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)
This autumn, a landmark exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum explores the monumental artistic legacy of one of the world’s greatest literary epics: the 1000 year-old Persian 'Book of Kings', or Shahnameh.
Completed by the poet Ferdowsi in 1010 AD, this vast narrative poem telling the 'Iranian version' of the history of the world is an icon of Persian culture, inspiring some of the world’s most exquisite manuscripts. To mark the passing of a millennium since its completion, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh now brings together nearly one hundred paintings from these lavishly illustrated manuscripts spanning 800 years, in the most comprehensive exhibition of Shahnameh art yet mounted in this country.
Presenting a spectacular range of richly illustrated manuscripts and of Persian miniature paintings - drawn from public and private collections in the UK including the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, the British Museum, the British Library, the V&A, the Royal Asiatic Society, the Bodleian Library and collections within Cambridge - Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh presents a captivating literary and artistic tradition that for many in the West has remained hidden.
I. The Shahnameh: a Persian Cultural Emblem and a Timeless Masterpiece
The most important creation of New Persian literature – the Shahnameh, or the ‘Book of Kings’ – has been defined as the national epic of the Iranian people, their ‘identity card’ (shenas-nameh) and an encyclopaedia of Iranian culture. It celebrates the survival of a civilization that originated some 7,000 years ago at a dynamic crossroads of cultures, the Iranian Plateau, extended at its peak from Anatolia and the Caucasus across Transoxiana to China, withstood countless invasions, absorbed diverse influences, and conquered its conquerors by virtue of its timeless values.
Twice as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey taken together, the Shahnameh blends Iran’s ancient myths and legends with accounts of major events in its past. Its 55,000 rhyming couplets chart the history of the Iranian world from its creation to the fall of the Persian Empire in the seventh century. The Arab conquest led to fundamental changes in economic, social, and cultural life, including the replacement of Zoroastrianism with Islam and of Middle Persian (Pahlavi) with Arabic as the dominant language. But the Shahnameh offered Iran’s new rulers a model of wise kingship, preserved the Persian language and identity, and spread their cultural influence well beyond Iran’s shrinking political borders. It was translated into Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and many of the world’s modern languages. A millennium after its completion, the Persian ‘Book of Kings’ remains one of the most popular texts of secular poetry in Southwest Asia. Its enduring appeal points to a core of meaning – the eternal strife between good and evil – that transcends specific time and place.
>This double-page image captures the splendour of the Persian court. On the right, Lohrasp, who has just succeeded Key Khosrow, is enthroned among courtiers and entertained by musicians beside the pool, while an attendant offers him pomegranates and another one, behind the throne, holds his sword. On the left, food is served, while petitioners wait outside. The fine blue and gold illumination framing the scene marks the beginning of the second part of the Shahnameh.
II. Ferdowsi: the Poet and the Legend
Ferdowsi is widely regarded as the preserver of the Persian language and of pre-Islamic Iranian cultural identity. Of all the peoples conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century, the Persians are the only ones who can boast a major literature in the indigenous language that they were using before the conquest. When asked recently why the vast majority of Egyptians, the heirs to a great pre-Islamic civilization, speak Arabic rather than Coptic, a leading Egyptian historian replied: ‘Because we had no Ferdowsi.’
Hakim Abu’l-Qasem Ferdowsi (940–1025) was born in the family of wealthy land owners (the class known as dehqan) in Tus, in northeast Iran’s province of Khorasan (today’s Razavi Khorasan state). His life coincided with a period of intense interest in Persian traditions. After the collapse of the Sasanian Empire, Iran offered the Arab conquerors ancient models of kingship that they could adopt in order to legitimize and solidify their dominance over peoples of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. Iran also provided the Caliphate of the ‘Abbasid dynasty (750–1258), centred in its new metropolis, Baghdad, close to the former Persian capital at Ctesiphon, with an army of experienced administrative and military governors who managed its expanding territories and gradually established their regional autonomy. Throughout the ninth and tenth centuries much of Iran was controlled by local dynasties that claimed their right to rule by virtue of their Persian descent and eroded the authority of the ‘Abbasids. The Saffarids (861–1003) ruled over Sistan, the homeland of the great Persian hero Rostam in southeastern Iran (at that period including much of Helmand Province in southwest Afghanistan today). The Samanids (819–999), who controlled Khorasan and Transoxiana in northeast Iran, with their capital in Bokhara, revived the official use of the Persian language and sponsored some of the earliest literary works to be written in New Persian. They came from the same landowning class as Ferdowsi and claimed descent from Bahram Chubineh, the famous general in the Shahnameh who belonged to the noble Parthian family of the Mehrans].
Bahram Chubineh kills Saveh Shah/Ferdowsi, Shahnameh
Safavid: Astarabad or Esfahan, July 1643 /Scribe: Hajji Mohammad b. Nur al-Din Mohammad Dasht-e Bayazi /Patron: Mirza Mohammad Taher Beg/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS Or. 202, fol. 252r
In the Sasanian period, Hormozd of Iran was concerned by the threat posed by Saveh, the Turkish ruler of Herat. Through a prophecy, he was led to Bahram Chubineh, a lord willing and able to lead the army against Saveh. Bahram Chubineh routed the much larger Turkish force. Saveh took to flight, but Bahram shot him in the back. Here, Saveh is shown facing his opponent, rather than fleeing, but he has clearly met his fate. The rearing of the horses, slightly out of phase with the rocky horizon that rises and falls like waves behind them, emphasizes the vigorous action.
