May 15 is annually celebrated by Iranians as Fedowsi Day. Many art and cultural festivals are held across the country to commemorate the great Iranian epic poet. Ferdowsi, one of the greatest Iranian poets, was born in 935 CE in a small village named Paj near Tous in Khorasan which is situated in today's Razavi Khorasan province in Iran.
Ferdowsi's magnum opus the Shahnameh, or 'The Book of Kings' is considered one of the masterpieces of Persian literature, and has had considerable influence on subsequent literary works.
The renowned poet is honored for his efforts to restore Iran's cultural traditions after the conquest of Iran in the seventh century.
He devoted over 35 years of his life to the creation of the Shahnameh, which recounts Iran's mythical and historic past.
The romance of Zal and Rudaba, the Seven Labors of Rostam, Rostam and Sohrab, Siavash and Sudaba, the romance of Bizhan and Manizheh and Rostam and Esfandyar are among the most popular Shahnameh stories.
Ferdowsi, A Critical Biography
By: A. Shapur Shahbazi
The Shahnameh is an impressive monument of poetry and historiography, being mainly the poetical recast of what Ferdowsi and his predecessors regarded as the account of Iran's history. An account which already existed in a less appealing form in prose works, especially in the Shahnameh of Abu Mansur Abd-al-Razzaq.
Ferdowsi, in these passages, expresses his reflection on life, his religious and ethical beliefs and his admiration of virtue, his praise for his patrons, and his references to the sources he used.
The rest of the work is divided into three successive parts: the mythical, heroic, and historical ages.
The mythical age: After an opening in praise of God and Wisdom, the Shahnameh gives an account of the creation of the world and of man as believed by Sassanians. This introduction is followed by the story of the first man, Gayumarth, who also became the first king after a period of mountain dwelling. He accidentally discovered fire and established the Sadeh Feast in its honor. Stories of Tahmureth, Jamshid, Zahhak, Kaveh, Freidun and his three sons: Salm, Tur, and Iraj, and Manuchehr are explained in this section.
This portion of the Shahnameh is relatively short, amounting to some 2100 verses or four percent of the entire book, and it narrates the events with the simplicity, predictability, and swiftness of a historical work. Naturally, the strength and charm of Ferdowsi’s poetry have done much to make the story of this period attractive and lively.
The heroic age: Almost two-thirds of the Shahnameh is devoted to the age of heroes, extending from Manuchehr’s reign until the conquest of Alexander. The main feature of this period is the major role played by the Sagzi (Saka) or Sistani heroes who appear as the backbone of the Iranian empire. Garshasp is briefly mentioned as is his son Nariman, whose own son Sam acted as the leading paladin of Manuchehr while reigning in Sistan in his own right. His successors were his son Zal and his son Rostam, the bravest of the brave, and then Faramarz.
The feudal society in which they lived is admirably depicted in the Shahnameh with accuracy and lavishness. Indeed, Ferdowsi’s descriptions are so vivid and impressive that the reader feels himself participating in the events or closely viewing them. The tone is significantly epic and moving, while the language is extremely rich and varied.
Among the stories described in this section are the romance of Zal & Rudabe, the Seven Stages (or Labors) of Rostam, Rostam and Sohrab, Siavash and Sudabe, Rostam and Akvan Div, the romance of Bijan and Manije, the wars with Afrasiab, Daqiqi’s account of the story of Goshtasp and Arjasp, and Rostam and Esfandyar.
It is noteworthy to mention that the legend of Rostam and Sohrab is attested only in the Shahnameh and, as usual, begins with a lyrical and detailed prelude. Here Ferdowsi is in the zenith of his poetic power and has become a true master of storytelling. The thousand or so verses of this tragedy comprise one of most moving tales of world literature.
The historical age: A brief mention of the Ashkanian (Arsacids) follows the history of Alexander and precedes that of Ardeshir. After this, the Sassanian history is related with a good deal of accuracy. The fall of the Sassanian and the Arab conquest are narrated romantically, and in a most moving poetic language. Here, the reader could easily see Ferdowsi himself lamenting over this catastrophe, and over what he calls the arrival of “the army of darkness”.
According to Ferdowsi, the final edition of the Shahnameh contained some sixty thousand distiches. But this is a round figure; most of the relatively reliable manuscripts have preserved a little over fifty thousand distiches. Nezami-Aruzi reports that the final edition of the Shahnameh sent to the court of Soltan Mahmud was prepared in seven volumes.
