A Brief Comparison of Art Forms of the Shahnameh

I began this project by investigating the origins of the Shahnameh Manuscript painting tradition. Based on my preliminary understanding of the topic, the production of these paintings seemed to be the primary and most significant art form related to the Shahnameh. However what I have found reflects a contradiction with this early understanding. While the Shahnameh manuscript painting tradition does indeed hold a great deal of significants related to the Shahnameh and history of Iran, this is mostly due to its use as a political tool by various rulers.

After grappling with the fairly limited role of this tradition in ancient Persian culture, I began to research other art forms related to the Shahnameh until I found the performance arts of the Shahnameh-Khani and the Naqqali of Shahnameh. While traditions these respectively involved the practice of singing and narrating the verses of the Shahnameh, it became clear that not only were these art forms among the oldest dedicated to telling these stories, but they were also the most representative of how the Shahnameh entered the lives of common people on a day-to-day basis.

Whereas the third focus of my research was into the writing style of Ferdowsi and its effect on the art of the Shahnameh, this helped me in confirming my developing understanding that many of the visual art forms in fact had less in common with Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh than their performance art counterparts. This was due to several factors including a lack of visual detail in Ferdowsi’s writing that made the process of visually interpreting the Shahnameh rather difficult with much being left open to the imagination of the artist.

To briefly summarize the conclusions that I have drawn from this project, I believe it is necessary to identify the differences in what makes the Shahnameh manuscript paintings an performing arts significant. In the case of manuscript paintings, I believe that much of the significance that is attributed to them is characterized by their existence as physical relics of ancient Persian culture, and their role as political tools. The performing arts relating to the Shahnameh can be seen as the more “organic” iteration of Ferdowsi’s epic and their significance is derived from the action of propagating the stories that have made the Shahnameh so influential and important within Iranian culture.


The Influence of Ferdowsi’s Writing Style on Visual Art

The “Shahnameh” or Persian Book of Kings, is an epic poem by Ferdowsi that comprises various myths, legends, and histories of Iran in some 60,000 verses. Completed in 1010, the Shahnameh has continuously played a significant role in characterizing the culture, moral structures, and sense of national identity in Iran largely by inspiring various artistic traditions dedicated to telling its stories. While the most distinguished among these is the art of illustrated manuscript paintings (a.k.a. book paintings) that depict various scenes of adventure, war, and feats of heroism, other traditions include different forms of performance art, decorated ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and carvings.

Whereas the Shahnameh is easily among the most influential poems ever written, the lasting significance of this work can be partially attributed to the poetic skill of Ferdowsi. However, as this single poem came to inspire (quite literally) centuries worth of subsequent art, and sentiments of national unity within Iran, the relationship between Ferdowsi’s work and all that it inspired is understandably complicated. In attempting to understand this relationship, it seems necessary to ask two questions:

How did Ferdowsi intend his work to be used?

How does Ferdowsi’s writing lend itself to artistic expression?

In an essay titled “Ferdowsi and the Illustration of the Shahnameh”(1) Jerome Clinton asserts that Ferdowsi’s primary goal in writing that Shahnameh was to create something that was to be read or recited. That is, a work of pure poetry that didn’t necessarily lend itself so extensively to the visual interpretations continuously produced centuries after the poems completion. While Ferdowsi does not say this directly, Clinton makes this argument by closely looking at the master poet’s writing style.

In Ferdowsi’s writings, adjectives, adverbs, and visual descriptions are somewhat scares, and when poetic imagery is employed Clinton asserts that it is always in pursuit of furthering the audiences understanding of the actions taking place, the emotions involved, and the moral landscape of the given scene. In this way, an object, creature, or person in the Shahnameh is known by its effects on the story rather than a description of what it appears to be(2). An example of this can be seen in the story of “Zal and Sam” in which the infant Sam is at one point abandoned on a mountainside to die. Soon after, the mythical bird Simorgh depends upon Sam with the intention of feeding him to her young. In Iranian mythology the Simorgh is usually described as a large and majestic multicolored bird who is an incredible sight to behold. However, here Clinton notes that Ferdowsi utilizes no such description. Instead, for the purpose of telling this story, the mythical bird represents a threat to Sam and as such Ferdowsi predominantly describes it only by the features that make it most menacing (outreaching talons, large wingspan, etc.), but even here these features seem to be more defined by their actions than their appearance (ex: OUTREACHING talons).

While this example clearly shows how Ferdowsi writes in a manner that favors the ends of the storytelling process over the detail of the visuals, stylistic traits like this are often seen as indicators of Ferdowsi’s unique poetic mastery. The Scholar Shafi’i-Kadkani asserts that another one of these traits is Ferdowsi’s “stylistic economy” which is characterized by a conservative use of similes, metaphors, and other literary devices often overly utilized in the crafts of poetry and storytelling (3).

In a similar manner, Jerome Clinton calls attention to the use of color in the Shahnameh, saying that “for the most part Ferdowsi’s palette is limited to six colors: black, white, gold, silver, red, and blue, all of which have strong metaphoric content.”(4) The concepts represented by these colors are fairly intuitive and easily to understand as many can be found in modern Western culture as well. For instance, Ferdowsi commonly uses gold and silver to represent wealth or prosperity, while red usually symbolizes blood or the ferocity of war often in contrast with blue which frequently represents the stillness of night. Whereas Ferdowsi’s use of color can be seen as more of a poetic device than a descriptive one due to the nature of this color-based symbolism, the naturalness and ease at which these metaphors are grasped seems to point to the authors desire for his writing to be understood by a broad audience. In essence, by making use of the relationships between specific colors and ideas (ex. red = blood), Ferdowsi plays on the natural associations of people to make the Shahnameh more easily accessible to a larger audience.



