SOAS-Alphawood Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art

Shahnameh: the Persian Epic of Kings

Key information

6-9 November 2023
SOAS, Russell Square

Course overview

This course explores Firdawsi’s Shahnameh, also known as the Shahnama, the national epic of the Iranian people.

The masterpiece of Persian literature was completed around 1010 CE by Firdawsi (940–circa 1020) from Tus in Eastern Iran. The Shahnameh is a vivid chronicle of the Persian Golden Age before the Islamic conquest, written in verse comprising around 55,000 rhyming couplets. It is divided into three sections, commencing with a Mythical Age, composed of stories about the creation of the world and legendary Persian figures.

This is followed by the Heroic Age, with tales of the three great Persian empires and their interactions with the world beyond their boundaries. The final section covers the Historical Age, up to the Islamic defeat of the Sasanians, although this part too includes fanciful episodes. Thus, the Shahnameh encapsulates Persian legends and history across countless generations, providing profound insights into Iranian culture and identity.

The stories in the Shahnameh are rooted in folk narratives and oral traditions and these are explored throughout the course, which also investigates core literary themes, including the adventures of great heroes and martyrs, and the significant role of women in palace life. The Mongol, Safavid and Mughal courts commissioned richly illustrated volumes of the Shahnameh. Colourful scenes with royal audiences, feasting and musicians are staged in spectacular palaces with intricate terraces and pavilions, all offering a vision of the splendour and conviviality of courtly life. There are also many landscapes, bristling with rocks and flowery meadows, which provide backdrops for battles with fantastical creatures, demons and monsters.

Manuscript paintings also influenced other artistic media, especially ceramic vessels and tiles, and textiles, which drew their inspiration from images in the Shahnameh and other Iranian poetry. Delicately painted mina’i bowls, produced in Seljuk Iran from the 11th to 13th centuries, depict famous tales of lovers, heroes, princes and tyrants. Evidence for the opulent costumes which feature in manuscripts is supplemented by surviving Safavid textiles from the 16th and 17th centuries, often decorated with paradisiacal landscapes, the settings for scenes of kings and courtiers on horseback.

Finally, the central role of story-telling in Iranian culture and the powerfully evocative poetry of the Shahnameh are celebrated by readings from the texts themselves and a live dramatic performance. Collectively, these varied sources illuminate the importance of the Shahnameh and its legacy throughout both the Persianate world and among non-Iranian peoples, while also shining a light on the rich tapestry of Persian culture throughout the centuries.

The course is convened by Dr Sara Peterson, with Professor Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (Chair of Ancient History at Cardiff University).


  • The course runs Monday to Thursday, starting at 10:00am and finishing before 5:00pm.
  • Lectures will take place in SOAS’ Russell Square, London campus.
  • View or download the full schedule of lectures.
  • For more information, please contact us:

Fees and funding

Fee: £625

Capacity for this course is strictly limited and places are confirmed on a first-come, first-served basis. Please refer to our registration terms and conditions before booking your space.