Sunset of Empire
Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi: Volume III
552 pages, 280 illustrations
7" x 11"
Among the masterpieces of world literature, perhaps the least familiar to English readers is the Persian Book of Kings (Shahnameh, in Persian). This prodigious national epic, composed by the poet Ferdowsi between 980 and 1010, tells the story of ancient Persia, beginning in the mythic time of Creation and continuing forward to the Arab-Islamic invasion.
With our third and final volume of stories from the Shahnameh we move from mythology and legend to romanticized history. Here the mighty events that shook ancient Persia from the time of Alexander of Macedon’s conquest to the Arab invasion of the seventh century C.E. are reflected in the stirring and poignant narratives of Ferdowsi, the master poet who took on himself the task of preserving his country’s great pre-Islamic heritage. We see vast empires rise and fall, the rule of noble kings and cruel tyrants, the fortunes of a people buffeted by contending tides of history. Larger than life individuals are vividly depicted—the impulsive, pleasure-loving king Bahram Gur, the wise vizier Bozarjmehr, the brave rebel Bahram Chubineh, his loyal defiant sister Gordyeh, and many others—but we also see many vignettes of everyday life in the villages and towns of ancient Persia, and in this part of the Shahnameh Ferdowsi indulges his talent for sly humor much more than in the earlier tales. The poem rises to its magnificent climax in its last pages, when the tragic end of an era is recorded and Ferdowsi and his characters look with foreboding towards an unstable and fearful future.
Breathtaking miniatures from the finest Persian Shahnameh manuscripts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many of them published here for the first time, heighten the emotional impact of the text.
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The Story of Darab and the Fuller 15
Sekandar’s Conquest of Persia 33
The Reign of Sekandar 51
The Ashkanians 119
The Reign of Ardeshir 151
The Reign of Shapur, Son of Ardeshir 175
The Reign of Shapur Zu’l Aktaf 179
The Reign of Yazdegerd the Unjust 203
The Reign of Bahram Gur 239
The Story of Mazdak 305
The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan 312
The Reign of Hormozd 353
The Reign of Khosrow Parviz 417
Ferdowsi’s Lament for the Death of His Son 441
The Story of Khosrow and Shirin 461
The Reign of Yazdegerd 489
Glossary of Names and Their Pronunciation 514
Credits and Acknowledgments 523
Guide to the Illustrations 523
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The Story of Kebrui;
Bahram Forbids the Drinking of Wine
At dawn the next morning Bahram called for wine, and his courtiers began another round of merry-making. At that moment the headman of a village entered with a present of fruit: he brought camel-loads of pomegranates, apples and quinces, and also bouquets of flowers fit for the royal presence. The king welcomed this man, who had the ancient, noble name of Kebrui, and motioned him to a place among the young men there. He handed him a large goblet of wine, that held two maund. The visitor was pleased at the king’s and his courtiers’ attention, and when he had drained the cup, he caught sight of another and felt a craving for it in his heart. In front of all the nobles there he reached out and seized it. He stood and toasted the king, and said, “I’m a wine-drinker, and Kebrui is my name. This goblet holds five maund of wine, and I’m going to drain it seven times in front of this assembly. Then I’ll go back to my village, and no one will hear any drunken shouts from me.” And to the astonishment of the other drinkers there he drained the huge cup seven times.
With the king’s permission he left the court, to see how the wine would work in him. As he started back on his journey across the plain, the wine began to take effect. He urged his horse forward, leaving the crowd who were accompanying him behind, and rode to the foothills of a mountain. He dismounted in a sheltered place and went to sleep in the mountain’s shadow. A black raven flew down from the mountain and pecked out his eyes as he slept. The group that had been following along behind found him lying dead at the foot of the mountain, with his eyes pecked away and his horse standing nearby at the roadside. His servants, who were part of the group, began wailing and cursed the assembly and the wine.
When Bahram awoke from sleep, one of his companions came to him and said, “Kebrui’s bright eyes were pecked out by a raven while he was drunk at the foot of a mountain.” The king’s face turned pale, and he grieved for Kebrui’s fate. Immediately he sent a herald to the palace door to announce: “My lords, all who have glory and intelligence! Wine is forbidden to everyone throughout the world, both noblemen and commoners alike.”
