Shahnamah, or Book of Kings

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Shahnamah, or Book of Kings

by Abu al-Qasim Firdawsi


An epic in verse, set in the kingdom of Persia from the earliest times to about 650 c.e.; completed in Persian about 1010 c.e.; published in English in 1832.


Recounting the lives of Persia’s renowned kings and heroes, the epic combines history and myth to describe how they shaped events up to the Arab conquest of Persia.

Events in History at the Time the Epic Takes Place

The Epic in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Epic Was Written

For More Information

Abu al-Qasim Firdawsi (940–1025; also spelled Abul Qasem Ferdowsi) lived during a time of political change in the Persian-speaking world. The “golden age” of Islam had passed some time before, and in places like his native city, far from the capital city of Baghdad, various dynasties and sects were emerging and coming into conflict with each other. While the Arabic language was the official language of Islam and of Islam’s central government, languages very different from Arabic, such as Persian and Turkish, remained important to people and their poets, who started to use them as a vehicle for writing down local traditions and expressing national and regional identities. Firdawsi, a Muslim himself, was one such poet. The little that is known about his life provides hints about his career and personality, but much remains a mystery. Even his given name has not been established: “Abu al-Qasim” means “father of Qasim,” and “Firdawsi,” meaning “from paradise,” was the name by which he was known. What is certain is that he came from a family of landowners—well-off but not nobility—and that he spent most of his life in the city of Tus, now Mashhad, in northeastern Iran. In his day, the city was linked to major trade routes that traversed Asia from China to Persia and the Byzantine Empire. Just over a hundred years before Firdawsi’s birth, Tus had become a pilgrimage center for Shri‘te Muslims, the subdivision to which Firdawsi almost certainly belonged. The Shahnamah. (pronounced “Shah-na-MEH”; also spelled Shahnama, Shah-nama, or Shahname), his masterpiece, is his only work to survive. More than 50,000 verses long, the epic appears to have taken him some 30 years to complete. Though there are many gaps in information about Firdawsi’s life, aspects of his personality can be gleaned from the Shahnamah. Embedded in the epic are his anxieties about aging and his grief over the death of his son. On a national level, the epic allowed Firdawsi to convey traditions that he and people of his social class valued in Iran under Arab rule. But the effort seems also to have been part of a deeper project—to work out what it meant to be a non-Arab Muslim and human in a time of great change.

Events in History at the Time the Epic Takes Place

Scope of the epic

The Shahnamah describes the lives of some 50 kings, in a line going back to the first man, Gayumars—a Persian Adam. The episodes concerning the earliest kings—Gayumars and several of his successors—derive from ancient Persian myths, set on the Iranian plateau. Each of the kings in this section contributes something to the march of civilization. Arts and crafts, writing, and social institutions—including, first and foremost, that of kingship itself—are credited to the rulers of this mythical period.

The vision of civilization is ambivalent, however. Although there is a steady progression toward more complex and hierarchical ways of life, for every positive accomplishment there are negative implications. Kingship, established by Gayumars, is an example. Whereas he used his power to benefit people, the career of a later king, Jamshid, shows how power can blind a leader to his human limitations. It is ultimately from this negative aspect of power that evil emerges as a force distinct from, and destructive of, good.

After this mythic period comes a series of legendary kings, many of whom are connected with historical figures, although not identical to them


One of the best-known stories about: Firdawsi’s life is that the ruler for whom he composed the Shahnamah, SuJtan Mahmud of Ghazni (969–1030 c.e.,), at first paid Firdawsi so poorly that he ridiculed the sultan in a satire. Mahmud’s own adviser tactfully reminded him of the slight, by citing a verse from the Shahnamah that shed light on a difficult situation the sultan was facing on a campaign in India. Embarrassed, Mahmud loaded several camels with precious goods to send to the poet, but too late: Firdawsi’s corpse was being carried out of Tus as the camels trudged into the city. The poet’s daughter nobly declined the fortune, using it instead to establish a caravansaray—a resting place for traders and travelers—outside the city.

in every detail This is the section of the Shahnamah that is most truly epic. Here, Firdawsi integrates two different traditions—the legends of a dynasty called Kayanians (Persian kings who dwelled in what is now northeastern Iran and just beyond into Central Asia) and a powerful group to the south, in Sistan, now in eastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan. Some of the Sistanians were kings, but more important than the kings for the Shahnamah axe the Sistanian heroes: strong Zoroaster, founder of the pre-Islamic faith of Persia. champions who could fight in the service of a king. The last section of the Shahnamah moves from legendary to recognizably historical material concerning the kings of the Parthian (c. 248 b.c.e., 226 c.e.) and Sasanian (c. 226–651 c.e.) dynasties. Firdawsi’s account stops when Islam emerges as a force in Persia and the rest of the world.

