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3 / History and Memory

“Alexander Fights the Monster of Habash” from the Shahnama
“Alexander Fights the Monster of Habash” from the Shahnama
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, Tabriz, Iran
Region: West Asia
Date Before 1335
Material Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper
Dimensions H: 23 ¼ in. (59.05 cm.), W: 15 5/8 in. (39.69 cm.)
Location Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Credit Courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library

expert perspective

Oleg GrabarProfessor Emeritus, Institute for Advanced Study

“Alexander Fights the Monster of Habash” from the Shahnama

» Unknown artist, Tabriz, Iran

expert perspective

Oleg Grabar Oleg Grabar Professor Emeritus, Institute for Advanced Study

The Shahnama was written around the year 1000 by a poet named Ferdowsi, who was born and lived most of his life in what is now Northeastern Iran. It is the most celebrated epic poem in Iran. It deals with the mythical history of a country and with the real history a country. For instance, it has several sections on Alexander the Great who came to Iran, or in the history of the last independent Persian dynasty before the appearance of Islam. Those are historical events. They are treated in a non-historical manner, but they are historical. But most of the poem deals with the mythical history that begins with the creation of the universe and the first king appears. Alexander the Great is a great king who becomes a Persian, and he goes to the end of the earth in the Shahnama to find out the truth about eternal living. And at the end of the earth, there is a tree, and on that tree there were figures that spoke to Alexander the Great. And he asked them, ‘Am I going to live forever?’ They said, ‘No, you are going to die like everybody else.’ And that saddens him and he goes away and dies. But the point is that he was transformed into a figure both of history and of moral issue. How do you deal with death? How do you deal with the ambition of eternal life, versus the reality of everybody’s death? Ferdowsi wrote in extremely accessible Persian. People knew it by heart. It is the memory of a very broad ethnic group and depending on the provinces from which you came, there were variances to the story.

Illustrations of the Shahnama begin around 1300 when Iran was ruled by Mongols. From that moment on, they were constantly illustrated. There are many great manuscripts of Shahnama. One is a manuscript done around 1335, of which about sixty illustrations have remained. The painters wanted you to feel that the past was beautiful, that it was great, that the world was terrific. When you look at these paintings you immediately recognize the subject matter—a love scene, a fight, a battle, whatever it is. And you recognize all the people around, almost all of them. But then you realize that they never could sit or be placed the way they are. The setting makes you accept this as being real, and there is something very operatic about Persian painting. It’s all fake. The same people reappear, the same choruses reappear, from one scene to another scene, one story, another story, and are constantly there to do whatever those subject demands. And that’s a very original feature of that art.

After Khomeini took power in ’79, the Shahnama was banned in Iran, because it was a poem to the glory of kings, and not of the faith. Now it is back in some popularity.” 

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