A native of Shiraz, Aria Fani is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Studies at the University of California in Berkeley.
Today, we identify Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi as the national poet of Iran and his Shahnameh as its national epic. Ferdowsi lived in the latter part of the tenth century and the first quarter of the eleventh. He was a subject of the Ghaznavid empire, a Persian-speaking dynasty of Turkic lineage.
His era was marked by porous borders and shifting cultural and linguistic boundaries. Khorasan, Ferdowsi’s birthplace, was part of a cultural zone that stretched from the Bosphorus to the Bay of Bengal wherein Persian was a transregional language of literary production and cultural importance.
What does it mean then to speak of a “national” poet well before the advent of nationalism and certainly long before the formation of an Iranian nation-state in the first part of the twentieth century? The answer lies in the previous century during which Ferdowsi was cast as a national poet.
Ferdowsi the Tusi
None of the premodern accounts of Persian-language poets evoke Ferdowsi as an Iranian poet (or, variably, a poet from Iran). Nezami ‘Aruzi’s Chahar Maqaleh (The Four Discourses), composed in the twelfth century, is the oldest known account in which Ferdowsi’s oeuvre appears. ‘Aruzi introduces Ferdowsi as “one of the landowners (dehqan) of Tus,” and recounts the oft-cited story of Emperor Mahmud who failed to fully compensate Ferdowsi for the Shahnameh.
Dowlatshah Samarqandi’s Tazkerat ol-sho‘ara (Memorial of Poets), written in 1487, recounts the same story as ‘Aruzi’s Chahar Maqaleh, but also speaks of how Ferdowsi was tested by such court poets as ‘Onsori before gaining access into Mahmud’s poetic circle. Ferdowsi is again evoked merely as a poet from Tus. Taqi ol-Din Owhadi Balyani’s Arafat ol-‘asheqin va arasat ol-‘arefin (Arafat of Lovers and Parade Grounds of Gnostics), written in 1615, commemorates the work of 3,300 poets, including Ferdowsi.
The author of Arafat ol-‘asheqin introduces Ferdowsi as a poet from Tus and offers no reference to Ferdowsi’s belonging to a political entity called Iran. Reza Qoli Khan Hedayat’s Majma‘ ol-fosaha (An Assembly of the Eloquent), completed in 1868, is a Qajar-era compendia of 867 Persian poets. Its entry on Ferdowsi contains a curious (and inaccurate) story about how the manuscript that informed the composition of the Shahnameh traveled from Abyssinia to the Deccan and finally to Hendustan before it was brought to Ferdowsi’s native Khorasan. Even Hedayat, writing as late as the mid nineteenth century, does not characterize Ferdowsi as a poet from Iran. Each one of these sources is tied to its unique historical context which, while imperial and ecumenical, is not national. These documents reveal the way Ferdowsi has been viewed in different periods, but more importantly, they expose the fragility of taken-for-granted subjects like his “Iranian identity.”
As Dick Davis has shown in “Iran and Aniran: The Shaping of a Legend,” Iran as a geographical term in the Shahnameh varies significantly from a vaguely defined region to a unified territory ruled by a single king. The Iran of the Shahnameh is an unstable and changing geographical concept. Today’s Iran is a modern nation-state founded upon a nineteenth-century ideology that views language as the most definitive marker of a nation. The idea of the Aryan race, the attribution of perceived superiority to biologically predetermined factors, has been formative to the creation of Iran as a modern nation.
Persian Literature and Iranian Heritage
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the relationship between state and society radically changed as the new Pahlavi regime set to align itself to a global model of “civilized” nation-states. This model had swept the imagination of most political elites around the world in the 1930s and 40s. During this period, Iranian historians and literary scholars, in conversation with their European and South Asian counterparts, began to rewrite their local history with Iran as its national subject. They also tailored their invented national history to fit a civilizational history. Mohammad ‘Ali Forughi (d. 1942), who served as Iran’s Prime Minister three times, paid close attention to the Persian literary tradition as a way of creating a cultural genealogy for an Iranian nation-state in the making. Forughi and his cohorts deemed Shahnameh a uniquely fertile text for their nationalist appropriation. In this process, they mapped their Iran, a political entity with defined borders, onto the Shahnameh’s incongruous geography.
In “The Nation’s Poet: Ferdowsi and the Iranian National Imagination,” Afshin Marashi has examined the way the Pahlavi elites used Ferdowsi in the service of nation building. He writes, “The fixing of Ferdowsi’s image and its association with the specific political project of Pahlavi nationalism was therefore something very new, never predetermined, and only one of Ferdowsi’s possible cultural-genealogical trajectories, a particular trajectory that was conditioned by the political history of the interwar period and by the cultural logic of nationalism during that time.”
Ferdowsi’s imagined place as Iran’s national poet was the product of intellectual and architectural labor sponsored by the state. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Pahlavi state began to produce and circulate images of Ferdowsi in film and media. His statues were erected in town squares, including one in front of the first Persian Faculty of Letters in Tehran. The Shahnameh became more accessible in illustrated, abridged, and simplified formats.
