I’ve reached the end of this great history,
And all the land will fill with talk of me.
I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save
My name and reputation from the grave,
And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,
When I have gone, my praises and my fame.
Ferdowsi – closing verses of the Shahnameh
Abu al Qasim Mansur Ferdowsi (940 – 1020), author of the world’s longest poem and Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh, is credited with saving the Persian language from extinction and reviving it after centuries of decline following the 7th-century Arab conquest of Persia. As such, he is the most influential figure in Persian culture, as well as a giant of world literature.
The Shahnameh, which took Ferdowsi decades to write its nearly 60,000 couplets, mixes myth and history to chronicle the lives of the warriors and rulers of the Persian Empire, which had been conquered first by the Arabs, then by barbarians from Central Asia. Marching through centuries of history and myth, and narrating the lives and adventures of generations of warriors and kings as they fight, rebel, betray and are betrayed, the poem is credited with reversing a centuries-long decline in Persian culture, and with preserving the Persian language, history, and folklore from erasure.
In addition to its significance as conservator and repository of Persian culture, the Shahnameh is rife with moving verse pervaded by a sense of loss and melancholy. The poem combines beauty and cruelty, breathtaking surroundings besmirched by the acts of violence surrounding them, and a juxtaposition between a glorification of war and warriors, and a relentless fate that nearly always finds the actors to hold them accountable for their actions.
After completing the epic in 1010, he presented it to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, who accepted the poem, but stiffed Ferdowsi by paying him an insultingly small amount. Upon leaving the court, an angry Ferdowsi composed a satire of the chintzy Sultan, then fled. Legend has it that Ferdowsi spent the final decade of his life hiding from Mahmud’s wrath, unaware that the Sultan had reconsidered his shabby treatment of the poet and determined to make amends with a rich payment. Ferdowsi thus died in penury, unaware that he was now a wealthy man.