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Superman? Wonder Woman? Ha! This Guy Saves Languages! Why Iranians Fall for Ferdowsi
April 5, 2000

The Tomb of the Poet Ferdowsi

Check out the tomb of the poet Ferdowsi who by writing the epic poem Shahnama saved Persian culture and the Farsi language

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Odysseus may have outwitted the frightening monster Cyclops. Queen Amidala and the Jedi knights may have saved the inhabitants of Naboo from the sinister trade Federation. But what epic hero do you know that, after battling with demons and dragons, also went on to save the culture and language of an entire people?

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Rostam's seventh and final obstacle in releasing King Keykavoos and his army was to kill the white demon
Long, long ago, in a land of immense beauty and bountiful treasures, warriors, demons, princes and fiends battled for ultimate control. A strong boy named Rostam was raised as a warrior by his father Zal, who in turn was raised in the wilderness by Simorgh, a mighty bird who stopped short of devouring the young boy he had found because of a vision of greatness to come. During this time, the beloved King Keykavoos and his army had been taken prisoner by the demons of Mazanderan, and the people of Iran were left sad and bewildered. So Rostam braved treacherous lions, vast lifeless deserts, dragons, witches and demons in order to save the king and restore order to his land.

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Painting of the beloved poet Ferdowsi
"Nice story, Kavitha," you must be thinking to yourself. "We all have fantastic myths of heroes and demons that we know and enjoy, but you don't honestly think Rostam saved Iranian culture for real, do you?"

Well, believe it or not, Rostam actually did play a prime role in saving the beautiful Farsi language and Persian culture we trekkers are now enjoying here in Iran. You see, Rostam is the hero of the Shahnama, or Book of Kings - the incredible epic poem by the poet Hakim Abulghasim Ferdowsi that has protected the Farsi language in the face of subjugating empires, and given us a glimpse of Iran's tumultuous history.

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The tradition of reciting parts of the Shahnama at tea houses

Although Ferdowsi died poor and unappreciated, he is a revered Iranian national hero today. We got a chance to visit his tomb and see firsthand just how much he really is loved. Hundreds upon hundreds of families had come during their No Ruz holidays to picnic in the surrounding parks and pay homage to the great poet. Built where he is believed to have died, in Tus around 1020 CE, the tomb is set amidst an informative museum and beautiful gardens and fountains.

Among all the vacationing Iranians, we trekkers created quite a scene! Most Iranians have never met foreigners - much less Americans visiting their country. Everyone was so nice and curious about where we had come from, and we were lucky enough to get a special performance of the Shahnama! The Shahnama was traditionally told in teahouses or in the palaces of the sultans as a form of entertainment. One of the most famous tellers was an old man named Nak Gal. Today, these performances of the Shahnama are known as Nak Gali. With quite a dramatic flair, a guide broke out in a rendition of one of Rostam's heroic adventures, and although it was in Farsi, your American trekkers appreciated it quite a bit! The Shahnama has been translated into a number of different languages, and although we can find copies in English today, the rhyme and flow of Ferdowsi's original are lost....But check out what it soundslike in Farsi for yourself! Click here to listen.

You must have the RealPlayer.

Long, long ago, in a land of immense beauty and bountiful treasures, powerful empires battled for ultimate control…No, this is not the beginning of another myth! This is history: a small scene from Iran's dramatic past. In the first half of the seventh century CE, Iran was a battlefield upon which the Sassians from Central Persia and the Romans were waging war. But in 637 CE, from the southwest, appeared the Muslim invaders riding in on their Arabian horses. With curved swords and battle cries of "Allah-o-Akbar! "(Great is the one and only God!), they had no problem conquering this already-divided and weak nation.

The Arab invaders easily established Islam as the national religion. For the most part, the idea of a God who saw all as equal appealed to the Persians, who admired the Arabs for risking their lives for beliefs they held so strongly.

Religion and culture, though, are different things. Most Persians already believed in one God, so accepting the doctrine of Islam was not a big stretch. Culture and language, on the other hand, were achievements of which the Persians were proud. Persian tribes rose up in different sections of the country in objection to the foreign invaders. The Arabs continued to rule, nonetheless, for over 400 years, during which time they introduced the Arabic language and script intending to make it the national language.

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Beautiful dramatic painting of a warrior slaying another on a battlefield
If there is one thing the Persians are it's persistent, and while the Arabs may have been the foreign rulers, they were unable to keep the people from following their age old traditions. In fact, it was the Persians who were penetrating the Arab world, contributing greatly to Muslim civilization, art, literature, and sciences.

It was during this time that Ferdowsi was born, around 940 CE, in the eastern region of Toos. Ferdowsi studied Persian literature and developed a love for poetry at a young age. He had a deep admiration for Persian history and took it upon himself at the age of 40 to begin to document the legendary stories of the past in the form of written poetry. The Shahnama is the amazing result of over 30 years of work, in which Fordowsi gave life to the glories of great Iranian kings and heroes in one long epic poem. This ain't no 'Roses are Red' kind of poem, the Shahnama consisted of 50,000 couplets!


subjugating - to bring under control and governance, to make submissive
tumultuous - marked by violent or overwhelming turbulence or upheaval

Unfortunately the work was seen as controversial for the time (for its use of Farsi and its tribute to Persian culture) so Ferdowsi spent his last years wandering in poverty and grief. Today though, the Shahnama is heralded for the masterpiece it is, and Ferdowsi is revered as a national hero.

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Armor of warriors of the time
Not only is the Shahnama an incredible work of art that made use of a new form of rub'i, or quatrain, style poetry for which Iran is now famous, but it also helped preserve the Farsi language during a time when it was threatened to be forgotten to Arabic. In addition, the Shahnama is considered so important today because it is one of the only remaining Persian texts that give us a glimpse of Persian history and culture. Tragically most Persian historical texts have been destroyed by the many different empires that have battled for control of this treasured land. Thus, most of what we do know about ancient Persian history has been written by one of the invading foreign empires like the Greeks (one of Persia's longest standing enemies!).

Greek historians like Homer, Herodotus or Xenophon, couldn't capture the essence of Persian culture the way a real Persian could. Odysseus's adventures in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey are purely Greek in their mythology and values. In the same way, Rostam's adventures in the Shahnama show us victory, defeat, courage, strength, piety, and wisdom in a manner that is distinctly Persian through and through.

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Monica smiles pretty in front of a relief image from Shahnama at Ferdowsi's tomb in Tus
In the face of treacherous demons trying to block his way with overwhelming obstacles, Rostam did not back down and continuously rose up to the challenge at hand. But more importantly in the face of invading empires trying to subdue and change the culture of a people, the Persians have not backed down and continue to rise to whatever challenge is at hand. Ferdowsi's Shahnama is a prime example.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Monica - The Holiest of Shrines: The Astan Quds Razavi of Mashhad
Abeja - Sweet Home Iran
Jasmine - Nader Shah: War Can Make You Lose Your Head
Brian - Three's Company

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