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The Simurgh returning Zal to his Father, page from a Shahnama of Firdausi

Photo: Paul Macapia

The Simurgh returning Zal to his Father, page from a Shahnama of Firdausi

late 15th - 16th century

One tale from the Book of Kings  is the story of Zal, a child of royal lineage who had the misfortune of being born with snow-white hair. This was considered a sign of demonic possession, so Zal's father abandoned the infant at the foot of Mount Alburz. Fortunately for Zal, a Simurgh, or mythical bird, resided at the mountain's summit. She saved the infant from certain death and raised him with her own offspring. Many years passed, and Zal's father had a dream in which he was castigated for abandoning his son. He set out on a quest to find Zal and eventually discovered him right where he had left him, at Mount Alburz, with the faithful and caring Simurgh who had raised him.

This miniature from a Persian Shahnama manuscript dating to the late-fifteenth or early-sixteenth century depicts the emotional reunion between father and son. As the search party watches in amazement below, the Simurgh descends from the heights of Mount Alburz with the fully grown Zal riding on her back. Father and son recognize each other and reach out in a joyous reunion. In this image, however, the human figures are not as significant as the magnificent landscape and the spectacular Simurgh. The imposing Mount Alburz is represented in pinks and blues, with rocky outcroppings and abstract trees; the golden sky above enhances the mythical, surreal quality of the scene. The Simurgh herself is the center of the composition, represented as a phoenix in a form borrowed from Chinese art. Her bright colors and extravagant plumage draw the viewer's attention to the center of the image. In the end, Zal returns to his father's kingdom. He maintains a close relationship with the Simurghwho will come to his aid once againand becomes a brave warrior and just ruler who administers his kingdom with fairness and virtue.
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
9 3/16 x 6 1/8 in. (23.4 x 15.5 cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
Provenance: Purchased from Heeramaneck Galleries
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view


The most influential literary work in the Islamic world was the Shahnama, or Book of Kings. Based both on oral transmission and written tradition, the Book of Kings consists of stories about the lives of legendary and historical kings of Persia. In the early eleventh century, the author Firdawsi compiled these stories into a work of sixty thousand rhyming couplets. From then on, knowledge of the Book of Kings was an essential element of Islamic-Iranian culture for rulers of the Islamic world, most of whom were of Turkic origins. Associations with past Persian rulers provided political legitimacy for rulers who were foreign to the lands they conquered.

The Book of Kings consistently recounts events and activities such as battles, feasts, death scenes, hunts, and imperial audiences, but it also concentrates on the extraordinary exploits of heroic figures like Rustam, Bahram Gur, and Alexander. Shahnama manuscripts from the fourteenth century on were often lavishly illustrated, and a wide repertoire of images related to the tales in the Book of Kings exists.
Mourning scene, perhaps the death of Iskandar (Alexander the Great), 17th century(?), Persian, 55.14
Photo: Paul Macapia

Art and Literature

Islamic writers in the Middle Ages and early modern period (ninth to nineteenth centuries) practiced a number of prose genres—history, biography, and travelogue among them—but poetry in the Persian language was considered the highest form of literary accomplishment. Persian was the language of high culture in the Islamic world, and many royal courts used Persian as their official language. Poetry was associated with venerable Arabian oral traditions as well as the poetic quality of the Qur'an, and mastery of this genre in Persian or Arabic required extensive knowledge of languages and texts. Poets were important members of royal courts, holding much higher positions than painters, for example. In the relationship between art and literature in the Islamic world, the word always took precedence over the image. Only in the modern period do visual artists achieve the same level of fame and fortune as their literary counterparts.

In Islamic manuscripts, images serve mainly to illustrate the texts provided, which does not mean that the images were not enjoyed as artistic creations themselves or that the work of painters was completely derivative. This situation simply indicates the working conditions painters faced in the Islamic world. As an adornment to the excellence of Persian poetry, Persian painting achieved great fame in the visual arts. And like poetry, Persian painting was exported across Islamic lands, with famous poets and painters collaborating to create luxurious, lavishly illustrated literary manuscripts.
Miniature: Line Drawing of Artist at Work, ca. 1600, Persian, 62.205

Related Objects in SAM's Collections

Photo: Paul Macapia
Akbar on horseback receiving homage, 17th century, Islamic, Indian, Mughal, 41.204
Photo: Paul Macapia
Akbar Hunting Scene; border from Farhangi-Jaharangiri manuscript, late 16th-early 17th century, Indian, Mughal, 45.69
Photo: Paul Macapia
Babur Scene from the Akbarnama manuscript; border from Farhangi-Jahangiri manuscript, late 16th century, Indian, Mughal, 46.28
Photo: Paul Macapia
Prince Miranshah greets Princess Serai Malak Khanum, ca. 1435-36, Northern Iranian, 49.133
Photo: Paul Macapia
Mourning scene, perhaps the death of Iskandar (Alexander the Great), 17th century(?), Persian, 55.14
Photo: Paul Macapia
Zal riding on the neck of Simurgh (the mythical female phoenix), late 15th-16th century, Persian, 47.95
Photo: Paul Macapia
Talhand's Mother Learns of his Death / A Lamentation Scene:  Mourning for a Dead Hero, ca. 1493, Persian, 47.98


Karen Mathews, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Miami, on Zal and the Simurgh


Published ReferencesRogers, Millard B. Engagement Book: Iranian Art in the Seattle Art Museum. Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 1972; reproduced fig. 44.

Harding, Beverly. The Secret of Porcelain: A Family Guide. Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2000; p. 21.

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