AKM92, Rustam shooting Ashkabus and his horse

© The Aga Khan Museum

Click on the image to zoom

Rustam shooting Ashkabus and his horse
Folio detached from a Shahnameh (Book of Kings) by Abu’l-Qasim Firdausi (d. 1010)
  • Accession Number:AKM92
  • Creator:Copied by Salik b. Sa‘id, and dedicated to Sultan 'Ali Mirza
  • Place:Iran, Lahijan
  • Dimensions:34.3 x 24.5 cm
  • Date:ca. 1494
  • Materials and Technique:opaque watercolour, gold, and ink on paper
  • Recounting the legendary history of Iran’s shahs (kings) up to the Arab conquest in 642 AD and the country’s adoption of Islam, Firdausi’s epic poem the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), completed in 1010, inspired many illustrated copies. The present folio, which depicts one of the hero Rustam’s more unusual victories in single combat, was detached from a copy that is known as the “Big Head” Shahnameh. This name refers to the characteristic feature of the majority of its paintings: the large heads of its human figures.  

Further Reading


The “Big Head” Shahnameh is the only known manuscript from the Aqqoyunlu centre and the only surviving manuscript of the Aqqoyunlu period (1378–1501). Originally, it boasted more than 300 paintings. Many of these paintings illustrated subjects that had never been depicted before; for this reason, the “Big Head” Shahnameh contains newly formulated compositions, which closely follow the text.


In contrast, the present folio departs from Firdausi’s text by presenting a more generic battle scene than the one actually described. According to Firdausi’s poem, Rustam accepts Ashkabus’s challenge to fight even though his horse is resting, and he is without a mount. He proceeds to shoot an arrow first at Ashkabus’s horse, and then at Ashkabus himself. The second arrow pierces the armour of steel that Ashkabus is wearing. Firdausi notes that this fatal wound proves Rustam’s ability to use his arrows almost like spears, even when fighting on foot with a mounted opponent. [1]


Rather than presenting Rustam on foot while shooting at the mounted Ashkabus, as other illustrations of this episode have done, this folio shows Rustam seated on his horse. As a result, the illustration is, unusually, not following the text as closely as some of the others from the same manuscript. The folio does, however, depict Rustam in a familiar manner, larger in size and wearing a distinctive tiger-skin kaftan.


The “Big Head” Shahnameh is today preserved in two separate collections in Istanbul: volume one, in the Türk ve Islam Eserleri Müzesi (TIEM, ms. 1978, formerly Evkaf, Halet Efendi 3079) and volume two, in the Istanbul University Library (F. 1406, formerly Yıldız 7954/310). The first volume bears a dedication to a Sultan ‘Ali Mirza (TIEM 1978, fol. 1a), while the second volume ends with a colophon which gives the name of the dedicatee as Mirza ‘Ali, as well as the name of the scribe, Salik b. Sa‘id, and the date 899/1494 (IUK F. 1406, fol. 304r). Over 40 illustrated folios from the first volume appear to have been removed and are now found in diverse collections worldwide.


The patron of the manuscript is identified by common consensus in art historical literature as the Shi’ite governor of Gilan, Mirza ‘Ali, from the Karkiya dynasty (r. 1478–1505), whose patronage is otherwise unknown. According to Charles Melville, he is consistently referred to as Mirza ‘Ali in the contemporary sources, as in the colophon of volume two, even though he is called Sultan ‘Ali Mirza in the dedication of volume one, as well as in the secondary literature. [2]


Mirza ‘Ali’s rule covered the crucially important period of the 1501 Safavid takeover of western Iran from the Aqqoyunlu Turkmans (1467–1501). Furthermore, the grandson of the Aqqoyunlu ruler and the future founder of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1724), Isma‘il Safavi, took refuge at the court at Lahijan around the year 1493–94, either just before the beginning or during the production of the “Big Head” Shahnameh. The manuscript thus seems to have been produced and illustrated at exactly the period when the future Safavid shah was at Mirza ‘Ali’s court, which raises the possibility that its creation may be connected to Isma’il’s sojourn in the area.


The Aga Khan Museum has five “Big Head” Shahnameh folios, see AKM62, AKM63, AKM64AKM91 and AKM92.


— Lale Uluc

[1] Jules Mohl, ed., Shāhnāma-i Firdausī, 3 vols. (Tabriz: Chapkhāna-i Maharat, 1370/1991), 1: 123, verses 691–700; A.G. Warner and E. Warner, trans., The Shāhnāma of Firdausī, 9 vols. (London: Kegan Paul, 1905–25), 1: 210.
[2] For further reading and all references, see Charles Melville, “The ‘Big Head’ Shāhnāma in Istanbul and elsewhere: Some codicological and iconographical observations,” (forthcoming).


Sign up for our newsletter Discover new Programs added regularly