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Ferdowsi and Shah-Nameh

Ferdowsi is the author of Shah-Nameh, the epic history of the Iranian past, which has often been called the “Iliad of the East”. Ferdowsi was born in Tus within Khorasan. He completed his great poem in 1010 and presented it to Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavid. Ferdowsi is reported to have secured the Sultan's acceptance of the poem through the good of offices of Mahmud's minister, Ahmad ibn Hasan Meimandi.

Unfortunately, Mahmud disgraced his minister soon afterwards and, due to his connection with Meimandi, disgraced the poet as well. Having consulted his new favorites, Mahmud rewarded Ferdowsi with the money, which, bitterly disappointed the poet.

Ferdowsi left Mahmud’s court first for Herat and then for Mazandaran. There the poet composed a satire on Mahmud, which he wanted to insert in the preface of Shah-Nameh. Unfortunately, Ferdowsi died just as Sultan Mahmud had determined to make amends for his poor treatment of the poet. The earliest date given for Ferdowsi’s death is 1020 and the latest 1026. Therefore, it is certain that he lived to be more than 80 years old.

Shah-Nameh has nearly 60,000 couplets, and it took its author about 35 years to complete it. It is based mainly on a prose work that was compiled in the poet’s early manhood in Tus. This prose was in turn the translation of a Pahlavi work, but it also contained additional material continuing the story to the overthrow of the Sassanids by the Arabs. The first poet to undertake the task of turning this chronicle into verse was Daqiqi, a poet at the court the Samanids. However, he was murdered when he had only composed a thousand couplets of the epic. These verses were incorporated by Ferdowsi, with due acknowledgements, in his poem. The story of Shah-Nameh starts with the reign of king Kiumars, founder of the mythical Kianid dynasty.

Unfortunately, Kiumars offended the King of the Demons, who sent a huge army of giants and monsters to Persia. The demons destroyed the force of Kiumars and killed his son Siamak. Persia was however, freed through the efforts of the gallant Hushang, Kiumars’s who killed the King of the demons with his bare hands. Since then, Persia has been safe from her foes, and here civilization reached its climax during the seven-centuries-long reign of the great Jamshid, whom Arab writers often confused with Solomon the Prophet because of his extraordinary wisdom and power. Jamshid's reign was the golden age for Persia, for no one became ill, old deid. However, thin period of prosperity ended when Jamshid, inflated with pride, angered the Gods by aspiring to divine honors. The kingdom was at once invaded by Zahak, and the Persians, seeing that fortune had turned her face from their sovereign, gave their allegiance to the usurper.

However, the Persians soon discovered the consequences of their surrender, for their new king had two huge serpents growing from his shoulders, and these horrible creatures could only be appeased by feeding them young human’s brains. The country was shrouded in misery for several centuries until it was set free by Feridun, supported by the people who began a revolt under the leadership of the blacksmith Kaveh, whose leather apron became their symbol of liberty. Zahak received a just reward for his crimes when he was imprisoned in a cavern on the side of the Damavand Mountain, where, as the legend says, his groans can be heard even to the present day.

With the death of Feridun, the focus of Shah-Nameh’s story shifts from the kings to the hero Rostam, who, with the aid of his celebrated steed Rakhsh, protected the throne of Persia for generations and constantly came to the rescue of its often incompetent kings. It is told that at the age of eight, Rostam was as strong as the most powerful warrior in the kingdom. He was still very young when Afrasiyab, King of Tartary, invaded Persia with a vast army, and naturally Rostam was singled out to be one of the generals on the Persian side. In the great battle which ensued between the hosts of Iran and Tartary, Rostam smashed the Tartary army that led in confusion across the Persian border. After this Iran had peace for many years.

War started again only when foolish King KeyKavus invaded Mazanderan which was the chosen haunt of demons. Rostam and his father Zal were left in charge of the kingdom, while the monarch led his soldiers into the hostile country. The soldiers, however, were killed by huge hailstones, and the king, together with a few survivors, was taken captive and deprived of sight. When the news of this terrible disaster reached Persia, Rostam, without a moment’s hesitation, rode off alone to free his sovereign. The seven adventures that befell him on this quest are perhaps the most famous in Persian legend, reminding the reader her of Hercules’s labors. Rostam finally freed KeyKavus and recovered the captives’ sight by washing their eyes with blood of the great White Demon whom he had killed as his final heroic deed. Again, Iran was at peace for a time, and its hero spent his days hunting. On one of these expeditions he came to a little kingdom on the border of Khorasan.

There he met, fell in love with, and married, the princess Tahmineh. Rostam, however, was not the kind of man to be long at ease, and after some months he left his wife. However, before they parted, he gave her a talisman, telling her to bind it round the arm of her child if his gods granted them a son. In due course, a splendid boy was born to Tahmineh, who, fearing that her child might be taken from her if her husband learned the truth, concealed the child's birth. Sohrab grew up full of pride at being the son of the great hero. When was still very young, he sallied out to the world, mounted on a steed of the race of Rakhsh, announcing that he intended to conquer Persia and place Rostam on the throne. Afrasiyab heard of the young hero, and wishing to gain such an ally for his side, persuaded him to join his army. Of course, the sovereign had no intention of handing Iran over to Rostam. Therefore, he warned his generals not to let Sohrab know which of the Persian warriors was his father, hoping that the two heroes might engage in mortal combat and kill one another, thus leaving him free to seize Persia. When the news of the threat to Persia reached Rostam, he set out to help his sovereign, although he had been badly treated by the unjust king all these years. It is said that when Rostam heard the accounts of the prowess, of the young Tartary champion, he wondered whether Tahmineh could have deceived him. Sohrab, on his side, was anxious to find Rostam’s tent and commanded a captured Persian soldier to point it out. The soldier, however, feared that the Tartary hero would slay Rostam by treachery and evaded the question. As a result of this misunderstanding, the two heroes came to the fore, and Rostam mortally wounded his own son in a fierce battle and only then noticed the talisman on Sohrab’s arm. In remorse, he wanted to kill himself but Sohrab implored him to live and to continue to defend Persia. The crime of murdering his son, however, resulted in a change of Rostam’s fortunes. He himself died as a result of treachery, killed by his own brother. With the death of Rostam, the mythical Kianid dynasty neared its end.

The remainder of Shah-Nameh deals with some historical facts much embroidered with fiction and is, in general, not as exciting as its mythological and heroic parts. To the Iranians, Shah-Nameh is the history of their countries glorious past, preserved for all time in sonorous and majestic verse. The stories of Shah-Nameh are inseparable from Iranian life and are a constant source of inspiration for Iranian art.


- Beheshti, Oksana (2003). Travel guide to Isfahan, Kashan and more. Iran. Tehran. Rozaneh publication.


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