Shahnama Studies in the Digital Era

Shiva Mihan – Ali Shapouran

The Shahnama or Book of Kings, one of the world’s longest epics, is the national epic of Iran, narrating the stories of fifty kings from the advent of time until the Arab invasion in the seventh century. The Shahnama, consisting of around 50,000 couplets, has been the most frequently copied and illustrated Persian poem in all Persianate lands. 

Firdausi (right below) and the court poets.
The Baysunghuri Shahnama, 1430, Herat.
Tehran Golestan Palace, MS. 716.

The oldest extant copy of the text (which only contains the first half of the epic) is dated 1217, around 200 years after the poet’s death (Florence National Library, C1. III 24), and the oldest complete copy was transcribed 60 years after that (British Library, Add. 21103, dated 1275-6). The oldest surviving illustrated and dated copy of the Shahnama was produced in the first half of the 14th century (Topkapɪ Sarayɪ, H. 1479, dated 1330). Lack of a trustworthy copy of the epic close enough to the author’s lifetime drives the efforts to produce a definitive edition, which is a daunting task with a number of challenges ahead. 

Efforts to edit the Shahnama date back to the mid-19th century. Although the first editions claimed to have used more than 30 copies of the poem, no more than a handful of manuscripts can be traced in them, nor do they offer accurate variants. The first edition containing a critical apparatus was done by Bertels et al. (Moscow, 1960-71), based on four manuscripts. The most recent and the most comprehensive edition was published by Djalal Khaleghi Motlagh and colleagues, in which he consulted 15 manuscripts, including the oldest dated manuscript. Although Khalghi Motlagh has put a significant effort to include as many copies as possible, almost half of the copies produced before 1350 have not been consulted for his edition. This number goes even higher when we consider the codices copied between 1350 and 1450. There are more than 40 intact copies, of which only six were included in the editor’s survey. Aside from philological and literary issues caused by misspellings and misinterpretation either by copyists or the editor, we face the issue of incomplete gathering of relevant textual data and variants. This seems to have been inevitable in Khaleghi Motlagh’s edition, considering the resources available at his disposal, however. 

The Freer small Shahnama, early 14th century. Freer Gallery of Art, 1930.1.

In our digital era, as the first step towards the preparation of a Shahnama edition on a scientific basis, digitisation of at least the oldest manuscripts should be a priority. This is also of great significance when it comes to studying text transmission and the reception of the Shahnama. Although the digitisation of Persian manuscripts was initiated several decades ago, still some of the most important copies are neither digitised nor available to scholars. In addition to the lack of access to sufficient digital resources, a large percentage of digitised codices are those with artistic features and do not necessarily provide images of folios without illumination. 

Each collection and library follows its own digitisation policies when preparing digital images of Persian manuscripts. Some libraries digitise the entire manuscript, even if they receive an order for specific folios, which provides the accessibility of folios both with plain text and artistic features, such as paintings and illuminations. On the other hand, most museums only photograph certain folios with an intention to enrich their digital image resources, predominantly for the study of aesthetics and materials, or to display ‘treasures’ to a wider public. This is most useful to art historians and scholars who base their discussions on visual/pictorial evidence, but it hinders the inclusion of textual content.

Most early illustrated Shahnama manuscripts fell prey to the hands of dealers, who destroyed the manuscripts and sold dispersed (mostly illustrated) folios separately to various private collections, museums, and libraries. The Great Mongol Shahnama (presumably containing some 300 illustrations, originally produced ca. 1330-36)[1] and the so-called small Shahnamas (attributed to different areas ca. 1300-1345, with hundreds of illustrations scattered in numerous collections) are the most striking examples. It seems that even today text folios do not receive the attention they deserve from their holders. Of the few most significant early Shahnama manuscripts, for instance, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the so-called third small Shahnama) is not fully scanned nor photographed, thus not accessible online, with the exception of 39 illustrated folios. To obtain digital images of the manuscript to study, it was necessary to travel to New York in person and photograph the entire manuscript.

The third Small Shahnama, c. 1330-40.
Metropolitan Museum of Art (1974.290). Photo by Shiva Mihan

The so-called Freer small Shahnama, the bulk of which is kept in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (presumed to be produced in the early 14th century) is partly available on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art website, but again only folios with images have been digitised, and text folios have received no serious treatment. 

One reason is of course the time and effort required to digitise a large number of folios in such a voluminous work. Another might be the small number of scholars with an interest in the arduous study of the Shahnama’s text. Databases such as the Cambridge Shahnama Project with their massive collection of illustrated folios around the world is useful for research on breaklines, illustrations, illuminations, and occasionally bindings, but it seldom helps when it comes to the study of textual content. Creating a functioning database and building a stemma codicum for the Shahnama, based on different scribal habits and fluctuating palaeographic features would be a painstaking mission, even with all of the oldest manuscripts and folios in hand. Although today a handful of unillustrated Shahnama manuscripts has been published, without access to the text of other old copies it seems impossible to scope the structure of such a practical database. 

In sum, to revive a trustworthy and accurate edition of the Shahnama, the first step would be to accumulate the digital images of the textual content (text-only pages) of early copies in a database. We should attempt to encourage museums and collections to allocate more budget and time to complete their digital archives by dedicating more attention to text folios, and ideally to digitise the whole volume (and both sides of a separated folio) in full. 

[1] See Sheila Blair’s online article on the mutilation of the Great Mongol Shahnama here.

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