Reaction to “Women in Art of the Shahnameh” Blog Post

Recently, one of my group members posted a blog post on the art of women in the Shahnameh (link). She argued that the perspective of women depended upon the time period the piece was created and who commissioned the work. Through the art pieces, the Shahnameh story changed from the woman being displayed as active parties within the scene to being presented as submissive or inferior to males. This viewpoint was also reflected in the text of the Shahnameh as certain elements of the narrative changed with different time periods. The art and the text of the Shahnameh reflect how the culture of Persia manipulates the Shahnameh in order to reflect their current standards regarding women.

 Tahminah

(Source: Tahmina comes to visit Rostam. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

A good example of this phenomenon where the original text of the Shahnameh is changed to withhold Persian cultural of that time period is the story of Tahmineh and Rostam. The story goes that one day Rostam had lost his horse. While looking for the horse, he saw a town and immediately thought that someone in the town must have stolen his horse. He marched right up to the King’s court, slammed open the doors, and demanded his horse. The King asked for him to calm down and join him in a feast. At the feast, the King asked Rostam to talk about himself, and he started to talk about his great journeys and battles. Tahmineh, the King’s daughter, is listened to these epic tales and falls in love with him. Rostam eventually retires to his own chambers and begins to fall asleep. Before he falls asleep, he realized that someone else was in the room. Tahmineh appeared and told him that if he desired he could sleep with her and be on his way in the morning. He agreed. (1) The original text had Tahmineh actively pursuing a sexual relationship with Rostam (#booty call). She, additionally, did not receive consequences for her forward nature with the epic hero. Their relationship is seen as equal to each other because both of them consent to the pleasurable act and neither is regarded as superior. The portrayal of the night between the two lovers changed, however, as time went on. Copiers of the poem found this moment so shocking they wrote in a whole new scene where Rostam and Tahmineh got married before they slept together.(2) In those versions, the moment where Tahmineh told Rostam of her desire for him, the newer versions now had her father and a priest coming in. They had a whole marriage ceremony, all that night before they slept together.

   The portrayal of the scene between Rostam and Tahmineh, as my group member has stated, in the art has also changed through the centuries. If you have not read her post yet, go now (link)! She stated that Tahmineh was shown as being submissive to Rostam and eventually her gender was reversed. Overall, she argued that the portrayal of women changed through the centuries. I have shown in the earlier example, that the text has also changed to reflect the culture of Persia from that time. Basically, the art and the text assert that the Shahnameh is the heart of Persian culture because it changes along with it. When a woman can have independence and their own agency that is reflected in the Shahnameh. When a woman has to be submissive to men and behave by the cultural standards of that time the Shahnameh now takes on that dimension. By looking at the art, it becomes more apparent that the Shahnameh is a reflection of Persia during many different times.

  1. SOAS University of London. (2013. November 5) Kamran Djam Annual Lecture 2013, The Perils of Persian Princesses, Lecture 1 at SOAS. [Video File] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcjv8Bo3dEQ.30:00-38:00. 
  2. Ibid., 38:10-40:00.

Legend vs History: Narrative of Women in Shahnameh

     For the last couple of weeks, I have attempted to determine the role women in the Shahnameh, which has turned into more of a complex problem than I originally thought it would be. My past blog posts have shown that there are two main differences between the literature on this question. The scholar Gabbay asserted that the Shahnameh depicted females as being submissive to males and not having their own authority. She used the Bahram Gur and Azada story as evidence for the Shahnameh’s favoring of a male-dominant relationship dynamic.(1) Another scholar, Loveimi, declared that the Shahnameh is a progressive work that depicts men and women equally, which was based on the wide cast of female characters that Ferdowsi depicted and their ability to influence the fate of the epic heroes.(2) Each work had strong arguments, but also weaknesses. Gabbay’s work focused in on a singular narrative instead of looking at the Shahnameh broadly. Loveimi showcased a wide cast but did not analyze the relationship those characters had with men. Ultimately, neither scholar was able to put the other’s argument to rest. I was beginning to think that I was never going to find an answer to my question until I read Dick Davis’s “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories” and listened to a lecture he gave at SOAS University of London on youtube (link). His lecture and his article provided a deeper analysis of the work and put context towards both Loveimi’s and Gabbay’s article. Overall, he asserts that the Shahnameh is a complex work that depicts women as equal to men in the legendary portion of the text but in the historical portion, women fall prey to the traditional roles that burden Iranian society.

