This is the story of Ferdowsi’s life. And it is the story that is still told about Ferdowsi today.

It is impossible to say whether the story is true or not. But maybe whether it really happened or not doesn’t matter, as the story reveals something about Ferdowsi’s character and what people thought of him. The story shows Ferdowsi’s determination to write the perfect poem, his belief that he had achieved this aim, and his courage to stand up for his art. The story also seems to follow the pattern of many of the stories about Kings who make bad judgements in the Shahname itself!

Ferdowsi (940 – 1020Ad) was born in Tus, a town in North Eastern Iran, in the province of Khorasan.

As a boy Ferdowsi loved to play beside the river. But the bridge was always being washed away by floods. No one could build a bridge strong enough to withstand the floods. Ferdowsi dreamt that one day he might earn enough money to build a bridge that would stand up to the floods.

Ferdowsi became a renowned poet and was given the job by the King to write down the history of Persia. The King put Ferdowsi in a special room in his palace, which had paintings covering the walls, to inspire Ferdowsi’s poetry. The King told Ferdowsi that he would pay him 1000 gold pieces for each 1000 couplets that he managed to write.

At the end of 30 years of hard work, Ferdowsi had written 60,000 couplets – the Shahname. He gave the poem to the King and asked for his 60,000 gold pieces. But during the 30 years of writing Ferdowsi had argued with the King. Ferdowsi felt the King did not praise his work or value him enough. The King thought Ferdowsi was much too proud and only gave him 60,000 silver pieces.

Ferdowsi was furious. He left the palace and went back home to Tus. But he left behind a poem for the King, stuck to the wall of the room he had worked in for all those years. It was a long and angry poem, more like a curse, and ended with the words:

“heaven’s vengeance will not forget. Shrink tyrant from my words of fire, and tremble at a poets ire.”

The King ordered that Ferdowsi be found and trampled to death by elephants. So Ferdowsi begged for forgiveness. The King accepted but said he never wanted to see or hear from Ferdowsi again.

Many, many people complained to the King. In the end, the King felt remorseful and sent a camel train to Tus carrying 60,000 gold pieces along with cloth of silk, brocade and velvet, perfumes and spices.

But the King’s gifts arrived too late. It is said that Ferdowsi died before the camel train arrived. As the King’s caravan arrived in one gate of the city, Ferdowsi’s coffin and funeral procession left another gate of the city.

Ferdowsi’s daughter inherited her father’s hard earned money, and she built a new and strong bridge with a beautiful stone caravanserai nearby for travellers to rest and trade and tell stories.

Among the many miniatures paintings of the Shahname you will find many pictures of Ferdowsi himself, writing, showing his poems to the King and competing with other poets to prove that he really is the best poet of all.

Sally Pomme Clayton 2005

What is The Shahname?

The Shahaname was written down by poet Ferdowsi (940-1020AD). He collected together the pre-Islamic stories, legends, history, myths and poems that had been told by storytellers, grandparents and holy men for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Ferdowsi wrote the epic in rhyming couplets. It took him about 35 years to write the poem and it was finally completed in about 1010 ad. The full translation in English is 9 volumes long!

By the 14th century it had become the custom of the King to commission their own new copy of the Shahname, written and illustrated by the best painters and calligraphers of their time. It is the most frequently illustrated Persian text and has retained its popularity in Iran today. Many of these precious manuscripts dating from 13th -18th centuries have survived, and are held in museums and libraries throughout the world. Russia, Cairo, Istanbul, Berlin, Bombay, Tehran, Tashkent, Edinburgh, Bengal, and the USA, are examples of a few of the places where manuscripts can be found today.

What is an epic?

Storytelling is a living process and stories are slippery creatures. They can change their shape and their meaning according to the way tellers use them on their tongues, and the way listeners receive them in their ears. Genres are consequently elusive, and a story can shift genre according to both performance and context. However there are some general features about genres that make it possible to identify them.

You can look for: structural and verbal patterns; stylistic features; subject matter; performance styles, and the surrounding context of performance. These are rich sources for research, and will reveal some of the formal features that make up a genre.

Epics are usually long cycles of connected, or branching, poems. They are often concerned with battles and heroic deeds, combining historical fact with romance, adventure, magic, the supernatural, and the Gods. They often tell the stories of several generations of families. The epic tradition is one of performance, so the text is the result of a living performance tradition which would have incorporated both poetry and prose, speech and song, and might have been accompanied by music.

A Persian Epic

When Ferdowsi was writing Persia was much bigger than it is now, it extended beyond the borders of current Iran. It extended into parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan, India, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Persian based languages are also spoken by tribes and communities outside Iran: Dari, Baluchi and Pashtu are spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Tadjik is spoken in Tajikistan: Kurdish is spoken in Turkey and Iraq; Osset is spoken in the Caucusus. These cultures know the Shahname, consider it their own and have their own versions of the stories. Even within Iran there are different versions of the Shahaname in different regions of the country.

Ferdowsi used pre-Islamic sources for his epic in an Islamic Iran. He wrote his poem in Persian rather than Arabic, creating a national epic that reconstructed the history and myth of the ancient Persian peoples. Consequently the Shahname has an important place in Persian culture and in the hearts of Persian people. Listening to the story, the audience find their place in community and in the wider cosmos, through listening to a story their identity is renewed.

Shahname Synopsis

“The houses that are the dwelling of today will sink beneath shower and sunshine to decay but storm and rain shall never mar the palace that I have built with my poetry.” Ferdowsi

The Shahname, literally meaning ‘Book of Kings,’ is structured according to the mythical and historical reign of 50 Persian Kings. The epic can be roughly divided into three parts: the first part tells of the mythical creation of Persia and its earliest mythical past; the second part tells of the legendary Kings and the heroes Rostam and Sohrab; the third part blends historical fact with legend, telling of the semi-mythical adventures of actual historical Kings.

Brief overview

Part one:

Opens with a cosmography and the creation of the world out of nothing.

The reign of Jamshid for 700 hundred years.

The rule of Zahhak the evil Serpent King who is finally killed by the blacksmith.

The rule of Faridun and his sons.

Part two:

The birth and reign of Zal.

The birth of his son Rostam.

The reign of Rostam for 300 years, during which he overcomes seven heroic trials and many demons, marries Tahmina.

The birth of Sohrab.

The death of Sohrab by his own father, Rostam.

Part three:

The reigns and adventures of, among others: Key Khosrow; Siyavush; Goshtasp; Esfandiyar; Darius; Alexander, and Bahram Gur.

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