on August 24, 2013
Instead of translating the poetic original, the translator, Mr. Dick Davis, wisely chose to use the storytellers' version and only sprinkling occasional poetry for emphasis and flavor. It makes for easy reading for foreigners but still conveyed the essence of Persian culture. To complement the popular verse version, he used popular art of the market place as illustrations instead of the highly refined style of the elite. However, I do miss the elegance of miniature paintings and the beauty of courtly illustrations.
I have always wondered why Shahnameh is considered by the Persians/Iranians as their national epic even though the mythical period took place in Central Asia and Afghanistan with no mention of the traditional Persian origin or the Achaemenids until Alexander showed up. Mr. Dick Davis explained that the poet Ferdowsi was writing for the Samanid shah who ruled only in eastern Iran. Besides, the Samanids claimed descent from a Parthian general who started his career in Khorasan and Tranoxiana and later even briefly claiming the Sassanid throne. As the epic was an assertion of national identity, it ended at the end of the Sassanid dynasty when the Arab conquest incorporated Persia into Dal al Islam.
Since this is the Book of Kings, it began with the first king. The early mythical kings were the ones who taught the people the necessary skills for the development of civilization. Following the Zoroastrian tradition and Islamic belief, the conflict of good and evil started early and remained front and center. But right and wrong were drawn along the tribal lines as one could always justify his action by claiming the enemy was a demon. And a man's worth was measured by his strength and valor. To this day, strong men and wrestling champions are still highly esteemed in Central Asia. As the world was still small, everything to the west was Rome, everything to the east was China, everything to the south was India, and there were only demons in the north. The quarrels of the feuding princes explained the historical hostilities between the Iranians of Persia, the Turks from Transoxania, and the Greeks of the West. Since angels and demons and magical creatures lived among men, it's not surprising that some men lived hundreds of years. That's one of the reasons why the great Rostam was able to accomplish so many fantastic heroic feats. There were even some love stories and one had hints of Rapunzel and the Firebird. While the heroic house rose in Sistan, the royal house degenerated into chaos. Right and wrong were perverted and vengeance became the main theme as China and India were drawn in.
To transition from myth to legend, Ferdowsi borrowed the ancient Akkadian story of Sargon the Great for Darab and had him rescued from the Euphrates. Of course Darab turned out to be the secret heir to the Persia royal house. After defeating the Greeks, Darab had an unacknowledged son by the daughter of the Greek king Filqus. This son just happened to be Sekandar. After abandoning the Greek princess and her son, Darab went home to civilization and had a legitimate son Dara by a proper wife. Because Sekandar the Greek was now the first born son of Darab, his conquest of Persian, though still a disaster, was no longer shameful to the proud Persians. Thus, Persia's national pride was restored. But, strangely, the Greeks were already Christians and Sekandar's title was Caesar. After he made a pilgrimage to Abraham's house in Mecca, he visited the queen of Andalusia and the emperor of China. He then travelled the world and had many fantastic adventures reminiscent of Sinbad's voyages. Creative license indeed!
Legend finally yielded to history and five generations in the story covered five hundred years in history thus conveniently skipped over the Greek Seleucid dynasty and the Parthian Arsacid dynasty and jumped right into the Persian Sassanid dynasty. To legitimize his rule, Ardeshir claimed descent from the Achaemenids. Here, he was transformed into a descendant of the Kayanids for the same reason. This being such a long epic, some stories began to repeat themselves. As Sassanid was a Zoroastrian dynasty, astrologers predicted everyone's fate and the chief priest functioned as chief advisor. In an increasingly centralized society where the kings held absolute power, the degree of violence and brutality also increased. However, right and wrong were still subjective. When a Persian king committed horrendous atrocities against his enemies, he was hailed as a great just king. But when he did the same to the Iranians, he was cursed as an evil unjust king. Bahram Gur became the idealized king on whom was hung the dreams and fantasies of the lost golden age. Somehow, the emperor of China had become the lord of Turan and the people of Central Asia became known as Chinese Turks. Then Khosrow Parviz and Shirin's love story was elaborated by later poets into one of the most beautiful love stories in Persian literature. As no empire can be conquered without it being corrupt from within first, the fall of the Sassanids, in my opinion, was due more from the chaos and splintering after the death of Khosrow Parviz than from the Arabs' religious zeal. As Shahnameh keeps telling us, fortunes change as the heaven turns and nothing lasts forever in this fleeting world.
