“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.“ (Ferdowsi’s conclusion of the Shahnameh)
|The third feat of Rustam: Killing a dragon |
(illustration from a 17th century copy of the Shahnameh)
|A 15th century illustration of a battle scene from the Shahnameh|
Naturally, the Shahnameh does not want to be a historical work. Rostam, its central heroic figure, dies at the age of about 500 under the auspices of something like an Indo-European proto-legend with similarities to the labours of Hercules and the end of both Cúchulainn and Hildebrand, a Germanic hero from the Migration Period. But beyond the identity-establishing value of epic heroes, the Shahnameh is the first comprehensive attempt to capture the past, along with the distinctive culture and, finally, the identity of Iran, in contrast to the Greek word “Persia”, originally a term denominating only the core region of the old Achaemenid Empire. Ferdowsi’s codification of Iran’s traditional enemy Turan, the land of the sons of the mythical King Fereydun, denominating the probably Turkic tribes beyond the Oxus, the river Amu Darya, was to be a foundation myth as well, for their historical successors migrating and invading into the Middle East, as soon as Farsi, Persian, became the language of the courts and of science and superseding Arabic from Baghdad to Bombay in this regard.
The Shahnameh soon became the basis of cultural consciousness for everybody who associated himself even remotely with ancient Iran and connected places like Georgia, Afghanistan and Tajikistan on the grounds of a body of text written in a language that did not change significantly over the last 1,000 years. There is enough reason to presume that the linguistic constant is owed to the efficacy of the Shahnameh itself, its verses recited by storytellers in bazaars and caravanserais all across the Middle East for centuries and the work itself as school book central in the learning of the dominant court language, Persian. Studying Ferdowsi was seen as prerequisite for being part of the cultural and intellectual life. The West learned of its 62 tales as late as 1829, when a first abridged version was translated into English and published in British India. Russian, French and German translations soon followed and the epic has lost nothing of its radiance to this day.
And more about the Shahnameh on: