The Medieval Iranians, no less than we today, sought answers to questions about far-away countries and events of old. We consult Google or Wikipedia. They looked into epic poetry and romances. Since literature in those days had both to entertain and instruct, the stories they read about Korea, China, Khazaria and Spain also spoke of monsters, wizards and moon-faced beauties. The biggest difference between their curiosity and ours is that they emphasized wisdom over knowledge. Even a legend can be rich in initiatic truths.
The Kushnameh, composed by the epic poet Iranshah for the then ruling dynasty of the Seljuks, tells of the heroic and vainglorious Kush. Born with a monstrous physiognomy; tusks growing out of his face, Kush enjoys the strength of an elephant, but weak self-control. His 1,000 year reign is stained with horrendous crimes, including incest and blasphemous claims to godhood. There is much pathos in this anti-hero, whose ugliness makes him unhappy in love, yet at the same time his inhumane striving gives this tale an otherworldly grandeur.
The setting of the story is a strange metaverse where ancient Iranian legends, pre-Islamic history and current events are intermingled. In the first place, the story is told of Jamshid, the first king of the world, and how he is overthrown by the evil sorcerer Zahhak. The Kushnameh now curiously innovates, and places Zahhak on the throne of Jerusalem, while the children of Jamshid flee into China. This is an echo of the invasion of Iran by the Arabs, and the flight of the last pre-Islamic kings of Iran into Tang China, where they ruled over a court in exile for many years. The Iranians of the Kushnameh fight with the Byzantine Emperors of the West, just as the Seljuks did in the era of the composition of the poem. Later, Kush invades Spain and replicates many of the feats of the Umayyad dynasty.
Epistemological challenges are posed at the beginning of the book, where we read of how Alexander the Great discovers an ancient image of Kush carved in stone, and seeks out a holy man who can explain this prodigy. In Persian epic romances, Alexander is the archetype searcher for wisdom, whose quest takes him to the very limits of what man can achieve of true knowledge of this world. Through this holy man, Alexander, and the reader, uncover the lost story of Kush. Another holy man is instrumental in the denouement.
These many levels of narration and mixing of fact and legend underscores how limited is man’s knowledge.
In contrast to the paucity of knowledge, wisdom is abundant in this story, which paraphrases ancient Iranian texts on statecraft, ethics and social conduct. Characters in the Kushnameh constantly admonish one another to seek wisdom, to speak carefully, to avoid impetuous acts, and to learn from experience, whether in the royal court or on the battlefield. Drinking wine, to which all these heroic characters are deeply attached, is shown as a pleasant pastime leading to hell. Readers may sympathize.
When not admonishing us to avoid drinking and seek wisdom, the Kushnameh describes battles. The mail-clad, mace wielding heroes combat with a bloody frenzy right out of a Kurosawa movie. The Seljuk princes for whom this book was composed must have appreciated how accurate these descriptions were. These scenes are among the most gripping in Persian, and indeed world literature, recalling Homer’s Iliad.
Any Persian epic will be measured against the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, composed a century earlier. At a fifth of the length of its predecessor, the Kushnameh reminds us of the individual Arthurian romances, like Gawain or Parzival, as compared to the whole Arthurian corpus. What is curious here is that the figure of Kush himself appears to be a complete invention. The editors speculate that Kush is perhaps an echo of the ancient Kushans, who were ferocious enemies of the Iranians and whose shadowy existence was still recalled in Arab histories. Written in the same style as the Shahnameh, and covering some of the same epic material, the Kushnameh lacks the effortless lyricism of its model. Much of it is workmanlike, versified narrative, so little is lost in this prose translation. Translator Kaveh Hemmat has provided us a vigorous and fast-moving text.
This translation has a curious origin. The Kushnameh is one of the few medieval Persian texts that speak about Silla, the first-millennium Korean kingdom. This intrigued Hee Soo Lee, a Korean scholar of Persian literature, who undertook a study of the text. She suggested to Hemmat to do this translation, given his focus on medieval Persian knowledge of geography and world history. He has had fun identifying in the Arabic-Persian script the many exotic toponyms (for example, Shantarin is Santarém, in Portugal, Satira is the Spanish Asturia). The far flung adventures of Kush, though lacking Ferdowsi’s lyricism, entertains and instructs us as much as it did the readers at the court of the Seljuks.