Fri, 15 Jul 2005

Shah Nameh (Book of Kings)

— SjG @ 12:04 pm

by Firdusi (Abdul Kasim Manur), written circa 1000, translated and abridged by James Atkinson circa 1832, read as an ebook from

Before I read this book, I was completely unaware of its existence. While this is not altogether remarkable in and of itself, it should be in this particular case. Not only is it referenced in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (which, embarrassingly, I thought was “Arabic” rather than Persian before reading this), but the Shah Nameh is really, in many ways, the national book of the Persian people. It’s a history, a collection of legends, and, most importantly, a beautifully written collection of stories.

Atkinson, in translating, abridged the work and transformed it from verse into more concise prose, but retained the poetry for the moments he thought most important. Skilled though he must have been, reading the portions left in verse gives the impression that this translation leaves out a substantial portion of the magic of the work.

And it is a magical collection of stories. We learn of the sad fate of Jemshid, whose hubris destroys his glorious kingdom; of Zohak whose corruption by demon spirits resulted in two serpents growing from his shoulders; and of exploits the mighty Rustem, who singlehandedly conquers the demon country of Mazinderan.

As a history, we learn of the endless warfare between the neighboring kingdoms, between brothers, between fathers and sons. We are witness to many, many battles, to the deaths of thousands, to the destruction of cities, dynasties, farms, and families. We read of the spread of Zoroastrianism (although, strangely, not of Islam, except in Firdusi’s invocation at the end). We get a history of Alexander, who we are told is actually descended from the Persian royal house.

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