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|From Cypress Tree to Botteh ( paisley )
A research into the evolution of a millennia-old motif
Dr. Cyrus Parham
The following article, published in 1999 (Nashr-e Danesh, vol.16, no. 4, 1378,
Tehran), was the first comprehensive well-documented writing on the millennia-old
history of the botteh motif and its Iranian origin. Hence the necessity of translating it
into English for our special issue on the botteh.
Except for the color plates, the illustrations are the same as in the original article.
The English translation by Ms. Shahin Shahin has been revised and edited by the
One of the motifs and ornaments that has prevailed in amazing varied forms for
thousands of years and has continuously embellished the Iranian arts repertoire, is
the well known botteh motif whose nature, identity, enigmatic and symbolic meaning
are still subjects of controversy amongst art scholars. The evolutionary span of this
ever-living motif is so vast that perhaps no other ornament in the realm of art has
ever transformed and out-spread to this degree in various territories and amongst
different ethnic groups.
The simplest and the most modest form of it,- a leaf-like shape – along with those of
most stylized and highly intricate, Used in various kinds of curvilinear and
geometrical bodies, have continuously and persistently remained since at least
1000 years ago. The diversity of the motif’s repertoire is so incredible that nothing
but the following couplet may somehow explain it:
Time will bring forth thousands of forms, and none would even be one of what is
reflected in the mirror of our imagination.
Perhaps, it is due to this amazingly unique multiplicity and variety that the Eastern
and Western art scholars, in cognizance, analysis, interpretation and purport of the
mysterious nature of this motif, have puzzled over it ever since the beginning of
scholarly research on designs and symbols.
Some believe that this motif is a decorative form of an almond; some know it as a
stylized leaf; some imagine it as an image of a pear, and some see it as a metaphor
representing the Fire of Zoroaster. There is and has always been conflicts of views
in inter predating its nature and its symbolic meaning; but until very recent, there
was no question and no conflict of views about its Iranian origin.
Before John Irwin, an Indian-born British researcher who in 1973 was asked by the
Victoria and Albert Museum to write a book about the Kashmir Shawl, no art scholar
had ever thought that the botteh could have possibly come to Iran from India as an
imitation of the Kashmir shawl, an art/craft which is 600 years old the most. Irwin was
the first in suggesting the sub-continent as the birth place of this motif and
promulgated this chiefly on the basis of two suppositions:
(1) The botteh is rooted in the Indian plant butiya. (2) This particular motif has never
appeared on Persian carpets before the early years of the 19th century.
Irwin’s first supposition is irrelevant because it is supported by phonetical rather
than botanical facts. Butiya (Butea frondosa) is from the butterfly-like genus
consisting of two groups, erect kind and climbing kind, none of which grows close to
the soil and is not short in height to be termed a shrub (Persian: buteh) and none of
its parts, that is its leaves, flowers and fruits have any resemblance to the motif in
Irwin’s second supposition conflict with both the art history of India and that of Iran.
No trace of the botteh motif or any other motif, with even the slightest similitude, has
ever been found in any Indian object of art datable before the 16 century, while
there are numerous unmistakable botteh ornaments in various Iranian works of art
as early as the 10 century, at least. It seems that this motif, which is the paramount
and more or less the thematic ornament in termeh shawls, has been used for the
first time in Kashmir shawl and silk weaving in the third quarter of the 15 century by
the efforts of the Kashmir Moslem sultans, specifically Sultan Zein-al-Aabedin, (d.
1468). This Sultan is the one who, according to kashmiri historians, geographers
and researchers, brought the “decorative designs from Iran to India.” It has also
been established that the art and craft of Kashmir shawl flourished when “Iranian
weavers came to Kashmir”. John Irwin himself acknowledges that Iranian immigrants
not only introduced new motifs and designs into the Kashmir shawl but also new
Apart from the motifs of the shawl, the Indian originality of this industry is also a
matter of uncertainty and doubt. One of the textile experts of India believes that the
“Pashmina shawl weaving” in India “is of foreign origin” which was introduced into
the sub-continent at the time of Sultan Zein-al-Abedin. The kashmiri geographer
and historian, Pir Ghulam Hassan Khuihami pushes the making of pashmina back to
the 14. Century, attributing “the prevalence of this industry and craft” in Kashmir to
Mir Seyyed Ali Hamedani, the famous 14th century Persian mystic, who had
migrated to that territory in 1350.
Therefore, even if Kashmir shawl and pashmina weaving be not of Iranian origin,
having not reached there through kerman, there is no doubt that the botteh motif
had no trace of existence until the beginning of the 16th century in the arts of the
subcontinent. (The oldest extant examples of Kashmir shawl weaving and the botteh
motif in a non-Iranian or semi-Iranian style date back to the beginning of the 16
The Very Early Examples
While the botteh motif or something of more or less similitude, has not been found in
any art form of India predating the 16th century specimens. We have a multitude of
outstanding examples of this motif in the pre-Islamic and Post-Islamic Iranian arts.
