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The Shahnameh (The Persian "Book of Kings")

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    The Shahnameh, or the Persian "Book of Kings"

    The introduction and notes have been prepared by John Terry (2021) and the translation is that of Helen Zimmern, Shahnameh: The Epic of Kings (Boston: Iran Chamber Society, 1883). It should be noted that the translation is antiquated and that modern, open-access translations do not exist. I have updated the stilted English (such as "your" for "thine" or "shows" for "showest"). For in-class purposes I also recommend Dick Davis, trans., Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings (London: Penguin, 2016). Good images from the early modern period can be found here.

    Note that this is an extremely long text and, as a result, it is difficult to excerpt, much in the way the Iliad and Odyssey are. The passages below are long and can be broken down in groups to make them more manageable. Alternatively, a class can focus on just one part of the excerpts, such as “The Death of Rustem.” The main goal of a class is to study types of power, family dynamics, gender roles, and expressions of loyalty. What are the limits of loyalty to a bad king? What are the limits of loyalty to family? How does power corrupt?

    Structure and Context of the Shahnameh

    The Shahnameh of Abolqasem Ferdowsi is a sprawling epic focusing on the exploits of kings, heroes, and villains of Persian history and legend. Also known in English as The Book of Kings or the Epic of Kings, the Shahnameh covers the lives of some fifty monarchs (47 kings, 3 queens) in nine “volumes” and 50,000 lines each of 22 syllables in the original Persian. It’s actually much longer than even that sounds; a recent translator has emphasized that “by the criteria of English verse they are very long lines; each line has twenty two syllables, making it slightly longer than a heroic couplet, so that a more accurate computation for an English reader would be to say that it is over 100,000 lines long.”1 Hamid Dabashi helps us understand the scope:


    Ferdowsi was born around 940, during a time of reasserting of Persian culture after the fraying of foreign rule under the Abbasids in Baghdad. Not very much is known about his life and scholars have long speculated about his sources. His motivation, though, is pretty clear: he seems to exploit a moment of “revival of interest in indigenous Persian culture” which “sought to celebrate the cultural and ethnic inheritance of ancient Iran . . . this too indicates Ferdowsi’s debt to the general ethos of ethnic and quasi-national self-promotion created by the Samanid court,” the Persian dynasty ruling his region at the time.3 He probably had good written sources available for some of the best-known figures in the poem, such as Sekandar (or Alexander the Great), but much of what he wrote must have come from oral traditions.

    Ferdowsi was clearly a faithful Muslim but the Shahnameh is not structured around that faith tradition. Instead, Ferdowsi emphasizes Persian creation myths; at the beginning of the poem he includes an account of Kayumars, the first man and king according to Persian legend, and extends his narrative well past the Arab conquest, whose own commanders deliver supposed prophecies about the corruption of power. It’s too much to say that the Shahnameh is epxlicity anti-Arab, but it certainly prizes local, indigenous Persian tradition first, Islam second, and all else a distant third.

    Historical Context

    The Shahnameh is set against the backdrop of nearly 400 years of Islamic history from the 600s onwards. The Persian history and legend covered by the Shahnameh extends much further back than that, to about the 500s BC. In other words, there was over a millennium of rich Persian culture for Ferdowsi to engage until the crucial moment of the life of Muhammad in the 600s AD; add to this the centuries between Muhammad and Ferdowsi’s own day, and we’re looking at an ambitious project covering the better part of sixteen centuries. Imagine a modern author writing a genre-defying account of a region of the world that stretched all the way back to the ancient period.

    Video: The Spread of Islam (Khan Academy).

    By Ferdowsi’s time in the 900s and 1000s, western Persia was beginning to reassert itself under the Buyid dynasty––a Persian dynasty that emphasized Persian literature, art, and language and claimed descent from the glorious ancient Sassanians––after Perians had long been seen as second-class citizens for much of Umayyad and Abbasid history. (These were the two major dynasties that emerged, in sequence, after the death of Muhammad.) Also claiming descent from the Sasanians were the Samanids, whom Ferdowsi praises for their good rule during his own day. “Most crucially for the later development of Persian literature,” Dick Davis points out, “the [Samanid] dynasty used new Perisan (the language that had developed since the [Muslim] conquest) rather than Arabic as its court language ,and a court poetry of great brilliance, in Persian, soon began to flourish in Khorasan and Transoxiana, the area controlled by the Samanids.”4

    Buyid Persia, c. 970
    Fig. 1: Buyid Persia, c. 970 CE (Wikimedia Commons).


    Here is a partial list of themes and references. The sections and characters included in the excerpts below are in bold.

    • Good men in the face of evil,5 typically depicted as morally upright compared with the kings they are supposed to serve.6 “What is perhaps especially interesting is that in these conflicts between the Iranian kings and their champions/advisors the latter are virtually always shown to be ethically superior to the kings they serve . . . and our sympathies are certainly with the governed rather than the governors.”7 This theme clearly has many lessons for our own times.
      • Kayanids (dynasty) vs Nariman family (Sam/Saum, his son Zal, Zal’s son Rostam/Rustem, and his son Faramarz)
        • Sam/Saum = unquestioning loyalty
        • Zal = critical of kings but ultimately supports them
        • Rostam/Rustem (hero of legendary section of the poem) = massively critical but finally loyal
        • Faramarz = rebellion vs king, is killed
    • Women as keepers of ancient traditions (non-Persian in origin such as Sindokht, Rudabeh, Sudabeh, Farigis, Manizheh, Katayun)
    • Fate and destiny
    • Immorality vs morality
    • Deep sense of nationalism and loyalty to kings
      • Story of Rostam and Sohrab (Rostam kills his son Sohrab for assaulting the Shah).

    Sam/Saum/Saam: a mythic hero of ancient Persia who served under three Shahs: Fereydun, Manuchehr, and Nowzar. When asked by Iranians to rule Iran, he refused, staying loyal to Nowzar. His name roughly means "black" or "dark" in Avestan.

    Zal: son of Sam/Saum, from Sistan. His family served the Persians Shahs as warriors and generals. According to the Shahnameh, he was born with white hair (his name refers to albinism and in the text he is called "the aged"). His father Sam blamed demons for his apparent defect and was abandoned on Alborz/Alberz Mountain and there was raied by the simurgh (a mythical bird like a phoenix) and Sam re-accpeted him as his son when he realized he clearly had a great destiny. Zal lived for over three hundred years and conceived another son by an enslaved woman called Shagad.

    Rudabeh/Rudaba: daughter of Mehrab, king of Kabul. Zal falls in love with her and Rudabeh lets him up to her room by dropping her hair down to him. The lovers conceived a son (Rostam) and Mehrab only assented to their union when Zal is able to defeat his warriors in combat.

    Rostam/Rustem: son of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam is one of the greatest warriors of the Shahnameh. As a child he tames the great stallion Rakhsh and defeats the white elephant of King Manuchehr with one strike of his mace, exhibiting his mastery over nature and living up to his name's meaning: "strong as a river." After multiple conquests (including his "Seven Quests" to rescue the king Kay Kavus) Rostam is murdered by his brother Shugdad/Shaghad.

    Sohrab: son or Rostam and Tahmineh, the daughter of King Samangam. As a young man he was killed by his father Rostam during a duel; Rostam did not know it was Sohrab he had killed until after.

    Mihrab/Mehrab: a King of Kabul and father of the beautiful Rudabeh, who is descended from the evil king Zahak the Serpent.

    Afrasiyab/Afrasiab: a great warrior and king of Turan, the main enemy of Iran.

    Footnotes to the Introduction

    [1] Dick Davis, ed. and trans., Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings (London: Penguin, 2016), xxiii.

    [2] Hamid Dabashi, The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic as World Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 8.

    [3] Davis, Shahnameh, xix.

    [4] Davis, Shahnameh, xviii.

    [5] Davis, Shahnameh, xv.

    [6] Davis, Shahnameh, xxi-xxii.

    [7] Davis, Shahnameh, xxii.


    2) Zal and Rudabeh

    4) Rustem and Sohrab

    5) The Death of Rustem


    Seistan,1 which is to the south of Iran, was ruled by Saum, the Pehliva,2 with might and glory, and, but for the grief that he was childless, his days were happy. Then it came to pass that a son was born unto him, beautiful of face and limb, who had neither fault nor blemish save that his hair was like unto that of an aged man. Now the women were afraid to tell Saum, lest he be wroth when he should learn that his child was thus set apart from his fellow-men. So the infant had gazed upon the light eight days ere he knew thereof. Then a woman, brave above the rest, ventured into his presence. She bowed herself unto the dust and craved of Saum the boon of speech. And he suffered her, and she spoke, saying: "May the Lord keep and guard you. May your enemies be utterly destroyed. May the days of Saum the hero be happy. For the Almighty hath accomplished his desire. He hath given to him an heir, a son is born unto the mighty warrior behind the curtains of his house, a moon-faced boy, beautiful of face and limb, in whom there is neither fault nor blemish, save that his hair is like unto that of an aged man. I beseech you, O my master, bethink you that this gift is from God, nor give place in your heart to ingratitude."

