History Podcasts

Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings

Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings

Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, illustrated by Mr. Ahmad Sadri, Gorter Professor of Islamic World Studies and Professor of Sociology at Lake Forest College, affords the reader an exciting introduction to Ferdowsi's epic saga of ancient Persian triumphs, tragedies, romances, and heroic exploits. Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings is a lavish publication with almost 600 pages of striking illustrations -- collected and reassembled by Rahmanian from thousands of miniatures and illustrated manuscripts, ranging in geographical locale from India to Turkey – is quite possibly the most beautiful book that we have ever seen.

Written over a thousand years ago in medieval Iran, Ferdowsi's epic is as important to Persians as the Illiad is to Greeks and the Ramayana to Indians. Ferdowsi is responsible for safeguarding a collective Persian past -- one before the Arab conquests of the seventh century CE -- through his collection of Persian myths and legends. Despite the enduring and enormous popularity of the Shahnameh across the Persian-speaking Near East for over a millennium, it remains relatively unknown and vastly underappreciated in the West. Through this publication, Rahmanian and Sadri have given one of the greatest treasures in the canon of world literature new vigor and enhanced appeal.

Although in its original form the Shahnameh was composed of a series of couplets, Sadri’s translation and adaptation is presented in melodious prose. Those familiar with the sounds and cadence of Farsi will delight in Sadri’s translation, which retains the whimsical feel of the original, while the prose narrative compliments the ethereal, breathtaking illustrations found throughout the publication. When reading the text, we found ourselves marveling at how skillfully Sadri was able to abridge the text into accessible chapters for a modern audience.

Rahmanian is a gifted artist and the illustrations found throughout the book are simply beautiful. Moreover, Rahmanian’s blending of artistic styles from across the Near East adds to the monumental scope of Sadri’s prose. It is difficult to describe Rahmanian’s artistic style succinctly, but we would characterize it as a mélange of assorted traditional Persian styles. This being said, it would not be entirely inappropriate to describe Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings as a “graphic novel.”

Aside from the gorgeous illustrations and the charming prose, we found Ms. Sheila Canby’s foreword to be informative. Rahmanian’s Preface and Sadri’s Translator’s Note, Editorial Philosophy, and The Vision delineate how this version of the Shahnameh differs from others. To help guide readers through the complicated world of ancient Persian lore, there is a useful family tree for the main characters. The book concludes with a chapter on how Rahmanian was painstakingly able to illustrate this title.

The Our Site strongly recommends this book to those stirred by great art and literature. It makes wonderful and imaginative reading, whether you are already familiar with the plot of the Shahnameh or not.

This volume has been published in English through Quantuck Lane Press in the United States and is currently available

Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings

Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings is the illustrated edition of the classic work written over one thousand years ago by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, one of Persia’s greatest poets. This new prose translation of the national epic is illuminated with over 500 pages of illustrations and was published in April 2013 and is currently in its 7th printing.

The lush and intricate illustrations in this edition have been created by award-winning graphic artist and filmmaker Hamid Rahmanian, incorporating images from the pictorial tradition of the Persianate world from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The new translation and adaptation by Ahmad Sadri, retells the mythological and epic stories of the original poem in prose format. This Shahnameh is an extraordinary literary and artistic accomplishment.

What the critics are saying…

One of the most beautiful books I've ever been given. -- Neil Gaiman

An Iranian epic for the masses — CNN International

A gorgeous new translation of the Persian epic. — NPR, All Thing Considered

A Persian Masterpiece, Still Relevant Today. — The Wall Street Journal

Simply breathtaking. — Huffington Post

Brings new, vivid life to the epic tales of the ancient Persian kings. — The Atlantic

Epic of the Persian Kings: The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi

Composed more than a millennium ago, the Shahnameh -- the great royal book of the Persian court -- is a pillar of Persian literature and one of the world&aposs unchallenged masterpieces. Recounting the history of the Persian people from its mythic origins down to the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, the Shahnameh is the stirring and beautifully textured story of a prou

Composed more than a millennium ago, the Shahnameh -- the great royal book of the Persian court -- is a pillar of Persian literature and one of the world's unchallenged masterpieces. Recounting the history of the Persian people from its mythic origins down to the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, the Shahnameh is the stirring and beautifully textured story of a proud civilization. But the Shahnameh (or, literally, the "Book of Kings") is much more than a literary masterpiece: it is the wellspring of the modern Persian language, a touchstone for Iranian national consciousness and its illustrations, in manuscripts of different eras, are the inspiration for one of the world's greatest artistic traditions.

