The Shahnamah of Firdawsi

The Shāhnāmah (Book of Kings) is a lengthy poetic work of almost 60,000 couplets, completed a little more than 1000 years ago in the year 1010. It is considered to be the longest poem ever written by a single person. Its author, Abū al-Qāsim, is known by the pen-name Firdawsī, meaning 'from Paradise'. Firdawsī was born in 940 at Tus, near Mashhad in Khorasan, in the north-east of Iran. He wrote his verses over a period of thirty years towards the end of the reign of the culturally significant Sāmānid Dynasty, just before the Central Asian Turkic leader Sulṭān Maḥmūd of Ghaznah overran Persian rulers. Firdawsī, therefore, eventually presented his epic to the new foreign ruler, at whom he is reported to have felt enormous resentment for not being adequately rewarded for his lifetime's work.

Firdawsī's Shāhnāmah was the apotheosis of a long tradition of epic king literature in Persian. There were several books entitled Shāhnāmah before Firdawsī, and he himself inspired a number of imitators.

The Shāhnāmah recounts the entire history of humanity, with Iran as its focus, from the time of creation up until the pivotal moment of the Muslim Arab conquest of the Persian empire in the mid-seventh century AD. The narrative of kings and heroes, love and betrayal, the inevitability of death and the eternal quest for the meaning of existence is widely acknowledged as the national epic of Iran.

Its playful romantic tales, interspersed with episodes of royal justice and injustice, struggle and sadness, have been credited with helping create and maintain Persian identity through centuries of rule by outsiders - Firdawsī's magnum opus contains relatively few words of Arabic derivation. Many stories from the Shāhnāmah that are drawn from mythology and Iran's ancient history are still recounted throughout the Persian-speaking world.

It has been said that in the Shāhnāmah, Firdawsī 'loves utterly the whole of the human race; his compassionate heart bleeds for every man who is unfortunate and afflicted, whether he be kinsman or stranger, and he draws a lesson from his experience… Firdawsī is the perfect embodiment of all that is meant by a Persian.'

Love and Devotion exhibition poster
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