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Epics and Storytelling in Persianate Lands and a Persian Language Tradition

(The following is a post by Hirad Dinavari, Reference Librarian for the Iranian World Collections, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Growing up in a Persian speaking home, there seldom was a time, when my ears were not filled with fantastical tales or anecdotal stories featuring epic heroes, such as Rustam, Siavash, Iskandar (Alexander), and Amir Arsalan. My favorites were my grandmother’s bedtime stories, many of which were tales from the “Hizar va Yik Shab” (A Thousand and One Nights), also known as the “Arabian Nights.” Just like the heroine, Scheherazade, my grandmother told us stories, which had been passed on to her as a child, thus continuing an oral storytelling tradition that goes back hundreds of years and which today forms a rich foundation to draw upon for Persian speaking writers and authors. These stories have diverse characters, heroes and heroines who are not just of Persian background, many come from various regions ranging from China, India to Ethiopia and Morocco and the stories are a testament to a multicultural and cosmopolitan world view.

Saif al-Shu‘ara. هزار داستان (A Thousand and One Nights). Tehran: Rukn al-Mulk, 1899. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress.

The stories that are collected in “A Thousand and One Nights” were first recorded in Arabic in Baghdad during the Middle Ages. These stories were so popular in the entire Islamic world that in the Qajar Era in Iran (1785-1925) they were compiled and translated into Persian verse under the title “Hizar Dastan” (A Thousand Stories). The Qajar monarch Nasir al-Dīn Shah (1831-1896) commissioned a lavishly illustrated six-volume manuscript, which has been called the last outstanding example of the traditional art of the Persian book.

This book featured above from the Library’s Persian rare book collection, is a translation of the “Arabian Nights” into Persian verse by Saif al-Shu‘ara and illustrated by the artist Javad ʽAli-Khân and is the only lithographic edition of the title. This image illustrates the adventures of Jahanshah, whose escapades are part of the story of Buluqiya and the Queen of Serpents.

Ferdowsi. منتخب شاهنامۀ ابو القاسم فردوسى (Selections from the Shahnameh). Manuscript copied in Iran, 1618. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress. This manuscript’s place of publication is not noted, it is in an Iranian style with text written in the Persian Nasta‘liq calligraphic style, one of the oldest and most prized styles of Persian calligraphy used for manuscripts. The displayed page showcases a painting of an epic battle scene.

Of course it is impossible to speak of epics and storytelling in the Persian context without referring to the “Shahnameh,” the best example of the Persian epic and storytelling tradition and the seminal masterpiece of Persian literature. The “Shahnameh” is an epic poem that recounts the history of pre-Islamic Persia or Iranshahr (Greater Iran). The “Shahnameh” contains 62 stories, told in 990 chapters with 50,000 rhyming couplets and is divided into three distinct parts: the mythical, heroic, and historical part. Firdawsī Tusī (940-1020), more commonly referred to as Ferdowsi, began his epic poem in 977 and took thirty-three years to complete it, using primarily a prose translation of an earlier Pahlavi work, known as the “Xvatynamk” (Book of Kings) from the pre-Islamic Sassanid era (224–651.). The poet Daqiqi (942–980), a contemporary poet of Ferdowsi, had begun rendering the “Shahnameh” in verse but passed away at an early age. So Ferdowsi continued in his path and included many of Daqiqi’s couplets in his version of the “Shahnameh.”

Ferdowsi. شاهنامۀ حکيم ابو القاسم فردوسى طوسى (Shahnameh). Bombay, 1913. A lithographic copy of the Shahnameh commissioned by the Indian Zoroastrian Parsi community and given to the Library of Congress as a gift by the Mehrizi Family. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress.

Ferdowsi. شاهنامۀ حکيم ابو القاسم فردوسى طوسى (Shahnameh). Bombay, 1913. A lithographic copy of the Shahnameh commissioned by the Indian Zoroastrian Parsi community and given to the Library of Congress as a gift by the Mehrizi Family. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress.

The “Shahnameh” was written at a time when modern Persian had started to flourish and the structures and standards for the language were being set. The “Shahnameh” is not just a work of poetry — it is often regarded as a work of historiography, folklore, cultural identity and is a continuation of the age-old tradition of storytelling in the Near East. The “Shahnameh” directly affected the epic and poetic works of all Persian speakers and writers to the present and has continued to be one of the main pillars of the modern Persian language.

In later centuries Persian speaking poets such as Niẓāmī Ganjavī (1141–1209) from Azerbaijan and ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Jāmī, (1414–1492) from Central Asia, among the many notable poets, followed in their trail creating their own masterpieces of epic poetry with numerous volumes on epic heroes, love stories and mystical characters. We at the Library of Congress hold in our collections a number of illustrated and illuminated manuscripts and lithographs by Ganjavī and Jami. Ganjavī’s poems, were written in colloquial language and are admired throughout the Persian-speaking world. Ganjavī’s major work is the “Panj Ganj” (Five Treasures), also known as the “Khamsah” (Quinary). In this collection of five long narrative poems, each poem pays homage to the works of earlier poets such as Sanā‘ī and Ferdowsi. The “Khamsah” became a popular subject in the Persian and Mughal Indian courts, and the manuscripts were lavishly illustrated with miniatures.

Niẓāmī Ganjavī (The Quinary of Niẓāmī Ganjavī). Kashmir, India, 1835. Manuscript. Page 2. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress. This page of a Kashmiri-Indian copy of a “Khamsah,” illustrates tales from the “Haft Paykar” (Seven Beauties) and depicts the love interest of the hero Bahram Gur.

Selections of Classical Persian Poetry. Iran, late eighteenth–early nineteenth century. Manuscript. Page 2. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress.

Selections of Classical Persian Poetry. Iran, late eighteenth–early nineteenth century. Manuscript. Page 2. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress.

The Library’s rare Persian manuscripts include works that record the aesthetics and calligraphic styles of Iran, Central Asia, and India from various periods. These images displayed above are examples of the finest illustrated Iranian manuscripts from the 18th-century Qajar era. The manuscript above is written in the Shikastah calligraphic style and bound in an intricate lacquer cover. The manuscript includes the most beloved poems of the Persian poets Sa‘di, Hāfiz, and Jāmī, along with miniature paintings depicting love stories from the various works of the poet Niẓāmī Ganjavī.

One Comment

  1. Nawal Kawar
    July 24, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    Beautiful and very well done Hirad,
    congratulation

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