    When Saum had listened to her words he arose and went unto the house of the women. And he beheld the babe that was beautiful of face and limb, but whose head was like unto that of an aged man. Then Saum, fearing the jeers of his enemies, quitted the paths of wisdom. He lifted his head unto heaven and murmured against the Lord of Destiny, and cried, saying: "O you eternally just and good, O source of happiness, incline your ear unto me and listen to my voice. If I have sinned, if I have strayed in the paths of Ahriman, behold my repentance and pardon me. My soul is ashamed, my heart is angered for reason of this child, for will not the nobles say this boy presages evil? They will hold me up to shame, and what can I reply to their questions? It benefits me to remove this stain, that the land of Iran be not accursed." Thus spoke Saum in his anger, railing against fate, and he commanded his servants to take the child and cast it forth out of the land.

    Zal and the Simurgh Now there stands far from the haunts of men the Mount Alberz,3 whose head touches the stars, and never had mortal foot been planted upon its crest. And upon it had the Simurgh,4 the bird of marvel, built her nest. Of ebony and of sandal-wood did she build it, and twined it with aloes, so that it was like unto a king's house, and the evil sway of Saturn could not reach it. And at the foot of this mount was laid the child of Saum. Then the Simurgh, when she spied the infant lying upon the ground, bereft of clothes and wherewithal to nourish it, sucking its fingers for very hunger, darted to earth and raised him in her talons. And she bare him unto her nest, that her young might devour him. But when she had brought him her heart was stirred within her for compassion. Therefore she bade her young ones spare the babe and treat him like to a brother. Then she chose out tender flesh to feed her guest, and tended the infant forsaken of his sire. And thus did the Simurgh, nor ever wearied till that moons and years had rolled above their heads, and the babe was grown to be a youth full of strength and beauty. And his renown filled the land, for neither good nor evil can be hidden for ever. And his fame spread even unto the ears of Saum, the son of Neriman.

    Then it came to pass that Saum dreamed a dream, wherein he beheld a man riding towards him mounted upon an Arab steed. And the man gave him tidings of his son, and taunted him, saying: "O you who have offended against every duty, who disowns your son because that his hair is white, though your own resembles the silver poplar, and to whom a bird seems fit nurse for your offspring, will you abjure all kinship with him for ever?"

    Now when Saum awoke he remembered his dream, and fear came upon him for his sin. And he called unto him his Mubids,5 and questioned them concerning the stripling of the Mount Alberz, and whether this could be indeed his son, for surely frosts and heat must long since have destroyed him. Then the Mubids answered and said: "Not so, you most ungrateful unto God, you more cruel than the lion, the tiger, and the crocodile, for even savage beasts tend their young, whilst you rejected your own, because you held the white hair given unto him by his Creator for a reproach in the sight of men. O faint of heart, arise and seek thy child, for surely one whom God hath blessed can never perish. And turn you unto him and pray that he forgive you."

    Fig. 2: Zal and the Simurgh among the Alborz Mountains, Sarai Albums Tabriz, c. 1370, Topkapı Palace Museum (Hazine 2153, folio 23a) (Wikimedia Commons).

    When Saum had heard these words he was contrite, and called about him his army and set forth unto the mountains. And when they came to the mountain that is raised up to the stars, Saum beheld the Simurgh and the nest, and a stripling that was like unto himself walking around it. And his desire to get unto him was great, but he strove in vain to scale the crest. Then Saum called upon God in his humility. And God heard him, and put it into the heart of the Simurgh to look down and behold the warrior and the army that was with him. And when she had seen Saum she knew wherefore the chief was come, and she spoke and said: "O you who have shared this nest, I have reared you and been to you a mother, for thy father cast you out; the hour is come to part us, and I must give you again unto thy people. For thy father is Saum the hero, the Pehliva of the world, greatest among the great, and he has come to seek his son, and splendor awaits you beside him."

    When the youth had heard her words his eyes were filled with tears and his heart with sorrow, for he had never gazed upon men, though he had learned their speech. And he said: "Are you then weary of me, or am I no longer fit to be your house-fellow? See, your nest is unto me a throne, your sheltering wings a parent. To you I owe all that I am, for you were my friend in need."

    And the Simurgh answered him saying, "I do not send you away for enmity, O my son; nay, I would keep you beside me forever, but another destiny is better for you. When you shalt have seen the throne and its pomp my nest will sink in your esteem. Go forth, therefore, my son, and try thy fortune in the world. But that you might remember thy nurse who shielded you, and reared you amid her little ones, that you might remain under the shadow of her wings, bear with you this feather from her breast. And in the day of thy need cast it into the fire, and I will come like unto a cloud and deliver you from danger."

    Thus she spoke, and raised him in her talons and bore him to the spot where Saum was bowed to the dust in penitence. Now when Saum beheld his son, whose body was like unto an elephant's for strength and beauty, he bent low before the Simurgh and covered her with benison. And he cried out and said: "O Shah of birds, O bird of God, who confounds the wicked, may you be great forever."

    But while he spoke, the Simurgh flew upwards, and the gaze of Saum was fixed upon his son. And as he looked he saw that he was worthy of the throne, and that there was neither fault nor blemish in him, save only his silvery locks. Then his heart rejoiced within him, and he blessed him, and entreated his forgiveness. And he said: "O my son, open your heart unto the lowest of God's servants, and I swear unto you, in the presence of Him that made us, that never again will I harden my heart towards you, and that I will grant unto you all thy desires."

    Then he clothed him in rich robes and named him Zal, which being interpreted means “the aged.” And he showed him to the army. And when they had looked on the youth they saw that he was goodly of visage and of limb, and they shouted for joy. Then the host made them ready to return to Seistan. And the kettle-drummers rode at their head, mounted upon mighty elephants whose feet raised a cloud of dust that rose unto the sky. And the tabors were beat, and the trumpets brayed, and the cymbals clashed, and sounds of rejoicing filled the land because that Saum had found his son, and that Zal was a hero among men.


    Questions for this section:

    1) What role does destiny seem to play in this section?

    2) Why does Saum change his mind about his son Zal?

    3) What does the Simurgh tell Zal, and how does it help us understand Zal as a hero?

    Footnotes to "Zal"

    [1] Sistan is a region in modern eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan.

    [2] Pehliva is a Persian word that can mean various things: valiant, brave, warrior, wrestler, hero, etc.

    [3] The Alborz Mountains are a range in northern Iran bordering modern Azerbaijan and they contain the highest peak in Iran (Mount Damavand).

    [4] The Simurgh is a mythical bird with tremendous strength.

    [5] Servant

    Zal and Rudabeh

    It came about that Zal desired to see the kingdom. And he set forth, and there followed after him a bountiful caravan, and when they had journeyed a while they marched with pomp into Kabul. Now Mihrab, who was descended from Zohak the Serpent, reigned in Kabul, yet he was worthy, prudent, and wise. When he heard that the son of Saum, to whom he paid tribute, drew nigh unto the city, he went out to meet him, and his nobles went with him, and slaves bearing costly gifts. And Zal, hearing that Mihrab was at hand, prepared a feast in his tents, and Mihrab and his train feasted with him until the night was far spent. Now, after the King was gone, Zal praised his beauty. Then a noble rose up and said unto him: "O Zal, you don't know beauty since you have not seen the daughter of this man. For she is like unto the slender cypress, her face is brighter than the sun, her mouth is a pomegranate flower."

    When Zal heard these words he was filled with longing, and sleep would not visit his eyelids for thinking of her beauty.

    Now, when the day dawned, he opened the doors of his court, and the nobles stood about him, each man according to his rank. And presently there came from Kabul Mihrab the King to tender morning greeting to the stranger without his gates. And Zal desired that Mihrab should crave a boon at his hands. Then Mihrab spoke to him saying: "O ruler mighty and great, I have but one desire, and to bring it to pass is easy. For I crave you that you dwell as a guest beneath my roof, and let my heart rejoice in thy presence."

    Then Zal said unto him, "O King, ask not this boon at my hands, I pray you, for it can in nowise be accomplished. The Shah and Saum would be angered should they learn that I had eaten under the roof of Zahak.1 I beg of you ask aught but this."

    When Mihrab heard these words he was sorrowful, and bent low before Zal, and departed from the tents. And the eye of Zal looked after him, and yet again he spoke his praises. Then he bethought him of the King's daughter, and how that she was fair, and he was sunk in brooding and desire, and the days passed unheeded over his head.

    Now it came to pass that on a certain morning Mihrab stepped forth from his palace to the house of the women to visit Sindokht his wife, and her daughter Rudabeh. Truly the house was like a garden for color and perfume, and over all shone those moons of beauty. Now when Mihrab had greeted Rudabeh he marveled at her loveliness, and called down the blessings of Heaven upon her head. Then Sindokht opened her lips and questioned Mihrab concerning the stranger whose tents were without their gates. And she said: "I pray you tell unto me what manner of man is this white-haired son of Saum, and is he worthy the nest or the throne?"