Their rivals in western Iran, the Buyids (945–1055), although of Arab origin, claimed descent from the Sasanian king Bahram V, the Shahnameh’s Bahram Gur]. Both the Samanids and the Buyids revived the old Sasanian title of ‘King of Kings’ (Shahanshah).
Bahram Gur slays lions and a dragon
Ferdowsi, Shahnameh/Safavid: Qazvin or Mashhad, 28 November 1580/Scribe: Qotb al-Din b. Hasan al-Tuni/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/Private collection
These are two of the twenty-four illustrations that survive from a manuscript dated 1580. The work of several artists, they combine stylistic elements from Mashhad (eastern Iran) and Qazvin (western Iran). In No. 68, Bahram Gur, who has recently ascended the throne of Iran, rides into a wood and confronts the lions there. The hunting of lions was the archetypical sport of Persian kings, and — perhaps unwittingly — the painter echoes a motif found on Sasanian silver dishes. In No. 69 we see Bahram Gur, on a majestic white steed, killing a fire-breathing dragon for the Shangal of Hind (India). The tree branches seem to flicker, echoing the dragon’s sinuous movement. The grotesque profiles in the rock, a feature appearing from the fourteenth century onwards, may represent spirits, or djinn, while amusing the artist and viewer.
During the Arab invasion of the seventh century and for some time afterwards, Ferdowsi’s native Tus was ruled by the Kanarang family of noble Parthian stock. A mid-tenth century descendant of this family entrusted scholars steeped in Pahlavi and in the Zoroastrian world-view with the collation of pre-Islamic Persian documents and the Sasanian ‘Book of Kings’ (Khwaday-namag), which resulted in a prototype prose version of the Shahnameh in New Persian completed in 957. The continuing vigour of the prestigious Persian administrative system and government models, the survival of the former Persian gentry, and the independent spirit of minor potentates on the peripheries of the Iranian Plateau, nurtured Persian traditions and consciousness. Known as the ‘Iranian intermezzo’, this period of revival of Persian identity fell between 945, when the Buyids took Baghdad and challenged the power of the ‘Abbasid Caliphs in their own capital, and the arrival from the mid-eleventh century onwards of a succession of Turkic and Inner Asian.
Whatever hopes Ferdowsi may have held of the revival of Persian fortunes under the Samanid family, they were frustrated by the collapse of their rule and the rise of the Ghaznavid dynasty (977–1186), upstarts of Turkic slave origin who had distinguished themselves in the Samanids’ military service in Khorasan. Having worked on the Shahnameh for thirty-five years, Ferdowsi dedicated the final version to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (997–1030), hoping to inspire him as a new champion of ancient Persian glory. Known for his patronage of poetry and the arts, Mahmud was the obvious, in fact the only contemporary monarch to whom Ferdowsi could offer his epic. However, the pro-Caliphate sultan, who was a militant Sunni and the grandson of a Turkic slave, could hardly have appreciated a poem marked by anti-Arab, anti-Turk, pro-royalist and pro-Shi‘i sentiments.
The Shahnameh offers evidence for Ferdowsi’s devotion to the Shi‘i branch of Islam, which maintains that Mohammad’s family, his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali, and the Imams descended from him are the rightful spiritual leaders. A copy of the Shahnameh made in Tabriz in 1536 shows the Prophet Mohammad and ‘Ali in the Ship of Shi‘ism, while references in the text to the Orthodox caliphs, Mohammad’s closest companions and leaders of his tribe, who are accepted by Sunni Muslims as the Prophet’s true successors, have been scratched out.
The ship of Shi‘ism
Ferdowsi, Shahnameh/Safavid: Tabriz, May–June 1536/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/London, British Library, MS Add. 15531, fol. 12r
The numerous ships in this image acknowledge the existence of various religions, but the Prophet Mohammad and his son-in-law ‘Ali are shown on the ship representing the shi‘i branch of Islam. Shi‘ism considers the Prophet’s family his true successors, while sunni Muslims favour the caliphs chosen among Mohammad’s companions. A shi‘i owner of this manuscript has scratched out references to the first four caliphs, treating the fourth, ‘Ali, who was a family member, more leniently. From the sixteenth century onwards Mohammad was normally shown veiled, as a mark of respect. Here, the family wear their turbans wound round a cap with a high central projection, which denoted shi‘i affiliation at the time. The flaming halos surrounding their heads originated in the Buddhist art of Central Asia and are found in manuscripts made for sunni patrons as well.
Ferdowsi did not discuss the origins of Islam in the Shahnameh. A mid-twelfth century source claimed that he had been denied burial in the Muslim cemetery for being a ‘heretic’. Indeed, Ferdowsi was buried in his family estate, where his mausoleum, built in 1925, now stands.
On the other hand, the Shahnameh includes a passage on the emergence of Zaratushtra and the adoption of Zoroastrianism by the Iranian king Goshtasp. Curiously, this is the only fragment that Ferdowsi borrowed from the first versified version of the Shahnameh in New Persian, written by Abu Mansur Daqiqi (c.935–c.976). Daqiqi enjoyed a reputation as a bohemian Zoroastrian and Ferdowsi was careful not to associate himself too closely with the account of Zoroastrianism, wherever his own personal sympathies may have lain.
The paradoxical situation of the Shahnameh’s dedication to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni gave rise to numerous legends. The most popular of them recounts how the old Ferdowsi arrived at the capital and managed to penetrate into the Sultan’s garden, where the three chief court poets were involved in erudite conversation [No. 1 No. 44] . Ferdowsi passed their test and was introduced to Mahmud himself. But the sultan rejected the epic, which, together with the jealousy of the court poets, may explain why the Shahnameh was nearly forgotten for two centuries after Ferdowsi’s death.
to be continued