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

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Religion in the Art of the Shahnameh

The Shahnameh was created in a religious context; Ferdowsi was a shi’a Muslim (1), and he wrote the book for his Muslim rulers, however, the actual text of the Shahnameh does not contain very much reference to religion. As one of my other group members has discussed in this blog post, Ferdowsi may have had various reasons for avoiding religion in his poem, but references to it still remain. One of Ferdowsi’s goals when writing the Shahnameh was to “preserve the legends and memory of the past,” (2) specifically of the Persian kings who had ruled before the current time, and they were not Muslim. Even though Ferdowsi starts the poem with a traditional Islamic introduction, elements of Zoroastrianism are present throughout the Shahnameh such as the depiction of the beginning of the universe and the presence of the prophet Zoroaster. This is not the case with the artwork.

I have talked before about the disparity between the interests and influences of the artwork and text of the Shahnameh in the context of their depictions of women, and a similar gap can be seen in the context of religion. Even though Ferdowsi included a fair amount of Zoroastrian elements in the Shahnameh does not mean that the people who later recreated it included them in their art. There are Zoroastrian characters who appear, but, like the women, they do not appear often and when they do it is most common to see them in the context of others’ stories. All of the later dynasties, the Ilkhanids, the Safavid, the Qajar, and more, who connected with the text and commissioned it to be recopied were Muslim and the art was tailored to them, so it is possible that Zoroastrian motifs were left out intentionally, they simply were not known or common at that time, or one of many other reasons. But Zoroastrianism is not the only religion that appears in the Shahnameh.

The artwork of the Shahnameh  is somewhat tricky to analyze because it doesn’t include very many blatantly Islamic elements either. One of the reasons for this could be that most illustrations of the Shahnameh are of scenes from the Shahnameh translated fairly literally into a picture. This means most of the illustrations are of characters engaging in combat or in their palaces, instead of doing particularly religious things. But, there are some key aspects that appear, often in the interpretation of characters and events; the lens one uses to view media does affect how it is conveyed. One place that this appears is the interpretation of the Zoroastrian angel, Sorush. Both Ferdowsi and many artists who depict him show him wearing green, as Ferdowsi connected him to an Islamic figure, Khezr (3). All appearances of this character have been affected by one person’s religious context, and a similar phenomenon can be seen at a larger scale.


The first people to create an illustrated copy of the Shahnameh that we still have today, the Ilkhanids, spread many practices, traditions, and ideas throughout their empire, and this influence can be seen in the artwork of the Shahnameh of that time. But the influence was not contained to just illustrations of the Shahnameh, it also spread to depictions of Muslim figures, and it was around this time that the first shi’ite depictions of Ali as Muhammad’s successor were created (4). Throughout the Shahnameh’s historical lifespan, its illustrations have borne a striking resemblance to many Muslim pieces of art (5).

The main question is why are there so few traces of religion in the Shahnameh’s illustrations? I addressed one theory earlier, but to me it seems like it is because the differences in various editions of the Shahnameh come down to the people they were created for. These rulers and readers have deep connections to the text that made them want to commision entirely new copies of it, and the differences between them tell is more than differences in depictions of religion.

  1. 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.
  2. Ibid., pg. 11
  3. Ibid., pg. 76
  4. Blair, Sheila S. “The development of the Illustrated Book in Iran.” Muqarnas 10 (1993): 266-274.
  5. Welch, Stuart Cary and Annemarie Schimmel. “Islamic Art.” Recent Acquisitions, no. 1986/1987

Picture 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.

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.


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.

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.


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.