The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
By Reza Aslan
LONDON, (CAIS) -- FOUR hundred miles from the bustling metropolis of Tehran lie the magnificent ruins of Persepolis. Built some 2,500 years ago, Persepolis was the royal seat of an Iranian empire that, at its height, stretched from the Indus Valley to the Mediterranean Sea. Though the imperial city was sacked two centuries later by Alexander "the Accursed" (as Iranian chroniclers referred to him), the towering columns and winged beasts that still stand guard over the lost throne of Iran serve as a reminder of what was once among the most advanced civilizations on earth.
I first visited Persepolis two years ago. Born in Iran but raised in the United States, I knew the place only from dusty academic books about the glories of pre-Islamic Iran. I was totally unprepared for the crowds I saw there. Busloads of schoolchildren from nearby Shiraz filed through the complex of temples and palaces. A tour guide walked an older group up a stone stairway etched with row upon row of subject nations humbly presenting themselves before the king, or shah, of Iran. Families laid out sheets and napped in the shade cast by the intricately carved walls.
Breaking away from the crowd, I noticed a boy scrawling graffiti on the side of a massive stone block. Horrified, I shooed him away. When I moved closer to see what he had written, I immediately recognized a verse, familiar to many Iranians, taken from the pages of Iran's national epic, the "Shahnameh."
Written more than a thousand years ago by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, the "Shahnameh," or "Book of Kings," recounts the mythological history of Iran from the first fitful moments of creation to the Arab conquest of the Persian Empire in the seventh century A.D. Ferdowsi was a member of Iran's aristocratic class, which maintained a strong attachment to the heritage of pre-Islamic Iran. According to legend, he composed the "Shahnameh" under the patronage of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, who promised him one dinar for every couplet. But when Ferdowsi presented the sultan with nearly 60,000 couplets, a flustered Mahmud offered him a fraction of his promised reward. Insulted, Ferdowsi rejected the money and returned home to the city of Tus, where he died impoverished and embittered. But his poem endured.
Numerous partial translations of the "Shahnameh" exist in English, but the only complete version went out of print more than 80 years ago. Now, Viking Press has published most of the poem in an accessible volume translated by the Iran scholar Dick Davis. A poet himself, Davis brings to his translation a nuanced awareness of Ferdowsi's subtle rhythms and cadences. His "Shahnameh" is rendered in an exquisite blend of poetry and prose, with none of the antiquated flourishes that so often mar translations of epic poetry.
The "Shahnameh" has much in common with the blood-soaked epics of Homer and with "Paradise Lost" and "The Divine Comedy." But in truth, it's difficult to find a literary equivalent, especially one that has had as profound an impact in shaping, and preserving, one nation's identity. Most Iranians have either read the "Shahnameh" or have heard it read. Its verses are sprinkled into everyday conversation. Children are named after its heroes and political enemies likened to its villains. For many Iranians, the "Shahnameh" links past and present, forming a cohesive mytho-historical narrative through which they understand their place in the world. The poem is, in a sense, Iran's national scripture, and Ferdowsi Iran's national prophet.
Ferdowsi wrote only in Persian, and his history of creation ignores traditional Islamic cosmology in favor of the "pagan" creation myths of his ancient Iranian ancestors. But this should not be seen as reflecting any hostility toward Islam. As Davis notes in his introduction, Ferdowsi was a pious Muslim; his epic speaks reverently of the Prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali. Nevertheless, the "Shahnameh" displays an unmistakable antagonism toward the Arabs and the culture, if not the religion, they imposed on Iran. The book's first villain is an Arab — the Demon-King Zahhak, whose shoulders, kissed by Satan, sprout two voracious serpents that feast daily on the brains of young Iranian men. Zahhak is ultimately defeated by a noble Iranian peasant warrior named Feraydun, who imprisons him in Mount Damavand, where he will suffer eternally for daring to usurp the throne of Iran.
The message is hardly subtle. In fact, Ferdowsi's animosity toward the Arabs carries the poem to its tragic end, when the warrior Rostam stands before the invading Arab armies and laments,
Still, the marvel of Ferdowsi's poem is how it tries to strike a balance between the two dominant threads of Iranian cultural identity, Persian and Islamic. And yet throughout Iran's history, the "Shahnameh" has often been used as a weapon in the continuing struggle between the turban and the crown.
For example, the Pahlavi shahs, who came to power in 1925, promoted study of the poem as a means of de-emphasizing the country's Islamic heritage and thus stripping the clerics of their ideological authority. They built a magnificent mausoleum for Ferdowsi in Tus to serve as an alternative pilgrimage site to the tombs of the imams. They commissioned an official edition of the "Shahnameh" and compelled schoolchildren to memorize passages that emphasized the glories of kingly rule. In 1971, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi journeyed to Persepolis to celebrate 2,500 years of kingship with an opulent party for hundreds of international luminaries featuring plates of roast peacock stuffed with foie gras and 5,000 bottles of Champagne. Standing on that hallowed ground, surrounded by soldiers dressed as ancient warriors, the last shah brazenly linked his rule to that of the semi-divine kings of the "Shahnameh."
It was an extravagant gesture that alienated Iranians and hastened the shah's downfall. Eight years later, during Iran's revolution, he was forced into exile. Almost immediately, the clerical regime began a vigorous campaign to cleanse the new Islamic Republic of all references not just to the Pahlavis but more generally to the country's pre-Islamic past. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini considered the "Shahnameh" an offensive, even sacrilegious, text that explicitly endorsed monarchy. He discouraged public readings of it, declaring all nonreligious poetry as makruh, or "detestable." In 1979, Khomeini's right-hand man, the Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, tried to bulldoze both Ferdowsi's tomb and Persepolis, before the provisional government stopped him ,,.
Today, as a new generation of Iranians struggles to define itself in opposition to a widely reviled religious regime, the "Shahnameh" is re-emerging as the supreme expression of a cultural identity transcending all notions of politics or piety. Radio Tehran, "the voice of the Islamic Republic," begins every morning's broadcast with a reading from the poem. The country's most popular tourist attraction is not Khomeini's tomb or the tombs of the imams, but the ruins of Persepolis, where the government is currently rebuilding the gardens and pavilion built for the shah's infamous Persepolis spectacular.
When I visited, young Iranians were milling about the grounds in a trance, touching everything, as though a touch could transport them to another Iran. I stood with them in front of the palace walls, trying to imagine Persepolis as Ferdowsi must have seen it, recalling the eulogy he wrote a thousand years ago for a civilization he watched pass away in his mind's eye.
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