The Elusive Persian Phoenix: On the Identification of the Simurgh and Khvarenah in the Art of Pre-Islamic Iran

Visiting Research Scholar Lecture

Matteo Compareti (ISAW)

Since the beginning of the last century, the correct identification of the Simurgh has been a surprisingly contentious task for scholars. In contrast, the motif is well attested and securely attributed in the artistic works of the Islamic period, specifically in illustrated manuscripts, where the representation of this mythical creature is often accompanied by a description of the scene in Arabic or Persian. In these illustrations, the Simurgh is always a bird, usually represented in the manner of the phoenix as depicted in Chinese paintings. However, in works from before the first half of the fourteenth century, the Simurgh may have been visualized as a multicolored bird sharing characteristics with the rooster, the parrot or a generic bird of prey.

Study of this kind of Persian book illustration may indicate that in pre-Islamic time the Simurgh was also represented as a fantastic bird. Further evidence can be found in Sogdian wall paintings of the eighth century, which offer a fruitful comparison with early Islamic book illustrations. Also to consider is the evidence found in Persian Zoroastrian texts and information transmitted by Muslim authors about pre-Islamic Sasanian Persia. All this evidence seems to point to the same conclusion: the flying monster that had been identified by some scholars with the Simurgh is actually the figurative representation of the Khvarenah (Glory/Fortune), bestowed upon Iranian kings and other notables, while the real Simurgh was always represented as a fantastic bird.

This lecture is sponsored by The Achelis Foundation.

NOTICE: Admission to the ISAW Lecture Hall closes 10 minutes after the scheduled start time.

There will be a reception folowing the event.

This is a public event.

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