When Abolqasem Ferdowsi finished his epic poem, he wasn't shy in describing it. He ended the massive book, called the Shahnameh, with these words:
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.
Maybe he wasn't bragging, since his words came true. Iranians compare him to the Greek poet Homer. His statue gazes over the traffic in a Tehran square. The closing couplets of his great poem are chiseled into the walls of the classical tomb built to his memory in northeastern Iran. Most importantly, his book remains in many Iranian homes and hearts.
Ferdowsi mixed myth and history in the Shahnameh, known in English as the "Book of Kings." It's a chronicle of the rulers and warriors of the great Persian empire, which had come and gone long before the poet was born in 940 A.D.
It is also, however, a story of survival. Persia had been conquered, first by the Arabs who brought Islam, and later by barbarians from central Asia. Iranians say it was Ferdowsi, with a single great book, who preserved the Persian language, history and mythology from being erased.
It is a gloriously unwieldy book, suggesting a nation with so much history that one can hardly make sense of it. It differs from Homer's Iliad, which is sharply focused on a single great war, and even goes so far as to dispense with the preamble and join the battle already in progress.
The Shahnameh marches through centuries of history and myth.
Generations of kings live and die. Their greatest warriors fight, are betrayed and often rebel. Along the way, Ferdowsi records great battles and petty jealousies. He records cruelty and beauty in the same page. Find the acclaimed English translation by Dick Davis, open it at random, and you are as likely as not to find a sentence such as this: "When spring's new growth gave the plains the appearance of silk, the Turks prepared for battle."
Ferdowsi glorifies war and warriors, yet his characters rarely escape the consequences of their actions. The most famous story in the book is that of Rostam, a warrior whose bravery and skill surpass all others, and who defeats unbeatable foes, but who finds himself stuck for the night in an unfamiliar town after his horse is stolen. A woman admirer steals into his bedroom. Having conceived a son in the one-night stand, Rostam leaves in the morning, apparently without a second thought, only to encounter the youth many years later as an enemy on the field of battle. Rostam is soon in a fight to the death, unaware that he is battling his own offspring.
Late in the poem, which took him decades to write, the poet digresses from his story of kings and their courts to deliver breaking news from his own life:
Now that I'm more than sixty-five years old,
It would be wrong of me to hope for gold.
Better to heed my own advice, and grieve
That my dear son is dead. Why did he leave?
I should have gone; but no, the young man went
And left his lifeless father to lament.
A sense of loss pervades this book, written at a time when Persia's past greatness was only a memory. That may be part of the reason that Iranians cherish the Shahnameh: They relate to its sometimes melancholy beauty.
That is the explanation given by Said Laylaz, a Tehran journalist who keeps multiple copies in his home. "For a country like Iran, which had been the dominant power in the world for 1,000 years, more than 1,000 years, this is absolutely difficult to forget," he says.
Laylaz has not forgotten. He stands up from his couch, leads the way to a bookshelf, and plucks out a red-covered volume of the Shahnameh. It falls open to the story of Rostam, the great warrior who kills an enemy, not knowing it is his son.