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A Newly Discovered Manuscript of the Shahnama in Lebanon

By Mahmoud Omidsalar


A new and important manuscript of the Shāhnāma, was discovered in 2005 in Beirut, Lebanon.  The volume is generally in good shape, though it has suffered some water and insect damage.  However, fortunately the damage to the actual text of the poem is quite negligible.



We are concerned that because this important manuscript is kept at in Beirut, Lebanon, which has often been the site of military conflicts in the past, it may be damaged or destroyed in a future conflict.  For this reason, we have decided to publish a facsimile edition of it so that in case of its getting damaged or destroyed for any reason, at least its photographic reproduction may survive and be available to Shahnameh scholars.  I am writing to ask the Persian community in the West to help us produce a photographic edition of it.  You can do so by going to the following site,, which is the official site of the Foundation for the Preservation, Distribution, and Critique of Rare Manuscripts (FRM), click on the word enter, and then click on the word Donors.  This will bring you to the page where you can find instructions about how to contribute to this project.  You will also find information on the volumes that we have published in the past, and those who have helped our Foundation in the past.  I should point out that the FRM is a tax-exempt non profit foundation under section 501(c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code.


Before describing this Manuscript and discussing its importance for Shahnameh studies, let me briefly explain some of the terms that are usually used in study of manuscripts for those of you who might not be familiar with them.


Prior to the invention of printing, books were reproduced by hand.  That is, a person would sit down and copy an entire book by manually rewriting it.  This person was called a scribe or a copyist.  Books that was thus produced, are called manuscripts; and the word manuscript (from Latin manuscriptus) means anything that is " hand-written" (Latin: manu "hand," + scriptus "written").  The Latin word, codex, is a synonym for manuscript, and is sometimes used in writing about such books.


Manuscripts differ from printed books in one important respect:  Every copy of a book that is printed from a specific typesetting or from a specific computer file looks exactly like every other copy of it that is produced from the same typesetting or the same computer file.  This would be true no matter how many copies of the book are produced so long as no one tampers with the original typesetting or computer file from which that book is mass-produced. 


By contrast, every manuscript is a unique object.  That is, even if the same scribe copies the same book a thousand times, he produces a thousand copies of that book, and each of these copies will be slightly different from all others.  This is because the scribe will inevitably make different errors during each of his copying efforts.  In the past, the scribes often inserted a note at the end of the manuscript in which they provided the reader with their own name, sometimes even the name of the locality where they copied the book, and the date when they completed the task.   This note is called the colophon (see figure 1).  For instance, the colophon that we present here is taken from the oldest dated Persian manuscript in the world.  It says that it was written by Ali ibn Ahmad al-Asadi of Tus, in the month of shawwāl of the Muslim year 447, that is, sometime between December 30, 1055 AD and January 28, 1056 AD.


Figure1 (see high resolution)


Scholars count the leaves of a manuscript rather than its pages.  A leaf of paper or parchment on which the text of the manuscript is written is called a folio, and is usually represented by a lowercase "f".  Thus, f50 means the fiftieth folio of a manuscript.  Each folio is made of two sides or pages.  The front side is called recto and is usually abbreviated by a lower case "r" and the back side of the folio is called verso and is indicated by a lower case "v".  When quoting something from a manuscript we should indicate the folio number and whether the information appears on the front or the back of that folio.  For instance, f340r means that the quotation was taken from the recto side of folio number 340 of that manuscript.  This is all you need to know for now.  Let us, turn to our description of the Beirut Shahnameh. 


In its present state, the Beirut manuscript has neither binding nor colophon.  Therefore, we don't now with certainty where and when it was produced.  However, judging from the style of its script, its page layout, and other features, it is fairly certain that it was probably copied some time around 1250 to 1350 AD.  We can also determine that its scribe used a steel pen to copy it.  


The text of the Shahnameh in this manuscript is written in four columns on 496 folios (992 pages) of thick yellowish paper.  There are twenty-five lines of text on each page except for on those pages that have headpieces (see fig. 2).


Figure2 (see high resolution)


Professors Afshar, Shafii-Kadkani, Khaleghi-Motlagh, and myself have examined a digital reproduction of the codex and have found it to be a very important new find.  In our opinion, along with the manuscript of the Shahnameh that belongs to the British Library (probably copied in 1276 AD) and the one that is kept at the National Library in Florence (copied in 1217 AD), the Beirut Shahnameh is among the most important manuscripts of the poem. 


