Middle East

Epic artwork of the Persian Book of Kings

Bahman-Ardashir swallowed by a dragon (British Library)
Image caption The Shahnameh tells the Iranian version of the history of the world

The Epic of the Persian Kings exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge features illustrations inspired by the Shahnameh - poet Ferdowsi's Book of Kings - on its 1,000th anniversary.

Image caption The paintings date from the early 13th to the late 19th Century

In Persian literature it's a given that the Shahnameh - Book of Kings - is a timeless classic; In the West however the work is probably less well-known now than in Victorian times.

A new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge focuses on the gorgeous artwork the Shahnameh has inspired over the centuries.

The work was completed exactly 1,000 years ago by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, who dedicated his life to crafting its 60,000 verses.

His rhyming couplets give the history of Persia as it was then understood, from the beginnings of time.

It ends with the fall of the Persian empire at the hands of the Arabs and Turks.

Legendary tale

An English work of roughly the same era such as Beowulf is now incomprehensible to the general reader unless translated because the English language has altered so radically.

Part of the Shahnameh's significance is that Persian-speakers can read it today as people did a millennium ago and encounter few problems.

Charles Melville, professor of Persian history at Cambridge, says Ferdowsi was an independently wealthy landowner who spent at least 30 years writing the book.

Image caption The legendary shah, Key Kavus, on his flying throne

Running short of cash, he presented what he had done to court, only to discover that he was out of favour with those in power.

The work became popular only after his death.

It is a massive book - twice as long as the Iliad and Odyssey put together.

The exhibition curator Barbara Brend says modern audiences need to accept it is not history in the usual sense.

"There's a legendary, mythical bit at the beginning then a middle section covering Alexander the Great. The last section deals with a real dynasty, the Sasanians."

But you need not know much about Persian history or about Abul-Qasim Hasan Ferdowsi to enjoy the bright colours of the 100 or so pictures in Cambridge.

They are the equivalent of illuminated manuscripts in the West, designed for the page rather than the wall.

Religious outcast?

It is clear that those who commissioned them were wealthy and competing to possess the most magnificent Shahnameh going.

The earliest paintings on show are from the 1300s and they finally peter out in the mid-19th Century, meaning the tradition of hand-illustrating books in this extravagant way survived in Persia for some three centuries after it ended in Europe.

Image caption The warrior Rostam, in red, is one of the most popular characters

Each of the illustrations in Cambridge shows a scene from the Shahnameh - military or amorous or fantastical. Exploits of kings feature strongly.

The examples are all from UK sources such as the British Library, Windsor Castle and the Royal Asiatic Society.

Charles Melville says a large proportion must have been acquired in India in the 19th Century by servants of the Raj and brought home.

In Britain, at least, Ferdowsi's work was probably more familiar then than now.

Professor Melville says there's often a sense that Ferdowsi lamented the end of the pre-Islamic era.

"He wasn't a court poet, a flatterer. And it's possible that he was suspected of Zoroastrian sympathies, the pre-Islamic religion. So he wasn't accepted by the religious authorities either."

Ferdowsi died in 1020, in some ways a failure.

Yet 1,000 years after he completed his story, it is remembered as one of the great works of Persian literature.

The Epic of the Persian Kings exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge runs until 9 January 2011.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites