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Persian Classical Literature

Shahnama Project

Online database of illustrated Shahnama manuscripts 

(Prof Charles Melville, Professor of Persian History)

Initiated with funding from AHRB and AHRC grants in 1999 and 2006, the Shahnama Project is now the leading research programme in the Shahnama Centre for Persian Studies, newly established by an endowment at Pembroke College. The Project, directed by Charles Melville, is continuing to build an online corpus of illustrated manuscripts of Firdausi’s Shahnama (Book of Kings, c. 1010 AD), and to enhance the website with new features. The research is based round the recording and analysis of illustrated copies of the poem in collections from around the world, with an emphasis on the relations between the text and the image, and the components of the arts of the book – calligraphy, illumination, page layout and so on. A part of the Project’s activity is the publication of conference proceedings and manuscript studies.  


Kalila wa Dimna tales in Persian Literature

Monograph on Va’ez Kashefi’s Anvar-e Sohayli (Dr Christine van Ruymbeke)

This monograph analyses the contents, style and rewriting techniques of the fifteenth century version in Persian prose of the collection of Persian animal fables, the Kalila wa Dimna tales. This fifteenth century work, named Anvar-e Sohayli, by the polymath Va’ez Kashefi, has suffered over a century of virulent criticism both in Iran and in the West, despite its interest and impact as an example of “rewriting and misreading”. This is also a text of immense rhetorical intricacy. The research looks at the history of the fables’ rewriting in Persian, at the political contents of the fables and at the particular importance given to rhetoric in this version. A series of essays related to this research are accompanying the forthcoming monograph’s publication (Brill), opening up related avenues of research. This topic is also discussed in several past and future presentations during workshops and conferences. In the course of this academic year, these will be: the workshop on “Strategies of Preservation and Guardianship of the Authorial Composition in Medieval Arabic and Persian Literature” in Jerusalem in Spring 2014 and a dedicated Kashefi-panel at the International Society of Iranian Studies Conference in Toronto next August 2014.

Publication on ‘Iyar-e Danesh (Dr Christine van Ruymbeke)

Related to this research, another equally forgotten rewriting of the fables: The sixteenth-century Mughal statesman Abu’l-Fazl is the author of ‘Iyar-e Danesh, the Touchstone of Knowledge, which is described in secondary literature as a simplified version of Anvar-e Sohayli. It is not edited, nor translated, nor studied. The focus of this related publication will be Abu’l-Fazl’s rewriting technique and agenda, using the result of the above research on its source-text.


The Poetry of Nezami Ganjavi

Nezami’s Eskandar-Nama (Dr Christine van Ruymbeke)

There is still a lot left unsaid and misunderstood about the twelfth-century poet Nezami of Ganja’s double Eskandar-Nama. This project will attempt an in-depth analysis of this long philosophical poem. It is one of the most sophisticated rewritings of the Alexander Legend in Medieval Persian poetry but is mostly misunderstood and neglected in secondary literature. The work is also virtually unknown within the Alexander studies. This research project will be presented in summer 2014 in a dedicated Alexander panel at the International Medieval Conference in Leeds University.

Collaborative Research Project on Nezami Ganjavi’s Khamsa (Dr Christine van Ruymbeke)

This project is still in the first discussion stage. The idea is to launch a collaborative research project around this author stretching over five years and focusing each year on a particular masnavi. This will be put together in collaboration with Dr Asghar Seyed-Gohrab of the University of Leiden (The Netherlands).


Khamriyya (wine poetry) 

Collaborative Research project (Dr Christine van Ruymbeke)

This collaborative project on Khamriyya is in collaboration with Dr Kiril Dimitriev who is based in the University of St Andrews. The project will kick-start in 2014 with a one-year series of talks held in St Andrews, thanks to a generous endowment from the Honeyman Foundation. There will also be two workshops (in Cambridge and St Andrews), bringing together the participants, straddling the presence of wine-poetry in most of the literary traditions of the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern worlds. A collection of essays illustrating the results of the project will be published.


Persian Mystical Poetry

Gender in Classical Persian Sufi Literature (Michelle Quay, PhD Student)

 This study focuses on the treatment of gender in Pre-modern Persian mystical poetry, particularly the poetry of the 12th century poet Farīd al-Din ʿAṭṭār. The research will also, it is hoped, place 'Attar's treatment of gender within the larger context of Persian Sufi poetry, by comparing him to other notable Persian Sufi writers of the pre-modern period, including Sanāʾī and Jāmī. So far, it has become clear that 'Attar's portrayal of women allows for them to play many roles (heroine, warrior, princess, saint, sage, prostitute and temptress, to name a few). However this study aims to discover whether this prevalence of and perceived interest in women is unique to the works of 'Attar, or if it can be traced as a consistent theme more widely in Persian Sufi literature.


The Origin of the Debate Genre (munāzara)in Persian Literature

(Dr Firuza Abullaeva)

The genre of debate has its most ancient examples surviving from the Sumerian period, when they demonstrate already their very mature and sophisticated state. Due to its universal nature it is present in almost all literary cultures, especially of folk origin, betraying its link with prehistoric social divisions and rivalry, like those between nomadic and urban, between cattle breeding and agricultural population, between different ethnic and religious groups. Despite being known in Persian tradition since its Middle Persian period, it did not get any distinct representation in classical literature except for some occasional pieces, the most important of which belong to Asadi Tusi. Two studies have been published as part of this project: one concentrating on a codicological case study of the most enigmatic unique munāzara by Asadi Tusi from the Bodleian Library, including the attempt to reconstruct historical facts related to the author and his social and religious identity compared with the whole complex of legends around this poet and his works (“The Bodleian manuscript of Asadi Tusi’s debate between an Arab and a Persian: its place in the transition from ancient debate to classical panegyric”, _Iran, _XLVII, 2009, pp. 69-95); and a second on the history of the genre in general and its role in Classical Persian literature (“The origins of the munāzara genre in New Persian literature”, _Metaphor and Imagery in Persian poetry_, ed. A. A. Seyed-Gohrab, Leiden-Boston: 2012, pp. 249-73). They reveal the significance of this genre as a bridge between pre-Islamic Iranian literary debate and the New Persian qasida, which followed the canons of Classical Arabic poetry. It is planned to summarise the results, considering additional material in a new publication, coming soon.


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.