Introduction to Shahnameh
Persian culture and literature have a strong and proud history. Over the past centuries, famous poets and orators have lived in Persia and have left valuable works of ancient Persian literature. Shahnameh (Book of Kings) by Abul-Qasem Ferdowsi Tusi is one of the largest and most well-known epic poems in the world, containing about 60,000 verses. The composition and editing of it is the result of thirty years of the tireless effort of this great Persian orator that was over in the early 11th century AD.
Why is it called A Masterpiece of Persia
Shahnameh is the story of the heroes of ancient Persia and takes the reader back to centuries and millennia in old eras. The Shahnameh (Book of Kings) is not just a literary masterwork, but a book that has represented Persia and Persians for centuries and guarded the Persian language. The Shahnameh (Book of Kings) is the true custodian of national traditions and the identity of the Persian people. Perhaps, without such great work, numerous elements of Persian ancestral culture would have been destroyed in the storm of historical events, and no trace of them would have survived.
Main Subject of Shahnameh
The work is one of the tallest poems ever written by a single writer. The Shahnama Epic is not just about a specific event or imaginary journey, a love story, or a confrontation between two rulers, as we see in most national epics. The work is full of all these cases, but in fact, its main subject is the nature and spirit of Persia. Although ancient Persia is the main subject of the Book of Kings, its message goes beyond a specific time frame; in many cases seems to have been written for all of humanity.
How has it survived the Persian Language
One of the darkest periods in Persia’s history began after the conquest of Persia by the Arabs and the fall of the Sassanid Empire in the seventh century AD. During the domination of foreign occupiers over the country, the followers of Zoroastrian monotheism, the native religion of Persia, were persecuted; Libraries were burned, and the Persian language was severely banned at a time known as “two centuries of silence” by Persian people. Islam emerged as a new religion during this period, and Arabic became the language of the new rulers of Persia, threatened the Persian language, as well as the Zoroastrian religion and the Persian indigenous culture. During the rule of the Samanids, the people of this land witnessed the revival of Persian culture. The Samanids are the name of a dynasty ruled from 819 to 1005 AD and was based in Bukhara, a city in present-day Uzbekistan.
Poets like Rudaki were among the first poets to write in modern Persian after the “two centuries of silence.” The language was an evolved form of Middle Persian that was common during the Sassanid period. Ferdowsi wrote his masterpiece in Persian. Shahnameh is a relic of the intellectual and cultural superiority century of Persia. The era of rationalism and free-thinking, the era of cultivating al-Razi, Ibn Sina, and al-Biruni.
Reviving Heroes of Persia
The poetic of Shahnama (Book of Kings) and its fame in Persia caused a widespread change in the famous epic poetic creation. Although Shahnameh was the result of the great national uprising of the Persians in reviving national honours, it created a new growth in the epic poetic stories. Actually, Ferdowsi became the leader of a movement with the help of which the forgotten heroes and national greats of Persia returned and gained excellent fame. But Ferdowsi did not revive all the heroes of Persia since the poetic of all national stories required much more time than that could be done by one person.
The Poet Desire
The influence of the Book of Kings is not limited to its literary and poetic aspects; Before being a collection of poetic stories, it is a genealogy that is rooted bit by bit in the depths of the collective aspirations of the ancient nation. A nation that has praised goodness and enlightenment in all historical periods and has fought evil and darkness. Ferdowsi wanted to remind people what they were and what happened now. He was able to bring the Persian language back to the people with his extraordinary poetics, however, the caliph of the time was angry with some of his poems. Ferdowsi tried hard to remind the Persian people of their true identity, which was somewhat successful.
Shahnameh in Other Countries in Ancient Times
Shahnameh is not only the tallest and most valuable collection of poetry left from the Samanid and Ghaznavid eras but also the most valuable document of the greatness of the Persian language, the most obvious manifestation of the glory and prosperity of ancient Persian culture and civilization, and the treasury of Persian literature. Ferdowsi had a gentle character, he spoke far from sarcasm, slander, lies, and flattery, and he refrained from using immoral words as much as he could. Shahnameh (Book of Kings) has become a popular book of various Persian and foreign rulers since its composition was completed. The Ottoman Turks and the Mongols of India admired the Shahnameh and valued it in several countries, from Turkey and Georgia in the west to Tajikistan and India in the east.