Persia—historical vs. mythical origins

The Persian people, distant relatives of many European peoples, did not always live in the region of Iran. Scholars believe that the Persians were at one time united with the “Aryans,” who would invade India around 2000 b.c.e. (The name “Iran” comes from the same root as “Aryan.”) The original Indo-Iranian community made its first known appearance in Mesopotamia, then moved far to the northeast, to Central Asia. The Aryans probably came down to the Iranian heartland along both sides of the Caspian Sea, although some people believe that migration was northward from the Indian subcontinent. Arriving in Iran, the migrants mixed with the people already settled there. From this mix, the Persians arose. Their language belongs to the family of Indo-European languages (which includes Greek, Latin, Russian, Spanish, French, German, and English); Arabic belongs to an altogether different language family known as “Semitic.”

The Persians came to view their country as the heart of the world, not just politically but


Although Firdawsi was a Muslim, a significant amount of the material he incorporated into the Shammah derived from texts and traditions of the pre-islamic faith of Persia: Zoroastrianism. The faith is named for its founder Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), who probably lived around 1000 b.c.e. In the Shahnamah, Zoroaster is linked to the king, isfandiyar, an association that has not been established in history, Zoroaster integrated ancient Persian beliefs and principles into a coherent religious system of moral teachings and ritual practices, ft is in Zoroastrianism that the first expression appears of certain beliefs that are important for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: angels, the judgment of the soul for good and evil deeds, and the conceptions of Heaven and Hell.

Zoroastrian communities remained fairly strong in Iran through the ninth century c.e., when they began to suffer increasing persecution by Muslim rulers, In response, many but not all Zoroastrian communities migrated to India, where communities of the remaining 200,000 followers live today. Their most popular festival is the Spring Equinox, or Nawruz (“new day”, falls about March 21), The festival spread to non-Zoroastrians, and the Persians turned it into a national holiday, which was later Islamicized.

In the background of Persian mythology is a cosmic struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, purity and impurity characteristic of Zoroastrianism. The world is the product of a good creator-god, Ahura Mazda, who does constant battle with Ahriman, a principle of evil and the source of corruption and impurity Human beings, part of the good creation, must fight on the side of good, even if the victory does not take place in their lifetime. In practical terms, Zoroastrianism lays great stress on upholding contracts and speaking the truth The saying “Hear no evil; see no evil; speak no evil” is Zoroastrian.

Important material in the Shahnamah corresponds to Zoroastrian scripture—the Hymns (Yashts) and the Bimdahishn—and the epic speaks explicitly of Zoroastrian priests (mobads); Ahriman, the Evil Principle; and the themes of Nawruz day.

cosmically too. They put their homeland at the center of concentric rings of countries surrounded by a vast global-ocean, with a heaven above and an underworld, or hell, below. This view contrasted in significant ways with that of the ancient Greeks, who regarded their rugged peninsulas and islands as a small part of a world that might be useful to explore.

Several factors about Persia’s actual geography probably served to reinforce the ancient view. From the earliest times of their settlement in the region, probably before 1000 c.e., Persians were outstanding gardeners, developing skills in irrigation and in the cultivation of crops, especially fruit trees, that created lush gardens in a dry land. The people developed an existence that contrasted sharply with the nomadic ways of various neighbors. Fear of attack from these neighbors—nomads and settled tribal peoples to the east and northeast—was strong. The oldest Zoroastrian texts speak of the terror brought on by maryas, roving bands of young men who plagued settled people and carried off their cattle. In the Shahnamah this conflict is apparent in the long-standing struggle between the good Persian kings and the Turanians in the north and east. There is a sense too of tension with lands to Persia’s southwest, in the Arabian Peninsula. The evil king Zahhak who comes to rule Iran is described as coming from Arabia.

The Shahnamah relates ancient tradition concerning the way Iran, presumably once the entire settled world, was broken into competing parts. King Faridun, a descendant of Gayumars, the first king, had three sons: Salm, Tur, and Iraj. Faridun bequeathed to Salm the lands to the west, including Rum (Rome/Byzantine Empire); to Tur he bequeathed the lands to the east and north, which thus became known as Turan. (By Firdawsi’s time, people associated this name from legend with “Turk,” for the Turkish-speaking people who had moved in there, but that was not the original referent.) Finally, to Iraj, the youngest son, he bequeathed the finest land, Iran. The two older brothers grew jealous and killed Iraj. Faridun, distraught, bided his time until Iraj’s grandson, Manuchihr, matured and took power, which returned control of the land to a legitimate king. But thereafter the realm remained perpetually insecure. Subsequent kings had to rely on the hero Rustam, a powerful champion from a different family line, to safeguard the kingdom from enemies.

