legendary prince of Sistān, father of Rostam, and a leading figure in Iranian traditional history. His story is given in the Šāh-nāma.


ZĀL (also called Dastān, Zar, and Zāl-e Zar), legendary prince of Sistān, father of Rostam, and a leading figure in Iranian traditional history. His story is given in the Šāh-nāma (partially retold in prose by Yarshater, 1959, pp. 83-9, 93-133), so closely paralleled in Ṯaʿālebi’s Ḡorar (pp. 68-10, 114, 119-22, 127-9, 138-41, 143 ff., 355-57, 379 ff., 383-88) as to suggest a common source, the Šah-nāma-ye Abu Manṣuri. Sām, lord of Sistān and the foremost noble of Iran, had no child. A woman of his harem gave birth to a beautiful boy whose “hair was all white.” Sām was ashamed, likening the infant to a child of “dēv” or “Ahriman” (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, I, pp. 164, v. 45, p. 166, vv. 63, 65; all references are to this edition and volume unless given otherwise), and he abandoned it on the Alborz Mountain, but the fabulous bird, Simorḡ, which nested there, nursed the boy, and he grew to become a dashingly handsome young man endowed with great physical power and a brilliant mind, whom travelers saw and admired (I, pp. 167-68). One night Sām dreamt that a mounted warrior rode in from India and informed him that he had a grown-up son. Sām consulted wise men, but they all blamed him for having destroyed his God-given child. Again he dreamt that from the mountain of India there appeared an army led by a youth flanked by a Zoroastrian priest (mōbad) and an advisor, and that these companions condemned his act: “If you needed a bird as the nurse for your son, what use is this royal and heroic state? If white hair is a cause of shame, what say you of your own white hair and beard?” Profoundly ashamed, Sām went to the Alborz, besought God for forgiveness, and discovered his son: “a figure worthy of royal crown and throne, with side and arms of a lion, sun-like countenance, heroic heart, sword-seeking hands, deep black eyes and lashes, coral lips and rubicund face” (I, pp. 169-73, vv. 104-49). The youth was unwilling at first to leave Simorḡ, but the bird assured him of a glorious future, and gave him samples of his feathers, which contained God-given fortune (farr), to use when in peril: “put one of my feathers onto fire, at once shall you behold my farr” (I, pp. 171-72). The boy, now called Dastān (cf. Yarshater, 1983, pp. 432, 453), Zāl, Zar, or Zāl-e zar, came with Sām to Sistān and was clothed in noble garments (pahlavāni qabāy). (On zar “old,” see Bailey, Dictionary, p. 346. For an attempt to explain Dastān as an adaptation of Middle Persian dastan “capable,” or as a family name “of the descendants of *Dast,” see Skjærvø, pp. 165-66.)

Having heard the wonderful story, King Manučehr summoned Zāl to his court and recognized that he possessed the Royal Glory (farr-e kayān), the heart of the wise, and the courage of a lion” (I, p. 175). The story of Simorḡ and Zāl “spread throughout the world” (ibid., p. 176, v. 185), and court astronomers cast his horoscope and predicted that he would be a mighty and wise paladin. The king made Sām lord over “the whole of Kabul, Donbor, Māy and Hend, from Zābolestān to the other side of Bost,” entitled him the chief paladin (jahān pahlavān), and invested him with “a throne of turquoise and crown of gold, a ruby signet-ring and golden girdle” (I, pp. 177-78). All these Sām delegated to Zāl when they returned to Zābolestān as he himself had to lead an expedition against the Gorgsārs and Māzandarān. Zāl ruled with justice and became an avid learner, surpassing others in astronomy, religion, and art of war (I, pp. 178-81). Zāl met and fell in love with Rudāba, daughter of Mehrāb, king of Kabul, and married her after overcoming many difficulties and proving his facility in horsemanship, archery, and other military skills as well as in explaining some (Zurvanite) riddles (Zaehner, pp. 242-44, 444-46) at the court of Manučehr. Zāl and Rudāba had two sons, Rostam and Zavāra. Later a slave girl from Kabul bore Zāl another son, Šaḡād (V, pp. 241-42).

