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Hakeem Abu'l-Qasim Ferdowsi Tusi (Persian: حکیم ابوالقاسم فردوسی توسی)   transliterated as Ferdowsi, Firdowsi or Firdausi, 940–1020)  was the author of the only extant  Shahnameh, or Persian  book of kings, the national epic of Persian  kingship, the Persian  people and of the Persian world. Ferdowsi's Shahnameh established the modern Persian language and became the anchor of Persian identity and culture. Details of his life and the history of the composition of the Shahnameh are conjectural. However, it is certain that Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh are central to the culture and literature of Persia and modern Iran.

Ferdowsi was born to a prosperous and educated landed gentry ("dihqan") family near the town of Tus in the province of  Khurasan in Northeastern Persia. He lived and wrote in the period following the disintegration of the Arab empire and before the Mongol conquest. The Shahnameh revived and legitimized the glories, theology and culture of anciet pre-Islamic Persia,

When Ferdowsi was about 23, he supposedly found a “Shahnameh” written by Abu-Mansour Almoammari, not in verse, It consisted of older versions ordered by Abu-Mansour ibn Abdol-razzagh.

By age thirty, Ferdowsi had developed a good understanding of the past history of Iran. Perhaps he was also familiar with the consequences of the Arab conquest of his homeland.

Ferdowsi started his composition of the Shahnameh in the Samanid era about 977. During Ferdowsi’s lifetime, the Samanid dynasty was conquered by the Ghaznavids.

Ferdowsi sought to safeguard the Persian heritage against further losses. He studied the chronicles of Mazandaran, Sistan, Balkh, Bukhara, and Khutan, as well as the oral traditions that had developed over centuries around the ancient culture. These included philosophical and religious themes such as  immortality, the divine right of kings, knowledge, justice, heroism, vengeance, deceit, and black magic.

The historical chronicles that Ferdowsi knew are mostly lost today, including most of the religious chronicles that he used as the foundation of his epic. Only a small remnant survived the Mongol destruction of Central Asia. While the chronicles and the documents that were Ferdowsi's sources have mostly vanished, his Shahnameh remains. 

The tradition Ferdowsi versified can be traced both to pre-Zoroastrian mu'bads or minstrels, who glorified Mazdian saints and, on the other, to the efforts of Parthian and Sassanid rulers who, to assure the continuity of their own rule, safeguarded Persian heritage against  Hellenism and rival religions and cultures.

Persian  rulers glorified their deeds to legitimize their right to the kingship of western Persian lands. Two different accounts developed, each legitimizing a different segment of society as the true guardian of Persia. One had begun as a line of genealogies, describing the succession of past kings. This, the official and the historical account, was soon embellished with the story of the rapid rise of Cyrus the Great to dominion over a considerable part of the ancient world and with stories told and retold by veterans of the campaigns of Darius I the Great and Xerxes I of the Achaemenid dynasty.

The other tradition, built around the pivotal concepts of martyrdom and vengeance, described the genesis of the sacred land of Persia, its division by injustice, and the measures undertaken to restore the loss. .

After the invasion of Alexander the Great, the historical traditions, kept in official archives and commemorated on friezes and gold plaques, were used to revive interest in Persia's past glory. Persian nationalism enabled the Parthians to expel the Seleucid monarchs and become the masters of Persia. The Sassanids, who succeeded the Parthians, also capitalized on similar traditions in their ascent of the Persian throne. Once in power, they committed those traditions to writing and publicized them to strengthen Persian society against incursions by Buddhism and Christianity.

A different, religious and mostly oral tradition regarded the world as a battleground upon which the deputies of God waged an unending war against satanic forces. As the historical chroniclers drew on the deeds of past monarchs as proof of divine support for their legitimacy, so the ancient bards, the mu'bads drew on the deeds of saint-figures such as Siyavosh and Garshasp to stir up public zeal. This line of popular heroes became associated with Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism emerged. These chronicles provided t a version of the ancient era before the advent of Zoroaster. An era during which exemplary kings ruled who, using their farr (glory), reorganized the affairs of the world and instituted the rule of justice.

The Sassanid rulers were among Persian dynasties. They were a priestly family catapulted into dominion over Persia. They combined both the political and religious traditions. The mu'bads and the court officials compiled a single compendium of Persian history, including the contents of the court archives and the church chronicles. The result was the Khudayname, a compendium that encompassed Persian lore spanning the formation of  Persian lands, the breaking away of Turan, the emergence of Zoroaster, to the rule of the Sassanid dynasty.

After the fall of Persia to the armies of Islam in the seventh century, the Khudaynameh was translated from Pahlavi, the language of ancient Persia, into Arabic. Abu al-Mu'ayyid Balkhi then authored a prose Shahnameh. This and another similar compilation by Abu 'Ali Muhammad Ibn-i Ahmad Balkhi were accessible to Ferdowsi. Also available to Ferdowsi was a Shahnameh commissioned by the Samanid ruler Abu Mansur al-Mu'amari. This compilation, completed in AD 957-58 and known as the Shahnameh-i Abu Mansuri, served both as the symbol of the legitimacy of the Samanids of Bukhara and as Ferdowsi's major source. The compilation was the labor of four Zoroastrian priests. This makes it more probable that the work was an accurate transmission of materials when Zoroastrianism was no longer the official religion of Iran.

Ferdowsi admits that his material was not original:

      All have gone sweeping in the garden of lore;  

     And what I tell hath all been told before.

His stories contained both knowledge and mysteries:

    Deem not these legends lying fantasy,      

    As if the world were always in one stay,      

    For most accord with sense, [others convey Thoughts and mystery].

When Balkhi's compilation  became available, it attracted the attention of intellectuals. The poet Daqiqi (Abu Mansur Muhammad Ibn-i Ahmad) of Tus, declared that he would versify it.  Daqiqi had hardly begun the saga, when he was murdered by his own Turkish slave, about 981.

Upon Daqiqi's death, Ferdowsi says in his introductory remarks, he decided to try to complete the saga.

The Shahnameh was composed in three stages. The first stage included the collection of heroic tales and the writing of romantic stories like "Bizhan and Manizheh," "Rustam and Suhrab," and "Rustam and Akvan the Demon."

The second phase begins after Daqiqi's death. Ferdowsi thengained access to the religious and state chronicles, especially those of Central Asia. He versified these chronicles and concluded them with Daqiqi's "Garshaspnameh."  .

Daqiqi began his Shahnameh with the rise of Zoroastrianism and the movement of events away from Central Asia and into the sphere of the Median and Achaemenid kingdoms. Ferdowsi begins the Shahnameh with the creation of the sacred land of Persia in the east and with developments that lead to the breakup and reunification of the ancient  Persian world.

After Daqiqi's death, Ferdowsi incorporated Daqiqi's work in his own as a transition from one set of chronicles to another. As the third stage of his own composition, he completed the saga by putting into verse chronicles and archival accounts of more recent times.

It took Ferdowsi about thirty years to compile, translate and versify the entire Shahnameh. In the early stages of the work, he had a steady income from his land holdings to sustain him. Tradition claims that the work was originally commissioned by the ruler Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni who promised 60,000 dinars but offered a far smaller sum. The work was not well received because the jealousy of other writers, because it did not deal with Islam, because it dwelt too much on Zoroastrianism or because it did not sufficiently glorify the current Sultan.

Ferdowsi died in relative poverty in Tus at about the age of eighty (circa AD 1020-1026). He was buried on his personal property in the outskirts of the town and was survived by an only daughter.


Ami Isseroff

November 7, 2010

Copyright on date of publication.


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