Shahnameh beyond the borders
Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh has been considered all over the world. The book has had an extraordinary influence on the direction of Persian culture as well as glorious reflections in world literature so that great poets such as Goethe and Victor Hugo have praised it. The first European to speak of Ferdowsi and the Book of Kings was Sir William Jones, an English man who translated parts of the Shahnameh in his books. As he did not know Ferdowsi well, he thought Shahnameh belonged to several poets. From 1838 to 1878, one of the most significant translations of the Shahnameh into French was made by Jules Mel.
Master’s idea about Ferdowsi
Speaking about the greatness of Ferdowsi and his Shahnameh, Bertels, a Russian orientalist, said at the Ferdowsi Millennium Ceremony: “As long as there is the Persian meaning in the world, the glorious name of the great poet who dedicated all his heartfelt love to his homeland will remain forever; Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh with the blood of his heart, and at this price, he is honoured and respected by the Persian nation.”
Ernest Renan, a French lexicographer, philosopher, and historian, states in his book “Historical Studies and Travels, quoting from Persian literature as world literature”: “Ferdowsi is the embodiment of the originality of the Persian race, he believes in honour and spirituality. He is a philanthropist and thinks humanely. He also sincerely loves goodness and considers the progress of civilization as the true mission and goal of mankind. This hero is not alien to us, he is one of us. Ferdowsi, Hafez, and Khayyam are the three prominent representatives of the amazing miracle called Persian literature. Its existence is the highest proof of the survival and stability of the genius of the Aryan race in the saddest and most bitter adventures of Asian history.”
Impacts of such an Epic on World Literature
The influence of the poetic is also clearly seen in some contemporary literary and artistic works. Among these works, we can mention the book My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and the collection of photographs of The Book of Kings by Shirin Neshat (a collection of portraiture).
Other versions of Shahnameh
The source of Shahnameh stories, the first book of Persian prose, was a prose Shahnameh which was presented as an independent work. This book is known as “Shahnameh of Abu-Mansuri” because it was prepared by Abu Mansur Tusi’s order and capital. It is also considered a part of the history of Persia. The original version of the book has been lost and only its introduction, which is about fifteen pages, is available in some manuscripts of Shahnameh. In addition, another prose Shahnameh called “Shahnameh of Abol-Moayed Balkhi” was written before the Shahnameh of Abu-Mansuri, but it has completely disappeared.
Deeper in Epic Stories
Ferdowsi used Arabic words at appropriate times so that the Persian people could easily read and understand his poetry. The number of Arabic words in Shahnameh (Book of Kings) is 865. In dealing with the stories of Shahnameh and other mythological stories, the appearances of the stories alone cannot be satisfied. The language of myths devoids mystery and symbolism, and ignoring the symbolic meanings of myths reduces their glory and richness to ordinary tales. The Shahnameh narrates the battle of good and evil, and the heroes are the warriors of the constant struggle. The battle of Kaveh and the cruel Zahhak, Manouchehr’s hatred of Salm and Tur, and Siyavash’s death to Soudabeh’s conspiracy all narrate this battle. Ferdowsi’s thought and the ones that dominates the Shahnameh are always defenders of goodness against oppression and destruction.
Iran is the land of the humbles, where is constantly persecuted by its neighbors. The majesty and glory of Iran expose it to various calamities, therefore, its heroes rise with all their might to defend the country and the deep human values of its people to death. Some of the heroes in Book of Kings are highlight examples of individuals who have spent their whole lives serving their fellow human beings; Heroes such as Fereydun, Siavash, Kay Khosrow, Rostam, Goudarz, and Tous are in this category. Other characters, such as Zahhak, Salm, and Tur, are full of evil, malice, and corruption. They are evil agents and intend to destroy and corrupt the world affairs.
The heroes of Shahnameh are always at war with death, not in the sense of turning away from dying, but in the face of great dangers, they go to battle to the death and, in fact, steal their life from the death’s arms. Most of the stories in Shahnameh remind the reader of the world’s discredit and call him to wake up and learn from history. But at the same time, when it comes to romantic speech, Ferdowsi cultivates the subject simply and magnificently. The world of Shahnameh is full of endeavor, happiness, love of life, and the productivity of the world’s gifts. On the day of danger and when the enemy invaded, the kings and warriors were completely overwhelmed with work and effort, in the midst of which, whenever they were free from battle, they gathered together, rejoiced to prepare their bodies and souls for tomorrow’s war.
Impacts of Shahnameh on Persian National Identity
The content of Shahnameh with its distinctive features has caused the national identity to continue until today:
Throughout the Shahnameh, there is no period in which Persia is without a ruler; not even a foreign ruler like Alexander has been removed from history but has emerged in a Persian identity.
