Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: “Alexander Fights the Monster of Habash” from the Shahnama
Written in the early eleventh century by Abu’l Qasim Ferdowsi, the Shahnama is an epic poem relating the history of Persia (present-day Iran) through the exploits of its kings.
A number of illustrated copies of the Shahnama exist from various periods. These become increasingly more ornate and intricate in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, often including works by the hands of multiple artists and calligraphers. This elaborate page comes from a version known as the Demotte Shahnama (also known as the Great Mongol Shahnama) believed to have been created sometime before 1335.
The historical trajectory of the Shahnama begins in Iran’s mythic past and continues to the defeat of the Persians by the Arabs in the seventh century. This illustration shows Alexander the Great (Iskander), who conquered Persia in 332 BCE, fighting the monster of Habash, or Ethiopia. It constitutes a prime example of the Shahnama’s blurring of the line between fact and legend. It also reflects how the book presented a model of princely behavior—Alexander is an exemplar of bravery in the face of a formidable foe.
The Shahnama’s dual status as historical record and didactic text gave it enormous flexibility. It was not only commissioned by native Persian rulers, but also appropriated by Persia’s foreign conquerors as a means of bolstering their authority. Although its textual content remained the same from manuscript to manuscript, the Shahnama’s images (and their relationship to the text) varied. As the Demotte illustration demonstrates, this lack of circumscription in the visual arena opened the door for foreign influence to enter the manuscript, giving rulers like the Mongols a means by which to make the history their own.
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.”
Grabar, Oleg, and Sheila Blair. Epic Images and Contemporary History: The Illustrations of the Great Mongol Shahnama. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings. Aldershot, Hants, UK: Ashgate, 2004.
Irwin, Robert. Islamic Art in Context. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.
Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250–1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.