    Then Mihrab said unto her, "O my fair cypress, the son of Saum is a hero among men. His heart is like unto a lion's, his strength is as an elephant's, to his friends he is a gracious Nile, unto his enemies a wasting crocodile. And in him are even blemishes turned to beauties, his white locks but enhance his glory."

    When Rudabeh had listened to these words her heart burned with love for Zal, so that she could neither eat nor rest, and was like unto one that hath changed her shape. And after a while, because that she could bear the burden thereof no longer, she told her secret to the slaves that loved and served her. And she charged them tell no man, and entreated of them that they would aid her to allay the troubles of her heart. And when the slaves had listened to her story, they were filled with fear, and with one accord entreated her that she would dismiss from her heart one branded among men, and whom his own father had cast out. But Rudabeh would not listen to their voice. And when they beheld that she was firm in her spirit, and that their words were vain, they cast about how they might serve her. And one among them who was wise above the rest opened her lips and spoke: "O moon-faced beauty, slender cypress, it shall be done at thy desire. Thy slaves will neither rest nor slumber until the royal youth shall have become the footstool to thy feet." Then Rudabeh was glad and said: "An the issue be happy, there shall be planted for you a noble tree, and it shall bear riches and jewels, and wisdom shall cull its fruits."


    And Zal answered her blessing, and prayed that he might enter into nearer converse, for he was on the ground and she was on the roof. Then the Peri-faced2 loosened her tresses, and they were long, so that they fell from the battlements unto the ground. And she said unto Zal: "Here have you a cord without flaw. Mount, O Pehliva, and seize my black locks, for it is fitting that I should be a snare unto you." But Zal cried, "Not so, O fair one, it would beseem me ill to do you hurt."

    And he covered her hair with kisses. Then he called for a cord and made a running knot, and threw it upwards and fastened it to the battlements. And with a bound he swung himself upon the roof. Then Rudabeh took his hand and they stepped down together into the golden chambers, and the slaves stood round about them. And they gazed upon each other and knew that they excelled in beauty, and the hours slipped by in sweet talk, while love was fanned in their hearts. Then Zal cried: "O fair cypress, musk-perfumed, when Minuchihr shall learn of this he will be angered and Saum also will chide. And they will say I have forgotten my God, and will lift their hands against me. But I swear unto you that this life is to me vile if it be not spent in thy presence. And I call upon Heaven to hear me that none other but you will I call my bride."

    And Rudabeh said, "I too will swear unto you this oath." So the hours sped, and there arose from out the tents of the King the sound of drums that announce the coming of the day. Then cried Zal and Rudabeh of one accord: "O glory of the world, delay yet a while, neither arrive so quickly."

    But the sun gave no ear to their reproaches, and the hour to part was come. Then Zal swung himself from the battlements unto the ground, and quitted the house of his beloved.

    Now when the earth was flooded with light, and the nobles and chiefs had tendered unto Zal their morning greetings as was their wont, he called about him his Mubids, and laid before them how that he was filled with love for a daughter of the Serpent. And the Mubids when they heard it were troubled, and their lips were closed, and the words were chained upon their tongues. For there was none of them that listed to mingle poison in the honey of this love. Whereupon Zal reproved them, and said that he would bestow on them rich gifts if they would open their mouths. Then they spoke and said unto him that the honour of a king could not suffer by a woman, and though Mihrab be indeed of Zohak's race, he was noble and valiant. And they urged him to write unto his father and crave Saum to wait upon the Shah.

    Then Zal called a scribe and told him to write down the words that he spoke. And he told unto Saum his love and his fears. And he recalled unto him how that he had cast him out, and how that he had lived in a nest, and a bird had reared him, and the sun had poured down upon his head, and raw flesh had been his nourishment the while his father had sat within a goodly house clothed in silk. And he recalled the promise given to him by Saum. Neither did he seek to justify that which was come about. Then he gave the letter to a messenger, and told him to ride until he should be come into the presence of Saum.

    When Saum had heard the words of his son his spirit was troubled, and he cried: "Woe unto me, for now is clear what hath so long been hidden. One whom a wild bird hath reared looks for the fulfilment of wild desires, and seeks union with an accursed race."

    And he pondered long what he should answer. For he said, "If I say, Abandon this desire, sow no discord, return to reason, I break my oath and God will punish me. Yet if I say, Thy desire is just, satisfy the passions of thy heart, what offspring can come to pass from the union of a Deev and the nursling of a bird?" And the heart of Saum was heavy with care. So he called unto him his Mubids that they should search the stars, for he said: "If I mingle fire and water I do ill, and ill will come of it."

    Then all that day the Wise Men searched the secrets of Fate, and they cast the horoscope of Zal and Rudabeh, and at even they returned to the King rejoicing. And they found him torn with anguish. Then they said: "Hail unto you, O Saum, for we have followed the movement of the stars and counted their course, and we have read the message of the skies. And it is written, 'A clear spring shall issue into the day, a son shall be born to Zal, a hero full of power and glory, and there shall not be his like in Iran.' "

    Now when Saum had taken in these words, his soul was uplifted, and he poured gifts upon the Mubids. Then he called to him the messenger of Zal, and he gave him pieces of silver, and bade him return unto his master and say: "I think your passion is foolish, O my son, but because of the oath that I have sworn to you it shall be done at thy desire. I will hie me unto Iran and lay thy suit before the Shah." Then Saum called together his army and set forth for Iran, and the sound of trumpets and cymbals went before him.


    Now listen to what happened to Zal while these things were passing in Seistan. When he was come to the court of Minuchihr3 he hurried into his presence, and kissed the ground at his feet, and lay prostrate before him in the dust. And when the Shah saw this he was moved, and bade his servants raise Zal, and pour musk before him. Then Zal drew close to the throne and gave to the King the letter written by Saum the son of Neriman. And when Minuchihr had read it he was grieved, and said: "This letter, written by Saum thy father in his sorrow, has awakened an old pain within me. But for the sake of my faithful servant I will do to you that which is thy desire. Yet I ask that you abide with me a little while that I may seek counsel about you."

    Then the cooks brought a table of gold, and Zal was seated beside the Shah and all the nobles according to their rank, and they ate flesh and drank wine together. Then when the mantle of night was fallen over the earth Zal sprang upon his steed and scoured the land in the unrest of his spirit, for his heart was full of thoughts and his mouth of words. But when morning was come he presented himself before the Shah in audience. And his speech and disposition found favor in the eyes of the Shah, and he called unto him his Wise Men and bade them question the stars of this matter. Three days and three nights did the Mubids search the heavens without ceasing, and on the fourth they came before the Shah and spoke. And they said unto him: "Hail to you, hero of the golden girdle, for we bring unto you glad tidings. The son of Saum and the daughter of Mihrab shall be a glorious pair, and from their union shall spring a son like to a war-elephant, and he shall subdue all men by his sword and raise the glory of Iran even unto the skies. And he shall uproot the wicked from the earth so that there shall be no room for them. Segsars and Mazinderan shall feel the weight of his mace, and he shall bring much woe upon Turan, but Iran shall be loaded with prosperity at his hands. And he will give back sleep to the unhappy, and close the doors of discord, and bar the paths of wrong-doing. The kingdom will rejoice while he lives; Roum, Ind, and Iran will grave his name upon their seals."


    Zal Marries RudabehThen when the guests came near unto Kabul, Mihrab went forth to meet them, and he placed upon the head of Zal a crown of diamonds, and they came into the city in triumph. And all the people did homage before them, and Sindokht met them at the doors of the King's house, and poured out musk and precious stones before them. Then Saum, when he had replied to their homage, smiled, and turned to Sindokht and said: "How much longer do you think to hide Rudabeh from our eyes?" And Sindokht said, "What will you give me to see the sun?" Then Saum replied, "All that you want, even unto my slaves and my throne, will I give to you."

    Then Sindokht led him within the curtains, and when Saum beheld Rudabeh he was struck dumb with wonder, for her beauty exceeded dreams, and he knew not how he could find words to praise her. Then he asked of Mihrab that he would give unto him her hand, and they concluded an alliance according to custom and the law. And the lovers were seated upon a throne, and Mihrab read out the list of the gifts, and it was so long the ear did not suffice to hear them. Then they repaired unto the banquet, and they feasted seven days without ceasing. And when a month had passed Saum went back to Seistan, and Zal and Rudabeh followed after him. And speedily did he set forth again to battle, and left the kingdom in the hands of his son, and Zal administered it with wisdom and judgment. And Rudabeh sat beside him on the throne, and he placed a crown of gold upon her head.

    Fig 3: Zal Marries Rudabeh (Wikimedia Commons)

    Questions for this section:

    1) What values are embedded in this telling of Zal and Rudabeh's romance?