The career of Zāl spans the entire Kayanid period (Yarshater, 1983, pp. 373-74, 377, 389, 432). He served as a military commander under all kings, but usually in an advisory role, and was regarded as the last bastion of hope. He defeated two Turanian lords who had attacked Mehrāb at Kabul, clashed with Afrāsiāb after the murder of Nowḏar, rejected Ṭus and Gostahm in favor of electing Zaw as the successor of Nowḏar, and sent Rostam to fetch Kay Qobād from the Alborz mountain and offered him the crown, thereby establishing the Kayanid dynasty (I, pp. 309-14, 317-27, 338-44). He initially opposed Kay Ḵosrow’s nomination of Lohrāsp as heir to the throne and played host to Goštāsp for two years (Daqiqi, in Šāh-nāma V, pp. 171-72), tried to dissuade Rostam from fighting Esfandiār (V, pp. 371-72), and when he saw his son severely wounded and his family threatened, he once more appealed to Simorḡ for help. Guided by the bird, Rostam killed Esfandiār, but he and Zavāra fell victim to Šaḡād’s treachery and were killed (V, pp. 396-422, 442-56). Bahman, son of Esfandiār, then invaded Sistān, overthrew the house of Rostam, imprisoned Zāl, and took his treasures, but released him after his own uncle, Pašōtan, intervened on his behalf (V, pp. 471-83). But Masʿudi of Marv, who had composed a verse Šāh-nāma early in the 10th century, stated (apud Ṯaʿālebi, Ḡorar, p. 388; cf. Ṭīabari, I, p. 687 and Maʿudi, Moruj II, p. 127) that Bahman killed Zāl and slaughtered his family. Epic narratives other than the Šāh-nāma (e.g., Bahman-nāma, Farāmarz-nāma, Borzu-nāma and Šahriār-nāma) ascribe to Zāl many heroic deeds, especially in wars with Afrāsiāb and Bahman. The Mojmal al-tawāriḵ (ed. Bahār, p. 54) asserts that Zāl wrote several books on the history of the House of Bahman and maligned Goštāsp. The Tāriḵ-e Sistān (ed. Bahār, pp. 22-23) states that Zarang owed its name and prosperity to Zāl-e Zar, and according to the Bundahišn (36.40; tr. Markwart, ProvincialCapitals, p. 52), Sām divided his realm between his six sons, giving Sistān and the region of the south (Nimrōz) to the leading one, Dastān, Abaršahr to Abarnak, Rey to Ḵosrow, Patišxwārgar to Mārgandag, Isfahan to Sparnag, and Asōrestān to Damnag.

Zāl’s personality has been the subject of much speculation. Šehāb-al-Din Sohrevardi explained him as a mystic figure (Parhām, pp. 334-47, with literature). His white hair at birth would have been viewed as a sign of future greatness, similar to the case of Pābak, father of Ardašir, who was born with long hair (Ṭabari, I, 814), which his mother took as presaging future glory (Balʿami, ed. Bahār, pp. 875-76). The nursing by a mighty bird was another sign of unusual fame and achievement, analogous to the legend of the rearing of Achaemenes by an eagle (Aelianus, Nature of Animals 12.21, with Spiegel, II, p. 262; cf. Nöldeke, p. 4). These stories are common-place with the type of “the feared child,” whose lordly sire is warned by signs of the infant’s future greatness and tries to dispose of him but fails because the child is saved and reared by a miraculous beast and finally replaces the guilty potentate (Yarshater, 1991, pp. 67-68). That some revered Zāl as an extraordinary, wise and mystical personality is borne out by the fact that to this day the mystic order of Ahl-e Ḥaqq in Kurdistan regard Simorḡ, Zāl, and Rostam as the duns, the incarnation of the light of God. And the Malek Ṭāwusi tribes of northwestern Iran, Iraq and Syria also count Kāva, Zāl, Rostam, and Simorḡ as the incarnations of Malek Ṭāwus, himself the highest manifestation of God on earth (see, with literature, Amir Moʿezzi, p. 80).

