Bal‘ami’s Tarikhnameh: A popular medieval Persian prose work

Bal‘ami’s Tarikhnameh (Book of History) is no longer regarded merely as a Persian translation of Tabari’s general history in Arabic, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk (History of Prophets and Kings), or even an abridged translation of it.

Charles Melville, a British academic and professor of Persian History at the University of Cambridge, has called it a ‘radical adaptation’ of Tabari’s history, while Elton Daniel, who first investigated the complex history of the manuscript tradition of the text, concluded that it should be viewed as an independent work, and he even went so far as to suggest that the ‘translation’ was probably never intended to be one in the first place, at least not in the conventional sense.

Andrew Peacock, whose monograph Mediaeval Islamic Historiography and Political Legitimacy represents the latest contribution to the scholarly study of the topic, seconds these well-reasoned opinions and regards the Tarikhnameh as a work in its own right, albeit based on Tabari.

Bal‘ami’s Tarikhnameh, which is written in a straightforward and accessible style, represents a narrative, based loosely on Tabari, of pre-Islamic and early Islamic history, leading up to the rule of the Samanids. The Islamic portions of the work have attracted the most attention, as scholars have examined the various versions of specific episodes in early Islamic history, compared them with Tabari’s original, and interpreted them in the light of Samanid political and religious policies. The pre-Islamic portion of the history has not been a priority for Islamicists. Those who have devoted attention to it have by and large been specialists on Zoroastrianism who were not particularly interested in the Samanid context.

In his synopsis of the manuscript tradition of Bal‘ami’s Tarikhnameh, Elton Daniel investigated the seemingly intractable problems associated with the transmission of the work.

With approximately 160 identified manuscripts in existence, the Tarikhnameh was one of the most popular medieval Persian prose works, far more popular, it seems, than Tabari’s original.

The manuscripts exhibit a wide range of variants not only in terms of entire accounts but also in the case of particular details, making it virtually impossible to establish the stemmata of the manuscript tradition. Not all contain the pre-Islamic portion of the work. The oldest complete manuscript copy that includes the pre-Islamic portion of the history dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century, almost 350 years after the work was commissioned.

Reflecting the complexity of the manuscript tradition is the problem of the editions of the work, none of which can be viewed as definitive.

The introductions to the work state that the goal of the translation was to make Tabari’s work accessible to a Persian-speaking audience. Julie Meisami has demonstrated, the argument for Persianisation cannot be rejected out of hand, because Persian functioned after all as the lingua franca, the ‘chief language of communication’, as she puts it, in Samanid Transoxiana and the frontier regions of Central Asia and it served as the vehicle of acculturation of the newly converted Turkic slave soldiers who constituted the Samanid military elite.

Both narrative historical traditions – Iranian and Islamic – co-existed and were being forged simultaneously in the eastern Islamic world under the Samanids.

It may be instructive to compare the Samanid translation project to other state-sponsored translation projects in the medieval Islamic world and beyond. Andrew Peacock has compared it with the translation movement of the early ‘Abbasid Period of the eighth to tenth centuries, the purpose of which in his view was to ‘legitimize the ruling dynasty through the actual and symbolic transfer of knowledge’.

The same pattern may be observed at various periods under other ambitious dynasts – the Timurids under Shahrukh, for example, who in the first part of the fifteenth century sponsored the translation from Persian into Chaghatay Turkish of what were considered the two iconic texts of Muslim spirituality at the time, the hagiographical work Tadhkirat al-Awliya’ by ‘Attar and the narrative of the Prophet’s ascension, or Mi‘rajnameh. Translation under the Ottomans, which saw the wholesale transfer and adaptation of works of Persian literature into Turkish, reflected the same kind of ideological impetus


The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled, ‘Between Persian legend and Samanid orthodoxy: Accounts about Gayumarth in Bal‘ami’s Tarikhnameh’, from a book entitled, ‘Ferdowsi, the Mongols and the History of Iran’, Edited by Robert Hillenbrand, A.C.S. Peacock and Firuza Abdullaeva, published by I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd.