Over a thousand years ago, Sultan Mahmoud of Ghazni (today’s Afghanistan) commissioned the ancient myths and legends of Persia to be written into verse. At the end of over three decades, Abolqasem Ferdowsi named this literary masterpiece Shahnameh, “The Book of Kings.” Tales of heroes, villains, battles, and romance were written into 60,000 couplets, making Shahnameh twice as long as both the Iliad and Odyssey combined. And now, one of the stories of this epic poem is being presented in a new way: the pop-up book Zahhak: The Legend of the Serpent King.
The artist behind the book
The person undertaking this great feat is Hamid Rahmanian, a filmmaker and graphic artist who lives in New York. His nearly decade-long “Shahnameh Project” has brought tales of Persian mythology to life for all. Published in 2013, his first book Shahnameh: The Epic of Persian Kings is a 600-page text illustrated with recompositions of Persian miniatures, a labor of love which took him over 10,000 hours to complete. (The adapted translation is by Ahmad Sadri.) Other parts of his Shahnameh Project include the magnificent shadow plays Feathers of Fire (which brings to life the love story between Zal and Rudabeh) and Zahhak: The Legend of the Serpent King.
Zahhak: The Legend of the Serpent King
And now, Rahmanian and Simon Arizpe breathe new life into one of the first stories of Shahnameh in the form of an 18-page pop-up book published by Fantagraphics: Zahhak: The Legend of the Serpent King. The tale of Zahhak introduces us to some of the most well-known Persian names- Jamshid, Kaveh, Fereydoon, and Faranak (names still used today in Iran)- as well as the symbol and highest peak of Iran, Mt. Damavand. Certain themes in this story are rather reminiscent of the story of Moses while others could be seen as symbolic of current issues in Iran and elsewhere. In a nutshell, the legend goes like this:
Prince Zahhak is quite the opposite of his kind and just father, King Merdas. One day, the devil (disguised as a wizard), pays Zahhak a visit and convinces him to plot his father’s murder. After Zahhak seizes power, the devil once again appears in disguise, and this time, his evil deed causes two giant snakes to grow from Zahhak’s shoulders. In order to keep these monsters alive, two young men are sacrificed every day, their brains fed to the ravenous snakes. A thousand years of tyranny ensue until one night, the ruthless king has an ominous dream of being overthrown. After much trepidation, his seers reveal the truth to Zahhak: a young Persian man- not yet born- will end his reign using a golden mace. The craftsman and revolutionary behind the golden mace, the mysterious man destined to bring peace back to Persia, and the ill fate of Zahhak are all just part of the exhilarating legend of the Serpent King and one of the great stories of Shahnameh.
Zahhak pop-up book
Rahmanian’s pop-up book has been beautifully crafted with spectacularly detailed graphics and wonderful little accessories like the colorful feathers on the kings’ crowns. While each page is brilliant in its own way, I was personally dazzled by the next to last which made me want to crawl right inside the book and explore all the hidden nooks. Within the pages are smaller pop-outs continuing the story (but they need to be opened with care because the tabs keeping them down are a bit prone to tearing). My only wish is that the book came with a slipcover, similar to the first book, to protect the pages. Otherwise, the story and the way it’s presented are sure to be thrilling even for children. For Iranophiles, it’s a must-have addition to your collection of Persian literature. And for newcomers to Shahnameh, it’s the perfect story to entice you to grab a copy of the weighty tome itself and delve deeper into the world of Persian mythology.
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