From the beginning of Shahnameh to the time of Fereydun, Persian emperors rule the whole world, and from Iraj onwards, Persia is the centre of events until the end of epic. Although the borders of Persia change in different periods; For example, at one day Armenia was part of Persia, and at another time it was not.
The integrity of narrations
In Shahnameh, unlike other Persian and Arabic sources, there are uniform narrations about the history of Persia, which means that the reader is never faced with different narrations of a single event.
The Story Periods in Shahnameh
Shahnameh is divided into three mythological, Pahlavi, and historical periods:
In this covenant, kings such as Keyumars, Hushang, Tahmourth, and Jamshid are mentioned. The period begins with the creation of the world and the reign of Keyumars, the first king of Persia (and the first man on earth), telling stories such as the story of Jamshid, the legendary king, his fall as well as the story of Zahhak, a foreigner who was buried alive by Kaveh, the blacksmith. Persian civilization is evolving at this time; The discovery of fire, the separation of iron from stone, spinning and weaving, and agriculture. In this era, wars are often civil wars, and fighting demons and suppressing them has been the biggest problem of the age.
The period of heroism or epic begins with the reign of Fereydun. Iraj, Manuchehr, Nozar, Garshasb ascend to the throne, respectively. Wars begin between Persia and Turan. Kiani kingdoms such as Kay Kawad, Kay Kavus, Kay Khosrow, Lohrasb, and Goshtasb come to power. During this period, heroes such as Zal, Rustam, Goudarz, Tous, Bijan, Sohrab appear.
The most famous character of Shahnameh and also among Persians is Rustam. He is the brave and unique hero of the book, who fights with demons, saves kings from challenging situations, and, like Hercules, passes through Haft Khan (the Seven Labours in the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) are called Haft Khan). He also confuses and kills his son with another person in one of the most terrifying and saddening stories of Shahnameh. Other characters in Shahnameh include Siyavash, whose stepmother Sudabeh accused him of rape. Siyavash passed the test of innocence through a proud fire but was eventually killed by the Turanians. The legendary part of Shahnameh ends with the death of Rostam.
This period begins with the advent of Bahman, and after him, Homay, then Darab, and Dara (Darab’s son) come to the kingdom. At this time, the Great. Alexander invaded Persia, killed Dara (Darius III), and ascended the throne in his place. After Alexander, the Parthian period is described in a few verses, then, the Sassanids came to power, and their rule ended with the Muslim invasion of Persia in the seventh century AD.
Although the heroes of Shahnameh are mostly Zoroastrian Aryans and the stories take place in ancient times, in the distant past, the book has transcended religious, geographical, and temporal boundaries. In the Ferdowsi era, Persia was involved in war and colonization, and the Shahnameh was a message to people to inspire a spirit of resilience against these dangers. This message is bold throughout Book of Kings from the beginning to the end.
Patriotism in Shahnameh is far from racism, ignorant prejudices, and unwarranted hate of any foreigner. Ferdowsi’s patriotism is a wise feeling combined with moderation, wisdom, and human emotion.
Patriotism or Racism
How can one find a sign of racism in the patriotic message of Shahnameh, when we see that Kay Khosrow, the ideal ruler of the book, on the one hand, has a Turanian race who were one of the enemies of the Persians in the Shahnameh. His mother Farangis is the daughter of Afrasiab ( the irreconcilable enemy of Persia)!
Rustam’s mother, the world champion of Persia, is the daughter of infernal Mehrab Kaboli, who is descended from Zahhak Tazi, the dirtiest enemy of the Persian people, and finally dies in the well by the trick of the same Mehrab. Love for Persia in Shahnameh means love for the culture of the Persian people, peace, prosperity of this land, freedom, and welfare of the people, and their enjoyment of justice. The haters of the invaders are not because of their lineage, but because they have invaded the land unjustly and unintentionally. Their alliance to Persian culture led to being deprived of the people’s love and support, so they are forced to rule by bloodshed, tyranny, and destruction. Revenge on the aggressor means hatred of oppression. The hatred of Zahhak and Afrasiab is contempt of their tyranny, and the hatred of the Persians is the praise of the justice’s administration. Ferdowsi does not consider praiseworthy traits unique to Persian people. Wherever he sees art and virtue in the enemies of Persia, he does not stop expressing it.