Unfortunately, by the time Ferdowsi finished his epic, the Samanids had been replaced by the Ghaznavid Turks, the bad guys in his Shahnameh. Poor Ferdowsi had to find refuge in the home of a Sassanid descendant. Fortunately, Persians/Iranians, seeking their pre-Islamic heritage, took up the tales and kept them alive. As the saying goes, "Why let the facts ruin a good fiction?" In a world of oppression, larger than life heroes and bigger than reality fantasies are what people need to brighten their dreary days and give them hope. That's why the stories of Shahnameh have become immortal.
on March 29, 2016
This enormous book is essential, as we are going to show and I will regret straight away, not to mention it again later, that this version of the book has been shortened. It is unacceptable that some sections be cut off, even if it is duly indicated in due place what passages have been pruned. This being said this book covers the Persian Empire from the the first shah Kayumars to the Arab conquest. It thus covers the following periods (tentative enumeration): Median Empire (728-549 BC); Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC); Seleucid Empire (312–63 BC); Parthian Empire (247 BC–224 AD), also called the "Arsacid Empire"; Sasanian Empire (224–651), also called the "Empire of Empires"; Muslim (meaning Arab) conquest of Persia (633–654 AD). It thus covers the great shift in this region from Zoroastrian heritage to Islam and the transient period under Alexander and the emergence of Christianity with the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. In the background two entities are mentioned though not as clearly as we would like: the Turks and China. The first one is not well defined at all but the second one covers China and most of Central Asia and it is an essentially commercial power, hence the famous Silk Road. There are a few mentions of India but with little consequence.
Some people call this book an epic. We could discuss this classification, and the present edition has decided to call it a “Book” and no an “epic.” This is probably correct because it is far from being only an epic. There are epic moments and episodes but there are many other passages and sections that are not epic at all, at least not in the traditional meaning of the word, dealing as they are with a lot of political considerations about power, how power is supposed to be managed, touching many social questions and a lot of religion. Of course this is only a translation and as such it interprets the original text. We thus have to be careful not to analyze the meaning Dick Davis invested in the original text as if it were the original meaning, and in his introduction he acknowledges the difficulty to translate some words that he actually preferred to keep in the original language like “farr” or “nard.” The latter is a game and has only a cultural dimension; The former is a political and religious concept that determines the feudal conception that is behind this Persian Empire. We will come back to this concept in no time. I would like now to concentrate on a few remarks.
The first thing I would like to say is that Persia was probably a slave state at the beginning but it must have evolved towards a feudal state. But we must understand that the feudalism of Europe developed from the 10th century BCE, which is when this book was written though the historical time of the story ends in the 7th century BCE. Due to the development of long dynasties in the Persian Empire the slave system of the beginning evolved towards some feudalism that has to be defined though it kept right to the end a vast and important number of slaves often counted in hundreds or thousands and offered from one noble man to another, from one king to another. There is an evolution because in the last centuries of this story slaves are still mentioned but along with serving boys and serving girls. Note these serving people are always boys and girls. This may reflect a certain social mobility with age but it may also reflect the fact that to be a servant went along with a short life expectancy. We understand this fact for slaves due to the ruthless work, use and abuse they were submitted to, but it is more surprising with servants, except if this linguistic evolution covers up the existence of a vast slave population or covers up the slow evolution from a slave system to a serf system which would then be feudal. That’s where the translation might be misleading.
Feudalism is based on allegiance as the social principle structuring society. This book is at the limit of a grotesque emphasis set on that hierarchy. The book is from the point of view of the aristocracy and nothing but the aristocracy. There are two types: the nobles themselves who have various territories under their control and the military elite seen as all kinds of lions, tigers, panthers, elephants whereas the metaphor of trees, mostly cypresses, is generally kept for the nobility. To compare a knight with such a tree is either the mark of his being a noble person, or it is the recognition of his nobility of character, hence the granting of such nobility to such deserving persons. At the top stands as tall as a cypress reaching the sky and as shiny as the sun the king of kings, the king of the world, the king of the seven climes, in other words the Persian emperor or king. Absolutely everyone owes him obedience and nothing but obedience. Not obeying is betraying. This authority is strictly connected to a blood line and is transmitted along that blood line. It is often called “lineage.” In spite of all the treacherous moments in this long history, and even the change of dynasties, the blood line of the king is untouchable and unquestionable. The king is endowed with two things that are the “divine farr” and “wisdom”. The “divine farr” is difficult to define. It is some kind of iridescent halo that is perceived (maybe not seen because maybe invisible) by people that makes this king stand over the mediocre people around him who do not have that “farr.” The connection with god is not that clear. The king is often described as the one who possesses two qualities, justice and wisdom, and these two qualities are interwoven, together like the warp (justice) and the weft (wisdom) of any woven fabric.
