10th century Iran. As Europe is experiencing the Dark Middle Ages the Islamic world is experiencing a Golden Age. Arts, philosophy and literature flourish, especially in that part of the empire that is today’s Iran. Although nominally part of the Abbasid Caliphate, the semi-independent Iranian kingdoms that have appeared are powerful states in their own right. Iran becomes the main centre of science and culture during the 10th and 11th centuries, producing marvellous pieces of art that have continued to hold their value for Iranians ever since.
Although the Iranian revival touches on many terrains, it is especially poetry that flourishes. Indeed, compared to other literary traditions Persian literature stands out because of the prominence of poetry. Until very recently there was hardly any prose written in Iran, with the exception of scholarly work. Instead artistic expression was mainly confined to poetry, often written under royal patronage. A famous ruler as Mahmoud of Ghazni (971-1030) even has as many as 400 court poets, of whom the famous poet Ferdowsi (971-1030) is but one of many. Drawing on pre-Islamic ancient Iranian history, language and culture, Ferdowsi’s national epic Shahnameh or ‘Book of Kings’ helps to preserve an Iranian identity that was different from the Arabic-Islamic identity.
Classical poetry is still immensely popular in contemporary Iran. As Persian or Farsi has changed very little in the course of history modern-day readers are able to understand centuries-old literature without any problems. The most famous Persian poets, such as Ferdowsi, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), Anvari (1126-1189), Rumi (1207-1273), Saadi (1210-1291) and Hafez (1325/26–1389/90) are still widely read in today’s Iran. Practically every Iranian family, however poor, owns at least a volume of classical poetry and many young Iranians can recite long poems from the top of their head.
Indeed, classic poetry is still very much part of the daily lives of the Iranians. Hafez Day, Rumi Week, the 1000th anniversary of Ferdowsi’s birth: many celebrations are held in the honour of Iran’s most beloved poets. Their tombs are visited by many devotees, who sing and recite their favourite lines. Their rhymes, especially Rumi’s, are used by artists all over the Middle East. Hafez’s work can even be used for fortune telling, as some Iranians believe that as randomly selected verses indicate what is going to happen in the future! Despite a new globalized world and the influx of foreign culture in contemporary Iran, 10 centuries on Ferdowsi, Rumi, Saadi and Hafez are as alive as ever.