Reimagining The Epic of Kings: The Shahnameh of Ancient Iran

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For hundreds of years, the Shahnameh has been revered in the Near and Middle East as the epic of the Persian-speaking peoples. Written over a thousand years ago by the famed poet Ferdowsi of Tous, the Shahnameh shares tales of adventure, romance, conflict, and betrayal. Although its stories and characters have inspired generations of artists and poets, it is still relatively unknown in the West.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Mr. Hamid Rahmanian about Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, and the process of creating a new edition of this timeless classic (see also AHE’s Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings review).

JW: Mr. Hamid Rahmanian, welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and thank you for speaking to us about an exquisite new publication: Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings.

Persians, Central Asians, and various Near Eastern peoples have treasured and retold the tales of the Shahnameh for centuries. Blending fable, romance, and history, along with a strong dose of traditional Persian values, the Shahnameh is the great epic of Persian speaking peoples.

What gave you the inspiration to illustrate Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings? Had you been very interested in this classic of Persian literature before then?

HR: When you grow up in a culture where, from an early age, you are exposed to impassioned, indigenous poetry and folklore, it is hard not to be interested in literature. In family, school, and everyday interaction, there are often so many poetic undertones. Literature and poetry are among the great achievements of the Iranian people. So I would say I am inherently designed to love my own literature.

JW: In 1010 CE, the famed Persian poet, Ferdowsi of Tous (940-1020 CE), finished his epic poem of nearly 60,000 verses: the Shahnameh. It was a project that took Ferdowsi over thirty years to complete. A thousand years later, the Shahnameh is still revered and celebrated in Iran and across the Persian-speaking world. Indeed, it is difficult to underscore Iranian identity without discussing this literary gem.

What can explain the enduring popularity of Ferdowsi’s masterpiece in your opinion? Is it because the Shahnameh confronts eternal questions of fate, existence, and desire?

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HR: The Shahnameh single-handedly saved the Persian language as well as the mythology and epic traditions of the ancient Iranian plateau. The endeavor that Ferdowsi made over a thousand years ago explains, in part, the reason why the Persian language is alive and in use among Iranians, Tajiks, and Afghans today.

The stories in the book come from the human consciousness; it is the immortal quest for truth and justice. The Shahnameh is far from a nationalistic creed; it has universal stories that have resonated throughout history and that is what makes it relevant even in today’s political environment. For instance, when the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, addressed the UN in 2013, he opened his speech with a passage from the Shahnameh: “Be Relentless in the cause of Good. Bring the spring, you must, Banish the winter, you should!”

JW: As a graphic artist, which aspect(s) did you find particularly daunting as you began to illustrate the Shahnameh? Part of what makes this publication so beautiful is the mélange of styles and imagery, collectively taken from works of art completed in Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and Mughal India (dating from the 15th to mid-19th centuries CE).

HR: The idea of illustrating an epic story is not a unique idea; there are a number of examples in many cultures. However, in this instance, I wanted to make something truly dependent on the visual culture of the geography of the epic stories in the Shahnameh. In the various stories, you have locations ranging from India to the Mediterranean Sea. Coincidentally, this region was also heavily influenced by different Iranian schools of painting until the mid-19th century CE. I wanted these silent characters from the past to become the modern actors of my paintings, as if I am breathing into the soul of these dusty old figures in order to make them come alive.

So the challenge was to reimagine the plots in the Shahnameh from this wealth of centuries old paintings and lithographs. You could say history was my paint bucket!

page292I set some strict self-imposed boundaries in creating these illustrations: one of them was not to draw a single element. This is something that has never been done before in the context of illustrating the story. Although each page is heavily retouched, no element has been drawn from scratch.

There are over 500 pages of illustrations in the book, which are culled from over 8,000 pieces digitally cut from different sources, and then recomposed or manipulated (being totally deconstructed and reconstructed in tandem). This was an utterly intense process. Mistakenly, people assume these folios existed before, but there is not a single element in the book that existed in the way I put them together.

Since the Shahnameh is not a well-known book among Westerners, I had in mind to create a project where each page would be a surprise and where Western readers could not only learn about the epic stories of the Persian peoples but also be exposed to the visual culture of those lands.

In sum, this process combined pain with pleasure.

JW: Creating a new version of the Shahnameh required a ‘dialogue’ between illustration and translation. Mr. Rahmanain, could you offer a comment or two on the collaboration between you and your translator, Dr. Ahmad Sadri, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College? Furthermore, how did this ambitious project commence?

HR: This is another unique attribute to this edition of the Shahnameh — the harmony between the storyteller, here as the translator, and the artist. When my creative partner, Ms. Melissa Hibbard, and I started this project, we had in mind to create an edition of the text that would be easy to navigate and be accessible. Other editions on the market are either too complicated or even overwhelming for the average reader unfamiliar with this geographical region.

page162We searched for a person who had a poetic sensibility in both Persian and English, and also the command of both languages. Most of all, we wanted someone who was inspiring and a pleasure to work with, and who could take some solid direction from people who had a strong vision for the publication. After all, we were going to be working closely and intensely for two years. So it was a blessing to find Professor Sadri! There was a perfect harmony between us, and that harmony shines in the book as a whole.