    2) How does Zal win the favor of Rudabeh's father, and what does this tell us about issues such honor and gendered virtue in medieval Persian society?

    Footnotes for "Zal and Rudabeh"

    [1] Zahak the Serpent is an evil figure in Persian mythology.

    [2] "Peri-faced" is a reference to Peri, who are winged spirits know for extreme beauty.

    [3] Minuchihr/Manūchehr was the eighth Shah of Persia's Pishdadian dynasty.


    Now the son of Zal was born, Rudabeh was afflicted, and neither by day nor night could she find rest. Then Zal in his trouble bethought him of the Simurgh,1 his nurse, and how she had given unto him a feather that he might use it in the hour of his need. And he cast the feather into the fire as she had commanded, and straightway a sound of rushing wings filled the air, and the sky was darkened and the bird of God stood before Zal. And she said unto him: "O my son, why are you troubled, and why are the eyes of this lion wet with tears?"

    Then he told her of his sorrow, and she told him to be cheerful, "For truly your nurse who shielded you, and reared you when thy father cast you out, is come yet again to help you."

    And she told him how he should act, and when she had done speaking she turned her once more towards her nest. But Zal did as she had commanded, and there was born to him a son comely of limb. And when Rudabeh beheld the babe, she smiled and said: "truly he shall be called Rustem (which, being interpreted, means delivered), for I am delivered of my pains."

    And all the land was glad that a son came unto Zal the hero, and the sounds of feasting and joy were heard throughout its breadth.

    Then fleet messengers brought the sweet tidings unto Saum. And they bare with them an image of Rustem sewn of silk, whereon were traced the features of this lion's whelp, and a club was put into its hands, and it was mounted upon a dromedary. Now when Saum beheld the image his heart leaped up within him. He poured mountains of gold before the messengers, and gave thanks unto Ormuzd2 that he had suffered his eyes to look upon this child.

    And when eight summers had rolled above their heads, Saum learned that Rustem was mighty of stature and fair of mien, and his heart yearned towards him. He therefore made ready a mighty host and passed unto Zaboulistan,3 that he might look upon his son. And Rustem rode forth to meet his sire, mounted upon an elephant of war, and when he beheld Saum he fell upon his face and craved his blessing. And Saum blessed Rustem, the son of Zal.

    Then Rustem spoke to Saum and said, "O Pehliva, I rejoice in that I am sprung from you, for my desires are not after the feast, neither do I covet sleep or rest. My heart is fixed upon valor, a horse do I crave and a saddle, a coat of mail and a helmet, and my delight is in the arrow. I will vanquish your enemies, and may my courage be like yours."

    And Saum, when he had heard these words, was astonished, and blessed Rustem yet again. And his eyes could not cease from gazing upon the face of the boy, and he lingered in the land until a moon had run its course.

    Now when yet two springs had passed, Rustem was awakened from his slumber by a mighty roaring that shook the walls of the house, even unto the foundation, and a cry went forth that the white elephant of the King had broken its chain in fury, and that the housemates were in danger. And Rustem, when he learned it, sprang from his bed, and desired of the guards that they should suffer him to pass into the court that he might conquer the beast. But the guards barred the way from him, saying: "How can we answer for it before the King if you run into danger?"

    But Rustem would not listen to their voice. He forced a passage for himself with his mighty arms, with his strong fists he broke down the barriers of the door. And when he was without he saw how all the warriors were sore afraid of the elephant, because he was mad with rage. And Rustem was ashamed of them in his soul, and he ran towards the beast with a loud cry. Then the elephant, when he saw him, raised his trunk to strike him, but Rustem beat him upon the head with his club, and smote him that he died. And when he had done this deed, he returned unto his bed and slept until the morning. But the news of his prowess spread throughout the house of the King and far into the land, even unto the realms of Saum. And Zal, and all men with him, rejoiced because a hero had arisen in Iran.


    Now it was in the time of roses, and the meadows smiled with verdure, when Zal led forth his hosts against the offspring of Tur. And the standard of Kawah streamed upon the breeze, and Mihrab marched on the left, and Gustahem marched on the right, and Zal went in the midst of the men, but Rustem went at the head of all. And there followed after him a number like to the sands of the sea, and the sounds of cymbals and bells made a noise throughout the land like unto the day of judgment, when the earth shall cry unto the dead, "Arise." And they marched in order even unto the shores of the river Rai, and the two armies were but some distance apart.

    When Afrasiyab heard that Rustem and Zal were coming out against him, he was in nowise dismayed, for he said, "The son is but a boy, and the father is old; it will not, therefore, be hard for me to keep my power in Iran." And he made ready his warriors with gladness of heart.

    But Zal, when he had drawn up his army in battle array, spoke unto them, saying: "O men valiant in fight, we are great in number, but there is wanting to us a chief, for we are without the counsels of a Shah, and truly no labor succeeds when the head is lacking. But rejoice, and be not downcast in your hearts, for a Mubid hath revealed unto me that there yet lives one of the race of Feridoun4 to whom pertains the throne, and that he is a youth wise and brave."

    And Rustem, when he had heard his father's command, touched with his eyelashes the ground before his feet, and straightway departed. In his hand he had a mace of might, and under him was Rakush the swift of foot. And he rode till he came within sight of the Mount Alberz, whereon had stood the cradle of his father. Then he beheld at its foot a house beauteous like unto that of a king. And around it was spread a garden whence came the sounds of running waters, and trees of tall stature rose up there, and under their shade, by a gurgling rill, there stood a throne, and a youth, fair like to the moon, was seated there. And around him leaned knights dressed with red sashes of power, and you would have said it was a paradise for perfume and beauty.

    Now when those within the garden beheld the son of Zal ride by, they came out unto him and said: "O Pehliva, it benefits us not to let you go farther before you have permitted us to greet you as our guest. We beg you, therefore, descend from off thy horse and drink the cup of friendship in our house."

    But Rustem said, "Not so, I thank you, but suffer that I may pass unto the mountain with an errand that brooks no delay. For the borders of Iran are encircled by the enemy, and the throne is empty of a king. Wherefore I may not stay to taste of wine."

    Then they answered him, "If you go to the mountain, tell us, we beg you, your mission, for unto us is it given to guard its sides."

    And Rustem replied, "I seek there a king descended from Feridoun, who cleansed the world of the abominations of Zohak, a youth who rears high his head. I beg you, therefore, if you know of Kai Kobad, that you might tell me where to find him."

    Then the youth that sat upon the throne opened his mouth and said, "Kai Kobad is known to me, and if you will enter this garden and rejoice my soul with your presence I will give you information concerning him."

    When Rustem heard these words he sprang from off his horse and came within the gates. And the youth took his hand and led him unto the steps of the throne. Then he mounted it yet again, and when he had filled a cup with wine, he pledged the guest within his gates. Then he gave a cup to Rustem, and questioned him why he sought Kai Kobad, and at whose desire he came forth to find him. And Rustem told him of the Mubids, and how that his father had sent him with all speed to beg the young King that he would be their Shah, and lead the host against the enemies of Iran. Then the youth, when he had listened to an end, smiled and said: "O Pehliva, behold me, for truly I am Kai Kobad of the race of Feridoun!"

    Rustem Visits Kai Kobad in the Alborz MountainsAnd Rustem, when he had heard these words, fell on the ground before his feet, and saluted him Shah. Then the King raised him, and commanded that the slaves should give him yet another cup of wine, and he bore it to his lips in honour of Rustem, the son of Zal, the son of Saum, the son of Neriman. And they gave a cup also unto Rustem, and he cried: "May the Shah live forever!" Then instruments of music rent the air, and joy spread over all the assembly. But when silence was fallen yet again, Kai Kobad opened his mouth and said: "Hearken, O my knights, unto the dream that I had dreamed, and ye will know wherefore I called upon you this day to stand in majesty about my throne. For in my sleep I beheld two falcons white of wing, and they came out unto me from Iran, and in their beaks they bare a sunny crown. And the crown they placed upon my head. And behold now is Rustem come out unto me like to a white bird, and his father, the nursling of a bird, hath sent him, and they have given unto me the crown of Iran."

    And Rustem, when he had heard this dream, said, "Surely thy vision was given unto you of God! But now, I beg you, up and tarry no longer, for the land of Iran groans sore and awaits you with much travail."

    So Kai Kobad listened to the desires of Rustem, and swung him upon his steed of war; and they rode day and night, until they came down from the hills unto the green plains that are watered by murmuring streams. And Rustem brought the King safely through the outposts of the enemy; and when the night had fallen, he led him within the tents of Zal, and none knew that he had come save only the Mubids. For seven days did they hold counsel together, and on the eighth the message of the stars was received with joy. And Zal made ready a throne of ivory and a banquet, and the crown of Iran was placed upon the head of the young Shah. Then the nobles came and did homage before him, and they reveled in wine till the night was far spent. And they begged him that he would make him ready to lead them against the Turks. And Kai Kobad mustered the army and did as they desired.

