BOLBOL “nightingale”


BOLBOL “nightingale”

i. The bird.

ii. In Persian literature.


i. The Bird

The term bolbol is applied to at least three species of the genus Luscinia (fam. Turdidae): L. megarhynchos “nightingale” (with three subspecies), L. luscinia “thrush nightingale” (called bolbol-e ḵāldār “spotted bolbol” by Scott et al., p. 311), and L. svecica “bluethroat” (called galūābī ibid.; with seven subspecies); it is also applied to a singing thrush from another family (Pycnonotidae), Pycnonotus leucotis “white-eared bul­bul” (bolbol-e ḵormā “date(-palm) bolbol,” ibid., p. 266; for the occurrence of all these species in Iran and their specifications, see Hüe and Étchécopar, pp. 631-37, 796-­97, and Scott et al., pp. 311-12, 266; Figure 1). To Persian lexicographers and poets, however, bolbol and its literary equivalents—hazār, hazār-dāstān/-dastān, ʿandalīb, and the like—all refer to a single bird, characterized principally by its sweet (ḵᵛoš) or plaintive (zār) song, supposedly sung for its beloved (maʿšūq), the rose (gol). Some of the names or epithets for the bolbol and some other poetical references do reflect traits of the bird’s behavior. Hazār-dāstān (shortened form hazār, lit. “thousand,” thus “[singing] a thousand themes/melodies”) and hazār-āvā(z) (lit. “[singing] a thousand songs”) suggest unusual vocal virtuosity. A disparaging epithet porgūy “garrulous,” was, however, used by Monjīk Termeḏī (late 4th/10th century; quoted in Dehḵodā, s.v. bolbol). The belief that the bolbol is a night or dawn bird is reflected in designations like morḡ­-e šabḵᵛān “bird that sings at night,” morḡ-e saḥar “dawn bird” (also bolbol-e saḥar[ī] in Saʿdī), and morḡ-e saḥarḵᵛān “bird that sings at dawn” (cf. the etymology of English “nightingale”: “singer of the night”). A great many verses allude to the separation (hejrān, from the same Ar. root as mohājara “migration”) of the bolbol from its sweetheart and their subsequent reunion (waṣl) implying the periodic absence of the bolbol; furthermore, the nightingale’s singing takes place in mawsem-e gol (season of roses), the spring (cf. Saʿdīs verse “O bolbol, bring [us] the glad tidings of [the approach of] spring, [and] leave the bad news to the owl”; Golestān, chap. 8, p. 534).

Available zoological descriptions explain and occasionally correct these romantic observations. In connec­tion with the differing vocal qualities and powers of the species, L. luscinia is said to have the richest and most melodious song, which begins with a characteristic low “čūk čūk čūk” and then rises into a ringing crescendo; the song of L. megarhynchos is similar but begins with a rather muted “tīo tīo” and then develops into a brilliant crescendo in “tīū tīū.” The bluethroat’s song is a mixture of the song of L. megarhynchos and other species, but it almost always begins with detached notes. Finally, the song of P. leucotis, an active and “noisy” thrush, consists of a short staccato phrase that attracts immediate attention (Hüe and Étchécopar, loc. cit.). These variations in song may account for the range of epithets for the bolbol in Persian poetry: On the one hand are those compounded with ḵᵛoš “sweet” (e.g., ḵᵛošāhang/-āvāz/-naḡma/-tarāna/-gūy/-ḵᵛān), indicat­ing moderate melodiousness; on the other are those compounded with ātaš “fire” (e.g., -nafas “fire-breathing,” -navā “[singing] a fiery tune,” -zabān “having a fiery tongue”), which along with epithets such as boland-ṣafīr “(singing) a high, thin tune” and rangīn­-navā “(singing) a florid melody,” indicate a higher degree of virtuosity (for these and other epithets, cf. Farhang-e Ānand Rāj, s.v. bolbol). The popular Persian proverb “The nightingale hatches seven chicks (a year, but only) one of them becomes a nightingale (and the others become sesks [warblers])” may well reflect these vocal differences and the popular confusion of bolbols with similar but unmusical thrushes (for this proverb, see also Hedāyat, p. 132; Massé, I, p. 189). Incidentally, no female bolbol lays seven eggs: In the case of L. luscinia and megarhynchos the clutch com­prises four or five, in that of L. svecica five or six (Hüe and Étchécopar, loc. cit.). In the Farhang-e Ānand Rāj (s.v. hazār) it is suggested that the following bayt of Ḥāfeẓ (d. 791/1389; p. 153) may indicate that he distinguished ʿandalīb from hazār: “A hundred thousand roses bloomed, but no bird song was heard. What happened to the ʿandalībān? What became of the hazārān?” Bīrūnī (p. 377) made a similar distinction between bolbol and hazār-dastān, corresponding respectively to Arabic bol­bol and ʿandalīb. In this connection, Maʿlūf (pp. 170-71) mentions the confusion about bolbol and hazār in Arabic dictionaries and other texts; “To some Arabs the bolbol and the ʿandalīb were [the same as] the hazār; or perhaps by bolbol and the andalīb they meant any bird with a melodious voice. Nowadays, Syrians apply bolbol to the bird named Pycnonotus by zoologists, which the French and English call by its Arabic name bulbul.” Maʿlūf himself does not apply the term bolbol to any species of nightingale (he arbitrarily calls L. megarhyn­chos and two of its subspecies hazār, L. luscinia ʿandalīb and L. svecica svecica, and three other subspecies mosher, lit. “driving away sleep”). He also quotes a modern Arabic commentary on Majāni’l-adab: “From the Arabs’ descriptions of the bolbol one gathers that it is a small, quick-moving passerine with a sweet warble and a red beak, which is called chardonneret [goldfinch] in French.”

