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.

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.

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.

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.


(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 
  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.


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.

Loveimi: Women’s Role in the Shahnameh

In the last post, I identified an argument by Alyssa Gabbay where she argued that a successful relationship between men and women in the Shahnameh was characterized by the male having authority over the female character. She concluded that the Bahram-Gur story was the evidence needed to support the claim that women had lower social status than men in the Shahnameh. (1) In this post, I will discuss “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh”, an article by Soheila Loveimi, that argued that Ferdowsi captured women as equal to males in the Shahnameh.

Loveimi identified multiple women in her article as evidence for women having a progressive and empowering role within the text. One of the women she identified is Pourandokht, the successor to Ardeshir Shiravi. She came to power after King Faramin died, and she focused her reign on helping the poor. Loveimi defined her as a kind ruler who possessed the love of the people. The people loved her so much that when she passed away 6 months after being appointed the people only had good names for her. Overall, her reign was characterized as being peaceful and prosperous, which was very different from the other Kings of the book whose reign focused solely on conquest or battling foreign rulers. Loveimi does not compare Pourandokht with other rulers; they only identified that she was a female ruler who was seen in a good light. Loveimi used this character to implicitly assert that women are not all placed in villainous roles within the Shahnameh.(2)

Another woman that Loveimi used to provide evidence for the assertion of women possessing a powerful role within the work is a character referred to as “Peasant’s wife.” This character spoke out against one of the King Bahram Gur for his mistreatment of villagers. The King had been leading his army constantly through the village’s land–causing damage and grief. She called him “cruel” and “oppressive.” (3) Loveimi implied that it was due to the Peasant’s wife that Bahram Gur eventually saw the error in his ways and repented for his sins. The King listened to this woman’s claims and eventually changed his ways. The Peasant’s wife spoke out against oppression and in return was rewarded with the King addressing the village’s grievances. (4)

Additionally, Gordafarid is another woman who is used as a confirmation of the female’s revolutionary role within the text. Gordafarid is a female warrior who picked up arms after she heard that her leader, Hejir, had been taken by King Sohrab’s army. Upset by the shame Hejir had brought to the White fortress, she dressed herself up as a knight, placed a helmet on her head to hide her identity, and rode her horse to challenge Sohrab. Gordafarid is an example of a female character participating in battle and possessing qualities of a male warrior. She comes into contact with King Sohrab and is only outed as a woman when her helmet is taken off. She is seen as having control over her own fate and works to make her own goals met.(5) She is one of the only female warriors of the work, but her story is nevertheless important in declaring that women do possess roles that are involved in a battle.

Loveimi uses all three of these characters as evidence for their assertion that men and women are on equal footing in the Shahnameh. A weakness in Loveimi’s argument is that they do not clearly state how certain characters are examples of the Shahnameh’s progressive characterization of women. They pull out characters as evidence but does not ever compare them to the male characters who are of the same ranking. For instance, in discussing Gordafarid, Loveimi does not compare the description of her to the description of a male warrior. It would have been a more compelling argument if they compared the diction of a male warrior with the diction of Gordafarid. Furthermore, the characters they do pull out sometimes do not capture the equality she would like to assert. An example of this would be the Peasant’s wife story. The Peasant’s wife speaks out about Bahram Gur’s oppression, but it’s not until there is no milk in the village cow’s udder does he realize the errors in his ways. To me, it seemed like it was more of the supernatural element that convinced him to repent and ask God for forgiveness than the peasant’s wife’s declaration.

Overall, Loveimi does address an interesting counter to Gabbay’s argument but does not completely dismiss Gabbay’s assertions. I  now understand that women take on many different roles within the work, but I am not completely convinced that the Shahnameh captured men and women on equal footing. I am especially unconvinced when looking at the art piece below:


(Source: Sohrab fights Gordafarid. 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.)

This artwork shows Gordafarid being defeated by Sohrab. Loveimi described her as being a fearless warrior, but this art piece is definitely not painting her as that. In this art piece, her face is not shown and her body is askew–creating the image of a dishonorable defeat. The artist who interpreted this scene does not see her as being a warrior on par with the other male soldiers. Once again, I am faced with different interpretations of the work. Loveimi claimed that Gordafarid was a fearless warrior that was well respected. The above art piece showed her as a clumsy opponent who is easily defeated by the King Sohrab. I decided I had to go to the original text to see how Ferdowsi depicted the scene.

Looking at the text of the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi described her as being a well-experienced warrior who was trained with the bow and lance. She challenged Sohrab, but is defeated relatively quickly with her helmet being snatched from her head; her hair “streamed out, and her face shone like a splendid sun.” (6) This is where the text differs from the art piece. The art piece does not show Gordafarid face; thus ignoring the description that Ferdowsi had of this female character. Furthermore, Ferdowsi also states that she “brought no shame on [her] people due to her defeat. (7) The text of the Shahnameh provided evidence for Loveimi’s interpretation while distinguishing the art piece as being an inaccurate depiction of the event.

By looking exclusively at the cast of female characters, the Shahnameh took on the characteristic as being a progressive work that captures female characters in a good light. Loveimi does assert that the wide cast does imply that women are an important part of the text, but they are unable to clearly state their relationship with men and how that influences their role within the work. Furthermore, the artwork reflects that woman did not have an equal relationship with males and some female characters are depicted differently from how they are perceived in the text. The Shahnameh text supported Loveimi’s argument regarding Gordafarid’s description, but it is unable to completely address Loveimi’s weaknesses in their argument.

I, however, will not end here! I will continue to analyze female characterization and the relationship woman had with male characters. I still have several other sources that will further this research.

More to come!