1. Jerome Clinton, “Ferdowsi and the Illustration of the Shahnameh,” in Islamic Art and Literature, edited by Oleg Grabar, and Cynthia Robinson (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2001), 57-78.

2. Ibid, 63.

3. Ibid, 62.

4. Ibid, 62.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 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.

The Origin of the Shahnameh Manuscript Painting

The stories contained in the Shahnameh have inspired various works of decorative art from textiles and stone carvings to glazed ceramics. The manuscript painting or “Persian miniature” however is often regarded as the most iconic and historically significant of these illustrative art forms. The oldest illustrations of stories related to the Shahnameh have been identified in wallpaintings of the hero Rostam, that date back to the early eighth century, and predating the completion of Ferdowsi’s poem by about 400 years (1) (note that this is possible because Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh compiled and refined pre-existing stories). By comparison, the production of Shahnameh manuscript paintings is a far younger tradition with the oldest existing illustrative manuscripts originating in the late thirteenth century after the annexation of Persia into the Mongol Empire (2).

The historical prominence of the Shahnameh manuscript painting among its fellow art forms can be better understood for the role that it played as a circumstantial political tool used by various rulers of different dynasties. Following the 1258 sack of Baghdad in which the Abbasid Caliphate was conquered by Mongol invasion, the subsequent Il-Khanid dynasty gradually sought out ways to legitimize their rule by becoming closer to their Persian subjects (3). Much of this was facilitated by the advice of native Iranian ministers such as the Joveynis who would often guide the Il-Khan rulers towards fulfilling the roles of traditional Persian monarchs. Under their influence, the Il-Khanid dynasty began to produce written manuscripts of the Shahnameh sometime around 1276 as a means of consolidating and celebrating a sense of Persian cultural identity that would bring them closer to their subjects (4). This effort was continuously expanded, particularly under the ruler Ghazan Khan (r. 1295-1304) who after initiating the dynasty’s conversion to Islam, began to produce illustrated Shahnameh manuscripts at the turn of the fourteenth century.

The attention that subsequent rulers displayed in patronizing cultural arts was particularly well received because it replaced much of the cultural content (literature, arts, etc.) that had been destroyed in the Mongol conquest of Persia, where various libraries and palaces . However because of this mass destruction of cultural artifacts, scholars also note that this limits our ability to speak with much certainty about the origins of Shahnameh manuscripts as earlier copies may have once existed (5). Similarly, as many collections of Shahnameh manuscripts have been separated into individual pages over the course of time (as discussed in a different post), this further limits our understanding of these early manuscripts and makes their study immensely more difficult.

While rule by the Il-Khanid dynasty ended around 1335, their practice of patronizing arts celebrating the Shahnameh to legitimize their imperial rule of Persia was adopted by other imperial dynasties such as the Timurids and Safavids whose rules colored the centuries that followed. During these subsequent dynasties, while the production of illustrated manuscripts remained at the forefront of these art forms, the rulers who funded their creation became increasingly concerned with using them as a means to reflect their personal majesty. In essence, these rulers regularly tried to outdo their predecessors by creating the most comprehensive, detailed and magnificent illustrated manuscripts to honor their legacy. However as this trend became more prominent, we can also infer that there was a gradual step away from the original intention of these manuscripts which was to foster a connection with the common people of Iran. Instead the production of illustrated manuscripts became more about conveying the image of a given ruler, and as the artists who created them were often employed solely in the courts of these rulers, it seems that the production of these manuscripts became increasingly less relevant to the way the average Persian would take in the stories of the Shahnameh.

Therefore, while the manuscript painting may be considered the most prominent art form related to the Shahnameh at face value, the reasoning behind this perception seems to be primarily based on the manuscript painting’s ability to function as a beautiful historical relic that was used as a political tool by various imperial powers. These marvelous illustrative book paintings created as symbols of status certainly represent the sense of cultural identity generated by the Shahnameh, but they have little relevance to how the Shahnameh was actually observed in the majority of Persian culture, and this fact must be taken into when comparing the art forms that Ferdowsi’s epic poem inspired.



1. Barbara Brend and Charles P. Melville, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 31.

2. Ibid, Melville, 13.

3. Ibid, 12.

4. Ibid, 13.

5. Ibid, 14.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 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.


What is the Shahnameh?

The Shahnameh, or Epic of Persian Kings is a poem written by the Iranian poet Hakim Abul-Qasem Ferdowsi Tuosi (A.K.A. “Ferdowsi”) under the patronage of Mahmud of Ghazni(1) between 977 and 1010 AD(2). Commonly heralded as the “National Epic of Iran”, the Shahnameh has played a significant role in consolidating a sense of national and cultural identity within the region by putting forth a distinct code of moral and ethical values. Because of this quality, the Shahnameh has been continuously celebrated by various dynasties as a means of evoking a sense of national unity. This endorsement by various monarchs has played a significant role in cementing the Shahnameh’s popularity, influence, and cultural legacy long after the time of Ferdowsi.

