The Shahnama Project

Firdausi's Shahnama (Book of Kings), completed in eastern Iran in around A.D. 1010, is a work of mythology, history, literature and propaganda: a living epic poem that pervades and expresses many aspects of Persian culture. Thousands of manuscript copies of the text, the earliest dating from 1217, exist in libraries throughout the world. Many hundreds of these are illustrated with miniature paintings, some of them among the most magnificent masterpieces of Persian art.

The Shahnama has nurtured many different fields of study, but there has seldom been an effort to bring these strands together. Despite the enormous continuing appeal of Firdausi's poem, it is remarkable how few modern studies exist, either of the history of the Shahnama, or of the text and its illustration.

In response, the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now AHRC) of the British Academy, awarded the University of Cambridge a five-year research grant to produce an electronic corpus of paintings in Shahnama manuscripts, in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh. Work started in October 1999 and the first period of research was completed in September 2004, with the launch of the Shahnama Project web site.

The chief aim of the Project is to stimulate research into the role of Firdausi's epic in Persian history and culture, and to investigate the relationships between the text of the poem and the many miniature paintings that have been created to illustrate it. These date from the early 13th to the late 19th century: an almost unbroken stream of artistic activity over 600 years.

In 1969, Jill Norgren and Edward Davis produced the Preliminary index of Shah-nameh illustrations, under the supervision of Oleg Grabar. This lists almost 5,000 illustrations; the true number is probably nearer three times this figure. Such a large body of paintings is beyond the capacity of individual scholars to study and manipulate by traditional means; this is where modern computer technology can make an enormous contribution.

The Shahnama Project has aimed to build on this preliminary work, and to provide a corpus of illustrations of the Shahnama, with details of the manuscripts and the textual context within which they occur. This powerful resource opens the door to almost limitless areas of study and comparative analysis.

In addition to making available some of the tools essential for further research, the Project has convened four international workshops and conferences, bringing scholars together from different fields to promote discussion and exchange. The first volume of proceedings of these meetings has already been published: Shahnama. The visual language of the Persian Book of Kings, edited by Robert Hillenbrand, Varie, Occasional Papers, II. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, containing 12 articles. A second volume, edited by Charles Melville, was published by the Centre of Middle East & Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, in 2006, entitled: Shahnama Studies I, Pembroke Papers, 5. This contains 15 studies that focus either on a particular section of the Shahnama, or on a specific manuscript.

Principal investigator
Dr Charles Melville
Principal project staff
Dr Charles Melville; Mr John Norman; Dr Dan Sheppard
Start date
Friday, October 1, 1999
Completion date
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Source material
The Shahnama or "Book of Kings" is the longest poem ever written by a single author: Abu'l-Qasim Hasan Firdausi, from Tus in northeastern Iran. His epic work narrates the history of Iran (Persia) since the first king, Kayumars, who established his rule at the dawn of time, down to the conquest of Persia by the Muslim Arab invasions of the early 7th century A.D. The Shahnama contains approximately 50,000 verses (bayts, each consisting of two hemistiches, misra'), and is generally divided into mythical, legendary and historical sections. The first includes the formation of human society, the domestication of animals, the struggle with the forces of evil and the definition of Iranian territory vis a vis her neighbours. The long central section incorporates the 'Sistan cycle' of legends about the hero Rustam and his family, and the endless cycles of wars with the lands of Turan (approximately Turkestan or modern Central Asia), Iran's traditional foe. These 'legendary' sections in fact contain many mythical features and more or less form a continuum with the first. The historical section, that is, in which some reference to known historical events can be identified, starts only with the appearance of Alexander the Great, also treated as legend. It is remarkable, for example, that there appears to be no reference to the reigns of Cyrus the Great, Darius, or the Achaemenid dynasty that preceded the arrival of Philip of Macedon and Alexander on the scene. Alexander (Iskandar) is followed by a very brief treatment of the Ashkanians (Arsacids, Parthians), and then the Sasanian dynasty (from A.D. 226). The last episode is the murder of the Sasanian ruler Yazdagird III (632 - 52), and the punishment of his killer, Mahuy Suri. Its last pages echo with the gloomy predictions of the Persian general Rustam, killed at the battle of Qadisiyya by the Arab commander Sa 'd b. Waqqas. Firdausi was born c. A.D. 935 and died in around 1020. He was thus writing his life's work approximately four centuries after the fall of the ancient Persian Empire and the coming of Islam. The first draft was completed in 999 and the final version in 1010, dedicated to the most powerful ruler of the time, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (modern Afghanistan, ruled 999-1020). His work was conceived as a memorial to Iran's glorious past at a time when its memory was in danger of disappearing for good under the twin assaults of Arabic and Islamic culture and the political dominion of the Turks. It has since been used by many subsequent regimes, both imperial and provincial, to assert their proper place in the political traditions of the country, and for dynastic legitimation. One of the chief ways in which the text could be appropriated, along with the ethical messages it conveys, especially concerning just kingship and the ordering of society, was by commissioning illustrated manuscript copies of the poem. This started at least in the middle of the Mongol period, with the earliest known illustrated texts dating from c. 1300. The production of illustrated copies continued into the late 19th century, when lithographic printing slowly replaced the creation of manuscripts. The Shahnama Project is devoted to the study of Firdausi's Shahnama in all these interlocking aspects: as epic poetry, as the core text in the history of Persian book production, as an important element in court patronage and the vehicle for the development of Persian miniature painting. Above all, it encapsulates and expresses, as no other work of Persian literature is able to, the Iranians' view of themselves and their traditional cultural and political values.