Via Andrew Sullivan, it appears that the Shahnameh, Abu al-Qasim Ferdowsi’s stunning 11th century epic of the pre-Islamic Persian kings, has been issued in graphic novel form, just published this past May. I’ve written briefly about the Shahnameh in the past, but it really cannot be overstated how important this text was to the survival not only of the Persian language, but of Persian myth and political thought as well. When Ferdowsi was commissioned to write a historical epic of the Persian dynasties that ruled Iran before the Arab conquest, Arabic was easily the dominant written language in the region; the only writings in what we now call “Modern Persian” (Persian in Arabic script and with Arabic influences) were the poems of Rudaki (d. 941). While Rudaki’s poems certainly helped bring Persian back as a literary language, it was the Shahnameh that not only made the language important again, but that brought Iranian history and legend (and political ideology, though that had already seeped into Islamic governance by this time) to the forefront of Islamic civilization.
The work itself is titanic, endlessly enjoyable as sheer myth and fiction but deeply enmeshed in philosophical/political thought with respect to how a king rules justly and what he must do to maintain divine sanction for his rule, and not without value as a historical text if you can strip away the layers of myth. What’s really interesting in this particular version is the nature of the illustrations. Rather than employ original artwork, illustrator Hamid Rahmanian has touched up and digitized a number of original Persian lithographs from manuscripts dated between the 14th and 18th centuries, and these make up the illustrations. Particularly from the Mongol period on, Persian miniature painting (manuscript illustration) was maybe the best in the world, represented at its apex by the wonderful Behzad (d. 1535). I have Dick Davis’ prose translation of the Shahnameh and enjoy it quite a bit, but I am going to pick this up just for the dazzling artwork.