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Sunset of Empire
Introduction to third volume of Shahnameh's translation

July 24, 2004

From introduction by Dick Davis, translator of Sunset of Empire: Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi Volume III (Mage, 2003). Also See Illustrations from Sunset of Empire Read Interview with Dick Davis

Fathers and Sons, our second volume of stories from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, ended with the escape to India of Sasan, the eponymous ancestor of the future founder of the Sasanian dynasty. The appearance of his name marks the moment at which the poem begins to move from legend to history. Increasingly, from this point on, many of at least the public figures whose lives are chronicled by Ferdowsi have some correspondence (albeit at first often highly fanciful) to historical characters.

Ferdowsi's record of Iran's pre-Islamic myths, legends, and history culminates in the greatest watershed of the culture, the Arab invasion of the seventh century, which both ended a series of empires and initiated a new, syncretic civilization. Ferdowsi places a similar watershed, the conquest by Sekandar (Alexander), close to the center of his poem, and after this historical crisis nothing in the Shahnameh is quite as it was before. The poem's geographical center shifts decisively westward, culminating in the location of the Sasanian capital at Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia, and this shift is reflected in the nature of the enemies the country's kings are forced to fight. If the ancient threat from central Asia is still present (as in the invasion of Saveh Shah, the leader of both Chinese and central Asian Turkish forces), new threats from the west (Greece, Rome, Byzantium) and the southwest (the Arabs) assume decisive importance.

The nature of the stories also changes, and often they seem to be providing a kind of mirror image of the world of myth and legend of the poem's opening half. In the first half of the poem, prominent fathers (Rostam, Kavus, Goshtasp) are directly or indirectly responsible for their sons' deaths (Sohrab, Seyavash, Esfandyar), but in the second half prominent sons (Khosrow Parviz, Shirui) are held to be directly or indirectly responsible for their fathers' deaths (Hormozd, Khosrow Parviz). In the first half, the major champion is Rostam who, despite increasing provocation, attempts to maintain loyalty to the royal families of Iran and emphatically rejects the notion that he might ever be the king of the country. In the second half the major champion is Bahram Chubineh, who rebels against both of his monarchs and attempts to seize the throne for himself.

Most striking perhaps is the way that the role of women, and particularly non-Persian women, is redefined in the poem's second half. Virtually all of the significant women in the poem's mythological and legendary sections are non-Persian in origin (Sindokht, Rudabeh, Sudabeh, Farigis, Manizheh, Katayun) and, with the signal exception of Sudabeh, almost all of them are positively presented. Even Sudabeh, the first time we meet her, is a positive figure like Rudabeh and Manizheh, who defies her non-Persian father to be faithful to the Persian she loves.

The most prominent female figure in the poem's second half is certainly Gordyeh, who is not foreign but Iranian, and represents the traditional and deeply Iranian virtue of loyalty to ancient mores. When foreign women do appear in the second half they are much less welcome than they had been in the legendary narratives. In the poem's earlier sections most of the narratives' major heroes have foreign mothers, but this doesn't prevent them from being seen as great exemplars of Persian virtues, and miscegenation is an accepted and generally welcomed fact.

Indeed, perhaps the most positively presented king of the whole poem, Kay Khosrow, has only one Iranian grandparent; the other three are all central Asian Turks. But miscegenation is regarded with deep suspicion in the poem's second half, and that Hormozd has a Chinese mother and Shirui a Byzantine mother is seen in each case as a distinct negative. The preference here is for emphatic endogamy, although Ferdowsi is clearly embarrassed by the pre-Islamic laws that encouraged marriages within the immediate family, as is evident from his treatment of the daughter-father/Homay-Bahman relationship, and the way that he glosses over something earlier historians unequivocally recorded, that Gordyeh was married to her brother Bahram Chubineh.

