The second half of the Shahnameh begins with the story of a king who, instead of being descended from the Persian royal lineage, came from the Rumi (foreigners — in this case the Greeks) and conquered first Egypt, then Persia. The mighty Sekandar is portrayed as a barbarian conqueror, but also as a wise leader; as a bold and rash warrior, but also as an ethically motivated seeker after enlightenment. Some of my favorite passages are the times when Sekandar decides he will disguise himself as his own envoy, and visit the court of an enemy, so he can do his own surveillance. Of course this is a horribly dangerous move, but he seems to see it as not only good for military intelligence, but rather fun. Only once is he really caught: by the Andalusian queen, Qaydafeh, who is cleverer than Sekandar, more experienced in court affairs, and readier with her wit. Sekandar is forced to make concessions to Qaydafeh that he never makes to another monarch — but he makes them in good humor, because he knows he’s met his match.
Sekandar’s conquests and travels take him all over the world: to kill a dragon, to solve riddles set by the Chinese emperor, to a land where men have soft feet, to a country where women live without men, and even to a land where men have white skin and reddish-blond hair. It was at this point that I began to suspect (I probably should have seen it long before) who Sekandar really was: we are seeing the mighty conquests, travels, and mental gymnastics of Alexander the Great.
After the death of Sekandar, the most important thing about the kings is normally how they treat the people: major conquests are mostly over, and there is a tenuous balance between Persia, India, China, and Egypt. Princes and princesses intermarry, forming alliances between the countries; wealth and trade flow back and forth. It is only when someone like Yazdegerd the Unjust takes the throne that the apple-cart is well and truly upset. (You know when they call you Yazdegerd the Unjust that things haven’t been going well. John, John, Bad King John/ Shamed the throne that he sat on.)
Wise men meant nothing to him, and his royal obligations were forgotten: lords of the marches, champions, scholars, and learned priests — all were like so much wind to him, and his dark soul gave itself over to tyranny. Justice and kindness were cancelled from his heart, and he granted no man his requests. He respected no man’s rank, and faults were elaborately punished.
Of course, this terrible king causes trouble even after his death: no one wants to crown his son Bahram king, guilty by association, and there must be a trial to see whether Bahram is worthy to take the throne. (The trial involves hungry, savage lions. This entire book is kind of wonderfully nuts, did I mention?)
This book is mostly about the men in the picture: kings, warriors, advisors and viziers. There are a few women who play major roles, however, and Ferdowsi draws them as vividly as the men. I mentioned Rudabeh in my last post, and Queen Qaydafeh in this, but there is also Homay, who decides she doesn’t want to give up the throne and so she puts her son Darab in a little cradle of rushes and sets him afloat on the Euphrates, to be found and raised by a fuller and his wife. There are Shirin and Gordyeh, serious and cunning players toward the end of the empire, one a courtesan and one a warrior, both willing to do anything to ensure their political aims.
One episode I loved was the introduction of the game of chess to Persia. One day, an Indian rajah sends (along with the usual caravan of horsemen, elephants shaded by parasols, and thousand laden camels) a game for King Kesra to play. No instructions were included.
The rajah had written: “May you reign as long as the heavens turn. Set this chessboard and its pieces before your most learned men, to see if they can understand this subtle game, the names of its pieces, and where each one’s home is on the board. See whether they can comprehend what the pawns and elephants do, and what the moves of the rook, the knight, the king, and his advisor are. If their intellects can fathom this subtle game, we shall gladly send the tribute and taxes that the king has demanded. But if the famous sages of Iran are deficient in such knowledge, if their knowledge is not equal to ours, then Iran should no longer demand tribute from us. It is we who should demand tribute from you, since knowledge is the best of all things that confer glory.”
After eight days (spoilers!) the Persians conquer the game of chess, and the rajah agrees to send tribute. But in a triumphant move, King Kesra’s wise advisor Bozorjmehr invents a game in return, called nard. (This is often translated as backgammon, but the translator, Dick Davis, explains that there were medieval versions of chess in which rolls of the dice dictated permitted moves; nard was one of these.) King Kesra sends nard to the rajah’s court, with similar instructions: if the Indian sages are unable to understand it, they must send a gift (a trifling few elephant-loads of goods this time.) Naturally, the pure-souled Brahmins are totally unable to fathom nard, and the Persians triumph again.
It was tremendously satisfying to read this book. You might imagine that a 10th-century epic history of the kings of Persia could make for dull reading, but in fact it was, if not quite unputdownable, extremely lively. The courts rang with intrigue, with faith (Zoroastrianism, mostly), with fate, with justice and injustice, with romance and wit, with battle and smoke and demons and gold and musk and secrets of empire and noble deaths. Indeed, there was very rarely a dull moment. Toward the end, when the kingly lineage which had been unbroken since Kayumars is about to come to an end, Ferdowsi takes a moment to write a short poem that grieves for his thirty-seven-year-old son, who died before him. This personal touch in an epic history should feel out of place, but it doesn’t. This is all personal: all people, all human, totally strange and yet familiar. Definitely recommended.