The Longest Poem Ever Written: Shahnameh – The Epic Book of Kings
In 977 AD, a Persian poet named Ferdowsi began on a grandiose poetic journey that would take him 33 years to complete. He used ancient Persian tales which had been told from generation to generation for several millennia as the source for writing his poems about epic kings and heroes and about mythical creatures and adventures. This resulted in the creation of the epic which in Persian is called Shahnameh or translated The Book of Kings, the longest poem ever written in history. Ferdowsi's great aim was to revive the ancient Persian culture, mythology and language after the invasion of the Islamic Caliphate of the Arabs.
The Life of Ferdowsi
Ferdowsi was born in 935 AD in the city of Tus located in the modern day province called Khorasan in northeastern Iran. At this time, the Samanid dynasty had restored native Persian rule on Iranian territories as the second post-Islamic Persian empire after the eastern parts of the Islamic Caliphate had been liberated from the Arabs in 861 AD. Ferdowsi came from a line of wealthy noble families which generation after generation inherited the title dehqan. The dehqans were among the social top class and were the leaders of communities and owners of land. By the time Persians were violently forced to become Muslims after the invasions, the dehqans converted to Islam not for following Islam itself, but mainly for using their social authority for preserving the ancient Zoroastrian culture of Persia. For centuries, the dehqans were the preservers of the traditional customs, culture and literature of ancient Persia and hence acted as fundamental factors for the survival of Iranian identity. Dehqans were often able to afford the best education which resulted in Ferdowsi gaining considerable knowledge in literature. He was closely tied to the ancient Persian culture and studied ancient scripts which inspired his poetry.
In the year 977 AD, a shift in power had been initiated in Persia with the end of the Samanid dynasty and the beginning of the Ghaznavid dynasty. Ferdowsi became a poet of the Ghaznavid royal court and due to the exquisite and superb quality of the poems that he wrote, the king entitled him Ferdowsi. This name derives from the Persian word pardisi or fardisi which means from paradise . With the new title given to him by the king, he began writing Shahnameh which would become the greatest poetic journey of his life and one of the greatest works of poetry in the world.
Statue of Ferdowsi in Tehran, Iran ( http://toos051.persiangig.com/new_folder/Ferdowsi_Statue.jpg)
Shahnameh – The Epic
Prior to writing Shahnameh, Ferdowsi collected literary material from ancient sources such as from the middle Persian Pahlavi work named Khodaynameh, which translates to Book of God in English. The documentation of this ancient work was ordered by the Sassanid king Anushiravan and was based on historical facts documented by Zoroastrian priests as well as legendary accounts of mythical eras written in Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrian religion . Some ancient sources has stated that the Persian literary tradition of recording royal events and mythical stories has existed at least from the time of the Achaemenid era in the 6th century B.C, although the stories are thousands of years older and have been transferred verbally for generations. Many of the stories are very similar to ancient Indo-Iranian/Aryan stories, indicating the close connection of Persians to their Aryan heritage.
Ferdowsi divided the timeline of Shahnameh into three major periods; the mythical era , the heroic era and the historical era . A very brief description of each era follows:
The mythical era comprises of poems about the creation of the world and of the first man named Keyumars who became the first king. Keyumars's grandson Hushang discovered fire and established the yearly fire festival Sadeh. Jamshid the shepherd, who became a great king in the favor of God named Ahura Mazda, ruled the lands with prosperity and struck down the evil demons named deev. Jamshid also established the Persian New Year Nowruz meaning New Day which is celebrated on 20 March every year. The child of the devil Ahriman, the evil serpent man Zahhak, killed Jamshid and became the new king. Ahriman kissed Zahhak's shoulders and out of his shoulders, two snakes grew out. Zahhak tried to cut off the snakes but they always grew out again, he was cursed. The snakes required to be fed with fresh brains of young boys every day. Zahhak therefore fulfilled their requests in fear of being killed by the snakes. This led to the uprising of the blacksmith Kaveh who refused to sacrifice his last son. Kaveh started the uprising and made a banner out of his leather apron by putting it on top of a spearhead. With the help of the people and a prince named Fereydun who eventually became king, they captured Zahhak and chained him to mount Damavand in northern Iran, the highest volcano in all of Asia and the highest peak in the Middle East. There are stories about king Fereydun and his three sons Salm, Tur and the youngest Iraj. They inherited the three corners of the world after their father died and Iraj inherited the empire of Persia. This resulted in jealousy of the two older brothers towards their younger brother Iraj and stories about epic wars between the brothers are told. Iraj was killed by Tur and Iraj’s grandson Manuchehr became the king of Persia to avenge his grandfather's death.