The Lion Tombstones of Iran

While the UK boasts a handful of (mainly 19th century) graves decorated with elaborate lion statues, these are sculptural and personal choices, reflecting the careers of the wealthy deceased. Culturally speaking, traditional headstones across the UK and Europe are simplistic affairs, being upright slabs of stone, engraved with text. Any symbolic depictions of animals are small and subtle, primarily concerning Christian motifs of a lamb in various permutations.

Bakhtiari men via Persia Online

However, various cultures from the southwest of Iran have profound spiritual beliefs relating to lions, which are reflected very literally in their grave designs. Known as šir-e sangi in Persian or bardšir in Bakhtiari, the ‘stone lions’  are memorials formed in a simple shape, marking the graves of regional nomads such as the Bakhtiari, Lor, and Qašqā’i.

Lions (shir) feature predominantly in Bakhtiari beliefs and folklore, being a once-familiar animal. However, the Iranian lion has long been extinct, having lived in the Arjan Plain region, in the mountains of Zagros, Khuzestan. The Bakhtiari people used the word ‘lion’ to refer to a hero, and was used as a name for several respected individuals; one such legendary person was Šir-ʿAli Mardun, the subject of many folk songs.[1]

Photo – Habib Narimani

As simplistic as they seem, the sculpted lion memorials were not quickly-formed folk art, but are a traditional form for the Bakhtiari people, commissioned from stonemasons. Stonemasons were not necessarily from the Bakhtiari tribe, but would seasonally travel between territories, taking commissions from tribes along the way. Not all Bakhtiari cemeteries are filled with lions, as with all grand sculptures, they were reserved for the great and good, warriors and chieftains; similarly, the more lions in one place, the wealthier the community. The frequency of certain titles is also indicative of the social or political rank of the deceased, acting as a further clue as to the placement of the lion. The density of lions in one area has not just been attributed to the wealth of a community, but also the proximity to an earlier battle.

The cemeteries are isolated sites, found dotted long tribal migration routes across the Zagros mountains.

Image via Iran Front Page. Aziz. Babanejad.

The lions fit into two general styles, one being very rounded with cylindrical bodies, the other being far more square and angular. According to iranicaonline, the lions are deliberately vicious-looking, eschewing a peaceful state:

The head is the part that conveys a sense of emotion most strongly. Its impact is enhanced by the gaze of two large eyes, imbued with a realistic aura. Their mouths contain sharp, threatening teeth shown in an array of different poses. The depiction of the lion’s torso, flanks, and paws are all coordinated to convey a harmonious effect. The paws, whether together or separate, are stretched out in front in a threatening pose, and the claws, looking very strong and sharp, enhance the lion’s overall menacing appearance.[2]

The flanks of the lions are used as a panel for further decoration, depicting men on horseback, horses and weaponry such as swords and rifles.

via Bakhtiari Sacred Landscape

The Bakhtiari are a people with no real written legacy, handing down stories and history via oral tradition. Their general memorials and mourning processes similarly take the form of spoken laments, called gāgeriva. Subsequently, these lion monuments act as a library of sorts, physically acknowledging their rich history, social structures and important people. While the popularity of lion stones had died out by the 20th century, there has been a resurgence in recent years as Bakhtiaris reconnect with their history.

Image via Iran Front Page. Aziz Babanejad

The Bakhtiari lions are one of only two remaining cultural, funerary depictions of animals in Persia[3] and are treasured as one of the few ancient traditions and monuments still in place in this tribal culture. Over the last few centuries, the Bakhtiari have changed from a solely nomadic people, to predominantly settled communities. During the Pahlavi period, leader Reza Shah Pahlavi executed several Bakhtiari leaders as a means of forcing the tribe to adhere to his rule. While he is regarded as the father of modern Iran today, he made the removal of the Bakhtiari’s autonomy a mission of his, crushing their political power and wider influence, with the existence of oil in their territory playing an inevitable unspoken role. Sadly, following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Bakhtiari women lost many of the ‘privileges’ afforded to them beforehand due to their skills as weavers. Today, the tribe number around 1 million, but exist in a society far different than that of those buried beneath the lions.

Thanks as ever for reading. I really enjoyed researching this and, while I can’t say I’ve got a great grasp of Iranian politics and history, I’m sure I’ll return to nomadic burials again one day.

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Sources/Further Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_Tombstones

https://iranicaonline.org/articles/lion-tombstones

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bakhtiari_people

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1542386/

http://www.bakhtiarifamily.com/constitution.php

[1]I haven’t been able to find any translations of such songs thus far.

[2]https://iranicaonline.org/articles/lion-tombstones

[3]The other being Ram monuments in Azerbaijan.

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