Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ferdowsi, the Poet from Tus

Ferdowsi, born in 940 in Tus, right outside of Mashhad, already a well-regarded poet at 30, was commissioned by the Saminid princes of Khorasan to write a poetic version of an older prose text called the Book of Lords. He completed it in 1010. Unfortunately he had not been paid by the princes who hired him. And at some point during his 40 or so years of writing more than 50,000 verses, these princes were ousted by the Ghaznavid Turks who were not particularly sympathetic to his project.

Shanameh or Book of Kings tells the story of two mythic or legendary dynasties and two historical dynasties and stops just short of the momentous Arab invasion in the 7th century. The archetypal Persian hero of the book, Rostam, who embodies integrity, strength and chivalry, wages righteous battles and undergoes many trials and tests of endurance and courage. It’s a story that makes Persians proud of their pre-Islamic history and ancient glory. And apparently it is beautifully written. The statue we saw in Tehran outside Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi’s White Palace is a figure from Shanameh.

But there is more to its importance than that. In the 10th century, Arab culture was bumping up against Persian culture and language and threatening to over run it. Ferdowsi, fully understanding the threat, wrote Shanameh in a pure form of Persian, removing as many Arab-derived words as possible and as a result codified the Persian language for future generations. Or so the story goes.

The mausoleum which we visited in Tus was built in 1926 by Reza Shah Pahlavi, on the site of Ferdowsi’s tomb. Inside are giant carvings of some of the stories from Shanameh.

Our guide to the city of Mashhad, Ali, sang us one of the stories from Shanameh standing at the foot of Ferdowsi's tomb, his lovely voice reverberating throughout the large space filled with mythical creatures, ruthless enemies, and valiant heroes.

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