Shahnameh: The Layering of Iranian Identity & Cultural Influences
Snapshot images from the Iranian memory lane from the 11th century CE to the 17th century then fast forwarding to the new generation of Iranian Americans, reveal three layers of identity through three formats of the Shahnameh (Book of Kings)
• The original Shahnameh composed by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940- 1010), Persian and Zoroastrian identity
• The 15th through 17th century miniature illustrations of the original stories, Persian and Shi’a Islam identity in Iran as well as influences on Moghuls to define their identity as Indian and Muslim
• The comic book versions of 4 popular stories, Iranian American and what it means to be Iranian and American as well as influences on the younger generation in other Persian speaking countries and globally via internet and social media.
Shahnameh is the Iranian national epic, which means Book of Kings in Farsi (Persian) the official language of Iran. It was composed by the poet Abloqasem Ferdowsi (940- 1010 CE). Ferdowsi lived during the Samanid and Ghaznavid dynasty, the provincial rulers under the control of the Abbasid Caliphate (750 – 1250 CE). Samanids’ provincial kingdom was the northeastern province of Khorasan and their capital city was Bhukara. The northeast of Iran was the center of trade and culture. Samanids were instrumental in reviving the Persian culture and Persian language by changing the language of their court from Arabic to Farsi, which resulted in the emergence of the New Persian language in the 9th century. These events paved the way for the Shahnameh project by Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi who commissioned Ferdowsi to compile the legendary stories of kings and heroes into verse.
Ferdowsi was from Tus, a small town in Khorasan, an area far away from the Arab center of power, Baghdad. His family came from the long line of Dihghans (village lords) who had been gathering the stories of local oral tradition. It took Ferdowsi 30 years to finish Shahnameh and for all his laborious work, he was rewarded very poorly by Sultan Mahmud. However, Ferdowsi felt well rewarded knowing that he lives in posterity through his poem.
“I’ve reached the end of this great history
And all the land will fill with talk of me
I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save
My name and reputation from the grave,
And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,
When I have gone, my praises and my fame.”[Nafisi xi]
Synopsis of Shahnameh
Shahnameh is a very long book of poetry with more than 50,000 couplet verses. Its sheer size makes it comparable to the epics of India, Mahabarata and Ramayana. It starts with the story of creation and ends with the fall of Sasanian dynasty in 651 CE with the conquest of Iran by Arabs. Therefore, it is considered the collective memory of Pre -Islamic Iran when Iranians were Zoroastrians. Scholars have divided Shahnameh into three categories: mythological, heroic, and quasi-historical.
The landscape of Shahnameh reflects the multi-ethnicity of Iranian populations. But it emphasizes on the northeastern province of Iran where the poet Ferdowsi was from and where the local heroes of the stories came from. The other locations such as Oxus River, Balk, and Marv are not in present day Iran. The land of Turan, the ancient enemy of Iran refers to Central Asia. Missing from the landscape is Persia (Parsa or Fars) the Achaemenid capital. The Achaemenids were not mentioned in the poem until their defeat by Alexander the Great in the last third of Shahnameh followed by Parthian and Sasanian dynasty. The tone of poem changes from the earlier heroic action to depict the famous romances of the Sasanian kings.
Themes In Shanameh
Ferdowsi through his masterful storytelling weaves the interlocking threads of the fabric of the ancient Iran and the Iranian people. The stories are allegory of life and are multilateral with moral, psychological, and philosophical dimensions. The main theme in this epic like other epic is good versus evil. The good king is defined as a king with Farr, a Zoroastrian notion, which can be interpreted as divine glory or aura. One can argue that the main theme in Shanameh is Farr as the stories deal with kings who lose Farr, like Jamshid which requires the hero to find a Farr bearing king. When a king loses his Farr in Shahnameh, Iran loses its peace and security, which is a ripe environment for attacks by invaders and the loss of Iranian sovereignty.
The mistrust of foreigners is another theme. Historically there have been many conquerors and invaders in Iran. Thus it is understandable for the epic to warn people against foreigners. However, many of the heroes in Shahnameh have had foreign mothers like Rostam, the main hero, Sohrab, Rostam’s son, and Seyavash, which is one of the many paradoxes in Shahnameh.
The source of authority as in God, king, and father are to be revered and should be in alliance. But when it doesn’t happen it puts fathers against sons. In these situations the sympathy of Iranians goes to the sons like Sohrab, Seyavash, in their struggles against their fathers. Ferdowsi’s portrayal of fathers against their sons could be his way of depicting the patriarchy in Iranian culture as something to be mindful of.
Safavid dynasty: Iranian Identity with Islamic overlay & Cultural influences Through miniature illustrations
The Safavid era (1501 A.D.-1736 A.D.) is the most significant time in the history of Iran for restoring Iranian’s sovereignty, which was lost after the fall of Sasanians by the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century. Shah Isma’il (1501A.D.-1524 A.D.) the founder of the Safavid dynasty officiated the Persian language and Shi`ite Islam as the official language and religion in Iran. Thus Iranian culture, under the Safavids is redefined with its two components of Persian and Shi`ite religion. This was a groundbreaking change in the history of Iran, which was planned to convey Safavids’ power and strength to the outside world through their cultural productions such as: the miniature illustrations of Shahnameh and the Islamic architecture in Isfahan.
Among the miniature illustrations of Safavids, The Legend of Seyavash has been the most reproduced image due to strong imageries of fire and water as sacred Zoroastrian elements and the martyrdom of Seyavash as Imam Hosayn, the third Shi’a Imam who was martyred. Thus this miniature painting depicts the progression s from Zoroastrian to Shi’a Islam.
Safavids example of Islamic power inspired Moghuls in India to brand themselves as Indian and Islamic through miniature and architecture. Akbar, the third Moghul emperor created Akbarnama based on Shahnameh. Taj Mahal the architectural marvel built by Jahangir Shah imitated the idea of the reflective pool from Chehel Sotoon, a Safavid architecture in Isfahan.
The miniature paintings in addition to defining cultural identity reflect the cultural influences of the time. For example, Iranian miniature paintings from Ilkanid period, “Star-Shaped Phoenix, Circa 1292-1293 in Asian Art Museum of San Francisco” in the center shows Simorgh, the mythological bird in Shahnameh, merged into dragon. This can be interpreted as Chinese influence in Iran under the Mongols.
Shahnameh Comic Books: Iranian- American identity
Shahnameh comic books in four volumes were designed for the younger generation of Iranian-Americans growing up in America. The four volumes represent the most popular stories of Shahnameh, which makes the readers relate to stories and learn about Iranian cultural heroes. This can be interpreted as the Iranian-American culture through content and form.
In this perspective we can compare Shahnameh comic books with Sanjay Patel’s comic, Ramayana: Divine Loophole. They both blend old with new and make epic stories come alive. Because of the new format and the internet and the social media sites, these comic books can be reached globally and inspire people all over the world.