     A huge takeaway from the video lecture and Davis’s article was that there is a distinction between the females in the legendary section and historical portion of the epic. The females of the legendary section are independent and possess their own agency in completing their goals. Davis uses the love story of Zal and Rudabeh as the main example of female empowerment and possessing their own agendas. In contrast, the females from the historical section of the Shahnameh seem to only function in a male-centric capacity. This concept is most prevalent in Bahram Gur’s story where he refers to women as “mak[ing] [men] more moral, so buy [him] some pretty slave girls.” (3)  The separation Davis points out between female characters between the two segments helps explain why Gabbay and Loveimi took different interpretations to the epic. Gabby had focused on the historical point of the epic while Loveimi focused on characters within the legendary portion of the epic. (4)(5) I will now address the evidence that Davis provided for this differentiation between female characters within the narrative.

     In the Zal and Rudabeh story, Dick Davis used the characters of Rudabeh and Sindokht as examples of women found within the legendary section. Rudabeh is a princess from Kabul, modern day India, who falls in love with Zal, a Persian prince. Problems arise when Rudabeh and Zal realize that their families are sworn enemies of one another. They can never marry if they cannot ease the tension between the two families. Fortunately, due to some earlier events, Zal’s father, Sam, promised one wish to Zal in which he could ask for anything. Zal asks for his father to allow him to marry Rudabeh; he gives in and asks Rudabeh’s father, Mehrab, to allow the marriage. He responded by threatening to kill Rudabeh because the marriage would place Kabul under the wrath of King Manuchehr. Mehrab demanded that Rudabeh refuse the marriage, but she refused to listen to her father, stating that her love for Zal was too great. Sindokht, her mother, immediately disguised herself and went to Sam to persuade him to stop King Manuchehr. She could not stand the tension in her family any longer so she took matters into her own hands. Sam agrees to persuade King Manucher and he eventually gets the King on board. Zal and Rudabeh marry and give birth to Rostam, who ends up being a central hero in the text. (6)

     The Zal and Rudabeh story show woman who are working to achieve their own ends and who are strong-willed and determined. Rudabeh defies her father in order to be with the one she loves. The denial of her parent’s wish expressed that she was making her own decision regarding the marriage. Sindokht went against her husband’s wishes and sided with Rudabeh and helped her by going to the other king. She had her own character arc that had her daughter as the central figure instead of her husband. Both women expressed great agency and successfully achieved their own goals. 

     In the historical section, women do not take on as much as an empowering role as they do in the legendary section. As Davis states:

          “If one had to sum up in one sentence the difference between the women of the mythological/legendary section of the poem, and those of its ‘historical’ section, it would be that the women of the former section generally succeed in confronting the world on their own terms, whereas the women of the latter section virtually always fail if they attempt to do this (and most of them do not even make the attempt, being content to live within a male shadow, either a father’s or a husband’s).”(7)

The main example that Davis used to provide evidence for this claim was the same evidence that Loveimi used in their argument: Bahram Gur and Azada. Please follow this link to see my blog post on this matter: link. He supported Loveimi’s argument also asserting that the moral of the narrative is that men and women should stick to their natural domains. Men should be superior to females. He furthers that this story greatly contrasts the role of females in the opening half of the poem.

     There is a sharp contrast between the role that women play in the first half versus the second half of the poem. Dick Davis speculated that the sources that Ferdowsi used to write each of the narratives were different nearing closer to the present. Ferdowsi used oral history to capture the legendary section, which included tales from nomadic and tribal societies. In those societies, women had independence and control over their own life decisions. (8) The sources he had for the legendary section, thus, expressed more freedom to women and equal relationships with men. In contrast, the historical section had more written works and was influenced by the changing culture. Davis commented:

          “It may be that the historical section reflects an actual seclusion of women from the public affairs, and their relative impotence in controlling their own lives, in Sasanian society (it seems to have been the Sasanians, rather than their Arab and Moslem conquerors, who introduced or at least legitimized by royal usage, purdah, and the veil), but these narratives may well also be strongly influenced by the mores of Ferdowsi’s own medieval Muslim society, so that to draw conclusions from them about the status of women in Sasanian society seems risky.”(9)

The role of women changed in the Shahnameh because times were changing in Ferdowsi’s time. Women’s role in society diverted away from the role they had during nomadic and tribal times. The Shahnameh captured that divergence. The Shahnameh, hence, is a complex work that acts as a complex reflection of culture, as it transforms moving from century to century. The poem mimics this transformation through its epic tales and depiction of women. Woman are a good indicator of how Persian culture changes as time goes on since their role within society change along side it.