While the origins of the stories about the House of Rostam go back to the Saka people (Yarshater, 1983, pp. 454-55), A. S. Shahbazi has argued that the names of the sons of Sām should be connected with the names of the provinces of the Parthian Empire and that the fully developed accounts of the House of Rostam ultimately reflect the history of an Arsacid family which ruled over Zarang (Old Pers. Zranka, Gk. Drangiana, the old Sistān; Kent, Old Persian, p. 211) and was annihilated by Ardašir I, the historical model of Ardašir Bahman (Shahbazi, pp. 158-59). According to this theory, Zāl/Zar would have been named after the land Zarang (cf. also Zar-bānu “Lady of Zar,” a daughter of Rostam: Irānšāh, pp. 210, 270-73). An alternative theory, originally espoused by Stig Wikander (pp. 324-26) and subsequently developed by Gianroberto Scarcia and others, connects Zāl/Zar with Zurvān, god of Time. This view is primarily based on the Zurvanite character of Zāl’s riddles and on his exceptional longevity, which can be understood as an emblem of eternity. In many of his studies (see Bibliography), Scarcia insists on the possible euhemeristic derivation of Zāl from Zurvān. Both Wikander and Scarcia have drawn attention to the analogy between the Simorḡ-Zāl relation in Ferdowsi and the Phoenix-Aiōn relation in the classical tradition, particularly in numismatics (Scarcia, 2003, p. 16) and to the fact that the ‘albino’ Zāl has a counterpart in the ‘albino’ Noah (Nuḥ). The latter was the patriarch of Mount Ararat, anciently connected with Zurvān (Zruan) according to the first chapter of the work attributed to Sebēos. A significant relation between the Phoenix and a Cosmic Mountain is to be found in the case of Mount Kasios too, another mountain with a clear Zurvanite character (Scarcia, 2003, pp. 22-24).


Moḥammad-ʿAli Amir Moʿezzi, “Nokāt-i čand dar bāra-ye taʿābir-e ʿerfāni-e Šāh-nāma,” Iran-nāma/Iran Nameh 10/1, Winter 1992, pp. 76-82.

Irānšāh/Irānšān b. Abi’l-Ḵayr, Bahman-nāma, ed. Raḥim ʿAfifi, Tehran, 1991.

Marijan Molé, “Le partage de monde dans la tradition iranienne,” JA, 240, 1952, pp. 455-63.

Theodor Nöldeke, Das iranisches Nationalepos, 2nd rev. ed., Leipzig, 1920.

Bāqer Parhām, “Taʾammol-i dar taʿbir-e Sohravardi az sar-anjām-e nabard-e Esfandiār bā Rostam dar Šāh-nāma wa āṯār wa natāyej-e ān dar tāriḵ-e andiša wa siāsat dar Irān,” Iran-šenāsi/Iranshenasi 5/2, Summer 1993, pp. 324-52.

The Armenian History attributed to Sebeos, trans. R. W. Thomson, Liverpool, 1999.

G. Scarcia, “Sulla religione di Zabul. Appunto per servire allo studio del ciclo epico sistanico,” Annali dell’Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli 15 (n.s.), 1965, pp. 119-165.

Idem, “Ripensare Zābul,” in Oriente e Occidente. Convegno in ricordo di Mario Bussagli (Roma, 31 maggio – 1 giugno 1999), eds. C. Silvi Antonini, B. M. Alfieri, A. Santoro, Pisa-Roma, 2002, pp. 236-241.

Idem, “Bastām e la stirpe dei draghi,” in Transcaucasica 2, Venezia, 1980, pp. 82-107.

Idem, “Sulla Fenice dei Baluci,” in Il falcone di Bistam, eds. M. Compareti, G. Scarcia, Venezia, 2003, pp. 7-26.

G. Scarcia and M. Taddei, “The Masgid-i sangī of Larvand,” East and West 23, n.s. (1-2 March-June), 1973, pp. 89-108.

A. Shapur Shahbazi, “The Parthian Origins of the House of Rostam,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, N.S. 7, 1993, pp. 155-63.

Prods Oktor Skjærvø, “Eastern Iranian Epic Traditions,” AAASH 51, 1998, pp. 159-70.

Friedrich Spiegel, Erânische Altertumskunde, 3 vols., Leipzig, 1871-78.

Stig Wikander, “Sur les fonds commun indo-iranien des épopées de la Perse et de l’Inde,” La Nouvelle Clio 2, 1950, pp. 300-29.

Ehsan Yarshater, Dāstānhā-ye Šāh-nāma, Tehran, 1959.

Idem, “The Feared Child in Iranian Mythology,” K. R. Cama Oriental Institute International Congress Proceedings (5th to 8th January 1989), Bombay, 1991, pp. 65-68.

Idem, “Iranian National History,” in Camb. Hist. Iran III, pp. 359-477.

Robert Charles Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma, Oxford, 1955.

July 20, 2009

(A. Shapur Shahbazi and Simone Cristoforetti)

Originally Published: July 20, 2009

Last Updated: July 20, 2009