What is the Shahnameh?
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Shahnameh

mourners around a bed with a coffin
Death of Iskandar (Alexander), from
the Great Mongol Shahnameh (Iran, 1330s AD)

In the 900s AD, Central Asia was the most civilized part of the world, and the universities and libraries of Iran and Afghanistan were famous for thousands of miles in every direction. The Iranian Al-Tabari had recently finished writing his huge Islamic History. Here, in 977 AD, the Persian poet Hakim Abu ╩żl-Qasim Ferdowsi wrote his long epic poem, the Shahnameh - the Book of Kings, which became to Iran a combination of what the Bible and the Iliad became to Europeans. Like those books, the Shahnameh is partly history, partly poetry. Like the Bible and the Iliad, the Shahnameh strings together a lot of older stories into one long, loosely connected story.

Like the Bible, the Shahnameh begins with the creation of the world, and discusses the invention of cooking fires, metal-working, and law. After this first section, the Shahnameh tells stories about fictional Persian heroes like Rudaba and Zal, and their son, the hero Rustem. Ferdowsi didn't know much about the Persian Empire before Alexander; the only Persian king he knows is Darius, whom he calls Dara son of Darab, and then Ferdowsi says that Alexander (whom he calls Iskandar) is Dara's son, and that's how he became the shah (king) of the Persian Empire.

From Alexander on, Ferdowsi was better informed; he wrote about the Parthians, and then about the Sassanids (and a little about the Romans and the Chinese and Indians). The Sassanian shahs, according to Ferdowsi, were supported by their Zoroastrian "farr", or spirit. But the later Sassanian kings were corrupt and unjust, living the Lie, and their farr deserted them: in this way, his moral echoes Augustine's City of God. Ferdowsi himself was a Shiite Muslim. The Shahnameh ends almost in the poet's own time, with the Islamic conquest of Iran from the Sassanids in the 600s AD. Ferdowsi knew considerably more about the history of Asia than contemporary European historians like Gregory of Tours knew about European history.

a horse, a man shooting an arrow, a man dying
The death of Rustem. His tiger skin is on his dying horse

Various European, Indian, Scythian, and Chinese stories, such as scenes from the Iliad, also seem to have made it into Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. The hero Rustem wears a tiger skin, and his story draws from the life of the Hindu god Krishna.

It took Ferdowsi most of his life to write the Shahnameh. For a while he and his wife and son were supported by the Samanid ruler Mansur, but after the Ghaznavids defeated the Samanids in the 990s, he seems have had a harder time getting support from Sultan Mahmud, who, as a Turk, may have been less interested in Iranian history.

Learn by doing: act out a story from the Shahnameh
Another story from the Shahnameh
The death of Rustem
The Arabian Nights
Islamic Literature
Medieval Iran

Bibliography and further reading about the Shahnameh:

Medieval Islam
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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