It is hard to imagine another modern culture more in thrall to its distant literary past than Iranians with their Shahnama, the national epic composed by the poet Ferdowsi in the eleventh century. With its luminous array of villains, heroes, and demons, and stories probing the struggle of love against betrayal and good against evil, the Book of Kings is at once a retelling of Persian history before the Arabic conquest and a repository of literary myths that places Ferdowsi alongside Shakespeare and Homer as one of the great giants of storytelling. The Shahnama exerts a profound emotional and psychological hold over Iranians to this day, and the epic remains central to contemporary Iranian identity, a perennial cultural refuge in turbulent political times.
Its grip on the Iranian aesthetic imagination is borne out by even very recent works. The poem’s visualisations of power and justice have shaped the latest installation of the artist Shirin Neshat, who places modern Iranian and Arab revolts in the epic’s ancient context; its iconic heroes are a recurring visual theme in the work of modern Iranian painters, and the figure of Zal, the spurned albino child recused by the mythical bird Simorgh, has inspired the recent literary novel by Porochista Khakhpour.
A new Centre of Shahnama and Persian studies at the University of Cambridge’s Pembroke College, which was inaugurated at an opening this past week, will seek to nurture and extend study of the epic’s numerous manuscripts and propel a revitalised program of Persian Studies. The centre is the second institution dedicated to Shahnameh studies in the world, as the first was established in Tehran in the 1970s under the direction of Mojtaba Minovi. The Cambridge centre emerged out of a £1.2 million endowment from Iranian-American philanthropist Bita Daryabari, which builds on a Shahnama Project founded by Professor Charles Melville with the support of the British Academy. The new centre will devote itself to fresh research and initiatives that explore the Shahnama's far reaching influence across the Persian-speaking world.
“The benefaction not only allows the work on the Shahnama Project to continue – for a great deal still remains to be done in the collection, analysis and presentation of the illustrated manuscripts of the epic,” said Melville. “It also provides a focal point for the encouragement of Persian Studies in Cambridge and guarantees its long-term future. It enables us to pursue new directions of research – for instance into the significance of the poem for contemporary artists in various media – as well as to support programmes of public lectures, publication series and cultural activities.”
The inauguration included an exhibition of mediaeval Shahnama manuscripts and several detached folios of extreme importance as well as a number of contemporary works influenced by its themes, including Siamack Filizadeh’s iconic “Rostam II and Zal join forces” from his series ‘Rostam II. Return,’ a pastiche of references from Qajar-kitsch, to zurkhaneh to Tehran’s Dolat Street Benetton and Fereydoun Ave’s “Radioactive Rustam,” a classic from his macho-mystic series that probes Persian culture’s fetishisation of hero figures who trade in both misogyny and folk mysticism. “The aim of the exhibition is to show why and how the ideas of the medieval Persian poem, based on ancient Iranian mythology, are still relevant to understanding contemporary Persian culture, and why the idea of Iran is associated with the idea of the Shahnama,” said Firuza Abdullaeva, an Iranian studies scholar who will serve as the centre’s director, in her introductory comments.