Lee Lawrence in The Wall Street Journal:
Whether recounted in sweet-smelling tea shops or presented in illustrated manuscripts, the “Shahnameh” has entertained and inspired Iranians for more than 1,000 years. Of all their artistic treasures, Abu'l Qasim Firdausi's “Book of Kings” is the one Iranians most prize. They may not have its 50,000 verses memorized, but they are all familiar with this blend of myth and history filled with tales of heroes slaying demons, portents so fierce that kings fear “their liver will split in terror,” and maidens—oh, what maidens—”as elegant as cypress” and as pure as smokeless candles. From the start, however, the epic has also repeatedly served as a political tool. When Firdausi was penning his verses in 1007-10, Muslim Arab dynasties had ruled Persia for more than 31/2 centuries. Yet he avoided using Arabic words almost entirely and incorporated no elements of Islamic thought. His motive? To stir national pride and resistance to foreign rule by celebrating Persian culture. In the short run, Firdausi's gambit failed. For some 200 years the epic lay dormant, gaining traction only after the Mongols invaded in 1219. Scholars posit that courtiers advised the new rulers to win their subjects' hearts by commissioning sumptuous, illustrated copies of the “Book of Kings” or, as it is sometimes translated, the “King of Books.”
Over the coming centuries, rulers gave manuscripts to dazzle, curry favor or, as happened in 1829, avoid war. Two months after the Russian ambassador was murdered in Tehran, the shah sent a lavish gift package to the czar. Its most precious offerings, says Firuza Abdullaeva, head of the Shahnama Centre at Pembroke College, included Arab horses, gold, an 88.8-carat diamond and a 1651 “Shahnameh” with 192 miniatures. The shah hoped his largesse would so appease the czar that Russia would not only refrain from retaliation but forgive some of the indemnity Iran owed as part of a recent treaty. It worked.