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Sackler’s ‘Shahnama’ Exhibit Illuminates Epic Poem

The hand-scribed pages of some manuscripts are as precious as gold. For Persian kings of old, they were also a matter of legitimacy.
From the 13th to the 18th centuries, rulers of present-day Iran — from the Mongol Ilkhans to the Safavid Shahs — received recognition and respect only after recommissioning a 50,000-verse epic poem.

Coordinating scribes and the best artists in the empire, each created his own illustrated version of the 11th century “Shahnama” — Persia’s “Book of Kings.”

So valued were the bold-colored folios of kings, heroes, magical creatures and villains that within centuries most were dismantled from their Farsi paragraphs, some even cut into tiny pieces and sold to the richest families as prized treasures.

But a few original manuscripts and illustrations survived, including 33 on display in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s new exhibit, “Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings.”

“The prints here are the envy of every museum in the United States,” said Massumeh Farhad, curator of Islamic art and organizer of the exhibit.

The recovered pages, most accompanied by 27-by-21-inch opaque watercolors, are from 14th and 16th century manuscripts of the epic.

Visitors can marvel at the detail in the folios and wonder how the artists created such thin lines and tiny shapes using paintbrushes. Farhad recommends toting a magnifying glass to examine patterns on the marble floors, in the skies and on the faces in the paintings.

One illustration dates to 1520 and depicts the fabled King Jamshid. In a palace-like hall, Jamshid, who was praised as the “inventor of science, medicine and arts and crafts,” sits amid silk weavers and men sawing wood. In the folio he’s flanked by two demons, however, foreshadowing his fall from power due to excessive hubris. In “Shahnama,” Jamshid comes to believe he is smarter than God.

Another illustration tells the tale of Zal, an albino who was outcast at birth because of his extraordinary appearance. The palette uses hues of purples and blues detailing a young, naked Zal sitting alongside the wild and magical sphinx-like creature that raised Zal as her fledgling.

Firdawsi, the original author of “Shahnama,” drew on Zoroastrianism’s concept of good and evil when writing each story in the epic. The tales teach morality, always valuing honor, loyalty and humility while repudiating pride, ambition and greed.

According to Farhad, the texts are the Persian equivalent of Homer’s “Iliad,” Virgil’s “Aeneid” or the Hindu “Ramayana.” Since 1010, they’ve become a point of cultural pride for Iranians, like Shakespeare’s influence on Western civilization.
“The Shahnama is the most popular text in the Iranian and perhaps even the entire Islamic world: Every household has a copy of the Quran and the Shahnama,” Farhad said.

The author wrote the stories over 30 years during the reign of the Samani Dynasty, a period of particular Persian pride. The Samanids were the first native Iranian rulers to expel the Arab conquerors who invaded in the 8th century, which triggered a grass-roots independence movement and Firdawsi’s writings. A millennium later, the extensive work of fiction is still being read in Iranian schools, to children at night and by literary scholars.

Some of the stories existed in oral tradition before Firdawsi weaved them into his epic. Other stories meld history, including one about the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander, who conquered Persia in 330 B.C. and defeated King Darius III, was said to have a Greek mother and Persian father. One illustration depicts him talking to a mystical tree with two twisted trunks, one male and the other female. They warn him of his impending death and tell him to stop wasting life searching for the “waters of immortality.”

Unlike most epics, “Shahnama” does not center on one particular hero but spans 50 kings and thousands of years. Today it remains one of the longest poems ever written.

The exhibit will run through April 17.

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