The attempts to enshrine Ferdowsi as Iran’s national poet were not limited to textual production. In the 1930s, the Pahlavi state became preoccupied with pinpointing the precise location of Ferdowsi’s burial. Once they claimed to have found his grave, the Society of National Heritage (Anjoman-e asar-e melli), a newly-established institution, built a mausoleum in 1934, modeled after Pasargadae, the tomb of Cyrus. In October of that year, Reza Shah (r. 1925-1941) inaugurated Ferdowsi’s mausoleum in a highly performative ceremony during which he thanked Ferdowsi for his services to the nation.
In Building Iran, Talinn Grigor has examined the history of the construction of the mausoleum as part of an effort to invent a site of collective national memory, one that drew its authenticity from the “precise” (invented) discovery of Ferdowsi’s burial site. The opening of the mausoleum occasioned a series of events in Iran and abroad that took place in the same year.
On November 8, 1934, Columbia University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art marked the thousandth birth year of Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi. Many scholars gathered as “friends of Iran and lovers of her arts and letters” to commemorate the legacy of the “eminent Iranian poet.” There was a reception on campus, an exhibition of rare manuscripts of the Shahnameh, and four addresses by the chancellor of the university, scholars of Near Eastern arts and literature, and Iran’s top diplomat in Washington. Mirza Ghaffar Khan Djalal, the Iranian ambassador to the United States, began his address by remarking that “art and literature have no nationality.”
Ferdowsi the Aryan
Having spoken of Ferdowsi’s civilizational stature, Khan Djalal then evoked the Persian-language poet as the native of a land “called by all the cradle of the Aryan race,” whose verses have helped restore “unity among the Iranian race.” He celebrated Ferdowsi as a poet who revived Iran’s “national language” and reminded Iranians who had “forgotten all that meant national pride and glory” of their country’s “glorious past and civilization.” The ambassador concluded his remarks by praising his own patron, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who has already achieved great results in his unbending determination to restore as much as possible of the past Iranian glory, and, in order to render Ferdowsi’ memory eternal, has ordered the erection of a befitting monument for him and caused the celebration of his anniversary to be a national holiday.
The celebration at Columbia University was one of many that took place around the world in 1934, including a month-long conference during September and October in Tehran. A group of Iranologists and Persian literary specialists was invited from fifteen countries by the Ministry of Education as guests of the Iranian state to travel in the country for thirty days. Organized by Hassan Isfandiyari, the first of seven meetings was held on September 29, 1934, at the auditorium of Dar ol-Fonun high school in Tehran and was attended by eighty three scholars. A selection of the addresses and speeches delivered during the month-long ceremony was later published in Tehran as The Millennium of Ferdowsi: the Great National Poet of Iran. The volume includes a picture of the young monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and an image of the poet’s statue which was increasingly in circulation in the 1930s.
In his remarks, Mohammad ‘Ali Forughi said that Ferdowsi may be “physically bound to connections with Iranian-ness,” but he is “spiritually a child of humanity or if I may say, a father of humanity.” Forughi’s remarks, uttered in the same vein as Mirza Ghaffar Khan Djalal’s speech in New York, reflect the ethos of the Iranian project of nation-building: laying claim to Persian as an Iranian cultural patrimony while promoting it as part of humanity’s civilizational heritage. The millennial celebration of Ferdowsi is by no means the only example of the Pahlavi project which was designed to secure Iran’s place within what the elites deemed a league of “civilized nations.”
Ferdowsi the Afghan
It was not only the Pahlavi elites who actively sought to invent a distinct literary genealogy in the service of nation-building; Afghan intellectuals took similar steps in laying claim to the Persian literary heritage to define its Afghan character. In the 1910s, Mahmud Tarzi (d. 1933), an intellectual, publisher and modernizer, began theorizing what it meant to speak of an Afghan national literature. These discussions took place in the pages of his newspaper Seraj ol-Akhbar Afghaniyah (The Torch of Afghan News, 1911-1918). In the 1930s and 1940s, the Afghan state, like neighboring Iran and India, helped establish institutions like the Kabul Literary Association (1931) and Afghan Historical Society (1942) to create an Afghan literary and historical genealogy.
The president of the Afghan Historical Society was Ahmad ‘Ali Kohzad (d. 1983) who also served as the curator of the National Museum in Kabul. In conversation with archaeologists at La Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA), who made consequential discoveries in Afghanistan, Kohzad participated in creating an official historical identity for Afghanistan. One of the ways in which he worked towards that goal was editing the journal Aryana (founded in 1942), a term he used and promoted to refer to ancient Afghanistan.
In his Afghanistan dar Shahnameh (Afghanistan in the Shahnameh), published in 1976, Kohzad employed his archeological knowledge and newly constructed historical model to tease out elements in the Shahnameh that he viewed as Afghan. From the outset, he admitted that the term “Afghanistan” is new and does not appear in the Shahnameh. If one carefully examines the names of cities and regions in the Shahnameh, he claimed, one would realize that its geography largely corresponds with Khorasan, which Kohzad called ancient Afghanistan. Kohzad celebrated the place of Afghanistan in the Shahnameh as a way of making visible his homeland’s contributions to Persian literary culture and bolstering the civilization credentials of Afghanistan.
