Shahnameh Ferdowsi: The world’s longest epic poem written by a single poet
The Shahnameh, Book of Kings, is an epic composed by the Iranian poet Hakim Abul-Qasim Mansur (later known as Ferdowsi Tusi), and completed around 1010 CE. Ferdowsi means ‘from paradise’, and is derived from the name Ferdous. Tusi means ‘from Tus’. In the poet’s case, the name Ferdowsi Tusi became a name and a title: The Tusi Poet from Paradise.
The epic chronicles the legends and histories of Iranian (Aryan) kings from primordial times to the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century CE, in three successive stages: the mythical, the heroic or legendary, and the historic.
Ferdowsi began the composition of the Shahnameh’s approximately 100,000 lines as 50,000* couplets /distiches (bayts) each consisting of two hemistichs (misra), 62 stories and 990 chapters, a work several times the length of Homer’s Iliad, in 977 CE, when eastern Iran was under Samanid rule. The Samanids had Tajik-Aryan affiliation and were sympathetic to preserving Aryan heritage.
It took Ferdowsi thirty-three years to complete his epic, by which time the rule of eastern Iran had passed to the Turkoman Ghaznavids. The Shahnameh Ferdowsi was written in classical Persian when the language was emerging from its Middle Persian Pahlavi roots, and at a time when Arabic was the favoured language of literature. As such, Ferdowsi is seen as a national Iranian hero who re-ignited pride in Iranian culture and literature, and who established the Persian language as a language of beauty and sophistication.
Ferdowsi wrote: “the Persian language is revived by this work.”
The earliest and perhaps most reliable account of Ferdowsi’s life comes from Nezami-ye Aruzi, a 12th-century poet who visited Tus in 1116 or 1117 to collect information about Ferdowsi’s life. According to Nezami-ye Aruzi, Ferdowsi Tusi was born into a family of landowners near the village of Tus in the Khorasan province of north-eastern Iran. Ferdowsi and his family were called Dehqan, also spelt Dehgan or Dehgān. Dehqan /Dehgan is now thought to mean landed, village settlers, urban and even farmer. However, Dehgan is also a name for the Parsiban, a group of Khorasani with Tajik roots.
Ferdowsi married at the age of 28 and eight years after his marriage – in order to provide a dowry for his daughter – Ferdowsi started writing the Shahnameh, a project on which he spent some thirty-three years of his life.
Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings
Ferdowsi’s text is centered on the reigns of fifty monarchs (including three women) and can be divided into a legendary and a quasi-historical section. It begins with the reign of Kayumars at the dawn of time and concludes with the last Sasanian king, Yazdigird (reigned 632–651), who was defeated by the Arabs. These fifty “chronicles” provide a framework for the dramatic deeds and heroic actions of a range of other personages who are often aided by—or at battle with—a host of fantastic creatures and treacherous villains. The poem draws on a wealth of sources, including local and dynastic histories, the Avesta (the sacred text of the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Iran), and myths and legends preserved in oral tradition.
“Our lives pass from us like the wind, and why
Should wise men grieve to know that they must die?
The Judas blossom fades, the lovely face
Of light is dimmed, and darkness takes its place.”
Over the centuries, foreign conquerors and local rulers alike were drawn to the Shahnaman (Shahnameh Ferdowsi) for its emphasis on justice, legitimacy, and especially the concept of divine glory. Known as Khavarnah in the Avesta and as farr in modern Persian, divine glory was considered the most important attribute of kingship, for it enabled rulers to govern and command obedience. Not surprisingly, commissioning lavishly illustrated copies of the Shahnama became almost a royal duty. By representing the kings and heroes of the epic according to the style of their own times, members of the ruling elite were able to cast themselves as the legitimate heirs of Iran’s monarchical tradition, which according to Ferdowsi dates back to the beginning of time.
While Ferdowsi was composing the Shahnameh, Khorasan came under the rule of Sultan Mahmoud, a Turkoman Sunni Muslim and consolidator of the Ghaznavid dynasty. Ferdowsi sought the patronage of the sultan and wrote verses in his praise. The sultan, on the advice from his ministers, gave Ferdowsi an amount far smaller than Ferdowsi had requested and one that Ferdowsi considered insulting. He had a falling out with the sultan and fled to Mazandaran seeking the protection and patronage of the court of the Sepahbad Shahreyar, who, it is said, had lineage from rulers during the Zoroastrian-Sassanian era. In Mazandaran, Ferdowsi wrote a hundred satirical verses about Sultan Mahmoud, verses purchased by his new patron and then expunged from the Shahnameh’s manuscript (to keep the peace perhaps). Nevertheless, the verses survived.
Ferdowsi returned to Tus to spend the closing years of his life forlorn. Notwithstanding the lack of royal patronage, he died proud and confident his work would make him immortal.
Language of Shahnameh Ferdowsi
Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh in Persian at a time when modern Persian was emerging from middle Persian Pahlavi admixed with a number of Arabic words. In his writing, Ferdowsi used authentic Persian while minimizing the use of Arabic words. In doing so, he established classical Persian as the language of great beauty and sophistication, a language that would supplant Arabic as the language of court literature in all Islamic regimes in the Indo-Iranian region.
“I turn to right and left, in all the earth
I see no signs of justice, sense or worth:
A man does evil deeds, and all his days
Are filled with luck and universal praise;
Another’s good in all he does – he dies
A wretched, broken man whom all despise.”
– Shahnameh Ferdowsi
If the Shahnameh transliterations this author possesses are correct, Ferdowsi even used the term Parsi and not Farsi to name the Persian language, Farsi being the Arabic version of Parsi.
The public for their part got to hear verses and legends in Chaikhanas or tea houses and at other gatherings frequented by travelling bards and storytellers – the famed Naqqal. A few erudite individuals would also recite the verses in private gatherings eliciting the approving bah-bah. Shahnameh Ferdowsi was and is also read aloud in the gymnasiums of the Mithraeum-like Zurkhanes – where pahlavans , the strong-men of Iran, train with their maces and clubs. During their meditative exercises that have spiritual overtones, a musician plays a drum while reciting Shahnameh verses that recount the heroic deeds of Rustam and other champions of Iran. The epic itself sits in a place of special reverence within the Zurkhane.
English Translations of Shahnameh Ferdowsi
Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings is the illustrated edition of the classic work “Shahnameh Ferdowsi”. This new prose translation of the national epic is illuminated with over 500 pages of illustrations and had been published in April 2013. The lush and intricate illustrations in this edition have been created by award-winning graphic artist and filmmaker Hamid Rahmanian, incorporating images from the pictorial tradition of the Persianate world from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The new translation and adaptation by Ahmad Sadri, retells the mythological and epic stories of the original poem in prose format. This Shahnameh is an extraordinary literary and artistic accomplishment.
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
– Shahnameh Ferdowsi