  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): 47.
  3. Ibid., 48.
  4. Ibid., 48.
  5. Ibid., 49.
  6. Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.” Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Vikings, 2006. 191-192.
  7. Ibid., 193.

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.

Gabbay: Role of Women in the Shahnameh and the Female/Male Dynamic

The Shahnameh focuses primarily on the Persian Kings and their conquests all through pre-Islamic Persian era, but women are also a big part of the story. The way that males and females interact throughout the poem can provide insight into how people of different genders act in relation to one another and identify their roles within Persian society. For my first post, I decided to focus on this topic of the female and male relationship; more specifically I will analyze the article “Love Gone Wrong, Then Right Again: Male/Female Dynamics in the Bahram Gur-Slave Girl Story,” by Alyssa Gabbay. I chose this work for the first post because her argument focuses on one singular story instead of the whole poem. By looking at an individual story first, I can start to explore the women’s role in Persian culture and start building upon the already established literature.   

To understand Gabbay’s argument, one must first know the story of Bahram Gur and his slave girl, Azada. The story goes that Bahram Gur took Azada on a hunt with him. Two deer appeared and Bahram Gur asked her which one he should shoot: the female or the male. Azada replies with “‘men of battle do not kill deer.’” (1) When Bahram Gur shoots and kills the deer she begins to cry and says: “This is not manliness: you are not a man; you have a demon’s spirit.” (2) Angrily, he throws her off his camel and rides over her–killing her. Gabbay focuses on this scene to make her argument.

Gabbay’s main argument was the relationship dynamic of Bahram Gur and his slave girl declares that “successful love depends on an unequal relationship between the sexes and on a woman’s obedience to her mate.” (3) She first supports her claim by breaking down the characters to their gender roles. She identifies Bahram Gur as always maintaining authority and power throughout the story and being associated with hunting, a symbol of aggression and skill. He embodies the typical stereotype of masculinity. Azada, on the other hand, is characterized by her physical beauty, her ability to play lyre, and ultimately her status as a slave, someone with no power.  Gabbay points out that she “personifies the medieval stereotype of the woman who is foolish, ruled by her emotions, and unable to hold her tongue.” (4) Azada is not any different from the characterizations of women during that time period; one in which women are seen as permissive to males and foolishly compassionate. By looking at the characterization of Bahram Gur and Azada, Gabbay asserts that Ferdowsi supports a relationship dynamic where males are superior to females.

To back up her claim further, Gabbay further asserts that the story immediately following Azada’s death“… seems to support the notion that Bahram Gur admirably fulfills the requirement of being a good hunter–and a good man. Azada is wrong in declaring that Bahram Gur is no man.” (5) In the next story, Bahram Gur shoots a lion with one arrow and hunts ostriches. Mundhir, the guardian of Bahram Gur, immediately demands that the best artist must come and depict his skills. Bahram Gur is seen in a good light, where his decision to kill Azada does not result in consequences. He is glorified in this story and Gabbay asserts that the cost is the lowering down of Azada to that of an animal.

Gabbay shows that males are seen as superior in terms of the Bahram Gur story. From this point onward, I will use other scholarly articles to challenge and to support Gabbay’s claims. I, additionally, will collaborate with my fellow group members to see how this gender dynamic is seen in the art and religion in Persia.

More to come!


(Source: Bahram Gur Hunting with Azadeh. 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.)

  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): 678-679.
  2. Ibid, 679.
  3. Ibid, 682.
  4. Ibid, 679.
  5. Ibid, 681.

First blog post: What is this blog about and what do we hope to accomplish?

(Source: Rostam carried by Akwan-Diwa. 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.)

Shahnameh (the Persian Book of Kings) is an epic poem by Ferdowsi that depicts the history of Persia from its creation to the Arab conquest in the 7th century. It mainly focuses on the Persian Kings and depicts a history of them masked in mysticism and intrigue. It is an immensely long work with some fifty-thousand verses and hundreds of brilliant artworks displayed throughout its pages. Furthermore, it is one of the few histories that capture the manifestations of Persian intellect before the fall of their empire. Some scholars regard the Shahnameh as being the best encapsulation of Persian culture. Some of the cultural dimensions explored through Ferdowsi’s work are women, art, religion, and national identity. The goal of our project is to deeply understand these cultural aspects of the work and to contribute to the scholarly work that has already been done.

One of the cultural dimensions we hope to explore through this work is women. Women play a major role throughout the work and are portrayed in multiple ways, which adds to the complexity of the work. Through a dialogue between Ferdowsi’s work and other scholarly works, a deeper understanding of the Persian culture will be understood.

Another aspect of the book we wish to examine is the art. The Shahnameh is a richly illustrated book depicting heroes from throughout ancient-Iranian history, and the art can tell us a fair amount about the context it was created in. We wish to explore the methods and medium of the art, including its symbols and their relation to the story. We will also investigate the artists and their history as well as how these pages have been received by the people who came in contact with them over time.

Lastly, a third cultural aspect of the Shahnameh we will analyze is religion. Religion had a huge influence on the Ferdowsi’s writing and influenced the perspective he took within the work. It is important to remember that the Shahnameh was written at a time when the Persian empire had fallen and the culture of Persia was at risk of being forgotten. The religious influences within the work will add depth to our understanding of the culture captured within this work.

Our project will be a blog that explores the cultural dimensions of the Shahnameh; more specifically, we want to focus on the religion, art, and the role of women as a way to understand the Persian culture. The blog format allows accessibility for a mass audience and interactivity with the dialogues that are created around this work. Through our exploration of the scholarly work, we will uncover a new take that will build upon the work that has already been done and breath new life into the topic.