Persia, Ferdowsi, and the Shahnameh

by Adam Sedia

A previous essay highlighted how the Finnish national epic poem, the Kalevala, spurred the development of Finnish culture and even of Finland as a nation. That is hardly the only instance of a poem wielding such an influence over a people and a nation. A thousand years ago on another continent, another epic played a similar role in reviving a language and culture that had fallen into decline after foreign conquest. This was the great Persian epic, the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940-1019/25). Much more than a sweeping narrative of Pre-Islamic Persian myth and history, it played a crucial role in reviving the Persian language and inspiring a literary renaissance that established Persian as the dominant literary language throughout much of Asia.


I. Linguistic and Historical Background

Though mostly for religious reasons grouped in the greater Middle East, Iran has always had a distinct and often hostile culture to the rest of the Middle East. This otherness extends to the earliest recorded history. The Elamite kingdom of Southwestern Iran, one of the earliest civilizations to develop writing, appears in Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian records as the perpetual enemy of those Mesopotamian civilizations for at least 2,500 years—and likely much longer. Peoples of the Zagros Mountains—the Gutians and later the Kassites—were remembered for subjugating Mesopotamia during periods of weakness.

By the ninth century B.C., two closely related peoples, the Medes and Persians, migrated to the Iranian Plateau, gradually displacing the ancient languages with their own Indo-European tongues. The Old Persian and its related Median and Parthian languages descend from Avestan, an ancient language closely related to Sanskrit and preserved as the language of the Zend Avesta, the sacred text of Zoroastrianism, the dualistic religion of ancient Persia that still survives as a minority religion in Iran and India. From Old Persian descend classical and modern Persian (including Dari and Tajik), and from Median and Parthian descend the modern Kurdish languages. Thus, the languages of both historical and modern Iran are related to the languages of Europe, including English, and not to the Semitic Arabic language dominant throughout the rest of the Islamic world.

Although the Medes would build their kingdom (727-550 BC) first, the Persians would subsume the Medes and under the Achaemenid Dynasty (730-332 BC) would conquer an Empire that stretched from India to Egypt to Greece, starting with Cyrus the Great (r. 559-530 BC) and reaching its apogee under his successors Darius I (r. 522-486 BC) and Xerxes I (r. 486-464 BC), who were renowned for the grandeur of their court and the might of their armies. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in 332 BC brought the empire to a sudden and spectacular end, but Greek rule over Persia would be short-lived.

The Arsacid, or Parthian, Dynasty (247 BC – 224 AD) began with a revolt against the Greek rulers and eventually ruled over the Iranian Plateau and Mesopotamia for half a millennium as the perpetual and formidable enemy of first the Seleucid Greeks and then the Roman Empire. Although its ruling class was Parthian rather than Persian and adopted significant elements of Greek culture, they ruled a Persian-speaking, Zoroastrian empire that both they and the Romans regarded as the successor the Achaemenid Persians.

In 224, Ardashir, a Persian vassal of the Parthian king, overthrew his master and founded the Sassanian Dynasty (224-651), the last great Pre-Islamic dynasty of Persia. The Sassanian shahs were Persian nationalists and devout Zoroastrians, and regarded their empire as a revival of the ancient Achaemenid glory. To that end, they engaged in several long and bitter wars with the Roman (and later Byzantine) Empire. Khosrow II (r. 590-628) even managed to extend his empire briefly into Syria, Egypt, and Yemen.

But Khosrow II’s ambitious wars strained the army, the population, and the treasury. He was overthrown by his son, sparking a long succession crisis that severely weakened the empire. When the armies of the infant Islamic Caliphate swept out of Arabia, the exhausted and divided Persians proved no match for them. In less than two years, the Islamic army advanced to the Oxus River (in Modern Uzbekistan) and forced the last Sassanian Shah to flee to China.

The Islamic conquest of Persia is a watershed moment in history, marking an end to the ancient, Zoroastrian empire that had been a major power throughout ancient history. The Persians now found themselves a subject people: the new Arab ruling class regarded not just Zoroastrians, but even Persians who had converted to Islam, as an inferior class. The conquest began a two-century silence in Persian literature.

Slowly, however, native Persian culture began to reemerge. After their rise to power in 750, the Abbasid caliphs moved their capital to Baghdad—near the old Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon—and included Persians in their court. Still, the Persians resented Arab rule, revolting several times. After Abbasid power declined in the ninth century, native Persian dynasties emerged in the old Sassanian heartland: the Buyids (934-1062), who claimed to descend from the Sassanian Dynasty, and the Samanids (819-999) further east began a reassertion of Persian identity, syncretizing Zoroastrian and Islamic religious celebrations and—most significantly—using the Persian language. The first Samanid court poet, Rudaki (880-940/1) is considered the first major poet to write in “New Persian”—the version of Persian that emerged after the Islamic conquest, written in the Arabic script. The stage was set for a Persian renaissance. Just as the Italian Renaissance owed much of its birth to Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio, the Persian Renaissance would owe its origins to a poet, as well.


II. Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh

Ferdowsi was born around 940 in Khorasan Province, then under Samanid rule. His family were Muslims and belonged to the dehqan class—members of the native landed aristocracy whose origins predated the Islamic conquest. As such, they regarded themselves as the preservers of traditional Persian culture. Among the traditions they preserved was a rich oral history that Ferdowsi would use as the basis of his epic.

Ferdowsi began work on the Shahnameh in 977, intending it as a continuation of a prose work of the same title by the Samanid court poet Abu Mansur Daqiqi, who was murdered by his slave that year. More fundamentally, Ferdowsi wanted to preserve the stories of Persian oral tradition in writing. With his efforts generously sponsored by the Samanid prince Mansur, Ferdowsi finished his first version of the epic in 994. In 999, the Samanids were conquered by the Turkic Mahmud of Ghazni, and Ferdowsi rewrote parts of his work to praise his new patron, finally completing the epic on March 8, 1010.

The scale of the work is monumental, consisting of more than 50,000 couplets of 22 syllables each (roughly the equivalent of 200,000 lines of English pentameter). It is divided into 990 chapters grouped into three parts (“mythical,” “heroic,” and “historical” ages) that tell 62 stories of both legendary and historical kings and heroes of Pre-Islamic Persia spanning the course of purported millennia. In both its length and its scope it more closely resembles the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, than Classical epics like the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid.

After an invocation to God, the epic’s first part consists of 2,100 couplets recounting stories of mythical early rulers: Keyumars, the first man and first shah; Hushang, who discovered fire; Tahmuras; Jamshid, who established Persian civilization; Zahhak, the evil usurper from Arabia (reflecting the Persian attitude to the Arabs); Fereydun, who overthrows Zahhak and reasserts Persian rule; and Fereydun’s grandson Manuchehr, in whose reign the realm is divided at the Oxus River between Persia and Turan—with the conflict between the two realms forming the basis for the plot through the rest of the epic.

The second part of the epic—nearly two thirds of the entire work—details the “heroic” age from Manuchehr to Alexander the Great (called Sekandar in Persian). The central figures of this part are Sam, Manuchehr’s paladin; his son Zal, featured in the Romance of Zal and Rudaba; and Zal’s son Rostam, the bravest of warriors, the preeminent hero of this part of the epic. Reminiscent of Hercules, Rostam undertakes seven labors to save his sovereign, and in a particularly famous episode, mistakenly kills his son Sohrab. Crown Prince Esfandiyar also undertakes seven labors until he is killed by Rostam. The shah Kay Khosrow features as an ideal monarch, presiding over an age of enlightenment and civility before abdicating and fleeing the land.

Interestingly, the great Achaemenid kings Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes do not feature in the epic, having only a faint echo in the character of Shah Kay Darab (Darius). This may be due to Ferdowsi’s location in Khorasan, an eastern province far from the Acchaemenid power centers where their memory was not well preserved. And much of the material concerning Alexander the Great is legendary. For example, Alexander is made to be half-Persian, the son of Kay Darab, and consistent with Islamic tradition is portrayed as much as a seeker of knowledge and enlightenment as a conqueror.

The final part of the epic begins with a brief mention of the Parthian rulers, whose memory had been purged by the victorious Sassanian rulers, followed by a rather accurate account of the Sassanian shahs. Ferdowsi portrays Khosrow I (r. 531-579) as the ideal monarch and makes the general Bahram Chobin (who briefly usurped the throne as Bahram VI in 590-91)—purported ancestor of his Samanid patrons—a central hero of this final part. The entire epic then concludes with the Islamic conquest, portrayed as the disastrous result of a series of weak, extravagant, and petty rulers.


III. Style and Themes of the Poem

The opening of the poem gives its famous invocation to God and states its purpose:


Thee I invoke, the Lord of Life and Light!
Beyond imagination pure and bright!
To thee, sufficing praise no tongue can give,
We are thy creatures, and in thee we live!
Thou art the summit, depth, the all in all,
Creator, Guardian of this earthly ball;
Whatever is, thou art—Protector, King,
From thee all goodness, truth, and mercy spring.
O pardon the misdeeds of him who now
Bends in thy presence with a suppliant brow.
Teach them to tread the path thy Prophet trod;
To wash his heart from sin, to know his God;
And gently lead him to that home of rest,
Where filled with holiest rapture dwell the blest.
. . .

From records true my legends I rehearse,
And string the pearls of wisdom in my verse,
That in the glimmering days of life’s decline,
Its fruits, in wealth and honor, may be mine.
My verse, a structure pointing to the skies;
Whose solid strength destroying time defies.
All praise the noble work, save only those
Of impious life, or base malignant foes;
All blest with learning read, and read again,
The sovereign smiles, and thus approves my strain:
“Richer by far, Firdusi, than a mine
Of precious gems, is this bright lay of thine.”
Centuries may pass away, but still my page
Will be the boast of each succeeding age.

