It’s said that if you’re English you must know at least one work by Shakespeare, to be Scottish you must know at least one poem by Robert Burns, and to be Persian you must know at least one tale from Ferdowsi, or to give him his full name Hakim Abu ʾl-Qasim Ferdowsi Tusi. For those of you who don’t know, Ferdowsi is one of Iran’s most treasured, revered and influential poets to have ever lived. Since his death in 1020, no one has come close to matching this giant of Persian literature.

Ferdowsi’s Magnum Opus was his epical poem The Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. The poem, consisting of 62 stories and some 50, ooo verses, tells the tale of the birth, rise and trials and tribulations of the Persian Empire, tales that are sprawling and filled with fantastical adventures, mystery and lyrical majesty.

Illustration by Hamid Rahmanian

The most recent translation of the Shahnameh is an evocatively illustrated version by Ahmad Sadri and designer Hamid Rahmanian. It’s this particular translation that, in my opinion, is a stand out piece which illuminates the sheer depth and versatility of Ferdowsi’s prose,  enhanced by Hamid Rahmanian’s powerful illustrations, that draw inspiration from the thousands of paintings, miniatures, lithographs etc.

The Shahnameh begins with praise to God, and what I’ve always understood as a meditation on truth and fiction, the spiritual world and the material world –

“In the name of the God of life and wisdom, the sublime entity that conceived us but can’t be conceived and in the name of the one who is beyond our ken and above our space and time.

In the name of the invisible make of the moon, the sun and the constellations who gave us wisdom to eschew evil and enjoined us to acquire knowledge and pass it on.

Ponder these but don’t call them fables or lies some of them conform to our reason while other are truths that come to us in disguise.”

Ferdowsi used the Shahnameh to express and explore three very distinct ages – The mythical age, the heroric age and the historical age. Subjects which form the bulk of his stories foundations. They blend together seamlessly, like a fine tapestry, moving from one story to the next. Sadri’s version begins with The Kings of Yore: Kayumars to Zahhak and ends with The Reign of Bahman. Sadri focussed on translating Ferdwosi’s stories of the last Pre-Islamic rulers of Persia.

The final quote is a meditation on his 30 year work of writing –

“Magnificent  buildings decay by the dint of time and exposure to the elements wrecks even a house of flint but the poetic edifice I have erected in rhyme

Shall endure the contagion of the rain and the sun. For three decades have I thus suffered to restore this Persian tongue and now my work is done.”

Just like Ferdowsi’s prose, Rahmanian’s illustrations are steeped in symbolism and tinged with transcendental beauty. There’s something artistically pure in them, the careful mixture of colours, and complimenting backgrounds bring the Shahnameh to life. There’s a dedication at the beginning of the book “for those in search of beauty” when absorbing his artwork, it feels as if Rahmanian was on a search for beauty, as each illustrious page echos the work of many artists from the ancient Persian empires.

Illustration by Hamid Rahmanian

It’s an impossible task to truly review the Shahmaneh, as it’s something which to many, myself included, is a work that possesses so much emotion. The clarity of Ferdowsi’s story telling, his craft as a poet is there for all to see. Ahmad Sadri has done a sterling job in his fastidious translation.

Shahnameh: The First Pop-Up Book

Hamid Rahmanian and his collaborator Simon Arizp are working on a pop-up book of the Shahnameh. They’re currently waiting on public support to get the project fully off the ground. The aim is that the pop-up book will get further generations inspired by the genius Ferdowsi….