At the core of the Shahnama Project is an online corpus of illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama, the Persian epic poem composed by Firdausi of Tus in A.D. 1010. The epic became established as an expression of Persian culture and political ethics throughout the Middle Ages and remains so today, strongly associated with the concept of divinely sanctioned kingly rule, but also rich in stories of the tragedy of the human condition and the complex relations between ruler and subjects, fathers and sons, and would-be lovers. Manuscripts of the Shahnama can be found in libraries throughout southern and western Asia, and in public and private collections in Europe and the United States. Many of the hundreds of manuscripts are royal or princely commissions and contain superb examples of Persian miniature painting and the arts of the book. The project makes accessible information and images of manuscripts and their contents from across the world, emphasising the significance of the choice of subjects for illustration and the changing relationships between the images and the text.
The Shahnama Project has also sponsored several international conferences and workshops to stimulate study of the Shahnama in all its aspects – as history, literature and art – and has produced several volumes of conference papers. In 2010 a major exhibition of Shahnama manuscripts was held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, drawing heavily on the work of the Project and a parallel show at the Princes Foundation in London was dedicated to contemporary artists’ responses to the Shahnama. Recognising the continuing significance of the Shahnama today and its potential to inspire painters, filmmakers, theatre and ballet producers, the Project is pursuing many new avenues of activity. Established in 1999 with a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB), the Shahnama Project now looks ahead with confidence to a sustained multi-dimensional programme of research and education, thanks to a generous endowment of Mrs Bita Daryabari to Pembroke College, Cambridge.