With its 50,000 rhyming couplets, the Shahnama, or “Book of Kings,” is one of the most voluminous epics of world literature. The poem narrates the history of the ancient kings of Iran from the mythical beginnings to the Arab conquest in 651 A.D. It was completed around 1010 A.D. by Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020), and was dedicated to the Ghaznavid ruler Mahmud of Ghazni (r. 998–1030), who had succeeded in gaining power over eastern Iran and modern-day Afghanistan by the end of the tenth century. In the eyes of the poet, this king appeared as the long-awaited ruler who could end dynastic strife and reunify the region. Thus, he seemed the ideal dedicatee for a work meant to celebrate Iran’s past glory. Unfortunately, the ruler’s response was not as enthusiastic and generous as expected. According to some sources, before dying, the poor and sick Firdausi voiced his disappointment for the little compensation received in a harsh satire against the sultan.
The history of Iran recounted in the Shahnama unfolds in fifty kingdoms, which are divided into three successive dynasties: the Pishdadiyan (1970.301.13)—the early legendary shahs, who established civilization (1970.301.2) and fought against the forces of evil (1970.301.3); the Kayanids—the principal protagonists of the enmity with Turan, the first and foremost antagonist of Iran (1970.301.36); and the Sasanians—the last glorious dynasty to rule a unified Iran before the advent of Islam (1970.301.62). The last section of the poem is considered to be the more historical one, and was occasionally referred to by medieval Islamic historiographers. Yet, the poem also revives pre-Islamic traditions, folklore, and oral literature. Kings and heroes are engaged in battles against foreign monstrous enemies (1970.301.4) and supernatural creatures (1970.301.51; 1970.301.3) that threaten their lives and the survival of their reigns. At the same time, the poem meditates on more profound human experiences and narrates the moral struggles, romantic interludes, and deaths of its many protagonists (1970.301.35).
With its interplay of lore and history (1970.301.73), the Shahnama offers models of conduct and rulership that inspired numerous generations of rulers. In addition to being a great work of literature, in fact, the poem can also be considered a successful example of “mirror for princes,” a popular genre in the medieval and early modern Islamic world intended for the education and edification of rulers. The teachings and moral exempla offered by the virtuous kings and paladins of the Shahnama are among the aspects that explain its great success throughout history.
All kings who ruled Iran, both local and foreign, continued to commission the production of new copies of the epic, which were often lavishly illustrated and illuminated. By appropriating this cultural treasure and assimilating its ideas and values, many foreign rulers also used it as an ideological tool, one that allowed them to establish their legitimate succession to the kings of the past. Prestigious manuscripts such as the so-called Great Mongol Shahnama (ca. 1330), also in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, the Baisunghur Mirza Shahnama (1430), and the Shah Tahmasp Shahnama (1520–40) (see below)—sponsored, respectively, by the Ilkhanid (1256–1353), Timurid (1389–1501), and Safavid (1501-1722) dynasties—survive as evidence of this practice, and as testaments to the cultural and artistic importance of this literary masterpiece through the centuries.
The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp
The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–76), also known as the Shahnama-yi Shahi, is arguably the most luxuriously illustrated copy of Firdausi’s epic ever produced in the history of Persian painting (1970.301.21). Its pages, with outstanding measurements for an illustrated book (approximately 48 x 32 cm), are made of fine paper enriched with large gold-sprinkled borders and lavish illuminations. Accompanying the 759 folios of text, written in superb nasta‘liq script, are 258 paintings of exquisite quality and artistic originality.
This project was realized at the royal atelier in Tabriz, the first capital of the Safavid dynasty, and involved two generations of the most renowned artists of the time. Among them were Sultan Muhammad, Mir Musavvir, and Aqa Mirak, who succeeded each other as directors of the project through the years. Scholars still disagree about the actual dates of execution of the manuscript. It was begun around the early 1520s, probably under Shah Isma‘il (r. 1501–24), the founder of the dynasty, and carried out for at least another twenty years under Shah Tahmasp, the manuscript’s dedicatee and principal sponsor.
The artistic importance of this manuscript cannot be overestimated. It is considered one of the highest achievements in the arts of the book for its superb calligraphy, painting, and illumination. From a pictorial point of view, it also marks the synthesis of the two most important phases of the Persian tradition—the Turkmen style, which developed in Tabriz and Shiraz, and the Timurid style, associated with Herat. These two strains were absorbed into the new artistic idiom of the early Safavids. Thus, the lively treatment and bright colors of landscape (1970.301.2; 1970.301.21) and surfaces (architecture: 1970.301.13; 1970.301.35; textiles: 1970.301.2; 1970.301.51) inspired by the Turkmen school, coexist with the more sober palette and balanced compositional layout (1970.301.62) of the Herat school, whose impact is particularly evident in some of the later paintings (1970.301.73).
Not long after its completion, the manuscript left Iran and was sent as a gift on the occasion of the accession of the Ottoman sultan Selim II (r. 1566–74). Contemporary Ottoman and European sources document the arrival of the Iranian embassy in Edirne on February 21, 1568, and even record the thirty-four camels bearing luxurious gifts that accompanied it. The Shahnama-yi Shahi is explicitly identified in one account as a lavish copy of the Shahnama in the name of Shah Tahmasp with 259 (sic) miniatures, and listed along with the Holy Qur’an, oriental porcelains, precious textiles, brocades, and silk carpets, also part of the gift. Until the early twentieth century, the manuscript remained in the library of the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, where it continued to entertain generations of rulers. The inserts with commentaries and descriptions of the paintings in Ottoman Turkish, which were added around 1800, bear witness to the artistic curiosity and intellectual inspiration this work provided many centuries after its production. Today the manuscript is dispersed among private and public collections. The Metropolitan Museum has seventy-eight of the pages with paintings in its collection.