The codex must have been rebound sometime during its history by a binder who was either illiterate or did not know Persian.  We know this because nine folios from the beginning of the book have been stitched to its end.  This error must have been introduced by a binder who could not read Persian, or by an illiterate binder who could not determine that the folios belong to the beginning of the book.  Due to the disorder in the sequence of its folios, the codex's foliation, namely, the sequential numbering of its individual leaves is incorrect.  In other words, its first folio (f1) is really page 19 of the codex, while its last 18 pages (f488r - f496v) are its original 2nd through 10th folios. 


As I pointed out before, this manuscript is not only missing its binding and first folio, but also its colophon.  Because the lower part of the folio that must have included its colophon has been neatly cut off along a straight line that follows the lower red ruling of that folio, the removal of its colophon must have been deliberate (see fig.3).  Usually such deliberate mutilation of the colophon imply theft or some other unseemly scenario because whoever cut off the colophon did so with the specific aim of obscuring the volume's ownership or place of origin. 


Contrary to the common belief that the Shahnameh has 60,000 couplets, most authoritative manuscript of the poem have fewer than 50,000 verses.  According to Professor Khaleghi-Motlagh's computations, the number of the verses of the Beirut codex is 48,023, which places it in the company of codices with fewer interpolations, that is with fewer non-original verses.  Allowing for its lost verses, namely verses that were on its lost first folio and also for those that are written on its margins, it may have included as many as 48,101 couplets at one time. 


The text of the poem is written in a good naskh hand by means of a steel pen, in either brown ink, or an ink that has turned brown by the passage of time.  The scribe has been careful in placing dots and other diacritical marks.  The Persian letters p and ch are often written with three dots, and the letter zh is almost always dotted.  A number of verses are added on the margins of some of its folios in a younger hand and glosses are occasionally inserted in Ottoman Turkish. 


The manuscript's text area, columns, and headings are ruled in double red lines, which is typical of Persian codices made before the eighth century hejri (14th century AD).  It has relatively few headings compared to most other manuscripts of the Shahnameh and its headings are generally brief and written in gold ink.  Because the codex lacks binding, at the present time it is kept in a cardboard box in order to protect it from further damage.


As far as the authority of its text is concerned, it must be stressed that it frequently preserves archaic forms of words and phrases many of which are found in no other Shahnameh codices.  Also this manuscript is especially noteworthy for its variant forms of historical, geographical, and personal names. 


It is well known that Ferdowsi prepared two redactions of his Shahnameh.  The first of these was completed in the year 384 AH (995 AD)-five years before King Mahmud of Ghazna ascended the throne in 389 AH (998 AD).  The second redaction was finished more than eleven years later, in the year 400 AH (1010 AD).  Whether a Shahnameh manuscript belongs to the first or the second redaction is determined by its final verses that specify the date in which it was completed.  The Beirut Shahnameh represents the earlier redaction of the poem. 


Broadly speaking, the Beirut codex is not closely related to any of the other well-known manuscripts of the Shahnameh, although it shows greater affinity with the some than with others.  To the extent that we may be able to hypothesize from its variants, it may be put into the general grouping to which the older London and Cairo manuscripts of the poem belong.  Additionally, the Beirut Shahnameh shows a large number of variants that are not found in any other manuscripts of the poem.


One of the most important characteristics of this manuscript is that its text is relatively free of interpolated episodes that mar the narrative of many codices of the epic.  Some of the spurious episodes that the present codex does not have are: the verses in praise of the first four caliphs, the legend of the sadeh festival, the story of Rostam's slaying of his father's white elephant and his war with the castellan of mount Sepand in vengeance for his great grandfather's murder, the story of Garshāsp's kingship, and Rostam's journey to Mount Alborz in search of Kayqobād.


In general, the Beirut manuscript of the Shahnameh is an important codex that can help clarify many existing textual problems in Shahnameh scholarship, and its variants should be taken into consideration in all future studies of the poem. 


I hope that you join the Farhang Foundation, and many other individual lovers of Iranian culture and literature and help us ensure the survival of the text of this important manuscript.


Mahmoud Omidsalar

John F. Kennedy Memorial Library

California State University, Los Angeles


Related Site: Princeton Shahnama Project

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