The Persian Epic of Kings: Millennium of the Poet Ferdowsi

By Sorkhabi, Rasoul | The World and I, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The Persian Epic of Kings: Millennium of the Poet Ferdowsi


Sorkhabi, Rasoul, The World and I


In 1010 (now one thousand years ago), the Persian poet Ferdowsi completed his magnum opus Shahnama ("The Book of Kings"). This literary masterpiece consisting of 50,000 rhymed couplets is among world's longest poetry books. It presents, much like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, a great epic from the classical world although the book is little known to the Western public. It also helped preserve the Persian civilization and language after the Arab conquest of Persia (Iran) in the seventh century. Cultural organizations like UNESCO are holding events in 2010-2011 to mark the Millennium of Ferdowsi.

How sweetly has said the good-natured Ferdowsi (May blessings be upon his holy mausoleum): Do not harass the ant carrying a seed For it has life and sweet life is dear.

--The Persian poet Saadi, Bustan (The Orchard), 1257

Ferdowsi (also written as "Firdausi") is among the five top (if not the topmost) Persian poets of all time. In Iran's capital Tehran, there is a Ferdowsi Square where a white statute of the poet holding his book offers a peaceful sight to the busy traffic and passers-by. The statute was installed in 1976 in place of another statute of Ferdowsi which had been donated by the Zoroastrian (Parsees) community of India to the city of Tehran four decades earlier (this statute was transferred to the campus of T ehran University and now lies in front of the Faculty of Letters' building).

The story of this monument is one among many monuments and names of streets, magazines, libraries, and colleges in honor of Ferdowsi not only in Iran but in other countries as well. The main university in the city of Mash'had in northeast Iran, the national library of Tajikistan and a street in the capital Dushenbe, the college library of Wadham College (Oxford, England), a square (Pizzale Firdusi) in the city of Rome, and more recently a library in the Albanian city of Berat have been named after Ferdowsi. All these show the cultural significance of this poet not only for the Persian-speaking peoples in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan (totaling about 120 millions) but also in the history of world literature. This article offers an overview of the latest information on the life and work of Ferdowsi.

Ferdowsi's Time

To appreciate Ferdowsi's work it is imperative to situate him in the larger context of his history and geography. Prior to the Arab invasion, Persia (or Iran as the Persians called their country) together with Rome and China were then the world's largest

empires. In the 7th century, during the time of the second caliph Omar, the Arabs--freshly equipped with the uniting religion of Islam--invaded their neighboring countries.

Centuries of war between the Persian and Roman empires had exhausted both governments. This combined with internal problems in Persia and the zeal of the new Arabian society led to fall of the Sassanian (Sassanid) dynasty which had ruled Persia for over four centuries. Although the Iranians, over a period of two centuries or so, converted to Islam, they still desired to preserve their culture and historical standing. This ambition manifested itself in areas of both politics and literature.

There were military uprisings against the Arab rulers from time to time at various parts of Iran; some were put down violently but some were successful enough to engage in new political relationships with the Arab caliphs. Khorassan, a region in northeast Iran, especially played an important role in these Persian protests and renaissance. Indeed, the modern Persian language is the outgrowth of a dialect spoken in Khorassan (it is also called the Dari, "court," Persian which is the national language in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan).

The Arab Ummaiah dynasty (661-750 A.D.) came to power in Damascus after the death of Ali (the fourth Caliph after Prophet Muhammad and the first Imam of Shiite Muslims). The dynasty was highly pro-Arab and had little respect for other peoples and cultures. …

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