"Epic of the Persian Kings" combines revealing scholarship with stunning, full-color illustrations from the rich manuscript tradition of the Shahnameh. International experts including Charles Melville, Barbara Brend, Dick Davis and Firuza Abullaeva shed light on the epic's background, national importance and enduring legacy. This context is accompanied by a wealth of illustrations from Shahnameh manuscripts belonging to the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Bodleian Library, as well as rarely-seen material from the Royal Collection. These illustrations, drawn from a wide range of artists and styles, display the timeless flexibility of the Shahnameh story as well as the marvellous ingenuity of the Persian artistic experience.

"Epic of the Persian Kings" is an essential textual and pictorial guide to one of the world's great cultural achievements.

Special offers and product promotions


""With many more manuscripts than could be displayed in the exhibition, the catalogue is worth having in its own right. It places the 'Shahnameh' in its historical and literary context, stressing its centrality to Iranian identity. Photographed in close-up, the extraordinary detail of the pictures and ceramics in the exhibition becomes apparent."" — The Economist

""Barbara Brend. gives expert guidance on the conventions of Iranian art"" - Robert Irwin in the Times Literary Supplement

""The work is an exceptional addition to publications on the Shahnameh. It is, moreover, a valuable addition to any library that maintains an undergraduate or graduate Iranian studies program, Middle Eastern/Islamic Studies program or art history program in general"" - Sean Swanick, The Muslim World Book Review

'It provides good, concise, scholarly overviews of the author, the historical context in which he wrote, and the subsequent immense impact of this work on Persian literature and culture, along with a very brief account of the poem's stories. This is a significant resource for scholars. Summing up: Recommended.' - CHOICE

About the Author

Charles Melville is Professor of Persian History and Fellow of Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge. Among his numerous publications he is the editor of Safavid Persia , A History of Persian Literature, Vol X and joint editor of the Cambridge History of Iran, Vol VII . He is also Director of the AHRC Cambridge Shahnameh Project.

Barbara Brend is a specialist in the field of Islamic manuscript painting, Persian, Ottoman, Sultanate and Mughal. She is the author of Islamic Art , The Emperor Akbar's Khamsa of Nizami , Perspectives on Persian Painting: Illustrations to Amir Khusrau's Khamsah and Muhammad Juki's Shahnamah of Firdausi .

A Shahnameh fit for the ages: The Epic of the Persian Kings

This edition is simply breathtaking: 600 illustrations dance across every page, each telling a story in a thousand intricate and beautiful artistic flourishes. Accompanied by a translation of the text that is charming, accessible, and rich in the nuances of the Persian language, it is a treasure that will be cherished and handed down to subsequent generations.

Over 10,000 hours were spent on creating the illustrations for this classic tale by the great Persian poet Ferdowsi, and once can well see why. Fusing classic Persian art and modern collage-like sensibilities, Rahmanian employs cutting edge graphic design technology and incredibly rich color to create a thoroughly captivating depiction of one of the greatest epics of all time. One can find oneself immersed in each page indefinitely, exploring the intricacies and beauty of illustrations that have the detail of traditional miniature Persian art. Hamid Rahmanian has truly created a gem of a book that will delight readers and introduce them to the rich heritage of Eastern mythology.

In the history of literature, Shahnameh stands next to the giants of mythological and epic tales like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Nibelungenlied and Ramayana. Written in the year 1010 AC by the Persian Poet Ferdowsi, it is the longest poem ever written, standing at 60,000 heroic verses. Ferdowsi collected the oral histories, traditions and fables of the region that went back thousands of years, and then wove them together into one monumental work: Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings.

The epic includes four traditional tragedies and three love stories this is the first time these stories have been introduced to the public in an accessible and modern way. Beyond the beautifully and accessibly translated text, it’s the illustrations of the book that truly stand out. Capturing hundreds of years of visual history from the region, each page is a visual feast for the eyes, a labor of love that in some cases took upwards of 120 hours to create.

Hamid Rahmanian, a documentary filmmaker and artist, started working on this book about four years ago. His wife and creative partner, Melissa Hibbard, and Hamid wanted to introduce the mythology of Shahnameh to a Western audience in an accessible way. They tried a few different forms, including a pop up book for children, a traveling puppet show and an iPad application and settled on the current book format when their publisher, Jim Mairs, saw the first round of illustrations and fell in love with them, not knowing anything about the stories.

