Before the mid-1990s civil war in Afghanistan, the Kabul Zoo housed many exotic animals. Unfortunately, most were killed or escaped during the fighting. But some remained in captivity, in dire conditions, throughout the surrounding conflicts.
The zoo’s most celebrated former resident was Marjan the lion (“marjan” means “coral” in Persian). There are multiple claims about his age—some say he was born in the ‘60s, other reports claim the ‘70s. The Cologne Zoo donated him to the Kabul Zoo, the kingdom he shared for the majority of his life with a lioness named Chucha.
Marjan’s story is not a happy one. In 1995, a man (some say a guerilla soldier) either attempting to prove his bravery or for a bet, climbed into Marjan’s enclosure. Although Chucha permitted the man to stroke her, Marjan was not so tolerant of the intrusion and pounced upon the man, subsequently mauling him to death.
The following day, the brother of the dead man exacted his revenge by throwing hand grenades at Marjan, who instinctively jumped on one of them. The resulting blast left the lion lame, blind, deaf, and with half his teeth blown out. Despite his injuries, the cat survived and lived for another seven years—unlike the grenade-thrower, who was attacked and killed for his actions a week later.
Marjan’s story captivated animal lovers around the world. Even as the warfare drove most people from Kabul and brought peril to every day within the city, dedicated caretakers did all they could to ensure the lion remained fed and comfortable until he died of old age in 2002.
Marjan is buried in Kabul Zoo, where a bronze memorial statue of him has been placed at the entrance. The lion has come to symbolize Afghanistan’s survival throughout its decades of hardships. An inscription on the memorial reads “Here lies Marjan, who was about 23. He was the most famous lion in the world.”