Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Collecting The Shahnameh: Persian Book of Kings, The Deep History of Iran Part I

Every child in the West has some experience with the deep history and mythology of traditionally defined Western culture through the great epic poems of Homer, foundational Greek Drama, the classical literature of Virgil and the foundations of philosophy and principles of the democratic tradition via Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  With a nod to the often troubling claims of evolutionary theory as applied to psychology, literature and the arts, I still tend to believe, perhaps hope, that the foundations of Western culture, as experienced through ancient literature and early philosophy, is somehow now hardwired into our brains at birth.

In these times of globalization and turmoil throughout much of the Middle East and Asia it seems appropriate to wonder what longstanding history and mythology parallels the Western traditions for the East.  To better understand what may be hardwired at birth for cultures of the East, here centered on the ancient Persian Empire, involving cultures of the Middle East, Near East and Far East, one need look no further than The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi: The Persian Book of Kings an epic poem composed by Abolqasem Ferdowsi around 1000AD.  This is a must read for anyone interested in understanding modern Persian and especially Iranian culture and a must add for anyone building a private library of foundational world literature. 

The history of The Shahnemah is fascinating and some claim that it is the only stable "place" where Persia continues to exist.  Exploring the publishing, writing and art associated with The Shahnameh is too much for one post.  Here I will offer a little history and a listing of contemporary English editions suitable as a starting point for those interested in reading and collecting The Shahnameh.  In future posts, I will consider early English translations, famous facsimile editions of illustrated Persian editions and Persian illustrated book collecting beyond The Shahnameh

For a quick overview of the history, evolution and various periods of Persian history, beginning with the ancient Persian empire until today, visit the website for a pamphlet on Persian History published by Mage Publications, Washington D.C.

The Shahnameh of Abolqasem Ferdowsi is the history of Persia from the beginning of time up until the Arab conquest of Persia and the establishment of Islam in the Near and Far East, including what is now Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.  The heart of Persia is today's Iran, although the current national boundaries in no way equate to the ancient boundaries.  The ancient Persian empire predates the Greek Empire and the Persian empire, survived both Alexander The Great, the Roman Empire and was only completely overwhelmed by the Arab conquests spreading Islam in the seventh century.  After the Arab conquest it took almost 200 years for more traditional Persian leaders, now followers of Islam, to establish more local control of the ancient Persian lands and began to return to their Persian roots and separate a little bit from the Islam of the Middle East and Caliphate so dominate to the West.  With the re-establishment of local leadership and political control new poetry, art, and literature were established with an eye towards reviving ancient Persian traditions.  It was around 1000 AD that Abolqasem Ferdowsi, a poet born around 940, puts to paper from mostly oral sources, the ancient history of Persia and publishes The Shahnameh.  Since then, The Shahnameh has remained a stable and enduring source for the cultural history of Persia and today remains a beloved epic. 

For the interested reader or potential collector there are actually limited options when considering English language editions of The Shahnameh.   There is one contemporary comprehensive, illustrated edition with numerous reproductions of famous illustrations from rare Persian editions and an ongoing series in graphic novel (comic book) format.  The Shahnameh in English translation may be limited but the pursuit of a collection is challenging and very rewarding.  I personally became hooked on the book because of two episodes in the ancient history section which seem to me to be the source for the Rapunzel story which involves a Princess in Yemen, her long hair and a hero of The Shahnameh and the first introduction of brain eating Zombies!

The recently published edition of the complete Shahnameh, translated by Dick Davis, Professor of Persian and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Ohio State University is the gold standard for English translation of this Persian classic.  Any interested reader or beginning collector needs to focus immediately on the Davis translation and also, perhaps, his 1992 study of Ferdowsi, Epic and Sedition:  The Case of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, University of Arkansas Press.  But the real task at hand is acquiring his complete translation.
The acquisition of a first edition, first printing of the Davis translation from Mage Publications is not as easy as it may seem!  2010 marked the 1000th anniversary of Ferdowsi's classic and was celebrated with various events, especially in the Eastern USA, with notable exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Freer Sackler in Washington DC (until April 17, 2011), The Houghton Library at Harvard University and the Fogg Museum at Harvard University all creating demand for the Davis translation. 
Twelve copies of The Lion and The Throne:  Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Volume 1, by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, translated by Dick Davis, including an essay on illustrating a Shahnameh by Stuart Cary Welch, Mage Publications, Washington D. C., 1998 are listed for sale from $51 to $102 plus shipping.  This first edition may have actually been published in 1997 by the Persian Heritage Foundation and distributed by Eisenbrauns and is listed as out of print suggesting that Mage took over the project at that time.  The cover displayed for the 1997 and 1998 editions are the same and remains the cover used in the 2005 New Revised Second Edition published by Mage.  I am contacting Mage and the Persian Heritage Foundation to try and get the back story but until I get more information this remains a minor book collecting mystery!  Please note that if you are actually interested in acquiring the Revised Second Edition, the link is to Amazon.com and the bibliographic listing suggests it is the 1998 edition but it is indeed the 2005 edition.  Luckily, there is little ambiguity with the next 2 volumes.
Eight copies of Fathers and Sons:  Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Volume II, Mage Publishers, Washington DC, 2000 are available from $50 to $125 plus shipping.  This is the only published edition of this translation. 
Eight copies of Sunset of Empire:  Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Volume III, Mage Publishers, Washington DC, 2003 are available from $103 to $183.
To make collecting more interesting, Mage Publishers released a limited (300 copy) edition box set collection of the three volumes in 2009.  Buying directly from Mage would cost $395 and from the rare books market 5 copies of the limited edition are available priced from $382 to $774!  Such pricing gives reason to pause and consider various possible meanings.
An additional version was published in one volume with minimal black and white illustrations. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Translated by Dick Davis, Forward Azar Nafisi, Viking, 2006.  Clocking in at 886 pages it is a hefty book with various black and white illustrations and if you are able to hold the book and are not put off by the length, a good reading copy candidate!  This has been reprinted a few times but I really don't see the need to try and find a first printing of this edition.
There are many more opportunities to collect editions of The Shahnameh.  Since I've spent more time than planned just getting this introductory post completed I'm quitting for the day and tomorrow may return with a post on the comic book edition!  I'll also include more links to the history of Persia and The Shahnameh.

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