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Scene from the Shahnameh. Afrasiyab (standing figure) executes Nauzar (lying down), while two groups look on.

Persian Poets’ Fabled Family of Heroes

Star-crossed lovers, fathers killing sons and a warrior bride shackling her newlywed husband to the bed, all play a role in the legendary folklore of Persia’s most famous fabled family; that of Rostam and his ancestors and descendants.

Illustrious tomb of Ferdowsi (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Illustrious tomb of Ferdowsi (CC BY-SA 4.0)

About 40 kilometers (24.85 miles) outside the city of Mashhad, in the north-east of Iran, in the small village of Tus, one can find the tomb of Abu l-Qasim Ferdowsi Tusi (936 - 1020 AD). Ferdowsi is a famous Persian poet and the author of Shahnameh (Book of Kings), the national epic of the Greater Persia, which consists of the partly mythological, pre-Islamic history of the Persian kings, from the first man to the last Sasanian king in the mid-7th century AD.

A large part of the Shahnameh is devoted to the age of heroes which extends from the reign of Manuchehr, first of the legendary Shahs of Iran, up to the conquest of Iskandar (Alexander the Great). The age of heroes also features a particular family of legendary heroes and heroines, who appear as the backbone of the Persian Empire at the time. Garshap, the monster-slaying hero of Iranian mythology, is briefly mentioned along with his son Nariman whose son Sam, in turn, acted as the principal warrior for Manuchehr. Sam was the father of the white-haired warrior Zal, and Zal fathered of the most famous warrior of them all, Rostam.

Birth of Zal, from Shahnameh (Book of Kings) (Metropolitan Museum of Arts) (Public Domain)

Birth of Zal, from Shahnameh (Book of Kings) (Metropolitan Museum of Arts) (Public Domain)

The fables of this dynasty did not end with Ferdowsi’s book. Following Ferdowsi's footsteps, successive poets composed their own epic poems, each with their own protagonist taken from members of Rostam’s family. One of these epics stemming from the Shahnameh is the Banu Goshasp-nama, one of the oldest tales about a woman warrior in Persian literature, written by an unknown poet from the 11th or 12th century, about the legend of Banu-Goshasp, daughter of Rostam.

The Unusual Birth of Rostam

Rostam was born in Zabulistan, a historic region in Greater Khorasan which roughly corresponds to the modern Afghan provinces of Zabul and Ghazni. His mother Rudabeh was a princess of Kabul known for her beauty. Rostam’s father was Zal, one of Persia's most powerful generals who conquered many rebellious tribes.

Birth of Rustam, from Shahnameh (Book of Kings) (Metropolitan Museum of Arts) (Public Domain)

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