The Story of the Cobbler’s Son and the Lion:
Wine Is Declared Permissible
A year passed, and wine remained forbidden. No wine was drunk when Bahram assembled his court, or when he asked for readings from the books that told of ancient times. And so it was, until a shoemaker’s son married a rich, wellborn, and respectable woman. But the shoemaker’s boy’s awl was not hard enough for its task, and his mother wept bitterly. She had a little wine hidden away; she brought her son back to her house and said to him,
“Drink seven glasses of this wine, and when
You feel you’re ready, go to her again:
You’ll break her seal once you two are alone—
A pickax made of felt can’t split a stone.”
The boy drank seven glasses down, and then an eighth, and the fire of passion flared up in him immediately. The glasses made him bold, and he went home and was able to open the recalcitrant door; then he went back to his parents’ house well pleased with himself. It happened that a lion had escaped from the king’s lion-house and was wandering in the roads. The cobbler’s son was so drunk that he couldn’t distinguish one thing properly from another; he ran out and sat himself on the roaring lion’s back, and hung on by grasping hold of the animal’s ears. The lion keeper came running with a chain in one hand and a lariat in the other and saw the cobbler’s son sitting on the lion as unconcernedly as if he were astride a donkey. He ran to the court and told the king what he had seen, which was a sight no one had ever heard of before. The king was astonished and summoned his advisors. He said to them, “Inquire as to what kind of a man this cobbler is.” While they were talking, the boy’s mother ran in and told the king what had happened.
She said to him, “May you live happily
As long as time endures, your majesty!
This boy of mine’s just starting out on life—
He’d found himself a satisfactory wife.
But when the time came . . . well, his implement
Was just too soft, and he was impotent.
So then I gave the boy (but privately,
To make him father of a family)
Three glasses of good wine; at once his face
Shone with a splendid ruby’s radiant grace,
The floppy felt stirred, lifted up its head,
And turned into a strong, hard bone instead.
Three drafts of wine gave him his strength and glory
Who would have thought the king would hear the story?”
The king laughed at the old woman’s words and said, “This story is not one to hide!” He turned to his chief priest and said, “From now on wine is allowed again. When a man drinks he must choose to drink enough so that he can sit astride a lion without the lion trampling him, but not so much that when he leaves the king’s presence a raven will peck his eyes out.” Immediately a herald announced at the palace door, “My lords who wear belts made of gold! A man may drink wine as long as he looks to how the matter will end and is aware of his own capacity. When wine leads you to pleasure, see that it does not leave your body weak and incapable.”
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FERDOWSI was born in Khorasan in a village near Tus, in 940. His great epic the Shahnameh, to which he devoted most of his adult life, was originally composed for the Samanid princes of Khorasan, who were the chief instigators of the revival of Persian cultural traditions after the Arab conquest of the seventh century. During Ferdowsi's lifetime this dynasty was conquered by the Ghaznavid Turks, and there are various stories in medieval texts describing the lack of interest shown by the new ruler of Khorasan, Mahmud of Ghazni, in Ferdowsi and his lifework. Ferdowsi is said to have died around 1020 in poverty and embittered by royal neglect, though confident of his and his poem's ultimate fame.
About the Translator
Dick Davis was born to English and Italian parents in 1945 and educated at King's College, Cambridge (B.A. and M.A. in English Literature). In 1970 while pursuing a career in poetry and literature and teaching in Greece he visited a friend in Iran. While there, he fell ill and was nursed to health by a Persian woman, whom he eventually married. Davis fell in love with the country as well, and stayed for eight years, learning Persian and teaching at the University of Tehran. After the revolution in 1979 the Davis family returned to England where he pursued his love of the Persian language, earning his Ph.D. in Medieval Persian Literature from the University of Manchester.
Since then, he has emerged as the foremost translator
of Persian as well as having published numerous volumes of his own poetry to
critical acclaim, including: Touchwood. A
New Kind of Love, Devices
and Desires, and Covenant. He
is currently professor of Persian at Ohio State University and a Fellow of
the Royal Society of Literature. His translations from Persian include the
Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings (Mage 1998-2004; Viking 2006; Penguin
Classics, 2007), Borrowed
Ware (Mage, 1997),
My Uncle Napoleon (Mage, 1996), The Legend of Seyavash(Mage
with Afkham Darbandi, The
Conference of the Birds (Penguin Classics, 1984).
He has also written a groundbreaking analysis of the Shahnameh, Epic
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