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Collection Highlight: The Shahnameh

The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) is home to an impressive collection of rare and treasured manuscripts. One of its most prized possessions is the 16th-century Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, a beautifully illustrated version of the epic poem written six centuries earlier.

As with other copies of the Shahnameh, this particular manuscript was commissioned by a Persian ruler, Shah Tahmasp, as a status symbol and political statement.

What Is the Shahnameh?

Longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, the masterpiece poem known as the Shahnameh, or “Book of Kings”, tells the stories of the rulers and heroes of ancient Persia.

Written by the famous 10th-century Persian poet Abul-Qasim Firdausi, the Shahnameh was commissioned by Sultan Mahmud, ruler of the Ghaznavid dynasty from 998 to 1030 CE. It has occupied a place at the heart of Iranian culture for the past thousand years, originally helping to preserve the Persian language and identity after the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century.

Tracing the story of Iran’s kings from the first mythical king of Iran up to historical figures, just shortly before the rise of Islam, the Shahnameh was originally a source of teaching, education and inspiration for young princes. According to Nicoletta Fazio, assistant curator at MIA, it was a book they needed to own, not only as a symbol of Persian culture but also as a source of moral advice and teachings.

Picture of “Burzuy Presents 'Kalilah wa Dimnah' to King Nushirvan” of Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp at the 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 see the bad and the good sides of ruling. What a king should do and what he should avoid to be a good king and to stay in power for longer.

Nicoletta Fazio, assistant curator at MIA

In addition to the kings presented in the poem, other characters include heroes, court advisors and knights, as well as several female figures who play vital roles as mothers, heroines, queens and warriors.

Picture of “The Nightmare of Zahhak” of Shahnameh of the Shah Tahmasp at the Museum of Islamic Art.

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

Although the Shahnameh was initially only mildly received, it gained popularity over time and played an important role in preserving the stories, culture and customs of ancient Iran.

It was also, according to Fazio, extremely important for the development of Classical Persian, which eventually became today’s Farsi. As she explains, it set the base and the foundation for the language, and is considered a milestone for the renewal of Persian literature into written form.

Numerous translations and modern editions of the masterpiece have been produced over the centuries, reaching every corner of the world and contributing to the global history of literature.

As for the lavishly produced manuscript pages in MIA’s collection, they offer just a glimpse of what is included in one of the world's greatest collections of Islamic art.

Picture of “Nushirvan records his sage counsel for Hurmuzd” of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp at the 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

Picture of "Sivayush and Afrasiyab in the hunting field” of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp at the 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

Picture of “Faridun orders the Ox-Head Mace” of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp at the 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

Picture of  “Jahn Installed on the Throne of Turan” of the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp at 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

Oicture of “Faridun Crosses the River Tigris (Dijla)”, from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp at the Museum of Islamic Art.

“Faridun Crosses the River Tigris (Dijla)”, from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, Tabriz (1525-35 CE), Museum of Islamic Art

The Museum of Islamic Art is currently closed for renovation, but you can explore its galleries via a brand-new 3D virtual tour.

Boshra Al Meraikhi is a Content Planning Coordinator at Qatar Museums.

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