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August 28, 2008 | By: admin
Shahnameh, National Epic of the Iranian People

The Shahnameh is an impressive monument of poetry and historiography, being mainly the poetical recast of what Ferdosi and his predecessors regarded as the account of Iran's history. An account which already existed in a less appealing form in prose works, especially in the Shahnameh of Abu Mansur Abd-al-Razzaq.

A small portion of Ferdosi’s work, in passages scattered throughout the Shahnameh, is entirely of his own conception. In addition to the profound descriptions of various scenes and phenomena, expresses his reflection on life, his religious and ethical beliefs and his admiration of virtue, his praise for his patrons, and his references to the sources he used.
The rest of the work is divided into three successive parts: the mythical, heroic, and historical ages. Ferdosi, in these passages, expresses his reflection on life, his religious and ethical beliefs and his admiration of virtue, his praise for his patrons, and his references to the sources he used. The rest of the work is divided into three successive parts: the mythical, heroic, and historical ages.


The mythical age: After an opening in praise of God and Wisdom, the Shahnameh gives an account of the creation of the world and of man as believed by Sassanians. This introduction is followed by the story of the first man, Gayumarth, who also became the first king after a period of mountain dwelling. He accidentally discovered fire and established the Sadeh Feast in its honor. Stories of Tahmureth, Jamshid, Zahhak, Kaveh, Freidun and his three sons: Salm, Tur, and Iraj, and Manuchehr are explained in this section.
This portion of the Shahnameh is relatively short, amounting to some 2100 verses or four percent of the entire book, and it narrates the events with the simplicity, predictability, and swiftness of a historical work. Naturally, the strength and charm of Ferdosi’s poetry have done much to make the story of this period attractive and lively.


The heroic age: Almost two-thirds of the Shahnameh is devoted to the age of heroes, extending from Manuchehr’s reign until the conquest of Alexander. The main feature of this period is the major role played by the Sagzi (Saka) or Sistani heroes who appear as the backbone of the Iranian empire. Garshasp is briefly mentioned as is his son Nariman, whose own son Sam acted as the leading paladin of Manuchehr while reigning in Sistan in his own right. His successors were his son Zal and his son Rostam, the bravest of the brave, and then Faramarz.

The feudal society in which they lived is admirably depicted in the Shahnameh with accuracy and lavishness. Indeed, Ferdosi’s descriptions are so vivid and impressive that the reader feels himself participating in the events or closely viewing them. The tone is significantly epic and moving, while the language is extremely rich and varied.

Among the stories described in this section are the romance of Zal & Rudabe, the Seven Stages (or Labors) of Rostam, Rostam and Sohrab, Siavash and Sudabe, Rostam and Akvan Div, the romance of Bijan and Manije, the wars with Afrasiab, Daqiqi’s account of the story of Goshtasp and Arjasp, and Rostam and Esfandyar.

It is noteworthy to mention that the legend of Rostam and Sohrab is attested only in the Shahnameh and, as usual, begins with a lyrical and detailed prelude. Here Ferdosi is in the zenith of his poetic power and has become a true master of storytelling. The thousand or so verses of this tragedy comprise one of most moving tales of world literature.


The historical age: A brief mention of the Ashkanian (Arsacids) follows the history of Alexander and precedes that of Ardeshir. After this, the Sassanian history is related with a good deal of accuracy. The fall of the Sassanian and the Arab conquest are narrated romantically, and in a most moving poetic language. Here, the reader could easily see Ferdosi himself lamenting over this catastrophe, and over what he calls the arrival of “the army of darkness”.

According to Ferdosi, the final edition of the Shahnameh contained some sixty thousand distiches. But this is a round figure; most of the relatively reliable manuscripts have preserved a little over fifty thousand distiches. Nezami-Aruzi reports that the final edition of the Shahnameh sent to the court of Soltan Mahmud was prepared in seven volumes.

Ferdosi’s style is that of a superb poet. His epic language is so rich, moving and lavish that it truly enchants the reader. Personal touches in the Shahnameh prevent it from falling into a dry reproduction of historical narratives. No history has been so eagerly read, so profoundly believed, and so ardently treasured in Iran, as has the Shahnameh of Ferdosi. If a history were ever to influence its readers, the Shahnameh has done and still does so in the finest way. Where many Iranian military and religious leaders failed, Ferdosi succeeded. With the Shahnameh, the revival and immortality of a nation became possible.


Ferdosi did not expect his reader to pass over historical events indifferently, but asked him to think carefully, to see the grounds for the rise and fall of individuals and nations; and to learn from the past in order to improve the present, and to better shape the future.

The Shahnameh stresses that since the world is transient, and since everyone is merely a passerby, one is wise to avoid cruelty, lying, avarice, and other evils; instead one should strive for justice, truth, order, and other virtues which bring happiness, ease, and honor.

The singular message that the Shahnameh of Ferdosi strives to convey is the idea that the history of Iranshahr was a complete and immutable whole: it started with Gayumarth, the first man, and ended with his fiftieth scion and successor, Yazdegerd III, six thousand years of history. The task of Ferdosi was to prevent this history from losing its connection with future Iranian generations.

Source: Ferdowsi, A Critical Biography, by A. Shapur Shahbazi, Published by Mazda Publishers, 1991 The Shahnameh, Abu'lQassem Ferdowsi, Edited by Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, Vol. I, 1988

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