The Purpose of Persian Battles in Shahnameh
Although Ferdowsi is a storyteller of wars, and we read the best descriptions of battlefields and warriors’ art in Shahnameh, he abominates war and bloodshed, considers it inevitable, the verdict of fate, and also condemns war in many verses. The battles of the Persians in the Shahnameh are never intending to open up a country and occupy the land of others, or forcing their religion to anyone, or seizing the spoils of war; Shahnameh is not the epic of Alexander, Genghis, and Timur who invaded Persia from east and west. Shahnameh is the epic of the Persian people in defense of national existence and eternal stability against demons. Besides, the vengeance of the oppressed killed is also one of the war causes, as the combats of Fereydun and Manuchehr with Salm and Tur were for Iraj, the battles of Rostam and Kay Khosrow were for Siavash. As long as we can have peace, we should not begin a war, and as long as the enemy has not attacked, we should not rush. We should also not hurt the enemy who surrendered. When winning over the captives, kindness, keeping women and children safe, avoiding destroying cities, and honouring the slain enemies are the rites of war.
Feelings & Thoughts of great Ferdowsi
Ferdowsi’s existence is full of gentle, noble human emotions and feelings. The pain of all the afflicted weighs on his heart heavily; Orphans, homeless prisoners, respectable poor debtors, indigent elders who hide their poverty from others. He is saddened by his favourite heroes’ griefs, and when fate forces them to commit undesirable works, he became angry and said: “The tender heart come to anger with Rustam.” He considers loving children to be a natural duty of the parents, and he is disappointed that Sam discards the newborn Zal because of his hair whiteness. Throughout the Shahnameh, obedience to the king is a tradition, but this docility is not absolute and unconditional. Like his fathers, Kay Kawad and Kay Khosrow, Rostam supported the rulers of justice. According to Ferdowsi, absolute power, which is better expressed than anyone else in the language of Kay Khosrow, leads to oppression and destruction. Kay Khosrow is the ideal king of Ferdowsi; he has all the conditions for a genuine ruler: the glory of rule, pure race, art and wisdom (knowing good from evil).
Coffee House painting & Shahnameh
Shahnameh reading in Islamic Persia is an eternal tradition that connects individuals with their roots and origins. Traces of epic themes of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh can be found in the Coffee House paintings. Especially in the scenes where Rustam and Sohrab battle with each other, or where Rostam and Ashkbous go to fight. One of the Persian painting methods is Coffee House painting; The oil painting on fabric possesses religious, festive, and martial themes. The roots of such art are in the tradition of storytelling, Taziyeh or Ta’zieh reading (condolence or expression of grief), and mourning in Persia. If you want to go back and trace its origin, you will reach coffee houses, tea houses, and oral stories, and the common narrations recited at ceremonies.
Homer and Ferdowsi
Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are among the most impressive and great epic works of the world nations. Persian mythology belongs to the family of Aryan mythology, and this is one of the Indo-European myths. The Greeks are also a branch of the Indians and Europeans who migrated to the West. The similarities between the two works are cultural and social integration’s outcome between Persians and Greeks; Supernatural characters and individuals such as kings of heroes, demons, sorcerers, birds, trees, plants, and objects are among the similarities. The fusion of the myths of different nations and their influence on each other has been influential here either.
In his epics, Homer describes all the spiritual and cultural characteristics of the Greek people as one of the leading tribes of the time. The Shahnameh also has similar content, as an enlightener of the cultural and ethnic characteristics of the Persians, who were one of the civilized and prominent tribes of that time.
- In both the Shahnameh and the Iliad there is a kind of defensive war. In the Iliad, the Greeks are fighting for the insult they have been subjected; The story is that Paris is the prince of Troy (a city in Asia) deceive and kidnap the wife of one of the kings of Greece named Helen. However, the essence of the matter is different, and this has occurred with the woman’s consent. In any case, the Greeks consider it an insult, so they mobilize and attack the city of Troy in Asia Minor to save Helen by returning her, under the leadership of Agamemnon, who can be called the most prominent local king of Greece. The attack is from the Greeks, but the war takes on a defensive title, the defense of honour – which we will not go into in detail. In short, in a ten-year war, the Trojans were finally defeated, and the Greeks conquered the city.In the Shahnameh, the Iran-Turan war is over Siyavash’s blood, which means that the Persian prince, Siavash took refuge in Afrasiab’s court at the invitation of the Turanians, and he was killed shortly after by Afrasiab. It is natural for Persia to think of revenge against the Turanians and to invade their land. Therefore, the Iran-Turan war also takes on a defensive aspect. The first similarity in these two epics is that one ethnic group is somehow insulted by the other ethnic group, so the idea of revenge is carried out by campaigning and hatred, and this is where the war begins.
