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Rustam of Sistan: Iranian Hero

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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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