    Fig 4: Rustem visits Kai Kobad in the Alborz Mountains (Wikimedia Commons).

    And soon the battle raged hot and strong for many days, and deeds of valour were done on either side; but the men of Turan could not stand against the men of Iran, neither could the strength of Rustem be broken. For he put forth the power of a lion, and his shadow extended for miles. And from that day men named him Tehemten (which being interpreted, means the strong-limbed), for he did deeds of prowess in the sight of men. And Afrasiyab was discomfited, and fled before him, and his army followed after, and their hearts were bruised and full of care.

    But the Iranians, when they beheld that their foes had vanished before them, turned them unto Kai Kobad and did homage before his throne. And Kai Kobad celebrated the victory with much pomp, as is the manner of kings; and he placed Rustem upon his right hand and Zal upon his left, and they feasted and made them merry with wine.


    Now for the space of a hundred years did Kai Kobad rule over Iran, and he administered his realm with clemency, and the earth was quiet before him, and he gave his people great honor, and I ask of you what king can be likened unto him? But when this time had passed, his strength waned, and he knew that a green leaf was about to fade. So he called before him Kai Kaous his son, and gave unto him counsels many and wise. And when he had finished speaking he told them them to prepare his grave, and he exchanged the palace for the tomb. And thus ends the history of Kai Kobad the glorious.

    Questions for this section:

    1) What types of heroism do we see in this section?

    2) Assess Rustem's character. What makes him suitable for the tasks he is given? ​​​​

    Footnotes for "Rustem"

    [1] The Simurgh is a mythical bird with tremendous strength.

    [2] Ormuzd, or Ahura Mazda, is the main creator deity of Zoroastrianism, a dualist religion that originated in Persia sometime prior to the fifth century BC.

    [3] Zaboulistan, or Zabulistan, is a geographic region in present-day southern Afghanistan.

    [4] Feridoun/Fereydun/Fereidun was a mythical hero who embodies bravery, justice, and victory.

    [5] Kai Kobad/Kay Kawad is another mythical character of the Kayanian dynasty (a legendary family of heroes) who rescued Iran and became Shah.

    Rustem and Sohrab

    Give ear unto the combat of Sohrab against Rustem, though it be a tale replete with tears.

    It came about that on a certain day Rustem arose from his couch, and his mind was filled with dread. He bethought him therefore to go out to the chase. So he saddled Rakush [his horse] and made ready his quiver with arrows. Then he turned him unto the wilds that lie near Turan, even in the direction of the city of Samengan.1 And when he came nigh unto it, he started a herd of asses and made sport among them till that he was weary of the hunt. Then he caught one and slew it and roasted it for his meal, and when he had eaten it and broken the bones for the marrow, he laid himself down to slumber, and Rakush cropped the pasture beside him.

    Now while the hero was sleeping there passed by seven knights of Turan, and they beheld Rakush and coveted him. So they threw their cords at him to ensnare him. But Rakush, when he beheld their design, pawed the ground in anger, and fell upon them as he had fallen upon the lion. And of one man he bit off the head, and another he struck down under his hoofs, and he would have overcome them all, but they were too many. So they ensnared him and led him into the city, thinking in their hearts, "truly a good capture have we made." But Rustem when he awoke from his slumbers was downcast and sore grieved when he saw not his steed, and he said unto himself: "How can I stand against the Turks, and how can I traverse the desert alone?"

    And his heart was full of trouble. Then he sought for the traces of the horse's hoofs, and he followed them, and they led him even unto the gates of the city. Now when those within beheld Rustem, and that he came before them on foot, the King and the nobles came forth to greet him, and inquired of him how this had come about. Then Rustem told them how Rakush vanished while he slumbered, and how he had followed his track even unto these gates . . . Then the King of Samengan, when he saw that Rustem was beside himself with anger, spoke words of soothing, and said that none of his people should do wrong unto the hero; and he begged him that he would enter into his house and abide with him until that search had been made, saying: "Surely Rakush cannot be hidden."


    Now when a portion of the night was spent, and the star of morning stood high in the arch of heaven, the door of Rustem's chamber was opened, and a murmur of soft voices came in from the threshold. And there stepped within a slave bearing a lamp perfumed with amber, and a woman whose beauty was veiled came after her. And as she moved musk was scattered from her robes. And the women came nigh unto the bed of the hero heavy with wine and slumber. And he was amazed when he saw them. And when he had roused him somewhat he spoke and said: "Who are you, and what is your name and your desire, and what do you seek from me in the dark night?"

    Then the Peri-faced answered him, saying, "I am Tahmineh,2 the daughter of the King of Samengan, of the race of the leopard and the lion, and none of the princes of this earth are worthy of my hand, neither hath any man seen me unveiled. But my heart is torn with anguish, and my spirit is tossed with desire, for I have heard of your deeds of prowess, and how you fear neither Deev nor lion, neither leopard nor crocodile, and how thy hand is swift to strike, and how you ventured alone into Mazinderan, and how wild asses are devoured of you, and how the earth groans under the tread of thy feet, and how men perish at thy blows, and how even the eagle dares not swoop down upon her prey when she beholds thy sword. These things and more have been told to me, and mine eyes have yearned to look upon thy face. And now hath God brought you within the gates of my father, and I am come to say unto you that I am yours if you will hear me, and if you will not, none other will I espouse. And consider, O Pehliva, how that love hath obscured my understanding and withdrawn me from the bosom of discretion, yet may God grant unto me a son like you for strength and valor, to whom shall be given the empire of the world. And if you will listen unto me, I will lead forth before you Rakush thy steed, and I will place under thy feet the land of Samengan."

    Now while this moon of beauty was still speaking, Rustem looked at her. And he saw that she was fair, and that wisdom abode in her mind; and when he heard of Rakush, his spirit was decided within him, and he held that this adventure could not end save gloriously. So he sent a Mubid unto the King and demanded the hand of Tahmineh from her father. And the King, when he heard the news, was rejoiced, and gave his daughter unto the Pehliva, and they concluded an alliance according to custom and the rites. And all men, young and old, within the house and city of the King were glad at this alliance, and called down blessings upon Rustem.

    Now Rustem, when he was alone with the Peri-faced, took from his arm an onyx that was known unto all the world. And he gave it to her, and said: "Cherish this jewel, and if Heaven cause you to give birth unto a daughter, fasten it within her locks, and it will shield her from evil; but if it be granted unto you to bring forth a son, fasten it upon his arm, that he may wear it like his father. And he shall be strong as Keriman, of stature like unto Saum the son of Neriman, and of grace of speech like unto Zal, my father."

    The Peri-faced, when she had heard these words, was glad in his presence. But when the day passed there came in unto them the King her father, and he told Rustem how that tidings of Rakush were come unto his ears, and how that the horse would shortly be within the gates. And Rustem, when he heard it, was filled with longing after his steed, and when he knew that he was come he hurried forth to caress him. And with his own hands he fastened the saddle, and gave thanks unto Ormuzd, who had restored his joy between his hands. Then he knew that the time to depart was come. And he opened his arms and took unto his heart Tahmineh the fair of face, and he bathed her cheek with his tears and covered her hair with kisses. Then he flung him upon Rakush, and the swift-footed bare him quickly from out of her sight. And Tahmineh was sorrowful exceedingly, and Rustem too was filled with thoughts as he turned him back into Zaboulistan. And he pondered this adventure in his heart, but to no man did he speak of what he had seen or done.

    Now when nine moons had run their course there was born unto Tahmineh a son in the likeness of his father, a babe whose mouth was filled with smiles, wherefore men called him Sohrab. And when he numbered but one month he was like unto a child of twelve, and when he numbered five years he was skilled in arms and all the arts of war, and when ten years were rolled above his head there was none in the land that could resist him in the games of strength. Then he came before his mother and spoke words of daring. And he said: "Since I am taller and stouter than my peers, teach unto me my race and lineage, and what I shall say when men ask me the name of my sire. But if you refuse an answer unto my demands, I will strike you out from the rolls of the living."

    When Tahmineh beheld the ardor of her son, she smiled in her spirit because that his fire was like to that of his father. And she opened her mouth and said: "Hear my words, O my son, and be glad in your heart, neither give way in thy spirit to anger. For you art the offspring of Rustem, you art descended from the seed of Saum and Zal, and Neriman was thy forefather. And since God made the world it has hosted nobody like Rustem, your lord."

    Then she showed to him a letter written by the Pehliva, and gave to him the gold and jewels Rustem had sent at his birth. And she spoke and said: "Cherish these gifts with gratitude, for it is thy father who hath sent them. Yet remember, O my son, that you close thy lips concerning these things; for Turan groans under the hand of Afrasiyab, and he is foe unto Rustem the glorious. If, therefore, he should learn of you, he would seek to destroy the son for hatred of the sire. Moreover, O my boy, if Rustem learned that you wert become a mountain of valour, perchance he would demand you at my hands, and the sorrow of thy loss would crush the heart of thy mother."

