Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Ode to Simorgh

Sculpture of Simorgh in Neyshabur

Long before Harry Potter had Buckbeak the Hippogriff, Zal had Simorgh, the phoenix from Ferdowsi's epic Shahnameh, Book of Kings. Sam longed to have a child, but after his son, Zal, is born an albino, Sam rejects and abandons the infant in the Alborz mountains. Meanwhile, Simorgh had left her nest looking for food for her chicks when she spots Zal and brings him to her nest and raises him. 

Depiction of Simorgh carrying Zal from the illustrated Shahnameh

Years later, Sam returns to the Alborz for his son. Having raised Zal under her wings, the benevolent Simorgh gives him some of her feathers for protection, telling him that should he ever seek help of any kind, he should burn one of the feathers, and she will appear in the guise of a black cloud. Zal returns to the kingdom with his father. 

And then Sam told the king of how and why 
He had decided that his child should die;
He told him of the Simorgh and her nest,
Of his regret, and his belated quest
To find his son; throughout the world men heard
Of Sam and Zal, and of this wondrous bird. 

Zal sighted by a caravan

Zal eventually marries the beautiful Rudabeh, and she becomes pregnant. Before the delivery she falls ill and is close to death. Zal burns one of Simorgh's feathers, and sure enough, she appears, telling him the baby must be cut from Rudabeh's belly, that Rudabeh will feel no pain, and that she will heal within a day. Zal follows this advice and when Rudabeh wakes up, she says, "Rastam, I escaped, from my peril, my pain came to an end," and so the baby was named Rostam. Ferdowsi referred to the c-section as Rostam-zad. Rostam goes on to become one of the great heroes of the Shahnameh, and Simorgh makes another appearance with him.

Simorgh also has a role in Attar's Conference of the Birds, a poem in which all the birds in the world need to decide on a king and go in search of Simorgh

Just like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding liked to claim that the Greeks invented everything, well, so do we Iranians. So the Harry Potter hippogriff is actually a Persian mythological character and a c-section should, in fact, be called an r-section. Zal seeking Simorgh's advice and having her appear in a dark cloud is pretty much the same as Harry Potter seeking advice from Sirius Black and having his head appear in the fireplace or Obi Wan appearing as a ghost before Luke Skywalker. Not only did Ferdowsi write the Shahnameh without a single word rooted in Arabic thus saving the Persian language, but he also set the literary stage for the future. Ferdowsi was truly a genius. (Ok, I'm kidding. I'm sure there are accounts of similar ideas, like the c-section, even before Ferdowsi's time. I say this all in jest- except the parts about saving the Persian language and being a genius, of course. Dead serious about those.)

So, have I made you want to read the Shahnameh yet?


  1. Do you know the artist who made that sculpture or what year? Trying to find information but there is very little online.

    1. Hi there, it's by Meysam and Reza Hadiani and if I'm not mistaken, the year is 2011. Yes, there's very little about it online and most of what's available is in Persian. It has a 27-m height, 10-m diameter, and the base it stands on is also 10-m. Hope that helps a bit!


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