to have avoided green as a specifically Safavid (and Shiʿite) color. However, his signet device—a lion passant and a rayed sun encircling the words Allāh al-malek—shows that the symbol remained a recognized emblem of Persia (Nayyer Nūrī, 1964, fig. 4). The sun and lion is further documented on the tombstone of a soldier from the Zand period (Nafīsī, 1949, pp. 73 f.). Under the early Qajars the symbol appeared, quite ununiformly, on coins, medals, and banners (details in Ḏokāʾ). In imitation of the French Légion d’Honneur, Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah created in 1807-10 the Order of the Persian Lion and Sun (Nešān-e šīr o ḵoršīd-e īrānī, so specified by Ouseley, I, p. 184, II, p. 496) for conferring on French and English diplomats and officers (Wright; see also DECORATIONS). Persia was now given an official flag with the lion and sun as its device. A century later one could write: “Persia is known to-day as the Land of the Lion and Sun” (Jackson, p. 56). Already in 1811, Ouseley observed in Būšehr that a newly appointed Persian admiral had received a drum and “a flag displaying the Lion and Sun of Persia” (I, pp. 183 f.). Gaspard Drouville, who served in the Persian army in 1812-13, reports (II, pp. 133 f.): “The banners and standards of the Persians bear the armorial emblem of the country, namely, a lion couchant beside a rising sun, with the legend Solṭān ebn Solṭān Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah Qājār…They are, like our [French] ensigns ornamented with silken white streamers and golden fringes. Banners are red, and crowned with a silver hand signifying the hand of ʿAlī, and the smaller standards are violet-blue and apexed with a sharp spear-head.” Moritz von Kotzebue, who visited Persia in 1817, gives an illustration (Pl. IV/10) showing a Persian gunner mounted on a camel and carrying a rectangular flag bearing the sun and lion symbol within a white circle. Louis Dubeux says (p. 462) that Moḥammad Shah had two flags, “one with the sword of ʿAlī, which is double-pointed” and the other “with a lion couchant and the sun rising from its back.” That the second flag was the principal one was evident from several battle scene illustrations from the second Russo-Persian war of 1826-28 painted by the Russian artist Mashkov (Reproduced in Nafīsī, 1955, Pls. between pp. 130 f., 134 f., 138 f.).

An interesting illustration of the Persian flag is given by Drouville (PLATE IV). It shows two rectangular banners. The larger, topped by a hand, is red in background, and bears a golden lion couchant and a huge golden-rayed sun. The smaller, with a spear-head, is deep blue and has the same device but here the lion is depicted holding a sword. This is the first-known appearance of the sword-bearing lion which became the normal national device of Persia from the time of Moḥammad Shah. It seems that towards the end of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s reign the two official flags were combined and the lion representing ʿAlī was given the latter’s Ḏu’l-faqār. The flag depicted in a painting by Alexis Soltykoff seems to be from this date (Ḏokāʾ, nos. 32-33, pp. 24 f.; (PLATE V). Since some European travelers, who had impressed the Qajar court with their knowledge of everything Persian, attributed the lion and sun to remote antiquity (e.g., Ouseley, I, pp. 184 n. 66, 438, III, p. 388 n. 1; Ker Porter, II, p. 523), Moḥammad Shah gave it a nationalistic interpretation. In 1252/1846 he published a decree officially fixing the forms and functions of various classes of the Order of Lion and Sun (Mīnovī, pp. 104 f.; Nafīsī, 1949, pp. 75 f.; Ḏokāʾ, nos, 32-33, pp. 21-24). The decree stated: “For each sovereign state an emblem (nešān) is established, and for the august state of Persia, too, the Order of Lion and Sun has been in use, an ensign which is nearly three thousand years old—indeed dating from before the age of Zoroaster. And the reason for its currency may have been as follows. In the religion of Zoroaster, the sun is considered the revealer of all things and nourisher of the universe (mozáher-e koll wa morabbī-e ʿālam), hence, they venerated it…And discovering through experience and experiment, which are the foundations of astronomy, that the seven moving planets are blessed (ḵošḥāl) during certain months and displeased during others, that is, they exert good influence upon the earth and its inhabitants in some months and bad influence in others, they have called the month in which a planet has been blessed and is therefore beneficent to the people of the earth its ‘house’ (bayt) or ‘exaltation’ (šaraf). Hence they selected the sun in the house of Leo as the emblem of the august state of Persia.” The decree then went on to claim that the Order of the Lion and Sun “had existed for centuries” until the worship of the sun was abolished with the coming of Islam, but perhaps because Persia lies “in the fourth clime (eqlīm), and the movements of the sun are likewise in the fourth clime, the Order of the Lion and Sun was left unaltered... However, in the more recent past the conferring of honors was done through other means until the last years of the blessed ḵāqān [Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah],” (when it was re-established).

