Sam Returns with His Son Zal

Iran, Tabriz, Safavid period, ca. 1520s
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Lent by the Ebrahimi Family Collection

The discovery of the abandoned child Zal and his glorious return to court must have had particular resonance for Shah Tahmasp, for it is illustrated three times by different painters in his personal copy of the Shahnama. Two of the folios were reunited for the first time in decades in the exhibition Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings.

Once news reached the royal court that Zal is alive and well, the overjoyed king sets out to find his albino son. At first, Zal is reluctant to leave the only home he has ever known, but the simurgh convinces him to go with his father Sam. The magical creature gives Zal two of her feathers to burn whenever he needs her help. Now dressed in sumptuous Safavid royal robes and seated on a white elephant, Zal is ready to “go and see what fate has in store” for him. As he rides away, accompanied by his proud father and his royal retinue, the simurgh looks up poignantly at her two remaining fledglings in the nest.

Retaining the overall composition of Zal is Sighted by a Caravan, the second artist placed the phoenix’s rocky perch on the right and transformed the boulders into spongelike waves that reach beyond the upper margin. The fantastically rendered landscape also contains ghostlike humans and grotesques that underscore the emotional intensity of the moment.