The couple collaborated with Professor Ahmad Sadri from Lake Forest College in Chicago. Professor Sadri translated and adapted the text with Melissa, who worked as the editorial director. It was a dream fulfilled when The Quantuck Lane Press, a publisher known for its exquisite art books and limited editions, published the book just last month. It is available for purchase all over the country in bookstores and on their website www.theepicofthepersiankings.com

In an interview with Hamid Rahmanian, he explains the books’ significance, its parallels to today’s Iran, and the artistic and cultural significance of his illustrations and the book as a whole.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

What is the significance of this book coming out at such a crucial time in Iran’s history?

What people here in the West know about Iran is mostly headline politics. Very few people know anything else about the country. This book offers a more sophisticated look at what Iran has contributed to [in terms of] civilization and gives a broader look at its culture, art and history.

What’s new about this book? What does it add to our knowledge of Iran and its history and culture?

In terms of the illustrations, I’ve taken from over 500 hundred years of the visual culture from Iran and its neighbors, The Ottoman Empire, Central Asia, and Mughal India who were influenced by Iranian painting from the late fourteenth to mid nineteenth centuries. I deconstructed hundreds of miniature paintings and lithographs then wove together thousands of these elements into new illustrations, much like a DJ samples different sounds to create new music. For those who are not familiar with Persian miniatures, it’s a great introduction to the art of that region. For those who know the­ work, it’s a totally new take on something familiar.

Does this book give the reader any insights into today’s Iran?

Shahnameh has always been part of Iranian society. Opposing political parties use the stories of Shahnameh to gain popularity among the people. There is a quest for justice through out the text, which resonates strongly with the struggles of the current political environment. Even last week, a potential presidential candidate used Shahnameh as an analogy in his attempt to win the presidency.

Is this version of Shahnameh a good window into Iranian culture for someone who is not very knowledgeable about it?

Absolutely. Readers will be reminded of other world mythologies. There’s a universal quality to the text that anyone can relate to. The stories, which go back thousands of years are fascinating. There are heated love stories, classic tragedies, a Herculean-type hero, Rostam, who leads the reader on perilous journeys. It’s a classic text in that sense. But it’s also the backbone of Persian culture and a wonderful introduction for someone unfamiliar with the region. It’s a fun and entertaining read and the images, over 500 of them, guide the reader through the book, like a movie.

Is there a historical relationship between imagery like the beautiful designs in this book and storytelling in Iranian culture?

The stories of Shahnameh had been illustrated even before Ferdowsi penned his tome in the tenth century. From the high art of illumination and miniature painting to low brow coffee house paintings, artists have used these stories as inspiration for hundreds of years. Kings commissioned illustrated editions to give as gifts to other heads of states and crudely painted canvases were used as backdrops for village performers to retell the tales of Shahnameh to local audiences. For some reason, this long tradition ended about 150 years ago. Our new Shahnameh can be thought of as a revival of this practice.

Are there any parallels between these old stories of tragedies and triumphs and Iran’s current situation?

Yes. In the storey of Kaven, the Blacksmith, this lowly artisan raised an army against the tyrannical Serpent-King, Zahhak. Many people today, use this story as a parallel to what his happening today with the current oppressive regime.

What is the place of the original Shahnameh in Iranian literature and world literature?

Shahnameh is very important. It single-handedly kept alive the Persian language after [Persia] was invaded by Arabs in the seventh century. Although it is 1000 years old, people can still read the text today. Most Iranians know the main stories and can recite a few lines of poetry. It’s still very relevant and alive in the hearts and minds of the people.

How loyal is this book to the original text and stories? What are the differences between your text and the original text?

For translating the text, we worked with Professor Ahmad Sadri, to translate and retell the stories. We had a vision to create a cinematic, character-based story that someone with no knowledge of the Shahnameh could pick up and read easily. One of the biggest challenges was balancing our need to stay true to the original text and our need to make it relevant to a modern audience. We chose the first two-thirds of the Shahnameh because it had a strong narrative thread that the audience could easily follow. The characters were defined, well developed and relatable. We condensed the stories and made them move faster, edited out some of the side stories that might seem a bit too long winded for a 21st century reader and massaged every bit of emotion and nuance that we could, without changing Ferdowsi’s narrative. We never implied anything or made assumptions about what Ferdowsi might have been thinking. If it wasn’t in the text, we left it out.

Why did you decide to do this project?

