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When "kaboud" is not
Illusions of color

April 25, 2005

To the Iranians of my generation -- in particular those who spent half-hour of every Monday evening glued to Radio Iran -- the phrase “ziyr-e gombad-e kaboud” meant more than “under the black dome” of the celestial tent overhead. The title of a short-story program, the phrase was also the spatial complement of the phrase “yeki boud-o yeki naboud” that expressed the analogous timelessness of once-upon-a-time at the start of every story. In those my formative years, there was no doubt that the word “kaboud” meant “black” as in the pitch darkness of the moonless night, somehow a universally accepted “best time” for a story. The word “kaboud” also was the color deep purple of a bruise that one received from a pinch or punch.

Many years later I began to notice that somewhere in my subconscious the color “kaboud” had come to assume a bluish taint. I do not know when and where this occurred, but I can hazard an educated guess. The notion of “gombad” or dome in an Iranian’s mindset is undeniably linked to the blue color of the domes of Iran’s magnificent mosques and other architectural structures -- in a way reflecting on earth what is above, the blue sky. The natural blue of “gombad” I believe had somehow defined the color of “kaboud” for me in its own hue.

I had thought not much about “kaboud” until a few years ago, when one day in perusing the Shahnameh I came across a passage about Kaykhosro’s admonition to the Iranians. In one line Ferdowsi spoke of the colors red, yellow and violet (banafsh), and in another he described the encampment between two mountains covered in tents that were white, black (siyah), violet and kaboud.

To most of us violet is the color purple, and black is black. And so what did Ferdowsi mean by “kaboud,” I asked myself. Was he simply seeking to rhyme the litany of colors with the past tense of the verb “boudan,” meaning “to be?” Or did he recognize “kaboud” as a color other than black and purple? So I began a brief study of Ferdoswi’s color scheme. In the passage about Eskandar’s war with Foor-e Hendi, Ferdowsi wrote about the sky shedding its tar-color (geer-goun) garb, an allegorical reference to daybreak. In the passage about Dara’s battle with Rum, the nightfall painted the world in the color of tar.

In the passage about Esfandiyar’s second labor, which involved the slaying of lions, Ferdowsi likened the darkness of the nightfall to a slave’s face (rou-ye zangi). But at the next daybreak, the sun tore through the tent of “lajevard,” alluding to the color azur, deep blue. In the passage about Dara’s second battle with Eskandar, the color “lajevard” described lips and faces stressed by anguish and hardship. Lastly, in the passage about Bijan’s deception by Gorgeen, the woods appeared “kaboud” to Bijan’s eyes.

Confused still, I turned to my over-used copy of Haim's for resolution. “Kaboud,” the dictionary said, meant dark blue, black and blue, gray and azure! In reference to eyes, it meant blue-eyed or gray eyed! “Kaboud” meant the tree called in English black poplar. And “kaboudi-zani” meant tattooing!

Recently, I developed a dire need to revisit the significance of “kaboud,” because I had come across references to a thirteenth century region in northern Iran called “Kaboud-Jameh” and its even lesser known rulers. I was hoping that its meaning would give me a clue about the origin of the place-name and the rulers themselves. The region had been at different times in different sizes, but conjecture has been that at its zenith it encompassed a vast area from Behshahr and Bandar Gaz on the Caspian eastward to the borders of Khorasan in the east and Damghan-Shahrud to the south.

Around since the 12th century or even earlier, Kaboud-jameh was mentioned as a district of Astarabad (present-day Golestan Province) as late as the 19th century by William R. Holmes in Sketches on the Shores of the Caspian (London: 1845). A number of its rulers were mentioned in local northern Iranian histories, and they were identified by a given or honorific name followed by the designation “Kaboud-jameh.” The practice of calling them so gave the erroneous impression that Kaboud-jameh was the name of an actual tribe, which was not. A researcher named Taheri Shahab of Sari penned all he knew about this region, albeit based on very little direct information about Kaboud-jameh, and his work was published in “Tarikh-e Kaboud-Jamehgan” in the Salnameh Keshvar Iran in 1954 (Farvardin 1333-Shamsi).