Ferdowsi’s style is that of a superb poet. His epic language is so rich, moving and lavish that it truly enchants the reader. Personal touches in the Shahnameh prevent it from falling into a dry reproduction of historical narratives. No history has been so eagerly read, so profoundly believed, and so ardently treasured in Iran, as has the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. If a history were ever to influence its readers, the Shahnameh has done and still does so in the finest way. Where many Iranian military and religious leaders failed, Ferdowsi succeeded. With the Shahnameh, the revival and immortality of a nation became possible.
Ferdowsi did not expect his reader to pass over historical events indifferently, but asked him to think carefully, to see the grounds for the rise and fall of individuals and nations; and to learn from the past in order to improve the present, and to better shape the future.
The Shahnameh stresses that since the world is transient, and since everyone is merely a passerby, one is wise to avoid cruelty, lying, avarice, and other evils; instead one should strive for justice, truth, order, and other virtues which bring happiness, ease, and honor.
The singular message that the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi strives to convey is the idea that the history of Iranshahr was a complete and immutable whole: it started with Gayumarth, the first man, and ended with his fiftieth scion and successor, Yazdegerd III, six thousand years of history. The task of Ferdowsi was to prevent this history from losing its connection with future Iranian generations.
The Shahnameh Project, Cambridge University
The Shahnameh Project: Ferdowsi Is Alive and Well and Iran Shall Remain
Following is an article on Ferdowsi’s masterpiece the Shahnameh, which was written by Charles Melville, a lecturer of the University of Cambridge, in 2007.
The Shahnameh or “Book of Kings” is the longest poem ever written by a single author: Abu’l-Qasem Ferdowsi, from Tus in northeastern Iran.
His epic work narrates the history of Iran (Persia) since the first king, Gayomart, who established his rule at the dawn of time, down to the conquest of Persia by the Muslim Arab invasions of the early 7th century CE.
The Shahnameh contains approximately 50,000 verses (bayts, each consisting of two hemistiches, misra‘), and is generally divided into mythical, legendary and historical sections.
The first includes the formation of human society, the domestication of animals, the struggle with the forces of evil and the definition of Iranian territory vis-a-vis her neighbors.
The long central section incorporates the ‘Sistan cycle’ of legends about the hero Rustam and his family, and the endless cycles of wars with the lands of Turan (approximately Turkestan or modern Central Asia), Iran’s traditional foe. These ‘legendary’ sections in fact contain many mythical features and more or less form a continuum with the first.
The historical section, that is, in which some reference to known historical events can be identified, starts only with the appearance of Alexander the Great, also treated as legend. It is remarkable, for example, that there appears to be no reference to the reigns of Cyrus the Great, Darius, or the Achaemenid dynasty that preceded the arrival of Philip of Macedon and Alexander on the scene.
Alexander (Iskandar) is followed by a very brief treatment of the Parthians, and then the Sassanid dynasty (226-651 CE).
The last episode is the murder of the Sassanid ruler Yazdegerd III (632-51), and the punishment of his killer, Mahuy Suri. Its last pages echo with the gloomy predictions of the Persian general Rustam, killed at the battle of Qadisiyah by the Arab commander Sa‘d bin Abi Waqqas.
Ferdowsi was born circa 935 CE and died in around 1020. He was thus writing his life’s work approximately four centuries after the fall of the ancient Persian Empire and the coming of Islam.
The first draft was completed in 999 and the final version in 1010, dedicated to the most powerful ruler of the time, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (modern Afghanistan, ruled 999-1020).
His work was conceived as a memorial to Iran’s glorious past at a time when its memory was in danger of disappearing for good under the twin assaults of Arabic and Islamic culture and the political dominion of the Turks.
It has since been used by many subsequent regimes, both imperial and provincial, to assert their proper place in the political traditions of the country, and for dynastic legitimization.
One of the chief ways in which the text could be appropriated, along with the ethical messages it conveys, especially concerning just kingship and the ordering of society, was by commissioning illustrated manuscript copies of the poem. This started at least in the middle of the Mongol period, with the earliest known illustrated texts dating from circa 1300.
The production of illustrated copies continued into the late 19th century, when lithographic printing slowly replaced the creation of manuscripts.
The Shahnameh encapsulates and expresses, as no other work of Persian literature is able to, the Iranians’ view of themselves and their traditional cultural and political values.
Neda-Afarid (Saghi Aghili)'s Narrating ( In English Language )
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