 

  1. Gabbay, Alyssa. “Love Gone Wrong, Then Right Again: Male/Female Dynamics in the Bahrām Gūr–Slave Girl Story.” Iranian Studies 42, no. 5 (2009): 677-692.
  2. Loveimi, Soheila. “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh.” English Language Teaching 9, no. 5 (2016): 46-53.
  3. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.” In Women and Medieval Epic, pp. 79. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007.
  4. Gabbay, Alyssa. “Love Gone Wrong, Then Right Again: Male/Female Dynamics in the Bahrām Gūr–Slave Girl Story.” 677-692.
  5. Loveimi, Soheila. “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh.” 46-53.
  6. SOAS University of London. (2013. November 5) Kamran Djam Annual Lecture 2013, The Perils of Persian Princesses, Lecture 1 at SOAS. [Video File] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcjv8Bo3dEQ.
  7. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.”79.
  8. Ibid.,85.
  9. Ibid.,85.

Women in the Art of the Shahnameh

It probably does not come as a surprise to anyone reading this that women throughout time have frequently been left out of the historical records. The idea that women do not impact history has been widespread among the subjects of history, as well as the people who study it. However, this is one place where the Shahnameh is unique. Women appear quite often in its stories, in all sorts of roles, including one woman who was a queen (1). But the history of the Shahnameh is not limited to what Ferdowsi wrote and the artwork of the Shahnameh shows a different perspective on women.

The artists who were commissioned to illustrate the Shahnameh were often told to do so by royalty who were inspired by epic heroes like Rostam and Eskandar. They wanted to see the scenes filled with action and those were the scenes chosen to be illustrated and the ones that most often survived to today. Most of the women in the Shahnameh were not involved in combat scenes and so were not depicted often, with a few notable exceptions like Gordafraid, a warrior who fought Rostam’s son (2). Even then, there are very few versions of Gordafraid’s fight that still exist and Gordafraid is not often depicted particularly well in them.

sohrab_fights_gordafarid1

One woman who appears much more often is Azedeh, a slave who went hunting with the prince Bahram Gur and dared him to shoot a deer in the ear. When he did and she protested that the deer died, Bahram Gur pushed her off the saddle and trampled her beneath his camel (3). Azedeh can be seen on plates and bowls often at the beginning of the era when the Shahnameh first started being illustrated.  Her story serves as a reminder of how people of different social standings should interact with each other, with the consequences crystal clear. This lesson, in addition to its moment of graphic action, make it a tempting scene to illustrate.

The other woman who appears frequently in illustrations of the Shahnameh is Tahmineh, Rostam’s lover and daughter of the king of Samangan. Tahmineh is a very active figure during her time in the Shahnameh. When Rostam arrives in her father’s castle she visits his room in the night and asks him to have sex with her in order to bear him an heir (4). Illustrations of this scene are common and Tahmineh is given prominence in them: she is often taking up the entire vertical frame, even when her slave isn’t, and is always the active party (5). The different versions have different interpretations of Rostam’s reaction, from surprised to eager. Even though Tahmineh is always the one acting, around the 1400s, during the Timurid dynasty, she began to be painted with her head down and shoulder up in a more timid and uncertain way (6). Many depictions of this scene retain the same composition from version to version, a kind of visual consensus on what happened, and similarly, the timid version of Tahmineh became a popular depiction of her, with a very similar image being found in the fifteenth or sixteenth century during the Safavid empire (7). But this interpretation contradicts the text, where Tahmineh is shown to be confident in what she wants, even saying that she has wanted Rostam since she first heard stories of him. The shift in Tahmineh’s demeanor is another product of the cultures each Shahnameh was made in. A similar change can be seen in the artwork, simple action focused illustrations in the Mongol empire changed to complex architectural paintings in Timurid dynasty (8). Other evidence of this is the change of Tahmineh’s attendant. In the Shahnameh she is a slave and the early images reflect that. As time goes on however, the attendant changes to a male black eunuch and remains male for the rest of the time (9). These are all reflections of the dynasties they were created under.

The actual writing of the Shahnameh might be fairly equal concerning men and women, but the text has been interpreted and filtered through the cultural framework of each society who read it.These cultures all have different interpretations of women’s roles and the scenes depicted, behavior of characters, and even the gender of side characters change to reflect those ideas. It’s vitally important for us to recognize the difference between what the text says and what the illustrations show. The Shahnameh impacted these societies enough that they wished to recreate it and we need to be aware of why.