While the documented history of Persian monarchy does not correlate precisely with the Shahnamah, there is enough correspondence to indicate real historical awareness. Historically the first dynasty was that of the Achaemenid kings, which began in the sixth century b.c.e. and whose first monarch, Cyrus, was in many ways the most distinguished. Cambyses, Xerxes, and Ardashir (also called Artaxerxes) followed. In 331 b.c.e. Darius III fell in battle against the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, marking the end of Achaemenid rule. Alexander, who in fact had no blood relationship to the Persians, established a short-lived line of governors in Persia, called the Seleucids. After them, for over four centuries, the Parthians ruled. Beginning around 226 c.e., with King Ardashir, the Sasanian dynasty continued until Muslim (mainly Arab) forces finally conquered Persia in 651.

The Sasanians, who were often at war with the Byzantine Empire, ruled a population that was quite diverse, especially in cosmopolitan areas. Syriac and other Christians, as well as Jews, settled in Sasanian domains, where some went on to become distinguished translators and physicians as well as artisans and traders. There were also Manichaeans (followers of Mani, who preached a body-spirit dualism). Officially, Zoroastrianism continued to be the royally endorsed religion. By then it had developed into a tradition dominated by priests who performed elaborate rituals of purification and sacrifice and remained closely tied to the kings. The last Sasanian king was Yazdagird III. By his death in 651, Yazdagird’s power had fallen so low that he was killed by a miller with whom he had taken refuge. It is with this event that the Shahnamah concludes. It refrains from entering into Islamic history in relation to Iran, though an introductory passage showers formal praise on the Prophet Muhammad, as was expected of any literary composition.

Arabizing Persia

The Shahnamah may appear to slight Islam by dwelling on the pre-Islamic Persian past and by concluding before that faith’s emergence as a belief system and force in world civilization. Nevertheless, there are many passages praising God, and Firdawsi himself was evidently a reasonably devoted Shir‘ite Muslim. From a historical perspective, the ease with which Arabs conquered Persia—and Islam took hold among its people—suggests the existence of negative cultural and social conditions under Sasanian rule, and probably under previous Persian dynasties as well. Arab culture provided a writing system that was well adapted to the Persian language, and a faith (Islam) that was easy to learn and relatively egalitarian. Instead of priests and complicated rituals, the new Islamic faith stressed the welfare of the community and the individual’s responsibility to God. Rigid Zoroastrian purity laws had resulted in the exclusion of groups of people from the rest of society. Anyone, for example, who worked as a cleaner or a tanner or cared for the dead had been designated as permanently impure. Under Sasanian rule, the priests and kings had towered over a strictly stratified society that relegated the common people to the bottom of the hierarchy. Evidently commoners were ready to throw off this rigid hierarchy at the first opportunity, which Islam provided. At the same time, there was enough in their earlier experience to make it worth remembering fondly. The fact that after the advent of Islam, just before Firdawsi’s time, the Persian language experienced a renaissance testifies to the vitality of Persian culture in the pre-Islamic period.

The Epic in Focus

Plot summary

The Shahnamah begins with a summary of God’s creation of the good elements—fire, the planets, plants and animals, and human beings—without reference to evil.

Going beyond these creatures [plants and animals], man appeared,

To become the key to all these close-linked things.

His head was raised up like the cypress,

He was endowed with good speech and applied reason to use.

(Firdawsi, The Epic of Kings: Shahnama, p. 2)

Further on in the Persian original, the epic discusses its own sourcebook, from which it drew the stories for the Shahnamah:

There was a book [nama] from ancient times

In which there was an abundance of stories;

It was dispersed into the hands of every

mobad [Zoroastrian priest; wise Man]

Every wise one [of the mobads] possessed a portion of it.

(Shahnamah in Davidson, p. 49)

Subsequent verses describe this “book” as containing the history of the kings of the world, of when and how they reigned in the earliest ages. To date, no one has been able to determine exactly what “source” or sources lie behind the narratives of the Shahnamah. We do not know if this was a single book or many books, or even orally transmitted. It may have been one or several, written or spoken. If it was written, it is not clear whether Firdawsi himself was able to read its language or indeed whether he ever saw it.

The Shahnamah’s account of the kings of the world begins with Gayumars. At first he and his courtiers live in complete harmony with one another and with all the animals. But Ahriman, “the evil principle,” disrupts this peaceful existence by sending his son, the Black Demon, and a host of lesser demons to invade Iran. This wicked band kills Gayumars’s son Siyamak in battle. With the assistance of helpful angels, lions, and tigers, Gayumars’s grandson Hushang avenges the death, killing the Black Demon in single combat.

During his reign, Hushang teaches people the skills of mining metal. Since metal is forged by heat, it is altogether fitting that he also discovers fire, which he teaches them to worship as a heavenly gift. Hushang’s son Tahmures instructs the people in other useful arts: spinning and weaving, breeding horses for battle, and raising cheetahs and falcons for hunting. A group of demons that he has taken captive offers to teach him yet another art, writing, in return for their freedom. He learns the skill but does not release the demons and so becomes known as Div-Band, “Demon-Binder.”

The next ruler, Jamshid, son of Tahmures, is the King Solomon of Persian tradition, renowned for his wisdom and furthering of civilization. At first his reign proves to be a golden age of unparalleled wealth and luxury; he teaches his people the manufacture of both armor and fine cloth, such as silk and brocade. But attachment to riches and self-love become his undoing. Jamshid has a band of demons lift him, on his jeweled throne, high into the air to proclaim the Spring Festival (Nawruz), which many Iranians still celebrate. In the end, his arrogant belief in his own magnificence causes God to withdraw his farr, a divine blessing that is understood as conferring the right to rule.

Zahhak was originally an Arab prince and a good but somewhat naīve man. Iblis (the Arabic word for Satan, the counterpart of Ahriman in Zoroastrianism) entered the king’s service by persuading the king to take him on as a cook. Preparing delicious dishes of meat—which people had rarely eaten until that time—he tantalized Zahhak to the point that the king offered Iblis any reward he wished. Iblis said that all he wanted was to kiss the king’s shoulders. When he did, two black snakes emerged from the spots he kissed. Each of the snakes, Iblis informed Zahhak, requires the brain of a youth for food every day. Thus, Zahhak began putting the best of his own subjects to death on a regular basis.


Kingship is the Shahmmah’s principal concern, as indicated by die meaning of the title: “Book of Kings,” This focus is consistent with Persian history, where the effective reign of the king, or shah, was considered indispensable to the well-being of his domain and all its inhabitants. The institution of Persian kingship ended as late as 1979, with the capitulation of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi to Ayatollah Khomeini’s forces.

Fundamental to Persian kingship is the conception of farr, or the aura of the God-granted right to rule. It was by virtue of possessing the farr that a king had the authority to rule and, conversely, that his subjects owed him total loyalty. However, just as the king could gain the farr, he could lose it by bad actions or disastrous defeat in battle, in the Shahnamah, the third king, the mighty Jamhid, ultimately loses his share of the farr, becoming so overly proud of his accomplishments that he proclaims himself God. Often envisioned as radiant light, the farr, say some scholars, is the original source of the halo—light encircling a figure’s head in a way that resembles a crown—which became so significant in Christian and Buddhist art.

Back in Jamshid’s kingdom, his subjects grow restive. So dissatisfied are they with their egocentric king that some of the Persian nobles ask Zahhak, horrible as he has become, to take over the rule of their land. Zahhak complies, imposing his own cruel regime on Iran. Terrified, its people cower in silence until the brave blacksmith Kava arises. Kava, who has lost all but one of his 18 sons to Zahhak’s slaughter, openly denounces the tyrant. Waving his leather blacksmith’s apron as a banner, he marshals the people to search for a leader who will end the tyranny:

Noble worshippers of God, let all who side with [the rebel] Faridun liberate their heads from the yoke of Zahhak! Let us go to Faridun and find refuge in the shelter of his Farr [royal glory]. Let us proclaim that this present king is Ahriman [the Maker of Evil], who is at heart the enemy of the Creator. By the means of that leather [Kava’s apron], worth nothing and costing nothing, the voice of the enemy was distinguished from the voice of the friend.

(Shah-namah, p. 20)

After long battles, aided by Kava and his forces, the virtuous Faridun drives Zahhak inside Mount Damavand, Iran’s highest mountain. Faridun plans to slaughter Zahhak, but an angel convinces the hero to leave the evil ruler alive, bound in chains under the mountain. Faridun divides his realm among his three sons, Salm, Tur, and Iraj, giving the choicest portion to Iraj, who is then killed by his jealous brothers. Years pass and Faridun is very old when the grandson of Iraj—Manuchihr—avenges the wrong, killing both Salm and Tur in battle before taking the throne himself.

Meanwhile, to the east, another family emerges into history: the heroic Sistanians, named after their home province of Sistan, in what is now southeastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan. The first of these heroes, Sam, has a son named Zal. The child is a strong healthy lad, but his hair is completely white. Alarmed by this abnormality, then regarded as a sign of demonic parentage, Sam abandons Zal at the foot of Mount Damavand, north of what is now Tehran. A great, magical bird, the Simurgh, saves the infant from death and raises him in a nest with her own chicks. Zal grows up to be so mighty that a passing caravan spreads rumors about him throughout the kingdom. Hearing these rumors, Sam realizes the mighty figure must be his son and searches for him. As a parting gift, the Simurgh gives Zal a feather. If in dire need, he can burn it, and she will come to his aid with her supernatural powers.

Zal eventually travels to a court farther to the east, where he falls in love with a princess named Rudabah. The two love each other deeply, but there is a problem: Rudabah is a descendant of the wicked Zahhak. In order to marry her, Zal must get his father, Sam, as well as the Iranian king, Manuchihr, to agree. Rudabah’s father, Mihrab, himself becomes apprehensive about the match and at one point threatens to solve everything by killing his own daughter. In the end, Rudabah’s loyal and wise mother, Sindukht, saves the day by traveling to Sam’s court with gifts to plead for the marriage. Despite all the worries, the marriage works out well. Both husband and wife live very long lives, with Rudabah surviving even their son Rustam, greatest champion of all, who defends Iran’s kingship for hundreds of years.

Rustam is a deeply human figure, despite the supernatural strength and size that earns him the name Pil-tan, meaning “Elephant-bodied.” Totally devoted, his deepest loyalty is to upholding the “throne and crown” of Iran. But when the kings do not deserve that loyalty, the hero feels conflicted. Rustam’s deepest affection appears to be reserved for his fabulous horse, Rakhsh. One day on a ride in remote lands, the horse is stolen from camp. Frantic, Rustam ends up at the foreign court of a nobleman whose beautiful daughter, Tahminah, has become captivated with Rustam from stories of his exploits. Promising to find his horse (which she does), Tahminah draws him to her bed and the two conceive a child.

For this adventure, Rustam eventually pays a heavy price. Having never met his son, Suhrab, he fails to recognize him in battle years later and kills him. Too late, the father identifies him as his son by an amulet Rustam once gave Tahminah to bind on the boy’s arm.

After the reign of Kaykubad, a Persian king whom Rustam fetches out of hiding to place on the throne, the subsequent kings and princes all have weaknesses. Kaybubad’s son, Kay Kavus, is forceful but self-centered. One of the most tragic figures in the Shahnamah, Siyavush, Kay Kavus’s son, is almost too pure for his own good. He forges a peace treaty with the Turanian king, Afrasiyab.

While the Persian kings have their faults, the rival king shows virtues. Afrasiyab approaches the association with good intentions toward the young Persian prince. But a bad dream fills Afrasiyab with premonitions that things will not turn out well: “Afrasiyab cried out, as if / He were a man who spilled his secrets while / Delirious, and trembled in his bed” (Firdawsi, The Legend of Seyavash, p. 39). The king’s brother, Garsivaz, who will turn Afrasiyab against Siyavush, runs to his side and asks what is wrong. “The king replie[s], ‘Don’t ask, don’t speak to me. / Give me a moment till my mind has cleared. / And hold me tightly for a little while’” (The Legend of Seyavash, p. 39).

In the end, Siyavush’s death at Turanian hands is all the more poignant because of the rival king’s affection for him. Afrasiyab had earlier provided him not only with a palace but also with one of his own daughters to wed. After Siyavush dies, his wife Farangis bears his son, Kay Khusraw, who goes on to become one of Iran’s great kings. Siyavush’s death is not forgotten. His martyred blood lends him almost mythic stature, suggesting godlike qualities that even the earliest kings of legends do not have:

From the dust that drank /
the blood of Seyavash a tree rose up /
To touch the clouds; each leaf displayed his  likeness.
Those who mourned for Seyavash
Would gather and bewail his death and  worship.
          (Shah-nama, p. 131)

The line of the great Kayanian kings comes to an end with Prince Isfandiyar’s death at Rustam’s hands. Shortly thereafter, Rustam is killed by his own half-brother, Shaghad. Born of Zal and a slave-woman, Shaghad is jealous of Rustam. He schemes with his father-in-law, the king of Afghanistan, to lure Rustam to his death in a pit.

The Shahnamahs stories about the Sasanian kings, while numerous and varied, are less vivid than the earlier ones in the narrative. Memorable characters in the Sasanian section include Bahram Gur and Bahram Chubin. The epic portrays Nushirvan (Khusraw I) as one of the greatest Persian kings—historians portray him similarly. Another great Sasanian king is Khusraw Parviz. The story of his love for the Armenian princess, Shirin, takes on a life of its own in subsequent literature, with several complete romances devoted to the subject (see Khusraw and Shirin , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times).

Women in the Shahnamah

The visibility of women in the Shahnamah is likely to strike the modern reader as a positive statement about women’s rights, as though Firdawsi either lived in a world where women were particularly active or wished to propose that they should be. But given what were probably very restricted roles for women in Firdawsi’s own time, the idea may have been that women may figure prominently in stories, and only there.

In much of the Shahnamah, there is a rather harsh view of women. Rustam, detecting the hand of Afrasiyab’s daughter in the betrayal of the good Prince Siyavush, remarks bitterly, “Fortunate is the woman whose mother never bears her” (Shanama in Motlagh, p. 115). In other places where women play a major role, misfortune results. One of the strongest examples is Sudabah, the favored wife of King Kay Kavus and Siyavush’s stepmother. Sudabah falls in love with her stepson and calls him to her in the harem. He resists going to see her at first, wanting nothing to do with women, but gives in at her insistence. Then, virtuously, the stepson rejects her outright. An enraged Sudabah turns to a confidante—presumably a servant—who is pregnant with twins. Sudabah convinces the expectant mother to concoct a magic potion to abort the children, then claims that they were Sudabah’s own children by the king and that Siyavush raped her, causing a miscarriage. King Kavus decides to test his son by fire, whereupon Siyavush proves his innocence by passing through the flames unharmed. The king prepares to execute the devious Sudabah by hanging, but the ever-good Siyavush intervenes to spare her life.

In the story of Sindukht and Rudabah, the Shahnamah presents another, rarer face of womanhood: loyal, intelligent, and courageous. Here one would expect disastrous results, since mother and daughter descend from the evil Zahhak. But both prove to be positive characters. Rudabah endures a horrendous pregnancy and a Caesarean section to give birth to the great Rustam, and in the end she outlives him, and even her grandson Suhrab. Certainly her fate is contrary to all expectations.

In real life, the Zoroastrians spoke of women’s ritual impurity. They seem to have believed that diabolical forces could more easily sway women than men toward the practice of evil magic, as Sudabah is swayed in her passion for Siyavush. That negative images of women persisted into Firdawsi’s time is evident in his own readiness to envision the earth as a cruel mother who might seize and swallow up her children at any moment. Reflecting on Siyavush’s death, he writes,

Such is the way this ancient crone we call
The earth will act.…
… when the heart
Has learnt to love the world she drags the head
Down—suddenly—into the dust.
          (Shah-nama, p. 131)


Rustam’s presence in the Shahnamah sets up a tension between two prominent types, the king and the hero, represented by Rustam, This division is similar to those of the legendary British king Arthur and his knights. The king is responsible to his realm, white the knights or heroes are bound to undertake all sorts of challenges and adventures in his defense. Although the roles are complementary, the possibility of conflict is ever present In the Shahnamah, tragedy ultimately comes to pass, as Rustam kills the Persian prince Isfandiyar in a battle forced on both of them.

Historically women were repressed in both pre-Islamic times and Firdawsi’s own. Some Muslims attribute the conception of purdah, sequestering of women, as well as full veiling, to Sasanian traditions that were wrongly incorporated into Islam. There is evidence that the wives of Sasanian kings were indeed concealed from public view. In both pre-Islamic and Islamic times, working women had considerably more freedom but little social status.

Sources and literary context

After Islam was established in Arabia in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (570–632 c.e.), the faith quickly spread to Syria, Egypt, and Persia. The Arabic language spread rapidly as well—to Egypt and Syria at least. While the Persians converted to Islam with remarkable speed, they chose not to adopt Arabic, continuing instead to speak the Persian language. They passed on to their children as well an account of their Persian heritage dating back to the kings of the sixth century b.c.e. Also sustained was a reverence for the pre-Islamic faith of Zoroastrianism. Firdawsi, though a Muslim, recorded and so helped them sustain the components of the legacy. We do not know how he learned the traditions he recorded, with one exception. Early in the Shahnamah, Firdawsi states that he has incorporated some 1,000 lines from a Shahnamah written by a somewhat older poet named Daqiqi.

There were two principal ways that Persian Muslims were reminded of their pre-Islamic heritage. First, monuments honored their historic kings from the Achaemenid and Sasanian dynasties. With occasional inscriptions, monuments like the palace and tombs of Persepolis testified to the impressive reigns of shahs (kings) like Xerxes, Cyrus, and Darius. The other way that pre-Islamic Persian history endured was through the practices and scriptures of Zoroastrians who did not convert to Islam. But the details of Zoroastrian texts are so different from the Shahnamah that these could not have been direct sources for Firdawsi.

