What is the Shahnameh?

The Shahnameh, or Epic of Persian Kings is a poem written by the Iranian poet Hakim Abul-Qasem Ferdowsi Tuosi (A.K.A. “Ferdowsi”) under the patronage of Mahmud of Ghazni (1) between 977 and 1010 AD (2). Commonly heralded as the “National Epic of Iran,” the Shahnameh has played a significant role in consolidating a sense of national and cultural identity within the region by putting forth a distinct code of moral and ethical values. Because of this quality, the Shahnameh has been continuously celebrated by various dynasties as a means of evoking a sense of national unity. This endorsement by various monarchs has played a significant role in cementing the Shahnameh’s popularity, influence, and cultural legacy long after the time of Ferdowsi.

The body of some 60,000 verses that comprise the Shahnameh is often divided into three sections: the mythical, the legendary or heroic, and the historical. It is notable however that the boundary between the first two of these sections is often regarded as “rather blurred,” and as a result they are occasionally grouped as a single section (3). The mythical section, which makes up about four percent of the Shahnameh, begins with the creation of the universe and covers a variety of stories leading up to the early legendary section (4). The most famous among the stories of the mythical section is the reign of the Arab king Zahhak, whose evil was physically embodied by serpents growing from his shoulders after being kissed by the devil. The legendary section of the Shahnameh comprises nearly two thirds of the poem’s body and contains many of its most famous stories, such as the adventures of the hero Rostam who served seven kings, and conquered various foes over the course of his life. The historical section begins with the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty which was conquered by Alexander the Great (A.K.A. Eskandar, Iskandar) in 330 BC, and concludes with the Arab conquest of Sasanian-ruled Persia in the seventh century century (5).

The popularity of the Shahnameh through the centuries after its completion has led to its study and observation by various cultures outside of Iran, which has resulted in innumerable transliterations of the poem. Consequentially, the title of the poem, as well as various other names mentioned in its pages have had various “correct” spellings (ex: Shahnameh, Shahnama), and as this blog draws on a variety of scholarly works, one should note that there may be inconsistencies between posts with regard to certain words or names.

This project is dedicated to examining the cultural dimensions of the Shahnameh through its existing relationships with religion, women, and art. In researching these topics we have drawn on a variety of scholarly sources, all of which are cited collectively in the bibliography section of our blog, or individually in the footnotes of posts referencing specific sources.

 

Footnotes:

1. Barbara Brend and Charles P. Melville, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 11.

2. Mitra Jahandideh, and Khaefi Shahab, “The Most Important Performing Arts Arisen from Shahnameh of Ferdowsi: Shahnameh-khani and Naqqali of Shahnameh,” Journal Of The Indiana Academy Of The Social Sciences 16, no. 2 (June 2013): 76.

3. Ibid, Barbra, 4.

4. Ibid, Mitra, 76.

5. Ibid, Barbra, 4-10.