Shahnama— 1,000 Years of the Book of Persian Kings

After doing the Truro Church event over the weekend, one of our former Asbury students kindly took me downtown to the Mall in D.C.  (no, not the shopping mall) to see the newest exhibitions as the Sackler Museum (part of the Smithsonian), and the two new exhibits at the National Gallery of Art  (on Gaugin and Caneletto).  This post will be about the former of these two exhibits, which was just fascinating.

The Persian book of the Kings is a 50,000 line long poem, written in Farsi (the Iranian language) which dates back 1,000 years ago.   The name of the poem is ‘Shahnama’  and what is most interesting about it is that tells the story of Persian history even back to the time of Alexander the Great (who conquered the Persian Empire of Darius). Alexander in this epic is called  Iskander.  What is especially fascinating about this illuminated epic is that it blends actual Persian history  (Alexander really did conquer them) with Persian mythology, including their extensive belief in the Devil and demons.   In its latter forms, this was part of a Persian religion we know today as  Zoroastrianism,   though it is not clear that religion really existed as early as the time of Alexander.  Our sources for Zoroastrian beliefs considerably post-date the NT era.

Even to this day,  this text is the most popular book in Iran, with the exception of  the Koran itself,  and most Iranians own a copy of this book, according to those who set up this exhibit at the Smithsonian.   The Book tells the story of Persia up to the time of the Arab conquest in the 7th century A.D.  In all, it tells the story of 50 different Persian Kings, and as the guide to the Smithsonian exhibit says

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.

“For every king to rule, they had to have ‘farr’, the divine rule to kingship,” says Farhad (He is the chief curator of this particular exhibit). “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.)

In other words, this book is about the same subject as one of the  main themes of the Book of Revelation— the need for justice, and for just rulers.  But the book also focuses on themes of legitimacy and more importantly the concept of divine glory.  Without divine glory, a ruler has no divine right to rule.    The person who actually wrote this book was a Persian poet named Firdawsi. One of the more interesting features of this poem is that it includes the story of 3 women monarchs of Persia.    It concludes with the tale of Yazdigird  (632-51 A.D. was his rule), the last of the Sasanian kings.    The illuminations in this manuscript are as spectacular  and facinating as those you find in the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Here for example is one of the heroes fighting a gnarly white demon.

Here below is a depiction of how two heroes went into a cave and were captured by a white demon with bull horns.

Two of my favorites are the pictures of Alexander the Great (Iskander).  The first is of Alexander at a tree, much like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, only this tree has masculine talking fruits or beings during the day and female talking fruits at night, trying to seduce the hero to do something wicked.    The last picture below depicts  the death scene of Alexander who died in Persia and whose body was transported to Alexandria in Egypt for burial.  In the death bed scene,  Aristotle, the tutor of  Alexander is depicted as weeping into a hankerchief over the loss of Alexander.

If you have a chance, you should go see this fine exhibit, which is only on until about April 7th.   It is well worth the visit.

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