Vividly translated and lushly illustrated, this edition of the Persian epic Shahnameh is fully illuminated for new audiences.
Ferdowsi’s classic poem
is part myth, part history–beginning with the legend of the birth of the Persian nation and its tumultuous history, it contains magical birds and superhuman heroes and centuries-long battles. Written over 1,000 years ago, it was meant to protect Persian collective memory amidst a turbulent sea of cultural storms. Originally written in couplets, the translation and adaptation by Ahmad Sadri retells the mythological tales in prose format. The spectacular illustrations in this edition were created from elements culled from thousands of manuscripts, lithographs, and miniatures dating from the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries, and each panel becomes a new work of art, an exquisite collage of traditional forms. 500 + full-color illustrations
The ancient legends of the Persian Book of Kings (Shahnameh)1 were versiﬁed by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940-1020 CE), who was born to a -family of small landowners near the city of Tus, in northeastern Iran. He dedicated thirty-three years of his life to Shahnameh and ﬁnished its second redaction one thousand and three years ago, in March 1010.
Shahnameh is of the essence of Iranian nationhood. Unlike the Egyptian, Syrian, and other North African populations of the Roman Empire that were thoroughly Arabized after their Islamic conquest in the seventh century, Persians were able to hold on to their language and calendar even after they converted to Islam. It has been argued that this was made possible because the Iranians'' national identity was not fully invested in their pre-Islamic faith. Rather, it resided in a secular body of myth and legend that they preserved and which later would form the basis of Ferdowsi''s great work. To this day men, women, and children in Persianate societies from Asia Minor to China are able to recite lines of Shahnameh by heart. The book continues to be read in family gatherings and performed by professional reciters in the teahouses of Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan.
It was awareness of this living tradition of Shahnameh recitations that gave me and my colleagues Melissa Hibbard and Hamid Rahmanian the -audacity to go where angels fear to tread. As we embarked on the -journey to -create a new edition of Iran''s national epic with freshly narrated -stories printed against a fully illustrated backdrop, we consoled ourselves that we were -walking in the footsteps of generations of previous performers and illustrators.
I never forgot the ﬁrst reciter of Shahnameh I saw at the age of seven somewhere near the city of Karaj. He wore a leather vest studded with shiny spikes and wielded a short cane that was his only prop. That lone cane turned into a sword, a mace, and even the neck of a neighing horse. The performer paced rapidly back and forth producing a range of sound effects for galloping horses, clashing swords, and collapsing rocks. He sonorously intoned the poems of Shahnameh in the middle of his prose narration as he played all of the parts from the last scenes of the battle of Rostam and Sohrab. What is remarkable is that I still remember not only the performance but also the pictures I made in my head as it went on. The session ended with a cliffhanger as the hero Rostam climbed a pile of rocks, put his neck in a self-made noose, and kicked the rocks from beneath him to commit suicide. Later I learned that this ﬁnal scene was not in any of the known copies of Shahnameh. But the knowledge did not diminish the worth of that performance because I also knew that the stories existed and evolved both before and after the completion of Ferdowsi''s magnum opus.
Foreword by Sheila Canby, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings is the latest in a long tradition of illustrated texts of the Persian national epic. From the early fourteenth century, paintings of the most colorful and dramatic episodes in Ferdowsi''s poem accompanied the written text. At ﬁrst, the manuscripts were small and their illustrations appeared in bands across part of the written page. Even then artists did not hesitate to break through the frame and extend pictorial elements into the margins. By the 1330s royal and noble patrons were commissioning large-scale Shahnameh manuscripts with illustrations that were more complex in both their composition and the interaction of the ﬁgures than the earlier versions. In the ﬁfeenth century the production of illustrated Shahnamehs increased, ranging from the most outstanding princely manuscript made for the grandson of Timur (Tamerlane) in Herat in 1430 to the numerous Turkmen-style manuscripts from Shiraz created to satisfy the growing market for such books. Illustrated Shahnamehs were not produced for Iranians alone, but were exported to the Ottoman Empire and India, where they inspired copies with paintings in the prevailing style of the region. The tradition of opulent royal Shahnamehs persisted in the sixteenth century, notably under Shah Tahmasp whose manuscript contained 258 remarkable illustrations. Although at times interest in illustrated Shahnamehs waned, the epic remained central to the poetic education of Persian-speakers. Even in the nineteenth century, when court artists were busy painting in oil on canvas or in lacquer on boxes and book covers, the new art of lithography was applied to illustrating the Shahnameh. Hamid Rahmanian''s new volume incorporates images that span the history of Shahnameh illustration, excerpting and weaving together ﬁgures familiar from many of the greatest manuscripts. Recognizing how broadly dispersed are the people in whose culture the Shahnameh plays a signiﬁcant role, Rahmanian has employed the modern technology of the ﬁlmmaker and graphic artist to produce images that will appeal to a modern audience. Anyone who has read the Shahnameh realizes that it is far from an iteration of battles; its stories involve love and luck, dreams and demons, prowess and political intrigue. In fact, the gamut of human emotion appears in the Shahnameh. As in the Shahnamehs of past centuries, this book''s many illustrations do more than translate the narrative episode into visual form. Rather, the illustrations and text enable a reader to contemplate the thoughts and actions of the protagonists while poring over the recombined details of a variety of earlier Shahnameh images. Many of the illustrations contain colors that recall those in Persian miniatures, but they have been intensiﬁed in keeping with a modern, cinematic sensibility. Likewise, the dynamic silhouetting of pictorial details mitigates the stylization of the earlier paintings that make up the compositions in this book. The varying scale of ﬁgures within individual illustrations breaks the conventions of earlier miniature painting, but for the modern viewer this corresponds to the distortions one ﬁnds, for example, in science ﬁction. In fact, the dreamscape of the real and imaginary worlds found in the illustrations of this Shahnameh, while totally dependent on the art of the past, most closely evokes the fantasy literature of today in visual form. Thanks to the dramatic dynamism of Ferdowsi''s epic, its contemporary interpretation in images is a vibrant feast for the imagination, making this a Shahnameh for the digital age.
A little over a thousand years ago the Persian poet Ferdowsi of Tous collected and put into heroic verse the millennium-old mythological and epic traditions of Iran. It took him thirty years to write the sixty thousand verses that comprise the Shahnameh or "The Book of Kings." This monumental work begins with legends of the birth of the Persian nationhood and ends with the Arab conquest of Iran. Written in the aftermath of that national trauma, Shahnameh was meant to harbor the Persian collective memory, language, and culture in a turbulent sea of many historical storms.