When researching Persian dynasties I came across a curious symbol on wikipedia. It was the Sassanid banner called Derafsh-e Kaviani “the standard of Kāva”. It caught my attention because I remembered having seen this symbol in ancient Armenian art as well. Or at least something very similar. After reading up on this symbol I discovered that it has long been a national symbol for Persians. Even today some Persians proudly display it during parades as a symbol of Persian identity before the Arab invasion.
One Iranian article I found online describe this symbol and its meaning to the Iranian people as follows: “Derafsh-e Kaviani was first raised, according to legend, against the Satanic, evil dragon demon Zahak. In Iran’s national epic, Shahnameh Ferdowsi, the demon has become an oppressive Arab ruler. Kaveh Ahangar, the blacksmith rallied the people against him, using his spear and leather apron to remake the ancient flag and lead the Iranian people to victory. The flag of the Kings, Derafsh-e Kaviani remains an important motif in Iranian art and culture, although its meaning has been repressed by the current regime. The rise of Derafsh-e Kaviani now is a call on Iranians to renew their pride in their ancient culture and to rise once more, as their ancestors rose against legendary demons and conquerors, to establish an Iranian nation that is truly free.”
I also recall reading an article by Dr. Kaveh Farrokh who connected the early Christian Armenian cross to Derafsh-e Kaviani.
Dr. Farrokh displays several Armenian crosses and describes his discovery as follows:
When I was in Armenia, I went to see the 4th century AD Basilica Church of “Surp Nshan” (Holy Seal) near Abaran.
Outside in the courtyard are some ruins, one of which caught my eye.
It had a Cross inside a circle, and itself looked like a banner used in battle as it was upon a pole. At either side was a person, eroded away, yet still visible.
This looked like a battle standard, most likely used either by the Arshakuni kings of the 4th century or the Bdeshk families such as the Kamsarakan or Mamikonian.
Back in London I began to read about the Achaemenid empire, and came across a rendition of a motif from the tunic worn by King Darius I at Persepolis.
I also saw two coins minted by the Satrapy of Caria around 395 BC and 344 BC, and drew the motifs on their Reverse sides. I then learned about the “Pazyryk” carpet from a tomb in the Altai mountains, that is dated to around 400 BC, originating from Achaemenid Iran. It bears many examples of the “Drafsh” motif. I also began to read about the Sassanian era, and the “Drafsh” of Kaveh, perfectly depicted on the reverse of this coin from around 100 BC of the ruler of Persis, Artaxerxes. The Star motif was also used by the dynasty that ruled Pontus from 302 – 37 BC, among whom were king Mithridates VI. His ally and son-in-law was king Tigran II of Armenia, and below is my illustration of the motif used on his crown…Dr. Kaveh Farrokh
Basically, Dr. Farrokh is attributing the origins of multiple Armenian symbols, including those of the Artaxiad family to the Sassanid Derafsh-e Kaviani. He is not wrong in noticing a connection. However, I would argue the influence is other way around. The origins of this symbol lay in Armenia and not the Sassanid Persia. Let me explain.
Although this banner is commonly known as the Sassanid banner, the coins of the Sassanid Persian period don’t seem to display this symbol at all. And in fact I have only been able to find historic images of this banner on Seleucid coins.
Bellow are a few examples of Selucid era coins clearly displaying the squared banner with an X-cross at the center with 4 dots in the spaces between the cross.
It becomes clear that this banner predates the Sasanian empire. What is worthy to note however is that it always seems to accompany a Zoroastrian fire shrine, sometimes with the symbol of Ahura Mazda above it. Their coins are inscribed in Aramaic and belong to the so called Frataraka rulers, the “governor of the gods”.
It seems that this symbol was especially associated with the divine. However, the very banner later adopted by the Sassanids was also depicted in much older Armenian art of the Vannic (Urartu) period. Vannic era plaques often display these banners being handed down to humans (often females) by winged deities surrounded by stars and constellations. The full significance of this symbol is yet to be understood, but it is clear that it was considered sacred. Perhaps not surprising that Selucid rulers who considered themselves somehow connected to Gods adopted the use of this sacred symbol from their ancient neighbors up north in Armenia.
Bellow are more examples of ancient Armenian art clearly displaying these banners being carried by deities who are giving them to humans.
Iranica online on DERAFŠ actually describes almost the same conclusion. They seem to attribute the origins of this particular banner to the kingdom of Urartu.
The origin of this form is Urartian, as is shown by a similar banner (Plate XXV.a) held by a worshiper facing a lion-mounted god on an Urartian bronze disk from Altıntepe (Taşyürek, p. 942 fig. 7; pl. CCXVIII/4-5).Encyclopedia Iranica
As Dr. Kaveh Farrokh suggested, there is good reason to suspect that this symbol was passed down generations and found its way into early Christian art. When we look at some of the artwork from the Armenia kingdom of Van (also known as Urartu) there are striking similarities between these cross shaped symbols and early Armenian Christian crosses.
It is safe to say that this was an important symbol for the Armenian people and perhaps even neighboring nations such as the Persians who similarly adopted and carried it through generations. For the Armenians it became the cross of Christianity, for the Persians Derafsh-e Kaviani.