also spelled Firdawsi, Firdusi, or Firdousi, pseudonym of Abu Ol-qasem Mansur born c. 935, , near Tus, Iran
died c. 1020, –26, Tus

Ferdows (lower left corner) with three poets in a garden, miniature from a Persian …
Ferdowsi (lower left corner) with three poets in a garden, miniature from a Persian …
By courtesy of the trustees of the British Library


Persian poet, author of the Shah-nameh (“Book of Kings”), the Persian national epic, to which he gave its final and enduring form, although he based his poem mainly on an earlier prose version.

Ferdowsi was born in a village on the outskirts of the ancient city of Tus. In the course of the centuries many legends have been woven around the poet's name but very little is known about the real facts of his life. The only reliable source is given by Nezami-ye 'Aruzi, a 12th-century poet who visited Ferdowsi's tomb in 1116 or 1117 and collected the traditions that were current in his birthplace less than a century after his death.

According to Nezami, Ferdowsi was a dehqan (“landowner”), deriving a comfortable income from his estates. He had only one child, a daughter, and it was to provide her with a dowry that he set his hand to the task that was to occupy him for 35 years. The Shah-nameh of Ferdowsi, a poem of nearly 60,000 couplets, is based mainly on a prose work of the same name compiled in the poet's early manhood in his native Tus. This prose Shah-nameh was in turn and for the most part the translation of a Pahlavi (Middle Persian) work, the Khvatay-namak, a history of the kings of Persia from mythical times down to the reign of Khosrow II (590–628), but it also contained additional material continuing the story to the overthrow of the Sasanians by the Arabs in the middle of the 7th century. The first to undertake the versification of this chronicle of pre-Islamic and legendary Persia was Daqiqi, a poet at the court of the Samanids, who came to a violent end after completing only 1,000 verses. These verses, which deal with the rise of the prophet Zoroaster, were afterward incorporated by Ferdowsi, with due acknowledgements, in his own poem.

The Shah-nameh, finally completed in 1010, was presented to the celebrated sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, who by that time had made himself master of Ferdowsi's homeland, Khurasan. Information on the relations between poet and patron is largely legendary. According to Nezami-ye 'Aruzi, Ferdowsi came to Ghazna in person and through the good offices of the minister Ahmad ebn Hasan Meymandi was able to secure the Sultan's acceptance of the poem. Unfortunately, Mahmud then consulted certain enemies of the minister as to the poet's reward. They suggested that Ferdowsi should be given 50,000 dirhams, and even this, they said, was too much, in view of his heretical Shi'ite tenets. Mahmud, a bigoted Sunnite, was influenced by their words, and in the end Ferdowsi received only 20,000 dirhams. Bitterly disappointed, he went to the bath and, on coming out, bought a draft of foqa' (a kind of beer) and divided the whole of the money between the bath attendant and the seller of foqa'.

Fearing the Sultan's wrath, he fled first to Herat, where he was in hiding for six months, and then, by way of his native Tus, to Mazanderan, where he found refuge at the court of the Sepahbad Shahreyar, whose family claimed descent from the last of the Sasanians. There Ferdowsi composed a satire of 100 verses on Sultan Mahmud that he inserted in the preface of the Shah-nameh and read it to Shahreyar, at the same time offering to dedicate the poem to him, as a descendant of the ancient kings of Persia, instead of to Mahmud. Shahreyar, however, persuaded him to leave the dedication to Mahmud, bought the satire from him for 1,000 dirhams a verse, and had it expunged from the poem. The whole text of this satire, bearing every mark of authenticity, has survived to the present.

It was long supposed that in his old age the poet had spent some time in western Persia or even in Baghdad under the protection of the Buyids, but this assumption was based upon his presumed authorship of Yusof o-Zalikha, an epic poem on the subject of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, which, it later became known, was composed more than 100 years after Ferdowsi's death. According to the narrative of Nezami-ye 'Aruzi, Ferdowsi died inopportunely just as Sultan Mahmud had determined to make amends for his shabby treatment of the poet by sending him 60,000 dinars' worth of indigo. Nezami does not mention the date of Ferdowsi's death. The earliest date given by later authorities is 1020 and the latest 1026; it is certain that he lived to be more than 80.

The Persians regard Ferdowsi as the greatest of their poets. For nearly a thousand years they have continued to read and to listen to recitations from his masterwork, the Shah-nameh, in which the Persian national epic found its final and enduring form. Though written about 1,000 years ago, this work is as intelligible to the average, modern Iranian as the King James version of the Bible is to a modern English-speaker. The language, based as the poem is on a Pahlavi original, is pure Persian with only the slightest admixture of Arabic. European scholars have criticized this enormous poem for what they have regarded as its monotonous metre, its constant repetitions, and its stereotyped similes; but to the Iranian it is the history of his country's glorious past, preserved for all time in sonorous and majestic verse.