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Research project

The Persian Epic Cycle Project

The primary aim of this project is to recover, order, and assess Persian Epic Cycle material in order to provide the field of Iranian studies with the first comprehensive and balanced analysis of the form and contents of the epics within the Persian Epic Cycle.

Gabrielle van den Berg

The Shahnama Project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the British Academy

The Shahnama, or Book of Kings, is a monument in world literature, marking the renaissance of independent Persian culture a few centuries after the victory of Islam. A landmark in Persian culture and in particular in the Persian epic tradition, it has played a fundamental role in the shaping of the self-identity of the Persian speaking people in present day Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.  

Composed around 1010 A.D. by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, it can be seen as a poetic reflection of the legends and history of the Iranian people from creation until the coming of Islam. It is based on older written and oral sources and follows the line of Iranian kings, many of whom are entirely legendary. These kings have inherited an everlasting rivalry with the Northern neighbour, the land of Turan. The intrigues and wars between these Iranian kings and the Turanians are the subject of a large portion of the Shahnama. Central to the Shahnama, however, are the legends surrounding the deeds of the hero Rostam, who is the ruler of Sistan, and subject to the king of Iran.

The Shahnama consists of 50,000 verses of epic poetry, and has been preserved in a large variety of manuscripts, many of which are illuminated by first-rank miniature painters. It was not only regarded as a work of literature and mythology, but also as a political document and a tool of propaganda. As an icon of the Persian culture, it was well-received in a climate of growing awareness of national identity. It served as the inspiration for literature in its broadest sense, history and historiography, as well as various art forms.

As a normative text in Persian history and literature, the Shahnama soon became a living epic poem, subject to change and adaptation. The original version of the Shahnama as composed by Ferdowsi is irretrievably lost. In all probability, Ferdowsi did not include all of the epic material circulating at the time. It is believed that the remaining material continued to circulate and that other poets either recorded parts of it, composed complementary material inspired by it, or reworked episodes from the available material. Some of this so-called “secondary” material, linked thematically to the Shahnama, was incorporated into later manuscripts and gradually came to be regarded as part of the original corpus as composed by Ferdowsi. This incorporated material is now referred to as the ‘Persian Epic Cycle’, by analogy with the Greek Epic Cycle of poems supplementing the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The majority of the epics from the Persian Epic Cycle are not available in print, but can be found as interpolations in Shahnama manuscripts, in separate manuscripts, in lithographs, in storytellers’ scrapbooks (tumar) and in oral performances of the Shahnama (naqqali). From these sources it is clear that the Persian Cycle epics are not fixed texts, but have been continually re-shaped and re-invented, differing greatly in scope and length. Most of the texts found as interpolations in manuscripts do not exceed 5000 lines of verse. Although it is clear that the Shahnama and the Persian Epic Cycle are embedded in a written tradition, they are also firmly rooted in the oral traditions of Iran and the Iranian cultural area.

From the 19th century onwards, the wish to establish an authoritative version of the Shahnama arose, and a number of critical editions appeared that excluded Persian Epic Cycle poems. The appearance of critical editions thus brought an untimely end to the distribution of the Persian Epic Cycle and for a long time these poems have not been published, translated, nor analyzed. It is now clear that the Persian Epic Cycle provides a reflection of the evolution of the Persian epic tradition in Iranian society and of the reception of the Shahnama over the centuries. To discard this additional epic material means to deny the fact that the Shahnama constitutes a living tradition, which has pervaded Persian culture. The question ‘what has happened to the Shahnama after Ferdowsi’ is as significant as the question ‘what were the sources of Ferdowsi’ or ‘what was the original version composed by Ferdowsi’. The Persian Epic Cycle Project aims at filling this gap in Persian studies and in particular in Shahnama studies.

The Persian Epic Cycle has survived both through the manuscript tradition and its immediate successor, the lithographed book, and through the oral traditions of the Iranian cultural area. This project will focus on the investigation and analysis of the available sources of the Persian Epic Cycle in order to re-evaluate the Shahnama tradition. The project will examine the relationship between the oral and written traditions by means of a tripartite approach to the present corpus of material, consisting of manuscripts, lithographic editions, and recordings of oral performances.

Overall aim

The overall aim of the Persian Epic Cycle Project is to realize a comprehensive analysis of the hitherto neglected poems of the Persian Epic Cycle, taking into account and further investigating their relationship to Ferdowsi’s Shahnama, as well as their place within the Shahnama tradition.

Key objectives

The primary aim of this project is to recover, order, and assess Persian Epic Cycle material in order to provide the field of Iranian studies with the first comprehensive and balanced analysis of the form and contents of the epics within the Persian Epic Cycle. The secondary aim is to show how these so-called secondary epics form a body of literature that not only offers insight into ten centuries of Shahnama reception, but also represents a literary heritage in its own right. This project will address questions such as: What is the Persian Epic Cycle and where does it stand vis-à-vis the Shahnama and within the Shahnama tradition? Why and how has the subject-matter of the Persian Epic Cycle come to be included in so many Shahnama manuscripts? How have written and oral traditions influenced each other? How have these epics come to play such a prominent role in the oral and written traditions of the Iranian cultural area? These questions will be addressed on the basis of an analysis of a representative corpus of material from the Persian Epic Cycle, including manuscripts up to the 19th century, lithographed books of the 19th and 20th centuries, transcripts in storytellers’ scrapbooks (tumar), and recordings of traditional Iranian oral performances of the epics ( naqqali). An important envisaged result of this project is the re-evaluation of the Shahnama as a living tradition.   

The NWO-funded Leiden Persian Epic Cycle Project is a result of an ongoing involvement in the Cambridge Shahnama Project, directed by Charles Melville and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the British Academy.  The Cambridge Shahnama Project aims to provide a corpus of illustrations of the  Shahnama, with details of the manuscripts and of the textual context within which they occur. This powerful resource opens the door to almost limitless areas of study and comparative analysis. The chief aim of the Project is to stimulate research into the role of Firdausi’s epic in Persian history and culture, and to investigate the relationships between the text of the poem and the many miniature paintings that have been created to illustrate it. These date from the early 13th to the late 19th century: an almost unbroken stream of artistic activity over 600 years. For further information, see Shahnama Project Database.

The Persian Epic Cycle project took place in the framework of a NWO VIDI grant, from 2006-2011. The NWO VIDI project has come to a conclusion, though work on the Persian Epic Cycle project is still ongoing. The project output consists of a number of publications by the project members, Gabrielle van den Berg (PI), Marjolijn van Zutphen (PhD student and research assistant) and Evangelos Venetis (postdoctoral researcher). Marjolijn van Zutphen successfully defended her PhD ‘Faramarz, the Sistani Hero’ in December 2011, under supervision of Prof. Dr. Jan Just Witkam and Gabrielle van den Berg. The monograph on the basis of her PhD came out with Brill Publishers in 2014, and is entitled Farāmarz, The Sistāni Hero. Texts and Traditions of the Farāmarznāame and the Persian Epic Cycle. A selection of other output can be found under the publications page of Gabrielle van den Berg.


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