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Hakim Abu al-Qasim Mansur Firdowsi, born sometime between the years 932 AD and 941 AD in the city of Tus, located in the northern province of Khurasan, Iran. Incidentally, he also happens to be the author of the national epic of Iran, the Shahname (Book of Kings), a staggering epic of some 60 000 couplets and no small literary value.

So much for the actual facts. Several accounts exist on the subject of Firdowsi's life and art, but none of these is held to be entirely accurate. Practically no information exists about his early life before the year AD 975, when he first began to compose his masterpiece, and as a matter of fact, we may not even know his real name, as several scholars have concluded that 'Firdowsi' is actually a pseudonym drawn from the Arabic word meaning paradise.

According to the Samarqandi historian Nizami Aruzi, Firdowsi undertook the massive task of versifying the corpus of old Zoroastrian legends of Iran (at the time rapidly disappearing under the pressure of Islam) for financial purposes, or in order secure an inheritance for his only daughter. To this end, he dedicated the book to the mightiest ruler of his day, Mahmud of Ghazna hoping that some form of compensation might be gained from the sultan's generous hand.

It took Firdowsi over thirty years to finish his poem, but finally, around 1010 AD, it was done. What happened afterwards is the stuff of legends and probably largely made up by Nizami Aruzi, but roughly the proceedings went as follows.

After completing the Shahname, Firdowsi is supposed to have presented it to Mahmud of Ghazna, who initially had shown some enthusiasm towards the book, but after a while his interest had begun to wane, a fact that could be attributed to the subject matter of the poem: the eternal war fought between brave and noble Iranians and their age-old enemy, the Turks. Now Mahmud of Ghazna himself was of Turkish origin and probably spoke Turkish better than Persian, so it is not difficult to imagine his reaction upon being presented with a massively long poem seeming to debase his ancestors and promote some vague proto-nationalistic feelings among his Persian subjects.

Unsurprisingly, Firdowsi was sent home to Tus with no money at all and certainly not the recognition he felt was due to his book. Embittered, he is said to have composed a vitriolic satire about Mahmud's poorer qualities, but scarcely a stanza of this poem remains to us.

Firdowsi died in Tus aged eighty (circa 1020-1026 AD), and his tomb is still a popular tourist destination in the outskirts of the town. There is a further story that after a while Mahmud of Ghazna became ashamed of his behaviour towards the poor poet, who after all had toiled away for thirty years without getting a dinar out of it, and decided to send a caravan to Tus laden with indigo and precious stones to make up for his earlier indifference. However, while the caravan was entering Tus from one gate, it is said that Firdowsi's funeral procession was leaving from the other, so (according to Nizami Aruzi) there was nothing to do except to use the wealth to build a custom-house on the road to Tus.

In my opinion, Firdowsi delivers the best closing words of any work of classical literature by complaining that there have indeed been many who have opened their mouths to sing praise to his epic, but that he would have been happier if they had kept their mouths shut and opened their wallets instead!


Sources:

'Chahar Maqala' by Nizami Aruzi, translated into English as 'The Four Discourses' by E.G. Browne

http://www.angelfire.com/rnb/bashiri/Farr/Firdowsi.html

A very good introduction to the Shahname can be found at
http://etc.princeton.edu:8888/shahnama/start.epl
although they do not have the whole epic online yet.

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