The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp: Reconstructing a masterpiece of Iranian literature and art

This month sees the publication of an exciting new Metropolitan Museum of Art publication, which reproduces for the first time all 258 pages from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, a renowned Persian masterpiece. Today we take a look at this new book, a perfect synthesis of historical detective work, beautiful artistic reproductions, top-notch scholarship and sumptuous bookbinding. 

The story of the reconstruction of The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, arguably the most renowned work of Iranian literature ever created, is almost as interesting as the work itself, which tells a mythical – and to some extent factual – history of Iran from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century. The new publication of the most famous version of the Shahnama (or Book of Kings) was a culmination of an enormous amount of scholarship, research and detective work, with pages of the original manuscript having been dispersed throughout the globe decades ago. It some ways the reconstruction of the The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp also tells a story of Iranian history and power, and its relationship with western wealth and influence.

In order to best understand the construction and reconstruction of this epic poem, one must first travel one thousand and one years into the past…

A page from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp

A page from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp

In the year 1010, Abu’l Qasim Firdausi of Tus completed what is now considered a towering monument of Persian epic poetry. The Shahnama consists of between forty and sixty thousand rhyming couplets, and recounts the history of Iran before Islam, from its mythic, prehistoric beginnings to the end of the Sasanian empire in A.D. 642. Like other lengthy narratives, its text revolves around tales of war and love, monsters and heroes, kings and courtiers.

The colorful personages and dramatic events in which they are involved have ensured the continuing popularity of the epic for a millennium. Not only do Iranians still name their children after characters in the poem, but also actors recite its verses on the radio and its stories appear in comic books. The emotional and philosophical situations described in the Shahnama remain as true today as in 1010, rendering the poem as essential to the national identity of Iranians as the Mahabharata is to Indians.

Although there have been many illustrated versions of this vast Iranian epic, the 16th-century Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp (who reigned from 1524-1576) is considered the most important and beautiful version ever produced. The original tome was created by two generations of the most renowned early-16th-century artists at the royal atelier in Tabriz, the first capital of the Safavid dynasty. Characterised by calligraphy, painting and illuminations of exquisite quality and artistic originality, as well as by a uniquely sumptuous binding, the volume is considered a pinnacle in the art of bookmaking.

After its creation, the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp travelled through many hands, eventually being broken up and sold on, its leaves dispersed across the globe. In 1568, Shah Tahmasp presented it in its jeweled outer covers to the Ottoman sultan Selim II, where it travelled between several royal collections. The original manuscript remained in the Ottoman royal library, until it eventually changed hands between various international collectors (including Baron Edmund de Rothschild and Arthur A. Houghton Jr) in the 20th century.

Sheila R. Canby, the curator in charge of the Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, continues the book’s scattered history in her introduction to the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp:

The manuscript remained intact until 1970, when Houghton presented seventy-eight of its illustrations to the Metropolitan Museum. Further folios from the now-dismantled manuscript were sold by the art dealers Agnews and auctioned at Christie’s in London in 1976. While Houghton sold some other folios before his death in 1990, his heirs subsequently traded the binding, text, and remaining 118 illustrations with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art for a painting by Willem de Kooning that was then sold. The credit lines of the captions in this book testify to the extent to which the manuscript has been dispersed. Its folios will never be reunited, but at least they can meet again as pages in a modern book.

Canby’s illuminating introduction says a lot about the commoditization of treasured cultural artifacts, but thanks to years of effort from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (who were involved in tracking down and individually photographing all 258 pages of the work), this wonderful body of art and literature has been reunited and reproduced in a full-colour edition that is itself a bibliographic and artistic treasure.

The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp is available in two editions, a boxed, clothbound version with a fully-illustrated slipcase, and a deluxe leatherbound edition. Both edition are available now from Yale University Press.

1 Comment

  • Reply November 11, 2011

    Dave Raworth

    Greetings,
    The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp: the deluxe leatherbound edition has 464 pp as opposed to the clothbound version which has 300 pp. Are the additional pages in the deluxe edition devoted to text, or enlargements of portions of the Shanama?
    Sincerely,
    Dave Raworth

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