The poet Abu'l Qasim Firdausi did not invent the stories and legends that make up the Shahnama, but undertook the ambitious project of collecting them and setting them to verse. Firdausi was born in the town of Tus, in northeastern Iran, and devoted considerable energy to studying old texts in Persian and Arabic. Poets often dedicated works to rulers, who rewarded them with money in return. When Firdausi finally completed the Shahnama after roughly thirty-three years of careful labor, he set out for Ghazna (in present-day Afghanistan) to present it to one of the most powerful rulers of the period, Sultan Mahmud (reigned 999 –1030). According to legend, when the sultan did not compensate Firdausi adequately, the disappointed and insulted poet gave the money away and wrote a scathing satire about the sultan. By the time Mahmud sent more generous payment under the advisement of his counselors, it was too late—Firdausi had just died.
The Shahnama consists of more than fifty thousand rhyming couplets recounting the deeds and glory of the Iranian kings from the creation of the world to the Arab conquest of Iran in 642. The book is divided into three generally chronological cycles: the mythical past, the time of legendary heroes, and the recorded histories.
Cycle I: The Mythical Past
At the dawn of creation, during the reign of the Pishdadians, the first dynasty, social order and religion (Zoroastrianism) were established. Fierce conflicts between the forces of good and evil—a recurring theme in the Shahnama—continued for centuries as heroic kings battled evil demons.
Cycle II: The Time of Legendary Heroes
A turning point in the narrative occurs when the ruler Shah Faridun divided the world among his three sons. Two sons, Sam and Tur, united to kill the third, Iraj, who had been given Iran and Arabia to rule. This marks the beginning of a prolonged cycle of revenge between the Iranians (descendants of Iraj) and their archenemies, the Turanians (descendants of Tur). Among the numerous heroes that emerge, Rustam stands out as the epitome of courage and strength.
Cycle III: The Recorded Histories
The last section of the epic, which corresponds with other written historical records, takes place during the rule of the Sasanian kings—a dynasty that ends with the Islamic conquest of Iran by the second Muslim caliph 'Umar.