KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Shahnama (Book of Kings), Iran, Safavid empire, storytelling, sports, figural art, royal workshop, watercolor, ink
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS CHAPTER
This painting depicts a game of polo between Iranians and Turanians, legendary rivals of the second cycle of the Shahnama. It shows how contemporary tastes were reflected in the illustrations of the epic, as polo was a favorite pastime of the Safavid court.
This page of the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp illustrates a legendary encounter between two Iranian royal figures through the eyes of a sixteenth-century painter.
The circular arrangement of the figures in this illustration draws attention to the central action, where men mounted on horses scramble to gain control of a ball. The dynamic poses of the players and animals illustrate various moments during a polo game. Near the middle of the composition, a dark black horse and plumed headdress set one figure apart from the others; he is Siyavush, an Iranian prince lauded as an extraordinary polo player. In the upper right, a lone figure identified as Afrasiyab, a powerful Turanian king, sits on a brown horse watching the game. A large crowd of spectators looks on in the background.
The encounter between Siyavush, an Iranian prince, and Afrasiyab, the most distinguished and formidable of all Turanian kings, is a popular legend in Iranian history. In this rendition of the story, Afrasiyab asks Siyavush to play a game of polo. After playing for a while, Afrasiyab retreats to the sidelines to admire the prince's athletic skill. The Iranians dominate the game. The emphasis is not on illustration as a faithful record of historical events. Rather, the elaborate horse trappings, complex headdresses, and the fascination with polo reflect the sixteenth-century world of the patron and painter.
Related excerpt from the Shahnama:
One evening the king [Afrasiyab] said to Seyavash, "Let's go up at dawn tomorrow and enjoy ourselves at polo; I've heard that when you play, your mallet's invincible." Seyavash agreed and the next morning they made their way laughing and joking to the field . . . At the field's edge drums thundered out, cymbals clashed, and trumpets blared. The ground seemed to shake with the din, and dust rose into the sky as the horsemen took the field.
—Dick Davis, Fathers and Sons: Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Vol. 2 (Washington D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1998), p. 50
RELATED AUDIO FROM THE GALLERY GUIDE
Sheila Canby: Ferdowsi, who wrote the Shahnameh, completed it in 1010 A.D. The Shahnameh of Ferdosi is absolutely central to the culture of Persian-speaking people. People still name their children after heroes of the Shahnameh. The Shahnameh means "The Book of Kings," and it does not just talk about the government of kings; there are many, many battle scenes, there are love scenes, there are encounters with witches, demons, dragons—all kinds of wonderful monsters, actually.
The stories that are incorporated would tell the stories of all the kings of the prehistoric and early pre-Islamic historical periods. The illustration of the epic started in the early fourteenth or very late thirteenth century, really, it seems, under the impetus of the Mongol conquerors of Iran who took awhile to kind of settle down and then started commissioning the illustrated versions of these manuscripts. But before that, we find some of the stories are illustrated on luster tiles. And we also have pottery bowls that have illustrations from the stories. Then what's interesting is that, even though it's not in their tradition, the Turks are doing illustrated Shahnamehs. So we find this great sweep of illustrated manuscripts across the world from Istanbul to India. The Shahnameh appeals to people at all levels of society because the book itself incorporates people at all levels of society.