Shah Nameh

Firdawsi, Persia, 1000

Shah Nameh, or “The Book of Kings” or “The Epic of Kings” is lengthy poetic work written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi around 1000 AD and is considered the national epic of the Persian speaking world. The Shah Nameh relates the the mythical and historical past of Persia and Iran from the creation of the world up until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century.

Hakim Abul-Qasim Firdawsi Tusi or more commonly Ferdowsi, (935–1020) was born in the Iranian province of Khorasan, near Baj, in 935. His father was a wealthy land owner, who raised Ferdowsi as a pious Muslim. He devoted 35 years to creating his great epic and was written to be presented to the Samanid Princes of Persia. During Ferdowsi’s work on the poem the Samanid dynasty was conquered by the Ghaznavid Empire. Ferdowsi went to Ghazni, the Ghaznavid capital, to present it to the king who allegedly showed little interest. According to historians, the king had promised Ferdowsi a dinar for every distich written in the poem but when confronted with the size of the work balked at the price and passed off a much lower fee to Firdawsi.

Another legend has it that the Ghazni king ordered Firdawsi to write an epic poem about the King’s exploits and conquests, but when Ferdawsi arrived with a complete history of the Iranians and Persians, the king became angered and refused to pay Firdawsi’s fee.

In either case, Ferdowsi rejected the money and, returned angrily and despondent to Baj.

Ferdowsi is said to have died around 1020 in poverty at the age of 90, embittered by the royal rejection, though fully confident of his work’s ultimate success and fame. Some legend hold that the king finally saw the error of his ways and sent the promised amount to Ferdowsi but he had died hours before it arrived.

Ferdowsi was buried at the yard of his own home, where his mausoleum now lies. It was not until Reza Shah Pahlavi’s rule, in 1925, that a mausoleum was built for the great poet.

Ferdowsi has a unique place in Persian history because of the influence he exerted in reviving and regenerating the Persian language and cultural traditions. His works are cited as a crucial component in the persistence of the Persian language. Today, Iranians regarded Firdawsi as the most important poet in Persian culture and his works are still widely read.

The Shah Nameh is the most popular and influential of the Iranian and Afghan national epics. It has remained exceptionally popular among Persians for over a thousand years. It tells the history of old Persia before the Arab conquest of the region. This tale, all written in poetic form and in Dari Persian, starts 7,000 years ago, narrating the story of the Persian Kings and their exploits.

The epic related mythical as well as real elements of Persian history, cultural values, and ancient religions (Zoroastrianism). Ferdowsi’s epic is probably based on a compilation of older Iranian stories. The poem also displays the strong influence of oral traditions.

The book also draws on traditions as far afield as India and shares some characters with the Rig Veda.

The actual poem consists of 60,000 couplets, and relates the history of Iran beginning woth the creation of the world, the introduction of civilization by the Aryans, the rise of kings and heroes of Persia from ancient times down to the reign of Khosrau II (590-628), and the eventual invasion of the Islamic Arabs in the middle of the 7th century. There are also verses that detail the rise of the prophet Zoroaster. Consequently this book is also important to the remaining 200,000 Zoroastrians in the world

The Shah Nameh contains 62 stories over 990 chapters, making it more than seven times the length of Homer’s Iliad. Most English translations are abridged.

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