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The Shahnameh: 30 years to create and a jewel in Qatar Museums’ crown

21 March 2021

Longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, the masterpiece poem known as ‘The Shahnameh’ or “Book of Kings” tells the stories of the kings and heroes of ancient Persia – and a section of it right here in Qatar.

Written by the famous 10th century poet Abdu’l Qasim Firdausi, the Shahnameh, often described as ‘the encyclopedia’ in the homeland of its creator, occupies a place at the heart of Iranian culture for the past thousand years.

Earlier this week we celebrated World Poetry Day. To mark that occasion we took the opportunity to delve deeper into one of the most famous and beautifully presented poems in world literature. Regular visitors to the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) will know that it stores an impressive collection of rare and treasured manuscripts, but did you know that among them are seven pages of the Shahnameh?

World Poetry Day, adopted by UNESCO in 1999, reminds us not only to appreciate the art of poetry but also to encourage the return to the oral tradition of poetry recital, the teaching and restoring the art form to no longer be considered an outdated form of art. Like the Shahnameh, the poem helped enable society to regain its identity and preserve the language.

The importance of language and literature in a nation or region’s history cannot be underestimated. In this case a poem or epic such as the Shahnameh plays a vital role in preserving traditions and Pahlavi, the Iranian language of Sasanian Persia. After the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century, Arabic infiltrated the old language. One of the Shahnameh’s goals was to preserve and restore the Persian language to its past glory. The poem was crucial in shaping the literary trends in poetry as a Persian tradition followed beyond Iran.

WHAT IS THE SHAHNAMEH?

Made of fine paper enriched with large gold-sprinkled borders, lavish illustrations written in Nastaliq script, the Shahnameh was a royal commission and a monument of poetry. In 1010, Firdausi presented his work to Sultan Mahmud, ruler of the Ghaznavid dynasty, who ultimately became his patron. He then decided to compose this story of Iran’s kings from the first mythical king of Iran up to historical figures, just shortly before the rise of Islam. Some kings presented in the Shahnameh are mythical figures, while others are real-life historical figures, such as Alexander the Great; an invader of the Persian empire.

 

 “Burzuy Presents 'Kalilah wa Dimnah' to King Nushirvan”, folio 649 of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“Burzuy Presents 'Kalilah wa Dimnah' to King Nushirvan”, folio 649 of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.

You may ask, why is a poem like the Shahnameh still important today? It is considered a masterpiece, within which you find all sorts of teachings, for numerous reasons. It was a source of teaching, education and inspiration for young princes. It was also a book that kings and princes needed to own, not only as a representative book but as a source of moral advice and teachings.

“It was a status symbol and that is why there are plenty of beautifully illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnameh because kings and princes commissioned their own copy and it became a political statement. So, it really did play many different roles,” Nicoletta Fazio, an assistant curator at MIA explained. 

“You see the bad and the good sides of ruling. What a king should do and what it should instead avoid to be a good king and to stay in power for longer,” she added.

As well as the kings presented in the poem, other characters include heroes, paladin, knights and women. Although it was at that time very much a male-dominated setting, the women who feature play vital roles as mothers, heroines, queens and warriors. 

 

“The Nightmare of Zahhak”, folio from the royal Shahnameh of Shahnameh of the Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“The Nightmare of Zahhak”, folio from the royal Shahnameh of Shahnameh of the Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.

What is interesting is the Shahnameh was initially only mildly received. It was created at a time to point out the importance of both language and the necessity to make a political statement that a legitimate dynasty is needed to rule Iran. But it gained popularity over time and it is believed that the Shahnameh preserved the stories, the culture and the customs of ancient Iran.

“This poem is extremely important for the development of Classical Persian,” Fazio continued. “What then became with time today’s Farsi. It set the base and the foundation for the language, so it is considered a milestone for the renewal of Persian literature into written form. Then, with the Shahnameh and other forms of poetry, mostly love poetry or didactic poem, Persian as a literary language because it is a widely spoken and written language.”

Numerous translations and modern editions of the masterpiece have been produced for the history of literature. 

“Of course, with translations, you lose a lot, but it is one of the monuments of old historical literature, so you want to have other people enjoy it even if it is translated and appreciate it in other languages. Hopefully, one day, it may inspire them to learn the language.”

Check out a few more images of this masterpiece from MIA: 

 

“Nushirvan records his sage counsel for Hurmuzd”, folio 645r of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“Nushirvan records his sage counsel for Hurmuzd”, folio 645r of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“Sivayush and Afrasiyab in the hunting field”, folio 182 of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“Sivayush and Afrasiyab in the hunting field”, folio 182 of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“Faridun orders the Ox-Head Mace”, folio 32 of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“Faridun orders the Ox-Head Mace”, folio 32 of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“Jahn Installed on the Throne of Turan”, folio 385 of the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“Jahn Installed on the Throne of Turan”, folio 385 of the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“Faridun Crosses the River Tigris (Dijla)”, from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.
“Faridun Crosses the River Tigris (Dijla)”, from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE) Museum of Islamic Art.

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