Like a number of the great Persian romantic narratives, the love story of the Sāsānian king Khusraw II (r. 590-628 AD) and Shīrīn, the Christian princess from Armenia, is based on figures recorded in Firdawsī's Shāhnāmah. It was reworked at the end of the 12th century by the poet Niẓāmī and included in his Khamsah (Quintet). Niẓāmī presents his much-embellished account of the lengthy courtship of the pair and its eventual tragic conclusion as a journey of personal and spiritual transformation. The selfish hero-king evolves into an idealised lover in his quest for union with his beloved. Niẓāmī's version was, in turn, reworked by later writers, such as Amīr Khusraw (d. 1325) of Delhi, who acknowledged his debt to his Persian predecessor in his text.
In this fabled narrative, the romance begins before the pair meet: they fall in love after receiving physical descriptions of each other. Khusraw travels to Armenia to find the beautiful and accomplished woman who has captured his soul. At first they enjoy a period of rapturous love, but the vagaries of fate intervene and keep them apart for some time. Khusraw marries more than once during this period, and through the plot's twists and turns the rivals for his and Shīrīn's respective affections end their own lives. Reconciled, the couple enjoys a more mature and deep love, but tragically their happiness is transient. Their earthly union ends when, after neglecting his royal duties, Khusraw is assassinated by an enemy. After this, Shīrīn takes her own life.
Manuscript of Niẓāmī's Khamsah or Quintet copied c. 1570. One of the many twists in the tale of Khusraw and Shīrīn results from the introduction of a love triangle in which Shīrīn becomes involved with Farhād, a sculptor of stone, while Khusraw is married to another woman. Filled with undying love for Shīrīn, Farhād demonstrates his skill by carving a channel through which milk flows like a stream. Khusraw hears of this exploit and orders Farhād to carve a road through a mountain, promising Shīrīn as a reward. When Farhād completes the task Khusraw tricks him into believing that Shīrīn is dead, prompting the craftsman to leap to his own death. (MS. Ouseley 316, fol. 81v)
Manuscript of Ḥāfiẓ's Poetical Works copied in 1537. The story of Khusraw and Shīrīn was sometimes treated as a narrative epic and sometimes as individual episodes, as in this collection of lyrical poems by Ḥāfiẓ. This scene, a favourite of poets and illustrators, depicts Khusraw catching sight of Shīrīn bathing in a stream. Unaware of her identity, he observes her from behind a rocky outcrop, his finger raised to his mouth in astonishment. (MS. Ouseley Add. 16, fol. 162v)
Manuscript of Niẓāmī's Khamsah or Quintet copied in 1501.This page illustrates an episode which occurs early in the story of Khusraw and Shīrīn and is much favoured by manuscript painters. Khusraw has been told of the beauty of Shīrīn, princess of Armenia, and has fallen in love with her. He send his best friend Shāpur, a painter of genius, to Armenia to win her hand. Shāpur paints an enchanting portrait of Khusraw and places it in the forest and hides. Shīrīn and her ladies arrive and Shīrīn sees the portrait. Three times Shāpur places the portrait until Shīrīn falls in love with Khusraw. (MS. Elliott 192, fol. 43b)
Manuscript of Niẓāmī's Khamsah or Quintet copied in 1646. This episode of the story follows the death of a Byzantine princess, who Khusraw has married as a condition of her father's military assistance in Khusraw's battle to regain his right to be king of Persia. Having regained the throne, Khusraw becomes enamoured of Shakar. They are depicted here surrounded by luxury, enjoying all the pleasures of love. But Khusraw soon tires of Shakar and sets off to again find Shīrīn. (MS. Ouseley 317, fol. 75b)