Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A Day Late, A Dollar Short

Abu ʾl-Qasim Ferdowsi Tusi (940 - 1020) was a Persian poet, creator of the longest single-author epic poem in the world. The poem in question, the Shahnameh [Persian: "Book of Kings"] is the national epic of Iran.

Tomb of Ferdowsi [link]
The reason for its length might not have been only because of the grandeur of the subject matter. The legend of Ferdowsi is that he was offered one gold piece per couplet by the Sultan. This sounds like a set-up to a story, but it is not as ludicrous as you might think. The Sultan, Mahmud of Ghazni (971 - 1030), was known for numerous plundering expeditions into India, whence he gained the wealth to promote culture back home. He built a library, a museum, and a university.

Ferdowsi asked that the payment come as a lump sum when the work was finished and in the hands of the Sultan. Shahnameh was completed on 8 March 1010. When the Sultan would have paid, the courtier assigned to deliver the 60,000 gold pieces decided to deliver silver pieces instead. The poet was enjoying a bath house when the money was delivered, and was so insulted by what he thought was the Sultan's reneging on their deal that he gave the money away to the bath house staff. The courtier told the Sultan that Ferdowsi had insulted him by giving away his payment, so Mahmud threatened execution. The poet fled into exile and wrote a satirical poem about Mahmud.

Eventually, Sultan Mahmud learned of the deception perpetrated by his courtier on the poet, and banished the courtier (or maybe executed him; we are not sure). Many years later, Ferdowsi wished to return to his home, the city of Tus. Sultan Mahmud assembled 60,000 gold pieces and sent them to Tus. As the servants bearing the long-awaited payment entered the gates of Tus, the funeral procession of Ferdowsi was departing. He had died of heart failure the day before.

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