Updated 09 Aug 2020


In this year of our Common Era, it has been exactly 1000 years since the death of the redoubtable Firdowsi. Indeed, one can declare him to be the world’s greatest epic poet, for his monumental Shahnama [Book of Kings] is the longest epic known to us, with some 60,000 units (shers) consisting of two half-verses — that is, 120,000 single lines (misras), all in the same metre. This means that, in its volume, this Persian epic outnumbers even Jalaluddin Rumi’s Masnavi by far.

The Shahnama is, in many ways, intriguingly unique in world culture. Not only does it carry poetic valence, and this is obvious, it also opens up for us a vista overlooking much dynastic politics in the medieval Persianate regions of what are now Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asian territories. Through the external vicissitudes of the Shahnama, we are able to see the Samanid-Ghaznavid dynastic court drama that was often played out at the banks of the river Oxus and beyond — Transoxiana (Mawara un nahr), that is, a world that still lives nostalgically in our romantic reminiscences, not least because it was Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s proud ancestral home.

Firdowsi’s relationship with Sultan Mahmud Ghaznvani, the 11th century capturer of Lahore, moves like a sinusoidal wave. At a high point, the relationship was feverish, passionate and glowing, leading to eloquent and hyperbolic praises by the poet. But at a low ebb, it rendered the Shahnama verses sarcastic, disparaging and contemptuous, casting oblique aspersions on the Sultan — as in the epic’s fabricated story of a letter written by the great warrior Rustam, predicting lowly incompetent future rulers.

Legend has it that, in 1020, a millennium ago, the Ghaznavid ruler, regretting that the poet had been wronged, sent to his house in Tus a caravan carrying a gift of 60,000 gold pieces. But just as the caravan was entering the gate of the city, a funeral procession was emerging from it — ah, it was the bier of none other than Firdowsi that the procession was carrying. Too late, the poet was dead. Let’s also recall here the half-truth that he was laid to rest in his own garden only because a bigoted religious leader had forbidden the burial of a Shiite in the Tus cemetery.

How interesting, it is a text that begets aesthetic expressions in the sphere of visual creativity. Today, the several hundred illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama are a jealously guarded treasure of the world’s cultural legacy.

But the highs and lows of Firdowsi’s court fortunes continue until our own times. His tomb in Tus in the Mashhad region fell into decay after years of neglect, but then it was lavishly rebuilt during 1928-34 by the orders of Reza Shah, the modern Irani ruler who instituted, in 1934, the “Firdowsi Millennial Celebration” with a large outlay of funds. On the other hand, leaders of the Irani Revolution have wavered in their ambivalence towards the poet, explicitly condemning him here, bringing him into the Islamic fold there. But he remains Iran’s national hero nonetheless.

And yet, things are way more complex, and hence way more interesting. In addition to the dual poetic and political valence of Firdowsi, there is another binary here: the text and image binary. The creator of Shahnama is as much a figure in the history of poetry as he is in the history of visual arts. Indeed, one of the leading art historians of our era, Oleg Grabar, tells us that the epic is the most frequently illustrated text in Persian arts. In the rich history of Persian painting, we are told, the great 14th century Mongol Shahnama and the “extraordinary” Shahnama of the Safavid Shah Tahmasp of the mid 16th century, “are towering masterpieces” of miniature work. One ought to note that these paintings have ushered in whole research projects in the field, projects that continue even to this day.

These illustrations are superb paradigms of art, standing tall. But the text has also inspired depiction of its battle scenes on ceramics and, in all likelihood, engendered murals too. With precious calligraphy rendering the verses into visual luxuriance, the abundance of colours, the vignettes and portraitures, the graphic balance, the proportion and the organic wholeness of illustrations — all of these features, in fact, have become the very defining features of high visual arts of the Persianate domains. How interesting, it is a text that begets aesthetic expressions in the sphere of visual creativity. Today, the several hundred illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama are a jealously guarded treasure of the world’s cultural legacy. Yes, this monumental work of Firdowsi has been studied both as word and as image.

But there is more. In the horizontal stretch of the Shahnama, one edge marks the boundaries of ancient Persian mythology, the other is anchored in history. So we go on an excursion from pre-history to the 7th century when the Sassanids were defeated by the Muslim-Arab onslaught. Adorning the epic in-between are glittering words of wisdom, storytelling, fabricated or semi-fabricated accounts of heroic deeds and tributes to nature. The sun rises every day, but every day the sun is different — this is the epic’s refrain of the perpetual renewal of the world.

The crown prince of ancient Iran, Afrisiab; the ruler of Turan, Isfandyar; the young warrior Sohrab’s mother Tahmina, and his valorous father Rustam’s mother Rudaba; the mythic bird Simurgh, often equated to the phoenix as well as to the ambassador of good tidings, huma; Rustam’s fateful horse Rakhsh; the kingdom of Samangan — all these relics of Persian mythology and legend were recovered by Firdowsi. He also prepared for us a record of Zoroastrian folklore, drawing much from Avestan sources. Then, among other things, he immortalised the Rustam-Sohrab mythic tragedy. We note that this Rustam-Sohrab tragic tale has much theatrical possibilities — the outstanding Urdu dramatist Agha Hashr Kashmiri knew this, and so did Bollywood.

The columnist is Dean of the Institute of Liberal Arts, University of Management and Technology, and chairs the Arts and Humanities panel of the Higher Education Commission

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 9th, 2020