Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Folio From The Shahnama Of Shah Isma'Il: Rustam Slays The Turanian Warrior Alkus
Safavid, circa 1576 CE
Materials and technique
Opaque water colour, gold and ink on paper
The enduring rivalry between Iran and neighbouring Turan is a major theme of the Shahnama (Book of Kings), and surfaces in this short episode. Along with some fellow Iranian chieftains, Rustam undertakes an impromptu hunting excursion into rival Turanian territory. Soon enough, the Turanian king Afrasiyab rides out with his army to challenge the trespassers, and a skirmish ensues. Two Turanian champions, Alkus and Pilsam, are particularly formidable on the battlefield, at least until Rustam steps in. Alkus is easily slain by the great Iranian warrior, while Pilsam escapes. Recognisable in the throng, Rustam is dressed in his classic costume of a tigerskin doublet and snow leopard helmet, delivering a mortal blow to Alkus with an ox-headed mace. This dispersed manuscript is associated with the third Safavid shah, Ismaʿil II, whose brief reign lasted from June 1576 CE to November 1577 CE. As the 49 extant paintings occur towards the first half of the text, it has been suggested that this manuscript is incomplete because of the unpopular shah’s premature death by poisoning in 1577 CE. The visual arts in Iran had entered an uncertain period following the gradual disaffection of Shah Tahmasp (Ismaʿil’s father, r. 1522-76 CE) in the 1540s and 50s. This was to the benefit of other members of the royal family: unwanted, the painters filtered away to join more enthusiastic princely ateliers, such as that of Tahmasp’s nephew Sultan Ibrahim Mirza, based mainly in Mashhad, and later recalled to Qazwin. By contrast, Ismaʿil II spent much of his father’s reign incarcerated on Tahmasp’s direct orders, so as to contain his unscrupulous ambitions for power. On Tahmasp’s death in 1576 CE, Ismaʿil emerged to inherit the throne, and also the royal atelier of calligraphers and painters - for whom this manuscript may have been their first big commission for the new shah. Ismaʿil II was paranoid for his new political supremacy, and ordered the executions of almost all his male relatives - including Sultan Ibrahim Mirza, who died in 1577 CE. Many of the artists who had long served this exceptionally cultured patron and collector now found themselves working for Shah Ismaʿil II. Before long, Ismaʿil himself was also murdered, in mysterious circumstances.
© 2007 The Aga Khan Development Network. This is the only authorised Website of the Aga Khan Development Network.