RED DEER, Cervus elaphus, in Persian: marāl and also gavazn and gāv-e kuhi

i. Natural history.

ii. In Persian art.


The red deer ranges from Europe to Northeast Asia, its appearance changing gradually, until, from Central Asia eastward, it becomes quite similar to the North American wapiti (Figure 1). The race or subspecies found in the Crimea, the Caucasus, Turkey, and Iran is generally designated Cervus elaphus maral. The name marāl is Turkish and is applied not only to this subspecies but especially to the larger races referred to above.

The Iranian red deer is bigger than the European race, an adult stag reaching a height of approximately 140 cm at the shoulder and a weight of 250 kg. It is also distinguished from the European deer by almost invariably possessing two brow tines, rather than one, for each antler. Otherwise the two races are very much alike. It is of a dark gray color except during the summer, when the pelage becomes a rufous dark brown. The fawns are reddish brown with white spots.

In Iran the marāl once ranged throughout the forested areas of the northern slopes of the Alborz and in the oak forests on the western slopes of the Zagros extending from Azerbaijan into western Fārs. It has disappeared completely from the Zagros range; the last survivors were recorded as being in the Arsbārān region of Azerbaijan about 50 years ago. In the western Caspian region too, it has either been eliminated or become extremely scarce; and it is now found in the more remote central and eastern Alborz wooded areas, primarily in a number of reserves in these regions which contain relatively pristine forests.

In the past the red deer occurred literally from the shores of the Caspian Sea to the high alpine meadows of the Alborz mountains. In fact, in the early 1950s hunters would often penetrate portions of the scrub forests of the Gorgān plain in four-wheel drive vehicles at night to shoot the deer, only descending to collect any animal killed. All the littoral forests, with one or two small exceptions, have now been eliminated and replaced by cultivation, orchards, and habitation. Owing to an absence of control, large areas of the mountain forests too have been destroyed or almost irreversibly damaged in the past quarter century. Thus from year to year the habitat of the mārāl is becoming more and more confined.

Marāl favor oak forests. Herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees appear to be of equal importance as sources of food. They will also eat fruits and berries in the summer, while acorns are particularly favored in autumn and winter. They are social animals—when not threatened— their gregariousness being more prevalent during the colder seasons.

The rut usually commences at the end of summer in Iran and is manifested by the roaring (bellowing) of the mature stags. The onset of the rut and degree of roaring are predicated on weather conditions; thus a drop in temperature will activate the males, whereas warmer weather will reduce it. Further, the intensity of the roaring is usually in inverse proportion to the size of the harem and to the degree of threat sensed by the stags; hence they may be silent in one area, whilst in a nearby reserve full-throated roaring is heard. At this time adult stags will engage in fights for the possession of their harems. These are quite serious on occasion, even terminating in the death of one of the antagonists.

Gestation lasts between 240-250 days, and thus the fawns are generally born towards the end of May to mid-June. Females give birth in densely vegetated and secluded spots, and almost always to a single fawn. According to most sources twins occur only once or twice in 100 births.

The fawn is spotted and manages to stand after one or two hours, but only shakily, and during the first two or three days lies down almost all the time, standing only to suckle. Fawns follow their mothers after about a week and are able to run and jump almost as well as adult deer less than a month later. They chew the cud shortly after they begin to graze in July. However, suckling continues until the rut and frequently into the winter months.

The first set of antlers that the young male acquires is usually devoid of tines; these antlers are called spikes. Hereafter, marāl shed their antlers at the end of each winter, and new antlers begin to grow within days. These are sheathed in a soft, hairy skin, called velvet, and are fully formed by late June to mid-July. Thereafter they become ossified, the velvet is shed over a period of ten to twenty days, and the formation of the antlers is completed in early September, just before the commencement of the rut.

The number of tines increases in subsequent years—but without any correspondence to the stag’s age—and the antlers grow heavier and more imposing. Maximum antler development is generally attained between the ages of nine and twelve or thirteen years. Thereafter the antlers decline in the number of tines, size, and weight. Among the antlers measured during the past 40 years, the longest were 120 cm, the greatest number of tines was 22, and the heaviest pair were about 12 kg.

In Iran, as in other countries, the hunting of the red deer has many devotees—too many, indeed, in relation to the diminished number of this fine beast. Since older times a favorite method of bagging a stag has been to imitate its call during the rut and thus entice it to approach. Once upon a time this method might have produced unexpected consequences, for it could well tempt a tiger to respond, as the marāl was its favorite prey!

