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.

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