The body of some 60,000 verses that comprise the Shahnameh is often divided into three sections: the mythical, the legendary or heroic, and the historical. It is notable however that the boundary between the first two of these sections is often regarded as “rather blurred”(3), and as a result they are occasionally grouped as a single section.The mythical section, which makes up about four percent of the Shahnameh(4), begins with the creation of the universe and covers a variety of stories leading up to the early legendary section. The most famous among the stories of the mythical section is the reign of the Arab king Zahhak, whose evil was physically embodied by serpents growing from his shoulders after being kissed by the devil. The legendary section of the Shahnameh comprises nearly two thirds of the poem’s body and contains many of its most famous stories, such as the adventures of the hero Rostam who served seven kings, and conquered various foes over the course of his life. The historical section begins with the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty which was conquered by Alexander the Great (A.K.A. Eskandar, Iskandar) in 330 BC, and concludes with the Arab conquest of Sasanian-ruled Persia in the 7th century(5).

The popularity of the Shahnameh through the centuries after its completion has led to its study and observation by various cultures outside of Iran, which has resulted in innumerable transliterations of the poem. Consequentially, the title of the poem, as well as various other names mentioned in its pages have had various “correct” spellings (ex: Shahnameh, Shahnama), and as this blog draws on a variety of scholarly works, one should note that there may be inconsistencies between posts with regard to certain words or names.

This project is dedicated to examining the cultural dimensions of the Shahnameh through its existing relationships with religion, women, and art. In researching these topics we have drawn on a variety of scholarly sources, all of which are cited collectively in the bibliography section of our blog, or individually in the footnotes of posts referencing specific sources.


1. Barbara Brend and Charles P. Melville, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 11.

2. Mitra Jahandideh, and Khaefi Shahab, “The Most Important Performing Arts Arisen from Shahnameh of Ferdowsi: Shahnameh-khani and Naqqali of Shahnameh,” Journal Of The Indiana Academy Of The Social Sciences 16, no. 2 (June 2013): 76.

3. Ibid, Barbra, 4.

4. Ibid, Mitra.

5. Ibid, Barbra, 4-10.

Conclusion: Women Reveal the Cultural Changes Throughout the Shahnameh

I have spent this whole semester analyzing scholar’s different points of view on the role of women in the Shahnameh. I started with addressing Gabbay’s argument that women and men are not equals in the Shahnameh and then contrasted her argument with Loveimi’s argument that women play important narrative aspects in the play and are seen as equal to male characters.(1) (2) Unsure how to proceed, I came upon an article by Dick Davis that revealed that the Shahnameh is divided up into a legendary and historic section and the roles in which women played within those parts of the poem revealed the role of women in that specific time period. (3) I, then, looked at the art and religious aspects of the Shahnameh, which displayed to me that Ferdowsi intended to capture the essence of Iranian society before the Arab takeover. Hence, I can conclude from all my research that the role of women in the Shahnameh is one in which is decided by the point in which the reader is within the narrative. The women characters show the progression of time by the way in which they change from being important to the narrative to being background characters. The Shahnameh does not capture women in a specific way–indicating that the culture of Iran is never fixed.

  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) 46-56.
  3. 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.

Conclusion of Project

Keir-Shahnameh-frontispiece-1493At the beginning of this semester, our professor gave us the choice of researching many topics throughout the semester. One of the topics she professed enthusiasm towards was the Shahnameh, otherwise known as the Persian Book of Kings. We did not know what it was, but the name “Book of Kings” sounded interesting to all of us. We were not sure what we were expecting, but as we dove deeper into research we recognized that this text had more importance to it than we thought. After an initial investigation of this text, we were struck by the amount of cultural significance it seemed to have, considering it was a poem none of us had ever heard of before. As we began our research, the question we kept in mind was what is the relationship between Iranian culture and theShahnameh? We split into three groups focusing on a different aspect of culture: women, art, and religion.

We found that the Shahnameh was a meaningful cultural artifact of Iran. The art demonstrated the conservation of Iranian culture within creative mediums and conveyed a piece of history that affected the people who read Ferdowsi. The women in the text displayed the ever-shifting and unstable place of women within Iranian culture. The religious aspects of the work showed an attempt to preserve pre-Islamic culture. Overall, the Shahnameh exemplifies the culture of Iran and it continues to touch the hearts of everyone who reads it.

(Picture Source: Frontispiece from Firdausi’s Shahnameh from the Keir Collection (1493). 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.)

Annotated Bibliography for the Persian Book of Kings



Ahmadian, Shaho, Parisa Mehdipour, Elite Club Qeshm Branch, and Iran Karo Ahmadi Dehrashid Qeshm. “The Analysis of Colours Used in the Tahmasbi Shahnameh for the Second Period of Tabriz School.” Turkish Online Journal of Design Art and Communication 6 (2016): 2735-2745.

This is an explanation of a specific aspect of Persian painting that would be lacking in the analysis of most of the art of the Shahnameh if not used. Color and light are important to Persian illustration so this explanation is incredibly valuable for any exploration of the symbolism of the Shahnameh.

Akbari, Tiymour, Sosan Bayani, Mahmod Tavosi, and Reza Shabani. “Archaelogical Analysis to Pictorial Shahnameh of Baysongor Mirza Tiymouri.” Asian Culture and History 5, no. 1 (2013): 24.

This is a comparison of the different mediums that the Shahnameh has been depicted on. It not only looks at the illustrated pages of the book, but also pottery and other ceramics that have scenes from the Shahnameh painted on them, and architecture that was influenced by it. This is an interesting perspective on the early art of the Shahnameh.

Amin, Zahra Masoudi, and Elahe Moravej. “Comparing The Scene Of Hunting Deer, Bahram Gur And Azadeh In Shahnamehs Of 1331, 1333 And 1352 Ad Copies.”