We find the first manifestations of this ancient motif in Scythian and Achaemenid art,
mainly portrayed as the wings of Homa or Senmurv, and which lasted in the same
manner till the Sasanian period (PL.1a). In the arts of the final years of the
Sasanians, and the early centuries of Islam, we witness certain indications of
symbiotic relationship between the cypress and the botteh suggesting that this
ancient motif has emerged from the cypress (PL. 1b). From the vantage point of the
history of evolution of the botteh, this specimen is quite significant because in spite
of the fact that the emergence of this motif from the cypress is conspicuous in the
Iranian works of art of the 17 and 18 centuries (PL. 2), a myriad of art scholars tend
to disregard this crucial stage of ornamental and symbolic metamorphosis. It is also
evident that the cypress in India has never reached the status gained by this plant
in the Iranian arts and culture. Evidently, the cypress is absent from the design
repertoire of India prior to the Great Mughols and the establishment of Indo-Iranian
It is after the advent of Islam that the span of the use of the botteh motif extends into
almost all Iranian arts. Ranging from ceramics, stucco, terracotta, metal and glass
works to textiles and carpets, this motif strove to manifest. Needless to say, given
the perishable texture of woven materials and the inevitable extinction of early
woven botteh forms, does not indicate by itself the exclusion of the motif from early
textile and carpet repertoires. The age-old perpetual interdependence of Iranian
arts provide apriori evidence of the concurrence of the motif in all applied and
decorative arts of the plateau. (The absence of the botteh from 16th–17th Safavid
carpets has its own reasons, to be discussed below.)
Amongst all the objects we have inherited from the Samanid and Buiyd periods,
periods, the oldest is a beautiful bronze ewer, displaying exquisite bottehs, datable
to the late 9th century or the beginning of the 10th century (pl.3). The botteh as an
architectural ornament is to be found in almost all buildings surviving from the 10th
century onwards. The 10th century carved stucco revetment found in Nishabur and
preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (PL.4), and the 11th century panel of
stucco relief revetment from the Madrasa of Ray, now at the Islamic Period Museum,
Tehran, (PL.5), both containing two types of the ornament, are among the finest
The stuccowork of the Mosque of Natanz, built in the reign of the Buiyd ruler Azad-al-
Doleh in the mid 10th century, shows the prevalent style of central Iran in depicting
the botteh as compared with that of the eastern regions of the country. Another
significant example uncovered from Neishabur excavations is a glass which dates
back to the 11 th century and is now displayed in Abgineh and Sofalineh (Glass and
Pottery) Museum of Tehran.
The Emergence of Botteh Jegheh
The very first time that we encounter the ancient motif depicted as Jegheh, that is, a
royal ornament on crowns and headdresses, was toward the end of the third decade
of the 15th century in a miniature painting of Baisonghori Shahnameh, dated 1426,
by Mir Mossavar, In this painting, the head-dresses of two of the princes are
decorated with it, while the enthroned king (Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi) is wearing
the same serrated crown worn by the kings of early times without vertical feathers
which in some of the paintings of that period were used as a decorative element on
the crowns of the kings.
In the middle of the 16th century, the botteh motif, in its original form, gains an
elevated paramount status as an emblem of kingship, sovereignty and governance
embellishing the headdresses of kings and princes. It is from this time onward that
botteh jegheh, in a true sense, attains its exclusive status as a royal symbol.
Departing from its original symbolic status as an ornamental representation of the
evergreen cypress and the latter’s mythological association with immortality and
timelessness, it becomes the symbol of sovereignty and absolute power. That is why
in a large number of Safavid paintings and textiles we find botteh jegheh as a
distinctive mark of royalty on the headdresses and the crowns of kings and princes.
Plates 7 and 8 are just examples of a large body of woven painted evidence.
Needless to say, what is represented as a distinctive royal emblem and an awe-
inspiring entity to adorn the crowns and headdresses of kings and princes in a
despotic monarchy, will inevitably be regarded as a taboo-type element of
reverence and sanctity which should never be treated with insolence, disrespect
and indignity; thus not to be spread on the ground to be trodden on and insulted.
This is the very reason that we, till the end of the Safavid period, see no botteh motif
in classic Safavid carpets, ass of which were either woven in royal workshops or
workshops which took orders from the royal family members, courtiers, aristocrats,
and the nobility. However, in the same period we find this ancient symbolic motif
adorning precious fabrics, often woven with royal gold-thread, because they were
treated respectfully and not spread under the feet, thus protected from irreverence
and insult whether the botteh was used as the symbol of royalty (Pls. 7,8) or as a
decorative ornament in the fashion of the garment in pl.2.
In the same period, when the carpets of the royal or aristocratic workshops were
devoid of the botteh motif, Tribal and village weavers, Unmindful of the royal status
of the botteh, and quite possibly unaware of its sacredness, continued to use the
ancient motif in innumerable innovative styles in their carpets. The widely used tribal
and rural botteh, often curiously stylized and abstracted, was neither a copy of thd
intrinsic Kashmir or kerman shawl nor of the emblematic botteh jegheh ornament of
the crowns and headdresses of kings, princes, and rulers. The tribal botteh
repertoire, constantly enriched by cross-cultural assimilation and innovation,
reached back over the eons to the primeval source. The perfectly geometrical six-
sided botteh of the Lori rug in PL.9, datable to the 18th century, are small samples
of the riches of a great lost treasure.