Abu Al-Qasem Mansur Firdawsi was a medieval poet, writer, and historian, best known as an author of the Persian grand epic Shahnamah (the Epic of Kings). This monumental work made him the most recognized and highly regarded writer among Persian-speaking people from Central Asia to the Middle East.
Despite his fame, little is known about his personal life and some facts are still disputed, as many accounts of his personal life were written long after his death. It is believed that Firdawsi was born in a small town on the outskirts of the city of Tus situated in Khorasan—the region that is now divided among Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
He was a relatively wealthy dekhqan (landlord), who was devoted to Persian history and poetry. He mastered several languages and had great knowledge of historical and poetic works. In his 20s he began writing prose and later successfully experimented with poetry.
By the time he was in his mid-30s he undertook a monumental task—to compose a poem that would cover the history of the Persian world from ancient time to the seventh–eighth centuries c.e. According to some reports, Firdawsi spent his entire adult life, or about 35 years, completing this extraordinary task.
His major source of reference, on which he based his research and writing, was the Khvatay-Nameh, a Middle Persian (Pakhlavi) work created under the order of King Khosrow Anushirvan (590–628). His secondary source was a work by the Persian poet Daqiqi (d. c. 976), who attempted to write about early history of the Persian world at the time of the introduction of Zoroastrianism. Some modern literary critics claim that parts of the Shahnamah resemble a mere translation of some chapters of the Khvatay-Nameh.
Others argue that he created a completely new work in verses, and that he only used other works as historical sources. As in earlier epics like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Shahnamah deals with the struggle between the forces of good and evil. Its hero Rustam, with his trusty steed Rakhsh, rescues allies, vanquishes foes, and lives for over 500 years.
|painting from the book of shahnamah|
The first revision of the Shahnamah was completed in 994, and parts of it were shared with close associates. It took another 15 years before it was completed in about 1010. It consisted of between 55,000 and 60,000 couplets (beits) subdivided into 50 sections devoted to various ruling dynasties. According to the tradition of his era, Firdawsi sought to present his work to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (Ghaznavi) (r. 998–1030), the ruler of Khorasan.
Mahmud and his entourage doubted the significance of the work, deeply offending Firdawsi. There are many interpretations of this event, ranging from disapproval of the religious content of the book (Firdawsi describes the rise of Zoroaster) to inappropriate praise of the great pre-Islamic rulers of Persia.
The conflict between the ruler and the poet forced the latter to leave his homeland and move to Heart, and after that to Mazendaran. There are reports that he spent his final days in Baghdad. Some sources indicate that he continued writing poetry but was not as productive as in his early days. Firdawsi died c. 1020, highly respected by his contemporaries, if not by the court of Ghaznavi.