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The Lion and Sun ( shir o khorshid ) is one of the better-known emblems of Iranmarker, and between 1576 and 1979 was an element in Iran's national flag. The motif, which combines "ancient Iranian, Arab, Turkish, and Mongol traditions", became a popular symbol in Iran in the 12th century. The lion and sun symbol is based largely on astronomical and astrological configurations: the ancient sign of the sun in the house of Leo, which itself is traced backed to Babylonianmarker astrology and Near Eastern traditions.

The motif has many historical meanings. First, it was an astrological and zodiacal symbol. Under Safvis and the first Qajar kings, it became more associated with Shia Islam. During the Safavid era, the lion and sun stood for the two pillars of society, the state and the Islamic religion. It became a national emblem during the Qajar era. In the 19th century, European visitors at the Qajar court attributed the lion and sun to remote antiquity; since then, it has acquired a nationalistic interpretation. During the reign of Fat'h Ali Shah and his successors the form of the motif was substantially changed. A crown was also placed on the top of the symbol to represent the monarchy. Beginning in the reign of Fat'h Ali Shah Qajar, the Islamic aspect of the monarchy was de-emphasized. This shift affected the symbolism of the emblem. The meaning of the symbol changed several times between the Qajar era and the 1979 revolution. The lion could be interpreted as a metaphor for Ali, for the heroes of Iran who are ready to protect the country against enemies, or for its ancient meaning as the symbol of kingship. The Sun has alternately been interpreted as symbolic of the king, Jamshid, the mythical king of Iran, and the motherland.

The many historical meanings of the emblem have provided rich ground for competing symbols of Iranian identity. In the 20th century, some politicians and scholars suggested that the emblem should be replaced by other symbols such as Derafsh-e-kaviani. However, the emblem remained the official symbol of Iran until the 1979 revolution, when the "Lion and Sun" symbol was removed from public spaces and government organizations, and replaced by the present-day Coat of arms of Iran.


The lion and sun motif is based largely on astronomical and astrological configurations, and the ancient zodiacal sign of the sun in the house of Leo. This symbol, which combines "ancient Iranian, Arab, Turkish, and Mongol traditions", first became a popular symbol in the 12th century. According to Afsaneh Najmabadi, the lion and sun motif has had "a unique success" among icons for signifying the modern Iranian identity, in that the symbol is influenced by all significant historical cultures of Iran and brings together Zoroastrians, Shi'a, Jewish, Turkish and Iranian symbolism.

Zodiacal and Semitic roots

According to Krappe, the ancient Mesopotamian astrological combination of the sun above a lion has become the coat-of-arms of Iran. In Islamic astrology the Lion was also the 'house' of the sun. "The ancient connection of the sun god with the lion is reflected in the lore of the zodiac, unquestionably of Mesopotamian origin. As is well known, the sun, at its maximum strength (in the north temperate zone) is in the 'house' of the Lion (between July 20th and August 20th), i.e. in the constellation of the zodiac named after the animal. Little need be said about the reason for this identification of the solar divinity with the lion: the yellow color of the beast, its ferocity (likened to the ferocity of the sub-tropical summer sun), its mane (likened to the solar rays), all these features appear to have favored the comparison and the subsequent identification."

Krappe reviews the ancient Near Eastern tradition and how sun gods and divinities were closely connected to each other, and concludes that "the Persian solar lion, to this day the coat-of-arms of Iran, is evidently derived from the same ancient [Near Eastern] sun god". As an example, he notes that in Syria the lion was the symbol of the sun. In Palestine a lion slayer hero was the son of Baa'l Shamash, the great Semitic god of the sun. Interestingly, this lion slayer was originally a lion. Another example is the great Semitic solar divinity Shamash, who could be portrayed as a lion. The same symbolism is observed in Ancient Egypt where in the temple of Dendera, Ahi the Great is called "the Lion of the Sun, and "the lion who rises in the northern sky, the brilliant god who bears the sun".

According to Kindermann the Iranian Imperial coat of arms had its predecessor in numismatics, which itself is based largely on astronomical and astrological configurations.The constellation of Leo contains 27 stars and 8 shapeless ones. Leo is "a fiction of grammarians ignorant of the skies, which owes its existence to false interpretations and arbitrary changes of the older star-names." It is impossible to determine exactly what was the origin of such interpretation from stars. The Babylonians observed a heavenly hierarchy of kings in the zodiacal sign of Leo. They put the lion, as the king of their animal kingdom, into the place in the zodiac in which the summer solstice occurs. In the Babylonianmarker zodiac, it became the symbol of the victory of the sun. Just as Jesus is called the Lion of Judah, and in Islamic traditions Ali Ibn Abu Talib is called the "Lion of God" by Shiite Muslims, Hamzah, the uncle of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, was also called Asad Allah (King of God).

File:Shamash.jpg|Mesopotamian Sun God Shamash ; Assyrian Relief, North-West Palace of Nimrudmarker (room B, panel 23) ; 865–860 BC.File:Museum of Anatolian Civilizations088.jpg|Sun and moon god standing on a lion; orthostat relief from Herald's wall, Carchemish ; 950-850 BC; Late Hittite style; Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, TurkeyFile:Leo.gif| Animated Leo constellation

Iranian background

The male sun had always been associated with Persian royalty: Iranian tradition recalls that Kayanids had a golden sun as their emblem. From the Greek historians of classical antiquity it is known that "a crystal image" of the sun adorned the royal tent of Darius III, that the Arsacid banner was adorned with the sun, and that the Sassanid standards had a red ball symbolizing the sun. The Byzantine chronicler Malalas records that the salutation of a letter from the "Persian king, the Sun of the East," was addressed to the "Roman Caesar, the Moon of the West". The Turanian king Afrasiab is recalled as saying: "I have heard from wise men that when the Moon of the Turan rises up it will be harmed by the Sun of the Iranians." The sun was always imagined as male, and in some banners a figure of a male replaces the symbol of the sun. In others, a male figure accompanies the sun.

Similarly, the lion too has always had a close association with Persian kingship. The garments and throne decorations of the Achaemenid kings were embroidered with lion motifs. The crown of the half-Persian Seleucid king Antiochus I was adorned with a lion. In the investiture inscription of Ardashir I at Naqsh-e Rustammarker, the breast armour of the king is decorated with lions. Further, in some Iranian dialects the word for king (shah) is pronounced as sher, homonymous with the word for lion. Islamic, Turkish, and Mongol influences also stressed the symbolic association of the lion and royalty. The earliest evidence for the use of a lion on a standard comes from the Shahnameh, which noted that the feudal house of Godarz (presumably a family of Parthian or Sassanid times) adopted a golden lion for its devices.

Islamic, Turkic, Mongolic roots

Islamic, Turkish, and Mongol traditions stressed the symbolic association of the lion and royalty in the lion and sun motif. These cultures reaffirmed the charismatic power of the sun and the Mongols re-introduced the veneration of the sun, especially the sunrise.

The lion is probably represented more frequently and diversely than any other animal. In most forms, the lion has no apotropaic meaning and was merely decorative. However, it sometimes has an astrological or symbolic meaning. One of the popular forms of the lion is explicitly heraldic form, including in the Persian coat of arms (the lion and sun); the animal in the coat of arms of the Mamluk Baybars and perhaps also in that of the Rum Saldjukids of the name of Kilidi Arslan; and in numismatic representations.


Turko-Persian Dynasties

A "vast amount of literary and archaeological evidence" gathered by Ahmad Kasravi, Mojtaba Minuvi and Saeed Nafisi "demonstrates that from the 12th century the ancient zodiacal sign of the sun in the house of Leo gained popularity as an emblematic figure." (cf. Zodiacal origin, above) Fuat Köprülü suggests that the lion and sun on the Turkic and Mongolic flags and coins of these times are merely astrological signs and do not exemplify royalty.

The lion and sun symbol first appears in the 12th century, most notably on the coinage of Kaykhusraw II, who was Sultan of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm from 1237 to 1246. These were "probably to exemplify the ruler's power." The notion that "the sun [of the symbol] 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' [...] and on some issues the sun appears as a male bust." Other chief occurrences of 12th-14th century usage include: an early 13th century luster tile now in the Louvremarker; a ca. 1330 Mamluk steel mirror from Syria or Egypt; on a ruined 12th-14th century Arkhunid bridge near Baghdad; on some Ilkhanid coins; and on a 12th-13th century bronze ewer now in the Golestan palace museum. In the latter, a rayed nimbus enclosing three female faces rests on a lion whose tail ends in a winged monster.

One of the earliest example of a banner bearing the lion and sun motif(826 AH/1423 AD).
The use of the lion and sun symbol in a flag is first attested in a miniature painting dated to 1423. The painting, which is of a scene from Mongol conquest (Timurid dynasty, 1370–1506), depicts several horsemen approaching the walled city of Nishapurmarker. One of the horsemen carries a banner that bears a lion passant with a rising sun on its back. The pole is tipped with a crescent moon. By the time of the Safavids (1501-1722), and the subsequent unification of Iran as a single state, the lion and sun had become a familiar sign, appearing on copper coins, on banners, and on works of art. The Lion and Sun motif was also used on banners of the Mughal of India, notably those of Shah Jahan.

Safavid Dynasty

In Safavid times the lion and sun stood for two pillars of the society, state and religion. It is clear that, although various alams and banners were employed by the Safavids especially first Safavid kings. By the time of Shah Abbas, the lion and sun symbol had become one of the most popular emblems of Persiamarker.

The Safavid interpretation of this symbol was based on a combination of mythohistories and tales such as Shahnama, Stories of Prophets, and other Islamic sources. For Safavids the Shah had two roless: king and holy man. This double meaning was associated with the genealogy of Iranian kings. Two males were key people in this paternity: Jamshid (mythical founder of an ancient Persian kingdom), and Ali (Shi'te first Imam). Jamshid was affiliated with the sun and Ali was affiliated with the lion (Zul-faqar). "The association may originally have been based on a learned interpretation of the Shahnama's references to the 'the Sun of Iran' and 'the Moon of the Turanians." (cf: the "Roman" - i.e. Byzantine - king as the "Moon of the West" in the #Iranian Beckground section). For the Safavids, the Shahnama was no doubt the better of the two references, and "since the crescent moon had been adopted as the dynastic and ultimately national emblem of the Ottoman sultans [...], who were the new sovereigns of 'Rum,' the Safavids of Persia, needing to have a dynastic and national emblem of their own, chose the lion and sun motif." Besides, the Jamshid, the sun had two other important meanings for the Safavids. The sense of time was organized around the solar system which was distinct from the Arabo-Islamic lunar system. Astrological meaning and the sense of cosmos was mediated through that. Through the zodiac the sun was linked to Leo which was the most auspicious house of the sun. Therefore, for the Safavids, the sign of lion and sun condensed the double meaning of the Shah - king and holy man (Jamshid and Ali) - through the auspicious zodiac sign of the sun in the house of Leo and brought the cosmic-earthy pair (king and Imam) together.

In seeking the Safavi interpretation of the lion and sun motif, Shahbazi suggests 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." They reintroduced the ancient concept of God-given Glory (farr) to justify their rule. They attributed such qualities to Ali and sought the king's genealogy through the Shiʿite fourth Imam’s mother to the royal Sasanian house.

File:Flag of Iran 1715 AD (3).jpg|Flag of Iran carried by the Persian delegation during Mohammad-Reza Beg’s visit to Paris, Feb. 7, 1715 (a drawing in the Cabinet des Estampes)

File:Safavids' Flag 1715 AD.jpg|Flag of Iran carried by the Persian delegation during Mohammad-Reza Beg’s visit to Versailles, August 1715

File:Flag of Iran 1715 AD(2).jpg|Flag of Iran carried by the Persian delegation during Mohammad-Reza Beg’s visit to Versailles, August 1715

File:Lion and sun- Mogul Empure-India.jpg| Imperial standard of Mughal Empire, India

Afsharids and Zand Danasties

The royal seal of Nader Shah in 1746 was the lion and sun motif. In this seal, the sun bears the word Al-Molkollah (Arabic: The earth of God). Two swords of Karim Khan Zand have gold-inlaid inscriptions which refer to the: "…celestial lion…points to the astrological relationship to the Zodiac sign of Leo...." Another record of this motif is the Lion and Sun symbol on a tombstone of a Zands soldier.

Qajar Dynasties

Islamic-Iranic Interpretation

The earliest known Qajar lion and sun symbol is on the coinage of Aqa Mohammad Shah Qajar, minted in 1796 on the occasion of Shah's coronation. The coin bears the name of the new king underneath the sun and Ali (the first Shi'ite Imam) underneath the lion's belly. Both names are invoked and this coin suggest that this motif still stands for the king (sun) and religion (lion), "Iranization and Imamification of sovereignty". In the Qajar period the emblem can be found on Jewish marriage certificates (ketubas) and Shi'ite mourning of muharram banners.

