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Ilkhanid Illustration
Shah Kay Kavus Attempts To Fly To Heaven.
from the 1341 Injuid Shahnama, Shiraz

158 Shah Kay Kavus attempts to fly to heaven
Folio from one of the three Inju-Shāhnāmas
Shiraz, Iran, 741 H / 1341 CE
Opaque water colour, gold and ink on paper
AKM 00030
Published: Welch 1972a, p. 72
Never a paragon of the perfect ruler, the gullible Shah Kay Kavus was tempted by a demon to pursue a preposterous and dangerous plan - to fly to heaven, and conquer the secrets of the celestial spheres. Having considered his options, the king proceeded as follows: he ordered his servants to collect live eagle chicks, and hand-rear them in the palace on fresh meat. Once fully grown, the tame eagles were formidable, "as strong as lions", and Kavus then ordered his servants to harness four of the birds to a specially-constructed throne, with slabs of raw meat suspended just above the eagles. Next, the foolish king sat into his contraption, and the straining eagles soon had him airborne, as they struggled to reach the dangling food. This is the moment depicted here: hoisted away by the giant birds, Kay Kavus points up in excitement towards the approaching heavens - where the first sphere of the fixed stars or constellations may be seen, with the sun beyond. Eventually of course the birds grew tired, and the king's upward trajectory came to an end. The plummeting throne crashed to the ground, tipping out the royal passenger in a remote region. He survived the failed adventure, but was greatly humiliated by the contemptuous reproaches of his noblemen when they came to rescue him (Davis 2006, 184-186).
    This painting belongs to a dispersed manuscript that was produced in 741 H / 1341 CE, and is one of three well-known and densely-illustrated Shāhnāma manuscripts made for the court environment of Inju Shiraz, a governorship in the Iranian province of Fars (the other two are dated 1330 [Istanbul, Topkapi Palace Library, H.1479] and 1333 [St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Dorn329]). Like many a valuable manuscript handled by Western art dealers in the early twentieth century, this Shāhnāma codex was taken apart and sold page by page on the art market, thus scattering the folios to public and private collections around the world. After thorough study, the original pagination of 180 extant folios was reconstructed and 36 collections were identified which currently own folios (Simpson in: Hillenbrand 2000, pp. 217-247). Remarkably, among these farflung fragments, there survive not only the dedication pages from the front of the book (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S1986.110v and S1986.111r), but also the final folio containing the colophon statement (AKTC IRM06Iv). This is how it was discovered that the manuscript was made for the Inju wazīr (minister) Hajji Qawam al-Dawla wa-l-Din Hasan, and the calligrapher was Hasan b. Muhammad b. ʿAli b. Husayni al-Mawsili.
Moya Carey
Source: pp.206-207, Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum, Masterpieces of Islamic Art

Accession Number: AKM30
Place: Iran, Shiraz
Dimensions: 36.4 x 30.4 cm
Date: 741 AH / 1341
Materials and Technique: Ink, coloured pigments and gold on paper
The Shahnameh (Book of Kings), an epic poem completed in the early 11th century by Firdausi (c.935­–1020), recounts the story of Iran through the reigns of 50 kings who ruled from before the dawn of time through the mid-7th century AD. Most of these monarchs were wise and endowed with farr or divine glory. Others—such as the legendary king Kay Kavus, who ruled for 150 years—were filled with hubris and favoured their own interests ahead of the prosperity and security of their kingdom. Kay Kavus’s reign was marked with many royal misadventures, including an attempt to conquer the neighbouring country of Mazandaran that resulted in his capture by a troop of demons. Kay Kavus also fell prey to malevolent and perfidious influences. AKM30 (folio 46 recto) from a dispersed copy of the Shahnameh completed in 1341 presents such an episode.

Further Reading
Disguised as a comely young man, a demon caught Kay Kavus’ attention by offering him a bouquet of flowers during a hunting excursion. The demon then persuaded Kavus that one way to insure his perpetual glory would be to rise up to the heavens and thereby learn the secrets of the heavenly sphere—something that no other monarch had ever achieved. Realizing that such a feat would require wings, Kavus ordered his men to rob eagles’ nests and to rear the squabs, or baby eagles, on poultry and meat. When the eagles had grown large and strong, Kavus ordered a throne with a lance at each of its four corners to be built of wood and gold. Meat was suspended from these lances and four eagles were lashed onto the structure. Then Kay Kavus sat on the throne, and as the eagles grew hungry and flew toward the suspended meat, the throne was lifted off the ground. It continued to rise as the hungry birds beat their wings desperate to reach food. Finally, the birds’ strength waned, and they tumbled back to earth, where the throne came to rest in a thicket. Miraculously, Kay Kavus was unscathed in the fall. He was immediately filled with humiliation and regret for his foolishness.

The illustration to this extraordinary episode in AKM30 (folio 46 recto) from the 1341 Shahnameh has become abraded over the centuries. Nonetheless, it is still possible to make out the youthful Kay Kavus in the centre, crowned and seated in what looks like the basket of a hot-air balloon. The king raises his right arm and index finger to point up at the semi-circular rings above, which represent the golden sun, the blue sky, and the twinkling stars. The four large eagles fly out in horizontal formation from the basket’s sides, pulling the throne with long, black leads. The composition does not, however, depict the meat intended to lure the birds skyward. The anonymous artist of this scene did, however, surround the birds’ heads with what look like golden halos to set them off from the red background. He also added a strip of ochre-coloured blades of grass and sketchy plants as a groundline to indicate that Kay Kavus has not yet “flown” very high above the ground.

— Marianna Shreve Simpson
Source: Aga Khan Museum AKM30

Geneva, Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Title of Work: Shahnama (1341)
Manuscript: 2005.1.28-37 (Ir.M. 6-6/I)
Accession Number: 2005.1.30 (Ir.M. 6/B)
Chapter 12b - Kay Kavus fights the King of Hamavaran
Scene: Kay Kavus airborne
Dimensions (h x w): 111 x 236 mm
Format: Stepped within borders
Reconstructed Folio: 46r
Hijri Date: 741 Dhu'l-Qa'da 20
Gregorian Date: 1341 May 14
School: Inju'id Shiraz
Source: Shahnama Project

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See also 'Kay Kavus falls back down to earth' in the Metropolitan Museum's Small Shahnama. Isfahan, Persia, c.1330-1340AD