A thousand years ago, the Persian poet Abul-Qasem from the city of Tus, who later became known as Ferdowsi (“man of paradise) completed the second, final version of his grand poem, The Book of Kings (Shahnameh). Although close to court, Ferdowsi was a genius, which made his work eternal.
The poem consists of 50 “padishahs”, or reigns. These parts are different in length, from several dozens of verses to several thousands. The work represents the popular history, mythology and heroic epic of Iranian people from the first king till the 50th. It is a poetic retelling of the Avesta, which for the Iranians was the same as the Torah for the Jews and the Bible for Christians, plus a cycle of poems about the age of heroes and, finally, an inspired narrative about the real history of Iranian kingdoms in the time of Darius’s conquests. The story of Darius is connected to that of Alexander he Great, who overthrew him.
This enormous epic has several outstanding tales, including six masterpieces: Zahl and Rudabe, Rustam’s Seven Deeds, Rustam and Sukhrab, Siyavush, Isfandiyar’s Seven Deeds and Rustam and Isfandriyar. All these poems are connected only nominally, although, of course, they are all written by Ferdowsi’s prophetic hand, in lapidary wording, without the traditional oriental grandiloquency; on the contrary, they are laconic and passionate; finally, they are all deeply tragic and together offer an impressive panorama of human passions.
For example, the hero of “Rustam and Sukhrab”, the mighty Rustam, unknowingly fights his own son, and although Sukhrab suspects that he is fighting his father, Ferdowsi ends the tale with the son’s tragic death from his father’s hand. He doesn’t give justice a chance to triumph.
The fate of the ideal man is portrayed even more gloomily. This is the brilliant Siyavush, who bears resemblance to young Prince Gautama, i.e. Buddha himself. Simultaneously, it is a retelling of the story of the biblical Joseph, who, when sold into slavery by his brothers, found himself in the house of Egyptian official Potiphar and became the object of passion of Potiphar’s wife, who fell in love with the young slave.
In Ferdowsi’s version, the cunning villainess is the main character’s stepmother, Sudabe, whom his father married after his first wife had died. If in Joseph’s story, the main character, having passed all the ordeals, becomes a pharaoh’s favorite and right hand, in Shahnameh, the life of the good man turns into a succession of betrayals, the triumph of deceit, meanness, infamy and slander, which drive this angel in flesh to grave.
The poem was a huge success and was copied by grateful readers hundreds of times. This way, a lot of errors, corruptions and later additions made their way to Shahnameh. So it was necessary to compare the countless copies and restore the original. Europeans were the first to take up this task, and it was only in 1829 that English philologist Turner Macan published his researched version of Shahnameh based on 17 copies of the poem. Seven years later, the French researcher Jules Mohl published a version based on 30 copies, and the work climaxed with nine volumes of Shahnameh with commentary that were prepared by the collective effort of Russian researchers from the Institute of Oriental Studies, the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and were published over the course of ten years (from 1960 till 1971). Iran declared this version canonic and all publications of the poem afterwards have been based on it.
A thousand years ago, Russia did not have a figure equal to Ferdowsi. Our young country was just emerging, but it already had its heroic epic, and the characters of Ilya Muromets and Svyatogor, the tales of Solovei the Whistler-Robber, of the mighty Sadko and Czar Vladimir Red Sun are consonant with Shahnameh. They are also about fight of the good and the evil, a cult of an ordinary man that becomes a hero, an ode to a peasant’s son Ivan, to peasant Mikula Selyaninovich who defeated a troop of knights; they praise freedom, honor and love, fear of God and loyalty to friends.
Miraculously, the heroes of our epics have never met on the battlefield like the soldiers of Alexander the Great and Darius on the pages of Shahnameh. Hopefully, this forebodes a peaceful future for the two great nations sharing the coast of a sea.