The Shahnameh or Shah-nama (“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 Iran (Persia) and the Persian-speaking world. Consisting of some 50,000 verses, the Shahnameh 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, Persian speakers of the neighboring nations such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and the greater region influenced by the Persian culture celebrate this national epic.
The work is of central importance in Persian culture, regarded as a literary masterpiece, and definitive of ethno-national cultural identity of Iran. 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.
Ferdowsi started writing the Shahnameh in 977 A.D and completed it on 8 March 1010.The Shahnameh is a monument of poetry and historiography, being mainly the poetical recast of what Ferdowsi, his contemporaries, and his predecessors regarded as the account of Iran’s ancient history. Many such accounts already existed in prose, an example being the Shahnameh of Abu-Mansur Daqiqi. A small portion of Ferdowsi’s work, in passages scattered throughout the Shahnameh, is entirely of his own conception.
The Shahnameh is an epic poem of over 50,000 couplets, written in early Modern Persian. It is based mainly on a prose work of the same name compiled in Ferdowsi’s earlier life in his native Tus. This prose Shahnameh was in turn and for the most part the translation of a Pahlavi (Middle Persian) work, known as the Xvatāynamāk (“Book of Kings”), a late Sassanid compilation of the history of the kings and heroes of Persia from mythical times down to the reign of Khosrau II (590–628). The xvatāynamāk contained historical information on the later Sassanid period, but it does not appear to have drawn on any historical sources for the earlier Sassanid period (3rd to 4th centuries). Ferdowsi added 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 the Pahlavi chronicle was Abu-Mansur Daqiqi, a contemporary of Ferdowsi, poet at the court of the Samanids, who came to a violent end after completing only 1,000 verses. These verses, which deal with the rise of the prophet Zoroaster, were afterward incorporated by Ferdowsi, with acknowledgment, in his own poem. The style of the Shahnameh shows characteristics of both written and oral literature. Some[who?] claim that Ferdowsi also used Zoroastrian nasks, such as the now-lost Chihrdad as sources as well.
Many other Pahlavi sources were used in composing the epic, prominent being the Kārnāmag-ī Ardaxšīr-ī Pābagān, which was originally written during the late Sassanid era and gave accounts of how Ardashir I came to power which, because of its historical proximity, is thought to be highly accurate. Besides, the text is written in the late Middle Persian, which was the immediate ancestor of Modern Persian. Hence, a great portion of the historical chronicles given in Shahnameh are based on this epic and there are in fact various phrases and words which can be matched between these two sources according to Zabihollah Safa.
According to one account of the sources, a Persian named Dehqan in the court of King Anushehrawan Dadgar had composed a voluminous book in prose form, known as Khoday Nameh. After the fall of the Iranian Empire, Khoday Nameh came into the possession of King Yaqub Lais and then the Samani king Nuh ordered the poet Daqiqi to complete it, but Daqiqi was killed by his slave. Ferdowsi obtained the book through a friend.
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 that of Greater Persia itself, and 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 a Phaedra-like story of Shāh Kay Kāvus, his wife Sūdābeh, 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 Sassanid Iran, and a reflection on the last days of Persian Zoroastrianism.
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.[clarification needed] The best characters have flaws, and the worst have moments of humanity.
Nationalist 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.Though the preservation of the pre-Islamic mythistorical legacy seems to be among Ferdowsi’s main concerns, however a number of authors have formally challenged these views.
The mythical age
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 Manuchehr are related in this section.
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 (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.
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.[original research?] 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[original research?] 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
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 distichs. But this is a round figure; most of the relatively reliable manuscripts have preserved a little over fifty thousand distichs. 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 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 Fuad Koprulu:
Indeed, despite all claims to the contrary, there is no question that Persian influence was paramount among the Seljuks of Anatolia. This is clearly revealed by the fact that the sultans who ascended the throne after Ghiyath al-Din Kai-Khusraw I assumed 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 ( 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, Afghans, Kurds, Gurans, Talishis, Armenians, Georgians, North Caucasian peoples, etc.
On Georgian identity
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-liguistic 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.
On Mughal identity
The Mughal Empire was ruled by Mughal Emperors who were direct descendants of Genghis Khan and Timur; they also claimed amalgam with the culture of Turan and directly patronized the Shahnameh the masterpiece of Firdowsi, which particularly inspired servicemen in the Mughal Army. Manuscripts of the Shahnameh were composed during the reign of Babur, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Muhammad Shah.
The first Mughal Emperor Babur himself quoted verses from the Shahnameh prior to the Battle of Khanwa. Among the most notable Mughal noblemen inspired by the Shahnameh was the Nawab of Bengal, Alivardi Khan.
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.