Fearful that Persia’s history would be forgotten, Abu’l-Qasim Firdawsi (940-1020) composed the Shahnama (Book of Kings), comprising more than 60,000 rhyming couplets, telling the story of Persia (modern-day Iran) from the time of creation to its conquest by Muslims in the seventh century. Partly legend, partly historic, it is also a manual on kingship, a collection of heroic tales, and a long essay on wisdom, love, warfare, and magic, structured around four successive dynasties, each representing the various phases of human history, seen from the Persian perspective.
The first part tells of the mythical creation of Persia and its earliest mythical past, beginning with the story of Keyomars, who was believed to be the world’s first human and the first legendary king (shah) of ancient Iran.
The name Keyomars is the Persian form of Gayomard or Gayomart from the tradition of the Zoroastrian, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, founded by Prophet Zoroaster approximately 3,500 years ago. In Zoroastrian mythology, Gayomart had been granted supernatural powers by God, therefore, all animals and humans paid homage to him. During his thirty-year reign, Keyumars taught humans how to prepare food, introduced law and justice, and maintained harmony between animals and humans.
The tranquillity was shattered when evil entered the world and the Black Demon killed Kayumar’s son Siama. In turn, Siama’s son Hushang avenged the death of his father shortly before the death of Kayumars.
Hushang’s son Tahmures, considered the third shah of the world, discovered sheep-rearing, the technique of spinning wool for weaving into clothes, and the use of animals as beasts of burden. He also learned how to write and “his heart glowed like the sun with this knowledge.”1
Tahmures was succeeded by his brother Jamshid, who reigned for 600 years, keeping the demons under his control. Subsequently the demons caused chaos and instability for 1,000 years. Peace returned during the reign of Feraydun, who in due course, divided the world among his three sons thereby ending the first era in the history of ancient Iran.
The second era comprises the reigns of Sam, Zal, and Rustam. Sam was ashamed of his albino son Zal and abandoned him in the wilderness. He was rescued by the magical bird Simurgh who reared him in her nest until travellers passing through the region found him. Zal was eventually returned to his remorseful father.
Zal married Rodaba, daughter of the king of Kabul. Their son Rustam, regarded as one of the greatest folk heroes of Iran, formed a relationship with Simurgh who helped him escape capture by his enemies. Simurgh also appears in Farid al-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds, a poem composed in the twelfth century comprising about 4,500 lines. The story narrates the journey by a group of thirty birds led by a hoopoe as an allegory of a Sufi sheikh or master leading his pupils to enlightenment.
The second part of the Shahnama tells of the legendary kings and heroes; the third part blends historical fact with legend, telling of the semi-mythical adventures of actual historical kings.
The Shahnama is organised according to the reigns of fifty kings. ‘Valued in its time as a work of history and for its ethical content (as a mirror for princes), the major themes of the Shahnama include the full range of human traits evidenced by rulers, their wise and foolish actions, the inevitability of human destiny, and the endemic jealousy of peoples living beyond Iran’s borders. Stories about each king’s life and rule, of the dilemmas and challenges they confront, alternate with those of heroes, such as Rustam, who dedicate their service to the kings. The kings’ reigns are assigned by God (Yazdan); so long as God’s appointed king rules Iran, in theory at least, Iran’s security and prosperity will be preserved.’2
Over time, the Shahnama achieved unrivalled status and is considered “the most potent expression of Persian literary and national identity.”3
1 Excerpt: Shahnameh, The Book of Kings, npr books (accessed May 2017)
2Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum, Masterpieces of Islamic Art, p 204, AKDN (accessed May 2017)
3Mario Casari, The Conceits of Poetry’: Firdausi’s Shahnama and the discovery of
Persian in early modern Europe (May April 2017)
Compiled by Nimira Dewji