Firdawsi: His Times & Today

Illuminated frontispiece
From a copy of the Shahnama
Copied by Ismail Khaja, son of Mubarak Qadam
Iran, probably Shiraz, dated 1441
Lent by the Art and History Collection LTS1995.2.23
Very little is known about the poet Abul-Qasim Firdawsi, not even his real name. Since Firdawsi means “paradisal,” this must have been his poetic or pen name. Born around the year 940 into a family of landed nobility (dihqans) in Tus, near the city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, Firdawsi began composing his epic shortly after 975, at a time when eastern Iran had become increasingly independent of the Abbasid dynasty (reigned 750–1258) centered in Baghdad. Of the many local dynasties that gained control in the east, the Samanids (reigned 819–1005) ushered in one of the most brilliant periods in the cultural history of Iran. Proud of their Persian heritage, the Samanids actively encouraged a renaissance of Persian literature, poetry, and culture, and at their royal court and its capital Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan, they supplemented Arabic learning with the Persian language. The single most important manifestation of this renewed pride in Persian culture was the Shahnama, a celebration of Iran’s pre-Islamic past.

By the time Firdawsi completed his epic poem in 1010, the Samanids had been overthrown by the Ghaznavids (reigned 977–1186), a Turkic dynasty from Central Asia, and the brief Persian renaissance came to an abrupt end. According to legend, when Firdawsi delivered his epic to the Ghaznavid ruler Mahmud (died 1030), the sultan insulted the poet by paying him a meager fee, which Firdawsi shared with a bath attendant and a beer seller before he returned to his native Tus. Ten years later, Sultan Mahmud regretted the slight and sent camels loaded with precious indigo to Firdawsi. When the caravan entered Tus, it encountered a funeral procession accompanying Firdawsi’s coffin. As the poet predicted, however, over time the Shahnama achieved unrivaled status and is considered the most potent expression of Persian literary and national identity to this day.

By focusing on the lives of kings, heroes, and villains and in particular on the moral consequences of their deeds and actions, Firdawsi touches on concerns and dilemmas that continue to plague and intrigue to this day: the struggle between good and evil; the proper actions of a leader; the meaning of truth, integrity, and loyalty. Even though Firdawsi wrote the Shahnama a millennium ago, many of the epic’s characters and themes still seem familiar today. The battle between young Faraydun and the evil sorcerer-king Zahhak has echoes in Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader of Star Wars fame. The fantastic simurgh, with its magical tail feathers, could come straight from a Harry Potter book, and the exciting adventures of Rustam bring to mind the larger-than-life stories of Superman, Batman, and a score of other comic book heroes.

Over the centuries, the value and significance of these stories have only increased as they continue to delight, intrigue, and counsel new readers. Just as it did a thousand years ago, the Shahnama still offers insight into the wisdom and folly of human nature.

I’ve reached the end of this great history
And all the land will fill with talk of me
I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save
My name and reputation from the grave,
And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,
When I have gone, my praises and my fame.

— Firdawsi