The preceding summary refl ects the way pre-Islamic Iranian history has
been understood by modern and non-Iranian historians. In Iran itself after
the Sasanid period, historical memory of the Achaemenids was almost totally
lost, that of the Parthians largely forgotten, and only that of the Sasanids
preserved in recognizable form until fairly recently. Instead, most Iranians
would have been familiar with what has been called the “Iranian national
history,” 2 a semilegendary and epic narrative of events from the creation of
the world to the Islamic conquest. In this sense, Iran actually has not one
but two ancient histories, and for many generations of Iranians it was this
national history that was accepted as real. Since this is primarily a book on
Iranian culture and customs, and since the national history has played such
a vital role in shaping Iranian culture and sensibilities, it is worth giving a
synopsis of it here.
According to the national history, the earliest rulers, rather like the great
sages of Chinese tradition, were universal sovereigns who lived for fantastically
long periods of time, developed agriculture and domesticated animals,
introduced the various arts and crafts, and laid the foundations of civilization.
The fi rst of these monarchs, and in some versions of the story also the
fi rst human being, was Kayumars. He and his descendants, Hushang and
Tahmuras, battled the primordial demons that affl icted the world and taught
men how to use fi re, dress in animal skins, plant trees, dig canals, and so on.
Hushang also established the formal traditions of kingship and thus founded
the dynasty of kings known as the Pishdâdiân, “the fi rst to dispense justice.”
Tahmuras was followed by Jamshid, a proud king who invented the implements
of war, organized society into four social classes based on profession,
constructed great palaces, taught men how to weave textiles, began to use perfume
and jewels, and established the New Year holiday. Toward the end of
his reign, however, he turned haughty and ungrateful toward God; as punishment,
an “Arab” usurper appeared—Zahhâk, who stirred up a rebellion and
had Jamshid killed. Although he had been divinely sent to chastise Jamshid
for his pride, Zahhâk was transformed into an instrument of the devil (Ahriman
or Eblis); disguised as a cook, the devil had kissed Zahhâk on his shoulders,
causing snakes to grow from them that had to be fed on the brains of
children. This bloody tyranny was brought to an end by a revolt proclaimed
by Kâveh, a brave blacksmith of royal lineage; Kâveh’s apron became the banner
of the rebellion and the symbol of the Iranian national struggle against
the forces of evil. Zahhâk was eventually defeated and imprisoned deep in the
volcanic caldera of Mount Damâvand, where he would suffer torment until
the end of time.
The new king, Fereydun, eventually decided to divide his kingdom into
three parts to be assigned to his three sons: the west to Salm (the oldest),
the east to Tur, and the central, favored land of Iran to Iraj (the youngest).
Salm and Tur were jealous and conspired to murder Iraj, sending his
head to the horrifi ed but helpless Fereydun. Iraj was eventually avenged
by his son Manuchehr, who challenged his uncles to combat, killed them,
and succeeded Fereydun as king. Among the Iranian noblemen who gave
allegiance to Manuchehr was Sâm, a prince of Sistân. Sâm’s son, Zâl, was
born with white hair, an ominous portent which caused Sâm to expose the
baby on a mountain. However, Zâl was discovered, nurtured, and protected
by a great bird, the Simorg, until he was reconciled with his father. Later,
Zâl sought to marry the beautiful Rudâbeh, daughter of the king of Kâbol.
King Manuchehr, however, opposed their marriage since Rudâbeh was also
descended from Zahhâk, and he almost went to war with Sâm to prevent their
union before fi nally agreeing to it. Manuchehr’s fears did prove unfounded
since the marriage of Zâl and Rudâbeh led to the birth of Iran’s greatest
champion, Rostam, a hero who saved Iran from disaster in the turbulent
years after the death of Manuchehr and repeatedly fended off attacks from
the eastern lands of Turân and its king, Afrâsiâb.
Faced with the weakness of the last of the Pishdâdiân kings, Zâl convened
a council of nobles to pick a new ruler; Rostam was sent on a mission into the
Alborz Mountains to bring back another of Manuchehr’s descendants, Kay
Qobâd, who founded a new dynasty of kings known as the Kayâniâns and
who distinguished himself in combat with Afrâsiâb. Unfortunately, his successor,
Kay Kâvus, was utterly incompetent and had to be saved by Rostam
from one near disaster after another. Kâvus even managed to drive his own
son, Siâvosh, over to the side of the Turanians, who then treacherously murdered
him. The wife of Siâvosh, daughter of Afrâsiâb, survived and gave birth
to Kay Khosrow; Khosrow returned to Iran, deposed Kâvus, and launched a
war of revenge against the Turanians. After the defeat of Afrâsiâb, Khosrow
abdicated, to be followed by two relatively mediocre kings, Lohrâsp and
Goshtâsp, during whose reigns the prophet Zoroaster supposedly appeared.
