Dancers & musicians in the Shahnama

This is a folio sheet from the Shahnama, a poem written by Hakīm Abu’l-Qāsim Ferdowsī Tūsī in the 11th century. However, this particular illumination was done in the Safavid period, between the years 1520-1530 C.E. The picture is 30.8 cm by 18.0 cm, in opaque watercolours. The page is in the Freer & Sackler Museum.

The one of the legends of the Shahnama is of Bahram Gur. The picture is the daughters of Barzin dancing for Bahram Gur. The dancer has possibly a belt in her left hand and an instrument slung over her body. The second dancer is possibly clapping. The instruments being played are a large tambour and a chang (or harp) player.

Princeton University has a Shahnama Project, where thumbnails of the Shahnama is able to be viewed.
Recommended reading
The Persian Book of Kings: An Epitome of the Shahnama of Firdawsi translated by Basil William Robinson. Via Google Books.
History of the Chang by the Farabi School.
Traditional Iranian Music by the Toos Foundation.
Dance- Raqs written by A. Shapur Shahbazi & Robyn C. Friend. From Encyclopædia Iranica.
Research and Reconstruction of an Ancient Persian Harp from the International Art & Architecture Research Association.

The Conference of the Birds

The Conference of the Birds (also known as Mantiq al-Tayr) is a 12th century Persian poem written by Farīd ud-Dīn ‘Attār. This picture is from a Safavid book from the early 17th century. It is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the poem, the birds of the world gather to choose a king, believing that it would bring harmony to all the birds. The hoopoe bird, wisest of the birds, persuades the other birds to seek out the Simurgh, which lives on Mount Qaf. The birds travel through the valleys of quest, love, gnosis, contentment, unity, wonder, and poverty. When they reach the Simurgh, only thirty birds remain. They see themselves reflected in the Simurgh, so see themselves. The poem is an allegory on the Sufi path to Allah through self-annihilation.
Recommended reading
Bird Parliament by by Farid ud-Din Attar. Translated by Edward FitzGerald (1889).
The Conference of the Birds. In four parts.

Nasreddin Hodja

Nasreddin was thought to have lived in the 13th century, with many stories about him. He was thought to have been born in the Eskişehir Province in Seljuq controlled Anatolia. He is a satirical figure, being a Sufi wise man and the butt of many jokes. The famous story of Nasreddin and his donkey-

One day Nasreddin Hodja got on his donkey the wrong way, facing towards the back.
– “Hodja,” the people said, “You are sitting on your donkey backwards!”
– “No,” he replied. “It’s not that I am sitting on the donkey backwards, the donkey is facing the wrong way.”

Many stories have been amalgamated into stories of Juha, a 9th century Arabic trickster, so much that the names have been swapped around. There are many quotes attributed to Nasreddin on Wikiquote and there are many stories available to read retold by D. L. Ashliman.
Bibliography
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales by Donald Haase. Via Google Books.
Tales of Juha:
classic Arab folk humor
by Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Matthew R. Sorenson, Faisal Khadra. I recommend borrowing this one from a library.
Tales of the Hoja by John Noonan. From Saudi Aramco World.
A Man of Many Names by Paul Lunde. From Saudi Aramco World.

A Persian exhibition in 2012

The State Library of Victoria will be holding a free exhibition next year called Love and devotion: Persian cultural crossroads from Friday 9 March 2012 – Sunday 1 July 2012. A preview can be seen here- The exhibition is also holding a conference with many speakers. This will be on Thursday 12 April 2012 – Saturday 14 April 2012.

The Karkadann


The Persian Karkadann is not like the European unicorn. The name translates into “Lord of the Desert”, and was thought to have lived in the grassland around India, Persia and North Africa. It was described in the Kitāb al-Hayawān or the Book of Animals, written by Al-Jāḥiẓ in the 9th century. It was also written about by the Persian scholar Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī in the 10th/11th century. The Karkadann was described as being the size and build of a water buffalo with black scaly skin. The tail is like a lion’s, while it has three yellow hooves on each of the four legs. On the top of the nose is a single horn which curls upwards, while the horn on the top of it’s head was black.

The Karkadann was thought to be very fierce, shaking the ground when it ran and bellowing so loudly it scared other animals away. It was believed that the curved horn was used for self-defence, including against elephants and the straight horn could be an antidote to poisons. The weakness of the Karkadann was the call of the ring-dove, which made them docile.

Ibn Battuta, during his travels through Africa in the 14th century about a Karkadann. However, this was thought to have been a rhinoceros, as the same word of “karkadann” was also used to describe them. The Karkadann also features in the stories of Sinbad the Sailor in One Thousand and One Nights.

It also differs to the Shadhavar, a carnivorous gazelle-like unicorn which would capture people and eat them, using hypnotic music coming from the hollow horn on it’s forehead.
Bibliography
Karkadann- on Unknown Explorers.
Karkadann on Monstropedia.
Eastern Unicorns on Unicorn Lady.
Three kinds of Unicorn by Dale A. Drinnon on Frontiers of Zoology.

The Simurgh


The Simurgh is a mythological creature very similar to the phoenix. It is described as having the claws of a lion with a head of a dog, but sometimes has a human face. The prefix “Si” means thirty, and it is thought that is is the size of thirty birds, or has thirty colours. In the stories the bird is predominantly female and is considered to be so old, she has seen the world destroyed three times. By her sheer age, she was thought to be all-wise and all-knowing.

The Simurgh featured in a few different stories (such as this one) but the most famous was written by Hakīm Abu’l-Qāsim Firdowsī Tūsī, known as Ferdowsi, an 11th century Persian who wrote the Shahnameh or “The Book of Kings”, considered to be one of the most important works of Persian heritage.

In the story, a Persian king named Saam had an albino son and fearing he had been cursed by demons, abandoned him on the base of Mount Damavand. The Simurgh heard the child’s cries and rescued him. She brought him up with her own children and taught him all of her knowledge and wisdom. When Zal reached adulthood, he wished to rejoin the world of men. The Simurgh then gifted him with one of her feathers. Burning it would call her in a life threatening time. Eventually he did burn it, when his wife and unborn child were about to die in the birthing room.

She came and suggested a method similar to a caesarean, thus his wife and son, the hero Rostam survived.

The Simurgh is a symbol of wisdom, fertility and purification. When she appears, she brings the rains as well as seeds of plants from the Haoma tree (the Zoroastrian tree of life) which is where she roosts.

The above is a Sassinid plate from the 7th century. The Simurgh has also been used in textiles, statues and mosaics. In modern times, the Simurgh is used as a medical symbol in Iran.
Bibliography
Simurgh–Persian Mythological Griffin by Paula I. Nielson.
Simurgh as a Medical Symbol in Iran by T. Nayernouri. Via Google Docs.
The Simurgh: A Symbol of Holistic Medicine in the Middle Eastern Culture in History by Nil Sari. On MuslimHeritage.com.
Simorgh by urban seagull (blog).
Shahnameh.