    But Sohrab replied, "To all men are known the deeds of Rustem, and since my birth be thus noble, wherefore have you kept it dark from me so long? I will go forth with an army of brave Turks and lead them unto Iran, I will cast Kai Kaous3 from off his throne, I will give to Rustem the crown of the Kaianides, and together we will subdue the land of Turan, and Afrasiyab shall be slain by my hands. Then will I mount the throne in his stead. But you shalt be called Queen of Iran. for since Rustem is my father and I am his son no other kings shall rule in this world, for to us alone benefits it to wear the crowns of might. And I pant in longing after the battlefield, and I desire that the world should behold my prowess. But a horse is needful unto me, a steed tall and strong of power to bear me, for it beseems me not to go on foot before my enemies."


    Then he made ready for war against Iran, and the nobles and warriors flocked around him. And when all was in order Sohrab came before his grandsire and craved his counsel and his aid to go forth into the land of Iran and seek out his father. And the King of Samengan, when he heard these wishes, deemed them to be just, and he opened the doors of his treasures without stint and gave unto Sohrab of his wealth, for he was filled with pleasure at this boy. And he invested Sohrab with all the honors of a King, and he bestowed on him all the marks of his good pleasure.

    Meantime a certain man brought news unto Afrasiyab that Sohrab was making ready an army to fall upon Iran, and to cast Kai Kaous from off his throne. And he told Afrasiyab4 how the courage and valour of Sohrab exceeded words. And Afrasiyab, when he heard this, hid not his contentment, and he called before him Human and Barman, the doughty. Then he bade them gather together an army and join the ranks of Sohrab, and he confided to them his secret purpose, but he enjoined them to tell no man thereof. For he said: "Into our hands hath it been given to settle the course of the world. For it is known unto me that Sohrab is sprung from Rustem the Pehliva, but from Rustem must it be hidden who it is that gos out against him, then peradventure he will perish by the hands of this young lion, and Iran, devoid of Rustem, will fall a prey into my hands. Then will we subdue Sohrab also, and all the world will be ours. But if it be written that Sohrab fall under the hand of Tehemten, then the grief he shall endure when he shall learn that he hath slain his son will bring him to the grave for sorrow."

    So spoke Afrasiyab in his guile, and when he had done unveiling his black heart he bade the warriors depart unto Samengan. And they bare with them gifts of great price to pour before the face of Sohrab. And they bare also a letter filled with soft words. And in the letter Afrasiyab lauded Sohrab for his resolve, and told him how that if Iran be subdued the world would henceforth know peace, for upon his own head would he place the crown of the Kaianides; and Turan, Iran, and Samengan should be as one land.

    When Sohrab had read this letter, and saw the gifts and the aid sent out to him, he rejoiced aloud, for he deemed that now none could withstand his might. So he caused the cymbals of departure to be clashed, and the army made them ready to go forth. Then Sohrab led them into the land of Iran. And their track was marked by desolation and destruction, for they spared nothing that they passed. And they spread fire and dismay abroad, and they marched on until they came unto the White Castle, the fortress wherein Iran put its trust.

    Now the guardian of the castle was named Hujir, and there lived with him Gustahem the brave, but he was grown old, and could aid no longer save with his counsels. And there abode also his daughter Gurdafrid, a warlike maid, firm in the saddle, and talented in the fight. Now when Hujir beheld from afar a dusky cloud of armed men he came forth to meet them. And Sohrab, when he saw him, drew his sword, and demanded his name, and bade him prepare to meet his end. And he taunted him with rashness that he was come forth thus unaided to stand against a lion. But Hujir answered Sohrab with taunts again, and vowed that he would sever his head from his trunk and send it for a trophy unto the Shah. Yet Sohrab only smiled when he heard these words, and he challenged Hujir to come near. And they met in combat, and wrestled sore one with another, and stalwart were their strokes and strong; but Sohrab overcame Hujir as though he were an infant, and he bound him and sent him captive unto Human.

    But when those within the castle learned that their chief was bound they raised great lamentation, and their fears were sore. And Gurdafrid too, when she learned it, was grieved, but she was ashamed also for the fate of Hujir. So she took forth burnished mail and clad herself therein, and she hid her tresses under a helmet of Roum, and she mounted a steed of battle and came forth before the walls like to a warrior. And she uttered a cry of thunder, and flung it amid the ranks of Turan, and she defied the champions to come forth to single combat. And none came, for they beheld her how she was strong, and they knew not that it was a woman, and they were afraid. But Sohrab, when he saw it, stepped forth and said: "I will accept your challenge, and a second prize will fall into my hands."

    Sohrab fights GordafaridThen he girded himself and made ready for the fight. And the maid, when she saw he was ready, rained arrows upon him with art, and they fell quick like hail, and whizzed about his head; and Sohrab, when he saw it, could not defend himself, and was angry and ashamed. Then he covered his head with a shield and ran at the maid. But she, when she saw him approach, dropped her bow and couched a lance, and thrust at Sohrab with vigor, and shook him mightily, and it wanted little and she would have thrown him from his seat. And Sohrab was amazed, and his wrath knew no bounds. Then he ran at Gurdafrid with fury, and seized the reins of her steed, and caught her by the waist, and tore her armor, and threw her upon the ground. Yet ere he could raise his hand to strike her, she drew her sword and shivered his lance in twain, and leaped again upon her steed. And when she saw that the day was hers, she was weary of further combat, and she sped back unto the fortress. But Sohrab gave rein unto his horse, and followed after her in his great anger. And he caught her, and seized her, and tore the helmet from off her head, for he desired to look upon the face of the man who could withstand the son of Rustem. And lo! when he had done so, there rolled forth from the helmet coils of dusky hue, and Sohrab beheld it was a woman that had overcome him in the fight. And he was confounded. But when he had found speech he said: "If the daughters of Iran are like to you, and go forth unto battle, none can stand against this land."

    Then he took his cord and threw it about her, and bound her in its snare, saying: "Seek not to escape me, O moon of beauty, for never hath prey like unto you fallen between my hands."

    Then Gurdafrid, full of cunning, turned unto him her face that was unveiled, for she beheld no other means of safety, and she said unto him: "O hero without flaw, is it well that you should seek to make me captive, and show me unto the army? For they have beheld our combat, and that I overcame you, and surely now they will gibe when they learn that thy strength was withstood by a woman. Better would it beseem you to hide this adventure, lest thy cheeks have cause to blush because of me. Therefore let us conclude a peace together. The castle shall be yours, and all it holds; follow after me then, and take possession of your own."

    Now Sohrab, when he had listened, was beguiled by her words and her beauty, and he said: "you do wisely to make peace with me, for truly these walls could not resist my might."

    Fig 5: Sohrab fights Gurdafrid/Gurdafrid (Wikimedia Commons).


    Now when Rustem was come before Sohrab, and beheld the youth, brave and strong, with a breast like unto Saum, he said to him: "Let us go apart from hence, and step forth from out the lines of the armies."5

    For there was a zone between the two camps that none might pass. And Sohrab assented to the demand of Rustem, and they stepped out into it, and made them ready for single combat. But when Sohrab would have fallen upon him, the soul of Rustem melted with compassion, and he desired to save a boy thus fair and valiant. So he said unto him: "O young man, the air is warm and soft, but the earth is cold. I have pity upon you, and would not take from you the boon of life. Yet if we combat together, surely you will fall by my hands, for none have withstood my power, neither men nor Deevs nor dragons. Desist, therefore, from this enterprise, and quit the ranks of Turan, for Iran has need of heroes like unto you."

    Now while Rustem spoke thus, the heart of Sohrab went out to him. And he looked at him wistfully, and said: "O hero, I am about to put unto you a question, and I entreat of you that you reply to me according to the truth. Tell unto me your name, that my heart may rejoice in thy words, for it seems unto me that you are none other than Rustem, the son of Zal, the son of Saum, the son of Neriman." But Rustem replied, "you are wrong, I am not Rustem, neither am I sprung from the race of Neriman. Rustem is a Pehliva, but I, I am a slave, and own neither a crown nor a throne."

    These words spoke Rustem that Sohrab might be afraid when he beheld his prowess, and deem that yet greater might was hidden in the camp of his enemy. But Sohrab when he heard these words was sad, and his hopes that were risen so high were shattered, and the day that had looked so bright was made dark unto his eyes. Then he made him ready for the combat, and they fought until their spears were shivered and their swords hacked like unto saws. And when all their weapons were bent, they betook them unto clubs, and they waged war with these until they were broken. Then they strove until their mail was torn and their horses spent with exhaustion, and even then they could not desist, but wrestled with one another with their hands till that the sweat and blood ran down from their bodies. And they contended until their throats were parched and their bodies weary, and to neither was given the victory. Then they stayed them a while to rest, and Rustem thought within his mind how all his days he had not coped with such a hero. And it seemed to him that his contest with the White Deev had been as nought to this.

