This chapter explores one of the masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum's collection, the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp (reigned 1524–76). Written by the poet Abu'l Qasim Firdausi in 1010, the Shahnama is one of the most celebrated works of Persian literature. The epic poem provides a history of Iranian kingship from the creation of the world to the conquest of Iran by Arab Muslims in the mid-seventh century. The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp has been referred to as the finest and most lavishly illustrated surviving manuscript of Firdausi's epic ever produced. Beyond its great artistic value, the manuscript provides an important visual reference for the architecture, customs, decoration, ceremonies, and fashion of the court of the sixteenth-century Safavid ruler.
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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 a while 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.