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2020: Millennium of Persian Poet Ferdowsi


By Rasoul Shams

Anniversaries are important; they celebrate legacies and signify presence and continuity. This year, 2020, marks the 1000th anniversary of Ferdowsi's death. This renowned Persian poet died at age 81 in 1020, more than five centuries before Shakespeare was born. Ferdowsi has not only endured for a thousand years but has also defined the very identity and language of his own country - Iran. This is, indeed, a great achievement for a poet or for any person, for that matter.

Statue of Ferdowsi at Ferdowsi Square, Tehran
(by Master Abolhassan Sadighi)

Ferdowsi literally means "belonging to Paradise." The word "ferdows" (meaning "a walled garden") is an Arabic variation of the Persian word "pardis," from which the English "paradise" has derived. Ferdowsi was the pen-name of the poet. He was born near the town of Tus in northeast Iran in 940 AD. He came from an educated landlord class, but as he devoted his life to composing his masterpiece the Shahnameh or Shahnama ("The Persian Book of Kings") he spent all his wealth, and died in poverty and poor health.

An Epic Masterpiece

The Shahnameh is a massive work: With about 50,000 rhyming couplets, it is the largest book of poetry ever composed by a single poet in the same style and field. It is a compendium of myths, legends, and historical events of the ancient (pre-Islamic) Iran. The Shahnameh is one of the greatest epic works in world literature, similar to the Greek Iliad and the Odyssey and the Indian Mahabharata and Ramayana. However, unlike these works which revolve around a particular war or a hero, the Shahnameh's scope is quite vast, both in terms of geography (spanning from China to Yemen) and chronology (from the creation of the first human to the collapse of the Sassanid dynasty by the Arab invasion of Iran in the seventh century.)

The English writer E.M. Forster once remarked that Tolstoy was the greatest novelist in the world because in his monumental works such as War and Peace, Tolstoy described a large number of characters, lives, events, and psychological experiences. In the same vein, Ferdowsi is one the world's greatest poets because of the enormous variety of characters, scenes, and moods he has described in the Shahnameh.

Persian miniature depicts one of Shahnameh's stories
(Source: David Collection Museum)

Ethos of the Shahnameh

Despite the enormous length of the Shahnameh, there are certain ethos, moral principles, and mottos that run throughout the epic. Indeed, Ferdowsi's message, beliefs, and teachings can be summarized in several key concepts. First, his unfailing faith in one God who is beyond words and imagination, and is yet the source of our existence, life, and consciousness. Second, the essential role that wisdom and knowledge play in both individual and social development. Third, justice should form foundation of governments in order for them to survive, serve, and prosper. Fourth, in the historical struggle between good and evil, we should strive to be on the side of good and righteousness. Ferdowsi believes that although everything changes in the flux of time, only by being good we can help goodness triumph. Fifth, qualities such as bravery, courage, hard work, and effort are essential for success and accomplishment. Sixth, humans are created with dignity and freedom, and should live as such; slavery is not acceptable. Moreover, human freedom, according to Ferdowsi, also means being free from egoism and materialism.

These ideals were obviously influenced by Zoroastrian teachings, according to which humans with "good thought, good speech, and good deeds" are on the side of the forces of goodness and light in the historical struggle against the forces of evil and darkness. Ferdowsi, however, crystalized these noble qualities in the person of Rostam and several other heroes in the Shahnameh. In a sense, Ferdowsi was a great humanist and promoted an age of enlightenment based on knowledge, courage, justice, and goodness long before the terms "humanism" and "enlightenment" were coined.

Rostam, undoubtedly the most prominent hero in the Persian legends and whom Ferdowsi praises so dearly, is not merely a powerful warrior or (even worse) a pawn at the service of kings but a noble human being who is intelligent, brave, compassionate, and good-hearted. He cares for the lives of the common people; he honors justice and righteousness, and he is critical of the wrongdoings of the kings he serves. These are indeed high moral standards that Ferdowsi expects of all of his heroes and heroines in the Shahnameh, and by extension, of all men and women. Ferdowsi's Persian heroes and heroines are patriots; they love their country and want to serve and prosper their people. But they have no ill wishes for other peoples, races, religions, cultures or languages; they are not invaders but defenders, and they prefer a just peace over bloody wars. That is why, the heroic and humanistic legends of the Shahnameh have influenced the chivalry class and the sports of wrestling and weightlifting in Iran and surrounding countries.

Giv chides Bizhan for failing to defeat Forud
Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum

Enduring Legacy

Ferdowsi is regarded as one of the top five Persian poets of all time, but he probably had the greatest impact on Persian culture and literature. For one thing, because Ferdowsi helped revive the Persian language in the aftermath of the Arab invasion, all other Persian poets after him, from Omar Khayyam and Nezami through Attar, Rumi and Sadi to Hafez and Jami, all stand on Ferdowsi's shoulder.

Ferdowsi was not the first person to compose the Shahnameh of pre-Islamic Iran. We know at least of four other efforts - two in poetry and two in prose - to compile the Shahnameh before Ferdowsi. However, none of these works has survived today on its own, but they have survived through Ferdowsi, who utilized some of these books in creating his Shahnameh.

