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Ferdowsi & The Shahnameh فردوسى


Ferdowsi Tousi, (935–1020) is considered to be one of the greatest Persian poets to have ever lived. Among the national heroes and literary greats of all time, Ferdowsi has a very special place. His life-long endeavour, dedication and   personal sacrifices to preserve the national identity, language and heritage of his homeland put him in great hardship during his lifetime, but won him fame and honour for one of the greatest poetic masterpieces of all time: the Shahnameh.

The Shahnameh  is an enormous poetic opus written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi around 1000AD, is the national epic of the Persian speaking world. The Shahnameh  tells the mythical and historical past of Iran from the creation of the world up until the Islamic conquest of Iran in the 7th century.

Aside from its utmost literary importance, the Shahnameh written in almost pure Persian, had been pivotal for reviving the Persian language subsequent to the influence of Arabic. This voluminous work, regarded by Persian speakers as a literary masterpiece, also reflects Iran's history, cultural values, its ancient religions (Zoroastrianism), and its profound sense of nationhood. Ferdowsi completed the Shahnameh at the point in time when national independence had been compromised. While there are memorable heroes and heroines of the classical type in this work, the real, ongoing hero is Iran itself.

It has been called the "Persian Quran" by Ibn al-Athir, even though this title is not common knowledge among the Persian speakers but somehow indicates the importance of this book for all Persian speakers of the Iranian world, including Afghanistan and Tajikistan, to other Persian speakers of Central Asia, as well as in India, Pakistan and as far as China.

In short: a study of the Shahnameh gives us a literary excuse for exploring how culture moves across time and space, becoming part of the global common heritage.

The sources

There is an ongoing controversy among scholars about the sources of the Shahnameh. Ferdowsi's epic is probably based mainly on an earlier prose version which itself was a compilation of old Iranian stories and historical facts and fables. However, there is without any doubt also a strong influence of oral literature, since the style of the Shahnameh shows characteristics of both written and oral literature.

Some of the characters of the Epic are of Indo-Iranian heritage, and are mentioned in sources as old as the ancient Avesta. The Shahnameh itself was written in Pahlavi Persian, which at the time was looking towards a bleak end.

The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, an epic poem of over 60,000 couplets, is based mainly on a prose work of the same name compiled in the poet's earlier life in his native Tus. This prose Shahnameh was in turn and for the most part the translation of a Pahlavi work, a compilation of the history of the kings and heroes of Iran from mythical times down to the reign of Khosrau II (590-628), but it also contains additional material continuing the story to the overthrow of the Sassanids by the Arabs in the middle of the 7th century. The first to undertake the versification of this chronicle of pre-Islamic and legendary Persia was Daqīqī-e Balkhī, a poet at the court of the Samanids, who came to a violent end after completing only 1000 verses. These verses, which deal with the rise of the prophet Zoroaster, were afterward incorporated by Ferdowsi, with due acknowledgements, in his own poem.


The work itself

The Shahnameh recounts the history of Iran, beginning with the creation of the world and the introduction of the arts of civilization (fire, cooking, metallurgy, law) to the Aryans and ends with the Arab conquest of Persia. The work is not precisely chronological, but there is a general movement through time. Some of the characters live for hundreds of years (as do some of the characters in the Bible), but most have normal life spans. There are many shāhs who come and go, as well as heroes and villains, who also come and go. The only lasting images are that of Greater Iran itself, and a succession of sunrises and sunsets, no two ever exactly alike, yet illustrative of the passage of time.

Father Time, a Saturn-like image, is a reminder of the tragedy of death and loss, yet the next sunrise comes, bringing with it hope of a new day. In the first cycle of creation, evil is external (the devil). In the second cycle, we see the beginnings of family hatred, bad behavior, and evil permeating human nature. Shāh Fereydūn's two eldest sons have greed and envy toward their innocent younger brother and, thinking their father favors him, they murder him. The murdered prince's son avenges the murder, and all are immersed in the cycle of murder and revenge, blood and more blood.

In the third cycle, we encounter a series of flawed shahs. There is a Phaedra-like story of Shāh Kay Kāūs, his wife Sūdāba, and her passion and rejection by her stepson, Sīyāvash.

In the next cycle, all the players are unsympathetic and selfish and evil. This epic on the whole is darker over all than most other epics, most of which have some sort of resolution and catharsis. This tone seems reflective of two things, perhaps: the conquest of the Persians by the Arabs, and a reflection of the last days of Persian Zoroastrianism. The old religion had been fraught with heresies, and somehow Zoroaster's optimistic view of man's ability to choose had become life denying and negative of this world. There is an enormous amount of bad luck and bad fate here.