Nationalistic Interpretation

During the reign of the second Qajar shah, Fat′h Ali Shah Qajar, we observe the beginning of a shift in political culture from the Safavi concept of rule. The Islamic component of the ruler was de-emphasized, if not completely abounded. This shift coincides with the first archaeological surveys of Europeans in Iran and the re-introduction of the past glorious pre-Islamic history of Iran to Iranians. Fat'h Ali Shah tried to affiliate his sovereignty with the glorious years of pre-Islamic Iran. Literary evidence and documents from his time suggest that the sun in the lion and sun motif was the symbol of the king and a metaphor of Jamshid. Referring to Rostam, the mythical hero of Iran in Shahnameh, and the fact that lion was the symbol of Rostam, the lion received a nationalistic interpretation. The lion was the symbol of heroes of Iran who are ready to protect the country against enemies. Fat'h Ali Shah addresses the meanings of the signs in two of his poems:[[File:Battle Between Persians and Russians - State Hermitage Museum Unofficial 1242094482812.png|right|thumb|400px| This Paintingonce decorated the Abbas Mirza's palace depicted on this huge canvas is the defeat of the Russian Trinity Infantry Regiment in the battle near Sultanabad, which took place on 13 February 1812. Persian soldiers wearing European uniforms and bearing Persian banners, on which a lion holds a sabre in its paw against a background of the rising sun. ]]"Fat'h Ali shah, the Turki Shah, the universe-enlightening JamshidThe Lord of the country Iran, the universe-adoring sun"
Also:"Iran, the gorg of lions, sun the Shah of Iran It's for this that the lion-and-sun is marked on the banner of Dara"

In the 19th century, European visitors at the Qajar court attributed the lion and sun to remote antiquity, which prompted Mohammad Shah Qajar to give it a "nationalistic interpretation." In a decree published in 1846, it is stated that "For each sovereign state an emblem 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 [...], hence, they venerated it". This is followed by an astrological rationale for having selecting the "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." Piemontese suggests that in this decree, "native political considerations and anachronistic historical facts are mixed with curious astrological arguments" At the time, the lion and sun symbol stood for "Iran as a state, as a monarchy, and as a nation, providing all with a history going back to pre-Islamic times."

File:Lion and Sun-Fat'h ALi Shah.jpg| Coins from Fat'h ALi Shah reignFile:Lion and Sun Fat'h ALi Shah5.jpg| Plate from Fat'h ALi Shah reign

File:Iranian flag in the early 19th century.jpg| Flag of Iran in the early 19th century depicted by Drouville.

File:Iranian flag; painting by Alexis Soltykoff.jpg|Flag of Iran, The lion has sabre in his paw (End of Fat'h Ali Shah reign, painting by Alexis Soltykoff)

File:Triangular banner of Moḥammad Shah1.jpg|Flag of Iran (Triangular banner of Moḥammad Shah)

File:Flag of Iran 1886.jpg| Flag of Iran (1886 AD)File:Flag of Iran 2 - 1886.jpg| Flag of Iran (1886 AD)

File:Officier in de Orde van de Leeuw en de Zon Iran rond 1900 Civiele Divisie.jpg| Order of Aftab about 1900 ADFile:Ordre du Lion et du Soleil.jpg| Order of Aftab,1902 ADFile:Shir-o-Khorshid Kakh-e-Golestan.jpg| The lion and Sun, Golistan Palace, Qajar Dynasty

Substantial changes in the motif

Another change under the second and third Qajar king was the Africanization of the motif. At this time, the lion was a African lion which had a longer mane and bigger body compared to the Persian Lion. Yahya Zoka suggests that this modification was influenced by contact with Europeans.

According to Shahbazi. the Zu’l-faqar and the lion decorated the Iranian flags at the time. It seems that towards the end of Fath' Ali Shah’s reign the two logos were combined and the lion representing Ali was given Ali's sabre, Zu’l-faqar.

According to Najmabadi, occasionally we come across the lion and sun with a sword in the lion's paw and with a crown. The Mohammad Shah's decree in 1836 states that the lion must erectly stand, bear a sabre ("to make it explicitly stands for the military prowess of the state"), "but the crown was added as a symbol of royalty; finally, the explicitly elaborately defined as standing for Iran, rather than for any particular Qajar monarch. It became at once the national, royal, and the state emblem of Iran." In this period the lion was depicted as more masculine and the sun was female. Before this time the sun could be male or female and the lion was represented as a swordless, friendly and subdued seated animal.

The crown over the lion and sun configuration consolidated the association of the symbol with the monarchy. The sun lost its importance as the icon of kingship and the Kiani Crown became the primary symbol of the Qajar monarchy. Under Nasir al-Din Shah, logos varied from seated, swordless lions to standing and sword-bearing lions. In February 1873, the decree for Order of Aftab (Nishan-i Afab) was issued by Nasi-al Din Shah.

After Constitutional Revolution

In the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of 1906, the lion and sun motif in the flag of Iran was described as a passant lion that holds a sabre in its paw and with the sun in its background. A decree dated September 4, 1910 specified the exact details of the logo, including the lion's tail ("like an italic S"), the position and the size of the lion, his paw, the sword, and the sun.

