Iran Literature – Classical Era

By | December 16, 2021

The origins

The literature of Iran ancient begins with the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, the Avesta, the oldest parts of which (the Gāthā) date back to Zarathustra himself (perhaps 7th-6th century BC). They are contrasted by the Yasht , or hymns, which reflect an elaboration of the primitive Zoroastrian doctrine, contaminated with residues of the pre-existing Iranian naturalistic religion; these Avestan hymns therefore contain numerous mythological or epic elements, which will then be developed by the later epic tradition. Next to the Avesta, the literature of the Achaemenid age produces the inscriptions of the Great Kings, from Cyrus the Elder to Artaxerxes III: carved on rock or on gold tablets and other material, they magnify the deeds of the sovereigns, or illustrate their monumental works. For Iran 1996, please check

The production in Middle Persian or Pahlavic belongs to the Sasanian age, for the most part of Zoroastrian religious subject: there are translations and comments to the Avesta, and original works such as the Dēnkart and the Bundahishn , species of encyclopedias of the theological knowledge of that era (3rd-7th century AD). Other theological and ritual texts are the Dātistān-i dīnīk (“Religious Law”), the Shāyast nā-shāyast (“The lawful and the illicit”), and the Nāmak-i Artāk Virāz (“Book of Artāk Virāz”), an important eschatological text, a link in the chain that links the Eastern visions of the afterlife to the classical and medieval Islamic and Romance ones. Among the few profane texts of Pahlavic literature there are two small epic-chivalrous novels, which narrate two episodes of the tradition then codified in the Shāhnāme: the Ayātkār-i Zarērān (“Zarēr’s memorial”), which celebrates the deeds of King Vishtāsp and his brother Zarēr in defense of the Zoroastrian faith, and the Kārnāmak-i Ardashīr-i Pāpakān (“The book of the deeds of Ardashīr son of Pāpak”), on the adventures of the founder of the Sassanid dynasty. Other tales illustrate the introduction to India of the game of chess, King Khusraw’s examination of a page on the education of the perfect courtier, etc. This profane literature was much larger than the remains that have come down to us, and traces of it are found in Muslim Arab authors.

Zoroastrian literature in Pahlavic continued in the first centuries after the Arab conquest; but mostly the literary production after the 7th century. AD reflects, in the new linguistic phase of neo-Persian, spirits and forms of the Muslim Iranian civilization. The first literary manifestations of the Iran Islamic date back to the 9th century, in the courtesan lyric that flourished under Tahiridi, Saffaridi, Samanids, the first autonomous dynasties that arose on the margins of the caliphate. Especially under the Samanids, who reigned in Khorasan and Transoxiana from the end of the 9th century. at the end of the 10th, Iranian cultural life flourished again, and a large number of courtly poets emerged (Rūdaghī, Daqīqī etc.). The literary germs of the Samanid era had their full bloom in the subsequent gasnavid period, to which famous lyrics belong, such as Farrukhī, Minūcihrī, ‛Unṣurī, Asadī, and above all the epic Firdūsī (d.1020 ca.). The latter took up a work begun by Daqīqī, the verse of national epic traditions, already codified in Sassanid books translated into Neopersian prose, and thus created the grandiose Shāhnāme (“Book of Kings”), which remained admired model of the Iranian epic.


From the age of Firdūsī to that of Giāmī (11th-15th century) the classical era of Iranian literature extends, rich and varied, from the heroic and chivalrous epic to the courtly lyric, philosophical-mystical, sententious, to prose narrative, historical and parenetic (branches such as theology, law, sciences were preferably cultivated, also by Iranians, in Arabic). The fictional epic, after Firdūsī, was treated by Fakhr ad-dīn As‛ad Gurgānī (11th century), who versed in Vīs u Rāmīn an ancient material of Parthian origin, singularly similar to the Celtic cycle of Tristan and Isolde. Great artist was Niẓāmī (12th century), the Azerbaijani author of the famous Khamsa or quintet of poems, which give classical form to very popular Arab or Iranian legends (the loves of Khusraw and Shīrīn, Lailā and Maǵnūn, the adventures of King Bahrām Gūr and Alexander the Great, etc.). This fictional subject, also treated in Persianized India by the aristocratic poet Amīr Khusraw (14th century), was revived in the 15th century. from the polygraph Giāmī, who infused it with his own mystical spirit. In reality the mystic, perhaps the most profound spiritual experience of Iran Islamic, he colored himself starting from the 12th century. almost every manifestation of Persian poetry. Aside from the cold and artificial panegyric genre, the major classics of the Iranian Middle Ages are mystics, from the quatrain author Abū Sa‛īd ibn Abī l-Khair to the great creators of the mathnavī (poems) allegorical Farīd ad-dīn ‛Aṭṭār and Gialāl ad-dīn Rūmī (both 13th century), to the gnomic and narrator Sa‛dī (13th century) and to the master of the loving ghazal, Ḥāfiẓ (14th century.). Ad ‛Aṭṭār in particular we owe, among other things, the poems Manṭiq aṭ-ṭair (” The language of the birds “) and Ilāhī-nāme (” Divine Book “); to Gialāl ad-dīn Rūmī the Mathnavī par excellence, a vast complex of meditations, mystical outbursts and allegorical tales, which remained normative for the later Persian-Turkish Sufism; in Sa‛dī, the Bustān (“Garden”) in verse, and the Gulistān (“Rose Garden”) in prose and mixed verses, typical breviaryof Iranian popular wisdom; Finally, Ḥāfiẓ is the most perfect lyricist who in the short tour of the ghazal (a dozen couplets) contains with unsurpassed versatility and elegance a sigh of sacred or profane love. A position of its own occupies as a poet ‛O. Khayyām (11th-12th century), mysterious figure of scientist, to whom a fluctuating corpus of quatrains must be attributed, which for originality of concept and splendor of form are among the highest expressions of oriental genius.

The prose of the classical period, from modest beginnings under the Samanids (adaptations of Arab chronicles and exegetical works), reaches a great development in the following centuries, including fabulous works (Tūtī-nāme, Marzbān-nāme etc.), which develop and enrich the material of Indian origin; works of political science and government (Siyāset-nāme by Niẓām al-Mulk, 11th century), and ethics and parenetics (Qābūs-nāme by Kai Kāwus ibn Iskandar, 11th century), valuable as a historical-cultural document as well as a model of dry ancient prose; travel books (Sefer-nāme by Nāṣir-i Khusraw, still 11th century); treatises on theoretical morality (Akhlāq), by Naṣīr ad-dīn aṭ-Ṭūsī and others, who contaminate residues of Hellenistic ethics with Islamic conceptions.

Historiography was very flourishing, especially in the Mongol era (13th -14th century), to which, among other things, Ta’rikh-i Giahāngushāy (“History of the conqueror of the world”, that is of Genghiz khān) by Giuwainī, and the great historical encyclopedia (Giāmi ‛at-tawārīkh) by Rashīd ad-dīn Faḍl Allāh.

After the Mongol age (and in part even earlier), prose abandons itself to an extreme redundancy and artificiality of style, which spoils every genre, from narrative to historical, and makes reading difficult. Such is the case of the historians of the Timurids (Mīrkhwānd and Khwāndamīr, 15th century) and of the following dynasties.

Iran Literature - Classical Era