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.)

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).

iskandar_28alexander_the_great29_at_the_talking_tree

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.

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

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

 Tahminah

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

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

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

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

Women in the Art of the Shahnameh

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

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

sohrab_fights_gordafarid1

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

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

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

 

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

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