Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings

Piran visits Siyavush and Farigis (detail), from the Peck Shahnama, 1589-90. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Manuscripts Division, Princeton University Library

Composed more than 1,000 years ago by the Persian poet Firdausi, the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, narrates the story of Iran from the dawn of time to the 7th century A.D. This sweeping epic contains over 50,000 verses and countless tales of Iran’s ancient kings and heroes. Firdausi’s Shahnama has been a source of artistic inspiration in Persian culture for centuries and provides the essential basis for our understanding of the history of Persian painting as it developed from late medieval through early modern times.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of illustrated copies of the Shahnama survive today in collections worldwide, but Princeton University’s late 16th-century Peck Shahnama (named after its donor) is one of the finest intact volumes in the United States. The exhibition Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings, featuring all of the manuscript’s fifty illuminated and illustrated folios, introduces the beauty and art-historical importance of the Peck Shahnama to the public for the first time. The exhibition is organized to follow the Shahnama narrative, structured around the mythical, the legendary, and the historical eras. As much a work of literature as of art, the Princeton Shahnama and its splendid miniatures offers insight into Persian manuscript production and painting.

Guest curator Marianna Shreve Simpson, a specialist in the Islamic arts of the book, was previously curator of Islamic Near Eastern art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and director of curatorial affairs and curator of Islamic art at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. 

Click here to explore the gripping stories and magnificent details of six paintings in the Peck Shahnama, guided by guest curator Marianna Shreve Simpson.

Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings has been made possible by generous support from Amani Ahmed, Ziad Ahmed, Inaya Ahmed, and Faria Abedin; the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, Princeton University; and the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund. Additional support has been provided by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts; and by the Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. Generous support for the publication has been provided by the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.