Star-Crossed Lovers, Murderers and Vicious Brides: Literary History of the Famous Family of Persian 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.

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 CE). 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 CE.

Ferdowsi Square in Tehran, Iran By Orijentolog
Ferdowsi Square in Tehran, Iran By Orijentolog (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

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.

Garshasb Statute at Hor Square, Tehran, Iran
Garshasb Statute at Hor Square, Tehran, Iran By GTVM92 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Strange Birth of the Great Hero 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.

Rostam’s birth was very prolonged and difficult. Concerned that his wife would die in labor, Zal decided to summon the Simurgh. The Simurgh instructed Zal to call a wise man and to provide a steel dagger. Zal then had to ensure that Rudabeh is drunk with wine to calm her and free her from anxiety. Zal immediately carried out the Simurgh’s instructions.

The simurgh arrives to assist with the birth of Rostam (1675-1676 CE)
The simurgh arrives to assist with the birth of Rostam (1675-1676 CE)

The wise man arrived after Zal had gotten his wife intoxicated with wine. Under the guidance of the Simurgh, the wise man then made an incision on the womb of Radabeh and delivered the baby safely in such a manner that no one had ever seen before. Rudabeh was in deep sleep during this operation. After delivering the baby, the wise man stitched up Rudabeh’s wound and applied medicine to it. They named the baby Rostam.  Rostam grew into a boy within five days and to the height and strength of a young man within weeks.

Rostam was brought up and trained by his father in warfare. After young Rostam had single-handedly slayed a mad elephant, Zal dispatched him on his first military assignment. Rostam’s task was to conquer the fortress on the summit of Mount Sipand where his great grandfather, Nariman, was slain in battle. Rostam breached the fortress, defeated the enemy, ransacked its treasury and reported his success to his father.

"Rustam Slays the White Elephant", Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) (late 19th–early 20th century)
“Rustam Slays the White Elephant”, Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) (late 19th–early 20th century)

Rostam’s Tragic Meeting with His Son

The miraculous story of Rostam’s life also rates as one of the top tragedies of the Persian literature. One day, Rostam lost his horse. Frustrated, he reached the city of Samangan where the king assured him that he would aid him in finding his horse. The king then invited Rostam to stay at his palace for the night. That night, the king’s daughter Tahmineh came to Rostam’s bedchamber and declared her love for him: “I am thine if thou wilt hear me, and if thou wilt not, none other will I espouse.”

Rostam commanded that a virtuous priest should ask Tahmineh’s father for her hand in marriage on his behalf. The king consented and joyfully blessed the union. Later, after consummating their marriage, Rostam handed Tahmineh a jewel from the band around his arm, declaring: “Cherish this jewel, and if Heaven cause thee to give birth unto a daughter, fasten it within her locks, and it will shield her from evil; but if it be granted unto thee to bring forth a son, fasten it upon his arm, that he may wear it like his father.”

Rostam and Tahmina by Joseph Rotter (1908)
Rostam and Tahmina by Joseph Rotter (1908)

After finding his horse, Rostam departed from Samangan. Nine months later, Tahmineh gave birth to Rostam’s son, Sohrab. Although Rostam never knew of Sohrab’s existence, there was no doubt that Sohrab was his son. When he was one month old, Sohrab already looked like a 12-year old child and by his fifth year, Sohrab was already skilled in weaponry and the arts of war. By the time he was ten years old, Sohrab was unbeatable.

Years later, Rostam and Sohrab unwittingly fought on opposing sides in a battle. Although Sohrab, who was told by his mother that Rostam was his father, suspected that the nameless warrior opposing him was Rostam, Rostam did not recognize his son and refused to reveal his name to Sohrab. Rostam wrestled Sohrab to the ground and fatally stabbed Sohrab. As he lay dying, Sohrab recalled how his love for his father, the mighty Rostam, had destined him to the battlefield. To his horror, Rostam saw his own jewel on Sohrab’s arm and realized the truth. However, it was too late. After Sohrab died, Rostam cried out: “I that am old have killed my son” and let out a wail such as no one had ever heard before.

The Death of Sohrab by Joseph Rotter (1908)
The Death of Sohrab by Joseph Rotter (1908)

Rostam’s Strange Meeting with his Daughter

One of the earliest stories in the Banu Goshasp-nama involves Banu Goshasp running into her father Rostam himself, who had come from afar because he had heard of a female warrior with amazing skills. As both Banu Goshasp and Rostam were dressed in travel gear and had not seen each other in a long time, they did not recognize one another and the battle ensued. Much to his surprise, Rostam was fought to a standstill by Banu Goshasp and unable to gain the upper hand over his opponent. Disaster was averted in time when the father and daughter realized each other’s identity.