Kohzad’s work, similar to the Pahlavi elites in Iran, maps a modern political phenomenon, Afghanistan, onto the geography of the Shahnameh. Kohzad also credited the poet Abu-Mansur Daqiqi (d. 1005) for laying the foundation of the Shahnameh with his tales of and literary lore. Kohzad celebrated Daqiqi as a poet from Balkh, a region in Afghanistan. In 1975, Kabul organized an international conference to celebrate the work of Daqiqi which led to the publication of several books like Kohzad’s Afghanistan dar Shahnameh. Making visible Ferdowsi’s debt to his predecessor Daqiqi, both from Khorasan, was part of broader efforts in Afghanistan to reinvent and appropriate the Persian literary heritage.
Many Iranians may quickly dismiss Kohzad’s assertions. For them, Iranian national identity is authentic and valid while other national identities, be it Afghan or Turkish, are novel, invented, and therefore false. Similarly, they would view the borders of Afghanistan as new and fabricated while Iran for them has always existed in its current location. If there is a major takeaway from this article is that there is no such thing as always in history. Iranian national identity, a pillar of which is Ferdowsi and his Shahnameh, is just as (if not more) invented as Afghan national identity. The fact that they are constructed identities does not make them false or inauthentic. What other tools do we have as humans besides the power to imagine and create, to make meaning? But unless we realize the invented nature of our national identity, we will not be able to consciously participate in remaking it in the image of our own values and ideals. That realization begins with a critical understanding of history.
The late nineteenth and twentieth century was a period during which new institutions of political power and literary production displaced older formations of identity. The nation-state as a political model gradually became the norm and drove countries like Iran and Afghanistan to fashion themselves as modern nation states by inventing a distinct cultural genealogy. To gain entry into what they perceived as a league of civilized nation-states, Iranian and Afghan intellectuals set out to excavate the Persian literary tradition in search of texts and tools to construct new identities. It was in this process that Iran imagined Ferdowsi as its national poet. Afghan intellectuals, aware of such developments in Iran, responded by articulating their own claim to the Shahnameh and Persian literary culture. Ahmad ‘Ali Kohzad’s Afghanistan dar Shahnameh is only one example of such effort.
Although nationalism championed an inward search for an “authentic” identity unique to a particular people or race, its universalized model became a common language that took inspiration from many different cultures. The millennial celebration of Ferdowsi in Tehran in 1934 brought together scholars from more than a dozen countries whose scholarship shaped the way Iran imagined Ferdowsi as its national poet. This quality may point in the direction of an inherent contradiction in nationalism: the expression of national identity may be local, but the ideological forces that inform its expression are transnational.
Many Iranians today no longer associate Ferdowsi with the Pahlavi state and its efforts to frame him as Iran’s national poet. The Islamic Republic, as Grigor has shown in her excellent book, may have partially erased the trace of Pahlavi patronage at Ferdowsi’s mausoleum in Tus; nonetheless, it has conveniently received a ready-made site of national memory visited by thousands of Iranians every year. One may argue that the Pahlavi elites achieved their ultimate objective by co-opting Ferdowsi as the national poet of Iran, a fact that remains contested as evident in Kohzad’s Afghanistan dar Shahnameh.
To treat Ferdowsi’s idea of Iran as a timeless and unchanged concept is to pretend that none of the political and cultural developments of the twentieth century ever took place. My aim here was not to reject or validate the notion that Ferdowsi is Iran’s national poet; my objective is to historicize and place it within its early twentieth-century context. I do so with the hope that we may problematize the work of political elites, literary scholars, and architects in the 1930s and 1940s who helped remake Ferdowsi in the image of their cultural ideology and political ideals.
- Mohammad A. Forughi. Kholaseh-e Shahnameh-ye Ferdowsi (Tehran, 1935).
- David E Smith. Firdausi Celebration, 935-1935: Addresses Delivered at the Celebration of the Thousandth Anniversary of the Birth of the National Poet of Iran Held at Columbia University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the City of New York (New York: McFarlane, Warde, McFarlane, 1936).
- The Millennium of Ferdowsi, the Great National Poet of Iran [with Plates.] (Tehran: Vezārat-e Farhang, 1944).
- Dick Davis, “Iran and Aniran: The Shaping of a Legend.” In Iran Facing Others: Identity Boundaries in a Historical Perspective. Ed. Abbas Amanat and Farzin Vejdani (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 39-50.
- Afshin Marashi, “The Nation’s Poet: Ferdowsi and the Iranian National Imagination.” In Iran in the 20th Century: Historiography and Political Culture. Ed. Touraj Atabaki. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), pp. 93-111.
- Talinn Grigor, Building Iran (Periscope Publishing, 2009).
- Ahmad A. Kohzad. Afghanistan dar Shahnamah: Shahnamah dar Khorasan, ya, Shahnamah dar Aryana (Kabul: Bayhaqi Ketab Khparawulo Muʼassasah, 1976). For more on Kohzad, see Nile Green, “The Afghan Discovery of Buddha: Civilizational History and the Nationalizing of Afghan Antiquity.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 49 (2017), 47-70.