Firdausi’s Shahnama is a manual on kingship, wisdom, love, and magic

I’ve reached the end of this great history
And all the land will 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.

Extracted from Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, translated by Dick Davis

The Shahnama (The Book of King), composed by the Persian poet Firdausi (940-1020) around the year 1000, comprises 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 Iranian perspective.

Firdausi began to compose his epic shortly after 975, at a time when eastern Iran came under Samanid reign (819-1005), ushering in one of the most brilliant periods in the cultural history of Iran. At their court in Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan, the Samanids supplemented Arabic learning with the Persian language, initiating a Persian renaissance. By the time Firdausi completed the Shahnama, the Samanids had been overthrown by the Ghaznavids (r. 977-1186), ending the brief Persian renaissance.

Over time, the Shahnama achieved unrivalled status and is considered “the most potent expression of Persian literary and national identity.” (Casari)

Firdausi Shahnama
A 16th-century manuscript of the Shahnama of Firdausi. Dallas Museum of Art.

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, the third part blends historical fact with legend, telling of the semi-mythical adventures of actual historical Kings.1

Story of Bahram Gur and Azada, from the Shahnama, 12th century, Iran, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Shahnama has also been an important source of influence on many works of art produced in greater Iran, as well as the eastern Islamic regions. Specific stories and characters were used as motifs to decorate ceramics, tile panels, inlaid metalwork, lacquer work, and textiles. Many rulers patronised lavishly illustrated copies of the Shahnama, and today their pages can be found in museums and private art collections around the world.

1The Shahname, The British Library (accessed October 2016)
Mario Casari,  The Conceits of Poetry’: Firdausi’s Shahnama and the discovery of
Persian in early modern Europe (accessed October 2016)
K. E. Eduljee, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Zoroastrian Heritage (accessed October 2016)

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