‘The Angel Surush Rescues Khusrau Parviz from a Cul-de-sac’, Folio 708v
‘The Angel Surush Rescues Khusrau Parviz from a Cul-de-sac’, Folio 708v

In 2006, an auction at Sotheby’s — the famous British-founded brokers of art — fetched $1.7 million for a single-page illustration of the Shahnama of Ferdowsi. Then, in 2011, another single illustrated folio of this longest epic of world literature was acquired by a wealthy bidder for the hefty sum of $12.3 million. This makes a total of $14 million for only two leaves of the codex — a codex with as many as some 258 illustrated pages.

The fuller story is even more mind-boggling. So we try to register: the manuscript from which the two folios were mercilessly detached is the famous royal Safavid copy of the Shahnama, commissioned for Shah Tahmasp in the 16th century. Produced in Tabriz, it took several long years to complete and stands as an exquisite example of Persian miniature art in its supreme manifestation. In 1568, Shah Tahmasp most generously presented it as a gift to the Ottoman sultan, Selim II. This luxuriant blend of word and colour was held at the Istanbul court for more than 300 years, proudly guarded as an opulent tapestry of poetic metaphor and visual embodiment, a premium item of majestic glory.

Now begin the modern vicissitudes of the Tahmasp Shahnama. It was a little before 1903 that Edmond de Rothschild, a French member of the Rothschild banking dynasty and a committed supporter of Zionism, brought it to Europe. In 1959, it was purchased by Arthur Houghton, an American industrialist who once served as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Indeed, the same Houghton whose generous gift to his alma mater, Harvard, made possible the establishment of the famous library named after him. The Houghton Library is a priceless treasure trove of rare and unique documents; intriguingly, held in its archives are also some original letters of Allama Muhammad Iqbal, written from Spain in his own hand, to Sir William Rothenstein of London’s Royal College of Art.

But Houghton felt no pity for the Tahmasp Shahnama — he dismembered it and sold off its individual pages. This heartless trade, involving massive sums of cash, continued throughout the 1970s and ’80s. And more, some individual folios were gifted to the Metropolitan Museum as a tax write-off. By 1994, the manuscript was emaciated. What happened to it thereafter is deeply ironic: left with 118 illustrations, it was now, through an exchange agreement, repatriated to Iran. Under the agreement, Iran was to receive the truncated Shahnama in exchange for Dutch-American expressionist artist Willem de Kooning’s ‘Woman III’. In 2006, de Kooning’s painting was sold for $137 million to the billionaire Steven Cohen, another American.

This year is the 1,000th anniversary of Ferdowsi’s death, the epic poet whose magnificent Shahnama has shaped not only culture and folklore throughout the Persianate regions but also impacted art, language and nationalisms

So what are the grounds for the claim that the Tahmasp Shahnama is the most expensive book ever? By way of comparison, we recall the claim that “the most expensive book ever sold” is the one purchased in 1994 by the redoubtable Bill Gates for $30.8 million. This is the unique notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, the Codex Leicester. But a rough adding up of the yields of the individual pages of the Tahmasp manuscript over the years, and the monetary value of the 118 pages of illustration and Persian text recovered by Iran, puts the case to rest.

The fuller story of the Tahmasp Shahnama, then, is not only mind-boggling, in so many ways it is also a tragic recollection that harbours telltale signs of a historic and asymmetrical embrace of wealth, imperialism and art. And there exists a multiplicity of such narratives here, for the manuscript we are talking about is not the earliest illustrated codex of Ferdowsi’s epic.

A page of verse
A page of verse

The earliest is the one that comes from the time of another royal court, some two centuries before the Safavids — that of the Mongol Ilkhanids in the 1330s — known as the Great Mongol Shahnama. But this earliest codex has another appellation, too: the Demotte Shahnama, an alternative identification that hides a similar painful story. Having been removed from Tehran, it resurfaced in Paris around 1900 and a Belgian art dealer, Georges Demotte, bought it.

Now Demotte was even more ruthless with this illustrated Ilkhanid manuscript. The codex was brutally dismembered without any record of its original configuration, and more: “Pages were pulled apart to give two sides with miniatures, and to disguise this and the resulting damage, calligraphers were hired to add new text, often from the wrong part of the work, as Demotte did not expect his new clientele of wealthy collectors to be able to read Persian.” Whatever is left today is to be found in 57 individually displaced, meddled-with pages in different museums, including the Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum. So this was the fate of the Ilkhanid Shahnama; it was practically destroyed.

The Shahnama’s creator, Abul Qasim Ferdowsi, died in the year 1020, exactly one millennium ago, so we are currently living in the 1,000th death anniversary year of this grand epic poet. Grand he certainly is, not least because radiated forth from his pen an epic that is the longest poem known to us. With some 60,000 units (she‘r) of two half-verses (misra), making up 120,000 single lines, the Shahnama is three times Homer’s Iliad and exceeds Rumi’s Masnavi by far.

When this gigantic work of poetry was presented by its creator to Mahmud Ghaznavi, it spread over seven heavy volumes. Writing so many lines of poetry in the same metre throughout, and making each pair of lines rhyme, is no minor feat even in terms of prosodic mechanics.