We have to ask the question whether these kings owed their power, rank and authority to the fact that they had been chosen by God himself. The religious dimension is often insisted upon but not as anything special for the king who like anyone else will end up in dust, in total nothingness, void. Life is seen as an alternation of pleasure and suffering, good and evil, and as an evanescent state that always leads to death and non-existence. Beyond death there is nothing except the memory of those who survive the dead person. Note that women are just out of the picture. The queen, or the women in the King’s harem are nothing but episodic decoration, entertainment and treachery but they hardly deserve mentioning. This is no sexism. It is pure archaism which was nothing blamable at the time of the facts, and even at the time of writing. Note too that daughters are done – that’s their function – to be married to kings and noble people as the tool leading to and reinforcing alliances.
The King is untouchable because of his lineage, even if he is bad and turns vicious and evil. The concepts of paradise and hell are introduced in the book, at the very end, when Islam takes over.
Yet the religious dimension of this book is enormous. Religion and the royal throne are said to be interwoven by wisdom. Religion is said to be the pith of justice. The religion at stake here is Zoroastrianism, that religion that evolved on what is today the Iranian Plateau where the last migration out of Africa ended around 45-40,000 years BCE at the earliest, where they must have spent the Ice Age and from where they migrated after the Ice Age down into Mesopotamia and the middle East to move then through the Caucasus and Anatolia to Europe as the carriers of Indo-European languages and cultures, and down into the southern part of Central Asia and from there to India and Pakistan as the carriers of Indo-Aryan languages and cultures. This religion is clearly monotheistic and the god they believe in is the un-created creator of the universe and of life, hence of man, the master of time and the rotation of the sky, and he is visible everyday in the sun. The rituals are dedicated to this god in fire temples. They believe life is transient, alternating suffering (which is essential and maybe even central) and pleasure, based on the good and evil you do, and this life is terminated for everyone the same way: back to dust, back to non-existence. This religion is also the supporting ideology of the feudal (and slave) hierarchy that organizes the world. This religion dictates the three dangers that menace a king: that he be unjust first; that he promote worthless people to positions of authority; that he only accumulate wealth for his own glory and be greedy about it.
This is clearly condemned not for the evil that it represents but because it is the negation of justice and wisdom, the two qualities a king must have to keep society united, productive and strong. We could even consider that the frozen character of this hierarchical society is close to a caste system with the king at the top, nobles, warriors and then simple people (who may or may not include serving people), serving people and slaves. This is not actually really social or divine. It is nothing but nature and it is expressed with metaphors like: “A crab cannot sprout an eagle’s wings, and an eagle cannot fly beyond the sun.” (p. 781) or “If an elephant fights with a mosquito, this is a breach of justice and faith.” (p. 140) These metaphors are amplified by a story about Ruzbah’s wisdom when confronted to the absurd demands from the king to destroy first and then to restore second a supposedly rich and prosperous village. Ruzbah to satisfy the first request goes to the village and abolishes with one speech all authority. In no time anarchy takes over and ruin is the result. When confronted to the second request Ruzbah goes to the village again and selects an old wise man and instates him as the head of the village. Within no time authority being restored the village gets back to some kind of normal life and prosperity. Prosperity is the result of authority, order and obedience. That is the only wisdom that should govern society.
Hence we find here a crossroads of the four major religions that existed at the time in this vast region. Four antagonistic religions, the fourth one being evasively alluded to.
THE FOUR RELIGIONS
First Zoroastrianism is the official meaning mandatory religion of the Persian Empire. I have already presented it.
Then Christianity is the religion of the Roman Empire and then of the Byzantine Empire, with the mention at the very end of one monastery with monks: they recuperate the naked body of the last assassinated king of Persia and then bury him in some kind of tomb they build themselves. It will cost them their lives because the usurper and assassin will order them all to be put to death. This Christian faith is most of the time tolerated but not taken seriously. In a way it is rejected as laughable. Jesus is not at all recognized as a respectable or even acceptable character. Yet the King marries Byzantine princesses to seal an alliance necessary for the survival of Persia. No serious presentation or discussion of it is included.
