Pembroke receives £1.2m endowment for Shahnama Centre

by Sally March

Pembroke is delighted to announce the £1.2 million endowment of the Shahnama Project and the Shahnama Centre by Iranian-American philanthropist, Bita Daryabari.

The national epic poem of Iran, Shahnama, or ‘The Book of Kings’, was written by the poet Abu’l-Qasim Hasan Firdausi between 977 and 1010 AD. Consisting of around 50,000 verses, it not unlike the Bible, tells the history – and myths – of ancient Persia, from the establishment of its first man and king at the dawn of time to the Arab invasion, the collapse of the Persian Empire in the early 7th century A.D. and subsequent Islamisation of Iran.

There are hundreds of manuscripts of the poem in existence around the world, created over eight centuries, often accompanied by intricate and fabulous illustrations and miniature paintings. The Shahnama Project was set up in 1999 by Charles Melville, Professor of Persian History with the support of the British Academy grant of £500,000, to hold an archive of images and other records of these manuscripts. The Project became the natural basis of the newly established Pembroke Shahnama Centre for Persian Studies which is currently directed by Dr Firuza Abdullaeva, who formerly taught Persian literature at Oxford and St Petersburg. Symbolically, while a Tutorial Fellow at Wadham College, she was also a curator of the College Firdausi Library and initiated the commemoration of the Shahnama’s Millennium in her College by installing a bust of the great poet in the Library. Cambridge was much more attentive to the celebrations of such an important jubilee of Persian culture, marking the event with a major exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which was also quite symbolically opened on 11 September 2010, demonstrating that Iran was not the ‘axis of evil’ but the home of a rich and ancient culture.

Pembroke Shahnama Centre for Persian Studies maintains a growing library of reference works on Persian Classical literature and Persian mediaeval and contemporary art, manuscript catalogues and especially Shahnama studies, as well as welcoming visiting scholars to conduct research and deliver lectures.

This incredibly generous donation by Ms Daryabari will help to cover the costs of staffing the Shahnama Centre, support travel costs associated with research, the preparation of publications, organisation of lectures, seminars, art exhibitions dedicated to contemporary interpretation of the ancient epics, and other events, whilst enabling further developing the reference library of scholarship on Persian literary and artistic culture.

Ms Daryabari’s support will also be used to enhance and develop the Shahnama Project website. The Shahnama Project aims to provide a comprehensive collection of the manuscript, together with a display of the art in each one.

The earliest extant copy dates from 1217, without illustrations. There are currently about 1500 manuscripts and single pages available on the current website, ca. 18,000 records of paintings, and ca. 12,000 images from all over the world, now accessible with a few clicks of a mouse. The Project’s website allows scholars to see and compare all the different depictions of about 700 scenes, produced over eight centuries. A more general aim of the Shahnama Project is to encourage interest, analysis and research into the pivotal role this epic plays in Persian culture, as well as provide a roof under which its many related fields of study can be housed and accessed.

Among other projects of the Shahnama Centre is the intention to digitise parts of the E.G. Browne’s archive and make them accessible to scholars, building on a pilot project of digitising Browne’s diaries which has already been carried out by the College Library. Browne is rightly considered to be the founder of Persian Studies in Britain, being the author of the four volume Literary History of Persia, which remains unsurpassed in its sweep.

Professor Melville explained that “this magnificent endowment is important for several reasons. Firstly, it ensures that the Shahnama Project, started in 1999, can continue to develop and extend its ambitious aims to provide a rich and accessible resource for all those interested in Persian miniature painting and the arts of the book, as particularly exemplified in the outstanding tradition of Shahnama manuscript production. For the foreseeable future, the sustainability and growth of this project is assured, with all its potential for educational purposes and fostering awareness of Iran’s cultural heritage and its relevance today.

“In addition, Bita Daryabari’s gift ensures that Pembroke College, in many respects the home of Persian studies in the UK, will be able to foster teaching and research in Persian on a permanent basis; I can be confident that the legacy of E.G. Browne, A.J. Arberry and many others will continue to bear fruit from the vigorous promotion of Persian studies that this allows. Lastly, I hope that it will send a message to everyone concerned about Iran and the vitality and creativity of Iranian civilization across the millennia, that Cambridge means business and that our efforts of many lifetimes command the recognition and support that are essential for the welfare of this drastically under-resourced subject.”

Ms Daryabari chose to support this project because “Shahnama is a holy book for all Persians…it was written in pure Persian during a time when the language was being influenced by Arabic. This literary masterpiece reflects Iran’s history, cultural values, its ancient religions, and its profound sense of nationhood. As a child growing up in Iran who read and heard about the heroes and heroines of Shahnama, I feel it is my duty to ensure that future generations have the chance to hear these poems and stories that teach our children to take pride in their heritage and ancestry. Professor Melville has been the guardian of the Shahnama and Persian literature in recent decades, and I want to thank him for keeping our poetry and literature alive.”

As well as supporting the Shahnama Centre, Ms Daryabari, has created the Bita Daryabari Endowment for Persian Literature and Poetry at Stanford University, to enable the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University to offer courses and organize lectures and conferences on Persian art and literature. She has helped the British Museum and Iran Heritage Foundation in the staging of the Shah Abbas exhibition in 2009.

For further information, please visit the Shahnama Centre’s website, its soft launch is planned for March 2014, or Facebook page. The database of the Cambridge Shahnama Project is available for working purposes; its new version will be launched also in the coming March.

Rustam talks philosophically to the knight Gudarz and other Iranian generals about the inevitability of death

Memento mori in the Shahnama: Rustam talks philosophically to the knight Gudarz and other Iranian generals about the inevitability of death

Attributed to ‘Abd al-‘Aziz
Shah Tahmasp Shahnama by Ferdowsi, f. 266v, ca. 1525-30
Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran, Iran, Tabriz
Colours, ink, silver and gold on paper, 244 x 255 mm/473 x 318 mm