The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan (Shahnameh Readalong 37)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

This week: The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan

Synopsis: “Kesra’s rule is highlighted with one bad Christian son and his on-again, off-again relationship with his vizier.”

TG:  I hardly know what to say.

No named women, again, and despite the section opening with ideas on what kind of woman a king should marry, it was only about her religion and her womb.

The first three sections, in fact, all have anti-women morals. The betraying son is bad because of his religion, which he got from his mother. The dream interpretation by Bozorjmehr takes a dream about a magnificent tree and a pig that wants to drink from the king’s cup and makes it about how women are untrustworthy, culminating in the death of a harem woman, and even the section about Kesra marrying the daughter of the emperor of China he’s only interested in her body being as good looking as her mother’s lineage.

(It almost suggested that a woman’s royalty can be seen through any disguise, mirroring earlier stories of lost heirs being raised by farmers and the like, but no, this was about her beauty, not any farr or royal bearing.)

It was disheartening, though I supposed this week I’d have had to read about the resurrection of Zal to be truly invested.

It does interest me that there is so much religious strife in these latter tales. A clear reflection of the book veering closer and closer to history. In the beginning, the strife was between Godly men and demons, or ambitious men against ambitious men, or all about epic love and giant magical birds, but now we have multiple religious, and different religions tied to different states with more frequency. I can’t help but see the connection between that and the lessening roles of women. Though obviously that kind of analysis would be very complicated.

I almost liked Bozorjmehr, but I can honestly say I don’t understand his last section. He just felt like the king was going to be mean to him, so emoji shrugged his way through torture and near-death, all because of some vague sense of fate. If the black bird stealing the king’s jewels had been a dream, that would have made more sense, but as it really happened, I just don’t get why Bo didn’t merely tell the king what happened, or wake him up, or…chase off the bird.



Nobleman Piruz, seated on a horse to the right, faces King Kesra’s son Nushzad (seated on a horse to the right). Around them many soldiers await orders for battle. This scene represents Piruz advising Nushzad not to rebel against his father the king.

KE:  Like you I quite dislike Kesra the self righteous, continually described as the best and most just and so on and on, and meanwhile he again kills someone by hanging them upside down and who knows what else. Not a pleasant man in pursuit of making absolutely sure he has absolute power absolutely. But this is the system. I get it. Prosperity equals order and strength. Women live in purdah and no longer have names or agency which they don’t need because beauty, fertility, and obedience are their only important features. Bring on the revolution.

Anyway, I found the story of his hapless first son (the lovely Byzantine wife is mentioned and then vanishes) interesting and sad because it struck me as a real conflict. Born to a Christian mother he is then punished for adhering to her religion rather than that of his father. Obviously the king must maintain the supremacy of the state religion (and I believe that Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Sasanian kings), but it’s lovely touch of tragic realism, the kind of plot-line that could work so easily in an historical or sff novel.

This chapter also has a sequence of non violent conflicts in which kings test each other with who has the most knowledgable wise men and/or viziers. It’s interesting to read a story in which besting others with your intelligence substitutes for a physical battle of arms.

But overall I’m just getting tired of the struggles of authoritarian men with little self doubt who have the power of life and death over their hapless subjects.

Next week: The Reign of Hormozd

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 1, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 2, The Death of Rostam, The Ashkanians, The Reign of Ardeshir & ShapurThe Reign of Shapur Zu’l Aktaf, The Reign of Yazdegerd the Unjust, The Reign of Bahram Gur, The Story of Mazdak