All too little remains from Sasanian literature, in its difficult script, called Pahlavi, and, of course, even less evidence can be gleaned from the unwritten arts of storytelling, dance, or music. But the scant evidence that does exist suggests that in the Sasanian courts and probably among the common people too, there was a rich artistic tradition, from which Firdawsi must have drawn. The Shahnamah itself provides some of this evidence, as in the episode of Barbad, a singer-storyteller who hides himself in a cypress tree in the garden of the Sasanian king Khusraw Parviz, to enchant him with music and song. The lively imagination at work in the Shahnamah, with its fairies, witches, demons, monsters, and fantastic adventures, is almost certainly not Firdawsi’s alone, but an aspect of Persian heritage.

There appear to be three main strands of material woven into the fabric of the Shahnamah: Zoroastrian myths, history of the period after Alexander’s invasion, and a loosely connected narrative from the house of Rustam. Finally the Shahnamah’s episode of Alexander the Great has an independent source: a Greek Alexander “romance” that inspired stories of the conqueror throughout Europe and Asia, from ancient times through the Middle Ages. The Shahnamah’s account of Alexander took on something of a life of its own, inspiring separate narratives in Persian called Iskandarnamahs, or Alexander Books. One of the few romantic episodes in these Iskandarnamahs also appears in the Shahnamah: Alexander’s visit to Queen Qaydafa, a strong, attractive, mature woman reminiscent of the Queen of Sheba. In some versions Alexander defeats her, but Firdawsi has the two leaders part in friendship.

Events in History at the Time the Epic Was Written

Persian resurgence

During the tenth and eleventh centuries, during which Firdawsi lived, the strong center of the Islamic world was disintegrating and the vast territories of Asia, including Persia, were experiencing gradual fragmentation. Since the seventh century, Muslims had been governed by an administration called the “caliphate,” similar to the Holy Roman Empire in Europe somewhat later. The first caliphate, that of the Umayyads, lasted from 661 to 750 and had its capital in Damascus, Syria. This dynasty of Muslim leaders succeeded in conquering most of the territory that Islam was to hold, except for India and Indonesia. The Umayyads were replaced by another dynasty, the Abbasids, who moved the capital to Baghdad. The Abbasids ruled from 750 until 1258, during the time in which the Shahnamah was written.

Rather than conquest, the first Abbasid caliphs concentrated their resources on culture: architecture, literature, science, and philosophy. The early Abbasid era, from about 750 to 850, came to be considered the “Golden Age” of Islam, a time of relative peace and prosperity, when trade by land and sea brought great wealth into Islam’s domains. By contrast, Europeans were living in a period that, if not actually dark, was unstable and primitive.

In the 800s, however, a series of weak caliphs and external threats brought about a decline in the Abbasids’ power. In Persia, particularly, the survival of local identity—due largely to an independent language and continuing leadership traditions—led to the rise of local dynasties such as the Buwayhids, Safarids, and Samanids. Meanwhile, to the north and east of the regions under Abbasid control, various Turkish-speaking people were gaining sufficient strength to entertain political ambitions. Whereas the Persian speakers were mostly urban dwellers or farmers, the Turkish speakers were generally nomadic herders, horse-breeders, and caravan traders. United in their resentment of Arab Muslims, who regarded both the Persian and Turkish speakers as inferior, the two groups clashed with each other as well: their different ways of life fueled the conflict.


There is some evidence that Firdawsi first began to compose his epic for a Persian ruler, the Samanid governor Abu Mansur. When the Samanids fell to the Turkish ruler Mahmud of Ghazni, Firdawsi either had to forego the project or write for the new ruler, and he chose the latter course.

Like many other ambitious Turkish-speaking rulers of his era, Mahmud of Ghazni knew Persian well and admired Persian literature. He would have had plenty of reason to approve of the Shahnamah. As a language of literature and culture, Persian was second only to Arabic in the Islamic world. If a local ruler wished to establish a dynasty with some independence from the Arab-dominated caliphate, it was in his interest to become fluent in the Persian language and assimilate into the culture, regardless of his ethnicity. For a Turkish ruler, identifying with the Persian heritage was a great help in establishing his authority. Mahmud’s slighting of Firdawsi by paying him poorly probably has more to do with personal than ethnic differences.

It was a Turkish and Mongolian dynasty (the two groups being closely related) that secured the Shahnamah’s reputation a few centuries after Firdawsi composed it. The Ilkhanids (1256–1353), descendents of Genghis Khan, ruled Persia at the time. Their courts produced some of the finest manuscripts to come out of Persia, including the first known illustrated versions of the Shahnamah, beginning around 1300.

