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- Published on Amazon.com
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.