The third religion is that of the Arabs. The Arabs were courted in older centuries now and then though always on the fringe and the side within a vaster fight or struggle against the Byzantine Empire, the Turks without any specification and the Chinese Emperor. Alliances through marrying princesses is a common political decision with the three groups I have just mentioned, though the Turks are at the bottom of the hierarchy, seen as perpetual and fundamental enemies and “genetically” polluted. The Arabs of Yemen are here and there courted and there must be one or two marriages with some princesses from there. The Arabs of la Mecca are only mentioned at the end with the fall of ,the Persian Empire, once and for all, and the conversion of the people to Islam. In the meantime Muhammad and Islam had been born in Mecca in the seventh century AD. This religion is presented in a letter from Sa’d, the commander of the Arab army, to Rostam, the commander of the Persian forces. The summary sounds like a rather strong criticism of the “true faith.” It is intended to be a condescending and arrogant letter anyway, answering a letter from Rostam to Sa’d that was just as arrogant. The author makes fun of the black silk turban of the Muslims as opposed to the Persian crowns of Persian kings. This religion and its description introduces a strong reference to hell and paradise seen at the punishment or the reward of the good and evil you have done in your life.
The fourth religion is in fact double but is only alluded to. It is Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact Buddhism shares the principle of an ever-changing world dominated by the cycle of birth-life-death seen as a cycle of suffering, though the Buddhists add rebirth that is totally foreign to Zoroastrianism. This rebirth concept of Buddhism corresponds to the concept of reincarnation of Hinduism, this latter concept the Buddhists have often discussed though the canonical texts do not speak of reincarnation but of rebirth. The most striking resemblance though is the hierarchical caste system of Hinduism as compared to the hierarchical Persian feudal society. The book becomes then a testimony of the fact that these religions were all born in the same crucible that the zone covered by Persia was after the Ice Age. A crucible that was probably very close to homogeneity when the water started to rise again but then differentiated itself strongly with the arrival of the future Indo-Europeans in the Middle East becoming the third linguistic and cultural pillar of what was only Turkic and Semitic before their arrival. One absence will have to be explained one day: the absolute absence of Jews. The Semites are exclusively Arabs and later on Muslims, though note in the long section on Sekandar (Alexander the Great) the mention of Abraham.
ABRAHAM AND ESMAIL
“Sekandar set out for Mecca . . . he came to the house made with such toil by Abraham, the son of Azar. God named the site the House of Holiness, the goal of all God’s roads . . . Sekandar approached Qadesiya, laying claim to the land from Jahrom in Pars as he went. Nasr, the son of Qotayb, heard of his approach and went out to welcome him with a group of horsemen bearing lances . . . the man, who was coming . . . was a descendant of Esmail, the son of Abraham . . . [Nasr complains against Jaza, the son of a usurper who seized power in Yemen.] When Sekandar heard these words he sought out everyone he could find from the family of Jaza and had them killed: the children’s souls were parted from their bodies, and not one of his race was left alive. With the help of his warriors he freed the Hejaz and the Yemen from their unjust rulers and exalted the tribe of Esmail.” (p. 488-489)
Abraham born and raised in Mecca is the Islamic version of the story. “The son” meaning the only son of Abraham being Esmail is the same. That’s no reference to Jews but to Arabs: Abraham and the story of his nearly sacrificed son is common to all Semites of the region at the time and the differentiation between Esmail and Isaac was to come with the emergence of the old Testament or at least to come at some time differentiating at the same time the Jews from the Arabs, the latter becoming Muslims later on. Note the invaders of Yemen against the Arabs are not specified enough to identify them, but since the Horn of Africa and Yemen were the normal passage of all (but one) migration out of Africa moving then along the Southern Arabian corridor, we can imagine that they were invader from the Horn of Africa. But that is not clear at all in this text to be able to identify them.
This book then becomes one essential historical testimony of the reality described by the author. It is as much a historical testimony of the period as the Old Testament and many other works produced by the elite of the time, those who knew how to read and write on one hand, and those who were connected in a way or another with the various religions in the area on the other hand. Read as such it opens a few gates to a lot more because it is the crossroads of several cultural and religious traditions and it probably reveals how there probably was only one crucible or spiritual-mental birth zone to all western Middle East religions (the three Semitic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) on one hand and the eastern Middle East and Central Asian religions (Hinduism and Buddhism). And the birth and spreading of the seeds took place long before the arrival of Alexander the Great.
An essential book then.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU