The following article appears in this week's The Economist - Ferdowsi's “Shahnameh” - The book of kings - A new exhibition shows Persian miniatures at their finest
I decided to post the article in full in case it becomes inaccessible in the future:
THRONGING with heroes and villains, demons and dragons and deeds of derring-do, the “Shahnameh” is a literary epic. Tens of thousands of verses of poetry merge together myth, legend and history, chronicling the reigns of Persia’s kings. Written in the 11th century by Ferdowsi, one of the giants of Persian poetry, it tells the story of the struggle between good and evil, between god (which god is somewhat ambiguous, left for the reader to decide) and the devil. It lies at the heart of Persian literature, a glittering thread weaving through Iranian culture, stringing together each chapter of the nation’s history.
A new exhibition of “Shahnameh” manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge marks 1,000 years since Ferdowsi laid down his pen. All of them are from British collections. Many are incomplete. Britain and Russia played tug-of-war with some of the manuscripts, as they did over Iran itself, finally tearing them apart, each nation hoarding its lonely leaves. Others are in Iran, Dublin and New York.
In early manuscripts the pictures are modest, fitting within the text. But as the centuries pass they expand. Trees blossom exuberantly beyond the margins, dominating the page. The mouths of dragons gape wide, ready to swallow the verses whole along with Rostam, the hero. To accommodate the pictures’ increasing splendour the words are squeezed in around them, the texts becoming tangled in the branches of trees as heroes on horses slay their demons below. The influence of China, India and Central Asia filters through, reflecting Persia’s sprawl.
With many more manuscripts than could be displayed in the exhibition, the catalogue (I.B. Tauris, $75 and £45) is worth having in its own right. It places the “Shahnameh” in its historical and literary context, stressing its centrality to Iranian identity. Photographed in close-up, the extraordinary detail of the pictures and ceramics in the exhibition becomes apparent. Barbara Brend’s monograph (Philip Wilson, $70; I.B. Tauris, £35) on the copy of the “Shahnameh” made for Muhammad Juki, a descendant of Tamerlane, is for the truly dedicated reader. It plunges deep into the complexity of the art of the manuscript, the use of colour, perspective and symbolism.
It is a shame that both books provide so few translations of the extracts they refer to, though the exhibition catalogue has a few more to offer. Ferdowsi went to great lengths to avoid any words drawn from Arabic, a stark political statement after the turmoil of the Arab conquest of Persia in the seventh century. Small wonder then that so many Iranians regard him as the saviour of the Persian language.
The final lines of the “Shahnameh” greet the visitor at the entrance to the show: “I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save/My name and reputation from the grave/And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim/When I have gone, my praises and my fame.” Though Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh” is said to have received a lacklustre response from Mahmud of Ghazni, the sultan to whom he first presented it, the poet’s confidence in the longevity of his work was not misplaced. Children still learn the “Shahnameh” at school and most Iranians can recite a chunk or two.
The exhibition determinedly avoids making any modern political analogies. The “Shahnameh” is crowded with moral tales about incompetent or brutal rulers who could provide lessons for the country’s leaders today. But at a time when better understanding Iran should be a priority for all, an exhibition that explains a poem known as the Iranians’ identity card can only be an excellent thing.
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