But Ferdowsi’s grandeur lies not in one, but in a multiplicity of domains, and this makes his epic unique in world culture. We have already noted that it has engendered a precious galaxy of miniature work; such products are countless in number, sublime in their aesthetic quality. Indeed, it is universally recognised that in the rich abundance of colour and in the disciplined craft of their calligraphy, these glowing pieces of visual arts define a new cluster on the horizon of world’s visual culture.

‘Tahmuras Defeats the Divs’, Folio 23v from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp | Metropolitan Museum/Public Domain
‘Tahmuras Defeats the Divs’, Folio 23v from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp | Metropolitan Museum/Public Domain

We find this art not only in the Persianate regions of Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, but also in the South Asian subcontinent; not only on paper, but also on ceramics and valuable objects of decoration. A time came when it became de rigueur for Timurid princes to possess an illustrated copy of the Shahnama.

And there is another domain in which Ferdowsi has hoisted his flag, the domain of Iranian nationalism and its related dynastic as well as modern-day politics. We must recognise that one historic and monumental contribution of the Shahnama is that it has preserved the ancient lore and mythology of Iran and, in its vast sweep, has connected myth with history, fact with fabrication, real with imaginary, and so narrating a creative account of the region’s journey in time from pre-history to the Arabo-Muslim conquest in the 7th century.

In the process, our epic writer has not only drawn upon existing Persian sources of his Samanid-Ghaznavid times, but also, through them, of older Avestan textual legacy. It is for this reason that the Shahnama is a prized work in the Zoroastrian world, too, and for this reason it passes muster as a national epic, cutting across religious and ethnic differences. In fact, Ferdowsi tends to be uncompromisingly para-Muslim nationalist at times.

The epic unfolds in three epochs: the mythical age, the heroic age and the historic age. Some four percent of the verses are expended on the first of these, and about 65 percent on the second; the rest is taken up by the third. It is a testimony of the integration of the Shahnama into the Persianate cultural world that familiar to us today are so many names, characters and mythical figures, without the awareness that their source lies in this epic.

The mythical bird simurgh, often equated to the phoenix; the legendary or quasi-historical individuals such as Nariman and Zaal; the crown prince of ancient Iran, Afrasiab; the ruler of Turan, Isfandyar; the young warrior Sohrab’s mother, Tahmina, and his valorous father Rustum’s mother, Rudaba; the bird believed to be an ambassador of good tidings, huma; Rustum’s fateful horse, Rakhsh; the kingdom of Samangan — all these are known to us, at least they ring a bell, but hardly known is the fact that all these Iranian relics were recovered by Ferdowsi.

The tragic story of Rustum and Sohrab, so skilfully crafted by Ferdowsi, is a glittering indelible brooch on our literary horizon. Sohrab, the proud son of Rustum, is killed in a face-to-face fight by none other than Rustum himself. Ah, the father did not know that the slain is his own offspring, the very son he had been longing for. And Sohrab, the virile youth, while invoking the strength of his father during the fight, does not know it is that very father he is facing. The pain Rustum had to endure once he identified the son’s lifeless body is expressed in graphically excruciating words in the Shahnama. Yes, we hear beating under brutal physical strength a father’s gentle heart — a glowing irony, a complexity of the human condition. This Rustum-Sohrab mythic tale has much theatrical possibilities — the outstanding Urdu dramatist Agha Hashr Kashmiri knew this, and so did Bollywood.

‘Zahhak is Told His Fate’, Folio 29v
‘Zahhak is Told His Fate’, Folio 29v

The grandeur of Ferdowsi lies in yet another domain, that of the Persian language. It is hardly an exaggeration to consider him the begetter of what is called New Persian, the post-Islamic Persian as we know it today, which replaced Pahlavi or Middle Persian. Then, the Shahnama also provides us a vista that brings before our eyes the political career of Iran and the Persianate kingdoms. Scholars point out that the epic was practically ignored for some 300 years, and then it became a proud symbol of Persian glory. Regnal names were drawn from it; Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, named all of his sons after Shahnama characters; there came into being countless illustrated manuscripts of the epic. Why this delay in Ferdowsi’s recognition? The reason seems political.

Reza Shah of Iran, too, ignored Ferdowsi for a while and then effusively patronised him. He had Ferdowsi’s mausoleum rebuilt with a generous outlay of funds and, in 1949, the Ferdowsi University was founded in Mashhad. Ali Shariati, the hero of Islamic reformist youth of revolutionary Iran, had rejected Ferdowsi because of the poet’s isolated anti-Arab stance, but Iranian society has espoused him again. In the meantime, pages torn from the codices of the Shahnama continue to claim unfathomable amounts of cash as the gavel of the auctioneers hits the lectern.

The writer is dean of the School of Liberal Arts at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore, and chairs the Arts and Humanities Panel of the HEC

Sohrab and Rustum

As some rich woman, on a winter’s morn,
Eyes through her silken curtains the poor drudge
Who with numb blacken’d fingers makes her fire —
At cock-crow, on a starlit winter’s morn,
When the frost flowers the whiten’d window-panes —
And wonders how she lives, and what the thoughts
Of that poor drudge may be; so Rustum eyed
The unknown adventurous youth, who from afar
Came seeking Rustum, and defying forth
All the most valiant chiefs; long he perused
His spirited air, and wonder’d who he was.

— Excerpt from Ferdowsi’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’, rendered by Matthew Arnold

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 4th, 2020