Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Shahnama, by Firdausi

Cambridge University to observe 1,000 years of Shahnama
Faizan Ahmad
10 March 2009
The Times of India

Cambridge University will observe 1,000 years of the Shahnama or book of kings by the Persian poet Firdausi in 2010. This epic verse was compiled in 1,010 AD which narrates the history of the Iranian people from the earliest times to the collapse of the Persian empire in the early seventh century.

This was stated by Bilha Moor, a research associate with Shahnama Project of the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Cambridge University, at the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library on Sunday. Delivering a lecture on Illustrated Shahnamas, she spoke at length about the techniques and tools of manuscript-writing in the Islamic world and maintained that each manuscript was a once-in-a-lifetime work.

She said that the illustrated manuscripts were compiled as late as the 11th century in the Islamic world and a beginning was made in Arabic treatises dealing with sciences especially astronomy, astrology and botany. But these paintings were more like sketches. It was by the 14th century, in the Persian-speaking world, and largely under Mongol impact, that illustrations in the manuscripts became more elaborate and paintings were drawn against the background of a landscape.

Firdausi's lifetime's work re-tells the myths and legends of ancient Iran, interweaving stories of the successive dynasties from the first king Kayumars down to the last Sasanian monarch Yazdagird III, with accounts of combats with monstrous beasts, hunting exploits and gargantuan feasting. It also introduces Zoroastrianism, the legendary conquests of Alexander the Great and the contest between Persia and Byzantium for dominion in the Middle East.

Moor referred to the various manuscripts of the Shahnama that she consulted at the library, showed some of the illustrated pages and narrated the episodes depicted there in course of a detailed talk and power-point presentation.

Former Patna University history professor Surendra Gopal presided. He emphasised on the importance of the Persian language and Iranian cultural impact in the medieval Asiatic world. Library director Imtiaz Ahmad said the library enjoys distinction of possessing 80 copies of the Shahnamas, the largest single collection in the sub-continent. One of these copies was highly appreciated by Mahatma Gandhi who observed "its decorated pages are an eternal feast for the eyes."