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Video transcript

[Music] we're in a storage room in the freer gallery of art looking at one of the most important illustrations coming out of the Islamic world it is considered one of the greatest paintings of the medieval period from Iran it belongs to a copy of the Shahnameh that simply means the book of kings of the history of the kings of the area that we now call Iran the shahnameh is considered the great epic of Iran and the one text that identifies and unifies Iranians the Shahnameh was completed in the year 1010 by the poet Ferdowsi it consists of some fifty thousand verses it is probably one of the longest epics ever written it is divided into 50 reigns of the kings of Iran beginning at the beginning of time ending with the fall of the sasanian dynasty and the Arab conquest of course the rulers of the beginning of time are mythical rulers and then we begin to get historical or quasi historical figures and it is Alexander the Greek ruler who begins the historical part of the show Naaman and what we're seeing here is a scene of mourning of the death of Alexander the Great it is odd to find him in the Shahnameh Alexander invaded Iran and burnt down Persepolis the cabinet palace and he's really being mourned here and that's in part because even though Alexander had invaded by the time that this manuscript is produced Alexander has been fully embraced look at this sense of emotion in these figures we have Alexander's casket laid out almost as if it was a human body and we see the back of a female figure who is laying across her you can feel her agony her despair even though we're only seeing her back according to Pharisee when Alexander died his coffin was put on display in an open landscape what the artist does here is he confined it into this space err perhaps it's easier to show the intensity of the emotion because it circulates around the coffin with these on lookers who are in great agony they are weeping they are praying we have the figure of Aristotle bending over he looks as if he's crying he's holding a handkerchief and then of course there is the figure of Alexander's mother who has thrown herself on the coffin that agitated very angular folds of her rope which has sort of fallen off embody the agony that she's going through the artist has been careful to make clear to us how important Alexander is through the symmetry of the architecture and its lavish decoration this interior has every possible luxury object in fact it is a wonderful visual testimony of the types of object that existed at that time you have these monumental candles with their flames and black smoke you have this great lamp hanging over the coffin of Alexander you have carpets you have textiles you have tiles and in many ways it underscores the importance of Alexander and his wealth we have these powerful human emotions but at the center we have a coffin it becomes a kind of stand-in for human mortality and the issue of mortality is central to fair dos astronomy because throughout the story of Alexander as he moves east and west in search of more territory he's also looking for immortality he looks for the water of life he passes the valley of darkness and throughout the narrative for those he keeps reminding Alexander that despite all your wealth despite all your power which is beautifully summarized in this painting that Alexander you are mortal like anyone else and the issue of Alexander's mortality becomes almost a foil for fair doses epic ferdowsi ends his text by the following I have reached the end of this great history and all the land will fill with talk of me I shall not die these seas I've sown will save my name and reputation from the grave and men of sense and wisdom will proclaim when I have gone my praises and my fame what becomes interesting is that every new ruler after the conquest of Islam in Iran one of the first thing that they commissioned was a copy of the Shahnameh to become part of that historical legacy and that is exactly what the Mongols it with commissioning the great Mongol Shan army no the Mongols did tremendous damage in Iran and they first established themselves and it's interesting that this particular manuscript which has such an emphasis on Alexander may have been used to create a correspondence between Alexander who himself was a conqueror and the Mongols who had conquered around this manuscript has the largest number of illustrations of the Alexander cycle and there are 12 that have survived and when you think of Alexander as a world conqueror he is the perfect model for the Mongol Ilhan it's when they conquered Iran that the Mongols could establish themselves with a kind of legitimacy by calling on the tradition of Alexander [Music]