Updated on May 19, 2015
49. ‘Shahnameh’ by Ferdowsi
Last year this book was waiting for me under the Christmas tree, and unwrapping it was an absolute treat. It’s huge, weighty, hardback and printed in full colour on every single page. This thing is an absolutely amazing object, even before you begin to look inside.
Shahnameh, subtitled The Epic of the Persian Kings, is a huge collection of poems about the kings of Persia (today, Iran), between the years 977 and 1010 CE (that stands for Common Era, a now often used, non-Christian alternative to AD). As you can imagine, the course of history did not run smooth, and there is plenty of pillaging, murdering and avenging going on in this book, which truly deserves the name ‘epic’.
There are some common themes throughout Shahnameh. For example, it is very clear who we are supposed to root for: the good are usually brave warriors, merciful victors and patient leaders. The bad, on the other hand, are sly, manipulative and cowardly. Kings are at the top of the heap, closely followed by warriors, and then trusted advisors who give sage advice (if they’re good) or reckless advice (if they’re bad).
Avenging is also very important in these poems. People avenge each other’s deaths and injuries left, right and centre, often holding onto grudges for hundreds of years. That’s a very human trait, of course, and also a very flawed one: at what point does a warrior decide that they’ve avenged enough and the score is settled? And when does the opposing side ever agree with them and stop their avenging too? Never, that’s when.
But with this book, the poem is really half the story: the illustrations are obviously hugely important too. Page after page is printed with small motifs, whole-page images or even double page spreads, all in full colour. And the illustrations are so detailed as well, filled with intricate designs and patterns, the sort of elaborate design that I really love.
At the back of the book there is a section in which the illustrator, Hamid Rahmanian, describes how he completed this epic project. TEN THOUSAND hours went into researching ancient Iranian paintings and lithographs from this period of Iranian history. Rahmanian used a computer to painstakingly piece together elements from across thousands of pieces of historical artwork into new creations (clouds from one piece, trees from another, a character’s head from one painting, his body from another, the arrows in his bow from yet another). The result is breathtakingly beautiful and the work behind it absolutely boggles the mind.
This is a book I am sure I will read again and again, for its bloodthirsty, moralistic stories and its captivating beauty, Reading it is a sensory experience and I would recommend it to anyone who finds the physical act of reading a pleasure in itself.
“A man who desires a good life must feed
And sustain his family and have enough to be
Generous towards his friends in need.
Beyond this he must abhor
Worldly possessions and dreams of power
That not the tree of his life rot to its core.”
Why not read the book and let me know what you think?