One of the significant layers Sadri added to the text was to incorporate the narrator and poet, Ferdowsi, into the story. From time to time the reader gets a peek into Ferdowsi’s personal life, his struggles in creating the Shahnameh, as an artist, and an occasional moral lesson for the reader to heed.

Together, we also had the idea — or fantasy perhaps — of being like famed classicist Edith Hamilton (1867-1963), bringing these stories to a non-Iranian audience much like she introduced Greek mythology to the US in the early-20th century. That is still one of our main goals of the book. The power and beauty of the stories found in the Shahnameh can easily compete with their Greek and Roman counterparts.

Also, it is important to mention that the length of the text and the illustrations were the subject of many back and forth collaborations to find the balance between the volume of text on one page and the negative space of the layout. This is so closely and perfectly done that some of our critics by mistake assumed that the text was translated for the illustrations, which is not true and the opposite is true, in fact. We find it amusing that people have commented that the translation is a slave to the paintings!

JW: Could you tell us a bit more about how you created the illustrations found in Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings? As I understand it, this version of the Shahnameh also includes several stories and themes that have not been traditionally illustrated.

HR: There has been a tradition of illustrating these epic stories for over a millennium, the late-16th century CE being the climax. This tradition almost died out over a century ago. Throughout the years, some of the plots got more attention than others from master painters and kings who commissioned the project. In this edition, I made an earnest effort to depict plots that have rarely if ever been illustrated before, such as dreams and nightmares or the inner thoughts of a character or even plots where the protagonist lies or fantasizes.

page330JW: May I ask you if you had a favorite character or scene that you particularly enjoyed illustrating and bringing to life? If so, who and why?

HR: I guess the compositions that become very minimalistic are my favorites ones and also the most difficult ones to create. Then, when I discovered that I could incorporate silhouettes of the characters into the work to create a more cinematic visualization of a plot, it was like opening a whole realm of new possibilities, which was very inspiring.

JW: The Shahnameh seems to have something for everyone: epic battles on par with the Illiad and Mahabharata; torrid, romantic stories involving powerful women; tales of pure knights and exalted heroes like Rostam; and royal rivalries which threaten to destabilize powerful empires.

Why else should readers — particularly those in the West — read the Shahnameh in your opinion?

HR: In general, I think we humans by nature are drawn to good stories. We love to become engaged and identify with compelling characters and events. The Shahnameh is no exception. Good stories do not differentiate between the West and the East.

In the Shahnameh, there are four heart-wrenching tragedies, four beautiful love stories, and endless battles where sometimes Iranians are the “bad guys” and the enemy is the “good guy,” and other times vise versa. The plots are engaging to anyone who is looking for a few moments to escape from daily life and sink into a sophisticated story. Who can resist a good story?

page346JW: Mr. Hamid Rahmanian, congratulations to you, Professor Sadri, and Ms. Melissa Hibbard on having created such a stunningly beautiful book. We look forward to following your work in the near future!

HR: Thank you James!

All images from Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings ©Hamid Rahmanian, Fictionville Studio, 2013.

Nota Bene: As the introduction indicates, this volume represents the “epic Shahnameh.” The historical part that includes the Sassanian dynasty and ends with the Arab conquest is not in this volume.

HamidxHamid Rahmanian is an award-winning filmmaker and graphic artist whose work has been exhibited in international competitions and publications. His narrative and documentary films have premiered at Venice, Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca, and IDFA film festivals. He has won numerous international awards and his works have been televised on international networks, including PBS, Sundance Channel, IFC, Channel 4, BBC, DR2, and Al Jazeera. He lives in Brooklyn, New York in the USA. For more information on Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, please visit: www.theepicofthepersiankings.com

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is also a freelance writer, editor, and journalist who is interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world — while still retaining his medievalist and early modernist tendencies — James is devoted to excellence in journalism and academic research. Currently, he co-hosts the Florida Caribe Show on WSLR 96.5 FM in Florida, and his greatest passion is translation. James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news pieces to be “illuminating.”

 

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All images featured in this interview have been properly attributed to their respective owner. Mr. Rahmanian holds the copyright to his profile picture and the images shared with the Ancient History Encyclopedia for the purposes of this interview. Unauthorized reproduction of text and images is strictly prohibited. Special thanks is given to Ms. Melissa Hibbard for sharing supplemental materials and images, which helped make this interview possible. Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt is to be thanked for her assistance in the editorial process. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2014. Please contact us for rights to republication.

James Wiener
About the Author
James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist and Latin Americanist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), international traveler, and fan of ice hockey.