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Shâh & Shâhanshâh in Iranian Tradition

 Edited by CAIS


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Shāh "king", and Shāhanshāh "king of kings", are two different imperial titles in Iranian culture and history. They can be traced back to the Achaemenid dynastic kings of ancient Iran, who, from Darius I, the Great (521-486 B.C.) onwards refer to themselves in their inscriptions both as xšayaθiya "king" (from the root xšay- "to rule" cognate to Sanskrit kşáyati "possess" and Greek χταομαι "acquire") and as xšāyaθiya xšāyaθiyānām "king of kings".

The implication of this title would seem to have been, not that the Achaemenid monarch was the chief king over other sub-kings (there is no evidence that there were any other "kings" within the empire), but rather that he was the king par excellence. We have thus to do with a rhetorical figure which might be called the superlative genitive, as also in the Biblical "vanity of vanities" (habel habālīm).

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  The First and the last Shahanshas, Darius the Great & Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi Aryamehr (Light of the Aryans)

 (Click to enlarge)


The same two titles, in their Western Middle Iranian forms shāh and shāhān shāh, occur in the inscriptions of the Arsacid and Sasanian emperors. In inscriptions in the Parthian language these are represented by the Aramaeograms MLK' and MLKYN MLK' respectively; Middle Persian uses the Aramaeogram MLK' (also MRK' and in books occasionally the "phonetic" spelling šh) for the former and the "semi-phonetic" spelling MLK'-n MLK' (and variants) for the latter (for references, see Ph. Gignoux, Glossaire des inscriptions Pehleaies et Parthes, London 1972, 28, 57, and add the new Arsacid inscription discussed by E. Lipinski in Orientalia Loaaniensia analecla, xlviii [1993], 127-34). The Sasanian inscriptions refer to the emperor consistently as shāhān shāh, and use shāh as a title for other members of imperial family: the emperors appointed their sons as "kings" of the outlying provinces, assigning them the royal titles of the former rulers of those regions (e.g. Kushān shāh "king of the Kushans"), in much the same way that the heir to the English throne bears the title "Prince of Wales".

However, in a contemporary Manichaean text (published by W. B. Henning, Mani's last journey, in BSOS, x/4 [1942), 941-53) the Sasanian Bahram I is referred to merely as "the king" (shāh). It would thus appear that, although in imperial protocol the ruler was always shāhān shāh, in everyday speech he could be simply shāh. The distinction between the "king of kings" and the subordinate "kings/princes" is mirrored by the title "queen of queens" (Middle Persian bāmbishnān bāmbishn, written MLKT'-n MLKT'), borne by the monarch's principal wife, to distinguish her from the other queens in the royal household, and similarly further down the hierarchy, with the mowbed ī mowbedān "priest of priests", and so forth. It is not unlikely that Islamic titles like kādī 'l-kudāt continue this Iranian tradition.

Neo-Persianshāh (also shah) is the usual word for "king" in that language, and is used either by itself or else in conjunction with a personal name. In the latter case it can precede the name (e.g. shāh Mahmud), follow it in an izafa-construction (Mahmud-i shāh), or be appended directly to the name and form an accentual unit with it (Mahmud-shāh). The latter usage is the most common and, though found already in early texts (such as Ferdowsi's Shāh-nāma), is anomalous in Neo-Persian; it seems likely that it is an isolated relic from Middle Persian. Compounds with shāh (as the first or last element) or indeed shāh on its own occur quite frequently as proper names of kings, but also of commoners; the given name of the famous Seljuk ruler Malik Shāh, for example, is formed simply by combining the Arabic and Persian words for "king". As a common noun (without a name) shāh is widely used in poetry and non-official prose of all periods to designate potentates who in their official protocol, styled themselves malik, sultan, amir, pādshāh or whatever. It is also used with reference to the kings of pre-Islamic Iran and in works of fiction. Sometimes it is applied to princes (as already in Middle Persian; many references in F. Wolff, Glossar zu Firdosis Schahname, Berlin 1935, 549, 583). In a number of compounds or set phrases shāh means "pre-eminent, principal", e. g. in masdjid-ī shāh "congregational mosque" (not "king's mosque"), or shāh-rāh "principal road, highway". The title found its way into Indian subcontinent, which the shāh is appended to the names of persons claiming descent from the Prophet and has today become a surname.

As for the title shāhān shāh, this naturally fell into disuse with the collapse of the Sasanian empire, but it remained in popular memory in its Neo-Persian form shahanshāh (the vowels in the first and last syllables can be shortened when required by the metre; modern Western Persian has also the vulgar form shāhinshāh). This is an inseparable compound (from which is derived an adjective shāhanshāhī) and in the context of Neo-Persian it can no longer be analysed morphologically, though there has never been any doubt that its meaning is indeed "king of kings".

The shāhanshāh title revived and adopted as official title by the new-Iranian of post-Sasanian dynasties, first by the Ziyarids (928-1043) and alter by the Buyid ‘Adud al-Dawla (949-83 [q. v. ]); - and continued to be used by their successors on their coins and in court documents, sometimes in conjunction with its Arabic equivalent malik al-muluk, despite the objections raised by religious authorities (for details, see LAKAB and the literature cited there), but after the fall of the Buyids it does not seem to have figured in official protocol until the 20th century, when it was adopted by the "Pahlavi" dynasty. It has, however, always been used quite freely by poets. Thus the Ghaznavid Mas’ud I, who would hardly have tolerated such a sacrilegious title in his official documents, had evidently no scruples about his court Persian poet Manuchehri addressing him as shāhanshāh, shāhanshāh-i donyā, shah-i mālikan and the like, and similar expressions are used by the panegyrists of the Iranianized-Seljuks and others Iranian dynasties after them.




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