Composed more than 1,000 years ago by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, the Shahnama or 'Book of Kings' is the longest poem ever written by a single author. Hundreds of manuscript copies – many exquisitely illustrated by the greatest Persian painters – are held in libraries across the world. Now, a Cambridge project is bringing this key part of Persian art, literature and culture to a wider audience.

I get many heart-warming emails from students in Iran. It shows how important it is to learn about and respect other peoples’ cultures and how much this is appreciated regardless of misunderstandings on a political level

Professor Charles Melville

In 1999, Professor Charles Melville of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies launched the Shahnama Project – an open-access database of thousands of images from hundreds of manuscripts of the Persian epic poem the Shahnama.

By digitising these manuscripts – hidden treasures previously confined to libraries and museums – the Project has given the world access to this major work of art, literature and Persian culture. Today, the Project's website receives more than 65,000 hits a month, and in 2010 the Shahnama Project joined Facebook.

The same year, after a decade's work, the Project played a key role in the Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnama, a major exhibition of Shahnama manuscripts from British collections held at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum to mark the 1000th anniversary of the poem's completion.

The exhibition attracted school children and members of the Iranian community as well as overseas visitors and tourists, providing new insights into Persian culture to more than 28,000 members of the public. And in 2012, Melville joined Melvyn Bragg to discuss the Shahnama in an episode of In our Time.

In parallel to the Fitzwilliam exhibition, a show at the Prince's Foundation in London was dedicated to contemporary artists’ responses to the Shahnama, work that illustrates the enduring significance of the poem and its ability to inspire a new generation of painters, filmmakers, theatre and ballet producers.

 

Iranian identity in 50,000 verses

The Shahnama or 'Book of Kings' is the longest poem ever written by single author. Running to over 50,000 verses, it was composed more than 1,000 years ago by the Persian poet Ferdowsi.

A heroic story of the kings of Iran, the poem encompasses myth, legend and history – from the formation of human society and struggles with the forces of evil, to legends about the hero Rustam and the endless cycles of wars between neighbouring lands.

The Shahnama is a major work of world literature. But its importance lies in the fact that it is one of the key narratives of Iranian identity.  Because it encapsulates Iran's view of its place in the world, and their traditional cultural and political values, it has much to tell the world about the Iranians' view of themselves.

And as well as being beautifully written, it has been exquisitely illustrated. From the 14th century on, illuminated manuscripts were commissioned that today represent superb examples of Persian miniature painting, and offer insights into Persian book production and the way artists down the generations have engaged with the epic text.

 

Sharing hidden treasures

Despite the Shahnama's enduring appeal, and the hundreds of manuscript copies – many beautifully and individually illustrated – held in libraries and museums worldwide, few modern studies of the poem existed when the Project began. As his own epic work, Melville aimed to digitise as many manuscripts as possible and stimulate research into the poem and relationships between the text and the images.

In 1999, in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh and funding from the AHRC, he began the Shahnama Project – an open-access database of hundreds of manuscripts written across six centuries from collections in 36 countries.

Today, this extraordinary electronic corpus contains over 20,000 paintings from 1,500 Shahnama manuscripts and detached folios, providing a powerful tool with which to study the poem and its reception, as well as opening up these previously hidden manuscripts to everyone with access to the internet.