The Shahnameh Project

Ferdowsi Is Alive and Well and Iran Shall Remain


The Shahnameh Project
by Fariba Amini

To all who obey their thought, or word, or deed
Have aided Persia in her hour of need,
Whether by tongue, or pen, or sword they wrought,
Whether they strove or suffered, spoke or fought,
Whether their services were small or great,
This book of mine I humbly dedicate
May these approve my poor attempt to trace
This final effort of an ancient race
To burst its bondage, cast aside its chain,
And rise to life ‘a Nation once again.’
- Edward G. Browne, The Persian Revolution

The University of Cambridge and its town are amongst the oldest in England, dating back to the early 1200’s. The University is a self-governed community of scholars, comprised of 31 Colleges and more than 150 faculties, departments and institutions.

One of these colleges, Pembroke College, houses the study of E.G. Browne, the great Iranologist active in the early 20th century, who wrote A Literary History of Persia, The Persian Revolution of 1905-1909” (on the Constitutional Revolution), and “A Year amongst the Persians.” Today, the Professor of Persian at Pembroke is Charles Melville. During a few days’ stay at Cambridge, I had a chance to meet Charles Melville and Firzua Abdullaeva Melville. 

Dr. Charles Melville has been teaching at Cambridge since 1984. His many works include a number of books on the Shahnameh but also a study of earthquakes in Iran, titled “A History of Persian Earthquakes”(Cambridge 1982).

Dr. Firuza Abdullaeva, who holds a PhD from St Petersburg University in Iranian philology, Art and Islamic Studies, was previously at Oxford University and is now in charge of the Shahnameh Project. She is also an Academic Associate at Pembroke.

Joint authors of the book, The Persian Book of Kings: Ibrahim Sultan's Shahnama, Charles and Firuza have worked tirelessly to create the first comprehensive website bringing together worldwide documentation and research on the great work by Iran’s poet, Hakim Abu’l Qasim Ferdows, the Shahnama or ‘Book of Kings.’ Written 1,000 years ago in northeastern Iran, the Shahnama remains one of the most influential and popular works of Persian poetry. The database currently contains information on 1,000 manuscripts and single folios, and some 19,000 images, 12,000 of which are available for viewing and cross-referencing. A three-fold brochure describes their website as a digital archive of Shahnama paintings, or a new generation of Shahnama studies.

In an article titled “Pembroke and the Millennium of the Persian Shahnama,” published in Martlet, (Newsletter of Pembroke College, issue 16, spring 2012), Firuza writes, "[The Shahnameh] is the longest poem written by a single author during the whole history of humankind.  Written by a hereditary aristocrat, it is a brilliant example of chivalric literature covering all aspects of medieval society, which is why it is sometimes called an encyclopedia of Persian culture.”

Interestingly, there are now new and modern versions of the Shahnameh for children and young adults as well.

How long have you been at Cambridge and how and why did you become interested in Iran? 

FM- I have been in Cambridge since October 2010 when I came from Oxford to help organize the conference which accompanied the Shahnama Millennium exhibition at the Fitzwilliam (11 September 2010-9 January 2011). Later I started to coordinate the work of the Shahnama Center based in Pembroke College, Cambridge. This was my second arrival in Cambridge. The first time I came from Princeton where I spent a sabbatical, off from teaching Persian literature in St Petersburg.

CM- I became interested in Iran as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where I read Arabic and Persian: having originally intended only to do Arabic, I was quickly introduced to Persian and almost at once developed an enthusiasm for all things Iranian that remains undiminished! My first visit to Iran was in 1974 and I suppose that is the first real beginning of my love for the country and its people.

How did this project begin and when?

CM- I had a sabbatical year in New York and Princeton in 1998 to 1999, and was looking for a suitable project to apply for the recently announced AHRB (Arts and Humanities Research Board) funding opportunities for major research projects in the humanities. The aim was to create some posts in Persian studies which were suffering throughout Europe from a dearth of posts and cuts in funding. It was my colleague Tom Allsen who actually remarked, “well there's nothing bigger than the Shahnama.” I immediately saw that he was right and that the Shahnama, both as a great poem, as the history of ancient Iran, as a vehicle for miniature painting and as a work of the enduring significance in Persian culture, was indeed the sort of topic that could be approached from many angles and have the sort of scope that might attract significant research grant. It so happened that Jerry Clinton had established a website of the illustrated Shahnamas in Princeton, and when I discovered this it was not long before we were discussing the possibilities of a joint Cambridge - Princeton Project and building on the expertise of his technical team. The late Oleg Grabar [a great French-born historian of Islamic art and architecture] also presided over the creation of an index of Shahnama paintings and was soon part of the discussions. Back in Europe I put together the proposal, bringing in Robert Hillenbrand from Edinburgh University and Farhad Mehran from Geneva, who had pioneered a statistical approach to the illustration of shahnama manuscripts. We were fortunate to be awarded a substantial grant of £450,000 [equivalent to some $700,000] for a five-year project, which started in 1999 and finished in 2004.

