Explore the Epic Poem, Shahnama

The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art website contains a fascinating feature on the 1,005-year old literary masterpiece, the Shahnama, also called the Book of Kings. Composed of some fifty thousand verses, the sweeping epic recounts the myths, legends, and ‘history’ of Iran from the beginning of time to the Arab conquest of the seventh century. The feature, with in-depth details of a number of stories in the poem along with selections of art from the Safavid and other eras, is based on an exhibit at the museum in 2011 that celebrated the 1000-year anniversary of the completion of the captivating epic poem.

Illuminated frontispiece, From a copy of the Shahnama
Copied by Ismail Khaja, son of Mubarak Qadam
Iran, probably Shiraz, dated 1441
Lent by the Art and History Collection LTS 1995.2.23

A little over one thousand years ago, the Persian poet Firdawsi completed one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature: the Shahnama, which is composed of some fifty thousand verses. The sweeping epic recounts the myths, legends, and history of Iran from the beginning of time to the Arab conquest in the seventh century.

Firdawsi’s text is centered on the reigns of fifty monarchs (including three women) and can be divided into a legendary and a quasi-historical section. It begins with the reign of Kayumars at the dawn of time and concludes with the last Sasanian king, Yazdigird (reigned 632–651), who was defeated by the Arabs. These fifty “chronicles” provide a framework for the dramatic deeds and heroic actions of a range of other personages who are often aided by—or at battle with—a host of fantastic creatures and treacherous villains. The poem draws on a wealth of sources, including local and dynastic histories, the Avesta (the sacred text of the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Iran), and myths and legends preserved in oral tradition.

Iran, Tabriz, Safavid period, ca. 1520s
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper

Over the centuries, foreign conquerors and local rulers alike were drawn to the Shahnama for its emphasis on justice, legitimacy, and especially the concept of divine glory. Known as khavarnahin the Avesta and as farr in modern Persian, divine glory was considered the most important attribute of kingship, for it enabled rulers to govern and command obedience. Not surprisingly, commissioning lavishly illustrated copies of the Shahnama became almost a royal duty. By representing the kings and heroes of the epic according to the style of their own times, members of the ruling elite were able to cast themselves as the legitimate heirs of Iran’s monarchical tradition, which according to Firdawsi dates back to the beginning of time.

Read descriptions of some of the tales and view Persian miniature paintings associated with the Shahnama here.


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