Goshtâsp was overshadowed by his son Esfandiâr, who championed the new
religion and fought off attacks by the Turanians. Jealous and suspicious of
Esfandiâr, Goshtâsp once had him imprisoned and later ordered him for
no good reason to go and arrest Rostam. In that tragic era, Rostam fought
and killed Esfandiâr; Rostam himself was killed in a trap set by his wicked
brother Shagad; and Esfandiâr’s son, Bahman, killed Zâl and exterminated
his family. Bahman’s son Dârâb, abandoned by his mother in a basket set
afl oat on a river, was found and raised by a commoner but was eventually
recognized and installed as king. He married the daughter of Filfus, a king
of Greece, but sent her back because he was offended by her bad breath.
Pregnant, she gave birth to Eskandar, who later quarreled with the new king.
Dârâb’s other son, Dârâ, defeated him and made himself the ruler of Iran,
bringing the Kayâniân Dynasty to an end. Eskandar proved to be an impressive
philosopher-king who accomplished many astonishing feats. After his
death, the succession was disputed, and the world was in turmoil under various
regional rulers and the petty Ashkâniân kings until Ardashir emerged to
found the Sasanid Dynasty.
Versions of this national history were disseminated over the centuries by
popular bards (gosân ), who recited stirring stories based on it as a kind of
popular entertainment; by medieval historians, who sometimes explored its
inconsistencies or sought to identify its heroes with other historical individuals;
and by court poets, who added their own fl ourishes to the basic outline.
Without doubt, what became the most widely appreciated, eloquent, and
aesthetically attractive presentation of the story was the long epic poem by
Abo’l-Qâsem Ferdowsi (ca. a.d. 940–1020) known as the Shâh-nâmeh (Book
of Kings). While following the general structure outlined above, Ferdowsi
also added many details and additional stories for dramatic effect: Rudâbeh,
like Rapunzel, lowers down her long hair so Rostam can climb up to her in
her castle; Rostam fathers a son by a Turanian princess but does not know of
his birth and later kills him in combat; the daughter of a man named Haftvâd
fi nds a magic worm in an apple that brings great wealth and power to
Haftvâd and his town, but which is then destroyed by Ardashir, founder of
the Sasanid Dynasty.
Some elements of the national history can be traced back to material in
the oldest Iranian myths and beyond that to the common mythology of the
Indo-Europeans: Fereydun and Zahhâk, for example, correspond to the
ancient Iranian hero Thraetaona and the evil dragon Azhi Dahâka that he
imprisoned; there are many parallels between the stories of the deeds of Rostam
and those of the labors of Hercules. Other details can be attributed to
folklore, local legends, or the embellishments of individual authors. Parts of
the narrative do refl ect historical facts: despite the legendary embellishments,
Dârâ, Filfus, and Eskandar are recognizable as Darius III, Philip of Macedon,
and Alexander the Great. From the last of the Kayâniân kings onward, the
national history thus draws closer and closer to conventional accounts of pre-
Islamic Iranian history, and with the establishment of the Sasanids, the two
are virtually indistinguishable.
Whatever the sources, though, the national history as a whole conveys
many ideas that are generally regarded as fundamental to an understanding
of Iranian culture: the stark emphasis on the struggle between good and evil
in the world; the role of Iran itself as the most favored land and center of
civilization; or the theme of continuing assault on Iran by hostile and envious
powers to the west and east. Above all, the twin ideals of a just, charismatic
monarchy and a rigid social order are viewed as necessary for human prosperity
and national survival. Especially in Ferdowsi’s version of the national
history, the concept of righteous kingship is exalted, but alongside it there is
the issue of what to do about rulers who are foolish or oppressive (and there
are a good many of them) and the need to stand up for what is right. At the
same time, the desire for a directed, stable, orderly society is emphasized.
That concept is brought home with great clarity in a famous story about the
Sasanid king Bahrâm Gur: Displeased that the people of a village had not
greeted him properly, he wished that the village would be destroyed. His
priest accomplished this by telling the people that the social hierarchy was
abolished; instead of having a headman, there would be complete equality
among the men, women, and children of the village. At fi rst the people were
overjoyed with their newfound liberty, but they soon fell to fi ghting each
other and neglecting their work, so that within a year the village was in ruins.
Only when the offi ce of headman was reinstituted did the village recover.