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1. Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh: A Persian Classic

The life of Abu’l-Qasem Ferdowsi (c. 940–c. 1025) coincided with a reassertion of Persian traditions under the Samanid dynasty (819–999) in Eastern Iran and Transoxiana. His Shahnameh told the story of Iran’s kings and heroes in New Persian, ensuring its prestige as a literary language and preserving the memory of a glorious past.

Ferdowsi completed his epic in 1010, and although not rewarded in his lifetime, future rulers embraced his poem as a celebration of kingship and their patronage ensured its lasting popularity. During the millennium since its completion, illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnameh spread Persian culture well beyond Iran’s borders, from Egypt and Anatolia to India and Central Asia.

The Shahnameh is commonly divided into three sections: myths, legends and history. The mythical part opens with the creation of the world. The legendary section is dominated by Rostam, the Hercules of Persian folklore. The historical part begins c.330 BC with the demise of the last Achaemenid ruler, Darius III, upon the conquest of Iran by Alexander the Great, the Shahnameh’s Eskandar, and ends with the collapse of the Sasanian dynasty (c.224–642) in the wake of the Arab invasions. The poem presents a vast choice of scenes for illustration — the individual frames of an epic film, as it were. Owing to the enormous popularity of its stories and characters, and their depiction in a wide range of media, the Shahnameh offers a panoramic view of Persian art from the twelfth until the nineteenth centuries.