Shahnameh (the book of kings) was written by the Persian/Iranian poet Ferdowsi over 1,000 years ago. Composed in Farsi over a thirty year period, Ferdowsi’s epic blends myth, legend and the historical stories of successive kings of Iran, from the dawn of time to the fall of the Persian empire in the 7th Century. Comprising over 50,000 lines of verse, it is the longest poem ever written by a single author.
“Ferdowsi’s aim was to narrate a history of the world from a Persian perspective.”
Melvyn Bragg, introducing In Our Time broadcast about the Shahnameh
Ferdowsi gathered both written and oral sources for his epic, which he wrote at a time when there was a flourishing interest in older Persian traditions amongst the Saminid rulers of north eastern Iran and central Afghanistan. He drew on epic cycles which had been memorised and transmitted through the generations by Zoroastrian (pre-Islamic) priests as well as oral stories shared in the chaikhanas or teahouses by travelling storytellers, or naqqal. He specifically credited another writer, Daqiqi, within the work, (who had been murdered before he could finish his own book of kings). Ferdowsi’s epic was a combination of history, collection and invention, encapsulated in beautiful language and full of rich, resonant poetic images.
Just as Ferdowsi drew on multiple sources, so storyteller Xanthe Gresham Knight and musician Arash Moradi have combined inspiration from Ferdowsi’s material with their own distinctive voices, to share their interpretation of the epic in performance.
Xanthe was originally commissioned by the British Museum to develop the Shahnameh as a performance. She visited the British Library to pore over numerous translations of manuscripts, keeping images, elements and episodes which struck her as especially beautiful. As she has shared the work with audiences, so the language and style of the piece has evolved to incorporate rhyming verse, like Ferdowsi’s original, as well as down to earth humour and engagement with audiences. Arash, who grew up with the stories and associated musical traditions, has chosen elements of Persian classical, Kurdish maqam and Sufi music, reflecting the qualities of the story and the style of each instrument he plays, as well as themes known to be associated with particular characters.