The Drafš Kāvīāni or Drafš-e Kāvīān (Persian: درفش کاویانی), meaning the Standard of Kāveh, was a legendary banner representative of pre-Islamic Persia and especially characteristic for the Sassanid imperial monarchy (224–651 AD). The standard was extensively bejeweled and served as a major rallying point in the field of battle. According to the Encyclopedia Iranica, capture and destruction of the banner on a field of battle was considered the loss of the battle itself, as the banner represented the essence of the Sassanid state and the Persian culture it protected. Indeed, following the defeat of the Sassanids at the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (636 AD) at the hands of the Rāshidūn Muslims, the Drafš Kāvīāni was captured by the Arabs and burned. The Sassanids subsequently never recovered from al-Qādisiyyah and were decisively routed at the Battle of Nahāwand (642 AD).
The exact origin of the Drafš Kāvīāni and its quite peculiar emblem is shrouded in mystery, although its history is definitely interconnected with that of the legendary Kāveh, an important figure in Iranian mythology who features an important role in the Shahnameh. According to legend, he was a blacksmith (cfr. the Ergenekon) who lead the Iranian people against the tyrant Zahāk by brandishing a flag he made from attaching his leather apron to a spear. Zahāk is the son of Angra Mainyu, the personification of Evil in Zoroastrian dualism, and is mentioned as early as the Avesta. Kāveh built a makeshift banner by attaching his leather apron to a spear and march the Iranian nation to confront his tyrannical foe. The Drafš Kāvīāni came into existence, standing in defiance of tyranny and representing Iranian sovereignty.
The oldest recorded instance of the emblem so iconic for the Drafš Kāvīāni is the so-called Pazyryk carpet, manufactured in ancient Persia around 400 BC. The wool carpet was found as part of a Scythian nobleman’s tomb high in the Altai Mountains and was probably gained through trade with Persia. The carped is decorated with figures featuring eight-armed crosses reminiscent of the eight cardinal directions, with a circular central element. It’s, however, unclear if these figurative decorations served any symbolic meaning or were meant merely for artistic purposes.
From the 3rd century BC, however, the Drafš Kāvīāni starts to appear on Persian coins in prominent positions. A 3rd century coin of Vādfradād I, Seleucid governor (frataraka) of Persis, shows him with a Faravahar and the Drafš Kāvīāni in remarkable detail. This is the case for a 2nd century BC coin depicting another Seleucid governor of Persis, Bagadates I. He is seated on his throne holding a scepter, with the Drafš Kāvīāni next to him in full regalia. From these coins we can imagine how the standard looked like in real life, and it seems the emblem of the standard consisted of an x-shaped cross with a disc in each quadrant. The standard itself was ornamented with four streamers.
This depiction of the Drafš Kāvīāni may very well be completely authentic, and is confirmed by later Sassanid examples. According to Shapur Shahbazi (Encyclopedia Iranica), the Sassanid standard consisted of a bejeweled purple background with a star (akhtar) as its central element and red, golden and purple streamers. The star represented fortune, and was considered the strength of the Iranians. According to him, this was effectively the first “national” flag of Persia. Popular modern depictions, however, represent the central star (akhtar) as a flower-like figure and a disc in each quadrant of the purple flag, sometimes totaling four but mostly limited to one in the upper quadrant.
Today, the Drafš Kāvīāni is a popular element in Iranian nationalism and monarchism, especially espoused by supporters of the former shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980). Between 12–16 October 1971, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had organized the 2,500th year of Foundation of the Imperial State of Iran, showcasing Iran‘s ancient pre-Islamic civilization to foreign guests. Part of the festivities was a military parade of Sassanid troops brandishing a prominent brass Drafš Kāvīāni. In spite of being largely limited to dissidence against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Drafš Kāvīāni does still represent a political function, the presidential standard of Tajikistan to be exact. While keeping distinct Iranian symbols, this standard doesn’t follow the traditional Sassanid set-up. The central star is replaced by a winged lion. The four discs have been removed, now appearing as a star in each corner of the flag’s emblem. The upper quadrant now features the crown symbol of Tajikistan. The four streamers are kept and the whole is set to a background of red, white and green.
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Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.