Shahab did not explain the etymological origin of Kaboud-jameh perhaps from the conviction that the obvious did not require an explanation. The significance of “Black Shirts” or “Black Robes” as the name could have implied, was obvious especially in a cultural setting where the donning of a black shirt was associated traditionally with grief, usually in mourning, and rebellion or struggle. This latter one is familiar to an Iranian pupil who has read about Abu Moslem Khorasani and his Siyah-jamehgan who helped in the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad in 750 AD.

In the local traditions of northern Iran, an early reference to wearing black is mentioned by the Greek historian Strabo (died 23 AD). The men of Tapyri, who inhabited in part Hyrcania (eastern Mazandaran) customarily wore black (H.L. Rabino, Mazandaran va Astarabad, London, 1928, pp. 151-152). According to Mohammadali Saeedi’s Tarikh-e Ramiyan va Fenderesk (Ramiyan, 1364-Shamsi), during the reign of Shah Tahmasp Safavi (1524-1576) the Siyah-pushan (literally, those clad in black), organized by Mir Ziya al-Din Mirfendereski, fought off the Uzbek invasion of Astarabad.

In Tarikh-nameh Tabari, or the Persian translation of a history written in Arabic by Abu Jafar Tabari (born in Amol, Iran, 839 AD) (Mohammad Roshan edition, 1374-Shamsi), one encounters several uses of the word “kaboud.” In relation to the story of Creation, according to Tabari, God commanded the Jebreil (Gabriel) to come upon the earth and gather dust in the colors black (siyah), white, red, yellow and kaboud. In relation to the building of a palace of the legendary evildoer Zahak, according to Tabari, the jewels and stones were red, yellow, green and kaboud. As for the origin of wearing black (siyah ya kaboud) for mourning, Tabari said, the practice began on the death of the legendary hero Siyavash at the time of the Prophet Sulaiman (Solomon).

Farhang-e Moin (Vol. 3, Tehran, 1966) defines “kaboud” as dark blue (abi), color of indigo or Persian blue (nil) and azur (lajevard). But according to the same lexicon, “wearing kaboud” means wearing black. Furthermore, when applied to a horse, Dehkhoda’s Loghat-Nameh, “kaboud” refers to the color gray!

My quest to identify the etymological origin of the place-name Kaboud-jameh therefore could not be achieved by recourse to dictionaries alone. All they had given to me was a range -- from gray to black, with various shades of darker blue and purple in between. To decide the issue, I turned to geography. In the 10th century Persian work called Hudud al-Alam (Limits of the World) (ca. 372 AH/982-83 AD) (Seyyid Jalal ad-Din Tehrani, ed. (Tehran: 1352/1933) I think I found my answer. It described (p. 84) Gorgan as a place that produced black silk shirts (az vay jameh-ye abrisham siyah khyzad).

Yaqut al-Rumi’s geographical work (ca. 1226) mentioned Kaboudan as a place near Samarkand. According to the 14th century Persian geographer Hamdallah Mostofi the region called Mazandaran consisted of seven districts, among which one Siyah Rastan has not been identified heretofore with any known geographical area. I believe that this was Kaboud-jameh, which Mostofi separately listed as a place near Gorgan. The term “rastan,” if not a corruption of rostak (village) or a misprint, probably referred to the “sleeve” or another aspect of the shirts or garb made from black silk in this district.

Because the term Kaboud-jameh was a place-name, the identification of the rulers of the region as Kaboud-jameh had little to do with them wearing black as a distinguishing apparel, if at all. Had history taken note of the place getting its name from people clad in black or who manufactured black clothing, then the medieval historians would have referred to the people/rulers as Kaboud-jamehgan, which they did not.

Kaboud then can be the color blue, azur, purple, gray or black. In many ways, the richness of the Persian language is not in how many words can exist to signify a single meaning, but rather how many different meanings can a single word express.

Guive Mirfendereski practices law in Massachusetts (JD, Boston College Law School, 1988). His latest book is A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (New York and London: Palgrave 2001)

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Guive Mirfendereski




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