It is only in the characterizations of the work's many figures, both male and female, that Zoroaster's original view of the human condition comes through. Zoroaster emphasized human free will. We find all of Ferdowsi's characters complex. Nobody is an archetype or a puppet. The best characters have bad flaws, and the worst have moments of humanity.


Shāhnāma and its impact on Modern Persian

After Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, a number of other works similar in nature surfaced over the centuries within the cultural sphere of the Persian language. Without exception, all such works were based in style and method on Ferdowsi's Shāhnāma, but none of them could quite achieve the same degree of fame and popularity.

Some experts believe the main reason the Modern Persian language today is more or less the same language as that of Ferdowsi's time over 1000 years ago is due to the very existence of works like Ferdowsi's Shahnameh which have had lasting and profound cultural and linguistic influence. In other words, the Shahnameh itself has become one of the main pillars of the modern Persian language. Studying Ferdowsi's masterpiece also became a requirement for achieving mastery of the Persian language by subsequent Persian poets, as evidenced by numerous references to the Shahnameh  in their works.

The Shahnameh is one of the few original national epics in the world. Many peoples of the world have their "own" national epics, but more often than not, the original theme of such national epics are borrowed from other, usually neighbouring, cultures. This is not the case with the Shahnameh, which is based on original Iranic stories.

The Shahnameh has 62 stories, 990 chapters, and contains 60,000 rhyming couplets, making it more than seven times the length of Homer's Iliad, and more than twelve times the length of the German Nibelungenlied. There have been a number of English translations, almost all abridged. In 1925, the brothers Arthur and Edmond Warner published the complete work in nine volumes, now out of print.

The mythical age

After an opening in praise of God and Wisdom, the Shahnameh gives an account of the creation of the world and of man as believed by Sasanians. This introduction is followed by the story of the first man, Keyumars, who also became the first king after a period of mountain dwelling. His grandson Hushang, son of Sīyāmak, accidentally discovered fire and established the Sadeh Feast in its honor. Stories of Tahmuras, Jamshid, Zahhāk, Kāwa, Fereydūn and his three sons Salm, Tur, and Iraj, and his grandson Manuchehr are explained in this section. This portion of the Shāhnāma is relatively short, amounting to some 2100 verses or four percent of the entire book, and it narrates the events with the simplicity, predictability, and swiftness of a historical work. Naturally, the strength and charm of Ferdowsi's poetry have done much to make the story of this period attractive and lively.


The heroic age

Almost two-thirds of the Shahnameh is devoted to the age of heroes, extending from Manuchehr's reign until the conquest of Alexander the Great (Sekandar). The main feature of this period is the major role played by the Sagzi (Saka) or Sistānī heroes who appear as the backbone of the Persian Empire. Garshāsp is briefly mentioned with his son Narimān, whose own son Sām acted as the leading paladin of Manuchehr while reigning in Sistān in his own right. His successors were his son Zāl and his son Rostam, the bravest of the brave, and then Farāmarz.

The feudal society in which they lived is admirably depicted in the Shahnameh with accuracy and lavishness. Indeed, the Masters' descriptions are so vivid and impressive that the reader feels himself participating in the events or closely viewing them. The tone is significantly epic and moving, while the language is extremely rich and varied.

Among the stories described in this section are the romance of Zal and Rudāba, the Seven Stages (or Labors) of Rostam, Rostam and Sohrāb, Sīyāvash and Sudāba, Rostam and Akvān Dīv, the romance of Bižan and Manīža, the wars with Afrāsīyāb, Daqiqi's account of the story of Goshtāsp and Arjāsp, and Rostam and Esfandyār.

It is noteworthy to mention that the legend of Rostam and Sohrāb is attested only in the Shahnameh and, as usual, begins with a lyrical and detailed prelude. Here Ferdowsi is in the zenith of his poetic power and has become a true master of storytelling. The thousand or so verses of this tragedy comprise one of the most moving tales of world literature.

The historical age

A brief mention of the Ashkānīyān dynasty follows the history of Alexander and precedes that of Ardashir I, the founder of Sassanid dynasty. After this, the Sassanid history is related with a good deal of accuracy. The fall of the Sassanids and the Arab conquest of Iran are narrated romantically, and in a most moving poetic language. Here, the reader could easily see Ferdowsi himself lamenting over this catastrophe, and over what he calls the arrival of "the army of darkness".

