Curator's Choice: Epic of the Persian Kings: Ferdowsi's Shahnameh epic at the Fitzwilliam

Dr Stella Panayotova interviewed by Ben Miller | 13 September 2010
An image of an illustration for a biblical manuscript
Eskandar (Alexander the Great) visits the Ka'ba
Curator's Choice: Inher own words...Dr Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Fitzwilliam Museum, introduces some of the highlights of the Museum's manuscripts collection.

"The Persian Book of Kings — the Shahnameh — is the national epic of the Iranian people. Completed by the poet Ferdowsi in 1010 AD, it traces the history of the Iranian world from its creation to the fall of the Sasanian Empire in the 7th century.

During the millennium since its completion, illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnameh have spread Persian culture well beyond Iran’s borders, from Egypt and Anatolia to India and Central Asia.

Owing to the enormous popularity of its stories and characters, and their depiction in a wide range of media, the Shahnameh offers a panoramic view of Persian art from the 12th until the 19th century.

One outstanding Shahnameh manuscript you can see in the exhibition is one of several drawn from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection. This manuscript (MS 22-1948) was produced in the city of Shiraz in southwest Iran between approximately 1435 and 1400, under the Timurid dynasty, and beautifully demonstrates how Ferdowsi’s poem presents a vast choice of scenes for illustration — much like the individual frames of an epic film.

For example, the story of Alexander the Great, called Eskandar in the Shahnameh, is an important chapter in this epic poem, as seen in the painting Eskandar (Alexander the Great) visits the Ka‘ba. On his way from India to North Africa he makes a stop in Mecca, which may be seen as a rite of passage in his long journey towards self-discovery.

Eskandar pays respect to the Ka'ba, the House of Abraham, which Ferdowsi describes as "the place of worship before any others existed…where God causes you to worship and to remember him." Here, Eskandar watches as a pilgrim reaches for the door handle of the Ka'ba; in later versions Eskandar himself is depicted as a pilgrim.

An image of an illustration for a biblical manuscript
Key Kavus airborne

Another painting from this copy of the Shahnameh depicts the King Key Kavus airborne. Ferdoswi tells how, set on by Eblis (the Devil), a div (demon) appeared to King Key Kavus in the form of a young man and tempted him to explore the mystery of the heavens. The king nurtured young eagles, attached them to a throne and had legs of lamb impaled on skewers above to urge the eagles upwards.

The throne was lifted into the sky, but when the birds were exhausted, it descended in the forests of Amol, and Key Kavus implored God's pardon for his pride. Here, the throne’s soaring height is suggested by the spears' breaking through the picture frame and by the figure at the bottom left whose head tilts back to observe the scene. The throne has an extra panel that Key Kavus holds firmly as he looks upwards anxiously, bow at the ready."

Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh ran at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge until January 9 2011.
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