The Cypress of Zoroaster

By: Parviz Tanavoli

From: Tavoos, Iranian Art Quarterly,  published in Iran




Among the symbols which the Iranians hold dear, none is as popular as the cypress tree.  Innumerable qualities are attributed to this tree and its form.  Whenever a Persian poet has tried to best describe the stature of his beloved one, he called her “cypress-like”, comparing her balanced poise, lithe motion and enchanting  body to those of the cypress tree, and whenever he has spoken of truthfulness, uprightness and youth, he has taken the cypress tree as a model. Believers in free thought have adopted the cypress tree as a symbol of freedom, an essence without deceit or falseness, and interpreted its barrenness as a sign of its liberty.  And mystics have noted that other trees – which at times have fresh leaves and at others appear withered and bare – embody both perfection and desolation, while the cypress tree is free from the latter. Comparing freedom to a cypress tree, Ferdowsi has written:

Cho Rostam bepaymood bAlA-ye hasht
Be-sAn-e yeki sarv-e Azad ga

Painters and visual artists have also focused on to the cypress tree and adopted it as one of their favorite theme.  Whenever a painter has tried to depict paradise or an idyllic realm, he has populated it with tall cypress trees, and architects, stucco-makers and tile-makers have amply utilized its form in their creations, and women have woven colorful cypress trees in their textiles or carpets.  Adding the rows of cypress trees adorning the walls of Persepolis, depicted under the guard of Persian soldiers, to the cypress trees remaining from the Islamic period, one better realizes the eternality of the cypress tree in Iranian culture, and becomes even more eager to discover the secret of this eternality.  In this quest, one comes across more historic events related to the cypress tree.

One of these is related to the cypress tree of Kashmar, the felling of which gave birth to a great tragedy in Iranian culture and literature, inspiring many poets and writers. This cypress tree had been planted by Zoroaster.  According to historic narratives, during his lifetime the prophet Zoroaster planted two cypress trees as good omens:  one in Faryumaz (west of Sabzebar) and the other in Kashmar (south of Mashhad).  Both were amazingly large.  Upon hearing their description, the “Abbasid caliph Al-Mutavakkal” had ordered the cypress tree of Kashmar to be felled and its wood to be brought to him Samarra.  He had recently begun the construction of the Ja’fariyah Palace and intended to have its wood used in it.  But the description of the majesty of the felled tree was such that he decided to have its pieces reassembled for him to contemplate.  She he sent the message to his appointees that no part of the truck or its branches should be discarded and that they should be packed in felt and sent to him, so that the carpenters of Baghdad could reassemble it with nails and make it possible for the caliph to see it at close range.

‘Ali Ibn Zayd Bayhaqi’ has recorded this event, a momentous happening at the time, and given precise indications concerning the tree’s dimensions and the method used to fell it.  As Bayhaqi writes, its circumference measured twenty-seven tazianebs and ten thousand sheep could rest in its shade.  There were so many birds and wild beasts among its branches that their number could not be recorded.  Of-course, felling such a tree was not a simple matter and required special tools and great skill.  For this purpose, a master carpenter by the name of Hossein Najjar, who lived in Nayshabur, was called.  Hossein spent a long time preparing a special saw.

Learning of the caliph’s decision, the Zoroastrians gathered and went to see his emissary, Aboltayb, whom they implored for the caliph’s mercy.  They were even prepared to pay iffy thousand Nayshabur gold Dinars, but Aboltayb remained inflexible.  He said: “The caliph is not one of those rulers whose orders can be cancelled!” and reiterated his order to fell the tree.

Bayhaqi has written that, when the cypress tree was fe3lled, earth tremors were felt, water springs and buildings were severely damaged, and all night long all kinds of birds gathered, so that the sky was filled, and raised such a loud wail in their own voices that people were astonished.

Bayhaqi has also left behind figures concerning the costs of felling and transporting the tree.  According to these, felling and transporting it from Kashmar to Ja’fariya cost 500,000 dirhams and 300 camels were used to carry its pieces.  Despite these expenses and efforts, Al-Mutavakkal never saw Zoroaster’s cypress tree.  When it was only one stage away from Ja’fariyah, Al-Mutavakkal was assassinated by his slaves.  Aboltayb, the carpenter and the carriers of the tree also met death in different ways.  According to Bayhaqi, the tree of Zoroastre was felled in AD 846 and it had been planted 1405 years earlier.  On the basis of these figures, it was planted around 550 before BC.  This date differs by only 33 years with the Zoroastrians’ traditional date, because Zoroaster was born in 660 BC and was martyred in 583 BC, at the age of 77.  The cypress tree of Zoroaste was never forgotten by the Iranians.  On the contrary, its memory grew ever stronger with the passage of time and poets and artists kept depicting it in their works.  With the advent of the Safavid dynasty, and the ensuing reversion to Iranian national themes, the cypress tree of Zoroaster acquired further importance, but, owing to religious and political considerations, the name of Zoroaster was discarded and only its form was retained.

Aware of the popularity of the cypress tree among the population, the Safavids took advantage of it to further strengthen the Shi’ite creed and introduced it in mourning ceremonies.  A type of small metallic cypress tree, called ‘alam and incised with the names of God, Mohammad, Ali and their kin, was carried in from of mourning processions, and another type, which was made of wood, was called nakhl (palm tree).

Traveling in the cities around the desert, one can see these nakhls in from of mosques and in public squares.  A 12-meter-high nakhl stands in from of Amir Chakhmaq Mosque, in Yazd.  This nakhl is believed to be 400 years old. An equally large nakhl stands in a public square in Taft and other similar but slightly smaller ones can be seen in Yazd, Kashan, Abuaneh and in Khorasan.  On the day of the ‘Ashura they are decorated with expensive colored fabrics and carried in procession by the population.  Almost all the men, old or young, join to carry the nakhl on their shoulders.  Some nakhls weigh several tons.

As for the appellation of nakhl, and why such an obviously cypress-shaped structure has become known as “palm”, we must once again turn to the Safavids and their aims.  But, before that, one point needs to be made clear, namely that the cypress tree is the national tree of the Iranians, and the palm tree that of the Arabs.  Therefore, if a scene of Karbala and the holocaust of the ‘Ashura is to be depicted, then the palm tree must be represented, and not the cypress.  And this is the dilemma which the Iranians of Safavid times astutely resolved by adopting the cypress tree, a long-time symbol familiar to Iranians, and calling it a palm tree.  In order to preclude any further discussion, once every year (on the day of ‘Ashura), this tree is given the appearance of a tent or a coffin and, by setting two cypress trees facing each other and covering the whole with black and green cloth, reminds the viewers of the tent of Emam Hossein’s family.  Although this tent does not resemble a palm tree, it adequately does its job of evoking the ‘Ashura of the year 61 AH.  On other days of the year, they are still called nakhl, but, without any decoration of covering, they are nothing but tall cypress trees, and cannot be unrelated to the cypress tree of Kashar felled by order of the caliph Al-Mutavakka.  Rather than for its wood Al-Mutavakkal had the Iranians’ dear cypress tree destroyed in an attempt to annihilate their beliefs and respect for nature and earth, little knowing that they would erect thousands more cypress trees in the squares of their own towns and villages.

Beyond their names of Sarv (cypress tree) or nakhl, these wooden structures are the only sculptures of past eras in Iranian public squares; unique sculptures indeed, and I have seen innumerable sculptures in different squares across the world, but rarely seen masses as majestic as the cypress trees of Yazd and Taft, and as proportionate and harmonious with their surroundings.