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Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings

One thousand years ago, the Persian poet Firdawsi completed one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature: the Shahnama, or 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 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.

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 khavarnah in 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.

Detail, Sam Returns with His Son Zal; Iran, Tabriz, ca. 1520s; Lent by the Ebrahimi Family Collection; ELS2010.7.2. View full »

Exhibition

Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian
Book of Kings

October 23, 2010–April 17, 2011
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Credits

This feature is based on a brochure produced for Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings. The exhibition and brochure have been made possible by a generous grant from The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund.

All quotes are taken from Abolqasem Ferdawsi, The Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, translated by Dick Davis (New York: Viking Penguin, 2006).


Additional Reading

For further reading, see Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, translated by Dick Davis and originally published in three volumes: The Lion and the Throne, Fathers and Sons, and Sunset of Empire (Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1997).