- Kleos, the Greek hero, sings heroic poems in his tent to console or encourage himself, and Esfandiyar sings songs related to Seven Labours on his way to Sistan. In a similar situation, Bahram Chobin tells the story of Rostam and Esfandiyar.
- In both works, sleep dreams play a significant role. In the Iliad, dream of Agamemnon, and in the Shahnama, dreams of Afrasiab or the Siyavash’s. Forecast, which has an extensive place among the Greeks, also becomes divination in the Shahnameh (the story of Bahram Chobin).
- In the Iliad, the daughter of Zeus, Pallas Athena, who is one of the goddesses, is the link between the gods and the Greeks, and in the Shahnameh, Soroush establishes these relations.
- The difference between champion Achilles and Agamemnon, who is the king, is reminiscent of the struggle and dispute between Pahlavan (champion) Rustam and Kavus (in the story of Rostam and Sohrab).
- In both epics, there is an elder whose opinion is respected by the king and the country leaders.
- In the Shahnama, the king has a divine figure, and in the Iliad, Agamemnon has the approval of Zeus marked with a royal scepter.
- In the Iliad, there is a superhero, Achilles and is killed in his youth, the exact equivalent of him in Shahnameh is Esfandiyar, and he also dies young.
- Kavus and Agamemnon are somewhat similar in terms of malice and stubbornness, and both see the result of their malice and pride. Agamemnon’s wife killed him on his return from Troy. Kavus receives the reward of his faults with the death of his son Siyavash and then his wife, Sudabeh.
- Hector’s reproaches to his brother Paris are somewhat reminiscent of what Rostam says to Rohham.
- The appointment for a duel, which is made in the Iliad between Paris and Menelaus, is reminiscent of the duel between “Rostam and Esfandiyar”, and “Rostam and Sohrab.”
- There is a scene in the Iliad in which Priam, the last king of Troy, asks Helen about the character of the Greek warriors and generals, this is just like the questions of landing from Takhvar (the story of landing) and Sohrab from Hajir (the story of Rostam and Sohrab).
- The shooting style in the fourth hymn of the Iliad is reminiscent of Rostam shooting Ashkbous.
- In Shahnama, feasts and battles are together; the hero sits at feasts whenever he has the opportunity and sometimes before the start of a fierce war. Like Sohrab and Esfandiyar before the war with Rostam, which we also witness in the Iliad.
- The applause of the warriors by Agamemnon (the fourth hymn) is reminiscent of Rustam’s encouragement from his troops in the war against the Khaqan of China, also Bahram Chobin in the battle against the Turks.
- Pride recitation in the fifth hymn or the seventh hymn (Ajax and Hector arrogance) recalls the arrogance of Rustam and Esfandiyar or Rostam and Ashkbous.
- There are similarities in weapons. Rostam wears a garment (the cover that Rostam wore during the wars, made of leopard skin) as armor. Agamemnon has the skin of a red lion that he wears during the war. Hercules, the mythical hero of Greece, also throws back the skin of a lion, and Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, wears tiger skin.
- Andromache, Hector’s wife, destroyed all her personal property after her husband’s death. Jarireh does the same after Farud was killed.
- The mournful lament of Hector on his death is reminiscent of the grief of some Persian women on the loss of their loved ones; Like Tahmineh on Sohrab’s death, and Esfandiyar’s sisters on his death.
- The conversation between Andromache and Hector before the hero goes to war, is reminiscent of the Farangis and Siavash’s conversation before the prince was killed.
- Rostam in the Shahnameh, who is a symbol of the Persian epic, and Achilles in the Greek epics, both were superficial and lived a long life.
The protagonist of Homer’s Iliad is a man named Achilles in Greek, who defeats the Trojan army, opens and conquers the city. Such a great victory would not have happened to the Greeks if it was not for Achilles’ intervention.
Rostam, the first hero of the Shahnama, unlike Achilles, has a longer life and has been given a legendary life of seven hundred years. His main goal in life is to preserve his name, gain honour, and pay attention to the quality of life, not its quantity. Rostam’s life in Shahnameh is extraordinary, and he is a representative of the Persian ethnicity. Rustam is not only considered heroic and strong, but also he has the characteristic that all the knots of Persian life have been untied by him, protecting the name, national and ethnic dignity of Persians has entrusted to him. Whenever the national honour of the Persians is endangered, he intervenes and saves it, and he succeeds in all cases.