So we’ve all heard the Shakespearean love tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, but how many in the western world are familiar with the ‘most beautiful love story ever written’ in Persian literature; Khosrow and Shirin (also known as Shirin and Farhad)?
The story of Shirin and Khosrow is one of the most popular ancient stories in the middle east and the Islamic world, and a source of a great amount of folk art such as poetry, songs and paintings. The story was based on the real life of the Persian prince Khosrow and the Armenian princess Shirin, who lived in the 6th century AD.
Shirin was an Armenian princess who became the wife of the Sassanid Persian king Khosrow Parviz. In the revolution after the death of Khosrow’s father Hormizd IV, the General Bahram Chobin took power over the Persian empire. Shirin fled with Khosrow to Syria where they lived under the protection of the ethnic Armenian Byzantine emperor Maurice. In 591 AD, Khosrow returned to Persia to take control of the empire and Shirin was made queen. She used her new influence to support the Christian minority in Iran, but the political situation demanded that she do so discreetly. It is said that after conquering Jerusalem in 614 AD, the Persians supposedly captured the cross of Jesus and brought it to their capital Ctesiphon, where Shirin took the cross to her palace.
It is worthy to note that the earliest source mentioning Shirin is the Ecclesiastical history of Evagrius Scholasticus, where she is mentioned as “Sira”. It preserves a letter sent by Khosrau II to the shrine of Saint Sergius in Resafa. One dated to 592/593 includes the following passage:
“At the time when I [Khosrau II] was at Beramais, I begged of thee, O holy one, that thou wouldest come to my aid, and that Sira might conceive: and inasmuch as Sira was a Christian and I a heathen, and our law forbids us to have a Christian wife, nevertheless, on account of my favourable feelings towards thee, I disregarded the law as respects her, and among my wives I have constantly esteemed, and do still esteem her as peculiarly mine.”
So the earliest mention of Shirin mentions her as Sira, which clearly derives from the Armenian word Sirun (meaning Beauty), just as popular Armenian girls name Siran or Siranush (meaning Lovely in Armenian).
Khosrow, his love-rival Farhad, and Shirin became the protagonists of a fictionalized love romance written by the highly celebrated 12th century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. The story inspired generations of poets and artists in many different (Muslim) countries.
Click on the bar bellow to read the short summery of the story.
The legend of Khosrow and Shirin (or Shirin and Farhad) actually predates Nazami’s tale. There are many allusions to the legend scattered in the lyrical poetry of well-known Persian poets before Nazami, including Farroḵī, Qaṭrān, Masʿūd-e Saʿd-e Salmān, ʿOṯmān-e Moḵtārī, Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow, Anwārī, and Sanāʾī. It was however Nazami’s version that became the most celebrated in the Persian (and later Muslim) world.
The influence of the legend is not limited to literature but permeates the whole of Persian culture, including folklore and the fine arts. Farhad’s helve supposedly grew into a tree with medicinal qualities. There is also evidence of the widespread popularity of the legend in the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century from the surviving pottery of the time.
Bellow are three paintings from a Persian illustrated manuscript of Nizami’s story of “Khosrow and Shirin”.
1) The first one captures the moment when Khosrow first catches sight of Shirin, bathing in a stream. While the pond has now tarnished to near black, it was originally painting in shining silver, complementing the golden sky above.
2) The second illustration shows princess Shirin has an ardent admirer in the talented sculptor and stonemason, Farhad. When Shirin desires milk from a herd of goats that graze in a distant field, Farhad sets to work cutting a channel from the goats’ mountain pastureland to a pool at the foot of Shirin’s palace. In this painting, Shirin visits Farhad upon his completion of the pool. At the very top of the composition, a goat cavorts in its hillside home.
3) And the third depicts the marriage of Khosrow and Shirin after many years of trials and tribulations. Great care is lavished upon the details of the building, suggesting that the artist may have intended to depict a specific structure. Over the heads of the couple appears an invocation to God—”Oh! Opener of Doors!” The inscription on the portico above, dated Rajab 913 (April–May 1525), is contemporaneous with the colophon of the manuscript.