It is easier to memorize a charming poem than philosophical or political writings. That is why, in the former days, when the majority of people were illiterate, generations of Shahnameh reciters in tea houses, bazaars, and royal courts were able to transmit the poems, symbols, and legends of ancient Iran to the general public. Indeed, the Shahnameh proved so popular that scribes, whether commissioned or as freelancers, wrote and distributed thousands of copies of the book at a time when the printing industry did not exist. In this way, Ferdowsi's masterpiece found its way to numerous schools, libraries, and households of the wealthy or educated classes. The stories of the Shahnameh have also provided fascinating motifs for Persian miniature, and this book, more than any other classic Persian book, has helped develop the art of Persian painting. One notable example is the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, a beautiful manuscript in 759 pages with 258 miniatures, which was commissioned by the Safavid king Shah Tahmasp I and was gifted to Ottoman Sultan Selim II in 1568. Parts of this work are kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the remaining pages are held by various collectors. (In 2011, a page from this manuscript from the collection of the scholar Stuart Cary Welch was sold for 7.4 million pounds.)

An illustration from Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp

English Translations

The first English translation of the Shahnameh, entitled The Poems of Ferdosi, by Joseph Champion was published in 1785 in Calcutta, India. Although only the first volume of this work was published, interestingly it predated the first printing of the Shahnameh in Persian, which was also published in Calcutta by Turner Macan in 1829 in four volumes. (Recall that Persian was the court language during the reign of the Mughal or Gurkani Dynasty in India from the mid-16th to the mid-19th centuries.) James Atkinson, a British scholar in India, published an abridged translation of the Shahnameh in 1832, which has been printed numerous times. The first complete translation of the Shahnameh in verse was published by the brothers Arthur and Edmond Warner in London from 1905-1925 in nine volumes. The first complete prose translation was done by Bahman Sohrabji Surti, an Indian Zoroastrian scholar, from 1986-1988 in seven volumes.

None of the above works are, however, easily accessible. For those interested in reading the Shahnameh, three recent translations, all in prose, are suggested. The Epic of the Kings, translated and abridged by Reuben Levy, a former professor of Persian literature at Cambridge, was first published in 1967 and has been reprinted by Mazda Publishers in California in 1996. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of the Kings by Dick Davis (Penguin Classics, 2006) is more detailed and also based on more recent Persian editions of the book. Finally, Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, translated and adapted by Ahmad Sadri, and with fabulous illustrations by Hamid Rahmanian (Quantuck Land Press, New York, 2013) is itself a work of art worth the collection. The stories of the Shahnameh have always fascinated the Persian-speaking children. Elizabeth Laid has adapted a selection of these stories in English for children with illustrations by Shirin Adl: Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings (Lincoln Children's Books, 2012).

Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings
by Ahmad Sadri and Hamid Rahmanian (Illustrator) (2013)

Shahnameh: The Persian Book Of Kings
by Abolqasem Ferdowsi and Dick Davis (2016)

The Lion and the Throne : Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Volume 1
by Ferdowsi, Dick Davis, et al. (1998)

Fathers and Sons (Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Vol 2)
by Ferdowsi, Dick Davis (Translator) (2000

The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam
by Jerome W. Clinton (Translator) (1996)

Ferdowsi Lives On

Ferdowsi was well aware of the immense value of his work. At the end of the Shahnameh he wrote:

For thirty years I labored hard;
I revived the Iranian nation through this Persian work.

I shall not die; I will live forever;
For I have broadcast the seeds of this Persian verse.

It has been reported that when Ferdowsi died, a fanatic Muslim authority did not permit him to be buried in the Muslim cemetery in Tus on account that Ferdowsi was not a real Muslim. Ferdowsi was thus buried in his own garden ("ferdows"). In 1934, during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi, a monument was built over Ferdowsi's resting place, and an international conference was held in Tehran to commemorate his legacy. This ushered in the modern period of research and studies on Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh. Another milestone was the millennium of the Shahnameh in 1990 (according to the Iranian calendar) and 2010 (according to the Western calendar) with conferences in Iran and abroad sponsored by UNESCO. Ferdowsi completed the Shahnameh in 1010, ten years before his death.

Photos: The tomb of ferdowsi in Toos, Iran

Ferdowsi is revered not only in Iran but also in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and in other lands and communities with a Persian literary heritage. Just as Rabindranath Tagore is a national poet in two countries - India and Bangladesh, Ferdowsi should also be considered as a national poet in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, and also a unifying force for these three sister countries in Asia.

Reading through the Shahnameh, the reader becomes engaged in fabulous colorful stories, but in the spirit of a great epic, the reader also feels the struggle of a people, through many generations, to preserve their land, heritage, honor, freedom, culture, and lifestyle. The story of Iran and other Persian-speaking peoples even after Ferdowsi has been the same, and these peoples are still facing the same challenges and struggles. This is why, Ferdowsi is not a dead poet of the past; he is respected as a sage (hakim) who still offers a moral support and a foundation of wisdom, goodness, justice, and bravery for his people and readers.

Although there are numerous books on Ferdwosi and several prints of the Shahnameh in Persian edited by scholars over the past two centuries, one particular area that has immense potential for benefiting from the Shahnameh is the film industry - producing both documentary films and movies. Indeed, the Shahnameh can be a rich source of interesting stories of life, psychological dilemmas, war, peace, morality, mortality, humanity, and ancient history.

It is the dream of every politician to have a defining impact on the history and life of his or her country, but Ferdowsi offers a case in which a people's poet, rather than a power-seeking politician, could define the history and integrity of his people and culture. The year 2020 is a good occasion to remember Ferdwosi, and perhaps the best way to honor him is to read his literary masterpiece, the Shahnameh.

About the author: Rasoul Shams is the director of the Rumi Poetry Club in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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