Note: All images on this page are copyrighted. Source of image is given where it is known.
We here in America go about our business for long periods of time, often with little knowledge of what goes on in the rest of the world. We have not known war on our soil for more than 100 years-- until September 11th, 2001. So, it is not surprising that many hero stories from other parts of the world go untold here until we have a reason to know them. Such is the case with Marjan the lion.
The city of Kabul, Afganistan once had a beautiful zoo. The city was prosperous, and was a popular place for counter-culture tourists. In or around 1978, the zoo obtained a lion from the Cologne, Germany zoo they named 'Marjan', which is Afghan for 'Coral' or 'Precious stone'. He was just two years old at the time. Little did they know just how precious Marjan would turn out to be.
The peaceful conditions all ended in 1979, when Afganistan was invaded by the Russians. Over the course of more than a decade, the city of Kabul was largely spared the ravenges of war. But, after the Russians were expelled in 1992, civil war erupted in the country. And Kabul was right in the middle of the battle. During the tough 18 months that followed, the zoo was slowly decimated by guns and rockets. One particular rocket attack destroyed much of the zoo. Aga Akbar, the zoo's head keeper during those dark months recalls that he couldn't even give pain medication to the wounded animals-- the shelling had destroyed the zoo's medical supplies. But, somehow, the zoo managed to survive, and Akbar cleaned it up after the fighting moved away from Kabul.
Just after that dark time, in the fall of 1993, a foolhardy soldier decided to show how brave he was to his friends. So, he went into the enclosure of Marjan and his lioness, Chucha. The man stroked Chucha, who did not react. Marjan ran across the enclosure, and mauled the man. (The male lion will always protect his lioness!) The man was dead in minutes. The family of the dead soldier retaliated by throwing Marjan a hand gernade. Thinking it was food, Marjan pounced in the gernade. It exploded.
A male lion's mane is designed to protect the animal from attacks from other lions. It apparently also works with hand gernades as well. Marjan's neck and chest were spared serious injury, but his face was badly mutilated by the blast. One eye had to be removed. Shrapnel was embedded in his jaw and mouth. Some of it could not be removed. The concussion also rendered him deaf. But, Marjan lived on and recovered.
At the time that the gernade went off, photojournalist Swen Connrad was apparently in the zoo. After the gernade went off, Swen did something remarkable: He apparently gave his camera to someone else to record the event, and went and helped! Swen assisted with getting Marjan restrained (He was still standing despite the massive injury). He then assisted with the inital treatment, holding this big lion's head. It is remarkable how Marjan seemed to recognize that this stranger was trying to help him and he apparently did not struggle much. The remarkable photos of this event can be seen on the A. Raffaele Ciriello webpage.
The man responsible for the gernade attack is apparently still doing time for it.
Why did Marjan survive this injury? The answer may lie in Marjan's relationship with his keepers. Marjan was loved by the people who took care of him, and Marjan showed his love for them in return. Lions are very spiritual creatures, and are capable of forming the deepest bond with humans. (Here head keeper Sheraga Omar pets his leoine friend. (Source: Yannis Behrakis, Reuters)) Love can give new strength to someone who is weak; Marjan's relationship with his human friends surely strengthened his will to live. Marjan's relationship with his keepers is exemplified in many of the pictures at the bottom of this page.
Still, it was not easy for Marjan. Despite the surgery, damage to his jaw resulted in the loss of several teeth. Marjan could no longer gnaw bones, a favorite pastime of lions. He had to be fed soft meat so he could eat it properly. (Cats don't chew their food, they swallow it in chunks.) He needed other types of special care as well. But despite this, he managed to thrive.
The respite from trouble was short-lived for the Kabul Zoo. After the Taliban took over in 1996, they drove out much of the educated population of Kabul with their religious fanaticism. They regularly tormented the few animals remianing in the zoo. Marjan was badly stoned at one point in 1996 by Taliban officials. Ultimately, the Taliban wanted to kill the animals altogether. But, the lives of the animals were spared when it was pointed out to the officials that Mohammed himself loved animals and had kept pets.
