It is said that if you are English, you must know at least one Shakespeare play, Scottish, you must know at least one poem by Robert Burns, and Persian, you must know at least one story from the Shahnameh. This epic of Persian poetry, of kings and princes, of warriors who fought great battles, etc. is the most celebrated work by a Persian poet in all of the nation’s history.
Written after the brutal Arab conquests, who had converted the country to Islam, leaving the once prevailing religion of Zoroastrianism as a minority, it cemented that deep-rooted national pride, felt so prominently among the Persians, as it was being transformed by the sword. Ferdowsi was instrumental in saving the precious jewel of the Persian tongue.
Born to wealthy dehqans (land owners) Ferdowsi bore witness to the on going transformation of Iran, now under the caliphate. The sense of loss must have felt like a dagger slipping ever deeper into his heart, to see his land and people emasculated, to live as children under the yoke of foreign invaders. I’ve often wondered if his robust creative energy was so because of this heart-wrenching loss, as if he sort to avenge his ancestors in the best way he could, by writing.
Those early years spent penning the nearly 60,000 couplets of the Shahnameh were turbulent, at first working under the patronage of Prince Mansur, of the Samanid dynasty, then after their overthrow by the Ghaznavids, it would be Sultan Mahmud who allowed the poet to continue.
Little has been written of the transition between one dynasties patronage to another, but the stories are numerous. Despite the Turkic Mahmud having little interest in the history and mythology of Persia, it is said he gifted the poet a room in his palace, filled to the ceiling with inspirational artwork.
Ferdowsi for the Digital Age
It took Ferdowsi 30 years to write his poem. His labour was not for a king nor himself, but for the people of Iran so that they might know the history and the characters that made Persia a nation of cultural and philosophical riches.
His final words, from the latest translation by Dr Ahmad Sadri and Hamid Rahmanian, reads –
“Magnificent buildings decay by the dint of time
And exposure to the elements wrecks even a house of flint
But the poetic edifice I have erected in rhyme
Shall endure the contagion of the rain and the sun.
For three decades have I thus suffered to restore
This Persian tongue and now my work is done.”
The recent creative endeavour between Rahmanian and Sadri, gifting Ferdowsi’s magnum opus to a new generation, and to English speakers respectively, has captured something special, something which no previous translation has ever done.
In Hamid Rahmanian’s Shahnameh: Epic of the Persian Kings, we now have Ferdowsi for the digital age, to continue as a source of inspiration. Through the beauty of these illustrations, which were inspired by the artistry of the Persian miniature, both the stories and distinctive art of Persia are now entwined. Rahmanian’s efforts feel like centuries long journey has come to an end, an embracing of two travellers, one literary the other artistic, now bounded forever.
What makes the Shahnameh so defined is Ferdowsi’s use of emotion, it is indeed true that the Persians are a passionate and emotional people, prone to bursts of colossal rage and great love, I think Ferdowsi captures this. The stories are a confluence of sentiments, some philosophical and others personal, rooted in both history and mythology. The poet interspersed moments of personal truths in the tales, particularly towards the end. One such is after the death of his son.
“Now that I’m more than sixty-five years old,
It would be wrong of me to hope for gold.
Better to heed my own advice, and grieve
That my dear son is dead. Why did he leave?
I should have gone; but no, the young man went
And left his lifeless father to lament.”
The rawness of his words offers a glimpse into the mind of a heartbroken man. It is very typical of the poet to sow to a tale his own, very personal, thoughts.
The Shahnameh is unlike any other epic poem, as Ferdowsi charted centuries upon centuries of history. He is compared by both Persians and Europeans to Homer, the Ancient Greek poet, who is the only other man to sit within the same influential Vanguard as Ferdowsi; however, with Homer’s Iliad, it only focuses on one series of events, the Trojan war, whereas the Shahnameh has a plentiful bounty.
Princely dynasties rise and fall, wars between feuding tribes are waged, and three love stories and four tragedies are told. He simultaneously renders tales that are beautiful and cruel.
Rahmanian’s artwork compliments Sadri’s translation in a majestic marriage. The inspiration, coming from many hours of research into Persian miniature drawings, combines styles synonymous with the great dynasties, the Qajar’s, Safavid’s et al. Rahmanian has furthered the connection of this richly brocaded poem to the soul of Iran.
It is not just Persian people, nor Persian brothers in Tajikistan, Afghanistan et al., that Ferdowsi’s work has had influence, but to the farthest reaches of the Occident too. The Shahnameh is a sumptuous work, Rahmanian and Sadri’s divine collaboration has redefined it for the digital epoch.