One notable woman who has gone down in Persian legend as foreign in origin, and whose story appears in the present volume, is Shirin. Unlike Nezami (the twelfth-century author of the better known romance version of her tale), Ferdowsi doesn't explicitly tell us that she is not a Persian, but given the suspicion of foreign consorts in the poem's second half, the unexplained scandal that surrounds her in his version of her tale, and the fact that her presence at court needs strenuous justification from her husband and king, Khosrow Parviz, perhaps point to this. This unexplained scandal is also an example of how not only the content of the tales changes in the poem's second half, but also Ferdowsi's method of telling them.

In general, when reading the poem's earlier narratives, we have a clear idea of the ethical issues involved, and of where our sympathies are supposed to lie. We know that Seyavash is ethically superior to both Kavus and Sudabeh; that Piran Viseh acts from more morally admirable motives than does his king, Afrasyab; and that Goshtasp is at fault when he sends Esfandyar to bring Rostam to his court in chains. This moral clarity is often much harder to find in Ferdowsi's portraits of the central characters of his poem's later sections, many of whom are presented in a highly ambiguous and ethically unresolved fashion.

Are we to approve or disapprove of Shirin? When we first meet her she is an abandoned woman and a figure of pathos; she elicits our sympathy. She is accused of some unspecified moral impurity and the charge is never really denied, merely evaded; we suspend judgment. She secretly murders her husband's favorite wife and assumes her position in the harem; we disapprove. She rejects her odious stepson, Shirui, and has a splendid speech of self-defense and a moving death scene; we approve, and this seems to be the final impression we are meant to bring away from her tale. But the figure she is most similar to from the poem's first half is the generally evil Sudabeh. Like Sudabeh she is a fairly ruthless and (probably) foreign royal consort who combines a dubious ethical reputation with an absolute hold on the king's affections, and at one point she seems to be about to become erotically involved with her stepson. With this comparison in mind we are again tempted to disapprove.

This moral ambiguity is not confined to Ferdowsi's portraits of female characters. Another prime example is that of the reformer Mazdak. We read that he is knowledgeable and that his words are wise, and when there is a famine the analogies he makes to the king concerning the populace's sufferings seem cogent and laudable. But the man who defeats him in argument is sponsored by Nushin-Ravan (Anushirvan), who is presented as one of the most admirable monarchs in the poem, and Ferdowsi explicitly tells us at the end of Mazdak's tale that a wise man would not act as he did. At the opening of his tale we seem meant to admire him; at the end we are virtually told to despise him.

Perhaps the poem's most extreme instance of apparent authorial moral ambiguity, in the portrayal of a character, occurs in the account of Sekandar (Alexander), who is presented as both a barbarous conqueror and an ethically motivated searcher for enlightenment.

The reasons for this complexity, and ways in which it affects our experience of reading the tales, can be considered as separate, if related, issues. A major cause of some of the tales' ambiguities seems clear: Ferdowsi had much fuller sources for many of the quasi-historical narratives than he had for the legendary material, and some of these sources seem to have been quite radically contradictory of one another. The fact that he did not, apparently, attempt to resolve these contradictions seems significant. His method sometimes seems analogous to that adopted by a number of medieval Islamic historians (e.g., Tabari) who, when their sources offered differing versions of the same events, put down both versions, and then added, "But God knows best." Ferdowsi doesn't say this, and he doesn't explicitly tell us that he is recording different versions, but he (apparently) simply splices them together and leaves the contradictions intact in the one narrative.

What is perhaps especially interesting is that in the pre-Sekandar portion of the poem we can sometimes see him choosing one version over another in the few instances when we know that he had more than one account available for a tale. For example, there were two versions as to why Rostam and Goshtasp quarreled. One was that Rostam despised Goshtasp's family as upstart, and Goshtasp resented this, the other was that Rostam vehemently denounced Goshtasp's adoption of the new religion of Zoroastrianism. The first version, which Ferdowsi follows, is found in Tabari's History; the second is in Dinawari's History, as well as in a number of works written after Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, e.g., the anonymous History of Sistan. This second version is wholly ignored by Ferdowsi. Here, for one of the legendary tales, we see him choosing one account over another, but in the historical sections of his poem his method seems to be more one of splicing than of choice and exclusion.

The contradictions are not only moral, but often factual. Sometimes these seem significant (Sasan has two differing lineages), often they seem simply incidental. Who, for example, is responsible for the blinding of King Hormozd? A prophecy says his wife will do it; we are told that members of a mob stirred up by Gostahm do it, unbeknownst to Hormozd's son, Khosrow Parviz. Khosrow Parviz is later accused of either having done it personally or of having instigated it. Ferdowsi apparently favors the second version (the mob), but he still includes the other two in his text.

When we compare the stories included in this third volume to those in the poem's legendary portion we see the truth of A. J. P. Taylor's aphorism, "History gets thicker as it approaches recent times -- more people, more events, and more books written about them." One senses Ferdowsi dealing with these accumulating people, events, and books in his presentation of the historical narratives, which are thick with detail in a way that is quite absent from most of the earlier tales. If this multiplicity of detail can occasionally lead to contradictions, and sometimes to outright anachronisms (as in Sekandar's Christianity), it can also, paradoxically, give the tales a quotidian realism that is largely absent from the legendary material, as well as providing for sudden and arresting shifts of tone.

Furthermore, the intensity of a number of the psychological portraits in this section (e.g., that of Bahram Chubineh) depends largely on the telling accumulation of such details. This concern with the quotidian brings another advantage; it is in the Sasanian section of the poem that we most often glimpse daily life outside of the court and the realm of the heroic. The occasional vivid vignettes of rural life that we encounter in the reigns of the later Sasanian monarchs contribute a kind of stylized realism that can be charming or sobering, depending on the circumstances recounted. In the same way, much of the humor of the poem also occurs in the Sasanian section, again frequently in moments located outside of the court.

A new problem is that when Ferdowsi's sources lack detailed accounts, he must nevertheless give some version of what he believes to have happened. His apologetic and relatively perfunctory account of the Ashkanians (Parthians) was clearly caused by the fact that the Sasanians had fairly efficiently obliterated them from the historical record. Interestingly enough, this is something that Bahram Chubineh threatens to do to the Sasanians themselves. When the government of the Islamic Republic expunged from public life all positive references to the Pahlavis, even changing all the street names in the major cities, they were following ancient precedent.

From the opening of the poem the Persian courts are characterized as centers of both justice and pleasure. The ideal king will administer justice, which includes protecting the frontiers of the country against invasion, and his court will also represent a kind of earthly paradise whose pleasures include feasting, wine-drinking, the giving and receiving of gifts, hunting, and the celebration of the major festivals of the Zoroastrian year. The worst sins, for both the king and his subjects, are greed and excessive ambition. Erotic pleasure is hardly dwelt on in the poem's legendary section, although it is understood that this too is a constituent of the court's function as an earthly paradise.

In the stories that make up the present volume -- those from the "historical" section of the poem -- erotic pleasure is sometimes brought into the foreground in a way that it had not been in the earlier tales, and the simultaneous association of both justice and pleasure in the person of the ideal king becomes more problematic. The three most positively presented kings of the post-Sekandar section of the poem are Ardeshir (the founder of the Sasanian dynasty), Bahram Gur, and Nushin-Ravan (Anushirvan the Just).

Ardeshir is presented as a vigorous reformer who rewrites his country's legal code, energetically puts down internal dissension, and secures the country's borders against invasion. Nushin-Ravan is a man who inherits an empire and strives to administer it justly and according to ancient precepts, while remaining open to wisdom from other sources, especially India. The main difference between them and the more admirable legendary monarchs whom they succeed is the centralization of their administrative and cultural control. The sense of various centers of power (e.g., Sistan) only tangentially under the central government's authority, which is everywhere present in the legendary material, has largely disappeared from the narratives. Nevertheless, both these kings are re-embodiments, in Sasanian terms, of ideals that have been explicit throughout the poem's legendary section.

Bahram Gur, of whom Ferdowsi seems emphatically to approve introduces a relatively new element into the poem, which is the emphasis on pleasure, especially the pleasure of erotic adventure, as the primary, and apparently often sole, activity of a monarch. Bahram Gur is presented as an ideal monarch who is largely preoccupied with sensual, private pleasure, but who is nevertheless just, and widely loved by his subjects, even if his vizier is worried about what he sees as the king's excessive attachment to women.

Two stories -- one beginning in comedy and ending in tragedy, the other wholly comic, which are placed back to back in his reign -- also elaborate on another pleasure that had been taken for granted in the earlier sections of the poem, and this is drinking wine. The first story ends with wine being forbidden, and the second with this prohibition being abrogated as long as one does not drink to excess. It seems more than a coincidence that the outcome of the stories concerning wine in Bahram's reign reverses orthodox interpretation of the Qoranic texts on wine, according to which the prohibition abrogates the implied permission to drink in moderation.

At the end of the poem, when Rostam the son of Hormozd prophesies the disasters that will come to Iran as a result of the Arab invasion, Bahram Gur's reign is singled out as emblematic of all that the Arabs will destroy, and we realize that the emphasis on sensual pleasure and its attendant luxuries in his reign was deliberately presented as an alternative to the civilization brought by the Moslem Arab conquerors, which is characterized, by Rostam at least, in wholly negative and dour terms.

But despite Rostam's unequivocally bleak prophecy, the final episodes of the poem are profoundly ambiguous. Hormozd and Khosrow Parviz are complex, weak kings who seem to have inherited Bahram Gur's attachment to pleasure but have none of his panache or instinct for largess, and are unable to command the affection and loyalty of their subjects. They are followed by a virtual rabble.

The sense of an empire destroyed as much by the weakness, extravagance, and squalid infighting of its rulers as by outside invasion pervades the poem's closing pages. Although the poet is emphatic in his lament for the civilization that was destroyed by the invasion, his depiction of the negotiations between the Arabs and the Persians seems at times weighted in the Arabs' moral favor. It is difficult to read the scene in which the laconic and almost naked Arab envoy Sho'beh confronts the arrogant Persian commanders, resplendent in their golden armor, as anything but an indictment of the Persians.

Despite the undeniable epic grandeur of its best-known passages, the Shahnameh is never a simple poem, and the moral complexities it explores throughout its immense length come to a magnificent and unresolved climax in its last pages. If Ferdowsi's final claim is one of pride in his work, an emotion that seems almost as strongly present is that of bewilderment. As he frequently remarks whenever he has to record the untimely death of a character he admires, he cannot understand what the heavens are about, and this sense of a repeatedly frustrated interrogation of God's purposes reaches its apogee in the poem's closing scenes.
Illustrations from Sunset of Empire
Read Interview with Dick Davis

Dick Davis is Professor and Chair of the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department at Ohio State University [>>> Homepage >>> Features in]. His particular interest is medieval Persian poetry, but he is also concerned with the history and problems of verse translation. His published works include translations of the Manteq Altair of Attar (1984, with Afkham Darbandi); an edition of Fitzgerald's translations of Khayyam (1990), The Legend of Seyavash of Ferdowsi (1992), and Epic and Sedition: A Study of Ferdowsi's 'Shahnameh' (1992); translations of medieval Persian epigams, Borrowed Ware (1996): and a comic novel by Iraj Pezeshkzad entitled My Uncle Napoleon (1996). His most recent publications are "Panthea's Children: Hellenistic Novels and Medieval Persian Romances" (2002), and three volumes of translations from the Shahnameh (1998, 2000, 2003)

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