Dr. Ali Makki
FEZANA journal of Winter 1994
Shah-Nameh was written in the latter half of the tenth century A.C. by Hakim Abol-Qassem
Firdowsi of Toos (in the Khurasan province of Iran). The poem became popular with the
Iranian public in a short time and earned a pre-eminent status as a vehicle for reclaiming
Iranian Identity in the traumatic era following the downfall of the last Sassanian ruler.
Three centuries after the defeat of Yazdgard III, Firdowsi's composition saved the Persian
language from the threat of extinction, thereby preserving the essential medium for
protecting Persian culture.
The Arab conquest, in the mid-seventh century, had two grave consequences. One was that
Zarthustrianism, the religion of the majority of Iranians, was attacked and repressed by
Arab missionaries through coercion and force. This fact led to a gradual dwindling in the
number of Zarthushtis, first in the greater Iranian Empire, then in Iran proper. The
second disaster was that Iran was no longer ruled by indigenous Iranians. This, of course,
meant that Iranian national culture and identity were discouraged by the new rulers.
Immediately after the Arab conquest, the country came under the rulership of the Umayyad
caliphs of Damascus and became part of the Islamic Caliphate.
Almost a century later, through a series of revolts, the Umayyad dynasty was replaced by
the Abbasids, another Arab ruling family. The Abbasid seat of power was in Baghdad since
the Abbasid court owed its ascension to power in part to support from such civil servant
families as the famous Barmakis. The result of a rulership which was not based in
Iran, was the reemergence of Persian influence at the ruling level. During the latter part of the Abbasid era, within which Firdowsi lived; his
home province of Khurassan enjoyed nominal autonomy from Baghdad. Under the rule of the Samani family, client kings
of the Abbasids, a Persian renaissance began and the Persian language, replacing Arabic,
once again became the language of court poetry. The
Samani rulers took great pride in their ancient Iranian past and the continuity and unique
character of their Persian heritage.
As a result of this blossoming of the Persian language, such beautiful literary works as
the Shah-Nameh began to emerge. Ferdows belonged to the 'dehghan' class, or the landed
gentry, who, at the time, were viewed as the living repository of pure Iranian tradition. Several times throughout the
writes how he conscientiously recorded the stories of Irans past. The poem deals with the history of Iran from the
time of creation up to the moment of the Islamic conquest. Hence, the, Iranian national
epic has been viewed by some scholars [Dick Davis, Epic and Sedition, Fayetteville, 1992,
p. xxii] as being a piece of 'literary archaeology' and a 'mytho-poeticization' of the
Iranian past, rooted in 'antiquarianism', which may partly explain the continuity of
Iranian cultural Identity through several calamities which Iran has endured up to the
For over one thousand years, the Shah-nameh has been regarded by Iranians as a primary
link with their ancient past and has served as a document of national pride. For many
Iranians today, it conjures up a sense of nostalgia and a longing for their glorious past.
In many homes, the esteemed status of the Shah-Nameh is demonstrated each year during the
celebration of Nov-Ruz when a copy of this masterpiece is placed alongside a 'holy book on
the 'HaftSeen' table - be it the Avesta in a Zarthusti home or the Quran in a Moslem
household. Among some Moslem families, the Shah-Nameh may even be the only book on the Haft-Seen.
Throughout the ages the beautiful verses of the Shah-Nameh have been memorized and passed
down from one generation to the next. After the advent of the printing press, almost every
culturally conscious Iranian had a copy of the epic at home. There is hardly a living soul
in Iran who is not familiar with a story or two from the Shah-Nameh. Even those who cannot read or write may be able to
recite a few couplets with faithful accuracy, a testament to the strength of the Iranian
oral tradition which is also responsible for preserving portions of the Avesta to this