This is the date most experts celebrate Ferdowsi’s birth. The prolific poet laureate lived in ancient Persia a thousand years ago, and his epic Shahnameh still has the power to captivate. Last year, I marked the occasion with some wonderful graphic novel artwork . This year, I want to share this version of Ferdowsi’s life story, found on the British Library’s website. As befits a legendary poet, his life was the stuff of legend, and is told here in a style reminiscent of those much-loved stories of my childhood by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson.
This is the story of Ferdowsi’s life. And it is the story that is still told about Ferdowsi today.
It is impossible to say whether the story is true or not. But maybe whether it really happened or not doesn’t matter, as the story reveals something about Ferdowsi’s character and what people thought of him. The story shows Ferdowsi’s determination to write the perfect poem, his belief that he had achieved this aim, and his courage to stand up for his art. The story also seems to follow the pattern of many of the stories about Kings who make bad judgements in the Shahnameh itself!
Ferdowsi (940 – 1020Ad) was born in Tus, a town in North Eastern Iran, in the province of Khorasan.
As a boy Ferdowsi loved to play beside the river. But the bridge was always being washed away by floods. No one could build a bridge strong enough to withstand the floods. Ferdowsi dreamt that one day he might earn enough money to build a bridge that would stand up to the floods.
Ferdowsi became a renowned poet and was given the job by the King to write down the history of Persia. The King put Ferdowsi in a special room in his palace, which had paintings covering the walls, to inspire Ferdowsi’s poetry. The King told Ferdowsi that he would pay him 1000 gold pieces for each 1000 couplets that he managed to write.
At the end of 30 years of hard work, Ferdowsi had written 60,000 couplets – the Shahnameh He gave the poem to the King and asked for his 60,000 gold pieces. But during the 30 years of writing Ferdowsi had argued with the King. Ferdowsi felt the King did not praise his work or value him enough. The King thought Ferdowsi was much too proud and only gave him 60,000 silver pieces.
Ferdowsi was furious. He left the palace and went back home to Tus. But he left behind a poem for the King, stuck to the wall of the room he had worked in for all those years. It was a long and angry poem, more like a curse, and ended with the words:
“heaven’s vengeance will not forget. Shrink tyrant from my words of fire, and tremble at a poets ire.”
The King ordered that Ferdowsi be found and trampled to death by elephants. So Ferdowsi begged for forgiveness. The King accepted but said he never wanted to see or hear from Ferdowsi again.
Many, many people complained to the King. In the end, the King felt remorseful and sent a camel train to Tus carrying 60,000 gold pieces along with cloth of silk, brocade and velvet, perfumes and spices.
But the King’s gifts arrived too late. It is said that Ferdowsi died before the camel train arrived. As the King’s caravan arrived in one gate of the city, Ferdowsi’s coffin and funeral procession left another gate of the city.
Ferdowsi’s daughter inherited her father’s hard earned money, and she built a new and strong bridge with a beautiful stone caravanserai nearby for travellers to rest and trade and tell stories.
Among the many miniatures paintings of the Shahnameh you will find many pictures of Ferdowsi himself, writing, showing his poems to the King and competing with other poets to prove that he really is the best poet of all.
Sally Pomme Clayton 2005