"I shall not die, these seeds I've sown will save my name " Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh, the “Book of Kings”

8 March 1010 in Tus, the Iranian poet Ferdowsi completed his epochal epic, the Shahnameh, the “Book of Kings”.

“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.“ (Ferdowsi’s conclusion of the Shahnameh)

The third feat of Rustam: Killing a dragon
(illustration from a 17th century copy of the Shahnameh)

is almost like Sid Meier’s “Civilization”. Starting in the mythical age under the reign of Keyumars, the tale relates how the use of fire, cooking, metal-working, the law and other essentials of an ordered life came into the world along the lines of the Avesta, the primary collection of Zoroastrianism, leading over to the identity-establishing heroic age and ends with the overthrow of the Sassanid Shahs of Iran by the Arab conquerors in 651 CE, already a heroic age all by itself 350 years later. Ferdowsi’s opus magnum runs to 60,000 verses grouped in 62 individual tales, thrice the length of Homer’s epics. Actually, the Shahnameh is the world’s longest epic created by a single identifiable author. No wonder it took the poet from Tus, a place in the north of Iran, halfway between the Caspian Sea and Herat in Afghanistan, more than 30 years to complete it. A task not exactly favoured by the Persian Samanid and the subsequent Ghaznavid rulers of the region back in Ferdowsi’s day, another Muslim dynasty of Turkic origin, who expressed a profound dislike of everything that reeked of Zoroastrianism. Ferdowsi’s poetic predecessor Daqiqi, another native of Tus might even have been an avowed Zoroastrian. His pre-Islamic history of Iran in verse was incorporated into the Shahnameh, allegedly after the murdered poet appeared in Ferdowsi’s dream.

A 15th century illustration of a battle scene from the Shahnameh

Naturally, the Shahnameh does not want to be a historical work. Rostam, its central heroic figure, dies at the age of about 500 under the auspices of something like an Indo-European proto-legend with similarities to the labours of Hercules and the end of both Cúchulainn and Hildebrand, a Germanic hero from the Migration Period. But beyond the identity-establishing value of epic heroes, the Shahnameh is the first comprehensive attempt to capture the past, along with the distinctive culture and, finally, the identity of Iran, in contrast to the Greek word “Persia”, originally a term denominating only the core region of the old Achaemenid Empire. Ferdowsi’s codification of Iran’s traditional enemy Turan, the land of the sons of the mythical King Fereydun, denominating the probably Turkic tribes beyond the Oxus, the river Amu Darya, was to be a foundation myth as well, for their historical successors migrating and invading into the Middle East, as soon as Farsi, Persian, became the language of the courts and of science and superseding Arabic from Baghdad to Bombay in this regard. 

An early modern illustration from the Shahnameh, showing the Simurgh, an ancient Iranian giant benevolent, mythical flying creature, carrying the infant Zal, rejected by his father because of his albinism, to his own nest to raise him. Zal later became the father of Rostam, greatest hero of the Shahnameh (ca 16th century)

The Shahnameh soon became the basis of cultural consciousness for everybody who associated himself even remotely with ancient Iran and connected places like Georgia, Afghanistan and Tajikistan on the grounds of a body of text written in a language that did not change significantly over the last 1,000 years. There is enough reason to presume that the linguistic constant is owed to the efficacy of the Shahnameh itself, its verses recited by storytellers in bazaars and caravanserais all across the Middle East for centuries and the work itself as school book central in the learning of the dominant court language, Persian. Studying Ferdowsi was seen as prerequisite for being part of the cultural and intellectual life. The West learned of its 62 tales as late as 1829, when a first abridged version was translated into English and published in British India. Russian, French and German translations soon followed and the epic has lost nothing of its radiance to this day.

And more about the Shahnameh on: