Ferdowsi. منتخب شاهنامۀ ابو القاسم فردوسى (Selections from the Shahnameh). Manuscript copied in Iran, 1618. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)

The seminal work of Persian literature is the Shahnameh, an epic poem that recounts the history of pre-Islamic Persia or Iranshahr (Greater Iran). The Shahnameh contains 62 stories, told in 990 chapters with 50,000 rhyming couplets. It is divided into three parts—the mythical, heroic, and historical ages. Written in modern Persian, the Shahnameh is a work of poetry, historiography, folklore, and cultural identity and is a continuation of the age-old tradition of storytelling in the Near East.

Under the patronage of the Samanid dynasty, Hakīm Abul-Qāsim Firdawsī Tūsī (Ferdowsi) began his epic poem in 977, taking thirty-three years to complete it. The Shahnameh was written at a time when modern Persian had started to flourish and the structures and standards for the language were being set.

After its first appearance in 1010, the Shahnameh directly affected the epic and poetic works of all Persian speakers and writers for centuries. A number of scholars credit the continuity in modern Persian to the Shahnameh. It influenced not just Persian speakers but also the cultures of Turkic peoples in Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Georgian, Kurdish, and Pashto literary traditions. The Shahnameh continues to be one of the main pillars of the modern Persian language.

Library’s Oldest Shahnameh Manuscript

The Shahnameh, the seminal Persian literary work, is based primarily on a prose translation of an earlier Pahlavi work, known as the Xvatāynamāk (Book of Kings), from the pre-Islamic Sassanid era (224–651). The poet Daqiqi (942–980), a contemporary of the poet Ferdowsi (940–1020), began rendering the Shahnameh in verse, and, in turn, Ferdowsi included many of Daqiqi’s couplets in his version of the Shahnameh. Although the manuscript’s place of publication is not noted, it is in an Iranian style with text written in the Persian Nasta‘liq calligraphic style, one of the oldest and most prized styles of Persian calligraphy used for manuscripts. The displayed page showcases a painting of an epic battle scene.

Ferdowsi. منتخب شاهنامۀ ابو القاسم فردوسى (Selections from the Shahnameh). Manuscript copied in Iran, 1618. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)

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Indian Shahnameh Manuscript

This rare Shahnameh manuscript, copied in India in a regional Indian provincial style, demonstrates the popularity of the epic throughout South Asia as well as in the central Persian lands. The manuscript has highly decorated illuminated chapter and section openings in gold ink and numerous illustrations and miniature paintings that fuse Persian, Mughal Indian, regional Indian, as well as European styles. Although the manuscript is not dated, the work reflects a late-seventeenth-century to early-eighteenth-century aesthetic prevalent in India. The text is written in the Persian Nasta‘liq calligraphic style.

Ferdowsi. شاهنامۀ ابو القاسم فردوسى (Shahnameh). Manuscript copied in India, late-seventeenth century–early-eighteenth century. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)

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Qajar Style Shahnameh

As communication and contact between Zoroastrian communities in Iran and India expanded throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Indian Zoroastrian Parsi community began reconnecting to their ancestral homeland in Iran. Produced in the Iranian Qajar style, characterized by a more realistic treatment of portraiture, this twentieth-century Shahnameh includes an additional chapter introducing the notables of the Indian Parsi community to Persian speakers. Illustrated here is the court of Sultan Mahmud, to whom the Shahnameh was dedicated, surrounded by notable Persian poets including Ferdowsi.

Ferdowsi. شاهنامۀ حکيم ابو القاسم فردوسى طوسى (Shahnameh). Bombay, 1913. Gift of the Mehrizi Family. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress. (003.00.00)

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