The Shahnameh -
A Persian Tragedy Still Alive After 1,000 Years
"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."
- Abul Quasim Ferdowsi's famous last couplets in The Shahnameh
Ferdowsi Monument in Tehran- with Hero Zal and the bird Simorgh.
I) With 60,000 rhyming couplets it is more than the size of Europe's greatest epics The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer put together. Written over a span of almost 35 years in between the Samanid and the Ghaznavid dynasties of Iran, Abul Qasim Ferdowsi presented his lifetime magnum opus The Shahnameh- The Book of Kings- to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni in 1010AD. Exactly a thousand years later, The Shahnameh still stands as the greatest piece of Persian literature and Ferdowsi lives on as one of the greatest storytellers of all time.
The Shahnameh depicts the history of Ancient Persia from the dawn of civilization to the Arab conquest in the seventh century. With real historical characters like Sikander (Alexander) of Macedon, Ferdowsi shows how mighty empires rise and fall in the tide of history. Despite its epic and historical expanse, The Shahnameh also speaks of the vignettes of everyday life in the villages and towns of Persia with a sly humour that set the benchmark for later day poets. The Shahnameh's language is a living one. Iranians widely and proudly recite The Master's couplets that sing of their great ancestors reminding theirs is a civilization no lesser than others.
The central mythical character, Roustom the warrior, son of Zal and Roudabeh, Grandson of Saum, Father of Sohrab, rides on Rakhsh, his faithful horse. He fights one battle after another to save Persia from the evil clutches of Afrasiab, Pashang, Turaj, the White Deev, the Red Deev, slaying the Zombie Army and the Green Dragon on his way. And by doing so, The Shahnameh establishes just over unjust with a universal theme that made time stand still for the great poet Ferdowsi.
II) Ferdowsi was born in 940AD in Khorasan, North East Iran to a wealthy landowner. Tus, where Ferdowsi grew up, had preserved the ancient stories of Persian glory through the oral tradition. These stories sowed the seeds of imagination and a sense of pride of Persian glory in the young poet's mind and heart. Iran was at a crossroads when Ferdowsi was born. There was a resurgence to establish Farsi as the principal language of poetry after the Arab conquest when its Persian identity was threatened. Along with other poets Ferdowsi started writing The Shahnameh in 977 AD under the Samanid dynasty to revive the Persian heritage.
Combat between Roustam and Esfandiya- Artist Mohammad Modaber.
Ferdowsi finished his masterpiece in 1010 AD when the Ghaznavid dynasty was ruling Iran. He presented The Shahnameh to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni that same year. By then the poet had become pauperised. Tradition has it that Sultan Mahmud who had promised one gold coin per couplet declined when he heard The Shahnameh comprised 60,000 couplets. Ferdowsi rejected the Sultan's offer of a much lesser amount. The greatest poet of Persia died in poverty and of royal neglect but was confident his work would live on. Sultan Mahmud later repented and kept his word by re-sending a gold coin for each couplet. When the Sultan's 60,000 gold coins reached Ferdowsi's house, the great poet had died only hours before at the ripe old age of 80. Ferdowsi's daughter rejected the royal gift thus making Ferdowsi and The Shahnameh immortal for generations to come.
III) Exactly after 1,000 years The Shahnameh lives on in the hearts of men and in the men of hearts. It defines and keeps on re-defining the Persian persona with a language comprehensible to this very day. The couplets, composed mainly of short syllables have kept it true to the oral tradition characteristic of stories from Central Asia and the Middle East. However, unlike many other epics, The Shahnameh stands out on two counts. With its universal theme and appeal, it does not belong to the people of its origin only. It belongs to the world. This epic of epics influenced CS Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia and JRR Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings. The greatest and lasting contribution of The Shahnameh is probably that it reminds us of a world of imagination that is fast dying. It reminds us art is not for art's sake, but for life and life is for art.
If a piece of art has to withstand the test of time, it has to make time stand still with a universal appeal that will make it rise from the ashes like the Phoenix in The Shahnameh. Reminding to be the guardian of one's destiny, one needs to sing the songs of the dead- songs of one's past- songs that are sacred. Based on fiction and non-fiction, The Shahnameh has reminded this time and time again making it still relevant today even after 1,000 years. May the stories of the rhyming couplets of The Shahnameh inspire the imagination of all who approach its never-ending fountain of wisdom for a few more thousand years! 'Newazish Karam Shukriya Meherbani' Great Poet Abul Qasim Ferdowsi.
1. BBC World Service Documentary “The Great Palace of Verse” 12 Nov 2010
Dedicated to my daughter Amira Labiba Chowdhury aka Annapurna who turns five today.
(The writer teaches economic theory at Jahangirnagar University and North South University)