The Shahnameh is one of my favorite epics. Written by the great Persian poet Ferdowsi, it was compiled between 977 and 1010 CE. It narrates the legends and history of the Iranian people and played a key role in shaping their culture, as well as that of their neighbors – the Georgians, the Armenians, the Turks, the Pashtuns and the Turkmens. Such was its impact and popularity, that it was elevated to the status of Iran’s national epic. Ferdowsi, born in the city of Tus (in the historic region of Khurasan, in the northeast), belonged to a family of landowners (known as the dihqan, a class of notables who rose to prominence under the Sassanian Emperors and played a crucial role in preserving the traditions of the Persian nation after its conquest by the Arabs and Turks).
During his lifetime (c. 940-1020 CE), Iran was ruled by the Samanids, a Persian dynasty tracing its origins to Saman Khuda, a dihqan from the province of Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan). He was said to be a descendant of the legendary Sassanian general Bahram Chobin. The Samanids rose to power under the nose of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate. Isma’il ibn Ahmad (reign 892-907 CE) united the Samanid realm and laid the foundations for the resurgence of Persian culture. It was under the generous gaze of the Samanid kings that Ferdowsi penned his masterpiece. By the time he was done, the Samanid domain had been overpowered by their thoroughly Persianized Turkic generals, the Ghaznavids.
Legend has it that the Ghaznavid Sultan, Mahmud (reign 998-1002), offered him a gold coin for every couplet written. The final tally was 60,000. Unfortunately, a suspicious courtier, thinking Ferdowsi to be a heretic, had the gold pieces replaced by silver. The incensed poet gave it off to a bath-keeper, hawker and slave. The episode was reported to the Sultan, who flew into a rage. The terrified author fled Khorasan. Some say that he came up with a piece mocking the Sultan. Whatever the chain of events, Ferdowsi spent several years in exile before the Ghaznavid ruler changed his mind. In a final twist, the 60,000 pieces of gold sent by a conciliatory Mahmud arrived in Tus right at the moment of his funeral. The epic would fare way, way better.
I will be posting the English translation of the Shahnameh by the German born translator – Helen Zimmern (1846 – 1934) in the coming days.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is taken from the folio of Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh. It shows Firdausi and three Ghaznavid court poets. Dating back to 1532, this Persian painting of Safavid Iran is preserved in the Aga Khan Museum. The manuscript happens to be one of the most famous collections of Persian miniature paintings. It was gifted to the Ottoman Sultan Selim II in 1568 and kept in a library in the Topkapi Palace.
- The Epic of Kings by Ferdowsi (The Internet Classics Archive)
- Ferdowsi (Encyclopedia Iranica)
- A Concise History of Afghanistan in 25 Volumes, Volume 1 by Hamid Wahed Alikuzai