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Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh -The Epic of the Kings with 2 Magnificent Illustrations from the Aga Khan Museum (Image credit: Simerg.com)

Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings”) is part myth, part history—it begins with the legend of the birth of the Persian nation and its tumultuous history. It contains magical birds, and superhuman heroes, and centuries-long battles.  Written over 1,000 years ago, it was meant to protect Persian collective memory amdist a turbulent sea cultural storms. Originally written in couplets, the new translation and adaptation by Ahmad Sadri retells the mythological tales in prose format. The spectacular illustrations in this edition were created from elements culled from thousands of illuminated manuscripts, lithographs, and miniatures dating from the thirteenth through nineteenth centuries, each panel becomes a new work of art, an exquisite collage of traditional forms.

After the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, as well as blockbusters such as 300 and Clash of the Titans, the time might be right for Persian mythology to find an audience in the west.

Iran's national epic, the Shahnameh, involves many of the same themes and motifs as popular works of fantasy: heroic quests, magical beasts, devilish monsters, passionate romances, fierce intrigues over power, and monumental conflicts fought across immense spans of time.

Written more than 1,000 years ago by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940–ca. 1019), the Shahnameh recounts a long, legendary history of the Iranian people from the beginning of civilisation until the historical Arab conquest of the region in the seventh century. The heart of the narrative concerns the adventures of Iran's most celebrated mythological hero, Rostam.

Over the centuries, tales from the Shahnameh have been depicted in a variety of styles around the Middle East and central and sub-continental Asia. Versions illustrated by Persian, Mughal, and Ottoman artists can be found in museums from Istanbul to Los Angeles. For all of its many adaptations, however, it has remained largely unknown in the west except in scholarly circles and among Iranians.

But New York–based artist Hamid Rahmanian's recent illustrated rendition with translator Ahmad Sadri of, Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings could change that. His images draw on thousands of carefully orchestrated elements from paintings, lithographs, and manuscript miniatures from Iran, Mughal India, and the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries, and convey scenes such as dreams and nightmares rarely if ever depicted in previous versions.

Rahmanian describes his process as akin to that of a movie editor splicing frames for a montage or a DJ blending tracks for a mash-up. Taking the visual elements out of their original context to produce new pictures also adds a new layer to their meaning. The images not only convey the Shahnameh's stories, they also bring traditions of literary illustration from distant places and times into intimate dialogue. The unique result is a fresh visual narration that makes the ancient text feel as if it is flows seamlessly, like a finely edited film.”

About the Author

A little over a thousand years ago the Persian poet Ferdowsi of Tous collected and put into heroic verse the millennium-old mythological and epic traditions of Iran.  It took him thirty years to write the sixty thousand verses that comprise the Shahnameh or “The Book of Kings”.  This monumental work begins with legends of the birth of the Persian nationhood and ends with the Arab invasion of Persia.  Written in the aftermath of that national trauma, Shahnameh was meant to harbour the Persian collective memory, language, and culture in a turbulent sea of many historical storms.

Ferdowsi's Shahkar: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/03/ferdowsis-shahkar.html

Ahmad Sadri is currently professor of Sociology and Anthropology and James P. Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College. He has written two books in Persian: “Reviving the Concept of Civilizations,” and “An Apocalypse soon.”

Hamid Rahmanian is a filmmaker and graphic artist whose work has been exhibited in international competitions and publications.  His narrative and documentary films have premiered at festivals such as Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca, and Venice, and have gained international recognition for their socially conscious storylines.

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Epic Iranian tale gets an intimate upgrade - in pictures