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
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:
Rostam bepaymood bAlA-ye hasht
Be-sAn-e yeki sarv-e Azad ga
and visual artists have also focused on to the
cypress tree and adopted it as one of their
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
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
In this quest, one comes across more
historic events related to the cypress tree.
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.
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
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.
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
He said: “The caliph is not one of those
rulers whose orders can be cancelled!” and
reiterated his order to fell the tree.
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.