 

  1. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.” In Women and Medieval Epic, pp. 67-90. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007.
  2. Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.” Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Vikings, 2006. p. 192-193
  3. Ibid. p. 713
  4. Ibid. p. 189
  5. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  6. Ibid. p. 138
  7. Ibid. p. 183
  8. Gurgīn, Īraj., Grabar, Oleg, Films for the Humanities, and Rādyū Tilivīzyūn-i Millī-i Īrān. The Art of the Book : Persian Miniatures from the Shahnameh = Mīni̇yātūr’ha-yi Shāhnāmah. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities, 1980.
  9. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Gordafraid being defeated by Sohrab. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years of less.

Loveimi: Women’s Role in the Shahnameh

In the last post, I identified an argument by Alyssa Gabbay where she argued that a successful relationship between men and women in the Shahnameh was characterized by the male having authority over the female character. She concluded that the Bahram-Gur story was the evidence needed to support the claim that women had lower social status than men in the Shahnameh. (1) In this post, I will discuss “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh”, an article by Soheila Loveimi, that argued that Ferdowsi captured women as equal to males in the Shahnameh.

Loveimi identified multiple women in her article as evidence for women having a progressive and empowering role within the text. One of the women she identified is Pourandokht, the successor to Ardeshir Shiravi. She came to power after King Faramin died, and she focused her reign on helping the poor. Loveimi defined her as a kind ruler who possessed the love of the people. The people loved her so much that when she passed away 6 months after being appointed the people only had good names for her. Overall, her reign was characterized as being peaceful and prosperous, which was very different from the other Kings of the book whose reign focused solely on conquest or battling foreign rulers. Loveimi does not compare Pourandokht with other rulers; they only identified that she was a female ruler who was seen in a good light. Loveimi used this character to implicitly assert that women are not all placed in villainous roles within the Shahnameh.(2)

Another woman that Loveimi used to provide evidence for the assertion of women possessing a powerful role within the work is a character referred to as “Peasant’s wife.” This character spoke out against one of the King Bahram Gur for his mistreatment of villagers. The King had been leading his army constantly through the village’s land–causing damage and grief. She called him “cruel” and “oppressive.” (3) Loveimi implied that it was due to the Peasant’s wife that Bahram Gur eventually saw the error in his ways and repented for his sins. The King listened to this woman’s claims and eventually changed his ways. The Peasant’s wife spoke out against oppression and in return was rewarded with the King addressing the village’s grievances. (4)

Additionally, Gordafarid is another woman who is used as a confirmation of the female’s revolutionary role within the text. Gordafarid is a female warrior who picked up arms after she heard that her leader, Hejir, had been taken by King Sohrab’s army. Upset by the shame Hejir had brought to the White fortress, she dressed herself up as a knight, placed a helmet on her head to hide her identity, and rode her horse to challenge Sohrab. Gordafarid is an example of a female character participating in battle and possessing qualities of a male warrior. She comes into contact with King Sohrab and is only outed as a woman when her helmet is taken off. She is seen as having control over her own fate and works to make her own goals met.(5) She is one of the only female warriors of the work, but her story is nevertheless important in declaring that women do possess roles that are involved in a battle.

Loveimi uses all three of these characters as evidence for their assertion that men and women are on equal footing in the Shahnameh. A weakness in Loveimi’s argument is that they do not clearly state how certain characters are examples of the Shahnameh’s progressive characterization of women. They pull out characters as evidence but does not ever compare them to the male characters who are of the same ranking. For instance, in discussing Gordafarid, Loveimi does not compare the description of her to the description of a male warrior. It would have been a more compelling argument if they compared the diction of a male warrior with the diction of Gordafarid. Furthermore, the characters they do pull out sometimes do not capture the equality she would like to assert. An example of this would be the Peasant’s wife story. The Peasant’s wife speaks out about Bahram Gur’s oppression, but it’s not until there is no milk in the village cow’s udder does he realize the errors in his ways. To me, it seemed like it was more of the supernatural element that convinced him to repent and ask God for forgiveness than the peasant’s wife’s declaration.

