Shahnameh (Book of Kings) Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020)
The Shahnameh, also transliterated as Shahnama (Persian: شاهنامه pronounced [ʃɒːhnɒːˈme], “The Book of Kings”), is a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between c. 977 and 1010 CE and is the national epic of Greater Iran. Consisting of some 60,000 verses, the Shahnameh is the world’s longest epic poetry written by a single poet. It tells mainly the mythical and to some extent the historical past of the Persian Empire from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century. Today Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and the greater region influenced by the Persian culture (such as Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and Dagestan) celebrate this national epic.
The work is of central importance in Persian culture, regarded as a literary masterpiece, and definitive of the ethno-national cultural identity of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is also important to the contemporary adherents of Zoroastrianism, in that it traces the historical links between the beginnings of the religion with the death of the last Sassanid ruler of Persia during the Muslim conquest and an end to the Zoroastrian influence in Iran.
The assassination of Khosrau II in a Mughal Era manuscript in 1535
Kai Khorso enthroned holding the sword with which he will execute Afrasiyab for the murder of Siyavash
The Shahnameh provides a poetic account of the prehistory and history of Iran, beginning with the creation of the world and the introduction of the arts of civilization (fire, cooking, metallurgy, law), and ending with the Islamic 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 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 those of Greater Persia itself, and of a succession of sunrises and sunsets, no two ever exactly alike, yet illustrative of the passage of time.
The work is divided into three successive parts: the “mythical”, “heroic”, and “historical” ages.
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 feel 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 aPhaedra-like story of Shāh Kay Kāvus, his wife Sūdābeh, and her passion for and rejection by her stepson, Sīyāvash.
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. All of Ferdowsi’s characters are complex; none is an archetype or a puppet. The best characters have flaws, and the worst have moments of humanity.
Traditional historiography in Iran has claimed that Ferdowsi was grieved by the fall of the Sassanid Empire and its subsequent rule by “Arabs” and “Turks”. The Shahnameh, the argument goes, is largely his effort to preserve the memory of Persia’s golden days and transmit it to a new generation so that they could learn and try to build a better world. Although most scholars have contended that Ferdowsi’s main concern was the preservation of the pre-Islamic legacy of myth and history, a number of authors have formally challenged this view.  The mythical age
Scenes from the Shahnameh carved into reliefs at Ferdowsi’s mausoleum in Tus, Iran
This portion of the Shahnameh is relatively short, amounting to some 2,100 verses or four percent of the entire book, and it narrates events with the simplicity, predictability, and swiftness of a historical work.
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 the Sassanians. 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, Kawa or Kaveh, Fereydūn and his three sons Salm, Tur, and Iraj, and his grandson Manuchehrare related in this section.
The heroic age
Statue of Ferdowsi, beside Rostamand Rakhsh, who are struggling with a dragon, Delfan, Iran
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 (Eskandar). The main feature of this period is the major role played by the 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 Zal’s son Rostam, the bravest of the brave, and then Farāmarz.
Among the stories described in this section are the romance of Zal and Rudāba, the Seven Stages (or Labors) of Rostam, Rostam and Sohrab, Sīyāvash and Sudāba, Rostam and Akvān Dīv, the romance of Bijan and Manijeh, the wars with Afrāsīyāb, Daqiqi’s account of the story of Goshtāsp and Arjāsp, and Rostam and Esfandyār.
Courtiers of Bayasanghori playing chess
The historical age
A brief mention of the Arsacid dynasty follows the history of Alexander and precedes that of Ardashir I, founder of the Sassanid Empire. After this, Sassanid history is related with a good deal of accuracy. The fall of the Sassanids and the Arab conquest of Persia are narrated romantically.
Ferdowsi did not expect his readers to pass over historical events indifferently, but asked them 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. Ferdowsi stresses his belief 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, honor, truth, order, and other virtues.
The singular message that the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi strives to convey is the idea that the history of the 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 being lost to future Persian generations.
According to Jalal Khaleghi Mutlaq, the Shahnameh teaches a wide variety of moral virtues, like worship of one God; religious uprightness; patriotism; love of wife, family and children; and helping the poor. Influence on Persian language
Rustam kills the Turanian hero Alkus with his lance
After the 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 the Shahnameh, 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 the 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.
This is also due to the fact that Ferdowsi went to great lengths to avoid any words drawn from the Arabic language, words which had increasingly infiltrated the Persian language following the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century. Ferdowsi followed this path not only to preserve and purify the Persian language, but also as a stark political statement against the Arab conquest of Persia. This assertion has been called into question by Mohammed Moinfar, who has noted that there are numerous examples of Arabic words in the Shahnameh which are effectively synonyms for Persian words previously used in the text. This calls into question the idea of Ferdowsi’s deliberate eschewing of Arabic words.
The Shahnameh has 62 stories, 990 chapters, and some 60, 000 rhyming couplets, making it more than three times the length of Homer’s Iliad, and more than twelve times the length of the German Nibelungenlied. 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.
A battle scene from the Baysonghori Shahnameh
The Shirvanshah dynasty adopted many of their names from the Shahnameh. The relationship between Shirwanshah and his son, Manuchihr, is mentioned in chapter eight of Nizami’s Leili o Majnoon. Nizami advises the king’s son to read the Shahnameh and to remember the meaningful sayings of the wise. According to the Turkish historian Mehmet Fuat Köprülü:
Indeed, despite all claims to the contrary, there is no question that Persian influence was paramount among the Seljuks ofAnatolia. This is clearly revealed by the fact that the sultans who ascended the throne after Ghiyath al-Din Kai-Khusraw Iassumed titles taken from ancient Persian mythology, like Kai Khosrow, Kay Kāvus, and Kai Kobad; and that Ala’ al-Din Kai-Qubad I had some passages from the Shahname inscribed on the walls of Konya and Sivas. When we take into consideration domestic life in the Konya courts and the sincerity of the favor and attachment of the rulers to Persian poets and Persian literature, then this fact (i.e. the importance of Persian influence) is undeniable. Shah Ismail I was also deeply influenced by the Persian literary tradition of Iran, particularly by the Shahnameh, which probably explains the fact that he named all of his sons after Shahnameh characters. Dickson and Welch suggest that Ismail’s Shāhnāmaye Shāhī was intended as a present to the young Tahmāsp. After defeating Muhammad Shaybāni’s Uzbeks, Ismāil asked Hātefī, a famous poet from Jam (Khorasan), to write a Shahnameh-like epic about his victories and his newly established dynasty. Although the epic was left unfinished, it was an example of mathnawis in the heroic style of the Shahnameh written later on for the Safavid kings. The Shahnameh’s influence has extended beyond the Persian sphere. Professor Victoria Arakelova of Yerevan University states:
During the ten centuries passed after Firdausi composed his monumental work, heroic legends and stories of Shahnameh have remained the main source of the storytelling for the peoples of this region: Persians, Pashtuns, Kurds, Gurans, Talishis, Armenians, Georgians, North Caucasian peoples, etc. On Georgian identity
Georgian manuscript of Shahnameh written in the Georgian script
Jamshid Sh. Giunashvili remarks on the connection of Georgian culture with that of Shahnameh:
The names of many Šāh-nāma heroes, such as Rostom-i, Thehmine, Sam-i, or Zaal-i, are found in 11th- and 12th-century Georgian literature. They are indirect evidence for an Old Georgian translation of the Šāh-nāma that is no longer extant.
The Šāh-nāma was translated, not only to satisfy the literary and aesthetic needs of readers and listeners, but also to inspire the young with the spirit of heroism and Georgian patriotism. Georgian ideology, customs, and worldview often informed these translations because they were oriented toward Georgian poetic culture. Conversely, Georgians consider these translations works of their native literature. Georgian versions of the Šāh-nāma are quite popular, and the stories of Rostam and Sohrāb, or Bījan and Maniža became part of Georgian folklore.
On Turkic identity
Despite some popular belief, the Turanians of Shahnameh (whose sources are based on Avesta and Pahlavi texts) have no relationship with the ethno-linguistic group Turk today. The Turanians of Shahnameh are an Iranian people representing Iranian nomads of the Eurasian Steppes and have no relationship to the culture of Turks. Turan or Persian for the areas of Central Asia beyond the Oxus up to the 7th century (where the story of the Shahnameh ends) was generally an Iranian-speaking land.
According to Richard Frye, “The extent of influence of the Iranian epic is shown by the Turks who accepted it as their own ancient history as well as that of Iran… The Turks were so much influenced by this cycle of stories that in the eleventh century AD we find the Qarakhanid dynasty in Central Asia calling itself the ‘family of Afrasiyab’ and so it is known in the Islamic history. “[
Turks, as an ethno-linguistic group have been influenced by the Shahnameh since advent of Saljuqs. Toghrul III of Seljuqs is said to have recited the Shahnameh while swinging his mace in battle. According to Ibn Bibi, in 618/1221 the Saljuq of Rum Ala’ al-Din Kay-kubad decorated the walls of Konya and Sivas with verses from the Shahnameh. The Turks themselves connected their origin not with Turkish tribal history but with the Turan of Shahnameh. Specifically in India, through the Shahnameh, they felt themselves to be the last outpost tied to the civilized world by the thread of Iranianism.
A battle between the hosts of Iran and Turan during the reign of Kay Khusraw
Ferdowsi concludes the Shahnameh by writing:
I’ve reached the end of this great history
And all the land will talk of me:
I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save
My name and reputation from the grave,
And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim
When I have gone, my praises and my fame.