Najmabadi observes a parallel symbolism on wall hangings produced between the lion/sun and Reza Khan/motherland, after Reza Khan's successful coup. The coy sun is protected by the lion and Rezakhan is the hero who should protect the motherland. Under Reza Shah the sun's female facial features were removed and the sun was portrayed more realisticly and merely with rays. In the military contexts the Pahlavi crown was added to the motif.

Pahlavis adopted the lion and sun emblem from Qajars, but they replaced the Qajar Crown with the Pahlavi Crown. Pahlavis reintroduced the Persian symbolism to the motif. As is discussed in Persian traditions, the lion had been the symbol of kingship and symbol of Rustam's heroism in Shahnama.

File:The Iran's national flag as specified by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.jpg|The Iran's national flag as specified by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, 1906

File:Dah-shahi-47.jpg| Mohammad-Reza-shah coin

File:Rls1 small.gif| The Red Lion and Sun Society of Iran logo, Mohammad-Reza-Shah time

File:Lionflag.svg|Civil flag of Iran 1925–1964

File:Iran flag with emblem 1964-1979.svg|State flag of Iran, 1964-1979. Basic three colors with Lion and Sun, 4:7 ratio

File:Red Lion with Sun.svg|The flag of the Red Lion and Sun Society, the Iranian equivalent of the International Red Cross and Red Crescentmarker societies until the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

File:Medaille in Goud van de Orde van de Leeuw en de Zon Militaire Divisie Iran rond 1900 verleend voor dapperheid.jpg| Medal of the Order of Aftab of Iran. Military Division. Nederlands: Medaille

File:Shir-o-Khorshid.JPG|The Lion and Sun in the Sadabad Palacemarker, Tehran

File:Shir & Khorshid1.svg| The official state emblem, Pahlavi Dynasty, early 1970's
Coat of arms of Tajikistan 1992-1993
The many historical meanings of the emblem, while provide a solid ground for its power as the national emblem of Iran, have also provided the rich ground for competing symbols of Iranian identity. One important campaign to abolish the emblem was initiated by Mojtaba Minuvi in 1929. In a report prepared at the request of the Iranian embassy in London, he insisted that the lion and sun is Turkic in origin. He recommended that the government replaces it with Derafsh-e-Kaviani: "One cannot attributed a national historical story to the lion-and-sun emblem, for it has no connection to ancient pre-Islamic history, there is no evidence that Iranians designed or created it.... We might as well get rid of this remnant of the Turkish people and adopt the flag that symbolizes our mythical grandeur, that is Derafsh-e-Kaviani". His suggestion was ignored. The symbol was challenged during World War I, while Taqizade was publishing the Derafsh-e-Kaviani newspaper in Berlin. In his newspaper, he argued that the lion and sun is neither Iranian in origin nor very ancient as people assume. He insisted that the lion and sun should be replaced by the more Iranian symbol of Derafsh-e-Kaviani.

After the 1979 revolution

The emblem remained the official symbol of Iran until the 1979 revolution, when the "Lion and Sun" symbol was—by decree—removed from public spaces and government organizations and replaced by the present-day Coat of arms of Iran. For the Islamic revolution, the lion and sun symbol resembled the "so oppressive Westernizing monarchy" that had to be replaced, even though it had old Shi'a meanings and the lion was associated with Ali. In the present day, the lion and the sun emblem is used by Iranian communities in exile as the symbol of opposition to the Islamic Republic. Some political groups such as the monarchists, and People's of Mojahedin continue to use the lion and sun emblem. In Los Angelesmarker and cities with large Iranian communities the lion and sun emblem is largely used on mugs, Iranian flags, and souvenirs to an extent that far surpasses its display during the years of monarchy in the homeland.

See also


  1. H. Kindermann "Al-Asad" Encyclopedia of Islam, Vol.1, Page 681
  2. Najmabadi (2005), Pages 68-9
  3. Najmabadi (2005), Page 69
  4. Khorasani, Manouchehr M. (2006). Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period. Germany: Verlag. Page 326
  5. Najmabadi(2005), Page 70
  6. Najmabadi(2005), Page 65
  7. Najmabadi(2005), Pages 70-1
  8. Najmabadi(2005), Page 72
  9. Najmabadi(2005), Page 82
  10. Najmabadi(2005), Page 83
  11. Najmabadi(2005), Page 81
  12. Najmabadi(2005), Page 86
  13. Najmabadi(2005), Pages 88-96
  14. Najmabadi(2005), Page 68
  15. Najmabadi(2005), Pages 87-88
  16. Najmabadi(2005), Page 87
  17. Najmabadi(2005), Pages 86-87
  18. Najmabadi(2005), Pages 87-88

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