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March 2019

Rustam mourns Sohrab

Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (940-1020 AD) was a Persian poet born in Tus, Iran. He is the author of the ‘Shahnama’ or ‘Book of Kings’, which is the world’s longest epic poem. He spent thirty years writing it. Although it is stated that he may not have written the stories and legends himself but researched existing literature and inserted orally transmitted pre-Islamic era stories into the poem. Nevertheless, his ability to weave different legends into a cohesive literary masterpiece is outstanding.

The Shahnama consists of couplets tracing the history of Iranian kings from the creation of the world to the Arab conquest in 642. There are three parts to this- the mythical past, the age of the heroes and the recorded histories. The first two parts would qualify as literature and the last one as history.

The second part starts with the ruler Shah Faridun dividing the world between his three son- Salm, Tur and Iraj. Sam and Tur unite to kill Iraj which begins the cycle of war between Iranians (descendants of Iraj) and Turanians (descendants of Tur). Rustam is a prominent hero that emerges in these stories.

This is the story of kings of Sistan and Zabulistan. Iranian Sistan is ethnically Iranian and Baluchi while Zabulistan is Pashtu. These people were related to Indo-Iranians Scythians and Parthians. It is interesting to note that the the word ‘Pahlavan’ which is commonly used in Iran, Pakistan and India for wrestlers has its origin in the word ‘Parthian’ who later were known as ‘Pahlavi’. Parthians were great warriors and this word is a tribute to their bravery.

In Shahnama, Rustam is the son of Zal, Persia’s most powerful general and Rudaba, princess of Kabul. He was born in Zabulistan, a historical region in Southern Afghanistan. In the legend, Rudaba had a prolonged labour due to the extra ordinary size of the baby and a kind of Caesarean section had to be performed to get the baby out ! Within five days, he grew into a boy and within few weeks, he grew into a young man. He was blessed with extra ordinary strength and as a child, killed a white elephant who went on a rampage in the palace. A large part of the story focuses on the seven trials faced by Rustam and how he overcomes them.

Rustam’s powerful horse Rakhsh is as legendary as the hero himself. Once when his horse Rakhsh was captured, he took the help of Princess Tahmina of Samangan to recapture him. In return, Tahmina begged him for a son as she was in love with Rustam. Rustam had to leave but nine months later, Tahmina gave birth to his son Sohrab. Sohrab is tragically killed by his father Rustam in war as Rustam was unaware of his identity. He identifies him by the arm bracelet that he had given to Tahmina many years ago.

The Iran that is referred to in the Shahnama may not be geographically the same as present day Iran. As per a 2018 BBC article written by Joobin Bekhrad, ‘According to Dick Davis, translator of the Penguin edition of the Shahnameh, Aryanam Vaejah ‘Land of the Aryans’ “was almost certainly [in] Central Asia: modern Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, [and] Tajikistan”. It is for this reason, for instance, that the Alborz Mountains Ferdowsi speaks of, and which are so central to Zoroastrian lore, are not the present-day ones in northern Iran, or why, as Davis says, “the modern Sistan is largely to the west of the ancient Sistan”. Expanding on the location of Iran in the Shahnameh, Davis posits that: “In the poem’s mythical and early legendary sections, Iran is in what is now northern Khorasan, and reaches as far north as present-day Bokhara and Samarkand … and it reaches as far east as the Helmand province in Afghanistan … With the Sassanians, Iran becomes more or less modern Iran.’

Firdausi’s own life had a rather sad end. He received 20,000 Dirhams instead of the 60,000 dinars that was promised by his royal patron, the Ghaznavid ruler, Sultan Mahmud. A depressed Firdausi gave the money to his bathhouse attendant. A remorseful Sultan later send the money to him but it was too late as Firdausi died on the day the money was sent. He died a poor man and was buried in his own orchard.


  1. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180810-the-book-of-kings-the-book-that-defines-iranians- by Joobin Bekhrad
  2. https://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/shahnameh/heros.htm by K.E Eduljee
  3. Rostam’s Seven Trials and the Logic of Epic Narrative in the Shāhnāma- Mahmoud Omidsalar -Asian Folklore StudiesVol. 60, No. 2 (2001), pp. 259-293 (35 pages)
  4. https://www.metmuseum.org/learn/educators/curriculum-resources/art-of-the-islamic-world/unit-five/chapter-three/the-shahnama

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Book illustration by Léon Benett published in 1878 showing Ibn Baṭṭūṭah (right) in Egypt

Ibn Battuta needs no introduction amongst the world of medieval travellers. He was born in Tangier, Morocco in 1306, in a family of Qazis (Islamic Judge). His curious nature and love for travel took him to many countries. He started his journey to the holy city of Mecca for Hajj. He visited many lands in Africa , before turning east and travelling to Persia, Iraq, Central Asia, India, Maldives and China. From China, he journeyed back to his homeland Morocco and narrated his travels to a writer named Ibn Juzayy. The book known as ‘Rihla’ (or “Travels”) is a fantastic account of 14th Century Islamic World. During the journey, he learnt Persian without which thriving in the Islamic world could have been difficult.

In Delhi, he enjoyed the patronage of the King Muhammad Tughlaq for many years and also became immensely wealthy. The king was known to be a despotic ruler and he once fell from grace and barely survived execution. Enroute his journey to China, he was looted by bandits and more misfortune followed when his ship sunk at the port of Calicut. Since he felt disgraced and did not want to return to Delhi, he travelled to Maldives. He served as an Islamic judge there, took several wives and restored some of his former glory.

From Maldives, he went to Sri Lanka and reached the port city of Quanzhou (China) in 1345. He was impressed with Mongol China in terms of safety of travellers and its natural beauty. He found the customs very unfamiliar and having travelled through the Islamic world, naturally could not relate to them. Though historians debate this fact, he claimed to have travelled till Beijing. From China, he travelled back to Tangier in 1349. When he reached home, his parents had died. He spent his last days in Morocco.

Ibn Battuta also travelled to the Golden Horde of the Southern Volga region ruled by Muhammad Uzbek Khan. He also claimed to have travelled to Bulghar, the capital of medieval Bulgaria. This would probably be the northern most that he travelled. He also spend time in Anatolia and Constantinople.

His cultural anecdotes are the most interesting to read. In Maldives, he found it shocking that women roam around naked from the waist upwards and so he writes ‘It is thus that they walk abroad in the bazars and elsewhere.’ This is one practice that he tried to change, in line with the Islamic practice of dressing but met with little success. He constantly praised them for their cleanliness, their natural charm and loved savouring the local food. His account talks about the local Flora and Fauna in great detail. He also talks about the practice of ‘Sati’ in India. He claims that cannibalism was practiced in some parts of Africa and also encountered female nudity there which he found disturbing.

He found favour with local rulers and influential people. His profession as a Qadi greatly helped him especially in cultures where Islam was relatively new and the local people needed help in interpretation or to dispense justice in line with Shariat. While he enjoyed the luxuries bestowed on him, there were times when he found himself in grave danger. He had one such experience in Delhi but luckily he survived.

While reading accounts of travellers, it is important to take cognisance of the fact that they have made observations through their own frame of reference which is greatly influenced by their religious or racial identity and may often not be fully objective. The second factor is the socio-political environment which is prevalent when the account was written.


  1. Ibn Battuta- L.P. Harvey, Oxford University Press
  2. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveller of the Fourteenth Century- Ross E. Dunn, University of California Press

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