Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Sat 11 September 2010 to Sun 9 January 2011
Mellon Gallery (13)
III. The Shahnameh: a Literary Masterpiece
The Shahnameh is the longest poem ever written by a single author, but length can hardly account for its enduring fame. Ferdowsi’s role in the formation of the Persian language and literary culture is similar to that of Goethe for the Germans, of Pushkin for the Russians, or of Shakespeare for the English-speaking world.
Bowl showing Bahram Gur hunting with Azadeh
Probably Kashan, late 12th or early 13th century/
Fritware with colours painted in and over the glaze, mina’i/Private Collection
The young prince Bahram Gur is shown hunting with Azadeh, the slave girl who was a fine musician and ‘his heart’s delight and desire.’ Azadeh challenged him to demonstrate his skill as a hunter and, firing successive shots from his bow, to turn a male gazelle into a female, a female one into a male, and then to pin together the foot and ear of a third one. Bahram shot two arrows into the female deer’s head and cut off the antlers of the male deer with a double-pointed arrow. He nicked the ear of a third gazelle and when she raised her foot to scratch it, he pinned foot and ear together, as can be seen here. Azadeh attributed his success to demonic powers, an accusation that questioned the prince’s skill, prowess, and farr — the royal charisma demonstrated by a successful hunt and indispensible for a legitimate Persian ruler. The angry Bahram Gur threw her from the camel and trampled her. The bowl shows two successive episodes, with Azadeh on and off the camel. The union of a prince and a slave girl was, according to the social outlook of the Shahnameh, as absurd as Azadeh’s name, meaning ‘free’ or ‘noble’.
Ferdowsi was neither the first to write the history of the Iranian kings nor the first to compose poetry in the New Persian language. A generation or two before him, Rudaki (d. 940), the great court poet of the Samanid Empire in Transoxiana, had already raised Persian verse to the prestigious levels of Arabic. The earliest accounts of Iranian history in prose or verse written in the Middle Persian language (Pahlavi) were from the period of the Sasanians (224–642), who ruled Iran until the Arab conquest. Ferdowsi would have known ‘The Book of Kings’ (Khwaday-namag), which was compiled at the time of the Sasanian king Khosrow II Parviz (591–628) and was used for the compendium of chronicles completed in 957 at the request of Abu Mansur Mohammad b. ‘Abd al-Razzaq, the governor of Ferdowsi’s native Tus. One of the first prose versions of the Shahnameh was compiled by Abu’l-Mo’ayyad al-Balkhi in the first half of the tenth century, while Ferdowsi’s immediate predecessor, the famous poet Abu Mansur Daqiqi (c.935– c.976), wrote the first versified version of the Shahnameh in New Persian. But it was Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh that re-told the story of the Persian kings in an unforgettable way, solidified the authority of the Persian language as a literary medium, and kept alive the knowledge of Iran’s ancient glory, political ethics and cultural identity.
Eskandar (Alexander the Great) visits the Ka‘ba
Ferdowsi, Shahnameh/Timurid: Shiraz, c.1435–1440/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 22-1948, fol. 18v
The story of Alexander the Great, called Eskandar in the Shahnameh, is an important chapter in the epic. On his way from India to North Africa he made a stop in Mecca, which may be seen as a rite of passage in his long journey towards self-discovery. Eskandar paid his respects to the Ka‘ba, the House of Abraham, which Ferdowsi describes, as ‘the place of worship before any others existed … where God causes you to worship and to remember him.’ Here, Eskandar watches as a pilgrim reaches for the door handle of the Ka‘ba; in later versions Eskandar himself is depicted as a pilgrim.
Since the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century, the Persian-speaking world was dominated by Arabic, which was of a different linguistic origin – Semitic as opposed to Indo-European. As an educated aristocrat and a Muslim, Ferdowsi would have known enough Arabic to read and understand the Qur’an. But his choice of vocabulary for the Shahnameh kept the number of Arabic words to an absolute minimum. The metre he chose, motaqareb, is close to the Persian syllabic system. Each verse is independent and the sense does not normally run on into the next verse. Ferdowsi’s style is deliberately archaic, devoid of the ornate language and technical sophistication of his famous contemporaries at Sultan Mahmud’s fashionable court. The vocabulary, the metre, the semantics of the verses, and the relative simplicity of Ferdowsi’s diction suited the epic genre and facilitated the memorization of lengthy passages. Ferdowsi’s claim to fame rests largely on his deliberate invigoration of Persian as a literary medium, thus preserving not only the history of the Iranian people, but also the language in which it was recorded.