This article looks at one event that is depicted in three different copies of the Shahnameh all created very close together. It goes through the history of the time and how that influenced the Shahnamehs creations and then analyzes each image very specifically, listing the similarities and differences between each illustration. It could provide a good example for comparing and contrasting images.

Bagheri, N., & Mirzaeyan, P. (2014). “A Review of the Studies Conducted on Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh with a Focus on Feminist Criticism.” Global Journal of Art Humanities and Social Sciences, 2(8), 16-30. Retrieved February 15, 2017 from http://www.eajournals.org/wp-content/uploads/A-Review-of-the-Studies-Condcuted-On.pdf

This article reviews 14 articles that have been published centering around the topic of women. The main goal of this article was to review the arguments that have already been stated and to identify possible critiques of the works done so far. This article provides a wide breadth of research that can be used to identify key conclusions and address areas of further study. It also summarizes works that are not available through the databases that the school supplies. By using this review of the literature, a comprehensive understanding of women can be reached.

Blair, Sheila S. “The development of the Illustrated Book in Iran.” Muqarnas 10 (1993): 266-274.

This article goes in depth into the specific history of the recreations of the Shahnameh, going through the kings, princes, and calligraphers who had input into these versions of the text. It can give valuable insight into what happened to these texts throughout time, how they were received and what they meant to the people who received them. It is written by an expert in the field who has done extensive research into the physical texts.

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.

This book acquired via library summit loan, provides information relevant to a few different subjects that can be related back to the tradition of art around the Shahnameh. While looking at the historical context of the Shahnameh, this text also examines its tradition of illustration, reception in other cultures, and welfare under patron rulers.

Brewster, Paul G. “Some Parallels between the “Fêng-Shên-Yên-I” and the “Shahnameh” and the Possible Influence of the Former upon the Persian Epic.” Asian Folklore Studies 31, no. 1 (1972): 115-22. doi:10.2307/1177540.

This article discusses the parallels between the Shahnameh and the Fêng-Shên-Yên-I, a similar culturally significant compilation of Chinese myths. Whereas these two texts are similar in many regards apart from the Fêng-Shên-Yên-I being notably older, this source is valuable for evaluating the influence of other cultures on the creation of the Shahnameh.

Clinton, Jerome W. “Ferdowsi and the Illustration of the Shahnameh” in Islamic Art and Literature. Edited by Oleg Grabar, and Cynthia Robinson. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers (2001): 57-78.

This essay featured in a book obtained through interlibrary loan is an incredibly valuable resource within this project for exploring the writing style of Ferdowsi in relation to the many visual artworks that the Shahnameh inspired. Though the author generally describes Ferdowsi’s writing style as not lending itself very well to visual interpretation, perhaps the most significant comment that he makes is simply that not enough scholarly work has been done that puts the the written word of the Shahnameh into context with its illustrative counterparts.


Davis, Dick. “Iran and Aniran.” Springer. Accessed February 02, 2017. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137013408_2

This author has not only translated the Shahnameh, but he is also prevalent in many of the writings describing the inner workings of the epic and its conceptual context.  In this piece he points out that it became famous for being the first literary piece produced in the Iranian period, as well as being virtually the sole custodian of the history of pre-Islamic Iran.

Davis, Dick. “Religion in the Shahnameh.”Journal Of Human Sciences: Religion And Myth In Ferdowsi’s Thought 48, no. 3 (May 2015): 337-48.

This article discusses Ferdowsi’s choice to diverge from popular tradition at that time and write his version of Iranian history by trying not to integrating Qur’anic values.  The author claims that Ferdowsi’s attempt to write the epic from the Zoroaster perspective was not altogether successful.  Davis claims that by ordering the primary events in a certain way, as well using an entire section of the work of Daqiqi, Ferdowsi was attempting to minimize the role of religious conflict in his work.    

Davis, Dick. “The Problem of Ferdowsî’s Sources.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 116, no. 1 (1996): 48-57.

Gaining a better understanding of how the sources used by Ferdowsi influenced the structure and underlying concepts of the Shahnameh will useful when trying to make connections between the religion he followed and the previous religions of his home land.  This article makes some connections between the historical events portrayed in the Shahnameh and the major scholarly events of Ferdowsi’s time.  Discussing the product outcome of Ferdowsi’s choices about which religious view to portray in his epic, Davis bring us some relevant points about Islam in Ferdowsi’s day.   

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.

In this portion of the book Women and Medieval Epic, Davis discusses the female characters throughout the whole piece of the Shahnameh; more specifically, they look at how the women are portrayed in status and in chronology. Davis addresses how women are portrayed varying on their social class and then compare different female characters appearing at the beginning versus the end of the Shahnameh. Davis’s work will help capture the full array of female characters throughout the work and give an unique perspective on the women characters.

Davidson, Olga M. Poet and hero in the Persian Book of Kings. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

This book gives some some good insight as to the religious aspects influencing the author’s historical work, as well as meaningful themes about the religions themselves.  The author relates the idea of the poet, Ferdowsi, writing about the heroic histories of his country in a way that can be seen as celebratory of the ideals and values that came from the different religious systems.  With this book it will be possible to tease out the small pieces of information that relate directly to religion in the Shahnameh.

Eduljee, Ed. “Zoroastrian Heritage.” Zoroastrian Sects Post Arab Invasion. Accessed February 02, 2017. http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/sects/index.htm.

Tells of some of the details about the relationship between the Zoroastrians and the Muslims after the fall of the Sassanian empire.  Tells of the attempted recovery of the Zoroastrians and how they were broken down into smaller much less successful sects.

