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Persia (Iran): Pre-Islamic flags

Last modified: 2010-10-30 by ian macdonald
Keywords: persia | derafsh e kaviani | kaveh | leather |
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Derafsh-e-Kaviani (Kaveh's flag)

[State flag] image by Anthony F Duva Jr., 27 November 2004


According to Persian mythology Kaveh was a blacksmith and led a rebellion to overthrow Zah-hak (a.k.a. Ajidhak, 'Dragon' in ancient persian) who had reigned on Iranveyj for 1000 years. Kaveh put an end to a millenium of Zaratostrian Religion. Each millenium corresponds to a stage in the never-ending fight between Ahriman (Evil) and Ahoramazda (Good). Although Kaveh was the winner, he was not of celestial origin ,so his role in the history finishes here and Iranveyj was ruled by another king.

Iranveyj is assumed to be the land consisting of modern Iran , Turkmenistan and parts of Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey).

During his movement, Kaveh used a piece of blacksmith leather as his flag. This flag is not used nowadays but is a well known flag in Iran and is a sign of nationalism. It is called Derafsh-e-Kaviani which means 'the flag of Kaveh'.
With respect to the mythology, this flag is red, yellow and purple and I think it is horizontally divided. This flag is not used nowadays. It has been the sacred flag of Iran during the late pre-islamic dynasties (till the 6th century).

M.N., 3 June 1999

I noticed that your site contains historical material regarding a flag in old Persia called the "Derafsh-e-Kaviani." My cousins have an especially fine, hand-woven tapestry depicting what may be two representations of this flag, flanking a winged sun disk. Note that the top stripe is not purple but blue! I stared and stared at the flags and the color definitely was not purple, as in the story. Also, the yellow at the bottom really was more the color of tanned leather, as the legend suggests, than the tint of bright yellow shown here.
Anthony F Duva Jr., 27 November 2004

Quotation of the English translation of the Shah-nameh

The Shah-nameh (The Epic of the Kings) is an epic poem written in Pehlevic (a middle Persian dialect) delivered to King Mahmud of Ghazna in 1010 or 1011. It is traditionally attributed to Firdusi (i.e. "The Heavenly"), the nickname of Abu'l Qasim Mansur, born in Shadab, Khorasan area, 934 or 949 and passed away in Tus, 1020 or 1021.

In the English translation by Reuben Levy (London, 1967), p. 20, the following description is given:

"On the end of a spear Kaveh fastened a piece of leather, of the kind which blacksmiths wear in front of their legs when using their hammers [...] The young prince Faridun saw the piece of leather attached to the spearhead and he beheld in it the foundation of prosperity to come. The leather he decorated with Greek brochade and as background to it he had a golden figure outlined with jewels sewn on it. Ribands of red, yellow, and violet cloth were hung from it and it was given the title of The Kaviani Banner'. Since those days anyone who has assumed kingly rank and placed the crown of royalty on his head has added fresh jewels to that trifling thing of blacksmith's leather."

Jarig Bakker, 4 June 1999

Quotations of the Italian translation of the Shah-nameh

In the Italian translation, published in 1989, there are many parts where the flag of Kaveh is reported. I just include the most important ones.

  • The first is close to what is reported above:

"After that Kaveh left the king (who was Dahak) a crowd rallied around him. It was the market time: the blacksmith cried for help and appealed the whole world for justice. He got the apron blacksmiths use to protect themselves down to the feet when they hammer, he hoisted it on a spearhead and caused a mess in the market. He went on handling the spear. [...] This apron without any value or price shall be the sign to distinguish friends' from foes' voices. [...] When the rioters saw from afar the palace of the young king, they shouted a cry as power as a thunder. Feridun saw the apron hoisted on the spearhead and took it as a good sign. He enriched it with brocade of Rum (i.e. from Greece), decorated it with an image made of gems on a gold background; he crowned it of a moonlike disk, and got from that a good prediction. He hung on it red, yellow and violet clothes, and gave to the standard the name Banner of Kaveh. Later, all those who followed on the throne of the King of Kings, all the monarchs who used the Imperial crown, added ever new jewels to the humble apron of the blacksmith, they embroidered it by rich brocades and painted silks. This way the Banner of Kaveh was born, which shone as a sun in the darkness of the deep night and filled up the world heart with hope. [...] The day after the young king swiftly marched on, lead by Kaveh who displayed his royal banner."