Another Translation of Ferdowsi’s poet by Reza Jamshidi Safa:
Much I have suffered in these thirty years,
I have revived the Ajam with my verse
I will not die then alive in the world,
For I have spread the seed of the word
Whoever has sense, path and faith,
After my death will send me praise.
This prediction of Ferdowsi has come true and many Persian literary figures, historians and biographers have praised him and the Shahnameh. The Shahnameh is considered by many to be the most important piece of work in Persian literature. Western writers have also praised the Shahnameh and Persian literature in general. Persian literature has been considered by such thinkers as Goethe as one of the four main bodies of world literature. Goethe was inspired by Persian literature, which moved him to write West-Eastern Divan. Goethe wrote:
When we turn our attention to a peaceful, civilized people, the Persians, we must—since it was actually their poetry that inspired this work—go back to the earliest period to be able to understand more recent times. It will always seem strange to the historians that no matter how many times a country has been conquered, subjugated and even destroyed by enemies, there is always a certain national core preserved in its character, and before you know it, there re-emerges a long-familiar native phenomenon. In this sense, it would be pleasant to learn about the most ancient Persians and quickly follow them up to the present day at an all the more free and steady pace.
Sargozasht-Nameh or biography of important poets and writers has long been a Persian tradition. Some of the biographies of Ferdowsi are now considered apocryphal; nevertheless this shows the important impact he had in the Persian world. Among the famous biographies are:
⦁ Chahar Maqaleh (“Four Articles”) by Nezami ‘Arudi-i Samarqandi
⦁ Tazkeret Al-Shu’ara (“The Biography of poets”) by Dowlat Shah-i Samarqandi
⦁ Baharestan (“Abode of Spring”) by ⦁ Jami
Lubab⦁ ⦁ ul-Albab by ⦁ Mohammad ‘⦁ Awfi
⦁ Natayej al-Afkar by Mowlana Muhammad Qudrat Allah
⦁ Arafat Al-‘Ashighin by Taqqi Al-Din ‘Awhadi Balyani
Bizhane receives an invitation through Manizheh’s nurse
Famous poets of Persia and the Persian tradition have praised and eulogized Ferdowsi. Many of them were heavily influenced by his writing and used his genre and stories to develop their own Persian epics, stories and poems:
Anvari remarked about the eloquence of the Shahnameh, “He was not just a Teacher and we his students. He was like a God and we are his slaves”.
Asadi⦁ ⦁ Tusi was born in the same city as Ferdowsi. His Garshaspnama was inspired by the Shahnameh as he attests in the introduction. He praises Ferdowsi in the introduction and considers Ferdowsi the greatest poet of his time.
Masud⦁ ⦁ Sa’ad⦁ ⦁ Salman showed the influence of the Shahnameh only 80 years after its composition by reciting its poems in the⦁ Ghaznavid court of India.
Othman ⦁ Mokhtari, another poet at the Ghaznavid court of India, remarked, “Alive is Rustam through the epic of Ferdowsi, else there would not be a trace of him in this World”.
Sanai believed that the foundation of poetry was really established by Ferdowsi.
Nizami⦁ ⦁ Ganjavi was influenced greatly by Ferdowsi and three of his five jewls had to do with pre-Islamic Persia. His Khosro-o-Shirin,Haft Peykar and Eskandar-nameh used the Shahnameh as a major source. Nizami remarks that Ferdowsi is “the wise sage of Tus” who beautified and decorated words like a new bride.
Khaghani, the court poet of the Shirvanshah, wrote of Ferdowsi:
“The candle of the wise in this darkness of sorrow,
The pure words of Ferdowsi of the Tusi are such,
His pure sense is an angelic birth,
Angelic born is anyone who’s like Ferdowsi. ”
Attar wrote about the poetry of Ferdowsi: “Open eyes and through the sweet poetry see the heavenly Eden of Ferdowsi.”
⦁ In a famous poem, Sa’adi wrote:
“How sweetly has conveyed the pure natured Ferdowsi,
May blessing be upon his pure resting place,
Do not harass the ant that’s dragging a seed,
because it has life and sweet life is dear. “ ⦁ In the Baharestan, ⦁ Jami wrote, “He came from Tus and his excellence, renown and perfection are well known. Yes, what need is there of the panegyrics of others to that man who has composed verses as those of the Shah-nameh?”
Many other poets, e.g. Hafez, Rumi and other mystical poets, have used imageries of Shahnameh heroes in their poetry.