    Now when they had rested a while they fell to again, and they fought with arrows, but still none could surpass the other. Then Rustem strove to hurl Sohrab from his steed, but it did not help him, and he could shake him no more than the mountain can be moved from its seat. So they betook themselves again unto clubs, and Sohrab aimed at Rustem with might and struck him, and Rustem reeled beneath the stroke, and bit his lips in agony. Then Sohrab vaunted his advantage, and told Rustem to go and measure him with his equals; for though his strength be great, he could not stand against a youth. So they went their ways, and Rustem fell upon the men of Turan, and spread confusion far and wide among their ranks; and Sohrab raged along the lines of Iran, and men and horses fell under his hands. And Rustem was sad in his soul, and he turned with sorrow into his camp. But when he saw the destruction Sohrab had wrought his anger was kindled, and he reproached the youth, and challenged him to come forth yet again to single combat. But because that the day was far spent they resolved to rest until tomorrow.


    Now while Sohrab was thus doing, Rustem was gone beside a running brook, and laved his limbs, and prayed to God in his distress. And he entreated of Ormuzd that He would grant him such strength that the victory must be his. And Ormuzd heard him, and gave to him such strength that the rock whereon Rustem stood gave way under his feet, because it had not the power to bear him. Then Rustem saw it was too much, and he prayed yet again that part thereof be taken from him. And once more Ormuzd listened to his voice. Then when the time for combat was come, Rustem turned him to the meeting-place, and his heart was full of cares and his face of fears. But Sohrab came forth like a giant refreshed, and he ran at Rustem like to a mad elephant, and he cried with a voice of thunder: "O you who fled from battle, wherefore art you come out once more against me? But I say unto you, this time shall thy words of guile avail you nought."

    Rustem Mourns SohrabAnd Rustem, when he heard him, and looked upon him, was seized with misgiving, and he learned to know fear. So he prayed to Ormuzd that He would restore to him the power He had taken back. But he suffered not Sohrab to behold his fears, and they made them ready for the fight. And he closed upon Sohrab with all his new-found might, and shook him terribly, and though Sohrab returned his attacks with vigour, the hour of his overthrow was come. For Rustem took him by the girdle and hurled him unto the earth, and he broke his back like to a reed, and he drew forth his sword to sever his body. Then Sohrab knew it was the end, and he gave a great sigh, and writhed in his agony, and he said: "That which is come about, it is my fault, and henceforward will my youth be a theme of derision among the people. But I sped not forth for empty glory, but I went out to seek my father; for my mother had told me by what tokens I should know him, and I perish for longing after him. And now have my pains been fruitless, for it hath not been given unto me to look upon his face. Yet I say unto you, if you should become a fish that swims in the depths of the ocean, if you should change into a star that is concealed in the farthest heaven, my father would draw you forth from thy hiding-place, and avenge my death upon you when he shall learn that the earth is become my bed. For my father is Rustem the Pehliva, and it shall be told unto him how that Sohrab his son perished in the quest after his face."

    When Rustem heard these words his sword fell from out of his grasp, and he was shaken with dismay. And there broke from his heart a groan as of one whose heart was racked with anguish. And the earth became dark before his eyes, and he sank down lifeless beside his son. But when he had opened his eyes once more, he cried unto Sohrab in the agony of his spirit. And he said: "Bear about you a token of Rustem, that I may know that the words which you speakt are true? For I am Rustem the unhappy, and may my name be struck from the lists of men!"

    When Sohrab heard these words his misery was boundless, and he cried: "If you art indeed my father, then have you stained thy sword in the life-blood of thy son. And you didst it of thine obstinacy. For I sought to turn you unto love, and I implored of you thy name, for I thought to behold in you the tokens recounted of my mother. But I appealed unto thy heart in vain, and now is the time gone by for meeting. Yet open, I beseech you, mine armour, and regard the jewel upon mine arm. For it is an onyx given unto me by my father, as a token whereby he should know me."

    Fig 6: Rustem Mourns Sohrab (Wikimedia Commons).

    Then Rustem did as Sohrab bade him, and he opened his mail and saw the onyx; and when he had seen it he tore his clothes in his distress, and he covered his head with ashes. And the tears of penitence ran from his eyes, and he roared aloud in his sorrow. But Sohrab said: "It is in vain, there is no remedy. Weep not, therefore, for doubtless it was written that this should be."

    Now when the sun was set, and Rustem returned not to the camp, the nobles of Iran were afraid, and they went forth to seek him. And when they were gone but a little way they came upon Rakush, and when they saw that he was alone they raised a wailing, for they deemed that of a surety Rustem was perished. And they went and told Kai Kaous thereof, and he said: "Let Tus go forth and see if this indeed be so, and if Rustem be truly fallen, let the drums call men unto battle that we may avenge him upon this Turk."

    Now Sohrab, when he beheld afar off the men that were come out to seek Rustem, turned to his father and said: "I entreat of you that you do unto me an act of love. Let not the Shah fall upon the men of Turan, for they came not forth in enmity to him but to do my desire, and on my head alone rests this expedition. Wherefore I desire not that they should perish when I can defend them no longer. As for me, I came like the thunder and I vanish like the wind, but perchance it is given unto us to meet again above."

    Then Rustem promised to do the desires of Sohrab. And he went before the men of Iran, and when they beheld him yet alive they set up a great shout, but when they saw that his clothes were torn, and that he bare about him the marks of sorrow, they asked of him what was come to pass. Then he told them how he had caused a noble son to perish. And they were grieved for him, and joined in his wailing. Then he bade one among them go forth into the camp of Turan, and deliver this message unto Human. And he sent word unto him, saying: "The sword of vengeance must sleep in the scabbard. You are now leader of the host, return, therefore, where you came, and depart across the river ere many days be fallen. As for me, I will fight no more, yet neither will I speak unto you again, for you hid from my son the tokens of his father, of your iniquity you led him into this pit."


    Then he made a great fire, and flung into it his tent of many colors, and his trappings of Roum, his saddle, and his leopard-skin, his armor well tried in battle, and all the appurtenances of his throne. And he stood by and looked on to see his pride laid in the dust. And he tore his flesh, and cried aloud: "My heart is sick unto death."

    Then he commanded that Sohrab be swathed in rich brocades of gold worthy of his body. And when they had enfolded him, and Rustem learned that the Turanians had quitted the borders, he made ready his army to return unto Zaboulistan. And the nobles marched before the bier, and their heads were covered with ashes, and their garments were torn. And the drums of the war-elephants were shattered, and the cymbals broken, and the tails of the horses were shorn to the root, and all the signs of mourning were abroad.

    Now Zal, when he saw the host returning thus in sorrow, marveled what was come about; for he beheld Rustem at their head, wherefore he knew that the wailing was not for his son. And he came before Rustem and questioned him. And Rustem led him unto the bier and showed unto him the youth that was like in feature and in might unto Saum the son of Neriman, and he told him all that was come to pass, and how this was his son, who in years was but an infant, but a hero in battle. And Rudabeh too came out to behold the child, and she joined her lamentations unto theirs. Then they built for Sohrab a tomb like to a horse's hoof, and Rustem laid him therein in a chamber of gold perfumed with ambergris. And he covered him with brocades of gold. And when it was done, the house of Rustem grew like to a grave, and its courts were filled with the voice of sorrow. And no joy would enter into the heart of Rustem, and it was long before he held high his head.

    Meantime the news spread even unto Turan, and there too did all men grieve and weep for the child of prowess that had fallen in his bloom. And the King of Samengan tore his vestments, but when his daughter learned it she was beside herself with affliction. And Tahmineh cried after her son, and bewailed the evil fate that had befallen him, and she heaped black earth upon her head, and tore her hair, and wrung her hands, and rolled on the ground in her agony. And her mouth was never weary of plaining. Then she caused the garments of Sohrab to be brought unto her, and his throne and his steed. And she regarded them, and stroked the horse and poured tears upon his hoofs, and she cherished the robes as though they yet contained her boy, and she pressed the head of the palfrey onto her breast, and she kissed the helmet that Sohrab had worn. Then with his sword she cut off the tail of his steed and set fire unto the house of Sohrab, and she gave his gold and jewels unto the poor. And when a year had thus rolled over her bitterness, the breath departed from out her body, and her spirit went forth after Sohrab her son.

    Questions for this section:

    1) Consider the meeting between Rustem and Tamineh a love story. What elements are present, and what elements are missing? How do heroes and mythical people fall in love?

    2) Compare and contrast the language Ferdowsi uses when Rustem longs for Tamineh and Rakush.

    3) Analyze the conflict between Sohrab and Gurdafrid. What does it tell us about honor, bravery, and gender?

    4) How might the deadly and tragic conflict between Sohrab and Rustem have been avoided? What elements of this herioc epic led directly to this result?

