The tree has been one of the best known and widespread Persian symbols. The motif occurs as often in the miniatures as in the mastepieces of palace weavings and the nomad crafts. too. In the symbolical conceptions of the tree, old Indoiranian and Zorostrian beliefs intermingle with the Muslim ones as well as with the animistic traditions of the nomads and local cults of nature. Babilonian low reliefs remind us that even before Iranians arrived to the Middle East, the tree has already symbolized axis mundi – the axis of the world.
In the mythical geography of Zoroastrianism, the main religion of pre-Islamic Iran, the center of the World was marked by the cosmic tree, growing out of the waters in the middle of the Vourukasha Ocean. This tree was believed to be the source of the seeds of all the healing plants, and as such, it turns up to be in fact the archetype of the world of plants. The mythical bird, Simorq, the embodiment of wisdom, was believed to shake the seeds down once a year, so they would fall dawn to the soil with rain. It was also next to the tree of life that the White Hom was growing, that is the sacred plant, the archetype of the sacred plant used by Indo-Iranians for ritual purposes (Avest. “Haoma”, Middle Pers. “Hom”, Ind. “Soma”).
Symbolically, the tree connects the three dimensions of existence: with its roots firm in the ground drawing the life-giving water, its superior position in the world of plants and its branches giving shelter to the birds, that is the animals of the supreme God – Ahura Mazda – that were once believed to intermediate between the world of men and gods.
What makes the ties of the tree with the world of animals even stronger is that the seeds of beneficial plants that grow out of it were once created out of the dead body of the first bull slain by the evil spirit, Angra Mainyu in a part of the cosmogonic act. Thus, the tree symbolized the vitality and essential unity of creation.
One can find similar believes in the Muslim tradition. The cosmic tree, which branches grow as high as to heaven and that bears the seeds of all sort of the plants, is mentioned in Koran, where it is named “Tuba”. Medieval Persian mystic, Rumi, was so strongly convinced as to the unity of existence that he spoke of the birth of a human being as a reincarnation of the spirit that had previsely lived as a plant and as an animal. No symbol could be more meaningful a representation of this concepts than a tree, that incarnates not only the potential but also the unity and durability of nature despite of the changing forms. Interestingly, some echoes of the above conceptions reoccur in Modern Iranian literature, e.g. in the novels of Shahrnush Parsipur, that have been translated into English. The heros of her magical realistic stories tend to have an awesome relation with the trees, to the point that sometimes they even change into the trees and bear fruit.
As a closed, perfect organism, the tree has been also perceived as a microcosm – a model of the macrocosmic order. In so being, it reminds the man, that is, the perfect form of nature. For this reason, in antiquity the tree has actually often symbolized a man, a ruler in particular. The Zoroastrian kings are believed to had grown the cypress trees. It was from a tree, the eleventh century national epic Shahname says, that Alexander the Great first heard of his upcomming death. Herodotus tells us about the prophetic dreams concerning the future of the baby Cyrus as the king of kings. The royal future was symbolized there by the wine bush, quite clearly another form of the same tree motif. Even today the old cult the old trees is still alive. Many emamzades – graves of local “saints” – have been actually located next to such sacred trees. As a symbol of duration and stability, the tree was also attributed social
dimensions and as such, it came to stand for the unchangable and supportive community. That is why the tree has been so important for the nomads. There are little examples of their crafts not comprising the symbols of the tree of life. Having often a geometric form, these motifs bring into mind not only the power of nature but of the continuity of a family
and a clan, too.
In the Koranic version of the birth of Jesus, Mariam, after she had been excluded from her community as a result of being a single mother, gets comforted by the date-palm nutrition her after the childbirth. The dates, as sweet and nutritious as ever, are still eaten by Iranians to break the feast after the sunset during Ramadan.
The date-palm being so much respected, it is in fact the cypress that has been a sacred tree in Zoroastrianism. It was perceived as the royal tree and also as a general symbol of the man. The reminiscence of these may often be found in Persian miniatures picturing tall and board-hipped human figures, as well as in the poetry where the ideal beauty has been often called “a walking cypress” (sarv-e ravan). Also in the rugs, this reoccurring symbol often designates a human being.