Some time in 2000, Marjan's lioness Chucha died of a mysterious illness. Majan ws greived by her passing. "He didn't eat for a week" reports Abdul Sattar, Marjan's keeper of many years. Marjan and Sattar were closely bonded, and he had absolutely no fear of Marjan.
Things got very tough when the US began attacking Afghanistan in October of 2001, as a result of the 9-11 attack on the US. Now, the zoo workers couldn't even be paid. But still, they did what they could to care for their animals, hoping that things would improve. A local butcher saw to it that Marjan always had something to eat.
Marjan became world-famous in November of 2001, when Kabul was freed from the Taliban. It was not many days after this that the plight of the Kabul Zoo made headlines around the world. Donations poured in from all over to help the zoo, and especially Marjan.
Orginizations that came to the aid of the Kabul Zoo included Great Cats in Crisis, the North Carolina Zoo Society, the World Society for the Protection of animals (WSPA), and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Many other zoos and orginizations participated in helping with the relief effort. Many orginizations still are helping.
Eventually, a team of zoo experts made it into Kabul. Upon inital examination of Marjan, they reported that he was weak and thin, but in reasonably good health. No further restoration work was recommended to his remaining injuries, as they had healed reasonably well, and surgery to such an old lion was very risky. It was recommended that treatment for parisites be given, heat installed in his den box and that he be given vitamin supplements. It was also recommended that a ramp be installed into his den box, as he often stumbled trying to enter it. They belived that Marajn was going blind in his other eye.
WSPA's vet Juan Carlos Murillo became Marjan's medical caretaker. Juan administered daily injections of vitamins to help Marjan grow stronger. (Pictures are from WSPA website) (Read some important additional info about these picture below in the 'additional photos' section.). At first, Marjan rsponded positively to the treatment. Then, he seemed to develop trouble moving around. Suddenly, he started to go downhill. On Wednesday, January 23rd, Marjan stopped eating. It was obvious that he was retaining fluids, and was bleeding in his intestines. It was not long before Marjan became very weak, and required assistance to get in and out of his den box. Always the strong lion, Marjan apparently did not appear in any distress, and enjoyed lounging in the warm sunshine. (Source of photo unknown.)
On the evening of Friday, January 25th, Marjan was so weak he had to be carried into his den box on a mattress. The next morning, zoo director Sheraga Omar, and WSPA official John Walsh found Marjan dead in his den box. He was in the same spot they had placed him the night before. He was stretched out on his side, in a position lions frequently assume when sleeping. It was an extremely sad thing to find. John Walsh recollects crying when he found him. Marjan's age has been definitely established as just over 25 at the time of his death.
It is suspected that Marjan died of liver and kidney failure. These things are not untypical for a lion of Marjan's age. At 25, he would be approximately 88 years old in human years. (Lions typically live about 20 years in captivity.)
But, why did Marjan die to begin with when he had been reasonably healthy a few weeks earlier? I think Marjan died of happiness. This old lion had led a tough, stress-filled life for most of his years. In typical leoine fashion, his body rose to the occasion and went into high gear. This, and the deep relationship he had with his keepers gave him the ability to ward off most any kind of condition. But, now the war was finally over. Marjan had become the center of attention. He was well-fed and cared for. He was loved more than ever by those around him. Marjan was able to let down his stress defense and relax for the first time in many years. But, nothing could be done to reverse Marjan's advanced age. His systems, now not under stress maintenance, simply stopped working. So, Marjan, who had survived many tough times, simply gave in to old age. Some suggest that the treatment he was recieving for parasites may have accelerated this process. But just like doctors can't always treat a sick human with success, the same goes for vets. (I doubt that Marjan would have lived much longer even if he hadn't been treated for parasites. His body was simply worn out.)
Marjan evidently did not suffer very much. Even though he did not move around much at the end, he was apparently very content. Although he had stopped eating, his sickness probably did not make him very hungry. And, pain was nothing new to Marjan, so he probably just dealt with it. So, content from the nice sunny day, and the attention he was recieving, Marjan undoubtedly nodded off to sleep that Friday night and slipped peacefully into death.
