Authenticity and the Shāhnāma (Persian) Lesson 18 - Prof. dr. Gabrielle van den Berg

The Shāhnāma or Book of Kings by Manṣūr Abū al-Qāsim Firdawsī Ṭūsī narrates the legendary history of the kings of the world and of Iran, in about 50.000 verses. It starts with the first king on earth, the mythical Pīshdādī king Gayūmarth, and ends with the last Sasanian king Yazdigird III, who was defeated by the Arabs in the middle of the seventh century.

The earliest copy of the Shāhnāma that is extant was written more than two centuries after Firdawsī completed the work. Since then thousands of copies have been made. (See the Shāhnāma Project.) From the fourteenth century onwards, we witness a steep rise in the production of Shāhnāma manuscripts. It coincides with the rise of Turco-Mongol dynasties in West and Central Asia, who generously patronized Persian literature, historiography and art. For these rulers, both the content of the Shāhnāma and its vehicle, the often richly illuminated and illustrated manuscript, served as a confirmation of their royal claims. By commissioning manuscripts, they had themselves written into the Shāhnāma tradition, for example via extensive dedications or via paintings depicting them.

In this period, the Shāhnamā was so popular that much epic material was added to the text. These additions, often sequels to the existing stories, are labelled ‘secondary epics’ or ‘later epics’. They also appear as stand-alone epics in separate manuscripts. Leiden University Library for example has a unique manuscript (Acad. 150) of a Shabrangnāma, a sequel to the Shāhnāma story of Rustam and the White Dīv

In the nineteenth century, the thriving Shāhnāma manuscript tradition slowly came to an end. Not long afterwards, printed critical editions began to appear. Their critical editors did not see much charm in the Shāhnāma as a fluid text. For them, the issue was the epic's authenticity and their aim was to establish a text which would approach Firdawsī’s original as much as possible. A hazardous endeavour, if only it would be practically impossible to make an edition based on the thousands of versions we have of the Shāhnāma. Nevertheless, epic material that had been part of the Shāhnāma tradition, for centuries sometimes, was removed from these editions.

About this manuscript

Title: Shāhnāma

Classmark: Or. 494

Subject: Persian epic poetry

Author: Manṣūr Abū al-Qāsim Firdawsī Ṭūsī

Copyist: ʿImād al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Kātib

Format: Codex

Extent: 547 ff, leaf height 260 mm, width 170 mm.

Date of creation: 15 Ramaḍān 840/ 24 March 1437

Language(s): Persian

Script: nastaʿlīq

Or. 494 was produced in Shiraz, the capital of the province of Fars, which was at the time a part of the Timurid Empire. It was one of twelve key manuscripts (dated between 614/1217 and 894/1489 and seen as relatively close to the original) Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh collated in one of the most recent quests for Firdawsī’s own text. In Khalegi-Matlogh's edition added materials, no matter how popular, have no place. In this manuscript too, he found some passages which he considered spurious and discarded. One of these is about the hero Rustam, one of the major legendary characters in the Shāhnāma.

Rustam belongs to the ruling family of Sistan, who were vassals to the kings of Iran. He is a true champion who performs heroic deeds in the service of the kings of Iran, with proverbial strength. He excels in battles with Iran’s archenemy Tūrān (see for example fol. 180r), but also in fighting supernatural forces, for example in the famous episode entitled Haft Khwān, or ‘Seven Trials’.

Rustam b
Rustam fighting the white elephant.

In Or. 494, Rustam’s importance is emphasised by the fact that six of the eighteen illustrations depict him (49r, 67r, 89v, 180r, 204r, 318r). Some of these, featuring Rustam and Suhrab (f 89v) for instance or Rustam and the White Demon (f 67r), occur in most illustrated Shāhnāma manuscripts. Others, with Iskandar en Gushbistar ( ) for instance, are less common.

The passage Khaleghi-Motlagh omitted begins here on f 48v, in the line immediately above the rubric, and it ends with the penultimate verse on fol. 50v. (Khaleghi Motlagh picks up again with the last verse on the page, starting with Manūchihr chun sāl shud bar du shast.) It is part of a story entitled Dāstān-i Rustam bā pīl-i sapīd, ‘The Story of Rustam and the white elephant’, in which Rustam, still a child, manages to defeat a rampant white elephant. The title is written in blue in a rubric on f 48v and the episode is illustrated on f 49r.

The story fits well in the general storyline of Firdawsī and features in the majority of Shāhnāma manuscripts, including seven of Khaleghi-Motlagh's "key manuscripts". Khalegi-Motlagh doubts that Firdawsī himself wrote about Rustam and the white elephant and relegates the story to the footnotes as a rivāyat-i ilhāqī – an added story.

If, however, Or. 494 as well as other early Shāhnāma manuscripts include this apparently “false” passage, it is not difficult to imagine how many doubtful verses, passages and entire epics form part of the Shāhnāma manuscript tradition as a whole. It is obviously a hazardous enterprise to try to establish a kind of definitive text. Moreover, it is an enterprise that goes against the quality of the Shāhnāma as a living epic: it was precisely because of its fluidity and adaptability that the Shāhnāma not only survived, but also gained in importance during the thousand years of its existence.

More about this manuscript: Lesson 24

Further reading
Gabrielle van den Berg, 'Demons in the Persian Epic Cycle: The Div Shabrang in the Leiden Shabrangnama and in Shahnama Manuscripts' in Shahnama Studies II. The Reception of the Shahnama. C. Melville and G. van den Berg and C. Melville (eds). Brill, 2012, 35-47.

Marjolijn van Zutphen, ' Banu Gushasp in the Shahnama: A Case Study of the British Library Ms. Or. 2926 and the Interpolated Banu Gushaspnama' in Shahnama Studies III. The Reception of the Shahnama. G. van den Berg and C. Melville (eds), Brill, 2018, 9-32.

Firuza Abdullaeva and Charles Melville, The Persian Book of Kings: Ibrahim Sultan’s Shahnama. Oxford: The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2008.


  1. Throughout the history of the Shāhnāma extra passages have been interpolated in the text. Such passages occur in thousands of manuscripts that have not yet been studied and can be a wonderful source for historical research in themselves. But how can such undiscovered material be recognized, that is localised, in a specific manuscript?

  2. On folio 268r and 269r you find sections of diagonal script or chalīpā. Why, do you think, did the scribe apply this?