Overall, Loveimi does address an interesting counter to Gabbay’s argument but does not completely dismiss Gabbay’s assertions. I  now understand that women take on many different roles within the work, but I am not completely convinced that the Shahnameh captured men and women on equal footing. I am especially unconvinced when looking at the art piece below:

Sohrab_fights_Gordafarid

(Source: Sohrab fights Gordafarid. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

This artwork shows Gordafarid being defeated by Sohrab. Loveimi described her as being a fearless warrior, but this art piece is definitely not painting her as that. In this art piece, her face is not shown and her body is askew–creating the image of a dishonorable defeat. The artist who interpreted this scene does not see her as being a warrior on par with the other male soldiers. Once again, I am faced with different interpretations of the work. Loveimi claimed that Gordafarid was a fearless warrior that was well respected. The above art piece showed her as a clumsy opponent who is easily defeated by the King Sohrab. I decided I had to go to the original text to see how Ferdowsi depicted the scene.

Looking at the text of the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi described her as being a well-experienced warrior who was trained with the bow and lance. She challenged Sohrab, but is defeated relatively quickly with her helmet being snatched from her head; her hair “streamed out, and her face shone like a splendid sun.” (6) This is where the text differs from the art piece. The art piece does not show Gordafarid face; thus ignoring the description that Ferdowsi had of this female character. Furthermore, Ferdowsi also states that she “brought no shame on [her] people due to her defeat. (7) The text of the Shahnameh provided evidence for Loveimi’s interpretation while distinguishing the art piece as being an inaccurate depiction of the event.

By looking exclusively at the cast of female characters, the Shahnameh took on the characteristic as being a progressive work that captures female characters in a good light. Loveimi does assert that the wide cast does imply that women are an important part of the text, but they are unable to clearly state their relationship with men and how that influences their role within the work. Furthermore, the artwork reflects that woman did not have an equal relationship with males and some female characters are depicted differently from how they are perceived in the text. The Shahnameh text supported Loveimi’s argument regarding Gordafarid’s description, but it is unable to completely address Loveimi’s weaknesses in their argument.

I, however, will not end here! I will continue to analyze female characterization and the relationship woman had with male characters. I still have several other sources that will further this research.

More to come!

  1. Gabbay, Alyssa. “Love Gone Wrong, Then Right Again: Male/Female Dynamics in the Bahrām Gūr–Slave Girl Story.” Iranian Studies 42, no. 5 (2009): 677-692.
  2. Loveimi, Soheila. “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh.” English Language Teaching 9, no. 5 (2016): 47.
  3. Ibid., 48.
  4. Ibid., 48.
  5. Ibid., 49.
  6. Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.” Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Vikings, 2006. 191-192.
  7. Ibid., 193.

Religion in the Shahnameh

Abu ‘l-Qasem Ferdowsi, author of the Shahnameh and believed to be a Shi’ia Muslim is an enduring figure in the Iranian national identity.  Although the majority of Iranians are Shi’ia Muslims, Ferdowsi completed his work during the reign of the Sunna, Abbasid dynasty.  At the completion of his life’s work he dedicated the final version to his patron, the Sultan Mahmoud of Ghanza in modern day Afghanistan.  The mythical and religious Iranian past and the intricacies of the author’s character create a complex, rich culture in the Shahnameh.  Although at times historically inaccurate and contradictory it is an intriguing topic considering the present interest western culture has concerning Islam.

Ferdowsi wrote this poem over the course of his life intending to receive a large reward from the Sultan Mahmoud a powerful suzerainty of the Abbasids.  Yet in his epic he did not incorporate Qur’anic ideology to describe the origins of the world, the beginnings of humanity or the societal norms derived from the Qur’an that were often promoted in literature.  This in itself was a major deviation from the traditional methods of that time.  Ferdowsi “pays no attention whatsoever to the Qur’anic version of history, and he makes no attempt to reconcile Iran’s mythological past with that embodied in the Qur’anic tradition; his Iran does not emerge out of a Qur’anic reality…” (Davis, Religion in the Shahnameh p. 338).  The political upheaval caused by changing power dynamics in Islamic culture at that time may have caused the Persian Muslim Ferdowsi to focus more on his local cultures’ religious past and less on the religion they adopted after the Islamic conquest.    

Although Ferdowsi seems to avoid the topic of religion as much as possible it can be observed that he does attempt to incorporate a Zoroastor view of the world into his epic.  According to Gregory Nagy “Ferdowsi ordinarily expresses the concept of “God” not with the Islamic term Allah but with a more generic term Khoda… which is compatible with a Zoroastrian world-view” (Davidson, p. 14). This falls in line with the knowledge that this epic was an attempt to record the rapidly fading Iranian history after the fall of Persia.

He chose instead to insert a fairly large section of work from Daqiqi, another poet of that time, to describe the advent of Zoroastor and the subsequent adoption of his religion.  “Ferdowsi conceived his work as a memorial to Iran’s glorious past at a time when its memory was in danger of disappearing for good under the twin assaults of Arabic and Islamic Culture and the political dominion of the Turks” (Meri, p. 727).