Somewhere in the spirit world, there is a lion who has just arrived there. This lion is happy to be in a better place. He is free from the suffering and cruelty of his previous world. And, he can see with both eyes! Not only do I believe this, but I have sensed Marjan's happiness in his new place!
After Marjan died, his body was simply left where he had lain, and many Afghan people came by to pay their last respects to their special lion. On Sunpecial lion. On Sunday afternoon, Marjan had his tattered skin removed in hopes of having it mounted for permanent display. The rest of his remains were buried on the zoo grounds Sunday evening during a private ceremony. This must have been an extremely deep and emotional ceremony. John Walsh, when asked what was said at the service, replied with emotion, "That's between us and the lion". Even though he's physically dead, Marjan still projects a powerful spiritual presence!
On Monday, January 28th, a memorial service was held at the zoo for Marjan. The memorial service was attended by hunderds of people. At the memorial service, it was announced that the rebuilding of the zoo would continue. Marjan would be replaced with a new lion when a suitable enclosure is ready. Marjan's mounted skin will be displayed in the zoo's (or the municipal) museum. And, a statue of Marjan will be erected at the zoo's entrance.
A sign was erected over Marjan's grave. (Source: Bullit Marquez, AP) It is metal on a rough wood post. The sign reads: "(In english) Marjan (In Arabic) He was about 23. He was the most famous lion in the world."
Although famous for just a short time, Marjan will go down in history as one of the great lions of all time, joining the ranks of such famous lions as Elsa. John Walsh echoed this sentiment at the memorial service. He said (And I parphrase) "Marjan was probably the most famous lion in the world. His fame was comparable to the lions from the film 'Born free' except that they were born in the wild and lived a life of freedom. Marjan, on the other hand, was born in captivity and lived a life on the front line. Marjan symbolized the people of Afghanistan. He was old, like the country going through a difficult period, but as proud as the people of Afghanistan themselves."
So, don't mourn much for Marjan. He led a powerful life, and deserves his rest. He was and still is a symbol of courage under fire. He is a symbol of strength when all hope is lost. He is a symbol of a love that few of us humans can really understand. Marjan was a truly great lion, and will always be remembered as such.
Not only was Marjan an inspiration to the Afghan people, he was and still is an inspiration to me!
Marjan was ready.
He carried memories of an Afghanistan where life was primitive but good. He was once a cute and beautiful cub and all was right with the world.
He suffered poverty and maltreatment, and finally lost the sunlight and blue skies when a vengeful warrior stole his sight.
Through it all, he clung to Omar, his elderly keeper, who also remembered the way things used to be. This giant was a kitten in Omar's arms, rubbing and nuzzling him with what was left of his once-beautiful face.
And Marjan kept waiting.
The Afghan war came and went, the Taliban were driven out, and visitors began to flock back to the zoo and the museum. Life returned to Kabul. Marjan's story circled the globe, and the peoples of the world started an outpouring of generosity to rebuild the shattered remnants of the Kabul Zoo.
Marjan was a king, and like a good king, he brought salvation in a time of hardship, and prosperity in a time of famine. Now Marjan was ready. For 25 years he waited until his work was done. And now that he had fufilled his destiny, he laid down and slept.
Go into the light, Marjan. You opened our eyes, and now it is your turn to see.
A friend of Marjan
As a fund raiser for the Kabul Zoo, the Seybold Group has produced a Marjan plush toy. It is about 8 inches in height, and has one eye 'blinded'. He wears a red ribbon around his neck that reads 'Marjan'. It is available for purchase at the Seybold Group's website www.marjanthelion.com
After Marjan's death, many offers of new lions for the Kabul Zoo came in from all over the world. Eventually, the government of Afghanistan accepted the offer from theccepted the offer from the Badaling Wildlife Park, near Bejing, China. Two three year old lions, 'Zhuangzhuang' and 'Canny', were chosen from the 84 lions living in the park, as they had been fed by humans. (All lions in this park are trained to 'catch their dinner'!, but these two were comfortable with humans as well.)