Statue of Rostam in Ramsar, Iran
The Shahnameh’s impact on Persian historiography was immediate and some historians decorated their books with the verses of Shahnameh. Below is sample of ten important historians who have praised the Shahnameh and Ferdowsi:
⦁ The unknown writer of the Tarikh Sistan (“History of Sistan”) written around 1053
⦁ The unknown writer of Majmal al-Tawarikh wa Al-Qasas (c. 1126)
⦁ Mohammad Ali Ravandi, the writer of the Rahat al-Sodur wa Ayat al-Sorur (c. 1206)
Ibn⦁ ⦁ Bibi, the writer of the history book, Al-Awamir al-‘Alaiyah, written during the era of ⦁ ‘Ala ad-din ⦁ KayGhobad
⦁ Ibn Esfandyar, the writer of the Tarikh-e Tabarestan
Muhammad ⦁ Juwayni, the early historian of the Mongol era in the Tarikh-e Jahan Gushay (Ilkhanid era)
Hamdollah⦁ ⦁ Mostowfi⦁ ⦁ Qazwini also paid much attention to the Shahnameh and wrote the Zafarnamah based on the same style in the Ilkhanid era
Hafez-e ⦁ Abru (1430) in the Majma’ al-Tawarikh
Khwand⦁ Mir in the Habab al-Siyar (c. 1523) praised Ferdowsi and gave an extensive biography on Ferdowsi
⦁ The Arab historian Ibn Athir remarks in his book, ⦁ Al-⦁ Kamil, that, “If we name it the Quran of ‘Ajam, we have not said something in vain. If a poet writes poetry and the poems have many verses, or if someone writes many compositions, it will always be the case that some of their writings might not be excellent. But in the case of Shahnameh, despite having more than 40 thousand couplets, all its verses are excellent. ”
An image illustrating the parable of the ship of faith from the Houghton Shahnameh (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
An illustration from the Shahnameh
Scholarly editions have been prepared of the Shahnameh. An early edition was prepared in 1829 in India by T. Macan. It was based on a comparison of 17 manuscript copies. Between 1838 and 1878, an edition appeared in Paris by French scholar J. Mohl, which was based on a comparison of 30 manuscripts. Both editions lacked critical apparatuses and were based on secondary manuscripts dated after the 15th century; much later than the original work. Between 1877 and 1884, the German scholar J. A. Vullers prepared a synthesized text of the Macan and Mohl editions, but only three of its expected nine volumes were published. The Vullers edition was later completed in Tehran by the Iranian scholars S. Nafisi, Iqbal, and M. Minowi for the millennial jubilee of Ferdowsi, held between 1934 and 1936.
The first modern critical edition of the Shahnameh was prepared by a Russian team led by E. E. Bertel, using the oldest known manuscripts at the time, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, with heavy reliance on the 1276 manuscript from the British Museumand the 1333 Leningrad manuscript, the latter of which has now been considered a secondary manuscript. In addition, two other manuscripts used in this edition have been so demoted. It was published in Moscow by the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in nine volumes between 1960 and 1971.
For many years, the Moscow edition was the standard text. In 1977, an early 1217 manuscript was rediscovered in Florence. The 1217 Florence manuscript is one of the earliest known copies of the Shahnameh, predating the Moghul invasion and the following destruction of important libraries and manuscript collections. Using it as the chief text, Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh began the preparation of a new critical edition in 1990. The number of manuscripts that were consulted during the preparation of Khaleghi-Motlagh edition goes beyond anything attempted by the Moscow team. The critical apparatus is extensive and a large number of variants for many parts of the poem were recorded. The last volume was published in 2008, bringing the eight-volume enterprise to a completion. According to Dick Davis, professor of Persian at Ohio State University, it is “by far the best edition of the Shahnameh available, and it is surely likely to remain such for a very long time”.
Statue of Esfandiyār in Ramsar, Iran
There have been a number of English translations, almost all abridged. James Atkinson of the East India Company’s medical service undertook a translation into English in his 1832 publication for the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland, now part of the Royal Asiatic Society. Between 1905 and 1925, the brothers Arthur and Edmond Warner published a translation of the complete work in nine volumes, now out of print. There are also modern incomplete translations of the Shahnameh: Reuben Levy’s 1967 prose version (later revised by Amin Banani), and another by Dick Davis in a mixture of poetry and prose which appeared in 2006.
The Parsis, Zoroastrians, whose ancestors had migrated to India in the 8th or 10th century so they could continue practise of their religion in peace, have also kept the Shahnameh traditions alive. Dr. Bahman Sohrabji Surti, assisted by Marzban Giara, published between 1986 and 1988 the first detailed and complete translation of the Shahnameh from the original Persian verse into English prose, in seven volumes.
Dastur Faramroz Kutar and his brother Ervad Mahiyar Kutar translated the Shahnameh into Gujarati verse and prose and published 10 volumes between 1914 and 1918.
A Spanish translation has been published in 2 volumes by the Islamic Research Institute of the Tehran Branch of McGill University.
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