In Our Time: Shahnameh of Ferdowsi

The Shahnameh is an epic poem, twice as long as the Odyssey & the Iliad put together, written in 10th Century AD Persia about Persian history. It took its author, Ferdowsi, 30 years to write and is still regarded today as one of the important pieces of Persian literature. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Narguess Farzad (University of London), Charles Melville (University of Cambridge) and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis (British Museum). The two women are Iranian, and particularly towards the end of the programme were very enthusiastic about how important this poem is to Iran & to the cultural identity of the Iranian people.

At the time it was written it was a few centuries after Persia had been conquered by the Muslim Arabs at a time when the Caliphate was no longer a strong force across the Islamic Empire. The Persian people had kept oral traditions of their culture, and their own language, and during this period there was a reassertion of Persian culture. Ferdowsi was writing as part of this cultural movement & he was setting out to retell pre-existing prose records & oral tradition as poetry because he believed this would be easier to remember. So it was a self-conscious effort at writing something for posterity. It’s written in early modern Persian, so is still understandable today even if somewhat archaic. The format is rhyming couplets, and a specific meter – I think they said it was 11 syllables, a pause, 11 more syllables for each line, and the middles and the ends of the lines in a couplet rhyme. I’m not sure if that means it’s A: A, A: A, B: B, B: B or if it means it’s A: B, A: B, C: D, C: D (if you see what I mean). They said he was a very good poet and within the strict meter he uses the feel of the language to fit the things he’s writing about. So battles have words that feel short and energetic, but scenes like banquets are more flowing words.

The poem is split into three parts – myths, legends & history. The myths are what we might think of as pre-history – the first people (cave dwellers), the coming of gods, that sort of thing. The legends are the stories of heroes, and of early kings and early battles (and these may or may not’ve happened, but certainly didn’t happen like they’re told). And the history is the stories of the Kings of the Sassanid Empire – which runs from around 200AD to the Islamic conquest of Persia in about 650AD. This is accurate in the sense that the right kings are named in the right order, but it’s not really telling you about what happened when, it’s more of a manual for “how to be a good Persian King”. There are lots of dialogues where the wise advisor tells the new King how to rule – reminds me a bit of Ancient Egyptian literature which has a whole genre of that sort of thing.

After it was written it wasn’t all that popular at first – it must’ve survived, and been copied around because it’s referred to in other literature. But it comes into its own once the Mongols conquer Persia, as a way of Persianising the new rulers and of showing what it means to be Persian. Since then it’s occupied a central role in Persian education & culture – they were saying that it’s taught in schools and that even people without formal schooling would learn sections of the poem.