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3 / History and Memory

“Alexander Fights the Monster of Habash” from the Shahnama
“Alexander Fights the Monster of Habash” from the Shahnama
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, Tabriz, Iran
Region: West Asia
Date Before 1335
Material Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper
Dimensions H: 23 ¼ in. (59.05 cm.), W: 15 5/8 in. (39.69 cm.)
Location Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Credit Courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library

expert perspective

Oleg GrabarProfessor Emeritus, Institute for Advanced Study

Additional Resources

Grabar, Oleg, and Sheila Blair. Epic Images and Contemporary History: The Illustrations of the Great Mongol Shahnama. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings. Aldershot, Hants, UK: Ashgate, 2004.

Irwin, Robert. Islamic Art in Context. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.

Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250–1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

“Alexander Fights the Monster of Habash” from the Shahnama

» Unknown artist, Tabriz, Iran

Written in the early eleventh century by Abu’l Qasim Ferdowsi, the Shahnama is an epic poem relating the history of Persia (present-day Iran) through the exploits of its kings.

A number of illustrated copies of the Shahnama exist from various periods. These become increasingly more ornate and intricate in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, often including works by the hands of multiple artists and calligraphers. This elaborate page comes from a version known as the Demotte Shahnama (also known as the Great Mongol Shahnama) believed to have been created sometime before 1335.

The historical trajectory of the Shahnama begins in Iran’s mythic past and continues to the defeat of the Persians by the Arabs in the seventh century. This illustration shows Alexander the Great (Iskander), who conquered Persia in 332 BCE, fighting the monster of Habash, or Ethiopia. It constitutes a prime example of the Shahnama’s blurring of the line between fact and legend. It also reflects how the book presented a model of princely behavior—Alexander is an exemplar of bravery in the face of a formidable foe.

The Shahnama’s dual status as historical record and didactic text gave it enormous flexibility. It was not only commissioned by native Persian rulers, but also appropriated by Persia’s foreign conquerors as a means of bolstering their authority. Although its textual content remained the same from manuscript to manuscript, the Shahnama’s images (and their relationship to the text) varied. As the Demotte illustration demonstrates, this lack of circumscription in the visual arena opened the door for foreign influence to enter the manuscript, giving rulers like the Mongols a means by which to make the history their own.


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