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Ferdowsi's Shahnameh at 1000

By Syma Sayyah & Paul Sanford
Many of you are well aware that the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) is the greatest work of Iranian literature and was completed by Hakim Abu'l Qasem Ferdowsi in March 1010.   This epic poem encompasses myth, history and legend and runs to nearly 60,000 couplets, the longest poem ever composed by a single author.

Ferdowsi by Master Sadighi

The millennium of this great masterpiece is being marked all over the world, and here in the UK we have been able to visit a number of the events.  Although the very earliest manuscripts that survive were not illustrated, from the early 14th century there was a rich tradition of miniature painting to accompany the text and to give it better and easier meaning or to enhance the adventures.


The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge has been holding an exhibition 'Epic of the Persian Kings', supported by the Iran Heritage Foundation.  One very cold morning last week we took the bus from Oxford to Cambridge to go to this exhibition.  We had meant to do so for a long time, but we decided to make it happen, even though we were sitting on buses more than 9 hours.  In the exhibition are over a hundred exhibits, mostly manuscripts which have been gathered from all over the world.  We spent a long time fascinated by the variety and the beauty of the illustrations, and it was easy to be overwhelmed amount of information.  There is a very good website devoted to the exhibition where all the exhibits can be viewed.  The exhibition will run until 9thJanuary, and we highly recommend to all, whether based in the UK or passing through, to visit this most astonishing and rewarding collection. Please bear in mind that the museum is closed on Mondays.

Last week we were also able to go to a one day conference at the Royal Society in London, 'The Illustrated Shahnameh' which was organised by the highly respected British Institute for Persian Studies and supported by the Bahari Foundation.  A very interesting selection of papers was presented on various aspects of the Shahnameh and the lavish illustration that has ensued over the years.  One fascinating paper by Dr FarhadMehran demonstrated how the length of the poem appeared to have grown by about 17 verses a year in the past 700 years.  The thought struck us that, in the year 3010, would anyone be sitting having a conference about anything being written today?  

Giv chides Bizhan for failing to defeat Forud 
Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum

The celebration of the millennium will continue with a three day conference organized by the Iran Heritage Foundation at Clare College, Cambridge from 12-14 December, which will cost attendees forty pounds a day which is roughly US$60.

For anyone interested in the Shahnameh, the Shahnameh project deserves a special mention, it is a comprehensive database of hundreds of manuscripts and provides the ability to compare many of the manuscripts and illustrations. We would like to thank all those who were involved in this project for their fantastic hard work and dedication. 

Rostam slays the White Div - Kier Collection

Here we share with you some things that we learned from the exhibition, and lectures that we attended:

1- Shiraz, Tabriz, Herat, Istanbul were the main cities where the Shahnameh was copied and elaborate paintings added.

2- There are on average 55-65 paintings in the various Shahnameh that have been produced through time.

3- The length of the Shahnameh varies from 44,000 to 60,000 verses

4- The image of Rustam slaying the white Div is the most reproduced painting.

5- Shahnameh was translated into Arabic to make sure it survived and then during Moghul times translated back into Persian.  However the original being written in Persian ensured the survival of the Persian Language

6- The most famous Shahnameh is that of Shah Tahmasb, and it is the most luxuriously illustrated copy ever produced with 759 pages and 258 paintings of exquisite quality and artistic originality.

7- Last but not least one thousand verses of the Shahnameh were originally written to the poet Daghighi who undertook the task before his sudden death upon which the work was taken up by Ferdowsi.   Daghighi's verse is included in the Shahnameh.  Thirty years later when he finished the book he took time to deliver it to the court and at first he was not allowed by jealous court members to receive his reward.  By the time the sultan realized what a great work had been done, Ferdowsi was being buried and he never got the gold that was rightfully his.

We would also like to remind all those interested readers of the English translation of Shahnameh by Dick Davis published by Penguin Classics . Enjoy the read!!

... Payvand News - 12/01/10 ... --

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