KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Shahnama (Book of Kings), Iran, Safavid empire, storytelling, discovery, celebration, Zoroastrianism, figural art, royal workshop, watercolor, ink
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS CHAPTER
This page, from the first cycle of the Shahnama, illustrates the legend of the discovery of fire and subsequent celebratory feast. It was created by one of the most renowned painters of the time, Sultan Muhammad, who was also the first director of the project.
Like the other folios from the manuscript featured in this chapter, this illustration highlights specific themes from the text and enhances the beauty and value of the book. It celebrates the discovery of fire and the beginning of its worship as a divine gift—a core tenet of Zoroastrianism, the primary pre-Islamic religion of Persia. The Iranian feast of Sada still marks the occasion today.
Activity abounds in this lush and evocative painting. Wearing a gold-embroidered garment, King Hushang sits on an elaborate carpet in the center of the composition. He is offered a pomegranate by one of his two flanking courtiers, and the celebrated fire burns in red and gold just beneath him. The creatures in the foreground—whose careful and psychologically compelling portrayal is characteristic of Sultan Muhammad’s style—recall the legend that animals were first domesticated by Hushang. The vibrant colors of the landscape create a magical atmosphere, reinforcing the mythical nature of the story it illustrates.
During the reign of King Hushang of the first Iranian dynasty, humanity acquired useful knowledge of mining, irrigation, agriculture, animal husbandry, and fire. According to legend, one day King Hushang saw a gruesome monster peeking from behind a rock and hurled a stone to kill it. The monster disappeared and the stone hit the rock, creating a spark. The wise king immediately understood the significance of the accidental discovery and ordered a huge fire built and a feast to celebrate it, thus marking the beginning of the worship of fire as a divine gift.
Related excerpt from the Shahnama:
When night fell he [Hushang] gave orders that his men produce sparks from the rock in the same manner. They lit a huge fire, and in honor of the divine splendor which had been revealed to Hushang, they instituted a festival of rejoicing. This is called the Sadeh festival, and it was celebrated with great reverence by the ancient Iranians, and the custom is still observed as a memorial of that night.
—Dick Davis, The Lion and the Throne: Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Vol. 1 (Washington D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1998), p. 18
RELATED AUDIO FROM THE GALLERY GUIDE
Sheila Canby: Ferdowsi, who wrote the Shahnameh, completed it in 1010 A.D. The Shahnameh of Ferdosi is absolutely central to the culture of Persian-speaking people. People still name their children after heroes of the Shahnameh. The Shahnameh means "The Book of Kings," and it does not just talk about the government of kings; there are many, many battle scenes, there are love scenes, there are encounters with witches, demons, dragons—all kinds of wonderful monsters, actually.
The stories that are incorporated would tell the stories of all the kings of the prehistoric and early pre-Islamic historical periods. The illustration of the epic started in the early fourteenth or very late thirteenth century, really, it seems, under the impetus of the Mongol conquerors of Iran who took awhile to kind of settle down and then started commissioning the illustrated versions of these manuscripts. But before that, we find some of the stories are illustrated on luster tiles. And we also have pottery bowls that have illustrations from the stories. Then what's interesting is that, even though it's not in their tradition, the Turks are doing illustrated Shahnamehs. So we find this great sweep of illustrated manuscripts across the world from Istanbul to India. The Shahnameh appeals to people at all levels of society because the book itself incorporates people at all levels of society.