Shahnama Project

A comprehensive collection of manuscripts of
The Shahnama, the Persian epic 'Book of Kings'.

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Introduction: Project History

Firdausi's Shahnama (Book of Kings), completed in eastern Iran in March 1010, is a work of mythology, history, literature and propaganda: a living epic poem that pervades and expresses many aspects of Persian culture. Hundreds of manuscript copies of the text, the earliest dating from 1217, exist in libraries throughout the world. Large numbers of these are illustrated with miniature paintings, some of them among the most magnificent masterpieces of Persian art. Indeed, it would be possible to trace the whole development of Persian painting and the arts of the book relying purely on examples taken from the Shahnama.

This iconic text has nurtured many different fields of study, but there has seldom been an effort to bring these strands together. Despite the enormous continuing appeal of Firdausi’s poem, it is remarkable how few modern studies exist, either of the history of the Shahnama, or of the text and its illustration.

In response, the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now AHRC) of the British Academy, awarded the University of Cambridge a five-year research grant to produce an electronic corpus of paintings in Shahnama manuscripts, in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh, and to promote the study of the poem and its reception. Work started in October 1999 and the first period of research was completed in September 2004, with the launch of the Shahnama Project web site.

Thanks to the further award of a three-year grant from the AHRC’s Resource Enhancement Scheme, the Project started a second stage in March 2006, in collaboration with the Cambridge Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies (CARET). Work was concluded in April 2009, with a considerable increase in data and images, the development of more sophisticated and user-friendly features for data entry, viewing and searching, and enhanced options for using the website for personal research or educational materials.

In addition to the AHRC, financial support has been provided by the Fondation Wiener-Anspach in Brussels in the early part of the Project, and by the Mohamed and Ali Reza Soudavar Fund for Persian Studies at Cambridge. In the final stages of its first phase, the Project received valuable assistance from the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). The website has been designed by Fetherstonhaugh Associates.

Following a hiatus in funding (but not in the continuing acquisition of new data), a third phase of the Project started on 1 October 2010, with the formation of the Shahnama Centre at Pembroke College, in an office at 1 Fitzwilliam Street, Cambridge CB2 1QH. This was intended to coincide with the millennium of the completion of the Shahnama in 1010, and the major exhibition mounted by the Fitzwilliam Museum, entitled "Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh", curated by Dr Barbara Brend. The exhibition runs from 11 September 2010 to 9 January 2011.

Funding for the Centre, as well as the supporting post of IHF Research Associate for the year 2010-11, has been provided by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), the Iran Heritage Foundation (IHF), and the Isaac Newton Trust.

Members of the Shahnama Project

The first stage of the Project was directed by Prof. Charles Melville (Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies ) and Prof. Robert Hillenbrand (Department of Fine Art, Edinburgh).

Data collection and research was carried out by Dr Firuza Abdullaeva (St Petersburg, Cambridge), Dr Christine van Ruymbeke (Brussels and Cambridge), Dr Gabrielle van den Berg (Leiden and Cambridge) and Dr Amin Mahdavi (Edinburgh). Dr Farhad Mehran (Neuchâtel) inspired the original concept of the statistical treatment of illustrated manuscripts, and has been associated with the Project from its inception. The Access database was designed and constructed by Iain Murray.

In its first stages, the Shahnama Project enjoyed a strong collaborative link with the late Prof. Jerome Clinton at Princeton University, who had independently created a website of the Shahnama manuscripts held at Princeton. The Project continued to benefit from the technical expertise of his team, notably Dr Peter Batke, who assisted with the transfer of data onto the internet.

The second stage of the Project was co-directed by Charles Melville and John Norman, Director of CARET. The development of the website was undertaken by Dr Dan Sheppard, and data collection and recording was continued in the first year by Dr Zahra Hassan-Agha (Cambridge). In addition to numerous individual contributions, acknowledged in their proper place, systematic work on cataloguing illustrations was carried out by Laura Weinstein (New York) and Afsaneh Firouz (Cambridge, Mass. and Geneva) and Rajeshwari Shah (Delhi). In the final year of this stage of the Project, work was carried out by Francois de Blois and Dr Mandana Naini (Cambridge) and Bilha Moor (Haifa), and also by Dr Firuza Abdullaeva (Oxford).

Considerable assistance with data entry continued to be given by Mandana Naini after the period of funding came to an end, both in Cambridge and in Tehran, during 2009, when the Shahnama Project was obliged to move from the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and found a temporary base in the Faculty of Architecture and History of Art.

The Project continues to be directed by Professor Charles Melville; he is joined by the new IHF Research Associate, Dr Firuza Abdullaeva, in the Shahnama Centre at Pembroke College. Technical support is provided by CARET.

The Project Advisory Committee consists of Prof. Oleg Grabar, Dr Marianna Shreve Simpson, and Dr. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh.


In 1969, Jill Norgren and Edward Davis produced the Preliminary index of Shah-nameh illustrations, under the supervision of Oleg Grabar. This lists almost 5,000 illustrations; the true number is probably more than four times this figure. Such a large body of paintings is beyond the capacity of individual scholars to study and manipulate by traditional means; this is where modern computer technology and digital imagery can make an enormous contribution.

The Shahnama Project has aimed to build on this preliminary work, and to provide a corpus of illustrations of the Shahnama, with details of the manuscripts and of the textual context within which they occur. This powerful resource opens the door to almost limitless areas of study and comparative analysis.

The chief aim of the Project is to stimulate research into the role of Firdausi’s epic in Persian history and culture, and to investigate the relationships between the text of the poem and the many miniature paintings that have been created to illustrate it. These date from the early 13th to the late 19th century: an almost unbroken stream of artistic activity over 600 years.

In addition, therefore, to making available some of the tools essential for further research, the Project has convened several international conferences and a number of workshops, bringing scholars together from different fields to promote discussion and exchange. Two volumes of the proceedings of these meetings have already been published. The first, Shahnama. The visual language of the Persian Book of Kings, edited by Robert Hillenbrand, Varie, Occasional Papers, II. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, contains 12 articles that concentrate on art history. The second, Shahnama Studies I, edited by Charles Melville, was published in Pembroke Papers 5, by The Centre of Middle East & Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, in 2006. This contains 15 studies that focus either on a particular section of the Shahnama, or on a specific manuscript.

Two further volumes are in preparation, arising from a pair of Shahnama conferences held in Pembroke College, Cambridge (13-15 December 2007), and in the University of Leiden (8-10 January 2009), on the theme of the reception of the Shahnama both in the greater Iranian region, and neighbouring lands such as the Ottoman and Mughal empires. These were part of a joint programme with Leiden University in collaboration with the research project ‘The Persian Epic Cycle and the Shahnama of Ferdowsi’, directed by Gabrielle van den Berg and supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The volumes, edited by Charles Melville and Gabrielle van den Berg, will be published by Brill in Leiden in a new series, Studies in Persian Cultural History. These and subsequent workshops - and particularly the Shahnama Millennium Conference in Cambridge (13-15 December 2010) - will continue to foster research on a broad range of topics surrounding the Shahnama and will also introduce the research potential of the database to the academic community. We are keen to attract feedback from scholars on the way they would like the site to be developed, to cater for the needs of the research community, and also to introduce young scholars into the network of research on the Shahnama.

The second phase of the Project aimed to complete the collection and entry of images and metadata in the Shahnama corpus, concentrating on collections in the USA and the Indian subcontinent. This was very largely achieved, with a significant increase in material for both regions.

The development of the website has taken place in two stages. The first pursued the overall aim to make the website interactive and to allow users to personalise their use of it, by providing a work space (or notebook) in which selected images can be stored and viewed, lecture notes prepared or teaching materials gathered, and annotations and comments to be made on the data stored in the website. There is also a new ‘search’ function. The second phase of the enhancement extended a feature allowing data to be entered and submitted online. It is our hope that as the website gathers momentum and value, individuals and institutions that have supplied information for the database will be ready to update and correct it as necessary, or even more important, to provide new data abut collections, manuscripts or paintings not currently recorded. In this way, the database can become self-sustaining and self-fuelling.

The current stage of Project (as at October 2010) aims first to provide support for the activities surrounding the Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition, and to bring up to date the information acquired during the last eighteen months since funding ceased. Looking ahead, it also seeks to establish the Shahnama Centre as a permanent institution within Cambridge, round which to facilitate teaching and research in Persian culture and the arts of the book. It also remains our intention to publish printed catalogues of some of the collections that have been investigated and for which the data about Shahnama holdings are complete.

We are therefore interested in developing teaching materials and educational courses using the data in the Shahnamacorpus. We welcome collaboration in this and other similar projects focusing on making manuscript materials, texts and images accessible online. We shall be happy to work in association with other projects addressing similar issues and problems and are open at all times to comments, suggestions and collaborative research initiatives.

Charles Melville
9 October 2010
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