From this time on the lion was depicted rampant and sword bearing, and it soon received, first on coins and medals, a crown as well. But variations in size, position and color made uniformity difficult to achieve for a long time (Ḏokāʾ, nos. 32-34). Thus in a painting dated 1200/1854 illustrating Moḥammad Shah’s siege of the Ḡūrīān Castle (near Herat), his flag appears triangular (PLATE VI a), white in background and green in border, bearing as device a lion rampant and swordless, and a rising sun above it (Ḏokāʾ no. 32-33, pp. 27 f., Fig. 29). However, as Yaḥyā Ḏokā points out, Eugène Flandin described the Persian flag in 1256/1850 as “red, bearing the emblem of the Persian state, namely, the lion and sun, and a staff crowned with a hand on which is inscribed ʿAlī’s name.” Ḏokāʾ, who has collected valuable data on the development of the Qajar emblems, reproduces (no. 34, pp. 25-32) an illustrated official manual on orders and flags written in about 1306/1886. The two most important types of the Persian flag then in use are depicted in PLATE VI b; PLATE VI c). One consists of a square piece of fabric with two borders, the upper green, the lower red; the background is white and in its center is a lion and sun. It was reserved for state buildings and royal monuments, forts and ports, and anything related to the state and royalty. The other, too, is a tricolor fabric, but of equal width. The lion and sun is so placed that it covers the three colors (Ḏokāʾ, no. 34, pp. 31 f.; ills., pp. 28-29). This was, then, the beginning of the Persian “tricolor” flag, although it took some time before it became firmly established, as Siegel’s reproductions (Pl. 60, nos. 8 f.) from before 1912 demonstrate. After a brief attempt by some pro-Constitutionalist revolutionaries to employ red banners (Kasrawī, Mašrūṭa, II, p. 73), the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of 1906 established the flag of Persia as “three colors (in stripes of equal width and length) of green, white and red, with a lion (sword-bearing and passant) and sun as its device" (PLATE VII). The choice of these colors has given rise to much debate (e.g., Ḏokāʾ, no. 34, pp. 37-40; Nayyer Nūrī, 1968, pp. 69-73), but it is certain that the green and white had long been associated with Shiʿite states (see above; cf. the green banner of the Fatimids of Egypt which fell into the hands of the Ottomans: Sarre, pp. 361 f.) and the red with the profession of arms (cf. the “flame-like” assault banner of the Sasanians, Ammianus Marcellinus 24.8, 1; and the Ghaznavid and Saljuq banners mentioned above). A later interpretation rationalized that green stood for Islam, white for peace, and red for courage (Ḏokāʾ, IV, pp. 39f.).

Under Reżā Shah, this model of the flag continued to be used, although the lion was usually given a more realistic appearance, while the sun was deprived of the female face and indicated merely by rays. At times, as in military contexts, the flag was also provided with a Pahlavi crown. During the efforts at language reform (see FARHANGESTĀN), the established words for “flag” (Pers. derafš, Ar. ʿalam, Turk. beyraq) were, curiously, replaced by the Turkish parčam (“tassel, hair”), with scholarly protests (e.g., Pūr-e Dāwūd, pp. 287-303) to no avail.

The exact measurements and form of the flag were re-established in 1957 (Ḏokāʾ, no. 38, p. 23), and remained unchanged until the Revolution of 1979. Then the device was replaced by the word Allāh “God,” written in red in a stylized form including the symbol for doubling the consonant (šadda), and the legend Allāh akbar “God is great” was added in white twenty-two times along the bottom of the green stripe and the top of the red stripes (PLATE VIII).

Bibliography (for cited works not given in detail, see “Short References”):

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(A. Shapur Shahbazi)

Originally Published: December 15, 1999

Last Updated: January 31, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. X, Fasc. 1, pp. 12-27

Cite this entry:

A. Shapur Shahbazi, "FLAGS i. Of Persia," Encyclopædia Iranica, X/1, pp. 12-27, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/flags-i (accessed on 31 January 2012).