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I. The Shahnameh: a Persian Cultural Emblem and a Timeless Masterpiece

 

The most important creation of New Persian literature – the Shahnameh, or the ‘Book of Kings’ – has been defined as the national epic of the Iranian people, their ‘identity card’ (shenas-nameh) and an encyclopaedia of Iranian culture. It celebrates the survival of a civilization that originated some 7,000 years ago at a dynamic crossroads of cultures, the Iranian Plateau, extended at its peak from Anatolia and the Caucasus across Transoxiana to China, withstood countless invasions, absorbed diverse influences, and conquered its conquerors by virtue of its timeless values.

Twice as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey taken together, the Shahnameh blends Iran’s ancient myths and legends with accounts of major events in its past. Its 55,000 rhyming couplets chart the history of the Iranian world from its creation to the fall of the Persian Empire in the seventh century. The Arab conquest led to fundamental changes in economic, social, and cultural life, including the replacement of Zoroastrianism with Islam and of Middle Persian (Pahlavi) with Arabic as the dominant language. But the Shahnameh offered Iran’s new rulers a model of wise kingship, preserved the Persian language and identity, and spread their cultural influence well beyond Iran’s shrinking political borders. It was translated into Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and many of the world’s modern languages. A millennium after its completion, the Persian ‘Book of Kings’ remains one of the most popular texts of secular poetry in Southwest Asia. Its enduring appeal points to a core of meaning – the eternal strife between good and evil – that transcends specific time and place.

Section I of V • Next (Ferdowsi)