For several centuries after its composition, the Shahnamah gave rise to sequels, some by poets who recorded their names, and others by anonymous poets who recited their sequels orally in popular circles. The sequels themselves often concerned secondary characters in the original: Alexander, for example, or the hero Garshasp. Firdawsi’s accomplishment was such that no one attempted anything of the Shahnamah’s scope or seriousness after him. To this day, many Iranians, especially men, are named after characters in the Shahnamah’. Faridun, Manuchihr, and Isfandiyar, for example. And many people memorize verses, which they drop into everyday conversations or simply recite for pleasure. The style of composition, nearly a thousand years old, is considered a model of Persian language, being relatively free of Arabic words and written in a simple and free manner that is nevertheless


The nineteenth-century English writer Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) evidently did not have access to the text of Firdawsi’s Shahmmah, even in translation, and he never traveled to Persia, Yet drawing on summaries, he created a moving composition that is remarkably faithful to the original.

Sohrab is Rustaro’s son by the Turanian noblewoman Tahroinah, With the consent of Tahrninah’s father, Rustam spends the night with her. Before leaving, Rustam gives Tahminah a seat to tie in the hair of their future child, if a girl, or to bind on the arm if a boy. fn Arnold’s account, Tahminah sends word to Rustam that the child is a girl, which is why Rustam later fails to identify Sohrab as his son.

In service to the Turanian king, Sohrab has two ambitions; to prove himself in battle against the Persians and to meet his father, whom he knows to be Rustam. At the outset of the episode, Persians and Turanians are encamped by the Oxus River, ready to do battle Sohrab makes it known that he wishes to fight the best of the Persians, one-on-one-When Rustam takes up the challenge, both of Sohrab’s ambitions are conflated in a single event and tragedy ensues.

The two champions, father and son, are well matched both in power and in underlying generosity and tenderheartedness, indeed, it is the son who seems to have the edge in terms of strength and fighting skill. Early on, Sohrab suspects Rustam’s identity. At one point, he explicitly asks if his opponent is not Rustam: “Oh, by thy father’s head! By thine own soul! / Art thou not Rustam? Speak! Art thou not he?” (Arnold, lines 342–343), But an unsuspecting Rustam lies about his own identity, reasoning that whoever this young opponent is, he will flee the fight if his known, as past experience shows. Sohrab gets Rustam down but spares him, urging a truce. Rustam refuses. Then once again Sohrab finds himself in position to wield a deadly blow, but that instant Rustam cries out his own name, which so unnerves Sohrab that he fails to fend off the fatal thrust:

But that beloved name unnerved my arm—
That name, and something, I confess, in thee,
Which troubles all my heart, and made my shield
Fall; and thy spear transfixed an unarmed foe.
          (Arnold, lines 547–550)

profound. At the same time, its tales remain vibrant and enduring. The Shahnamah draws on ancient traditions, but its human truths have not grown old.

Although several Shahnamah manuscripts were brought to Europe in earlier times, Europeans only began to take its contents seriously when the British started colonizing India in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, a scholar named Jules Mohl produced a French translation in prose. Between 1906 and 1925, two brothers, George and Edmund Warner, completed an English translation in blank verse. Based on summaries he had read in French and English, the British poet Matthew Arnold composed his verse “Sohrab and Rostam” around the year 1852.

—Caroline Sawyer

For More Information

Arnold, Matthew. The Poems of Matthew Arnold. Ed. Kenneth Allott. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965.

Banani, Amin. “Ferdowsi and the Art of Tragic Epic.” In Persian Literature. Ed. Ehsan Yarshater. Columbia Lectures on Iranian Studies. New York: Persian Heritage Foundation, 1983.

Christensen, Arthur. L’lran sous les Sassanides [Iran under the Sasanians]. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1944.

Curtis, Vesta Sarkhosh. The Legendary Past: Persian Myths. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Davidson, Olga M. Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Firdawsi. The Epic of Kings: Shah-nama, the National Epic of Persia by Ferdowsi. Trans. Reuben Levy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

_____. The Legend of Seyavash. Trans. Dick Davis. New York: Penguin, 1992.

_____. The Tragedy of Sohráb and Rustam. Trans. Jerome W. Clinton. Publications on the Near East 3. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.

Hillenbrand, Robert. “The Arts of the Book in Ilkhanid Iran.” In Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353. Ed. Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

Motlagh, Djalal Khaleghi. Die Frauen im Schahname [Women in the Shahnama]. Islam kundliche Untersuchungen. Bd. 12. Freiburg i. Br.: Klaus Schwarz, 1971.

——. “Ferdowsi.” Encyclopaedia Iranica. Vol. 9. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 1999.

Robinson, B. W. The Persian Book of Kings: An Epitome of the Shahnama of Firdawsi. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2002.

Schulthesis, Rob. “The Enduring Splendors of, Yes, Afghanistan.” Smithsonian, February 2003, 32–40.