In the year 637 CE, an Arab assault on the Persian Empire brought to an end the five-hundred-year rule of the Sasanian Dynasty that dominated most of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, and regions to the north in central Asia. By 642, an Arab caliphate had absorbed much of the Sasanian territory in western Iran, along with the treasury. Over the next decade, remaining resistance was quelled and whatever remnants of Sasanian culture remained were pushed to the eastern perimeter. Thereafter, the vast territory formerly under Persian rule with Zoroastrianism the dominant religion fell under a series of Islamic dynasties, thus bringing to an end the last vestiges of the Persian Empire.
Three hundred and fifty years later, the Persian poet Abil-Qậsem Ferdowsi (935–1025 CE) undertook to write a poem celebrating pre-Islamic Persia, a task that took him 35 years. The work is so important for Iranians that an impressive mausoleum stands over his grave at Tus, Iran. Ferdowsi's goal was to memorialize the former Persian Empire, its culture, its people, above all its kings. The result was Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, an immense epic whose only rival in historical scope might be the Indian Mahabharata. Ferdowsi incorporated approximately 1,000 verses from Khvata-namak, an earlier though incomplete history of the Persian kings, but his completed epic adds up to 60,000 couplets, more than double the length of any of the familiar European epics by Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, or Camoens. In his version, the history of the Persian kings begins in the distant past: the earliest kings are credited with establishing the very foundations of civilization analogous to the earliest emperors of China and Japan. Given such scope, the Shahnameh is an empowering narrative that places Iran and the Iranians at the center of world civilization even though the great empire came to a decisive end more than thirteen centuries ago. The great era of the Persian Empire lives on, as Azar Nafisi puts it, “in the kingdom of the imagination” (1997, ix) and, as Firuza Abdullaeva argues, “Ferdowsi's role in the formation of the Persian literary language and literary culture in general is similar to that of Shakespeare in the English-speaking world, or Pushkin for the Russians” (2010, 16), to which we could add Homer for the Greeks or Dante for the Italians.