Eskandar (Alexander the Great) enters the Land of Darkness
Rashid al-Din, Jami’ al-Tawarikh (‘Compendium of Histories’) /Il-Khanid: Tabriz, 1314/Opaque watercolour, ink, gold and silver on paper/Edinburgh University Library, MS. Or. 20, fol. 19r
Eskandar, or Alexander the Great, went into the Land of Darkness to seek the Water of Life, but failed to find it. Here, he sends his horse forward into the swirling darkness. His followers look anxious and even two of the horses stare at each other, uncertain of what they are about to encounter. The flame-like protuberances on Eskandar’s helmet probably allude to his identification with the qur’anic figure Dhu’l-Qarnayn (‘Lord, or Possessor, of Two Horns’).
As the classic example of a Persian epic, the Shahnameh was emulated by subsequent generations. The stories of Bahram Gur and Azadeh and of Alexander the Great were retold by the great Persian poet Nezami of Ganjeh (1141-1209). He, together with Jami (1414-1492) and Nava’i (1441–1501), transformed Alexander from an obsessive conqueror and usurper into a just and wise ruler, almost equal to a prophet. A series of poems imitating the Shahnameh in style, imagery and metre continued the narrative by filling in stories from the ‘Sistan cycle’ of the family of Rostam. The first of these was the Garshasp-nameh by Asadi Tusi ( c.1010–1070) . Such narratives were often incorporated into the copies of Ferdowsi’s original text. The idiom and inspiration of the Shahnameh was also appropriated to glorify the heroes of Islamic legend, such as Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali.
Garshasp battles with the sagsars
‘Ali b. Ahmad Asadi Tusi, Garshaspnameh/Safavid: Qazvin, November–December 1573/Scribe: ‘Emad al-Din al-Hoseyni/Painter: Sadeqi/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/London, British Library, MS Or. 12985, fol. 45v
The Garshaspnameh, ‘The Book of Garshasp’, composed in 1066, is one of the works that developed the earlier or later stories of Shahnameh characters. Garshasp, who lived in the time of Zahhak, was Rostam’s great-great uncle. He is here depicted visiting the island of Qalun, where the blue-bodied sagsars (‘dog-heads’), excellent horsemen skilled in warfare, devoured their defeated opponents. This courtly manuscript was produced in Qazvin, Iran’s capital in the second half of the sixteenth century. It contains the names of several painters. Here, between the (right-hand) first and second lower columns, we see the signature of Sadeqi, a warrior, courtier, man of letters and artist of Turkman descent.
The pure epic genre gradually went out of fashion by the end of the fifteenth century, giving way to versified romances. But the Shahnameh contained the embryo of various genres, including romantic, ethical and didactic literature. Figures such as Jamshid, the mythological Iranian king, became stock characters in later works, and his magic cup, the Jam-e Jam(shid ), which revealed the world’s mysteries to its owner, became a favourite Sufi symbol in classical poetry. The flavour for the epic а la Ferdowsi was revived under the Qajars (1797–1925) and the Bazgasht (‘Return’) movement that aimed to resurrect the great Persian classical tradition of the Golden Age. The Shahanshah-nameh (c.1810) of Fath-‘Ali Khan Saba was dedicated to Fath-‘Ali Shah Qajar (1771–1834). A George-nameh was written for George V’s visit to India in 1911. The king honoured the ancient traditions of Persian rulers in at least one way – in several weeks his passion for hunting decimated the tiger population of Nepal.
A fitting testimony to the enduring power of Ferdowsi’s verse and his gloomy vision of the decay of Iran’s glory is the poem by one of the most important twentieth-century Iranian poets, Akhavan-e Sales (1928–1990), also a native of Tus. In The End of the Shahnameh (1959) he associated the decline of his country with the loss of the values celebrated in Ferdowsi’s epic.