Shah-nama (The Epic of Kings)

By Firdausi

Translated by Helen Zimmern [1883]



The Shahs of Old



Zal and Rudabeh


The March into Mazinderan

Kai Kaous Committeth More Follies

Rustem and Sohrab


The Return of Kai Khosrau


The Vengeance of Kai Khosrau

Byzun and Manijeh

The Defeat of Afrasiyab

The Passing of Kai Khosrau


Rustem and Isfendiyar

The Death of Rustem






The Shah-nama or The Epic of Kings is one of the definite classics of the world. It tells hero tales of ancient Persia. The contents and the poet's style in describing the events takes the reader back to the ancient times and makes he/she sense and feel the events. Firdausi worked for thirty years to finish this masterpiece. An important feature of this work is that during the period that Arabic language was known as the main language of science and literature, Firdausi used only Persian in his masterpiece. As Firdausi himself says "Persian language is revived by this work".

"....... The scene was now set for the appearance on the stage of an actor of heroic stature, a poet of supreme genius who should be a living embodiment of the rebirth of Persian pride, of Persian self-respect, of Persian consciousness. That genius was born in miracolous Tus, birthplace of so many famous men, about the year 940. The city was at that time the fief of Abu Mansur Tusi, ambitious and reluctant subject of Nuh I and his son Mansur. It was in 957 that Abu Mansur put on foot his project of a prose Shah-nama. Abu'l-Qasim Mansur (Hasan? Ahmad?) ibn Hasan (Ahmad? Ali? Ishaq?) called Firdausi, whose father was a prosperous landowner, grew up in circumstances of ease; according to report he enjoyed the favour of Abu Mansur, and it seems that he exercised himself early in epic. These essays were doubtless encouraged by Abu Mansur; yet it was apparently only after the death of Daqiqi in about 980 that Firdausi addressed himself in earnest to the labour which was to occupy him some thirty years.
In the interval his fortunes had changed; the Samanid dynasty moved to its close; civil war made literature an unrewarding profession. By the time Firdausi had complete his Shah-nama in its final form (circa 1010) not only had he exhausted his patrimony, but a new royal house of Turkish blood was firmly established in Transoxiana. Mahmud the Ghaznavid, a fanatical conformist, dedicated himself to the high cause of rooting out heresy and infidelity wherever they were to be found. When Firdausi presented his vast epic in praise of Zoroastrian Persia to this man, hoping for imperial bounty to repair his impoverished estate, the auspices were inexorably adverse. Mahmud, who had already proved himself a great patron of science and letters acceptable to orthodoxy, failed to recognize the merits of Firdausi's masterpiece and offered an insultingly small reward. Though the poet, in pardonable anticipation of the favours to come, had prefixed a handsome panegyric to 'that prince whose like was never seen, not since the Creator created the world,' he now relieved his feelings by penning a savage satire. Joseph's Champion's version in eighteen-century couplets would not have done discredit to Alexander Pope.

Had worth or judgement glimmer'd in your soul,
You had not basely all my honour stole.
Had royal blood flow'd in your grov'ling veins,
A monarch's laurel had adorn'd my strains;
Or were your mother not ignobly base,
The slave of lust - thou first of all thy race -
A poet's merit had inspir'd thy mind,
By science tutor'd, and by worth refin'd.
Such as thou art, the vileness of thy birth
Precludes each generous sentiment of worth:
Nor kingly origin, nor noble race,
Warms thy low heart, the offspring of disgrace.

After that Firdausi had to run for shelter, which he found in his old age at the provincial court of Tabaristan. There, some say, he composed the romantic idyll Yusuf and Zulaikha, a Koranic theme to atone for so many years wasted on the extolling of pagandom: in modern times this ascription ha been shrewdly contested. Finally Ferdousi returned to his native Tus, to die there in 1020 or 1025. The story that Mahmud repented of his niggardliness and sent , too late, a load of precious indigo to the poet - 'even as the camels entered the Rudbar Gate, the corpse of Firdausi was borne forth from the Gate of Razan'- this story (1) makes an ideally dramatic ending, but it is difficult to reconcile with the publication of that satire.
The plan conceived by Firdausi for his great work was sufficiently ambitious: he would recount in song the entire history of his motherland, from the creation of man down to the fall of the Sasanian Empire. This plan he completely carried through, in some 60,000 mutuqarib couplets. His chief source was the prose Shah-nama of Abu Mansur, but other writings, and some oral informants, contributed to the filling in of this massive picture. The quasi-historical design presents a somewhat ramshackle appearance to readers familiar with the neater and more confined pattern of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid: it is more satisfactory to judge the Shah-nama for what it actually is, a series of self-contained idylls composed at different times over a long period and loosely strung together within a chronological framework. If a central theme is sought, than it is to be recognized easily enough; it is the perennial glory of Persia and its great heroes. (2) "

( 1 ) According to a famous semi-legendary account, jealous courtiers made various accusations against Firdausi which came to Mahmud's ears. Consequently he paid the great poet for his Shahnamè ('The Book of Kings') in silver instead of gold as promised. Firdausi scornfully divided the silver coins between a brewer of beer and the keeper of a public bath as a reward for their services, and then wrote a fierce satire on the sovereign. Tradition says that on hearing a magnificent verse of Shahnamè recited aloud, Mahmud repented of his cruel treatment of the poet. In recompense, he sent Firdausi a vast quantity of riches, but as the camels entered the poet's village from one end, from the other came forth his funeral cortège. (Alessandro Bausani - The Persians - pp. 83-84 - Elek Books Limited - 1971).

( 2 ) J. A. Arberry - Classical Persian Literature - pp. 42-45 and following -George Allen & Unwin Ltd. - 1958.

See also: Edward G. Browne - A Literary History of Persia - Volume 1, pp. 110-123. - Cambridge at the University Press - 1969.

Shah-nama (The Epic of Kings) --- Adapted from ASCII text to html format and with introduction and notes by Franco Dell'Oro.