History of Shahnameh or Epic of Kings

The Shahnameh 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 readers back to the ancient times and makes he/she sense and feel the events. The Shahnameh was written by the famous poet, Ferdowsi who worked for over thirty years to finish his masterpiece.

Ferdowsi is considered to be one the greatest of all Persian poets and the Shahnameh is regarded as the Persian national epic. For a millennium, people of greater Persia have continued to read and listen to recitations from this masterwork.

The Shahnameh was written over 1,000 years ago, and is a record of pre-Islamic Iran. It is the history of Iran’s past, preserved in majestic verse.

Size of the Shahnameh

The Shahnameh has 62 stories, 990 chapters, and some 55,000 rhyming couplets, making it more than seven times the length of Homer’s Illiad, and more than twelve times the length of the German Nibelungenlied. The Shahnameh is based mainly on a prose work of the same name compiled in the poet’s early manhood. Ferdowsi worked in his native Tus, a region in modern day Iran. This prose was for the most part, the translation of a Pahlavi (Middle Persian) work, the Khvatay-namak,  a history of the kings of Persia from mythical times down to the reign of Khosrow II (590-628 CE). However, it also contained additional material continuing the story to the overthrow of the Sassanians by the Arabs in the middle 7th century A.D.

The first to undertake the versification of this chronicle of pre-Islamic and legendary Persia was Daqiqi, a poet at the court of the Samanids, who came to a violent end after completing only 1,000 verses. These verses, which deal with the rise of the prophet Zoroaster, were afterward incorporated by Ferdowsi, with due acknowledgments, in his own poem.

The Shahnameh is divided into 3 successive parts: The Mythical, Heroic & Historic Ages.

The Mythical Age 

The mythical Age is the shortest section, and represents only 4% of the Shahnameh. This gives an account of the creation of the world and of man as believed by the Sassanians. This introduction is followed by the story of the first man, Keyumars, who also becomes the first King.

The Heroic Age

The Heroic Age is the longest section, represents 65% of the Shahnameh. This is devoted to the age of Heroes, extending from Manuchehr’s reign until the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great. The main feature of this period is the role played by the Sagzi (Scynthian) or Sistani heroes who appear as the backbones of the Persian Empire. This section includes: the Love story of Zal and Rudabeh, the Seven Labors of Rostam (Haft Khan), Rostam and Sohrab, Siyavash and Soodabeh, Rostam and Akhvan Deev, Rosatm and Esfandiyar, Bejan and Manijeh, Goshtasp, Arjasp and the many wars with Afrasiyab.

The Historical Age

The Historical Age represents almost 30% of the Shahnameh. This gives a brief mention of the Ashkanian Dynasty, follows the history of Alexander, and precedes that of Ardeshir I, Founder of the Sassanian Dynasty. It is at this point in the book that Sassanid history is related with a good deal of accuracy. The fall of the Sassanids and the Arab conquest of Persia are narrated in a moving manner where Ferdowsi himself laments over this catastrophe and over what he calls the arrival of the “army of darkness”.

Source(s): Iran Chamber Society, Wikipedia, Iranica


Ferdowsi is considered to be one the greatest Persian poets and is much revered by the Persian speaking world. For over a thousand years Persians, Afghanis, Azeris, Georgians, Tajiks, Kurds, and a myriad of other ethnic groups have continued to read and listen to recitations from this masterwork.

Ferdowsi’s Life

Ferdowsi was born in Iran in the province of Khorasan in a village near Tus, in 940 CE. He devoted most of his adult life to writing The Shahnameh. It was originally composed for (and supported financially by) the Samanid princes of Khorasan, who were the chief instigators of the revival of Persian cultural traditions after the Arab conquest of the seventh century.

Sadly for Ferdowsi. during his lifetime this dynasty was conquered by the Ghaznavid Turks who had little regard for supporting his work  There are several stories in medieval texts describing the lack of interest shown by the new ruler of Khorasan, Mahmoud of Ghaznavi, towards Ferdowsi or his work. Ferdowsi died around 1020 CE in poverty and embittered by royal neglect, though confident of his poem’s ultimate fame.

The Shahnameh 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 readers back to the ancient times and makes he/she sense and feel the events.

Ferdowsi’s Finances

Ferdowsi was a landowner, deriving a comfortable income from his estates. He had two children, a son and a daughter. However, he did not have enough to provide his daughter with a handsome dowry, and so he set his hand to the task that was to occupy him for more than 30 years. The year 1006 CE, when the poet was 67, was the worst period of his life. In this year his 37-year-old son died. The poet describes his grief in extremely simple and personal language, complaining to his son that he has gone on ahead and left his father alone, and asks God’s forgiveness for him. Ferdowsi’s Tomb is in Tus near the modern day city of Mashhad (in Iran). The Shahnameh, finally completed in 1010 CE, was presented to the celebrated sultan Mahmoud of Ghaznavid, who by that time had made himself master of Ferdowsi’s home province of Khorasan.

Ferdowsi’d Conflict

Information on the relations between poet and patron are legendary. According to the tale, Ferdowsi came to Ghaznavid in person and through the good offices of the minister Ahmad-ebn-Hasan Meymandi was able to secure the Sultan’s acceptance of the poem. Unfortunately, Mahmoud then consulted enemies of the minister as to the poet’s reward. They suggested that Ferdowsi should be given 50,000 dirhams, and even this, they said, was too much. Mahmoud was influenced by their words, and in the end Ferdowsi received only 20,000 dirhams. Bitterly disappointed, he went to the baths and, upon leaving, bought a draft of foqa’ (a type of beer) and divided the whole of the money between the bath attendant and the seller of foqa’.

Fearing the Sultan’s wrath, he fled first to Herat, where he was in hiding for six months, and then, by way of his native Tus, to the province of Mazanderan, where he found refuge at the court of the Sepahbad Shahreyar, whose family were descended from the Sassanians.

There Ferdowsi composed a satire of 100 verses about Sultan Mahmoud that he inserted in the preface of the Shahnameh and read it to Shahreyar, at the same time offering to dedicate the poem to him, as a descendant of the ancient kings of Persia, instead of to Mahmoud. Shahreyar, however, persuaded him to leave the dedication to Mahmoud, bought the satire from him for 1,000 dirhams for each verse, and had it expunged from the poem. The whole text of this satire, bearing every mark of authenticity, has survived to the present.

Ferdowsi however, died just as Sultan Mahmoud had determined to make amends for his shabby treatment of the poet by sending him 60,000 dinars’ worth of indigo. The earliest date given by later authorities is 1020 and the latest 1026 CE; it is certain though that he lived to be more than 80.