Banu Goshasp’s marriage was arranged to politically benefit her father. When Banu Goshasp came of age, news of her incredible beauty had spread far and wide and various young men came to woo her. Banu Goshasp was unimpressed by their skills and frequently attacked them, capturing and imprisoning those she did not kill in combat as a warning to other suitors. However, this did little to deter the men until Rostam intervened and instituted an array of events, testing the martial prowess and valor of her suitors.

"Rustam Seizes Afrasiyab by the Girdle and Lifts him from the Saddle", Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings)
“Rustam Seizes Afrasiyab by the Girdle and Lifts him from the Saddle”, Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings)

Giv, renowned as the bravest man in Persia at the time, emerged as the victor and Banu Goshasp was obligated to marry him. However, she overpowered her new husband on their wedding night and chained him to their bed, ignoring him until the next morning. Rostam was not pleased with this development and attempted to mediate between the newlyweds. Much to Rostam’s confusion, Banu Goshasp informed him that she did not, in fact, despise her husband but rather that she objected to being married off to whomever was the victor of the competition that day.

Banu Goshasp came to realize that Giv was more than just a handsome warrior. As Rostam unshackled him, Giv composed an impromptu poem in honor of both Banu Goshasp and her father. He praised Banu Goshasp’s skills, thanked Rostam for permitting him to marry her, and claimed himself to be honored that Banu Goshasp took him as her husband. This won Banu Goshasp’s heart and marital harmony was restored between her and Giv.

Star-crossed lovers: Bijan, Grandson of Rostam and Manijeh

The marriage of Banu Goshasp and Giv produced another powerful warrior, Bijan. Kai Khosrow, the shah of Persia, reigned his kingdom with wisdom. One day, men from the land of Arman requested an audience with him. They fell at his feet and implored him for his help to kill the wild boars that had broken into their fields and destroyed their crops. Thus, they asked the shah to dispatch one of his warriors to rid them of the scourge of the wild boars.

Rustam rescues Bijan from the well, from the Shahnama by Firdawsi, probably Iran, Mongol period, dated February 1341 CE
Rustam rescues Bijan from the well, from the Shahnama by Firdawsi, probably Iran, Mongol period, dated February 1341 CE

Kai Khosrow dismissed them graciously and young Bijan volunteered for the task. Bijan was accompanied by Gorgin, an older warrior, on his journey. The day after Bijan had subdued the boars, Gorgin informed Bijan that they were near the garden of Afrasiyab, the king of Turan, where they would be able to see the women of his household. Bijan was tempted to cross the border from Persia into the land of Turan on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea. However, this would be a dangerous endeavor due to the sour relationship between the two kingdoms. Before Kai Khosrow was born, his father was murdered in Turan by Afrasiyab, the king of Turan who was also his maternal grandfather. 

Bijan hid beneath the shade of a tall cypress as he looked upon the beauty of the women of the royal household of Turan. His eyes fell upon Manijeh, Afrasiyab’s own daughter. Manijeh also saw Bijan and marveled at his good looks. She sent her maids to ask Bijan for his name. Bijan responded and asked if he may speak with her. Manijeh invited Bijan to her tent where he stayed for three days, forgetting all about returning home.

A) Bizhan Visiting Manizha; b) Page of Calligraphy, Two Folios from a Shahnama (Book of Kings)  (c. 1610)
A) Bizhan Visiting Manizha; b) Page of Calligraphy, Two Folios from a Shahnama (Book of Kings)  (c. 1610)

When it was time for Manijeh to leave, she gave Bijan a cup of wine mixed with potion. The wine caused Bijan to sleep, and while asleep her maidens transported him in a litter to the house of Afrasiyab. Manijeh then hid him behind the curtains. When Bijan woke up and learnt that he had been abducted and brought into the house of Afrasiyab, he was afraid and wanted to return home. However, his love for Manijeh trumped this desire and he stayed with Manijeh in secret for a long time until a doorman learnt of his presence. The doorman informed Afrasiyab, who was beside himself with rage. Afrasiyab captured Bijan and sentenced Manijeh into exile, thus forcing the lovers to live out their days separately.

From his captivity, Bijan sent secret messages to his grandfather Rostam to inform him of his whereabouts. Rostam disguised himself as a merchant and entered Turan, accompanied by a few trusted knights. When Manijeh heard that a merchant from Persia had arrived in Turan, she helped them find Bijan, where after they escaped into Persia, where Bijan was welcomed home with joy. Furious at his daughter’s rebellion, Afrasiyab declared war on Persia. A mighty battle ensued between the Persian and Turanian armies. Eventually, Turan was defeated and the lovers were reunited. Later, the shah gifted the lovers with this blessing: “Cherish this woman in thy bosom, and suffer not that grief come nigh unto her, neither speak to her cold words, for she hath endured much for thee. And may thy life beside her be happy.”

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