The history of Naqqāli (meaning story-telling or narrating) tradition in Iran dates back to the Parthian Empire (247 BCE- 224 CE) during which wandering minstrels went from one city to the other to tell exotic stories about existing or imaginary historical events usually accompanied by songs and musical instruments. Minstrels performed also during the Sassanid Empire (224- 651 CE) but they became famous for their paranormal abilities as well, especially the ability to foretell the future.
After the advent of Islam and the Muslim conquest of Persia (651 CE), however, the task of storytelling was handed over to peasants and the themes of the stories focused more on prophets and Islam. Nevertheless, a couple of decades later, the national and epic themes proved popular particularly since the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736). In this era, the stories of Shahnameh, one of the world’s longest epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi gained high attention in the country. In most crowded parts of the cities like bazaars, caravanserais, and mosques, narrators recounted the tales of this book in verse or prose in front of audiences often accompanied by music and dance.
With the growing popularity of teahouses in the early 17th century, these places turned out to be the main center for this traditional form of performance art. From the Qajar era (1796-1925), the title of Naqqāl in the local language (meaning narrator) was chosen for the narrators, and this dramatic art was named Naqqāli, and furthermore, it was considered an official and respected job. In general, the Naqqāls have the ability to improvise their performances and choose the best genre of the story according to the dominant characteristics of the audiences (e.g., age, gender, and mood). They are also good at memorizing poems, body language, voice vibrancy, local cultural expressions, and dialects, enabling them to mesmerize a crowd.
From the Qajar era (1796-1925), the title of Naqqāl in the local language (meaning narrator) was chosen for the narrators, and this dramatic art was named Naqqāli, and furthermore, it was considered an official and respected job.
Naqqāls have been divided into three groups of Shahnameh, history, and religion tellers based on the main themes about which they present their stories. However, today Naqqāli is mostly interwoven in Iran with the tales of Shahnameh. The Naqqals start their performance with a baton in hand in front of a painting or curtain, depicting a special epic tale. To simulate the battle scenes and excite more the public, they usually wear military uniforms during the performances.
Although Naqqāli is a way to keep alive the traditional epic tales and poems, it has lost, to a great extent, its popularity mostly because of the effects of modernity and new types of entertainment. As an attempt to introduce the heritage values of Naqqāli internationally and to keep this ancient art survived, it was registered on List of Intangible World Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding by UNESCO in 2011.