How many manuscripts are there worldwide and how many does your library hold?

FM- Nobody knows how many surviving mss still exists in the world - there must be hundreds of unknown codices, detached folios and paintings from albums in unknown state and private collections, especially in countries like India or the U.S. In our database there must be about 18,000 but this needs to be confirmed - we are trying to introduce this statistical function to be put on the front page of our website.

CM-As Firuza says, the exact number is not known and it is possible that the database will never be complete; the longer we go on, the more manuscripts or detached folios come to our knowledge, and our initial estimates have already been long surpassed. In terms of complete codices (bound volumes), we’re talking about hundreds, maybe 500 or 600 - of course this is only the number of illustrated manuscripts, there are many more without paintings. As for detached manuscript pages, however, we are talking about thousands. The database currently holds the record of around 19,000 pictures, of which we have images of about 13,000. this covers all the major national collections throughout the world - London, Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg, Italy, Cairo, Teheran of course and many of those in India. We also have information about many private collections and smaller holdings in University libraries and elsewhere. It is probable that additions to the database well now just come in ones and twos rather than big collections.

What is your goal in this project?  In what capacity have students
worldwide and in Iran been able to use your website

CM- The primary goal was to stimulate research in the field of Persian studies, starting through the lens of the Shahnama. That is, create the research resource represented by the database, hold conferences and produce publications. We have held two conferences in Edinburgh, three in Cambridge and one in Leiden; two volumes are published, one is in press, and two more are in preparation, not to mention contributions to conferences elsewhere and articles by various members of the project over the last 10 years. The aim is therefore to bring the full range of Shahnama paintings to researchers and enable them to address issues about such topics as the relationship between the text and the image that were largely ignored before.

The website is free for users and accessible from anywhere after simply registering a password. We have many letters of gratitude from students who have found it not only useful but even essential for their research, especially students from Iran. Judging by the enormously high number of hits registered by the site, it is very widely used, and we have built in private workspaces where students and scholars can save paintings are interested in a personal workbook.

In what stage of the project are you now?

FM- The project is now entering a third phase, with the opening of the Shahnama Center. Beyond expanding the website, our aim is to develop educational courses on Persian manuscripts and codicology, using the wide range of Shahnama manuscripts to study calligraphy, illumination, painting, paper, binding and other aspects of the arts of the book, together with the study of the text of the Shahnama itself.  We are also planning a series of publications of major Shahnama collections.

In your opinion, what is the significance of the Shahnameh to Iranians and others?

CM- I think the Shahnama means different things to different people. In the first place, it is a great poem, which can be read for the pleasure of its language and expression and enjoyment of the stories, For those who cherish the notion and the memory of Iran's great empires in the ancient world, the Shahnama is a record of those times and a nostalgic celebration of a distant past, and it throws into relief the not so splendid history of Iran in more recent times. Now, under an increasingly unpopular religious regime, the Shahnama can take on an un-Islamic or anti-Islamic character and therefore be a not so veiled way of criticizing the current assault on Persian cultural values. Its message is a plea from rulers to act with wisdom and justice and it chronicles the fate of tyrannical rulers and regimes. For non-Iranians, it is significant as opening a window onto understanding something of Iran's culture and self perception with its myths that explain Iran's place in the world between East and West, and much of its spiritual character, including fatalism, martyrdom, and respect for both secular and religious authority.

What is your favorite story in the Shahnameh?

FM- My favorite story is that of Sudaba and Siyavush because it is an Iranian version of a universal story, present in almost all literary cultures. It exists in many versions, from the story of Potiphar’s wife in the Bible to Greek Phaedra to Jami’s Yusuf and Zulaykha. Iranian Hippolytos and Joseph/Yusuf goes back to the Soghdian and Khwarazmian semi-deity whose cult was popular in Transoxiana many centuries before Islam. Sudaba, who could be associated with the Avestan goddess Anahita and the Soghdian Nana, is a tragic figure in the Shahnama who is not always evil and does not deserve to be executed like Alexandre Dumas’s Milady de Winter. She is ready to commit sin because of her passionate nature which was transformed by later authors to that of a dedicated Sufi lover.

CM- It is difficult to pick out a favorite story; the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab is extraordinarily powerful and equally moving however often one reads it. I like very much the story of Forud, son of Siyavush, which contains many elements of drama and psychological penetration of the characters’ motivations. The love story of Bizhan and Manizha is also a very nice, relatively brief and compact episode, involving deceit and remorse, love and faithfulness in adversity, an interesting dash of the supernatural in Jamshid's world-seeing bowl, and the heroic fight against the enemy to wrap it up.


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