Long before HBO’s wildly popular Game of Thrones was created, Iranians turned to the national literary epic ‘Shahnameh” (The Book of Kings) for intriguing tales of knights, nobility and mystical creatures scattered across Seven Kingdoms controlled by a greater king.
By Farnaz Fassihi | The Wall Street Journal
Now fans of Game of Thrones, English readers and second generation Iranian-Americans can get a taste of these epic tales in a gorgeously illustrated new book called: Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, published this month by Quantuck Lane Press.
The book was the brainchild of Iranian-American filmmaker and graphic designer Hamid Rahmanian and his American wife editorial director Melissa Hibbard. The Brooklyn-based team wanted to create an art project that transcended the political stereotypes associated with Iran these days.
“Everything about Iran is always politicized. Everyone looks at Iran through the prism of politics and the nuclear issue. We hope we can open up a new window with this book,” said Mr.Rahmanian, 44, in a recent interview in his studio.
In what he describes as a labor of love, Mr.Rahmanian spent nearly four years obsessively scanning through some 8,000 lithographs, miniatures and texts of the period between the 14th and 18th centuries, from regions heavily influenced by the Persian Empire.
After choosing the images that he thought best illustrated the stories in the Shahnameh, he scanned, retouched and composed them digitally to make new collages of images for the book. The result is a stunning, vividly colorful and intricate 500-page illustration of Shahnameh.
The text was edited and translated by Ahmad Sadri, a professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College, near Chicago. Mr. Sadri simplified the narrative to make it character-driven and easier to follow for newcomers to Persian literature.
Some historians say that it’s thanks to Shahnameh that Iran kept its language and culture after the Arab conquest in the 7th century. “Shahnameh is the essence of Iranian nationhood,” Mr. Sadri wrote in an article for the University of Chicago.
The origins of the Shahnameh go back about a thousand years ago, to the 10th century, when a poet named Abol Ghassem Mansor Ferdowsi collected oral stories, folklore, myths and history of Iran and put them into verse.
The result is an epic masterpiece of 60,000 verses, the longest poem ever written, which has been likened to the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, or to the Hindu epic Ramayana.
The Shahnameh recounts the tale of Jahan Pahlavan Rostam, a hero whose father Zal was abandoned at birth and raised by a mythical bird, and who does not want power even as he successfully defeats several kings. Or there’s the story of Kaveh, a blacksmith who saves the nation by killing the evil king Zahak, who has snakes growing from his shoulders. Every day, beautiful maidens and adolescent boys were slaughtered to feed the snakes, including Kaveh’s own son.
Then there are the love stories. Bijan, the son of a famous knight from one kingdom falls in love with Manijeh, the daughter of an enemy king from a rival kingdom, and war ensues. When the king exiles the lovers to the wilderness and throws Bijan down a well, Manijeh secretly follows to bring him food and recite words of endearment. Rostam and a band of knights, disguised as merchants, travel the kingdoms to save Bijan.
Despite their age, the stories of Shahnameh remain alive in the Iranian psyche. Couples turn to its pages to name newborn children. Parents read it to their children as bed-time stories. It forms an integral part of the Iranian school curriculum. And opposition figures recite the struggle of Kaveh to save Iran from an unjust ruler – a story from the Shahnameh – as a metaphor for their quest for human rights and democracy in Iran.
In 2009 presidential elections led to widespread uprisings against the government because of the contested reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Security forces killed approximately 100 people and imprisoned over 1,000.
One young victim of the violence, 19-year-old Sohrab Arabi, was immortalized in part because he shared the name of one of Shahnameh’s most famous heroes, who is tragically killed in battle by his own father.
“We are all Sohrab,” chanted people in the streets of Iran.