Shahnama: The Persian Book of Kings Opens at the Sackler Gallery

A new exhibition

Last week at a media preview for "Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings," the Sackler Gallery's new exhibit, chief curator Massumeh Farhad pulled back the black gallery doors to allow a group of journalists into a dimly lit lair of ancient manuscripts and gleaming silver loosely reminiscent of Aladdin's cave.

The exhibit is centered around the thousand-year-old, 50,000 verse Persian epic poem, Shahnama (pronounced shah-nah-MEYH), a blend of mythology and Persian history. While there are no talking parrots or diamonds in the rough, the text offers its own brand of fantasy that Farhad likens to Shakespeare and Grimms' fairytales.

"It's the most popular text in Iran. Nearly every household has a copy of the Quran and a copy of the Shahnama," says Farhad.

The narrative traces the history of Iran through the 7th century Arab conquest, focusing on the exploits of 50 different Persian monarchs. The poet Abul-Qasim Firdawsi wrote the epic over a period of 30 years, during which time the ruling local dynasty, the Samanids, permitted cultural and artistic expression to flourish. But by the time the poet finally finished in the year 1010, the Samanids had been overthrown by a Turkic dynasty from Central Asia, the Ghaznavids, who cared little for the arts. Still hoping to be rewarded for his 30 years of literary labor, the poet petitioned Mahmud, the king, showing him his 50,000 verses.  The king responded with an insulting reward that was but a pittance for his work. A despondent Firdawsi proceeded to drown his sorrows in beer at a local bath house.

The king lived to regret his decision. Ten years later, Mahmud reread the text and immediately sent a caravan of camels loaded with precious indigo to Firdawsi the poet as a peace offering, but it was too late. As the camels entered Firdawsi's town, they ran right into a funeral procession. The poet was dead.

This detail of "Zal is Sighted by a Caravan," attributed to Abdul Aziz, ca. 1525, illustrates a scene in which Zal, whose albino hair was considered an ill omen, is fed by a giant bird. Image courtesy of the Sackler Gallery.

"For every king to rule, they had to have 'farr', the divine rule to kingship," says Farhad. "The Shahnama deals with the moral consequences of becoming too proud and forgetting who you are." Each Persian king who came after the infamous Mahmud commissioned his own copy of the text, which became an emblem of the divine right to rule.

Starting in the 1300s, these royal copies were illustrated with opaque watercolors, gold and black ink. The illustrations—so intricate as to warrant the use of a magnifying glass—make up the majority of the exhibit, which is also punctuated with a 16th century full manuscript of the epic and several silver and bronze vessels from the 6th and 7th centuries.

After an introductory hall, the exhibit is divided into two sections, one focusing on history and the other on myth. The former largely offers the story of Alexander, the Macedonian conqueror, who despite his imperialist spirit is nonetheless described in the Shahnama as a just ruler. The mythological section features morality tales of kings who lost touch with their roots and thus lost their divine rule, their farr. These are often populated with mythical beings; one folio on display depicts a Harry Potter-like hippogriff. ("J.K. Rowling must have seen a copy of the Shahnama," insists Farhad.)

Despite the ancient objects in the exhibit that give the sense of having only just been unearthed, Farhad says the poem is still relevant today. "I think it's because of the universal themes of truth and honesty that resonate, whether you're Iranian or not."

"Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings" will be on display at the Sackler Gallery through April 17, 2011.

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