Farhat-Holzman, Laina. “The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi: An Icon to National Identity.” Comparative Civilizations Review Volume 44, no. 44, Article 6.

Discusses how the long epic poem and artistic renderings in the Book of Kings establish cultural and religious traditions of the Persian Empire. Epic poems are a part of the cultural heritage of the region and can recount traditional practices of the past. This will give context on the past identity of the region and allow for comparisons to modern identity.

Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.” Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Vikings, 2006.

This is a translated copy of the Shahnameh. We will need this copy in order to rigorously understand the source material of this project. This project can not be done without the item the project is centered around. This copy will be a good resource for all the scholarly articles we find citing specific narratives. We would not be able to understand the scholarly work around this topic without knowing what the original text says.  

Firdawsī, and Dick Davis. Sunset of Empire. Washington, DC: Mage Publishers, 2004.

This is a different compilation of Dick Davis translation with only the latter portion of the epic.  Islam plays a major role in the Shahnameh in two ways. First, Ferdowsi the author was a Muslim. And second the end of his epic is the conquest of the Sassanian empire by the Muslim Arab population. This book should tell of the final events of the Sassanian and Zoroastrian systems.

[the Fitzwilliam Museum]. “The Shahnameh: a Persian Cultural Emblem and a Timeless Masterpiece.” http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/shahnameh/

This source is an online exhibit published by The Fitzwilliam Museum, which is an affiliate of Cambridge University. While offering a broad introduction to the Shahnameh, and an extensive gallery of artworks associated with its illustration, the majority of this site focuses on four major areas including the epic’s author, literary merit, thematic structure, and history of royal patronage.

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.

In this article, Gabbay explores the relationship between one of the Persian Kings and his slave girl. This article will help shed light into the male/ female dynamic and the role it plays in the culture of Persia. Furthermore, the story between this King and his slave girl has been regarded as being an example of how Ferdowsi is not progressive in his view of women. Gabbay argues that although the story touches on feminine attributes it is still inferior to masculinity. It also compares Shahnama to other works that have depicted the same story and mentions how compared to the other works the Shahnama was not progressive.

Grabar, Oleg., and Robinson, Cynthia. Islamic Art and Literature. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2001.

This book obtained through library summit loan, examines the illustration of the Shahnameh within the context of Islamic art and literature. Accordingly, this source is useful for providing information on Islamic art styles and traditions that are not directly relevant to the Shahnameh.

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.

This short documentary film acquired via library summit loan, examines the development of painting the Shahnameh (“miniatures”) over three centuries, and under three patronizing dynasties. This sources also explores the relationship between the styles used in Shahnameh painting and other relevant art forms during this period.

Ghasemzadeh, Behnam. “Framework–architecture in iranian miniatures.” ERAS: European Review of Artistic Studies 5, no. 1 (2014): 34-48.

This article provides an interesting perspective on the art of the Shahnameh not seen in many other sources. It connects the depictions of architecture in the Safavid era with the actual architecture of the time, including analysis of perspective and volume.

Hillenbrand, Robert. Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings. Vol. 2. Gower Publishing, Ltd., 2004.

This is a collection of articles written by experts in the study of the Shahnameh who spend a lot of time expanding on the history of the Shahnameh and then analyzing their finds. They go through the history of specific versions of the Shahnameh as well as their relation to the people who encountered the text.

Jahandideh, Mitra, And Shahab Khaefi. “The Most Important Performing Arts Arisen from Shahnameh of Ferdowsi: Shahnameh-khani and Naqqali of Shahnameh.” Journal Of The Indiana Academy Of The Social Sciences 16, no. 2 (June 2013): 75-86.

This article describes two styles of performance art that developed specifically around the tradition of retelling stories from the Shahnameh. While the first of these performance art styles involves the recitation of verses from the Shahnameh in the form of song, the second can be described as an active form of narration that utilizes a variety of stylized intonations, expressions, and gestures to create an engaging display (similar to acting). Whereas much of our research focuses on the visual illustrative traditions surrounding the Shahnameh, this source is important for showing the broadness and variety of artistic traditions inspired by this culturally significant epic.

Kasiri, Atoosa Azam. “Epic And Mystic Hero In Persian Culture – a Comparative Study on The Characters of Hero in Shahnameh of Firdausi Besides Persian Miniatures.”

This article goes into a lot of depth about how the depiction of the heros of the Shahnameh changes based on the time period and who was creating the images. The signs that mark a hero in the illustrations changes based on what was important to the creator and having that knowledge is important to be able to analyze artwork.

Leoni, Author:. “The Shahnama Of Shah Tahmasp”. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. N.p., 2017. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.

This series of essays provides a rich historical lens to examine the art of the Shahnameh with, including history of illustrated Islamic texts, rulers from other parts of the world, and other art mediums that were common at the time. The knowledge from researchers working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art specifically in Islamic studies could be incredibly valuable to us for understanding the context in which the Shahnameh was written.

Loveimi, Soheila. “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh.” English Language Teaching 9, no. 5 (2016): 46.

Loveimi, in this piece, discusses the role that women played in this larger context of the epic on the topic of fatefulness. They assert that women were portrayed as equal throughout the epic and that women played vital roles in shaping the characters of the kings. The women were never given superficial characterization, and they all had worth in their characters. This adds another interesting perspective to the project, especially considering that Loveimi focuses on the characterization of the female characters throughout the piece.

Mahallati, Mohammad Jafar Amir. “Ethics of War and Peace in the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi.” Iranian Studies 48, no. 6 (November 2015): 905-931.