  • Later a new king succeeded on the imperial throne:

"After a week of sorrow and complaint, on the eighth day Minochir came out and took the royal crown [...]: he proclaimed: 'I seat on the throne of the rotating sky [...]. I am looking for vengeance as Berzin's consuming fire in the dark night, I raise high the sword and Kaveh's Banner'."

  • Herein after we found:

"Kei Kobad seated on Kaiarides' throne with the diadem embellished by jewels on his head... The king kept the holy fire in one hand, the other controlling the fast horse. The glorious Banner of Kaveh was carried in front of him, and the land all about was covered of his yellow, red and violets reflections. "

Many pages after this we found a description of the standards displayed by the Iranian army under Kei Kavus. Again the imperial banner appears:

"[...] over a throne of turquoise stones, azure like the sea, a flag flies, bearing the sun image on a violet background and it is crowned by a moon. [...] Those are the tents of the King of Iran."

  • There is also a footnote which states:

"Kaveh: Iranian blacksmith, rebel against Dahak's tyranny. His leather apron, used as standard by Feridun, became the flag of the Iranian Empire till the end of the Sassanide dynasty, bit a bit enlarged to make space for the jewels and embellishments added by the kings. When it was taken by Arabs at Kadesia battle (A.D.637) its dimensions were 22 by 15 feet. The soldier who took it got as prize the armour of the commander-in-chief of the Iranian army and about 30,000 gold coins. The banner, torn into pieces, was distributed among the army together with the booty."

Pier Paolo Lugli, 8 June 1999

Quotation of G.H. Preble

"The standard of Koah, the sacred standard of the Persians, was originally the leather apron of the blacksmith Kairah, or Koah, which he reared as a banner B.C. 800 [sic], when he aroused the people and delivered Persia from the tyranny of Sohek, or Bivar, surnamed Deh-ak (ten-vices). It was embroidered with gold, and enlarged from time to time with costly silk, until it was twenty-two feet long and fifteen broad; and it was decorated with gems of inestimable value. With this standard the fate of the kingdom was believed by superstitious Persians to be connected. This standard was victorious over the Moslems at the battle of El Iiser, or the battle of the bridge, A.D. 634, and was captured by them two years later at the battle of Kadesir, which the Persians call, of Armath, and the Moslems, "the day of succor from the timely arrival of reinforcements". To the soldier who captured it thirty thousand pieces of gold was paid by command of Saad, and the jewels with which it was studded were put with the other booty. In this battle, which is as famous among the Arabs as Arbela among the Greeks, thirty thousand Persians are said to have fallen, and seven thousand Moslems. Thus, after 1,434 [sic] years' service, this standard was destroyed".

Source: G.H.Preble. The Symbols, Standards, Flags, and Banners of Ancient and Modern Nations. [pre80]

Pier Paolo Lugli, 8 June 1999

An attempt of interpretation

Even if no images survive, we can recover interesting information from the above. The Banner of Kaveh was a token of suzerainty, the fact that each king added something to it shows that it was considered a justification for the royal succession and a symbol of continuity.
The astronomical devices on it (somewhere I remember it was stated that there were zodiacal constellation signs on it) are an heritage from more ancient cultures of the area, the sun and the moon being used by all peoples, in practice. Also, the sacred value of the Banner is an evidence of its use as a religious entity connected to the holy character of the Persian Kings. In fact, it had in battle a similar value that the Arch of the Alliance had for the Hebrews.
Another important point in the Epic of the Kings is the presence of many banners, which should have been a common sight on battlefields, indicating the role and / or the name of the owner. A fact that in Europe came into wide use some centuries after, as at the time of the book editing (end of Xth, beginning of XIth century) heraldry was still to come and onlyvexilloids were common. Actually, the Holy Crusades put in touch Europeans with cultures that had inherited from ancient Persians the use of flags as means of rally and war tactics.
Of course this is my point of view. This topic is highly debated and no final word is possible.
Pier Paolo Lugli
, 8 June 1999

Ancient Persian standard

"The standard of ancient Persia, adopted by Cyrus, according to Herodotus, and Xenopho, and perpetuated, was a golden eagle with outstretched wings painted on a white flag."
G.H.Preble. The Symbols, Standards, Flags, and Banners of Ancient and Modern Nations. [pre80]
Pier Paolo Lugli, 8 June 1999