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Persian Cultural Studies

Literature, Art, Diplomacy and Empire

Khosrow Mirza's Mission to St Petersburg in 1829  (Dr Firuza Abdullaeva)Khosrow Mirza

The first international project including researchers from Iran, Russia, Georgia, UK and USA is dedicated to the primary (archival and museum) as well as newly published materials related to the most successful diplomatic mission led by sixteen-year old Khosrow Mirza (1813-1875).  The seventh son of the Crown prince ‘Abbas Mirza travelled from Tehran to St Petersburg after the Tehran massacre of the Russian embassy, including its head, Russian minister plenipotentiary A.S. Griboedov (1790-1829) on 30 January 1829.  This ‘Redemption’ mission, consisting apart from the Qajar Prince of experienced diplomats and high ranking politicians was of extreme importance not only for Persia and Russia, but for all participants in the Great Game, determining its future direction. As such it generated several contemporary records in Persia and Europe, including scrupulous information about the situation at Persian, European and Ottoman courts and the Eastern military fronts.

The mission arrived at the Russian court at the peak of its glittering splendour and Imperial might, due to the magnificent military successes in the East and West as witnessed by the victories over Napoleon (1812), the Ottomans (1806-12 and 1828-9) and the Qajars (the Golestan treaty of 1813 and the Torkmanchay of 1828). Two Russian cosmopolitan monarchs, Peter I and Catherine II, who almost single-handedly turned a backward country into a mighty super power due mainly to their reforms of the government and army, became models for nineteenth-century Iranian reformers, while British imperial policy, in many cases equally reckless as that of the Russians, acquired an established reputation of being “behind all evils of the world”. The euphoric diplomatic and political success of Khosrow Mirza who had all the potential to become a Persian Peter the Great had, however, a depressingly disastrous finale both for him and for his country. The project is supported by a grant from the British Institute of Persian Studies to conduct research in the archives in Georgia and Iran.


Illustrating Cross-Culturalism in Persian Literature and Art

(Dr Firuza Abullaeva)

This project is dedicated to a phenomenon, which can be identified as the wandering iconography of wandering stories or visual intertextuality, whereby the literary images and their visual representation are borrowed, exchanged, influenced and emulated in different cultural traditions over the centuries, creating a unified image with many variations. Such iconography would be the result of a semantic merge, both literary and visual, of several genres, including interchange of secular and religious subjects. Classical examples of such East-West universal phenomenon are a story of a flying king who in different traditions would have different names (Semitic Nimrud, Iranian Kay Kavus, Hellenistic Alexander, Islamic Iskandar), or a story about a noble woman tragically falling in love with her slave/step-son (Biblical Wife of Potiphar, Iranian Sudaba, Hellenistic Phaedra, Qur’anic Zulaykha).

Persian literature, starting from its classical period is characterised by a heavy use of the tazmin (‘emulation') genre when prominent poets feel themselves almost obliged to contribute with their own interpretation of a famous story to the multidimensional image of its protagonists. Thus an ancient romance of the Sasanian king Bahram V (Gur) and his slave girl receives radically contradictory renditions by several masters, among whom are Firdousi, Nizami, Jami and Khosrow Dihlavi, who aimed ‘to improve’ the version(s) of their predecessor(s). There are the whole cycles of such narratives, which come from folklore, go through substantial literary and philosophic metamorphosis in the shape of secular, mainly court, as well as Sufi poetry and return back to popular tradition, enriched with multifaceted reinterpretations of well-known images, like Iskandar or Yusuf/Siyavush by such masters of Persian poetry as Firdousi, Nizami, ‘Attar, or Jami. Quite often their works overflow the borders between Persian and Arabic, or Turkic literatures: Nava’i’s version of Iskandar’s change of personality is one of the most brilliant examples of this process.

Over the centuries, not only famous literateurs, literati and ordinary scribes responsible for producing more 'updated' versions of well-known literary works, but also artists illustrating such masterpieces, participated in their re-interpretation and adaptation to their individual taste, or to a fashion of the day. Sometimes the discrepancies between the text and its illustration could occur not due to the painters’ deliberate intention to surpass their predecessor's style and ideas, but due to the confusion caused in different cases by various factors: the similarities of the stories, emulating each other; already established and recycled iconographical clichés; and neglect of the text being illustrated. 

A series of studies related to this subject have already been published, several are still to follow. ‘The Legend of Siyavush or the Legend of Yusuf?’, Ferdowsi’s Shahnama. Millennial Perspectives, eds. O. Davidson and M.S. Simpson, Ilex Foundation series 13, Boston, 2013, pp. 28-57; ‘From Zulaykha to Zuleika Dobson: femmes fatales in Persian literature and beyond’, in Ferdowsi, The Mongols and Iranian History: Art, Literature and Culture from Early Islam to Qajar Persia, eds. R. Hillenbrand, A.C.S Peacock and F. Abdullaeva, London, 2013, pp. 235-44; ‘A King who flew’, in The Alexander Romance in Persia and the East, ed. R. Stoneman, K. Erickson and I. Netton, Groningen: Roelf Barkhuis, 2012, pp. 405-9 + cover; ‘Women in the romances of the Shahnama’, in Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond, ed. Susan Scollay, Melbourne-Oxford, 2012, pp. 41-5. ‘Kingly flight: Nimrūd, Kay Kāvūs, Alexander, or why the angel has the fish’, Persica, Leiden, 23, 2010, pp. 1-29; ‘Ferdowsi: “a male chauvinist or a feminist?”’,  in Painting the Persian Book of Kings: Ancient Text and Modern Images, ed. M. Milz, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 103-120. ‘Divine, Human and Demonic: Iconographic Flexibility in the Depiction of Rustam and Ashkabus’, in: Shahnama Studies I, ed. Ch. Melville, Pembroke Papers 5, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 203-219.