Ferdowsi describes the death of the last king of Persia in the grand finale of his epic.  “…you who ruled the world and sought out its crowns have been killed with a dagger plunged into your liver…”  (Ferdowsi, 509).  With the death of Yazdgerd, the reign of the Persian empire was effectively ended by Islamic invaders.  “Now that I have brought the story of Yazdgerd to an end…four hundred years have passed since the Hejira of the Prophet” (Ferdowsi, p. 513).  By ending his book in this way he simultaneously honors the pre-Islamic history of his homeland as well as paying homage to his current way of life as a practicing Muslim.  By combining characteristics intrinsic to his Islamic upbringing with scholarly knowledge of his ancestor’s religion, Ferdowsi evokes ideas and questions that prompt a deeper study of the intricacies specific to Iranian pre-Islamic and Islamic history.  

More to come on this topic as we delve deeper into the life of Ferdowsi and the inner workings of a large diverse population of people all proclaiming allegiance to the same God and Prophet.

The History of Shahnameh Illustrations Through the Journey of the Great Mongol Shahnameh

There are many different versions of the Shahnameh, from the very original unillustrated version that Ferdowsi himself wrote and presented to the king, to the modern versions that are being created today. Many of these versions were created for specific people as many rulers took it upon themselves to commision illustrated copies, but one of the oldest and most renowned versions was only recently correctly reconstructed, and it’s tale is a fascinating window into the history of the art of the Shahnameh.

demotte_shahname_002

The Great Mongol Shahnameh, also called the Demotte Shahnameh, was created in the Il-Khanid period, when non-Muslim, non-Persian rulers controlled Persia (1). In an effort to appear more Persian to their subjects, they created a copy of the Shahnameh, the famous epic often thought of as the epitome Persian culture (2). The Great Mongol Shahnameh is well known for having particularly stunning illustrations, with rich colors and fierce heroes (3). The text stayed in Tabriz, where it was made, until the 1800s when the Qajar dynasty came into power in the area, liked the mythic story, and began to restore parts of the book (4). They restored its damaged pages with paper from Russia, reigniting interest in the Shahnameh leading to the creation of various works inspired by the Shahnameh (5). In the 1900s, Georges Demotte found took apart the Great Mongol Shahnameh with a German page splitting technique in order to separate the stunning images from the text. He then sold the illustrated pages without the rest of the book, resulting in its current form, missing many pages and scattered throughout many different museums (6).

What is interesting about this process is how long it took to uncover and how each step in it’s history gives insight into how the Shahnameh was received. The Ilkhanids used the text to legitimize their rule because of the historical and cultural significance it had with the people of their empire. It was recreated not only for its artistic merit, but also to be used as a political tool. When the Qajar dynasty rediscovered it, they restored the text and subsequently created art inspired by it, showing how much the poem about heroes of legend affected them. However, this treatment stands in stark contrast to what Georges Demotte did. As stated before, the Demotte Shahnameh is scattered throughout the world, and even when brought together, the pages have been altered. When Demotte sold the illustrations, he split pages in half, took the images, and attached them to different pages with unrelated text (7). This treatment along with the alterations made by the Qajars means that the original form of the Demotte Shahnameh is incredibly hard to see now. Leading to the part of the text’s story happening now. Recreating this version required looking beyond the images of the Shahnameh to the physical text, which was often not done by museums (8). By examining the actual paper the illustrations were printed on (9) as well as the structure of those pages (10) researchers were able to decipher the history of the book and then were able to visualize it in its original form.

The Great Mongol Shahnameh has had a long journey to get where it is right now, and each step along the way shows the various types of interest that the poem has sparked in the people who have come across it, whether that is its use as political object, a study in the history of an area, or simply a piece of beautiful artwork to sell.

  1. Hillenbrand, Robert. Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings. Vol. 2. Gower Publishing, Ltd., 2004.
  2. Brend, Barbara, and Charles Melville. Epic of the Persian kings: the art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. IB Tauris, 2010.
  3. Ibid., p. 33
  4. Hillenbrand, Robert. Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings. Vol. 2. Gower Publishing, Ltd., 2004.
  5. Ibid., p. 31
  6. Ibid., p. 48
  7. Ibid., p. 48
  8. Ibid., p. 35
  9. Ibid., p. 27-30
  10. Ibid., p. 48

Image from Wikimedia Commons, originally from Harvard University Art Museum.