As an Iranian graphic artist, I have always loved the visuals of Shahnameh – the miniatures, paintings and lithographs. I have wanted to do something with them for a long time but never had the right vehicle. When I started thinking about doing something with Shahnameh, it really clicked for me that this was my chance to explore this passion I had for these images. In terms of why we decided to take on Shahnameh, we wanted to take it out of the hands of the scholars and introduce it to a larger, broader audience. There is an interest in mythology here in the West, particularly, in American. If you go to a bookstore, you can find books on every mythology on earth, but for some reason, Persian mythology seems inaccessible and not represented in the pantheon of world mythologies. Also, many younger Iranian Americans know about Shahnameh but few have read it. We thought this would be a great introduction the text for second generation Iranians who have grown up here in the US, a way to connect to their roots.

Do you think this book has the potential to be a movie?

Absolutely. With all the movies and TV shows like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, Shahnameh could definitely fit well into that niche. There are a lot of stories that would be right for genre. But if I go any further, I think I would give away my next move so I will leave it there.

Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings

Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute is delighted to support Shahnameh:
The Epic of the Persian Kings, an exhibition of Rahmanian’s innovative illustrations of the Shahnameh on view at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Consisting of some 50,000 verses, the Shahnameh was composed by the poet Ferdowsi in the late 10th to early 11th centuries, but its origins trace back much earlier, and it follows the history of the Persian empire from its mythical origins to the end of the Sassanian period in the 7th century.

In 2013, after thousands of hours of work over more than five years, Rahmanian published
a critically acclaimed newly illustrated edition of the Shahnameh, reviving once again its significance for a contemporary audience. Intended to make the epic accessible to a new generation of readers, the bold, dynamic illustrations seamlessly update the traditional aesthetics of historic Shahnameh imagery. Rahmanian brilliantly took 15th- to 19th-century Iranian, Mughal Indian, and Ottoman miniature paintings as his source material, transforming them through digital editing into an entirely novel way of illustrating the text.

Filter By Year

Copyright © Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute 2020. All rights reserved.

Shahnameh: The Stunning Epic of the Persian Kings

Publication: 2nd “black box” edition, WW Norton & Co | 2017
Other authors: Translated by Ahmad Sadri, Illustrated by Hamid Rahmanian, Foreword by Sheila Canby.
Where to buy:
► Book Depository | Amazon | Kingorama (publisher direct, US only) |

► A signed version is also available from the makers direct (US/Canada only).
► The first “white box” 2013 edition by Quantuck Press is OOP, available from Abe books.

The Shahnameh, which literally means ‘The Book of Kings,’ is a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi around 1000 AD, and it is considered to be the world’s longest epic poem written by a single poet – it contains 50,000 couplets.

Vintage illustrated copies of this work are usually gorgeously illustrated with Persian miniature paintings, but this this new edition is absolutely stunning. It is filled to bursting with bright pictures that created by artist Hamid Rhamanian, who used images from various pictures of old manuscripts to create new imagery. Honestly, when you see the book in person, these images are just breathtakingly beautiful, and there are 500 glorious pages of them.

The text has been vividly translated into English by Ahmad Sadri, the James P. Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College. It is structured according to the mythical and historical reign of 50 Persian Kings, covering the period from the creation of the world until the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century. The epic can be roughly divided into three parts: the first part tells of the mythical creation of Persia and its earliest mythical past the second part tells of the legendary Kings and the heroes Rostam and Sohrab the third part blends historical fact with legend, telling of the semi-mythical adventures of actual historical Kings. The stories throng with heroes and villains, demons and dragons and deeds of derring-do, the book tells the ageless story of the struggle between good and evil.

This edition is beautifully bound in cloth, the pages are sewn in, and it is protected by a very sturdy slip case. The same group have also made a quite stunning pop-up book of one of the stories, which I will also be reviewing shortly.

From the Mythical Creation of the World to the fall of the Persian Empire

According to what Ferdowsi himself said, it took him 30 years of hardship to write this Epic of Persian Kings and revive the Persian language. The book starts with the legendary story of Creation of the world and the first King (man), Gayomart or Keyumars in the native dialect, and is followed by the accounts of other kings to the fall of the last Persian King and the Arab conquest of Persia. &ldquoShahnameh&rdquo is a collection of fascinating tales about Persian kings, lovers, knights, battles, giant demons, mythical creatures, and human tragedies. The book is divided into three main parts: The Mythical Age, The Heroic Age and the Historical Age.

Watch the video: Four years in one minute! SHAHNAMEH: The Epic of the Persian Kings (January 2022).