Talks on the ethics of war and peace in reference to the Shahnameh. As one of the most influential literary pieces in Iranian culture, it provides insight into the practices of war (or peacetime) in Iran’s past.

Marzolph, Ulrich. “The Shahnameh in Print: The Lithographed Editions of the Persian National Epic.”

This article goes into detail about a very early printed recreation of the Shahnameh and brings up a culture that has not been talked about in any other source so far. It reveals the context of some of the earliest versions of the Shahnameh we have.

Mehri, Gholamreza. “Aesthetics of Islamic Miniature Art During the Periods of Safavid and Timurid Rules in Iran.” Ilorin Journal of Religious Studies 4, no. 2 (2014): 1-12.

This is a history of two specific and important periods to the illustration of the Shahnameh. Both periods had a large effect on the images in the Shahnameh, and this article expands beyond just the Persian area into Europe and the rest of the world. It also spends a lot of time analyzing the effect of Islam on the images.

Meri, J. W. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Routledge, 2006. 727-729.

This book has a good description of the basic aspects of the Shahnameh.  It gives important dates, names and concepts crucial to the understanding of the text. It also gives clues as to some of the ideals held by the author that fall in line with the teachings of Islam.

Moravej, Elahe. “A review on seventh labor portrait in three Shahnameh: Ilkhanate, Baysonqor, Tahamasbi.” International Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies (IJHCS) ISSN 2356-5926 3, no. 2 (2016): 1763-1777.

This text compares the images of different versions of the Shahnameh created throughout history and can give a valuable point of view on how the texts and illustrations vary. This can be influenced by the time and place of creation, as well as the person who asked for it to be created.

Motafakerazad, M. and L. Dobakhty. 2016. “Studying the Concept of Dragon in Iranian Ancient Culture.” Social Sciences (Pakistan) 11 (16): 3976-3980. doi:10.3923/sscience.2016.3976.3980. http://www.scopus.com.

This article discusses one symbol that appears commonly in the Shahnameh and other Islamic art. It discusses the significance of symbols in relation to morals and the devil.

Mozafari, Nasrin, and Faranak Siyanat. “The Status of Women in Shahnameh.” Language in India 16, no. 7 (2016).

Mozafari and Siyanat take a closer look at the misogynistic claims about the Shahnameh. They assert that the characters that expressed negative attitudes towards women were only in the perspective of military affairs, and thus, the misogynistic claims are not rightfully put. Furthermore, they address that women are subjects to be admired throughout the stories and are depicted as great and good. This perspective will be used to bring to light how Persians viewed women. In this case, Mozafari and Siyanat are arguing that women were only negatively viewed if it involved battle–asserting that women during those times had no role in the battlefield.

O’Rourke, Anne. “Role of Women in the Shahnama Discussed at Sackler Gallery.” Washington Report on Middles East Affairs 30, no. 2 (March 2011): 55-56. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed January 27, 2017)

This recording is from a discussion where a couple of speakers comments on the role that women played in this large epic. The recording was taken during the “Shanaman: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings” exhibit at the Smithsonian. The recording will be a preliminary exploration of what scholars are saying about women in this epic. The speaker highlights that there is three female rulers present in the first half of the poem and mentions how the poem stays true to its zoroastrian roots by putting focus on physical pleasures.

Pierce, Laurie. “Serpents and Sorcery: Humanity, Gender, and the Demonic in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.” Iranian Studies 48, no. 3 (May 2015): 349-367.

An overview of the demonic encounters discussed in the Shahnameh, both tangible and intangible. Discusses the demonic encounters as symbols of humanity and lack thereof and even goes on to highlight differences in how genders fought evil in the book. A focus will be put on the author’s claims about how different gender fought evil in the book. A relation will be made between the text’s depiction and the art’s depiction of events. Additionally, religion also comes into the context of this text due to the beliefs people about the supernatural.

Princeton University. The Shahnameh Project. http://etcweb.princeton.edu/shahnama/start.epl

This site serves as an archive for book paintings or “Persian Miniatures” that depict scenes from the Shahnameh. This source is vital to our research for providing an entire collection of works in the artistic-genre most relevant to the traditional illustrations of the Shahnameh.

Robinson, B. W., Abū Al-Qāsim Ḥasan. Firdawsī, and Arthur George. Warner. The Persian Book of Kings: An Epitome of The Shahnama of Firdawsi. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.

This book breaks down the essentials of the Shahnameh and will provide insight into the author’s intent.  It also interprets some of the major events concerning religious aspects of the Shahnameh and the fall of the Persian empire to the Muslims.  It also gives some easy to understand information about the interactions between the Arabs and Persians prior to complete downfall of Persia.  

Rührdanz, Karin. “About a group of truncated Shāhnāmas: A Case Study in the Commercial Production of Illustrated Manuscripts in the Second Part of the Sixteenth Century.” Muqarnas (1997): 118-134.

This article is important because it deals with the reaction to the Shahnameh and why certain versions of the Shahnameh and works inspired by it were later not accepted. This includes how the illustrations of the works added to this reaction. This is important for understanding what cultural impact both the text of the Shahnameh and the images in it had on the societies that read the book.

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

This is a video of a lecture done by Dick Davis at SOAS University of London. In the lecture, Davis talks about how women in the beginning of the poem are presented differently from the way they are presented later in the poem. He argues that depending on what part of the poem you are in certain traits of women are praiseworthy and other traits are condemned. This provides a different interpretation in that other articles on this topic do not address the difference in the treatment of women throughout the poem. Davis’s argument challenges the notion that the Shahnameh is consistent in its treatment of women characters.