That the bolbol sings at night or at dawn is only partly confirmed by scientific observation; in fact, the male sings at any time of day or night during the mating season, though obviously his song is more audible when the environment is relatively quiet. The bolbol is migra­tory (mohājer), returning to its Iranian habitat, mating, and nesting between late April and June, which coin­cides with the blooming of roses. It is only during the mating season that male bolbols sing; then they become silent, though roses may continue to bloom for some time, which provides an answer to a question posed by Ḥāfeẓ (p. 160): “O Ḥāfeẓ, who can be told about this strange circumstance that we are bolbols silent at the time of roses?” Bolbols are “physically and behaviori­ally very unobtrusive birds, thus often going unnoticed; their presence is betrayed only by their singing”; furthermore, the male and female are alike (Hüe and Étchécopar, loc. cit.). These features seem to have led Persian poets and others to consider bolbols a species without females, so that the males direct their sexual desires toward roses. Persian mystical lore thus has developed around the gol o bolbol “rose and nightin­gale” motif, comparable to the šamʿ o parvāna “candle and moth” theme. The bolbol as bīdel (a disheartened lover), ʿāšeq-e zār (a miserable lover), šeydā (maddened by love), and the like was supposed neither to sleep nor to eat. In one metaphor the bird has “in his beak a rose petal of a lovely color;” Ḥāfeẓ, p. 290); sometimes, however, he is mast “drunk” (cf. ʿAṭṭār, p. 42, “the bolbol entered [the birds’ assembly] mast-e mast (com­pletely inebriated),” not with wine but with love of the gol. In fact, according to ornithologists, bolbols do feed on insects, worms, and berries; white-eared bulbuls also eat dates, causing serious damage to the crop in southern Iran (Hüe and Étchécopar, loc. cit.). Their supposed “drunkenness” can be explained by their amatory behavior during the mating season (note that mast also means “rutting” in modern Persian).

For a music sample, see Harāy-āhang-e bolbol.



Farīd-al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, Manteq al-­ṭayr, ed. S. Gowharīn, 4th ed., Tehran, 1365 Š./1986-­87.

Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī, al-Tafhīm le awāʾel ṣenāʿat al-tanjīm, ed. J. Homāʾī, Tehran, 1316-18 Š./1937-39, repr. 1362 Š./1983-84.

Ḥāfeẓ, [Ḡazalhā-ye] Ḥāfeẓ, ed. M. Hūman, 4th ed., Tehran, 1357 Š./1978-79.

Ṣ. Hedāyat, Neyrangestān, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1334 Š./1956.

F. Hüe and R. D. Étchécopar, Les oiseaux du Proche et du Moyen Orienṭ . . ., Paris, 1970.

A. Maʿlūf, Moʿjam al-ḥayawān, Cairo, 1932.

M. Pādšāh, Farhang-e Ānand Rāj, ed. M. Dabīrsīāqī, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1363 Š./1984-85.

D. A. Scott et al., Parandagān-e Īrān, Tehran, 1975.

(Hūšang Aʿlam)


ii. In Persian Literature

The nightingale’s rich, beautiful and, to human ears, melancholy song has made it a symbol in Persian poetry of the lover who is eloquent, passionate, and doomed to love in vain (cf. Dehḵodā). It is virtually impossible to speak of the nightingale apart from the object of the nightingale’s affections, the rose, which embodies both the perfection of earthly beauty and the arrogance of that perfection. The rose accepts this adulation as its due, but is unmoved by the bolbol’s yearning and unaware of the evanescence of its own beauty. The rose’s cruelty is seen in its thorns, which prick the hand of any who long to hold it. Ḥāfeẓ devotes the whole of at least one ḡazal to a description and interpretation of how the relation of rose and nightingale embodies the nature of love and of life in general (raftam be-bāḡ sobḥ-dam-ī tā čenam gol-ī/amad be gūš nāgah-am āvāz-e bolbol-ī). In mystical poetry the nightingale stands for the soul that is still enraptured by the world of appearances and so unable to penetrate to the world of transcendence (Farīd-al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, Manṭeq al-ṭayr, ed. Ṣ. Gowharīn, 4th ed., Tehran, 1365 Š./1986-87, p. 42, lines 749-76). More rarely, the nightingale is given a positive value, as when Moḥammad is described as the “nightingale in a garden of crows” (Steingass) or the “nightingale of the eternal garden” (A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1975, p. 222). The rose and nightingale is both a very old figure in Persian and a widespread and enduring one. Ferdowsī places a yearning nightingale and complacent rose in the introduction to the story of Rostam and Esfandīār (Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VI, p. 216 line 6), and from that point on it is a stock figure in the lyrics of virtually every Persian poet. Indeed, it is so commonplace that “rose and nightingale” have become a metaphor in English not just for Persian poetry but for Iran itself—the Land of Roses and Nightingales.

Search terms:

  بلبل bolbol  bulbul boulboul

(Hūšang Aʿlam, Jerome W. Clinton)

Originally Published: December 15, 1989

Last Updated: December 15, 1989

This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 3-4, pp. 336-338