Learn/ Educators/ Curriculum Resources/ Art of the Islamic World/ Unit Five: Courtly Splendor in the Islamic World/ Chapter Three: The Making of A Persian Manuscript—The Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp/ The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp

The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp

Around 1524, the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (reigned 1524–76) commissioned an illustrated manuscript of the Shahnama. He recruited the most talented painters, calligraphers, illuminators, and binders to work in the royal workshop and spared no expense. The workshop in the Safavid capital of Tabriz produced the 759 folios of text in elegant nasta'liq script. Its 258 innovative and sumptuous illustrations far surpass those of any other royal Iranian manuscript in both number and quality. An undertaking of this scale and scope could only have been financially supported by a ruler; this Shahnama reflects the great wealth and sophistication of Shah Tahmasp's Safavid court. This commission can be interpreted as an act of legitimization, linking Tahmasp's dynasty to the legendary kings of Persia.

The completed manuscript was part of an opulent gift to Sultan Selim II (reigned 1566–74) on the occasion of his ascension to the Ottoman throne in 1566. The arrival of the Iranian embassy in Istanbul (in present-day Turkey) is well documented, and a number of gifts—this Shahnama among them—are mentioned in Ottoman and European sources. The manuscript remained well preserved in Ottoman hands before appearing in Europe in the nineteenth century. Its folios were later dispersed among museums and private collections.

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