Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Epic of the Kings

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Epic of the Kings

Article excerpt

The Epic of the Kings

Written almost a thousand year ago, The Epic of the Kings tells the story of the Iranian people from the time of the world's creation. National epic, landmark in world literature and a profound expression of the Iranian soul, Ferdowsi's masterpiece is still read and recited throughout Iran. IN a square in Teheran, the capital of Iran, there is a statue of Ferdowsi: the poet holds his Epic of the Kings (Shah-nama) in his hand and gazes at the peaks of the Alborz mountains. When I was young, my parents often took me to this place and while they looked on attentively I recited these lines by Ferdowsi:

I have toiled painfully these thirty years. I have

restored Iran to life by my verse.

Henceforth I cannot die; for I live, having

broadcast the seeds of my verses.

These words were engraved in the memory of the child I was then and I know that they have shaped my innermost identity. There is nothing astonishing in that. For almost a thousand years Ferdowsi's poem has been read, recited and copied in Iran. Even today it is recited in the cafes. Early on it became our national epic.

Why has it always been so popular? Not because of the originality of its subject--the history of ancient Iran from the time of its first mythical king to the last sovereign of the Sassanid dynasty in the seventh century AD--nor because of the novelty of its content. "What I will say, all have already told," Ferdowsi claimed. The poet transmitted; he invented nothing. He drew on old oral traditions and on ancient texts such as the Avesta, a holy book of the eighth century BC, or reworked somewhat earlier tales on the same theme.

The first monument of Persian literature

This immense poem of 50,000 couplets appeared in the tenth century, at a key moment in the history of Iranian culture. Since the fall of the Sassanids, the literary language of Iran had been Arabic. Middle Persian, the main vehicle of Sassanid civilization, was disappearing. At this moment, a young literature in an Iranian idiom--Persian--emerged in the east. Ferdowsi's poem would be its first masterpiece.

The Epic of the Kings does not describe the deeds of a single hero or king nor even a long adventure. It begins with the creation of the world and relates the history of fifty reigns on three distinct planes: the mythical, the epic and the historical.

The first part relates civilizing myths. The Pishdadians, the "first created", teach men to clothe themselves, to work metal, to master fire, to tame animals and to organize themselves in society. After ruling for 700 years, King Jamshid, succumbing to pride, has to yield his throne to a demoniac creature, the tyrant Zahhak who will rule for a thousand years. His malign power will finally be conquered by the justice-loving Faridun. These heroes, who personify the conflict between the forces of darkness and light, constitute a religious theme which is typically Iranian.

The second, longest and most truly epic part of the poem evokes the reign of the Kaianid kings. Here, in the centrepiece of the poem, light has triumphed. Rostam is the champion of all the heroes who live at the Kaianid court. Prodigiously strong, loyal to his king and faithful to his country, he is the terror of the enemy. This period is marked by interminable wars against Turan, a central Asian country whose ruler Afrasiyab is the sworn enemy of Iran.

In the final part, the poet presents a number of historical figures but in a rather fantastic light. He gives a notable account of the conquest of Alexander the Great (Sekandar), based on the Alexander legend of the Orient. The ending, even closer to history, tells of the exploits of the Sassanid rulers until the end of the dynasty.

Faridun and Zahhak: the just man and the tyrant

The story of Zahhak the tyrant, told in the first and most brilliant part of the poem, extols the sufferings of a martyred people. …

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