Tavani, Mohammad Fathi. “Representation of the Interior Design of the Islamic Royal Courts in the Islamic Miniature Paintings.” PhD diss., Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU)-Doğu Akdeniz Üniversitesi (DAÜ), 2014.

This is an incredibly in depth comparison of the actual motifs and symbolism of the architecture with the patterns depicted in the Shahnameh. It goes through images individually and provides a good example for analysis of specific illustrations.

Welch, Stuart Cary and Annemarie Schimmel. “Islamic Art.” Recent Acquisitions, no. 1986/1987 (1986): 8. doi:10.2307/1513701.

In this article, Welch and Schimmel use several examples to discuss common trends and tropes of Islamic art, including the artists, calligraphy, and the arts ties to history, particularly in the case of the Shahnameh.

Ferdowsi’s Religious Choices in the Shahnameh

Abu ‘l-Qasem Ferdowsi, author of the Shahnameh and Shi’ia Muslim is an enduring figure in the Iranian national identity.  Although the majority of Iranians are Shi’ia muslims, Ferdowsi completed his poem while the Sunna, Abbasid dynasty was waning in political power.  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 pre and post Islamic mythical and religious Iranian history and the intricacies of the author’s own character create a rich, complex culture in the Shahnameh.  Although at times it is historically inaccurate and contradictory it remains an intriguing topic considering the present interest western culture has concerning Islam in the Middle East.  This blog should serve to dispel some misconceptions that may exist about Middle Eastern culture as well as improve understanding about some historical context surrounding recent world events.

A man of moderate means before he wrote this epic poem, Ferdowsi was hoping for an immense reward to provide his daughter with a large dowry.  He wrote this poem over the course of his life intending to receive that reward from the Sultan Mahmoud, a powerful suzerainty of the Abbasids.  In his epic he did not use Islamic ideology in order 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…” (1).  The political upheaval caused by changing power dynamics in Islamic culture and middle eastern society at that time may have caused the Persian Muslim author to focus more on his local cultures’ religous past and less on the religion they adopted after the Islamic conquest. 

There are several power dynamics that possibly influenced Ferdowsi’s choice to exclude Qur’anic views. For starters the Sultan Mahmud, who did not have strong convictions about religion, was a powerful political leader east of Iran.  His story was a dramatic rise to power after being born into a lowly family.  The Shi’a Buyid dynasty was locally powerful  in Iran and was one of many short term dynasties that came and went in what was a politically unstable region during that era.  Both of these governments were under the waning power of the Sunni Abbasid’s.  It is worth noting that the Abbasid’s  power in Ferdowsi’s life was more Religious than political.  Turkic and Mongol armies raiding in his area were also a source of great political unrest. 

The fact that Mahmoud who was a strong leader with little religious interest other than political need might have combined with the religious control exerted over Ferdowsi by the Sunna Abbasid’s to influence the religious avoidance pointed out by Davis.  Ferdowsi’s hopes to be richly rewarded by Mahmoud were dashed when the Sultan received the work with far less exaltation than was expected.  The character of political leader who the author expected to be paid by is likely to have played a factor in the decisions he made about how to compose his epic history.  As Mahmoud came to power toward the end of Ferdowsi’s life one has to wonder if these decisions was made intentionally or not.

Theodor Noldeke notes that in reference to Mahmoud “…it is quite possible that his zeal was far less turned against the Zoroastrians, than against the Muslim heretics.” (2) The Muslim heretics in this context being the Shi’ia Muslims.  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” (3). 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. 

This was the author’s goal we can assume that Ferdowsi’s avoids the Islamic tradition in order to focus more on his local ethic group’s more intimate cultural past. Ferdowsi chose to insert a fairly large section of work from Daqiqi, another poet of that time, which was used 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” (4).

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” (5).  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’s work evokes ideas and questions that prompt a deeper study of the intricacies specific to Iranian pre-Islamic and Islamic religious history.

  1. Davis, Dick. “Religion in the Shahnameh.” JOURNAL OF HUMAN SCIENCES: RELIGION AND MYTH IN FERDOWSI’S THOUGHT 48, no. 3 (May 2015): 337-48.
  2. Nöldeke, Theodor, and Leonid Th. Bogdanov. The Iranian national epic or the Shahnamah. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1979.
  3. Davidson, Olga M. Poet and hero in the Persian Book of Kings. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
  4. Meri, J. W. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Routledge, 2006. 727-729.
  5. Firdawsī, and Dick Davis. Sunset of empire. Washington, DC: Mage Publishers, 2004.

Opposing Views of Ferdowsi’s portrayal of Religion

Religion plays a quiet yet important role in Ferdowsi’s Iranian epic the Shahnameh.  That role is complex and best answered by examining different viewpoints.  The first view involves looking at the poem to see if the embodiment of the human condition is heavily influenced by religion.  The second aspect of the national epic that must be examined is the religious context and suppositions that can be derived from out knowledge of the author.

Two prominent scholars on the subject of the Shahnameh present interpretations of this complex subject in different ways.  Dick Davis tends to argue that Ferdowsi was attempting to avoid religious conflict at all costs.  He believes that this was because of a personal abhorrence to the subject. Davis also states that Ferdowsi seems to be lacking in true knowledge about the sate of religion in pre-Islamic Iran. (1) Knowledge about Ferdowsi’s level of devotedness to Islam is not discoverable in the Shahnameh because the author chooses to include little to no Qur’anic influence.

