The Shahnama of Firdausi
Category: Islam
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The Shahnameh (Persian: شاهنامه‎, romanized: Šāhnāme pronounced [ʃɒːhnɒːˈme]; lit. ' 'The Book of Kings'') is a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between c. 977 and 1010 CE and is the national epic of Greater Iran. Consisting of some 50,000 "distichs" or couplets (two-line verses), the Shahnameh is one of the world's longest epic poems.

The Shahnama of Firdausi

“The homes that are the dwellings of to-dayWill sink ‘neath shower and sunshine to decay,
But storm and rain shall never mar what I
Have built — the palace of my poetry.”

Vol. I

Trübner’s Oriental Series


Chapter I

Land and People

IRAN, the chief scene of Firdausi’s Shahnama, is bounded on the north by the Steppes, the Caspian Sea, and the Kur and Rion rivers, on the south by the Indian Ocean, on the east by the valley of the Indus, and on the west by that of the Tigris and Euphrates, and by the Persian Gulf. At present it includes Persia, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and small portions of Russia and Turkey.

It is a lofty and for the most part a rainless tableland traversed by numerous mountain-ranges divided from each other by flat plains and falling away toward the centre, which is a desert white with salt scurf or dun with powdery dust. The mountains are highest round the edges of the tableland and intercept most of the rainfall. Some moisture, however, finds its way even into the rainless region, where it gathers during winter on the higher hills in the form of snow. This snow-water is carefully husbanded, and distributed by means of underground water-courses. The interior is, however, drying up, and city, village, and cultivated field are being gradually overwhelmed in dust and shifting sands.

Possibly as late as early historical times very different conditions prevailed. The lower plains and depressions once formed a series of lakes that suggested the appearance of an inland sea, and such names as island, port, lighthouse, and etc., are said to still survive in places as a relic and indication of the old state of things, while a considerable body of water is still to be found in the eastern half of the central depression on the frontier between Persia and Afghanistan. This region is now known as Si’stan, but in ancient times was called Drangiana or the lake-country, a name which survived much later in its former capital Zarang, and as “Zirih” is still used in connection with its lake.

From April till late in the autumn the sky, save for an occasional thunderstorm among the mountains, is an unclouded azure, in winter a good deal of snow falls, and in spring the thunderstorms are heavy and frequent. The air is, as a rule, remarkably healthy, but on the borders of the deserts the inhabitants have sometimes to live shut up for weeks together to avoid the pestilential blasts.

The favoured regions are those that front west and north respectively. They are splendidly wooded and extremely fertile, all the ordinary flowers and fruits of Europe do well, while in the district between the Alburz Mountains and the Caspian, and known as Mazandaran, the climate is semitropical and the vegetation most luxuriant. Here rice, the sugar-cane, the vine, the orange, and the olive flourish. In the few watered valleys of the long southern coast the climate is tropical in character. The tamarisk and mimosa are largely represented, and here and there are groves of date-palms.

The immediate neighbourhood of the salt-deserts is the haunt of the wild ass or onager and of the antelope, the slope of the mountain-ranges of the wild sheep or argali, and their summit of the wild goat or ibex. The tracts artificially reclaimed and watered are the favourite home of the sandgrouse, and the highlands of the eagle, the vulture, the falcon, the raven, the crow, and the nightingale — the bulbul of the poets. The acorns of the western slopes attract the wild swine, which in turn tempt the lion from the reed-beds of the Tigris and the cover of its tributaries. Swine, too, abound in Mazandaran and afford food for the tiger which flourishes there, the dense undergrowth and vegetation of that region affording it as good shelter as an Indian jungle. Here, too, are found deer, buffalo, swan, waterfowl, woodcock, and pheasant. Speaking of the country more generally we may add to this list leopards, wildcats, wolves, bears, hyaenas, foxes, snakes, scorpions, vipers, lizards, the partridge, and the lark. The chief domestic animals are the ox, the sheep, especially the fat-tailed variety, the horse, the camel, and the mule.

Iran is a land of sharp contrasts, of intense heat and cold, of sudden and abnormal changes of temperature, of dead level and steep ascent, of splendid fertility hard by lifeless desolation, of irrigation and dust. Its natural characteristics find expression in the ancient cosmogony of its people. We are told that — Urmuzd the Good Principle — created earth as a lovely plain bathed in a mild perpetual radiance, fanned by soft temperate airs, bounteously provided with fresh sweet waters, and clad in a smooth and harmless vegetation. Here the First Man and the First Ox dwelt in peace and happiness. Ahriman — the Evil Principle broke into this fair scene and all was changed. Gloom minged with light, the seasons’ difference began, the seas turned salt, the streams dwindled, the vegetation grew rough and thorny, drought came and dust and desert; mountain-ranges sprang up from the plain, and the man and ox were stricken with disease and died; but from the body of the former sprang the first human pair from whom all the earth was overspread, and from the body of the latter all other harmless, useful, and beautiful animals, while Ahriman in opposition to these created all noisome and hideous insects, reptiles, and creatures sharp of fang or claw.

