Tulip stories, myths and legends

Was it the tulip’s blood-red colour that made it such a symbolic flower for the peoples who first saw it? Many stories – such as the legend of Farhad and Shirin – were told to explain the tulip’s beauty, in which it was often synonymous with perfection or eternity.

The most famous fairy tale associated with the tulip is the legend of Farhad and Shirin. The story goes that in sixth-century Iran a young Prince named Farhad was love-struck by a beautiful maiden called Shirin. Farhad demonstrated his love for her by many heroic acts and was so deeply devoted to Shirin that when he was (falsely) told that she had died of a sudden illness, he was overcome with grief and he killed himself by hacking at his own body with an axe. Where each drop of his blood fell on to the barren ground, a scarlet tulip sprang up, a symbol of his perfect and undying love.

Well, that is one version. Different variations of this story appear time and again in every culture from Turkey to India (where five different films entitled ‘Shirin Farhad’ were made between 1926 and 1975!). It is not only because it is a tragic tale of pure and selfless love that this story is known and retold by Iranians and Kurds, Georgians, Afghanis, Parsis, Pashtuns and many others, but also because it appears in two of the most famous works of Iranian (or Persian) literature, which influenced every people and culture which came into contact with it.

Elements of this story are based in reality. Farhad is a famous character in Persian mythology and literature, appearing as a minor character in the poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh or King of Kings, the most renowned poetic work in Persian. This epic poem was written between 977 and 1010 and consists of around 50,000 couplets – if you’re wondering how long that is, the most recent scholarly edition was in eight volumes.

Shaikh Zada, Farhad Carves a Milk Channel for Shirin, 1524,
Poster of the film Shirin o Farhad, Iran, 1935 Herat, Afghanistan

Farhad has a more significant ‘best supporting actor’ role in Khosrow and Shirin, a famous tragic romance by the lyrical poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209). The latter is an elaborate fictional version of the life of Khosrow Parviz (the last great King of the Sasanian Empire, who reigned from 590 to 628), which made him into one of the greatest heroes of the culture, both as a lover and as a king. 

Farhad carries Shirin and her horse on his shoulders, 1648,
Bukhara, Uzbekistan

This is the story of Khosrow’s love for the Armenian Princess Shirin, whom he first sees when she is bathing and washing her hair in a river. She finally becomes Khosrow’s queen after a long courtship strewn with mishaps and difficulties. In this tale Farhad is a sculptor who becomes Khosrow’s love rival. Khosrow hates Farhad, so he tricks him by telling him that if he carves a giant staircase on the side of Mount Behistun, Khosrow will withdraw his claim to Shirin.

It is a near-impossible task, but Farhad (who is incredibly strong – in one scene he carries Shirin and her horse on his shoulders!) proceeds with great vigour, working night and day in the hope that 
Khosrow will let him marry Shirin. He works so tirelessly that finally he succeeds, but as he completes the stairs Khosrow sends a messenger to tell him the news that Shirin has died. Hearing this false news, Farhad throws himself from the mountain top and dies. 

Centuries after these stories were first written wild red tulips remain a favourite Persian token of undying love, the flowers which are given when lovers propose.

Khosrow listening to music, 1539–43,
Iranian Azerbaijan