The leopard and, to a lesser extent, the wolf and the brown bear are the marāl’s main predators; but the toll taken by these beasts nowadays is quite minimal when compared with man’s depredations. In the absence of adequate control, poachers (or hunters) shoot anything before their guns—fawns, stags, or (pregnant) hinds. If this is remorseless and destructive, the clearing and destruction of their habitat, the forests, is no doubt much worse. In fact, the very survival of the marāl obviously hinges on the maintenance and protection of sufficiently large areas of undisturbed and pristine forests.



E. Firouz, Ḥayāt-e vaḥš-e Irān, Tehran, 2000, p. 389.

F. A. Harrington, Jr., A Guide to the Mammals of Iran, Tehran, 1977.

V. G. Heptner, A. A. Nasimovich, and A. G. Bannikov, Mammals of the Soviet Union, Washington, D. C., 1988.

H. Żiāʾi, Rāhnemā-ye ṣaḥrāʾi-ye pestāndārān-e Irān, Tehran, 1996.

Anon., Naḵjirān, Tehran, Museum of Natural Remains and Wildlife of Iran, 1995.



As the red deer is a forest-dwelling species, not many Persians of the plateau are familiar with this animal or, on occasion, even aware of its existence. Judging from the perspective of Persian art, this appears to have been particularly the case throughout the Islamic era— despite the fact that extensive areas, chiefly in western and northern Iran (but outside the plateau area), were covered by prime hardwood forests during most of this period.

Thus the stag (unlike the ibex and mouflon) is very rarely seen in Persian ceramics, metalwork, carpets, etc., of the Islamic era. In the paintings of Safavid times, which show a multitude of identifiable wild animals, deer are depicted perhaps less than half a dozen times. Yet, when alluding to Greek art, Ghirshman states that “the stag was an animal motif that originated in the East” (Ghirshman, 1964, p. 334). It is in fact depicted repeatedly, with distinction and originality, in many of the more ancient cultures of Iran, which arose in the northern and western regions of the country. This is especially true with the art of Amlash (9th–8th century BCE), in the mountainous region southwest of the Caspian Sea, and that of Luristan (8th–7th century BCE) in the Zagros range. In Central Asia the Scythians, nomads of Iranian origin, whose royal tombs have become famous, produced beautiful objects, among them some in the shape of stags. A variety of objects from the Achaemenid and Sasanian eras also show representations of the marāl stag.

The small bronze stag figures from Amlash are admirable productions, their antlers often abounding with haphazardly placed tines (ibid., p. 36). A grazing stag, represented on a bronze cup from Luristan, is an unusually realistic work (ibid., p. 334). A Luristan horse bit is composed of winged does on either side of a rigid crossbar suckling their fawns, but nevertheless bearing highly stylized antlers (ibid., p. 61). A Sasanian ewer, showing in full a beautifully modeled strutting stag on either side, is a sumptuous work in bronze and silver (7th century CE; Ghirshman, 1962, p. 202).

The earliest record [this author] found in the Islamic period of a representation of a red deer stag is a polychromed and carved ceramic plate from the Rey-Kāšān region (Survey of Persian Art, p. 604, showing an alarmed-looking stag and ascribed to the 11th century. In this, as in a painting of what came to be called Shiraz school and produced much later (ca. 1420 CE) for Prince Bāysonḡor, depicting a stag near Majnun in the desert (ibid., p. 863), it is clear from the awkwardly shaped antlers (whose tines point both forward and back), that neither artist was really familiar with this animal, the stag, being felled by the sword of a huntsman (p. 894). There is also a papier maché, lacquer painted bookbinding of the 16th century, illustrating a number of different animals as well as what is perhaps the most authentic looking stag, even though its antlers are once again rendered incorrectly (ibid., p. 974).

Finally, sculpted steel animals, characteristically with gold inlay or encrustation, have been produced in Iran since the Safavid era, and have endured as a popular form of contemporary metalwork into the 20th century. Very attractive deer figurines are to be seen among these. What kind of deer, however, is best not asked.



Roman Ghirshman, Persia—from the Origins to Alexander the Great, London, 1964.

Idem, Iran—Parthians and Sassanians, London, 1962.

Jay Gluck and Sumi Hiramoto Gluck, eds., A Survey of Persian Handicraft, Bank Melli Iran, Tehran, 1977.

(Eskandar Firouz)

Originally Published: July 20, 2005

Last Updated: July 20, 2005