Shiraz The Chalice of the King

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The Chalice of the King

Hafez Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz
 Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz

By:Christine Gruwez

When Iranians come together at a party, but also for a meal with the family, it may happen that someone, in connection with some question or problem that was raised, gets up and at random opens the Divȃn, the collection of poems by Hȃfez.  The verses on which his eye first falls then have to contain a fitting answer, albeit in a most hermetic form!
In rank and estimation, the Divȃn by Hȃfez comes immediately after the Koran, and this gives the word of the poet the power to decide on life and fate.  This is the reason why the Divȃn always lies within reach on a table in the living room, and is often wrapped in a cloth as a sign of respect.
One of the frequently used key words in the poetry of Hȃfez is the word for chalice or cup, jȃm.  This word is not used in everyday speech.  In this connection the Iranians like to tell an anecdote of an orientalist (from the West of course) who ordered a jȃm of tea in a teahouse.  As if you would order a chalice of coffee!  How the waiter reacted to this question is rarely related because the speaker usually has to laugh so hard that he can't talk anymore.
But how should jȃm be translated?  It does mean chalice, but what is meant is the cup from which only the king may drink.  In Persian literature and poetry the jȃm-e jam, the legendary chalice of King Jamshid, corresponds with the Grail from medieval epics.  The Book of Kings tells how the mythical King Jamshid created a throne to show the hvarna, the divine glory of his realm on earth.  On this throne he seated himself as a radiant sun.  In the walled garden of the King, the pari daeza (from which our word paradise is derived), people gathered to render homage to him with music and dance.  At a certain moment, King Jamshid lifted the chalice up, and the life forces of all creatures awakened and flourished anew.
This chalice is the symbol of the vivifying, divine power – a power that converges in the figure of the King and radiates from him in all directions.  Following this example from tradition, later historical kings built throne rooms in their palaces surrounded by walled gardens to celebrate this cultus of the life forces bestowed by the king.  Naturally, the festival of Nowruz formed a highlight in this regard.


In northwest Iran, on a 6600 feet high lonely plain called Takht-e Soleyman (Throne of Solomon), stand the ruins of a former Zoroastrian fire sanctuary from Sassanid times.  The palace, the remains of which can still be visited, is attributed to Khosrow II (King of Kings 531-579).  The only thing that has remained intact throughout the many centuries is the breathtaking majesty of the landscape.  Mountain ridges form a ring around the sanctuary, which must also have been one of the three places where a fire was always kept alive and burning by the priests.  From here the holy fire was distributed over the entire country.
High on the plain there is a magnificent turquoise-colored lake, like an eye opened to the heavens, the water of which is so salty that it admits of no life.  On the shore of the lake one can still clearly see the remains of the throne room where the shah-in-shah, the King of Kings, surrounded by his priests, gave the commands for the sacred rituals.  Behind the King, under a dome in the throne room, the holy fire burned, and in front of him the motionless surface of the water glittered like a mirror in which the universe was pictured.  Temple and palace were an indivisible unity.  The King was an initiate who in his person had to guarantee the purity of the elements, the water and the fire, in accordance with the teaching of Zarathustra.
Researchers in the 20th century, including Lars Ivar Ringbom in his trailblazing work Graltempel und Paradies – Beziehungen zwischen Iran und Europa im Mittelalter (1951), viewed this temple complex as the possible realization of the Grail Temple as Albrecht von Scharfenberg described it in The Young Titurel in the 13th century.  There we can read that the Grail Temple rose up from onyx on a round mountain top.  The onyx, however, was covered by a thick layer of clay and grass, and only after this layer had been removed did Titurel have the onyx polished so that it glistened like the surface of the moon.

The Valencia Chalice in its chapel in Valencia Cathedral
The Valencia Chalice in its chapel in Valencia Cathedral

This is only one of the many facts that indicate that both in the West and in the East a Grail tradition existed that could draw from a common world of images. The Grail seeker passed through several stages of spiritual schooling.  The knighthood he strove for – futawah in Arabic and javȃnmardi in Persian – possessed an esoteric and a social dimension that one might absolutely compare with the tradition of the medieval guilds in Europe.  The battle of the knights consisted in reaching the original purity of their own essential being, and in fraternity they had the task of supporting each other in this striving.
In Iran the Grail theme went through an extraordinary development, all its own.  For centuries the teaching of Zarathustra had unfolded its influence, and people had gradually opened their consciousness to the various spiritual beings ranged around Ahura Mazda.  These beings work into the creation and irradiate it by their light nature, due to which nature is continually renewed in its paradisal primeval form.  What these light beings bring about, namely the transformation of nature, its new creation, is what the human being also achieves when he takes the path of spiritual knighthood.
The realm where these light beings work lies between the created world and the divine-spiritual world where everything has its origin, the sphere where the physical is spiritualized and the spiritual condenses to the material.  This in-between world, malakut, represents the realm where the lively image originates, where the imaginative forms an autonomous category of being.  Even if there were indeed temples and castles in Iran that point to the Grail Temple in their architecture, the real Grail Temple would still have to be found in the world of images.  This imaginative world has its center in the form of Mount Qaf.  This mountain has an emerald green color, and even when it appears radiant white, the rocks from which it rises up are still emerald green.  As  the center of this imaginary world Mount Qaf is at the same time the keystone of the vault of heaven.  On its top the Phoenix descends in order to rise up again and again from its ashes.

Emerald was also the stone from which the jȃm-e jam was formed, the chalice of Yima, the mythical king who lived at the time of Zarathustra.  We encounter him in countless poems, the best known of which were written by Hȃfez and Rumi, in the form of a chalice or cup from which life-giving water flows.

Hafez-Goethe monument in Weimar Germany
Hafez-Goethe monument in Weimar Germany

 These pictures have always inspired poets and painters.  One of the mystical writings of Suhrawardi, who died a martyr in 1191, relates the oldest tradition of the Grail story, which is attributed to Kay Khosrow, one of the wise men who accompanied the first appearance of Zarathustra.  "I am myself the chalice, the jȃm-e jam of Khosrow, in which the universe is mirrored," wrote Suhrawardi.

The search for the throne and chalice of Jamshid also permeates the entire oeuvre of Hȃfez.  "Throne of Jam, where is the chalice that can show us the cosmos?" the poet exclaims more than once.  The word cosmos is not meant here as the universe with its starry constellations, but the force that puts them in motion!  "He who wishes to drink from this chalice," Hȃfez wrote, "must string pearls on his eyelashes."  Then only is he worthy to catch a waft of the universal power of love.  Hȃfez continues: " Hȃfez' tears take wisdom and patience with them to the sea.  How can he hide that his heart burns for love?" – "For years my heart seeks the chalice of Jam …"

Christine Gruwez , drs. Iranian linguistic and literature, Belgiuù

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