Let us now turn from the land to the people. For us there is no occasion to discuss questions of race from any very modern standpoint. For us it is rather what ethnical views obtained in ancient Iran and moulded its traditions. As to these there is happily little room for doubt, Darius Hystaspis, the founder of the Persian empire and the greatest of its historic Shahs, having decided the matter for us. On the rock of Bihistun he recorded his great achievements in a trilingual inscription, the languages employed being ancient Persian, Babylonian, and Scythian. The obvious explanation of his proceeding is, that he recognised in the population of his vast empire three distinct races of mankind, and, regarding language as distinctive of race, used it to emphasise that great political fact. In thus distinguishing he followed a true philological instinct, and his distinctions still largely obtain at the present day. Each of his three languages represents a great division of human speech. His view, as we shall see, agrees with the traditions and legends of his race, and if some modern Shah were to restore the empire of Darius, and wished to imitate the example of his great predecessor, he would still have to choose languages typical of the same three divisions. In what follows, therefore, language is made the basis of classification, and the divisions thus classified are commonly called the Indo-European, the Semitic, and the Turanian respectively. It is with peoples of the first division that we are chiefly concerned, and only so far as these came into contact with peoples of the other two divisions are we concerned about the latter.

At the dawn of history we find peoples speaking languages which, theoretically at all events, may be traced back to one primitive tongue, holding similar religious notions and organised politically as independent self-governing tribes, in possession of large geographical areas both in Europe and Asia. They thus fall into two great divisions — an European and an Asiatic — and are generally known as the Indo-European race. The Asiatic branch seems to have occupied in early times the neighbourhoods of Balkh, Harat, Marv, and possibly. of Samarkand. It described itself as Aryan or noble, as opposed to all those with whom it came into contact, much as the Greeks divided mankind into Hellenes and Barbaroi. It was organised into three orders or castes — priests, warriors, and husbandmen. Its religion was a frank worship of personified natural forces. Its priests were fire-priests, and fire was an especial object of adoration along with the other beneficent powers of nature — Mitra or Mithra, Yama or Yima, Trita, Traitana, and others. Opposed to these were the malignant spirits of drought and darkness, as, for instance, Azi or Azhi, also known as Dahaka — the biter, the serpent-fiend. Water was ever growing scarcer, and drought or plenty turned in the imagination of a primitive people on the struggle of the good and evil spirits for its possession. The former appeared in the lightning-flash, while the gloomy con-volutions of the thunder-cloud suggested the idea that fiends in serpent-form were striving to carry off the precious fluid — the heavenly waters as distinguished from the earthly waters — and hinder it from descending to the help of man. The cloud — the rain-bringer — was perversely regarded as the rain-stealer. The good spirits hastened to the rescue, the lightning-flash clove the cloud, and the demons dropped their booty. The serpent-fiend had to be combated for other reasons too, for his bite brought fever, disease, and death. Accordingly the divine physician appeared side by side with the divine hero, Trita with Traitana, and became, as we shall see later on, merged into a single personality in Iranian legend. Sacrifices were offered, and the drink-offering of the juice of the Soma or Homa plant was poured forth. The plant is usually identified as being the Asclepias acida or Sarcostemma viminale. The Aryans also worshipped the spirits of their ancestors, and were believers in what is called sympathetic magic. They thought that injury done to anything in the remotest way connected with their own persons would affect themselves injuriously. Even the knowledge of their name might be turned to their hurt, and we shall find instances in the poem of children being brought up unnamed to avoid that contingency.

At a period which cannot be put at less than four thousand years ago the Aryans themselves divided, and while a portion descended to the Indus and became the dominant race in India, the rest remained and gradually took possession of all that was habitable in the vast region that consequently became known as the land of the Aryans or Iran. The Aryans thus became separated into two branches — an Eastern and a Western. With the former we are but little concerned; the legendary story of the latter is the theme of the Shahnama.

Of these Western Aryans the two most famous peoples have ever been the Medes and Persians.

