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.)

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.

Shahnameh Women Through a Religious Context

I recently talked with one of my group members about the religious aspects of the work and whether those aspects gave insight into the portrayal of females. As he wrote in his post (link), the Shahnameh does not emphasize Islam in the work. Ferdowsi was instead preoccupied with preserving the main religion of Persia, Zoroastrian, before the Arab conquest. Thus, the religious context of the work focused on the Zoroastrian worldview instead of an Islamic worldview. He also emphasized that Ferdowsi’s writing was constrained by the regime he wrote under and he could not take many liberties in discussing religion.

With all that in mind, I looked at one of his sources “Religion in the Shahnameh” by Dick Davis for more context. Davis argued that  Ferdowsi emphasized ethical problems instead of dwelling on religious aspects. The one religious event of the whole book is when the prophet Zoroaster appeared at Goshtasp’s court and Goshtasp is converted to Zoroastrian. This scene was written by Daqiqi, another poet of the time. Ferdowsi made sure to point out in the narrative that he did not write that segment of the Shahnameh.(1) Davis used this example to assert that religion was not a major aspect of the Shahnameh for Ferdowsi. One of the only scenes that depicted a religious event was done by a completely another person, emphasizing that he did not want to have religion be a big part of the narrative. Ferdowsi acknowledged that Zoroastrianism was part of the culture of Iran at the time, but he did not go into depth about the actual preachings of Zoroaster. The Shahnameh was definitely not meant to be a religious text or a biography of key Zoroastrian figures.

In looking at the text, however, I did find instances where men and women did religious acts. Neither gender was barred from having a relationship with a higher being. Women and men could both freely express their religion in a public space. For example, Azadeh, the slave girl of Bahram Gur, played her lyre and sang a Zoroastrian prayer. (2) She was not limited from demonstrating her faith and devotion. Her expression of religion seemed like a normal occurrence and her acts were not called out for as being abnormal. Bahram Gur also prayed multiple times throughout his narrative to ask for forgiveness from God. (3) He used his religion as a form of retribution and forgiveness in his character flaws. Similarly to Azadeh, prayer was used as a way to show that partaking in religious acts was an everyday occurrence. I noticed from the translation, however, that Davis was right in saying that Zoroastrianism is only explored on the surface level. Ferdowsi’s understanding of that religion does not even break the surface and he never incorporated Zoroastrian preaches into the poem. In summary, Ferdowsi used religion as a cultural element of the characters instead of a guiding force of the narrative.

I did not get very far in my analysis of the role of females in the Shahnameh by looking at the religious aspects of the work. Religion is not a big factor in the Shahnameh. Ferdowsi spent much more of his time focusing on battles and politics and how they incorporated big ethical issues. As far as women in the Shahnameh through a religious context goes, they were allowed to practice religion and were equal to men in terms of devotion and practice. The religious aspects of the work are only used as a superficial preservation of Iranian culture.


  1. Davis, Dick. “Religion in the Shahnameh.”Journal Of Human Sciences: Religion And Myth In Ferdowsi’s Thought 48, no. 3 (May 2015): 340.
  2. Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.” Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Vikings, 2006. 585.
  3. Ibid., 580.