Over at NPR, Jacki Lyden is helping to introduce a new generation of readers to the remarkable and amazing Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings. Hamid Rahmanian, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and graphic artist, is spearheading the effort to bring this new edition into print. Some background on this epic:

A thousand years ago, a Persian poet named Abolqasem Ferdowsi of Tous obtained a royal commission to put the ancient legends and myths of Iran into a book of verse.

He called this epic Shahnameh, or "Epic of the Persian Kings." It took him more than three decades and comprises 60,000 couplets — twice the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined.

Author Azar Nafisi, who wrote the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, says the importance of this foundational myth epic to Iranians can't really be overstated.

"My father always told me that this country's very ancient, and so it has been invaded and changed so many times," Nafisi says. "He said what makes us Iranian, what gives us an identity is our poetry, and Shahnameh is at the heart of it. He said if people want to know what Iranian identity is, they have to read Shahnameh."

Now comes a new, entirely English, gloriously illustrated edition of the Shahnameh, with alluring stories of the kings' dynasties.


His 600-page book includes a fresh English translation of the text, framed by Rahmanian's ornate recompositions of Persian miniature paintings — the kinds of small, detailed paintings that were collected by the wealthy in medieval times for private albums.

Lyden goes on to note the importance the epic has had on preserving Persian culture and language, and suggests the Shahnameh presents a depiction of women that complicates the role of women in Iranian society:

The Shahnameh is seductive and alluring. Many Iranians are named for characters in the epic, which is credited with preserving the Persian Empire and language. And the boldness of the women, indeed, suggests the contradictions Iranians still live within.

"Not only Iran has an amazing history of feminism, beginning with the 19th century," Nafisi says, "but look at how Iranian women were portrayed through the mind of a man, actually, a thousand years ago."

Read more here, and be sure to check out the fabulous slideshow!

Originally Published: August 26th, 2013