Although it could be argued that the Kabul Zoo may not be ready for new lions, these animals will be bearers of hope. Just like their predecessor, Marjan, they will carry the positive message that not all is lost and better times are coming! Many happy days, Zhuangzhuang and Canny!
It is anticipated the lions will arrive in April or May. Stay tuned for more information when I get it!
Here are some other pictures of Marjan you might enjoy viewing. They have been collected from all over the web. Thanks to the many people who took these pictures! I hope you don't mind I borrowed them.
Here is Marjan with one of his keepers. (Source: Tanya Makeyeva, AP) He's got lunch in his mouth and his keeper has more for him when he's done with that! This was taken on January 12, showing he was still reasonably healthy at that time.
Here's a similar shot of Marjan about to enjoy lunch. (Source: Damon Winter, Dallas Morning News) He's standing in an inspiring 'Lion King'-like pose. One of his keepers is stroking him. Marjan appears very happy in this picture. This is my favorite Marjan picture!
Here is another picture of Marjan getting lunch. (Source: Peter Andrew Bosch, Miami Herald.) Always the gentleman, Marjan waits for his food to be given to him. (Yum!!) This picture was taken on December 4th, 2001.
Here is a website containing a number of Marjan photos. (One of which was previously on this site incorrectly attributed to Joseph Barjis.) Many of them were taken before he was hurt by the gernade explosion. There are also a couple pictures of his lioness (Who I still do not know the name of). Most importantly, there are four pictures showing Marjan being treated just after the gernade attack. These pictures (Except for the post attack pictures, which were taken by someone working with Swen Connrad) were taken by the late photographer A. Raffaele Ciriello. There is also a nice tribute to Marjan on this page.
Here's another website of Marjan, from the BBC news for childern site. There are some unique pictures here, not found anywhere else.
Here is Marjan standing proud in his yard! (Source: Oleg Popov, Reuters)
Here are two different views of Marjan, lying down.Marjan, lying down. View 1 (Source: Yannis Behrakis, Reuters. This picture, along with the one showing Sheraga Omar petting Marjan are the pictures that broke this story to the world. they were taken on November 15, 2001.) View 2 (Source: Peter Andrew Bosch, Miami Herald. Taken on December 4th, 2001.) This shows a slightly different view of his injuries.
Here, zoo director Sheragha Omar 'spoils' Marajn with a pat on his head! (Source: Tanya Makeyeva, AP) Here, Sheragha Omar and Juan Carlos Murillo look after Marjan. (Source: Tanya Makeyeva, AP) These two pictures, along with the pictures showing Marjan getting his vitamin shot, were taken on January 22. Marjan was having trouble getting around by this time, and he would really begin to crash the next day. Even though he was beginning to die, Marjan was very content. You can tell this by the way he has his tongue sticking out of his mouth. Lions do this when they are very content!
Here's a nice picture of Marjan with a keeper, probably Sheraga Omar. The source of this photo is unknown.
Here's a picture showing the large turnout of people who came to Marjan's memorial service. (Source: Bullit Marquez, AP)
Brian Tomlinson, of Los Angeles, CA has done an abstract painting of Marjan. The actual painting is sized 30 X 24 inches, and features Acrylic, metal paint, ink, pen, gesso, gouache, tempera and watercolor on canvas. He has graciously given me permission to place an image of the painting on this website. His notes on the painting are as follows: "This image is that of Marjan the Afghan lion. You will all remember Marjan from the news reports coming out of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul. On the day he died I painted this abstraction of him as a memorial to suffering and strength, using acrylic paint and liquified ground iron to symbolize Marjan's mettle." This painting is for sale. If you are interested, you may contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you have any interesting Marjan photos? I am looking for more!
Hear an audio story about Marjan's passing from National Pubilc Radio. (Realaudio required)
View a video clip about Marjan's passing from the Associated press. (Realvideo required. Link is next to small picture in upper left.)Back to the King of Beasts page.