The Medes, whose modern representatives, if any, seem to be the Kurds, appear in ancient times to have been a loose confederation of kindred tribes broken up into numerous settlements, each under its local head-man or chief. They seem to have had no supreme political head or king to unite the race under one central authority. Their common bond, if any, was a religious one under their priests, the Magi. According to their own traditions the original seat of the race was Iran-vej, i.e., “Iranian seed,” and this has been well identified with the district of Karabagh, the ancient Arran, the ‘Apiavia of the Greeks, between the Kur and the Aras, where the Anti-Caucasus forms the true north-western scarp of the tableland of Iran. In historical times, however, we first find the Medes in possession of the province of Azarbijan, or, to give it its ancient title, Atropatene. The Persians occupied from time immemorial the country on the eastern shores of the Persian Gulf, now represented by the modern provinces of Farsistan and Laristan, and were ruled by kings of the house of Achaemenes. These two peoples, closely connected as they were by language and race, became in the days of Darius Hystaspis dominant in Iran, and to this domination the Medes appear to have contributed the religious, the Persians the political, element. Between the Medes and the Persians lay in ancient times, as we learn from Assyrian and Babylonian records, other kindred — peoples the kingdom of Elam, with its capital at Susa, some twenty-five miles west of the modern Shuster, and the kingdom of Ellipi, in the neighbourhood of the modern Hamadan. The Iranians as a whole were bounded on the west by Semitic and on the north by Turanian peoples. On the east they were conterminous with the Aryans of India, and ultimately they came into contact with the Western Indo-Europeans as well, notably with the Greeks and Romans. As the cosmogony and religion of the Iranians were largely derived from their physical, so was their tradition from their ethnical, environment. We are concerned with all three, but especially with the last — their tradition. The remainder of the present chapter will therefore be devoted to a brief, and necessarily dry, summary of their historical relations with the Semites as represented by the Assyrians in early and the Arabs in later times, with other Indo-European races represented by the Greeks and Romans in the west and by the Hindus in the east, and with the Turanians as represented by the Kimmerians, Scythians, Parthians, Huns and Turks.

The Irdnians and the Semites. — In the numerous contemporary records of the Assyrians we find many references to the Iranians. The whole of the western frontier of f ran, from the Medes in the north to the Persians in the south, seems to have been subjected at one point or another to almost constant aggression, at first by mere raids but later on by attempts at permanent conquest, at the hands of the great warrior-monarchs of Nineveh — Shalmaneser II. (B.C. 858-823), Samas Rimmon II. (B.C. 823-810), Rimmon-nirari III. (B.C. 810-783), Tiglath Pilesar III. (B.C. 745-727), Sargon (B.C. 722-705), Sennacherib (B.C. 705-681), Esarhaddon I. (B.C. 681-668), and Assurbanipal (B.C. 668-626). The attempts at permanent conquest date from the reign of Sargon. The long reign of Assurbanipal falls into two periods, a former of great extension and conquest, and a latter when the tide began to turn and the Assyrian empire, overstrained and exhausted, showed signs of decay. Finally, in the reign of Esarhaddon II., Nineveh fell (B.C. 606), overwhelmed by a confederacy which included the Medes. Probably no empire was ever less lamented by the world at large, for we have the Assyrians’ own word for it that their warfare was attended with every circumstance of cruelty and horror. They hold indeed a bad pre-eminence in that respect over all the other nations of antiquity.

With the fall of Nineveh serious Semitic aggression ceased, so far as the Iranians were concerned, till after the Christian era had begun. Arabia was at that epoch extremely prosperous, and carried on a vast caravan traffic in native produce and imports from India with the west and north. When, however, Rome had become recognised as the centre of the world, her merchants soon hit upon a less circuitous and consequently cheaper route. They started a direct traffic between India and the Red Sea, whereby merchandise, instead of being landed in Southern Arabia and thence conveyed northwards by land, was discharged at Arsinoe, Cleopatris (Suez), and other Egyptian ports. As a result, Southern Arabia — the most fertile and populous region of the peninsula — was ruined, and in time, both there and along the lines of the old caravan-routes, only massive remains of cities, canals, dams, and aqueducts were left to witness to a lost prosperity. A vast population was thrown out of employment, and the Arabs began to emigrate northward as early, it would seem, as the first century A.D. The Azdites in this way founded the cities of Hira and Anbar on the Euphrates, and were lords of Damascus till the days of the Khalifa ‘Umar. Other tribes from the south settled in the mountains of Aja and Salma, to the north of Najd and Al Hajaz. These Northern Arabs were divided in their allegiance between the Roman and Sasanian empires; and their quarrels among themselves, their restlessness and inconstancy, made them thorns in the sides of both, and led to many difficulties. The defeat of Julian by Sapor II. is said to have been largely due to the defection of the Arab allies of the former, while on the other hand the western frontier of Iran was always liable to be over-run by them as far north as and including Azarbijan. The havoc caused was often great, and the retaliation, on occasions, ferocious.

With the rise of Muhammad the Arabs became a great religious and political power. After his death in A.D. 632 he was succeeded in turn by Abu Bakr and Umar. In the course of the ten years of the latter’s rule Iran was conquered by his generals after the three great battles of Kadisiyya and Jalula in A.D. 637, and Nahavand, A.D. 641. A dynasty of high officials of the Sasanian empire still held out and maintained the ancient faith in the fastnesses of Mazandaran, but Iran as a whole was both from a religious and a political point of view submerged. The religious conquest proved to be permanent, but after a time national feeling began to reassert itself against the political, as the following brief summary of events may serve to show. ‘Umar appointed a committee of five to select the next Khalifa after his death. After long debate they chose ‘Uthman, but subsequently repenting of their choice three of the five brought about his assassination after a reign of twelve years, and nominated ‘Ali as Khalifa (A.D. 656). ‘Uthman was of the Umar and family, and its head Mu’awiya, then governor of Syria, took up arms to avenge him. Neither had any direct claim to the Khilafat, but ‘Ali was the son of Muhammad’s uncle Abu Talib, and had married the prophet’s daughter Fatima, known as “ the maiden.” Muhammad had said of him: “‘Ali’ is for me, and I am for him; he stands to me in the same rank as Aaron did to Moses; I am the town in which all knowledge is shut up, and he is the gate of it.” ‘Ali came to be regarded as associated in a very special way with the prophet, and was known as his executor or mandatary, and also as the Lion of God, or simply as the Lion. Mu’awiya, on the other hand, was the son of one of Muhammad’s bitterest opponents, and had nothing but his own abilities to recommend him. In the heat of the contest which ensued some of ‘Ali’s followers in their zeal for him went too far. They not only claimed the Khilafat for him by divine right, but actually denied that Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman had any title to be regarded as legitimate Khalifas at all. This shocked and drew a good many of the faithful into Mu’awiya’s camp, and the two parties became known as Shi’ites (partisans) and Sunnites (orthodox). In the event an extreme Muhammadan sect known as Kharijites (dissenters), which arose at that time, denied the rights of both candidates, advocated the bestowal of the Khilafat on “ the best,” and came to the conclusion that the true course out of the difficulty would be to remove both. ‘Ali’ was accordingly assassinated, but Mu’awiya escaped and became Khalifa without further dispute. The wrongs of ‘Ali’, however, as many thought them, had taken hold on the popular mind, especially in Iran, and were intensified when his son Husain the grandson of Muhammad himself was slain by Mu’awiya’s son and successor Yizid, A.D. 681. The Umayyads, whose chief support lay in Syria, had necessarily to rule from Damascus, and this tended to slacken their hold over their Eastern possessions. Taking advantage of this fact, and exploiting the feeling about ‘Ali’ to their own advantage, the descendants of ‘Abbas, one of Muhammad’s uncles, gradually undermined the position of the reigning house, till at length in the year A.D. 750, with the assistance of the Persians, they supplanted the Umayyads everywhere except in Spain. The triumph of the ‘Abbasids was a half triumph for Persian nationality, and the fact was recognised by the abandonment of Damascus as the seat of empire, and a return to the old state of things that had prevailed under the Sasanians by the building of Baghdad and the transference to it of the seat of government. Another triumph was won when, after the death of Harumi’r-Rashid, his son Mamun, whose mother was a Persian slave, overcame with Persian help his brother Amin, who was supported by Syria. Mamun was the last great ‘Abbasid Khalifa (A.D. 813-833). Decline soon followed. In A.D. 861 the Khalifa Mutawakkil was murdered by his own son, and the ‘Abbasids became thenceforth insignificant, having little power outside the walls of Baghdad and dependent chiefly on the forbearance of their mayors of the palace, if the expression may be applied to Eastern history, who preferred to veil their own supremacy behind the reverence still inspired by the Khalifas in their religious aspect as Commanders of the Faithful. In the tenth century this office was held by the Dilamids, who claimed descent from the ancient Persian kings and were fervent Shi’ites. They ruled over Western and Southern Iran, posing the while as the Khalifas’ most obedient slaves. In the north and east the Samanides, who claimed to be descended from the famous Iranian hero Bahram Chubina, but were in reality of Turkman descent, were supreme. The political supremacy of the Arabs in Iran was at an end.

The Iranians and the Greeks and Romans. — The historic strife between Persian and Greek is so familiar to us that it is hard to realise that the only portion of it in Iranian legend that in any way coincides with authentic history is that which deals with the invasion of the East by Alexander the Great; and even this is mostly based not on native but Greek tradition, so modified by Iranian patriotism as to gloss over or explain away the great overthrew of the East by the West. A genuine native tradition dating from those times would be extremely interesting, and it is very disappointing not to have it. Nothing survives of Alexander the Great in native Iranian legend except a conviction that he was one of the great persecutors and destroyers of Zoroastrianism This will be referred to later on, when we have to touch upon the preservation of Iranian tradition in general. It would seem as if the long predominance of the Roman empire on the stage of history had obliterated the memory of most of the great events of earlier ages and distorted that of the rest. We should expect, however, that at least the Roman empire itself during its greatest period would receive some recognition, especially an event so glorious for the East as the overthrow of Crassus at Carrhae (B.C. 53), but again we are disappointed. The explanation seems to be that during the whole period of the rise and greatness of Rome, f ran was under foreign domination, first Grecian and then Parthian. At all events it is not till a native dynasty rules again in Iran that we begin to find common ground in Iranian and Roman history, and this is not till the third century of the Christian era. Till then Rome obliterated Greece only to be ignored itself in all but the name. Iranian tradi-tion knows of Ruin but of nothing behind it.

The Iranians and the Aryans of India. — In this case the interest for us is chiefly a religious one. From the date (B.C. 250) of the conversion of the Indian king, Asoka of Magadha, to Buddhism that faith began to extend rapidly. Asoka, like all sincere converts, was an enthusiast, and in his reign Buddhism was preached not only in India itself but in Eastern Iran, and even so far west, it is said, as the shores of the Caspian. It prospered much and continued to hold its own in Kabulistan till A.D. 850, when a Brahman dynasty replaced the Buddhist. It was probably not much before the eleventh century of the Christian era that Muhammadanism finally triumphed in those regions. To the Zoroastrian, however, no less than to the Muhammadan, Buddhism and Brahmanism were alike idolatry, and this view has left, as we shall see, its mark on Iranian legend. The fierce wars carried on against the idolaters of India by the Muhammadans of Eastern Iran at the end of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century have also left their mark.

The Iranians and Turanians. — Savage, barbarous, and uncouth, the nations of the North have always been notorious for the disgust and terror with which they have inspired the higher civilisations of the South. The Turanians were little better than the Assyrians in their treatment of vanquished foes, and decidedly worse in aspect. In the most ancient times of which we have any record, the great highway for these nations southward lay between the Caspian and Euxine Seas. They had therefore to cross the barrier of the Caucasus, which is said to be only passable, save by expert Alpine climbers, in three places, one at each end and one near the centre. Of these the most practicable for large bodies of men lay along the flat shores of the Caspian. The Caucasus stops short of that sea, and only one spur of the range running in a north-easterly direction nearly approaches it. Between this spur and the sea, where the passage is narrowest, stands the town of Darband. Here, according to the legend, Sikandar, i.e. Alexander the Great, built a mighty barrier to restrain the incursions of Gog and Magog, i.e. of the Turanians. Such a wall extending across the Pass of Darband was actually built for that purpose by the great Sasanian Shah Nushirwan the contemporary of the Emperor Justinian, and those two rulers agreed to share the expense of preventing barbarism from penetrating south of the Caucasus. Two centuries later, when the Khazars, a Turkish race from what is now Southern Russia, captured Tiflis and wrought great havoc, the ‘Abbasid Khalifa Mansur erected defensive works and secured the whole region up to the great mountain-barrier. Coming down to later times, and regarding the matter from the other side, we may mention that one of Peter the Great’s first acts after his accession to the throne was to make sure of Darband.

The first historical invasion by a Turanian race is that of the Kimmerians of Homer and Herodotus, the Gomer of the Bible and the Gimirra of the Assyrian inscriptions, who appear to have dwelt in early times on the Dniester and the Sea of Azof, whence they were driven by the pressure of kindred races whom the Assyrians called Manda. Traversing the Pass of Darband they settled for a time north of the Aras, where undoubtedly they must have come into contact with the Medes. Being still pressed upon from the north, they made an unsuccessful attempt to invade Assyria in B.C. 677, and then turned westward into Asia Minor.

In the wake of the Kimmerian invasion came the cause of it — the Sacae or Scythians, who seem to have forced the line of the Aras, to have overrun the territory of the Medes and the kingdom of Ellipi, and to have established as their capital the famous city of Ekbatana, the modern Hamadan, in what has always been known in ancient history as Media Magna. It seems to have been this domination of the Sacae at Ekbatana that has been recorded for us in history as the Empire of the Medes. The confusion appears to have arisen from the similarity between the Assyrian words for Medes and nomads respectively, the former being Mada and the latter Manda, coupled with the fact that the Mada and Manda both formed part of the confederation which, under the leadership of Kastarit, the Kyaxares of the Greeks, overthrew Nineveh. The empire of the Manda at Ekbatana — the so-called Median Empire — continued till the middle of the sixth century B.C. It shared the dominion over Western Asia with Babylon and Lydia, and was no doubt the cause of the elaborate defensive works with which Nebuchadnezzar, mindful of the fate of Nineveh, sought to make his capital impregnable: it held the overlordship of Western fran. In the year B.C. 550, however, Cyrus, king of Elam, rebelled against his overlord, Istuvegu of Ekbatana, the Astyages of the Greeks, and overthrew him in the following year. Cyrus then subjugated the Persians, entered Babylon in B.C. 544, conquered Asia Minor and all the tableland of f ran, united its tribes for the first time in history under one government, and became known to TateF times as Cyrus the Great. He is said to have extended his conquests to the Jaxartes, on the borders of which he erected fortresses to hold the nomad tribes in check, and the Greek historians, with the exception of Xenophon, represent him as perishing in a war with the Scythians. The legend of Cyrus and Tomyris, the queen of Massagetae, told by Herodotus, is well known. Cyrus’ second successor, Darius Hystaspis, the false Smerdis being left out of the question, also carried the war into the enemy’s country, and advanced beyond the Danube in B.C. 513, though not very successfully, to avenge, as Herodotus tells us, the Scythian invasions which preceded the fall of the Assyrian Empire.

In the century after the death of Alexander the Great the Parthians, reinforced by another Turanian tribe known as the Dahae, rebelled against the Seleucids (B.C. 250), and became the dominant race in Iran, till a successful revolt (A.D. 226) placed the native Sasanian dynasty on the throne. During their long domination the Parthians in their turn suffered from the incursions of kindred races from the North, in much the same way as the English settlers in Britain suffered from the Danes. The second century before the Christian era was marked by great activity on the part of the Turanians, and the whole border of fran from the Hindu Kush to the Caspian was overrun by them. Two Parthian monarchs in succession — Phraates II. and Artabanus II. — were defeated and slain, and the Parthian Empire was only saved from overthrow by Mithridates II. Foiled by him the Turanians turned to the East and permanently settled in Eastern fran, in the region which has ever since been called after one of their peoples, Sacaestan or Sistan, the stead or home of the Sacae (c. B.C. 100).

Another Turanian people, known as the Alans or Alani, who first appear, it is said, in Chinese annals, were on the Volga in the first century of the Christian era. Pressed upon by the Huns, who had defeated them in a great battle, they overran Media and Armenia, some of them finding their way into the Caucasus, where their descendants, it is said, still exist. Thence in A.D. 133, at the invitation of Pharasmanes, king of Iberia, they invaded Azarbijan and Armenia, ravaged the country, and had to be bought off by Vologeses II., the Parthian monarch of the time.

The Huns, who had been instrumental in precipitating the Alani on Iran, were themselves in flight before other hordes. A large contingent of them seized and settled upon the oasis of Samarkand or Sughd. Here, improved by long settlement both in aspect and manners, they became known as the White Huns; or to the Iranians, who carried on many wars with them, as the Haitalians.

Lastly, in the middle of the sixth century of the Christian era the name of the Turks begins to appear in history. Spreading from Mount Altai, or the Golden Mountain, in Central Asia, they extended themselves over the northern half of the continent, subjugating among other nations the Haitalians. The empire of the Turks only lasted about two centuries, but the tribes and nations of which it was composed were spread over the north of Asia from China to the Oxus and the Danube, and under the name of Turkmans have proved a permanent menace to the northern frontiers of Iran.

The ‘Abbasids soon learned to avail themselves of the services of Turkman chiefs in the administration of their empire. It was thus that the Samanids first rose to power under the Khalifa Mamun, only, as we have seen, to make themselves independent under his degenerate successors. About the year A.D. 961 a disputed succession occurred among the Samanids. The rightful heir in the direct line was a boy only eight years old, and for that reason, as the times were troublous, a party among the nobles declared in favour of his uncle, his father’s brother. The matter was referred for settlement to the Samanid governor of Khurasan — a man of Turkman descent named Alptigin — but before his decision arrived the dispute had been settled and Mansur had succeeded to the throne. Alptigin had given his decision in favour of the uncle, and being fearful of Mansur’s vengeance he withdrew from Khurasan and carved himself out a small principality at Ghazni. He died in A.D. 969, and after two short reigns the troops elected Subuktigin to be their chief. He was a Turkman, had been brought up in the household of Alptigin, had subsequently acted as his general, and was a man of great ability and courage. He speedily enlarged his dominions and began those raids into India which became so frequent in the days of his more famous son. In the meantime the Samanid ruler Mansur had died, and his son, the Amir Nuh II., was driven from his capital at Bukhara by a Turkman invasion instigated by two of his own nobles, who subsequently, however, were compelled to flee for their lives. They appealed for aid to the Dilamids — the rivals of the Samanids — and obtained it. On this the Amir Nuh II. himself appealed for help to Subuktigin, who marched to his assistance. A great battle was fought at Harat, and Subuktigin gained a decisive victory. The Amir in his gratitude bestowed on him the title of Nasiru’d-Din, or Defender of the Faith, and on his eldest son Mahmud, who had greatly distinguished himself, that of Saifu’d-Daula, or Sword of the State, as well as the governorship of Khurasan. This happened in A.D. 994. Three years later Subuktigin died. He left three sons, Mahmud, Isma’il, and Nasr, and appointed Isma’il to succeed him. Mahmud seems to have behaved well, but after vain attempts at conciliation and compromise he was compelled to assert himself against his brother, who was speedily overthrown and ended his days in internment as a state-prisoner. The other brother, Nasr, supported Mahmud. Shortly afterwards the Samanid dynasty flickered out after the death of the Amir Nuh II., and in A.D. 999 Mahmud formally assumed the sovereignty, an event which is duly noted on his coins by the prefix of Amir to his own titles, and the omission of the name of the Samanid overlord which previously had been retained by the rulers of Ghazni. Mahmud was then twenty-eight years old. His career as a great conqueror and religious fanatic is well known. His domination extended from the Punjab to the Tigris, and from Bukhara to the Indian Ocean. He has, however, another claim upon our memories. His name was to become for ever associated with that of the poet of the Shahnama who had despaired in those troublous times of obtaining any adequate royal patronage for his long formed design of moulding into song the epic history of his land and people. It was a moment of high hopes for many, for the young and ambitious prince, for the ambitious but no longer youthful poet, and for all who either by birth or adoption had the welfare of Iran at heart. The Arab yoke had been shaken off, Persian was reviving in the literature, old Iranian names were being resumed, and there seemed the fairest prospects for the establishment of a third Persian empire with Mahmud for its first Shah. It is true that religious differences remained. Half Iran was Shi’ite and the other half Sunnite, but save for that it seemed a stroke of fair fortune that made the great king and the great poet contemporaries.

Chapter II

Poet and Poem

THE most trustworthy materials for the life of Firdausi are to be found in his own personal references, there being probably no poem of considerable length in which the writer keeps himself so much in evidence as Firdausi does in the Shahnama. Next in authority to his own statements we must place the account given of him by Nizami-i-’Arudi of Samarkand in his work entitled “Chahar Makala,” i.e. “Four Discourses.” They are on Secretaries, Poets, Astrologers, and Physicians respectively, and consist chiefly of anecdotes. One of these, in the “Discourse on Poets,” gives the valuable account of Firdausi. Unfortunately it throws doubt on the authenticity of the extant version of one of his compositions — the Satire on Sultan Mahmud, only a few lines of which, if Nizami is to be believed, can be regarded as Firdausi’s own. They suffice, however, to indicate one good reason for the poet’s difference with Mahmud and the general line that he took in his literary revenge, though that Sultan, it is pretty evident, never even heard that the poet had written the Satire at all! In addition to the above-mentioned sources of information there are two formal biographies of the poet. One, which dates about A.D. 1425, was compiled by order of Baisinghar Khan, the grandson of Timur the Lame, and is prefixed to the former’s edition of the text of the Shahnama. It is apparently based on an older metrical life of which it preserves some extracts, and is itself the basis of most of the biographical notices of the poet, including that in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The other, which dates about A.D. 1486, is in Daulat Shah’s “Lives of the Poets,” and is preferred by the writer of the article “Ferdoucy” in the Biographic Universelle. Both are used by Mohl in the preface to his edition of the text and translation of the Shahnama, and both are full of mythical details.

Let us first confine ourselves to the statements in the poet’s undoubted writings and to legitimate deductions therefrom. He calls himself Abu ‘l Kasim, and we gather, that he was born about A.D. 941. We arrive at this in the following way. In the whole Shahnama there is only one definite date — that on which he finished the poem. This, mixing up the Muhammadan era with the Zoroastrian calendar, he tells us he did on the day of Ard in the month of Sapandarmad of the year 400 of the Hijra. This particular year, for the Muhammadan years are lunar and vary accordingly, began on August 25th, A.D. 1009, and ended on the 14th day of that month in the year following. Therefore Firdausi finished the Shahnama on February 25th, A.D. 1010. He gives his one date in the concluding lines of the poem, where he also says: —

When one and seventy years had passed me by
The heavens bowed down before my poetry.

