Iranians owe a large extent of their language, culture, and national identity to Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. In fact, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is the ID card of Iranian language and culture. Perhaps if centuries ago, Hakim Abol Ghasem Ferdowsi had not started writing this epic work, today we would not have known much about Persian language and ancient Iranian customs and rituals.
During the time when Arabs, using force and sword, wanted to force their language on Iranian people, in order to save and preserve the Persian language, Ferdowsi started to compose poems in Persian that have today turned into an epic and mythological work, the likes of which cannot not be found in the world. In this article, we intend to introduce Shahnameh, this unique work, more to you.
Find Out More about Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh
Shahnameh is a great work by Hakim Abol Ghasem Ferdowsi, which includes 60,000 couplets and is considered one of the largest and most prominent epic works in the world. In some folk lore it is believed that the couplets of Shahnameh are in fact 40,000, but, according to a couplet from Shahnameh itself and also valid sources such as Bendari, Riyahi, and Alavi Toosi, this unique work has 60,000 couplets.
Composing and editing Shahnameh is the result of 30 years’ worth of interminable attempts made by the great Hakim Ferdowsi. In the years when the language and literature of Iran were Arabic and the Persian language was going through some rough patches, he prevented the deterioration of Persian language by composing this work.
The Date of Composing Shahnameh
When Ferdowsi started composing this beautiful work, the Persian language had undergone some tremendous changes and disturbances. Ferdowsi composed Shahnameh in Sare Persian, but because the living language of his time was not Sare Persian, in order for his poems to be understandable for all people, he had to take use of some Arabic words in his poems as well. The number of these words mount to 865, some of which include the Arabic equivalences of the following words: candle, pearl, spell, foreign, lover, picture, giant, price, Kaaba, praise, holy, joy, wild, orphan, certainty.
Shahnameh is in fact the translation of a number of ancient poems like the Shahnameh of Aboo Mansoori. Studies about the biography of Ferdowsi show that he has been engaged in composing different poems ever since he was young and it is possible that he has started composing Shahnameh in those years and based on the ancient stories that were common among people.
Many believe that Ferdowsi started composing Shahnameh based on the Shahnameh of Aboo Mansoori when he was 30. Since Ferdowsi had composed the story of Bijan and Manije prior to composing Shahnameh, he spent 35 years of his life in total to compose and edit Shahnameh.
The Origin of the Stories of Shahnameh
The first prose book in Persian that was known and offered as a dependent work, was a prose version of Shahnameh. Since this work was compiled by the order of and paid by Aboo Mansoor Toosi, got known as the Shahnameh of Aboo Mansoori. The main version of that book is destroyed and only fifteen pages of its introduction are left, which are available in some hand-written versions of Shahnameh.
In addition, there was another Shahnameh in prose that seems had been compiled prior to the Aboo Mansoori Shahnameh. But since this work is completely destroyed, precise comments cannot be made with respect to it. In the fourth century, a poet named Daghighi, attempted to compose ancient Iranian stories in the form of poems.
Daghighi who was a young man and a follower of Zoroastrianism, in praise of some commanders of the Choghani and Sasanid composed some poems and received valuable gifts from them. Then he was ordered by the Nooh Ibn Mansoor Samani to composes Shahnameh in the form of a poem. This young poet was killed when he only had composed one thousand couplets of Shahnameh, and the work of composing a great part of Shahnameh was left unfinished.
Hakim Abol Ghasem Ferdowsi who lived in the same city as Daghighi and was his master, after that he continued his unfinished work. For this reason we can say that the main source for Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh was the Shahnameh of Daghighi. The stories that Ferdowsi has been inspired by to compose Shahnameh were also prevalent among people during the era of Achaemenid.
The Content and Motive of Shahnameh
Shahnameh is a huge literary and epic masterpiece whose content and motive of its stories are mythologies, ancient myths, and historical events of Iran from the beginning until the invasion of Arabs in the seventh century. In this work, fifty kings have ruled, three of whom are women. The historical content of Shahnameh happens throughout the four kingdoms of Pishdadian, Kianian, Parthian, and Sasanid.
The first king of Shahnameh is Kiomars and the last king is Yazdgerd the third who is defeated during the Arab invasion. This literary masterpiece has been able to help the continuation of Persian identity with its unique features. Among the unique features of Shahnameh are its political and geographical integrity and also the integrity that is seen in all its couplets. But what do we mean by these three features?
Throughout all of Shahnameh, there is no era in which Iran does not have a ruler, in a way that Ferdowsi has not even deleted a foreign ruler like Alexander from history and has mentioned him as one of the rulers of Iran.
Ferdowsi has depicted the geographical borders of any era in the stories of Shahnameh. Such that, from the beginning of this work until the reign of Fereidun, Iranian rulers ruled over the world. From the era of Iraj onward the borders of Iran became limited to Iran Shahr which is the center of all events until the end of Shahnameh. Thought, in different eras, the borders of Iran Shahr change, for example, in an era, Armenia is part of Iran Shahr and in another era it isn’t.
Perhaps one of the salient features of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is its narrative integrity, such that the audience never faces a narrative of an event twice. In fact, Shahnameh is one of the historical sources that unlike other Persian and Arabic sources, has completely coherent narratives about the history of Iran.
Shahnameh is a unique narrative of the fight between good and evil. What Ferdowsi has depicted in the stories of this work, is the grandeur of Iran that is put against some difficulties form time to time. In this midst there are always gallant champions rising from among the people and defend the entirety of their country and protect the values of their people with all their life.
Some of the champions of Shahnameh are examples of perfect human beings who have spent all their lives helping their fellow men. Champions like Fereidun, Siavash, Keikhosro, Rostam, Goodarz, and Toos. On the other hands, characters like Zahhak are present in Shahnameh who are the symbol of evil, sinister deeds and corruption, and intend to corrupt and destroy the world.
In most of the stories of the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi refers to the world being ephemeral and encourages the reader to learn from the destiny. And yet when the time comes for romantic talk, Ferdowsi does it with his special style and quite simply.
Main Parts of Shahnameh
As we mentioned the main subject of Shahnameh, this unique literary masterpiece in the history of ancient Iran, is the beginning of Iranian civilization from the reign of Sasanid to the defeat of Iran after the Arab invasion. This historical era is divided into three parts of mythological, Pahlavani, and historical. In the following parts we will introduce each one of these three parts.
This era begins from the time of Kiomars and continues until the appearance of Fereidun. In this era, kings like Kiomars, Hooshang, Tahmoores, and Jamshid reign over Iran. The Iranian civilization formed in this era. Some of the important inventions of mankind like fire, separation of iron from stone, sewing and knitting, farming, and other things like that have happened in this era.
Most of the wars that took place in this era, were civil wars. Going to battle with devils and defeating them was one of the most important issued in this era. Though, some experts believe that in Shahnameh devils were the indigenous people of the highland of Iran who have always been fighting with Aryans who moved to this place. At the end of the mythological era, Zahhak, who was the symbol of badness and corruption gets to power and finally after one thousand years, Fereidun goes to help the people and defeats Zahhak and a new era begins.
Pahlavani era, or epic era begins with the kingdom of Fereidun. In this era, first Iraj, then Manoochehr, Nozar, and Garshasb get to the throne respectively. Among the important events that took place in this era are the following:
- The start of was between Iran and Turan
- Kiani kings like Keighobad, Keikavoos, Keikhosro, and then Lohrasp and Gashtasb getting to the throne
- The appearance of champions heroes like Zal, Rostam, Goodarz, Toos, Bijan, Sohrab, and the like
- Siavash the son of Keikavoos is killed by Afrasiab and Rostam goes to get revenge from Afrasiab and avenge the blood of Siavash
- The appearance of the prophet Zarathustra during the reign of Gashtasb and Afrasiab getting killed by Rostam
- And in the end, Rostam being killed by his brother Shoghad and Sistan becoming leveled to the ground by the son of Afrasiab who was named Bahman
This era ends with the death of Rostam.
This era begins with the kingdom of Bahman and after that Darab and then Dara the son of Darab get to the throne. During the reign of Dara, or Darius the third, Iran comes under the invasion by Macedonian Alexander and Dara gets killed and Alexander himself sits on the throne.
After Alexander, the Parthian get to power. This era is depicted in only a few couplets and after them the Sasanid get to power and then the Arab invasion occurs. After Iran is defeated against Arabs, Shahnameh ends.
Hakim Abol Ghasem Ferdowsi was born in 329 (lunar) in the village of Taberan. His father was one of the farmers of Toos and had a considerable wealth. When he was young Ferdowsi did not need any help due to the wealth of his father, but as time went by he lost this wealth and became poor.
Ferdowsi was interested in the history of ancient Iran and ancient stories ever since he was a young man. This interest moved him to compose ancient stories of Iran in the form of poems. As he himself says he spent long times looking for the original version of the stories of Ferdowsi’s shahnameh and after finding them, he spent close to 30 years of the best years of his life writing Shahnameh.
Unlike what is known among people, Ferdowsi began composing Shahnameh solely because of his interest in ancient Iran’s history and stories and years before the reign of Sultan Mahmood. Ferdowsi finished the first draft of his beautiful work in 384 (lunar), three years before the beginning of the reign of Sultan Mahmood, and finished its second draft on Esfand 25, 400 (lunar) at the age of 71.
Ferdowsi had a tender taste and was very patriotic. He was also very interested in Iran’s ancient history and mythology, and loathed the Romans, Turanians, and Arabs, because of the havoc they had wreaked on Iran. Some believe Ferdowsi passed on 411 (lunar) and some believe the date to be 416 (lunar). Unfortunately, after Ferdowsi’s death, his shrine was destroyed a number of times.
In the year 1302 (lunar), by the order of the governor of Khorasan, Mirza Abd Al Vahhab Khan Shirazi, the location of the shrine was specified and a brick structure was built there. During the Qajar ere, a number of Iranian scholars including Malek O-Shoara decided to build a structure fit for the stature of that great man, Ferdowsi. Building the structure of Ferdowsi’s shrine was inspired by the architecture of the Achaemenid era.
Shahnameh, is a unique book filled with ancient Iran’s mythological stories and myths that is very popular all across the world. This amazing literary masterpiece, has had a lot of influence on the world literature, so much so that poets like Goethe and Victor Hugo have used his name in good.
To this day, Ferdowsi’s shahnameh has been translated to many of the world languages. The first European writer who talked about Shahnameh and Ferdowsi was the British Sir William Jones who translated parts of Shahnameh in his book A Grammar of the Persian Language.
Iranians have always been interested in the stories of Shahnameh and used to spend the long nights of winter and the long days of summer reading the exciting stories of Ferdowsi’s shahnameh . Unfortunately today, the new generation is less familiar with these ancient mythological stories and it seems that the time has come for us to do everything we can to familiarize the new generations with this fantastic and beautiful work of art.