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Exhibition Of Famed Persian Epic Opens At Smithsonian Institution

"Feridun Strikes Zahak With The Ox-Headed Mace," watercolor on paper, Tabriz, Iran, circa 1525, from Firdawsi's "Shahnameh"
WASHINGTON -- The resounding first couplets invoke "the creator of wisdom and life." And, indeed, it may have been divine inspiration that prompted the Persian poet Firdawsi in the 10th century to begin writing what would become "The Shahnameh" or "Book of Kings."

LISTEN: Radio Farda's Nader Sadighi reads the opening lines of "The Shahnameh"

A mixture of myth and history, the epic poem records the story of Persia from the beginning of time up until the 7th-century Arab conquest in more than 100,000 rhymed lines. Later complemented with miniature paintings of sumptuous detail, it is regarded as among the greatest works of world literature and art.

Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, a top authority on "The Shahnameh" and the director of the University of Maryland's Roshan Center for Persian Studies, says the work founded an epic tradition that spread from Iran to India, Central Asia, Anatolia, and the Caucasus.

"Imagine the importance of 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey' in Western traditions, imagine Dante's 'Commedia' in Italian literature, imagine Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass' in American literature. ['The Shahnameh' is] an originator," Karimi-Hakkak emphasizes.

Finest Illustrated Text

This monumental work has just arrived in the U.S. capital, where a six-month exhibit marking the millennial anniversary of the poem opened on October 23 at Washington's Smithsonian Institution.

The display features a collection of 19 precious folio pages along with two complete "Shahnamehs" and metal objects depicting characters and visual motifs from the work.

Massumeh Farhad, the chief curator at Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler galleries, explains that the exhibit showcases a fraction of the hundreds of illustrated pages that form the complete "Shahnameh," but they are some of the most famous.

"Most of the paintings [on display] are from two of the most celebrated copies of 'The Shahnameh' -- one that was produced in the early 14th century that is considered a watershed in the history of Persian painting, and the other one, produced in the early 16th century, is considered by many [to be] the finest illustrated text ever produced in the Islamic world."

One illustrated page in the exhibit shows Rakhsh, the stallion owned by the poem’s protagonist, Rustam, sinking his teeth into the hide of a lion -- his saddle a brilliant cobalt blue with gold detail. On another page, blocks of text encircle the main scene, which depicts the opulent court of Jamshid, decked in richly patterned tapestries.

Magnifying glasses are provided to visitors to the exhibit to help them appreciate the extraordinarily fine detail.

None of the illustrations is signed, and whole teams of artists likely worked on each copy.

Philosophical Undercurrent

But despite the visual feast offered by the miniature paintings, literature professor Karimi-Hakkak says they don't capture the poem's most luminous aspects.

"In the illustrations you do not see the best parts of 'The Shahnameh' because how can you illustrate a philosophical thought that the poet interjects?" says Karimi-Hakkak. "In the illustrations, you see places where women are present [and] wine is being served, or blood is being spilled, and so on. So you see the extreme of dramatic action in pictures."

But Karimi-Hakkak says there is a philosophical side to the epic as well. "The part of greatest appeal to the likes of me is when he [Firdawsi] just distances himself from the story he's telling and he reflects on life," he says.

As the poem's opening lines foreshadow, reflections on wisdom appear throughout the text. They often coincide with another major theme of the work, the family. Instances of fathers killing children or children killing fathers are always traced back to the loss of wisdom.

Statue of Shahnameh author Firdawsi in Mashhad, Iran
Defining Persia

But perhaps the best-known theme of the poem is its definition of Persian identity as distinct from the rest of the Muslim world.

Firdawsi wrote "The Shahnameh" from Khorasan, the northeastern bastion of Persian culture, at a time when the city was developing a separate identity from Baghdad.

According to Karimi-Hakkak, the poet does not favor pre-Islamic Persia over Islamic Persia but instead forges a modern Muslim identity borne out of a past that is not shared with the Arabs.

Karimi-Hakkak says it is this aspect of the poem that rose to particular notoriety over the last two centuries, as Western scholars delved into the literature of the East, which in turn encouraged Iranian nationalists to regard the Shahnameh as a primary definer of identity.

Today, it continues to serve the same cultural role. According to Farhad, the museum curator, "The Shahnameh" and the Koran are the two texts guaranteed to be on the shelves of Iranian households.

Firdawsi's poem stops at the 7th-century Islamic conquest of Persia, probably, scholars says, because he ran out of time to record events beyond that point.

Beyond Quotidian Politics

Despite the author's frequent pledges to Islam in the poem, the text's emphasis on the pre-Islamic period has raised fear among some people in Iran that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's regime might try to downplay its significance.

Karimi-Hakkak is dismissive. "There's a lot of talk, and that's what it is -- loose talk -- about the government being positioned against it," he says. "There's no such thing. 'The Shahnameh' has moved so much above quotidian politics that no government has ever dared to do anything with it."

In fact, the Islamic republic in 1994 traded a Willem de Kooning nude, obtained by former Empress Farah Pahlavi and deemed inappropriate for display, for hundreds of pages of the prized 16th-century copy of "The Shahnameh." Pages of that copy, which was divided in the 20th century and sold by a U.S. art collector, are on display at the Smithsonian exhibit.

The museum waited until 2010, the millennial anniversary of the text's estimated completion, to celebrate Firdawsi's life work. But the exhibit is far from the first to mark 1,000 years of "The Shahnameh."

The first "Shahnameh" millennial celebrations were held decades ago to celebrate the start and end dates of the writing -- both of which are in dispute.

According to Farhad, Firdawsi garnered little recognition for his achievements during his own lifetime. But he may have sensed that his time would someday come, for within the epic poem he expressed the hope that his work would outlive its creator.

A thousand years on, the "Book of Kings" is still very much alive.