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Ferdowsi and His Legacy; “The Shahnameh”

For thirty years, I suffered much pain and strife

With Persian I gave the Ajam verve and life

The final couplet from “The Shahnameh”;

Sometime around 977 A.D, the Persian language was taking its last breaths as the Arabic language had severely cornered it. Iranians had stuck in this situation since the downfall of the Sassanid Empire, when a poet from northeastern Iran decided to write the longest epic poem ever in the history of human. This man was no one but Ferdowsi Tusi. He is famous among Iranians as “the Lord of the Word” or, “the Savior of the Persian Language” as well. 

About Ferdowsi

Ferdowsi was born into a family of Iranian landowners in 935 in the village of Paj, near the city of Tus, in the Khorasan region of the Samanid Empire, it is in the present-day Razavi Khorasan Province of northeastern Iran. Died in poverty between 1020 and 1026 A.D, the Ferdowsi’s family buried him in his own garden in Tus. A Ghaznavid governor of Khorasan constructed a mausoleum over the grave and it became a famous site. Society of the National Heritage of Iran rebuilt the tomb between 1928 and 1934. Now it has become the equivalent of a national shrine.

Ferdowsi and His Legacy The Shahnameh

Ferdowsi and His Legacy The Shahnameh

Introduction of The Shahnameh

Consisting of some 60,000 couplets (two-line verses), the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) is the world’s longest epic poem. Fersowsi started it in 977 A. D and completed it on 8 March 1010 to provide 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 kings who reign and abdicate, as well as heroes and villains, who come and go. The only lasting images are those of Greater Persia itself. The work is divided into three successive parts: the “mythical”, “heroic”, and “historical” ages.

Mythical Age

This portion of the Shahnameh is relatively short. It narrates events with the simplicity, predictability, and swiftness of a historical work. After an opening in praise of God, the Shahnameh gives an account of the creation of the world and of man as believed by the Sassanians. Then it describes  the story of the first man, Keyumars, who also became the first king after a period of mountain dwelling. His grandson Hushang, son of Siyamak, accidentally discovered fire and established the Sadeh Feast in its honor. There are also stories of Tahmuras, Jamshid, Zahhak, Kawa or Kaveh, Fereydun and his three sons Salm, Tur, and Iraj, and his grandson Manuchehr in this section.

Ferdowsi and His Legacy The Shahnameh

Heroic Age

Ferdowsi has devoted almost two-thirds of the Shahnameh 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 Sistani heroes who appear as the backbone of the Persian Empire. Garshasp is briefly mentioned with his son, Nariman. The son of Nariman whose name is “Sam” acted as the leading paladin of Manuchehr while reigning in Sistan in his own right. His successors were his son, Zāl, Zal’s son, Rostam, and then Faramarz.

Among the stories in this section, the romance of Zal and Rudaba, the Seven Stages (or Labors) of Rostam, Rostam and Sohrab, Siyavash and Sudaba, Rostam and Akvan Div, the romance of Bijan and Manijeh, the wars with Afrasiyab, an account of the story of Goshtasp and Arjasp, and Rostam and Esfandyar are the most famous and popular amongst Iranians. Ferdowsi and His Legacy The Shahnameh 

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 relates with a good deal of accuracy. There is also the story of the Sassanids and the Arab conquest of Persia in this book.

Message of the Shahnameh

Ferdowsi did not expect his readers to pass over historical events indifferently, but asked them to think carefully. He wants us to see the grounds for the rise and fall of individuals and nations. He also insist on learning from the past in order to improve the present, and to better shape the future. The singular message 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.

Ferdowsi and His Legacy The Shahnameh

Arts from the Shahnameh

Undeniably, the Shahnameh led to the creation of two important Persian arts such as “Shahnameh Khani” (translated to “Singing the Shahnameh”) and “Naqqali” (translated to “Storytelling”).
Shahnameh-khani totally means singing the exact verses of Shahnameh—without any manipulation—from memory or from a book, with special customs.

Naqqali, which used to be very common in cafes, is also a dramatic kind of storytelling. And a Naqqal is a person who narrates the stories with a special tone, feelings, expression, gestures, and movements. In some cases, Naqqals accompany their performances with musical instruments and painted scrolls. Also, a Naqqal plays several roles during a performance. A professional Naqqal needs to be aware of local cultural expressions, languages and dialects, traditional music, cultural values and the history of Persia.

Besides, the stories and epics in this book are so fantastic and interesting that various companies have adopted them to make movies or games. Although movies like “the prince of Persia” have attempted to make a movie with a Persian-base story, they have stopped at choosing Persian names, not entertaining stories narrated in Shahnameh.  Ferdowsi and His Legacy The Shahnameh 

Importance to Iranians

Even though the existence of a large number of invaluable Iranian poets and poetry books throughout the history of Iran, people honor the Shahnameh as a holy book. They believe so only because they think this book has saved them from speaking any language other than Persian. Almost all Iranians have a volume of the Shahnameh in their house to read. They feel proud of each and every verse which led to the survival of the Persian language and the glorious history of Iran. Ferdowsi and His Legacy The Shahnameh 

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