© The Aga Khan Museum
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This was originally the fourth folio in a volume of Firdausi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings) that was copied and illustrated in 1341 in the city of Shiraz, then governed by Inju administrators on behalf of Iran’s ruling Ilkhanid or Mongol dynasty (1256–1353). It would have appeared before the beginning of Firdausi’s epic poem, which recounts the story of Iran from mythical times through to the arrival of the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century AD. The text on both the folio’s recto and verso (seen here) is part of a largely prose preface to the poem that appears in several other 13th- and 14th-century volumes. It has been variously called the Old Preface, the Older Preface, and the Abu Mansur Preface. Abu Mansur was a 10th-century Iranian official responsible for the initial compilation of a “book of kings” in prose, which Firdausi used in writing his own, much more extensive, Shahnameh.
Part of this preface concerns the (largely apocryphal) biography of the poet Firdausi. In need of patronage and financial support to finish the Shahnameh (which would, in fact, take 30 years to complete), Firdausi left his hometown of Tus in northeastern Iran, and travelled to the realm of Sultan Mahmud, ruler of the Ghaznavid dynasty, in Ghazni, the southeastern province of present-day Afghanistan. There he encountered three court poets—‘Unsari, Farrukhi, and ‘Asjadi—enjoying themselves in a garden. Thinking to trick the newcomer, each poet recited one line (misra) of an impromptu quatrain and challenged Firdausi to come up with the fourth and final line. Firdausi excelled at this test of his poetic acumen, with a verse invoking how the Iranian hero Giv speared the Turanian warrior Pashan to death. The three Ghaznavid poets immediately recognized him as worthy of inclusion in their company and of presentation to Sultan Mahmud.
The lines above and flanking the little illustration at the bottom of this folio recount the poetic test. The composition itself has Firdausi seated on the left, facing ‘Unsari, Farruki and ‘Asjadi and with each holding a wine cup. And whereas these three poets are dressed in relatively simply robes, Firdausi’s fancier garment is adorned with a lotus blossom, perhaps to indicate his intellectual superiority. Leafy branches fill the background, indicating the garden setting where this literary contest occurred.
At some point in the manuscript’s later history, someone attempted to write a word or two next to the figure of Firdausi. Although it is possible to make out several letters, the “inscription” seems more like graffiti.
— Marianna Shreve Simpson
Simpson, Marianna Shreve. “A Reconstruction and Preliminary Account of the 1341 Shahnama, With Some Further Thoughts on Early Shahnama Illustration,” in Persian Painting from the Mongols to the Qajars, Robert Hillenbrand, ed. London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2000, 217–47. ISBN: 9781850436591