Olga Davidson, a second prominent scholar on the subject, tends to see questions concerning the mythological status of the epic answerable in two different ways.  The first way is through the actions and interactions of the characters in the play.  The second is by interpreting the intent behind Ferdowsi’s inclusion of certain religious words and sections of text relating directly to religion.  She tends to see a Zoroastrian world view throughout the text that Ferdowsi creates using certain Persian themes.

Davidson also points out that the inclusion of Daqiqi’s work to describe the advent of Zoroaster gives the poem stronger historical accuracy about Pre-Islamic mythology.  Daqiqi was a Zoroastrian poet and considered to be somewhat of a rival to Ferdowsi.  Using Daqiqi’s work as a way to present the beginnings of Zoroastrianism was a good way to avoid involving himself in potential religious conflict, while still confronting the issue of their ancient Persian religion in a way that would acceptable for Shia’ Muslims.

Both Scholars tend to agree that Ferdowsi’s portrayal of the human interactions in the play tend to portray divine concepts in a more human way than religion.  For example Rostam the hero is in constant conflict trying to uphold faith, justice and truth as pillars of society.  Truth is the main pillar of Zoroastrianism.  Faith is one of the pillars of Islam.  Davis and Davidson tend to see a combination of factors underlying this mixing of religious content.  The most logical conclusion I came to is that political unrest and a desire to retain one’s own cultural past caused Ferdowsi to produce this unique blend.

  1. Davidson, Olga M. Poet and hero in the Persian Book of Kings. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
  2. Davis, Dick. “Religion in the Shahnameh.” JOURNAL OF HUMAN SCIENCES: RELIGION AND MYTH IN FERDOWSI’S THOUGHT 48, no. 3 (May 2015): 337-48.
  3. Firdawsī, and Dick Davis. Sunset of empire. Washington, DC: Mage Publishers, 2004.
  4. Meri, J. W. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Routledge, 2006. 727-729.
  5. Nöldeke, Theodor, and Leonid Th. Bogdanov. The Iranian national epic or the Shahnamah. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1979.





Cultural Influences and Shahnameh Illustrations (or How We Shape Our Stories)

When I started researching the artwork of the Shahnameh, I had one core question that I wanted to answer: why have people recreated this poem so many times over the years? It quickly became clear to me that the answer lay mostly in what most of them wanted to accomplish with their versions of the Shahnameh. From the early dynasties, the Ilkhanids, they wished to establish their legitimacy as rulers of Iran. As they discovered the popularity of the Shahnameh they connected to kings like Iskandar who was a foreign ruler accepted by the people, as well as enthronement scenes, as justification for their legitimacy (1). Their connection to the text came from its history as an example of Iranian and Persian culture that they could use. This trend was continued by the later rulers, as the versions of the Shahnameh became more and more elaborate.

But even if this was the intention of the people who commissioned artists to make copies of the Shahnameh, their influence does not stop there. The truth of our world is that no media can be created in a vacuum without the context of its creation affecting it, and there are ample examples of this happening with the Shahnameh. As I stated before, the Ilkhanids connected to Iskandar and so in their version of the Shahnameh has more illustrations for that section of the story than any other section and the artwork of that version shows eastern influences because the Ilkhanids brought those ideas over with their empire (2). Later, during the Timurid dynasty, a prince commissioned a copy and instead of plentiful scenes of a hero like Rostam, there were multiple illustrations of princes and their actions (3).


Each dynasty imbued their versions with their own style, like the Timurid’s intricate architecture, copied from real life onto the page to serve as settings for the characters (4). As I talked about in this post, even when Tahmineh has sex with Rostam without marrying him in the original poem, it is sometimes edited to have her hastily get married beforehand, and the artwork reflects this change in attitudes (5). Later, in the 1500s, a group of shortened Shahnameh’s were created, usually focusing on a specific set of stories like, again, Iskandar’s journey. This shows specific interest in different elements of Ferdowsi’s poem that were connected to culture (6).

People were affected by the Shahnameh regardless of their social standing, as shown by its popularity before the Ilkhanids and ceramic illustrations that appear from that period, and the reaction once it became more publicly available. When lithographed versions of the Shahnameh began to be printed in the early 19th century, they were incredibly popular. This begs the question however, why? These people weren’t rulers trying to gain legitimacy or prove they could make a prettier book, so why did they want these copies? Precisely because the people I talked about above wanted it (7). The expectation that the Shahnameh should be richly illustrated to keep with its royal past has carried on up to today, with new copies being made even now.

To go back to the original question, the reason that so many different people recreated this one poem is because it exemplifies one culture: the culture of Iran. The fact that it preserves the history and mythology of the Persian kings is what first drew the Ilkhanids to it, and their legacy was continued down through time and social class to affect everyone who reads it even today. This poem doesn’t exist in isolation, and the cultural context around it is part of what has allowed it to persist on until today.

  1. Blair, Sheila S. “The development of the Illustrated Book in Iran.” Muqarnas 10 (1993): 266-274.
  2. Ibid., pg. 270
  3. Ibid., pg. 272
  4. Ghasemzadeh, Behnam. “Framework–architecture in iranian miniatures.” ERAS: European Review of Artistic Studies 5, no. 1 (2014): 34-48.
  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. Rührdanz, Karin. “About a group of truncated Shāhnāmas: A Case Study in the Commercial Production of Illustrated Manuscripts in the Second Part of the Sixteenth Century.” Muqarnas (1997): 118-134.
  7. Marzolph, Ulrich. “The Shahnameh in Print: The Lithographed Editions of the Persian National Epic.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 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.