According to Ferdowsi, the final edition of the Shahnameh contained some sixty thousand distiches. But this is a round figure; most of the relatively reliable manuscripts have preserved a little over fifty thousand distiches. Nezami-e Aruzi reports that the final edition of the Shahnameh sent to the court of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni was prepared in seven volumes.

The Shāhnāma's message

Ferdowsi's style is that of a superb poet. His epic language is so rich, moving and lavish that it truly enchants the reader. Personal touches in the Shahnameh prevent it from falling into a dry reproduction of historical narratives. No history has been so eagerly read, so profoundly believed, and so ardently treasured in Iran, as has the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. If a history were ever to influence its readers, the Shāhnāma has done and still does so in the finest way. Where many "Tājīk" military and religious leaders failed, Ferdowsi succeeded.

Thus, to such an extent, the Master is righteously confident of his masterpiece's endurance and immortality that he versifies in the following exhilaratingly magical couplets:

بناهاى آباد گردد خراب
ز باران و از تابش آفتاب

پى افكندم از نظم كاخي بلند
كه از باد و باران نيابد گزند

نميرم از اين پس كه من زنده‌ام
كه تخم سخن را پراكنده‌ام

Banāhāye ābād gardad kharāb
ze bārānō az tābeshē āftāb

pay afkandam az nazm kākhī boland
ke az bādō bārān nayābad gazand

namiram az īn pas ke man zenda am
ke tokhme sokhan rā parākanda am

"Prosperous buildings are ruined
By rainfall and exposure to sunlight"

"Ergo, I established a towering palace of verse
That sees no harm of neither gusts nor rainfall"

"I shall not demise as I am alive, henceforth
For I have disseminated the seeds of discourse"

Ferdowsi did not expect his reader to pass over historical events indifferently, but asked him to think carefully, to see the grounds for the rise and fall of individuals and nations; and to learn from the past in order to improve the present, and to better shape the future.

The Shahnameh stresses that since the world is transient, and since everyone is merely a passerby, one is wise to avoid cruelty, lying, avarice, and other evils; instead one should strive for justice, truth, order, and other virtues which bring happiness, ease, and honor.

The singular message that the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi strives to convey is the idea that the history of Sassanid Empire was a complete and immutable whole: it started with Keyumars, the first man, and ended with his fiftieth scion and successor, Yazdegerd III, six thousand years of history of Iran. The task of Ferdowsi was to prevent this history from losing its connection with future Iranian generations.

Sources and references

English Sources

- Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Dick Davis trans. (2006), Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings ISBN 0-670-03485-1, modern English translation, current standard. See also

- Clinton, Jerome W. (translator) The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam: From the Persian National Epic, the Shahname of Abdol-Qasem Ferdowsi 2nd ed. (University of Washington Press, 1996) (abridged selection)

- Clinton, Jerome W. (translator) In the Dragon's Claws: The Story of Rostam and Esfandiyar from the Persian Book of Kings (Mage Publication, 1999)

- Davis, Dick, (translator) Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi

- Vol. 1, The Lion and the Throne, (Mage Publications, 1998)

- Vol. 2, Fathers and Sons, (Mage Publications, 1998)

- Vol. 3, Sunset of Empire, (Mage Publications, 2003)

- Davis, Dick, (translator), The Legend of Seyavash, (Penguin, 2001) (abridged)

- Levy, Reuben (translator), The Epic of the Kings: Shah-Nama, the National Epic of Persia, (Mazda Publications, 1996) (abridged prose version)

- Warner, Arthur and Edmond Warner, (translators) The Shahnama of Firdausi, 9 vols. (London: Keegan Paul, 1905-1925) (complete English verse translation)


Web Resources


- Shahnameh, English translation by Helen Zimmern.

- Shahnameh. Helen Zimmern translation.

- Shahnameh, Arthur and Edmond Warner translation.

- New Translation of 'Persian Book of Kings' - March, 2006 from NPR, and "The Epic of Iran" - April, 2006, from the New York Times. Also, on 14 May 2006, Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winning book critic Michael Dirda reviewed Dick Davis's translation "Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings" "This marvelous translation of an ancient Persian classic brings these stories alive for a new audience.". The illustrated three-volume slipcase edition of this translation is ISBN 0-934211-97-3

- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shahnameh