(Offered as ASLC 357, ARHA 357, and HIST 357 [TC, TE, ME, P]) The Shahnameh (Book of Kings), completed by Abu’l Qasim Ferdowsi around 1010, is one of the world's greatest epics, and also one of the most enigmatic. The Shahnameh tells the history of pre-Islamic Iran from the beginnings of civilization until the Arab conquest in the seventh century A.D. Its tales of battles, romance, heroism, and betrayal have been appreciated as literature for centuries. At the same time, it’s been deployed for political and cultural ends. Many of the communities who have most enthusiastically embraced its stories and themes have been of non-Iranian origin. Indeed, Ferdowsi’s patron, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, was himself of Turkic background. Since the nineteenth century, it has been touted as the cultural cornerstone of an emphatically non-Muslim modern Iranian national identity, and yet the author and his patron were Muslim. Some have even interpreted the Shahnameh as encouraging conversion to Islam.
This course will explore the Shahnameh as literature, history, and material culture—including illustrated manuscripts, printed books, ceramics, metalwork, and photography—from its original tenth-century context to the contemporary moment. We will focus in particular on a heavily illustrated mid-nineteenth-century copy of the Shahnameh in Amherst College’s Archives and Special Collections, and consider how this work expressed a non-Islamic cultural foundation of modernity. We will follow this story to explore how the Shahnameh figures in debates over the pre-Islamic past today. No previous background is presumed, and all readings will be available in English.
Limited to 12 students. Spring semester. Professors Rice and Ringer.