The Performance Arts of the Shahnameh

The stories contained in the Shahnameh have historically inspired the creation of numerous works of art in a diverse and often visually focused collection of mediums. However, whereas  a great deal of scholarly work on the Shahnameh has been focused on visual art forms such as the tradition of manuscript paintings, this, in some cases has overshadowed the significance of the performance art traditions that have long been used to tell the stories of Ferdowsi’s epic.

In the the article The Most Important Performing Arts Arisen from Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (1), Mitra Jahandideh, and Shahab Khaefi describe the traditions of “Shahnameh-khani” and the “Naqqali of Shahnameh” as the most historically significant performing art forms dedicated solely to expressing Ferdowsi’s epic poem. The Shahnameh-Khani is essentially the singing of Shahnameh verses from memory or from a book, with perfect word-for-word dictation. During certain points in history, the practice of Shahnameh-Khani was accompanied by music, however this was subject to change, particularly under the laws of Islamic regimes which imposed restrictions on music in public spaces. The Naqqali of Shahnameh involves the dramatic storytelling or narration of the Shahnameh’s various stories with specific inflections, movements, and emotions that distinguish it as a unique art form. The performer who tells these stories is called a “Naqqal”, and during a performance they might play several different roles, and accompany their narration with musical instruments or painted scrolls (2).

Historically, these two art forms have been somewhat differentiated by the background of their audience and the circumstances that their performances would occur under. Mostly, this division manifested along the lines of class, education, and the formality of performance. While performances of the Shahnameh-khani were frequently reserved for the courts of rulers or formal events, the light narrative style of the Naqqali of Shahnameh was often performed specifically for the lower classes lacking in education and advanced verbal skills. While this distinction between these art forms should not be seen as absolute, the frequent designation of the Naqqali of Shahnameh for lower classes allows us to understand the role of performance art forms in circulating the stories of the Shahnameh among common people. In essence, this characterizes the performance arts related to the Shahnameh as seemingly more accessible than their visual art counterparts such as manuscript paintings which were often only created on the commission for individuals of considerable wealth.

While lacking the historical prominence of traditional art forms related to the Shahnameh such as manuscript painting, it is clear that these performance art styles are among the oldest traditions dedicated to telling the stories contained in Ferdowsi’s writing. In fact, the tradition of telling these stories through performance seems to be at least as old as the Shahnameh itself, as regular performance of the Shahnameh-Khani before the king seemed to have been a part of Ferdowsi’s process over the thirty years it took him to write his epic poem (3). In this sense, performance can be understood as the intended delivery mechanism for the Shahnameh, and the continued tradition of performing these stories might be seen as contributing to its influence within Persian culture more than any other factor. As performance art forms, the significance of the Shahnameh-Khani and the Naqqali of Shahnameh is largely contained in their most basic cultural function: “familiarizing Iranians with their national narratives” (4), which they seem to do more of than any other art form dedicated to telling the stories of the Shahnameh.



1. 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): 75-86.

2. Ibid, 77.

3. Ibid, 78.

4. Ibid, 84.


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.

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.