Zahhak Enthroned

Ascribed to Mir Zayn al-Abidin
Iran, Qazvin, Safavid period, ca. 1576–77
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Lent by the Art and History Collection LTS1995.2.70

The gray-bearded figure is none other than the tyrannical Zahhak, who kills his own father to become king. After he usurps the throne, the devil (iblis) enters Zahhak’s court and kisses the king on the shoulders. Immediately, two snakes that only eat human brains grow from the spots.

Curiously, the writhing snakes, a symbol of Zahhak’s cruel nature, are absent from this illustration. The elegant court scene follows a key moment in the Shahnama, when Zahhak dreams of the yet-unborn Faraydun who will one day defeat him and bring his thousand-year reign of terror to an end. Obsessed with finding and killing Faraydun, Zahhak gathers his noblemen to ask for their support in raising an army.

This illustration was originally part of a Shahnama prepared for the Safavid ruler Ismail II (reigned 1576–77), the son and successor of Shah Tahmasp. Ismail II’s reign was marred by bloodshed and oppression, and he was murdered after only one year on the throne.