Imagine the journey of the body of a poem: from the hand of the sweetest poet of medieval Persia; into the saddlebags of merchants and clerics; gathering dust and the scent of jasmine in the court libraries of Near Eastern kings; the first contact between those kingdoms and western empires; in turn, those empires rising and falling; buried deep in the shadowy intrigues of antiquarians and auction houses; and coming to rest, for now, in the public and climate-controlled collections of philanthropists and nation states.
We live in an age when we can have at our fingertips the stories of the heroes of such epics. But what we could learn from unravelling the journey of the manuscripts themselves!
The Shahnama Images Project is attempting to achieve just such a feat. To gather together the story of an epic poem as it spread around the world, to capture the explosion of idea which Firdausi wrought upon the world, and to trace the threads of transcription, commerce and artistry as they wind their way through the history of the modern world.
A great deal has been written about The Shahnama, and its pivotal role in the history and identity of historical Persia, modern day Iran, and the Iranian diaspora. No matter where you find yourself in the world, you are never far from a copy of The Shahnama. Shahnamas convalesce in the hum of modern archives; they rot in the humidity of central Africa; they embody the pride and passion of concrete-grey Uzbek and Tajiki institutes; they are cut with razorblades into individual sheets to sell, piece-by-piece, at auctions; they rest on humble shelves in the museums and libraries of Cambridge.
How can such diversity be synthesised? The first aim of The Shahnama Project was for a man with a passion, Professor Charles Melville, to travel the major Shahnama collections of the world, to capture images of Shahnama manuscripts from around the world, concentrating on the manuscript’s exquisite illustrations. Whilst the text remained almost constant, a scribe, artist, or patron’s reaction to the text is captured in its illustrations.
Through extensive international travel, Prof Melville captured thousands of shahnamas, and detailed their structure, origin, condition, and location. These illustrations were then synthesised into a website to allow the casual visitor and serious academic, alike, to discover the shahnamas of the world. Illustrations of the same stanzas from the pages of thousands of manuscripts can be seen simultaneously: giving insight into how an identical subject is interpreted in each culture and age.
It soon became clear, however, that this task was too Herculean for one dedicated academic. If the project was to thrive, it needed a truly co-operative approach to building and nurturing its data. CARET developed a very modern kind of technical artefact for this ancient epic, a distributed computer-based editing and update system based on the world-wide web. Designed to seamlessly allow experts within a museum or library who care for particular manuscripts, to also care for the records of their manuscript, the project had to strike a delicate balance between ease-of-use and academic rigour, elegance and functionality.
This is no half-way house online correction form: museum users have direct access to the database itself, to update it and alter it according to their local knowledge. To achieve this whilst allowing Prof Melville to maintain editorial control required careful thinking and experimentation. Hundreds of updates a week are now carried out by other users, allowing the resource to become a truly community-owned project.
CARET’s work with Prof Melville now concentrates on encouraging scholarly endeavour around the resources: putting the project’s massive bibliographic database online, around and amongst the images; and allowing the creation of lightboxes, presentations, and personal work areas.
Being at the forefront of e-Humanities research isn’t always plain sailing: it requires a commitment to experimentation and innovation which those who have not had close, recent contact with Cambridge University might imagine rare in scholars of a thousand year old poem. But the Shahnama Images Project is fast becoming a beacon for scholars around the world, and a lasting legacy for the project. A thousand years on, ripples from Firdausi’s big idea continue to spread into the challenges of the modern world.
For CARET, the experience of assisting Prof Melville in The Shahnama Project has a number of the key needs for many humanities scholars within the University. CARET are using the experience which we gained on this fascinating project to improve the infrastructure within Cambridge University for handling and discovering scholarly images; for keeping digital information secure and readable for posterity; for representing and manipulating deep scholarly work in the modern, collaborative, globalised world; and for reducing the workload of museums both within the University, and beyond.