“The Shahs of Old” by Ferdowsi

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Kaiumers first sat upon the throne of Persia, and was master of the world. He took up his abode in the mountains, and clad himself and his people in tiger-skins, and from him sprang all kindly nurture and the arts of clothing, till then unknown. Men and beasts from all parts of the earth came to do him homage and receive laws at his hands, and his glory was like to the sun. Then Ahriman the Evil, when he saw how the Shah’s honour was increased, waxed envious, and sought to usurp the diadem of the world. So he bade his son, a mighty Deev, gather together an army to go out against Kaiumers and his beloved

son Saiamuk and destroy them utterly.

Now the Serosch, the angel who defendeth men from the snares of the Deevs, and who each night flieth seven times around the earth that he may watch over the children of Ormuzd, when he learned this, appeared like unto a Peri and warned Kaiumers. So when Saiamuk set forth at the head of his warriors to meet the army of Ahriman, he knew that he was contending against a Deev, and he put forth all his strength.
But the Deev was mightier than he, and overcame him, and crushed him under his hands.

When Kaiumers heard the news of mourning, he was bowed to the ground.
For a year did he weep without ceasing, and his army wept with him; yea, even the savage beasts and the birds of the air joined in the wailing. And sorrow reigned in the land, and all the world was darkened until the Serosch bade the Shah lift his head and think on vengeance.
And Kaiumers obeyed, and commanded Husheng, the son of Saiamuk, «Take the lead of the army, and march against the Deevs. » And the King, by reason of his great age, went in the rear. Now there were in the host Peris; also tigers, lions, wolves, and other fierce creatures, and when the black Deev heard their roaring he trembled for very fear.
Neither could he hold himself against them, and Husheng routed him utterly. Then when Kaiumers saw that his well-beloved son was revenged he laid him down to die, and the world was void of him, and Husheng reigned in his stead.

Now Husheng was a wise man and just, and the heavens revolved over his throne forty years. Justice did he spread over the land, and the world was better for his reign. For he first gave to men fire, and showed them how to draw it from out the stone; and he taught them how they might lead the rivers, that they should water the land and make it fertile; and he bade them till and reap. And he divided the beasts and paired them and gave them names. And when he passed to a brighter life he left the world empty of a throne of power. But Tahumers, his son, was not unworthy of his sire. He too opened the eyes of men, and they learned to spin and to weave; and he reigned over the land long and mightily. But of him also were the Deevs right envious, and sought to destroy him. Yet Tahumers overcame them and cast them to earth. Then some craved mercy at his hands, and sware how they would show him an art if he would spare them, and Tahumers listened to their voice. And they taught him the art of writing, and thus from the evil Deevs came a boon upon mankind.

 

From Shahnameh (The Epic of Kings)
by Hakim Abol Qasem Ferdowsi Tousi
Translated by Helen Zimmern [1883]

 

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Shah NAMA by Ferdowsi

Before converting to Islam, for many centuries Iran followed the doctrine of Zoroasto, also known as Zoroastrianism or Mazdeism, one of the most widespread religions in ancient times in Asia. At that time, Iran had its own literature, partly composed of doctrinal and religious works, but also of various texts related to the narration of the history of the country, its king and its warriors.
In 636 AD the Arab Islamic conquest marked a profound change in the spirituality, in the language and also in the writings of a people who abandoned the Pahlavi alphabet in order to adopt the Arabic one and who had to open their own language to the Arabic influence. With its many lexical borrowings, it ended up modifying the Persian language.
Among the neo Persian authors, one of the most loved and linked to traditional culture and national sentiment is Firdusi, Hakim Abol – Ghasem Ferdowsi Tusi, born in 935 AD in a village near the city of Tus, Iran in the region of Khorasan.
Information on his life is fragmented. He was a “dehqan,” a landowner of the peasant Iranian gentry which was a social class that jealously preserved the memory of the ancient legends of its people.
He was the author of the Shahnama, or “The Book of the Kings”, the national epic poem of the kings of Persia.
The work is a reconstruction, in metrical and rhymed verse, of the history of the Persian Empire from the creation of the world until the Arab conquest.
Firdusi began to write this work midway through his life and it took him about 35 years to write the entire work, though he did not work on it continuously and did not write the various episodes one after the other.
The material from which he drew was of ancient origin, largely passed down by the dehqan who for centuries guarded the knowledge of its traditional culture. The stories were not invented by Firdusi; he reworked them on the basis of local traditions to which he added speeches and letters of the main characters he created.
The epic begins with the story of the creation of the world and of civilization. A long succession of stories follows, about the lives of kings, heroes, princesses and dynastic struggles until the arrival of Zoroaster and his new religion. The fall of the Persian Empire, as a result of the defeat by the Arab invaders, is narrated at the end.
The work cannot be regarded as an exact account of Iranian history since the episodes were not processed according to a strict chronological order. It begins before the creation of the world and tells of the lives of the Shahs who reigned during the era of myths and legends. In any case, the public recognized its role as an historic document much in the same as in Western culture one would value a text made up of parts of Genesis, the Odyssey and Shakespeare’s works. In fact, it contains drama, tragedy and comedy all at the same time. Endowed with a great capacity to express himself both lyrically and dramatically, although the poet’s objective is to tell the story of his homeland, the sum of the artistic value of the work, on the whole, exceeds his intentions. The Shahname constitutes an epic work full of spontaneity and of non-formal adventurous or lyric episodes whose unifying theme is somehow cruel destiny, the malevolence of the universe but also the belief in a benevolent Creator, the willpower of man and his good deeds.
Characters with articulated and complex personalities, characterized by light and shade, are depicted with great depth.
Firdusi tells of Kayumar, the first mythological man, an Adam of the ancient Iranian culture that in the Shahname appears as the first king of the world; of Jamsheed who is the initiator of the New Year and the organizer of society into classes; of the wonderful bird Simurgh and the ceaseless struggle between good and evil.
The most famous of his characters is Rostam, who is the champion of champions of Iranian mythology, a loyal, fearless knight with a will of steel, who starred in numerous adventures.
In his work, Firdusi shows genuine compassion and pity for the poor and the victims of injustice, demonstrating a strong sense of social justice and altruism. At the same time, his social conservatism can be perceived when he speaks of the right to entitlement, and of his fear for anarchy and heresy.
After an effort of more than thirty years, Firdusi presents his work to the sultan, Mahmud of Ghazni. Only belatedly realizing its true value, he does not show a great interest in the work of which he is not the protagonist, and rewards the author with a sum of money much smaller than originally agreed upon.
Enraged and heartbroken, Firdusi dies in extreme poverty, while leaving as a legacy to the world and the Iranian people a masterpiece that allows us to maintain and pass on in the future the Persian language and culture.
Through Firdusi’s skillful pen, we learn to discover a mythical and historical world, that had already partially disappeared during the writer’s lifetime and that, with its paradoxes, human greatness and miseries, confirms both the universal value and the intensity of art, untouched by the ravages of time.

Translation by Anna Anzani (edited by Ester Tossi)