This we may fairly interpret as meaning that he finished his work when he was seventy-one years old, i.e. about sixty-nine, as we reckon, since thirty-four Muhammadan years go to about thirty-three of ours.

The poet was a Muhammadan of the Shi’ite sect. This is clear from his reference to ‘Ali in his Prelude.

Moreover, he was not a strict Muhammad an in the matter of wine-drinking: —

The time to quaff delicious wine is now,
For musky scents breathe from the mountain-brow,
The air resoundeth and earth travaileth,
And blest is he whose heart drink gladdeneth,
He that hath wine and money, bread and sweets,
And can behead a sheep to make him meats.
These have not I. Who hath them well is he.
Oh! pity one that is in poverty!

And again: —

Bring tulip-tinted wine, Hashimi!
From jars that never need replenishing.
Why seek I who am deaf at sixty-three
The world’s grace and observance?

He soon after has a fit of repentance: —

Old man whose years amount to sixty-three!
Shall wine be still the burden of thy lay?
Without a warning life may end with thee;
Think of repentance then, seek wisdom’s way.
May God approve this slave. May he attain
In wisdom riches and in singing gain.

He owned or occupied land; at least the following passages suggest that conclusion: —

A cloud hath risen and the moon’s obscured,
From that dark cloud a shower of milk is poured,
No river plain or upland can I spy,
The raven’s plumes are lost against the sky,
In one unceasing stream egg-apples fall:
What is high heaven’s purpose in it all?
No fire-wood salted meat or barley-grain
Are left me, naught till harvest come again!
Amid this gloom, this day of tax and fear,
When earth with snow is like an ivory sphere,
All mine affairs in overthrow will end
Unless my hand is grasped by some good friend.

And again: —

The hail this year like death on me hath come
Though death itself were better than the hail,
And heaven’s lofty far extending dome
Hath caused my fuel sheep and wheat to fail.

In some verses, complaining of the advance of old age, he alludes to a calamity that befell him when he was fifty-eight, or it may be that an escape from drowning, which he seems to have had about that time, had a sobering effect upon him. This accident will be referred to in another connection later on. He says: —

Since I took up the cup of fifty-eight
The bier and grave, naught else, I contemplate.
Ah! for my sword-like speech when I was thirty,
Those luscious days, musk-scented, roseate!

At the age of sixty-five he lost his son: —

At sixty-five ‘tis ill to catch at pelf.
Oh! let me read that lesson to myself
And muse upon the passing of my son.
My turn it was to go yet he hath gone.

Seven years and thirty o’er the youth had sped
When he distasted of the world and fled.

He hurried off alone. I stayed to see
The outcome of my labours.

In the year following his son’s death he speaks of himself as being much broken: —

While three score years and five were passing by,
Like Spring-winds o’er the desert, poverty
And toil were mine; next year like one bemused
I leaned upon a staff, my hands refused
The rein, my cheeks grew moon-like pale, my beard
Lost its black hue and camphor-like appeared,
Mine upright stature bent as age came on
And all the lustre of mine eyes was gone.

He never speaks of himself as having any profession or official position, but if we may hazard a conjecture it is that he or his son or both were educated for the office of scribe. He puts the following glorification of that profession into the mouth of Buzurjmihr, the famous chief minister of the still more famous Shah Nushirwan: —

Teach to thy son the business of the scribe
That he may be as life to thee and thine,
And, as thou wouldest have thy toils bear fruit,
Grudge not instructors to him, for this art
Will bring a youth before the throne and make
The undeserving fortune’s favourite.
Of all professions ‘tis the most esteemed,
Exalting even those of lowly birth.
A ready scribe who is a man of rede
Is bound to sit e’en in the royal presence
And, if he be a man of diligence,
Will have uncounted treasure from the Shah,
While if endowed with fluency and style
He will be studious to improve himself,
Use his endeavours to be more concise
And put his matter more attractively.
The scribe hath need to be a man of wisdom,
Of much endurance and good memory,
A man of tact, accustomed to Court-ways,
A holy man whose tongue is mute for evil,
A man of knowledge, patience, truthfulness,
A man right trusty pious and well-favoured.
If thus endowed he cometh to the Shah
He cannot choose but sit before the throne.

However this may be, from the time when he became his own master he appears to have devoted himself to poetry. Referring to the completion of the Shahnama he says:

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