In the Margins of Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings

This winter, visitors to the Princeton University Art Museum will encounter a fine sixteenth-century Persian manuscript called the Peck Shahnama. Featured in the exhibition Princeton’s Great Persian Book of Kings, this volume—held in the Princeton University Library and named for its donor, Clara S. Peck—is a large, beautifully decorated and richly illustrated copy of Firdausi’s Book of Kings, the national epic of Iran. The Peck manuscript was created in 1589–90 in the flourishing cultural center of Shiraz, and unlike many other Shahnamas preserved in the United States, this copy has the virtue of having remained intact.

Persian, Iran, Shiraz, Rustam Chooses His Horse, Rakhsh (folio 54a) and facing text folio (folio 53b), from the Peck Shahnama, 1589–90.In addition to its lavish illustration and decoration program, one of the most immediately striking features of the Peck Shahnama is the large number of marginal inscriptions that it includes. While the addition of marginalia is a feature of many Arabic and Persian manuscripts, the Peck Shahnama is highly unusual in both the quantity and the variety of its marginal inscriptions, which provide suggestive indications of the sociocultural world to which the manuscript belonged.

Collectively, the marginalia supplied the book’s audience with a set of reference tools designed to render the medieval poem comprehensible to its early seventeenth-century reader, fulfilling the functions performed in modern texts by the devices of footnotes, glossaries, and bibliographies. Certain of the notations supplement the text copied by the manuscript’s calligrapher, Qivam ibn Muhammad Shirazi. In some cases, Qivam perhaps overlooked or omitted verses contained in his model during the transcription process, and the marginalia serve to “restore” them. In other cases, the verses’ placement in the margins is likely to reflect different versions of the Shahnama, a text remarkable for its fluidity and adaptability. In certain instances the added verses may reflect local preferences, probably documented in written versions or disseminated through the oral recitations of the professional storytellers who prospered in the Safavid dynasty, especially in the coffeehouses established in the major cities of the period. The half-verses marked as variants are presented as alternatives rather than as corrections; the added verses amplify rather than emend, let alone diminish, Qivam’s version in the manuscript’s written surface. The marginalia thus suggest an appreciation of the Shahnama as a flexible, living poem, responsive to contemporary circumstances and tastes and amenable to indefinite adaptations, augmentations, and interpretations. Perhaps above all, they highlight the importance of the text to a literate audience who wished to comprehend it and interpret it in light of their own experience.

Persian, Iran, Shiraz, Detail of folio 325a from the Peck Shahnama, 1589–90. Opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on glazed paper, folios approximately 47 x 32 cm each. Princeton Islamic Manuscripts, Third series, no. 310. Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, bequest (1983) of Clara S. Peck, in  honor of her brother, Fremont C. Peck, Princeton Class of 1920Other notations, which explain Firdausi’s text, were added in 1631, some forty years after the manuscript’s completion, when an ambassador from the Qutb Shah kingdom of Golconda in India purchased the volume in the Iranian capital city, Isfahan. Several of these inscriptions, including explanatory glosses of lexical items and proper names that appear in Firdausi’s poem, reflect the anticipated needs and interests of the manuscript’s new audience, for whom elements of Firdausi’s distinctive and sometimes archaic vocabulary required interpretation. As a rule, a term that appears in Firdausi’s text within the written surface is reinscribed in red ink in the corresponding space in the margin; a synonym or explanation, written in black ink, appears directly beneath the term transcribed in red. For example, Firdausi’s account of the hero Rustam’s selection of his horse, Rakhsh, the third text illustration in the Peck Shahnama, includes many of the poet’s terms for “horse,” such as chama, bara, tak-avar (an ambling or swift horse), and balay (a horse led for parade), all of which receive the generic gloss asp. More specific terms receive more precise definitions, such as khang (a gray or white horse), glossed as “a white horse.” Accordingly, the marginalia enabled the manuscript’s seventeenth-century audience to read and comprehend the text, with its rich equestrian vocabulary, and to view the depiction of the various horses on the facing page. In another instance, the annotator both described and illustrated his meaning, drawing a cross in red ink to illustrate the term jaliba, a Persian or Persianized form of chalipa, “cross,” a word that perhaps derived from contact with Christian communities in Iran.

These marginal glosses provide a detailed example of the tailoring of a manuscript to a specific audience at a particular historical moment. Calligraphers not only copied texts but also sometimes assisted audiences in their interpretation, in this case by adding explanations for lexical items that were not in common use in early seventeenth-century Iran or in Golconda. The individual(s) who annotated Qivam’s copy tailored the manuscript for a particular reader or readers, who, they evidently assumed, would not simply place the precious book on a shelf but would read it, sometimes aloud, in an attentive manner.


Louise Marlow

Professor of Religion and Program Director, Middle Eastern Studies, Wellesley College

Princeton Graduate School Class of 1987