    Footnotes for "Rustem and Sohrab"

    [1] Samengan is in northern Afghanistan and the place where Rustem and Tamineh conceived Sohrab.

    [2] Tamineh/Tamina is the future mother of their son Sohrab.

    [3] Kai Kaous was the Shah of Iran and the son of Kai Kobad, mentioned in the previous section.

    [4] Afrasiyab/Afrasiab was a great warrior and king of Turan, the main enemy of Iran. In this case he sees plenty to gain––destabilizing his enemy, sowing chaos, etc––in Sohrab's threats to restore Iran to his father Rustem.

    [5] Important context for this section: by this time Sohrab is known as one of the greatest warriors in the army of Turan, overseen by his uneasy ally, the shah Afrasiyab. The entire army of Turan flees before the might of the legendary Rustem, and Sohrab is made to challenge his father to a wrestling match; neither know the true identity of the other.

    The Death of Rustem

    How shall a man escape from that which is written; how shall he flee from his destiny?

    There stood a slave in the house of Zal, and she was fair to see, so that the heart of the aged man went out to her. And there was born to her a son like Saum the hero, and Zal named him Shugdad.1 Then he consulted the Mubids concerning him, and they searched the stars for his destiny, and they read therein that he would do much evil in the house of his father, and lay low the race of Saum, the son of Neriman. Now Zal, when he heard this, was afflicted, and he prayed unto God that He would avert this fate from his head. And he reared him tenderly, and when he was come unto man's estate he sent him forth into Kabul. And the King of Kabul rejoiced in the sight of the hero, and he kept him beside him and gave unto him his daughter to wife.

    Now the King of Kabul paid tribute unto Rustem, and it was a grievance to him to do so, and since he had taken Shugdad as his son he deemed that it was fitting that he should be relieved of this burden. And he spoke thereof unto Shugdad, and said how Rustem ceased not to demand it. And Shugdad said, "This man is foolish. What does it matter whether he is my brother or a stranger, let us consider how we may ensnare him."

    So Shugdad and the King of Kabul passed a night pondering how they should bring Rustem unto destruction. And Shugdad said: "Call together your nobles unto a feast, and when you shalt have drunk wine, speak insults unto me, and I will be angered and ride forth unto Zaboulistan and make plaint of you before Rustem, and assuredly he will come forth to avenge me. And while I am gone, cause a deep pit to be dug on the road that Rustem must pass, a pit that will swallow him and Rakush his steed, and line the sides thereof with sharp spears, and swords, and lances. And when it is done, cover it with earth and let no man know thereof, nay, whisper it not even unto the moon."

    And the King said, "Your plot is good," and he made a great feast and called thereto his warriors, and he spoke words of insult unto Shugdad, and he reproached him, and said that he was not of the race of Saum, but son unto a slave. And he said that Rudabeh would refuse the name of brother unto Rustem. And he spoke lightly also of Rustem. Then Shugdad rose up as though he were angered, and vowed that he would ride to Zaboulistan and call forth Rustem to avenge the words that the King had spoken.

    Now when Shugdad was come unto the courts of Zal, and had told unto Rustem the words that the King of Kabul had spoken, he was beside himself with anger, and he said: "I will take my vengeance for this speech." Then he chose an army and made ready to go into Kabul. But Shugdad said: "Why do you take so large an army? Surely Kabul shall be obedient when it looks upon your face. Yet this army will cause the King to think that you hold him an enemy worthy of regard."

    Then Rustem said, "That which you say, it is wise," and he disbanded the army, and took with him but few men and rode with them to Kabul.

    In the mean season the King of Kabul had done that which Shugdad had counselled, and the pits that had been dug were concealed with cunning. Now when Rustem came nigh to the city, Shugdad sent a messenger before him unto the King of Kabul, saying: "Rustem comes against you, it benefits you to ask pardon for thy words."

    And the King came forth, and his tongue was filled with honey, but his heart was filled with poison. And he bowed himself in the dust before Rustem, and he asked his forgiveness for the words that he had spoken, and he said: "Consider not the words of your servant that he spoke when his head was troubled with wine."

    And Rustem forgave the King, and consented to be his guest. Then a great banquet was made, and while they feasted the King told unto Rustem how his forests were filled with wild asses and with rams, and he invited him to hunt there if he should return to Zaboulistan. And these words were joy unto the ears of Rustem, and he consented unto the desires of the King. So the next day the King made ready a great hunt, and he led it unto the spot where the pits were hidden. And Shugdad ran beside the horse of Rustem, and showed unto him the path. But Rakush, when he smelt the soil that had been newly turned, reared him in air, and refused to go onwards. Then Rustem commanded him to go forward, but Rakush would not listen to his voice. And Rustem was angry when he beheld that Rakush was afraid. But Rakush sprang back yet again. Then Rustem took a whip and struck him, and before this day he had never raised his hand against his steed. So Rakush was grieved in his soul, and he did that which Rustem desired, and he sprang forward and fell into the pit. And the sharp spears entered his body and tore it, and they pierced also the flesh of Rustem, and steed and rider were impaled upon the irons that had been hidden by the King. But Rustem put forth all his strength, and raised himself. Yet when he had done it he was weary, and fell down beside the pit. And he swooned in his agony.

    Now when Rustem came to himself, he saw Shugdad, and he beheld in his face the joy felt of this evil man at this adventure. Then he knew that it was his brother that was his foe. So he said unto him: "It is you who have done this deed." And Shugdad said, "you have caused many to perish by the sword; it is right that you should perish by it yourself."

    Now while they spoke, the King of Kabul came nigh unto the spot. And when he beheld Rustem, that weltered in his blood, he feigned a great sorrow, and he cried: "O hero of renown, what thing has happened to you? I will send my physicians, so that they might heal you." And Rustem said, "O man of cunning, the time of physicians is gone by, and there is none that can heal me, save only death, that comes to all men in their turn."

    Then he said to Shugdad, "Give me my bow, and place before me two arrows, and refuse not unto me this last request. For I would have them beside me lest a lion go by when I am dead, and devour me for his prey."

    And Shugdad gave to Rustem his bow; but when he had done so he was afraid, and he ran to a plane tree that stood nearby. And the tree was old and hollow, and Shugdad hid himself in its trunk. But Rustem beheld him where he was hidden, though the dimness of death came over his eyes. So he raised him from the ground in his agony, and he took his bow and bent it with force, and he shot an arrow and fixed Shugdad unto the tree wherein he was hidden. And the aim was just, and pierced even unto the heart of this evil man, so that he died. And Rustem, when he saw it, smiled, and said: "Thanks be unto God, the Merciful, whom all my days I have sought to serve, that He hath granted unto me to avenge myself upon this wretch while the life is yet in me, and ere two nights have passed over this vengeance."

    But when he had so spoken the breath went out of him, and the hero who had borne high his head vanished from this world.

    Now a warrior of the train of Rustem rode with all speed unto Zaboulistan, and told unto Zal the tidings of sorrow. And Zal was dismayed, and his grief was boundless, and he cried continually after his son, and he heaped curses upon Shugdad, who had uprooted this royal tree. And he said: "Why have I been allowed to see this day? Why have I not died before Rustem, my son? Why am I left alone to mourn his memory?"

    Now while he lamented, Feramorz, the son of Rustem, gathered together an army to avenge his father. And he went into Kabul, and he laid low all the men he found therein, and he slew the King and all his house, and he changed the land into a desert. And when he had done so, he sought out the body of Rustem, and of Rakush his steed, and he did unto them all honour, and they were borne in sorrow unto Zaboulistan. And Zal caused a noble tomb to be built for Rustem, his son, and he laid him therein, and there was placed beside him also Rakush, the steed that had served him unto the end.

    And the wailing throughout the land because of the death of Rustem was such as the world has not known. And Zal was crushed with sorrow, and Rudabeh was distraught with grief. And for many moons there were no sounds except those of wailing heard in the courts of Seistan. And Rudabeh refused to take comfort, and she cried without ceasing: "He is gone before us, but we shall follow. Let us rest our hopes in God."

    And she gave unto the poor of her treasures, and daily she prayed unto Ormuzd, saying: "O you who reigns above, to whom alone pertains honour and glory, purify the soul of Rustem from all sin, and grant that he rejoice in the fruits that he has sown on earth, and give him a place beside you."

    And now may the blessing of God rest upon all men. I have told unto them the Epic of Kings, and the Epic of Kings has come to a close, and the tale of their deeds has ended.


    Questions for this section:

    1) Ferdowsi opens with a crucial question we should try to answer, based on the values embedded in the Shahnameh: "How shall a man escape from that which is written; how shall he flee from his destiny?"

    2) What are Shugdad's motivations, and what does this tell us about the nature of power in the world Ferdowsi has created?

    Footnotes for "The Death of Rustem"

    [1] Shugdad/Shagdad is the half-brother of Rustem.

    The Shahnameh (The Persian "Book of Kings") is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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