Persian `Kings' an Open Book in Sackler Gallery Exhibition

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Tales of kings and heroes fill Western literature - the Arthurian Legends of medieval Britain and Homer's "Iliad" from ancient Greece are just a few - but the power figures of the Persian "Book of Kings" ("Shahnama") rival and even overtake them.

The "Shahnama," considered the longest epic poem in literature, dominated the storytelling of Persia (the old name of Iran) for many centuries. It also inspired some of Persia's most glorious art in silver as well as the paintings and calligraphy of the illustrated manuscripts.

The Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery presents a rare opportunity for visitors to learn about the 50,000-couplet poem in the exhibit "The Heroic Past: The Persian `Book of Kings.' " The gallery presents episodes in the poem with about 40 dazzling paintings, glazed ceramics and tiles, gilded silver and coins.

Firdausi wrote the rhymed-verse poem around 1010 to glorify Persia's past rulers and daring warriors, reaching back to myth, legend and history for stories. The "Book of Kings" recounts the reigns of 50 Iranian rulers, starting at "the beginning of time" with the mythical King Gayumars and ending about 650 with the last Sasanian king before the Islamic conquest. It draws heavily on ancient Iranian ideas about kingship and the correct conduct for a king.

An anonymous Sasanian-period silversmith crafted the ideal ruler as a hunter on a rounded silver-and-gilt "Plate" (A.D. 300 to 400). Mounted on a high stand, it makes a dramatic statement at the exhibit's entrance.

Regally crowned and seated on a prancing horse, the king draws his bow and arrow to kill a boar and lion. The ruler and animals are rendered exquisitely. The artist pushed them out from the surface, highlighting them with gilt and making them part of the curved design.

Only 30 of these plates have been found in Iran and nearby countries. Silver production was controlled by a royal monopoly in the early part of the Sasanian era, and the plates were produced only in the imperial workshops.

The craftsmen did not name the royal figures on the plates, but the crowns sometimes identified the kings. Historians usually recognize this king as Shapur II, who reigned from 309 to 379. According to early writings, he possessed the wisdom that characterized an ideal ruler even as a child.

Kings in the "Shahnama" also proved their strengths by feasting and fighting battles. "A Double-Page Frontispiece" (circa 1352, Inju dynasty) from one of the earliest copies of the poem pictures a hunting scene and a celebratory feast. It marked the manuscript's beginning and was boldly painted in opaque watercolors, ink and gold on paper.

Rulers participating in royal banquets such as this carried an important message. They celebrated their victories in battle and confirmed their right to their kingships at these festivals.

The constant struggle between good and evil was a favorite theme in the "Book of Kings." It threaded its way through the battles and celebrations, especially in the stories about Iran fighting Turan, its eastern neighbor. The conflict between the two symbolized the most persistent struggle of good and evil in Firdausi's text. Turan, the bad king, had murdered his brother Iran, the goodruler, and the conflict was a popular subject for Persian artists.

Heroes such as the legendary warrior Rustam aided the kings in this struggle and in their royal efforts to protect Persia's autonomy. …