(Tr. James Atkinson, 1832.)


In good epic tradition, Ferdowsi begins with an invocation of divinity, in his case the God of Islam, sole and omnipotent. Rather than requesting assistance, as Homer, Virgil, and Milton do in their epics, Ferdowsi simply begs pardon for his sins. Shifting to his purpose, Ferdowsi affirms that his stories come from “records true,” and asserts that he is setting them to verse to preserve them for the ages.

A major theme throughout the poem is the extolling of moral virtues: religious devotion, moral rectitude, devotion to nation and family, and generosity to the poor. Ferdowsi provides exemplars of these virtues and their opposing vices in his characters. As one example, he has one of his ideal rulers, Kay Khosrow, speak the following in response to the threat of war from Afrasiyab, the Turanian king and chief antagonist of the epic’s second part:


[“]Our quarrel now is dark to view,
It bears the fiercest, gloomiest hue;
And vain have speech and promise been
To change for peace the battle scene;
For thou art still to treachery prone,
Though gentle now in word and tone;
But that imperial crown thou wearest,
That mace which thou in battle bearest,
Thy kingdom, all, thou must resign;
Thy army too—for all are mine!
Thou talk’st of strength, and might, and power,
When revelling in a prosperous hour;
But know, that strength of nerve and limb
We owe to God—it comes from Him!
And victory’s palm, and regal sway,
Alike the will of Heaven obey.
Hence thy lost throne, no longer thine,
Will soon, perfidious king! be mine!”


Echoing the invocation, the king recognizes that both his and his enemy’s royal authority is not supreme, but subject to the divine will, and reminds his enemy that the victory he now has can quickly be turned into defeat. Political power and authority, then, exists within and is subject to the divine order.

In introducing the tale of Sohrab and Rostam, Ferdawsi speaks directly to the reader with an admonition he wishes the story to convey—a memento mori:


O ye, who dwell in Youth’s inviting bowers,
Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours,
But rather let the tears of sorrow roll,
And sad reflection fill the conscious soul.
For many a jocund spring has passed away,
And many a flower has blossomed, to decay;
And human life, still hastening to a close,
Finds in the worthless dust its last repose.
Still the vain world abounds in strife and hate,
And sire and son provoke each other’s fate;
And kindred blood by kindred hands is shed,
And vengeance sleeps not—dies not, with the dead.
All nature fades—the garden’s treasures fall,
Young bud, and citron ripe—all perish, all.

And now a tale of sorrow must be told,
A tale of tears, derived from Múbid old,


One of the epic’s most poignant moments comes at this tale’s climax. Rostam’s son Sohrab fights for the Turanian army against Persia and becomes its bravest warrior. Rostam battles him, and not recognizing him, deals him a fatal blow. The dying Sohrab then reveals his identity:


Writhing with pain Sohráb in murmurs sighed—
And thus to Rustem—“Vaunt not, in thy pride;
Upon myself this sorrow have I brought,
Thou but the instrument of fate—which wrought
My downfall; thou are guiltless—guiltless quite;
O! had I seen my father in the fight,
My glorious father! Life will soon be o’er,
And his great deeds enchant my soul no more!
Of him my mother gave the mark and sign,
For him I sought, and what an end is mine!
My only wish on earth, my constant sigh,
Him to behold, and with that wish I die.
But hope not to elude his piercing sight,
In vain for thee the deepest glooms of night;
Couldst thou through Ocean’s depths for refuge fly,
Or midst the star-beams track the upper sky!
Rustem, with vengeance armed, will reach thee there,
His soul the prey of anguish and despair.”

An icy horror chills the Champion’s heart,
His brain whirls round with agonizing smart;
O’er his wan cheek no gushing sorrows flow,
Senseless he sinks beneath the weight of woe;
Relieved at length, with frenzied look, he cries:
“Prove thou art mine, confirm my doubting eyes!
For I am Rustem!” Piercing was the groan,
Which burst from his torn heart—as wild and lone,
He gazed upon him. Dire amazement shook
The dying youth, and mournful thus he spoke:
“If thou art Rustem, cruel is thy part,
No warmth paternal seems to fill thy heart;
Else hadst thou known me when, with strong desire,
I fondly claimed thee for my valiant sire;
Now from my body strip the shining mail,
Untie these bands, ere life and feeling fail;
And on my arm the direful proof behold!
Thy sacred bracelet of refulgent gold!
When the loud brazen drums were heard afar,
And, echoing round, proclaimed the pending war,
Whilst parting tears my mother’s eyes o’erflowed,
This mystic gift her bursting heart bestowed:
‘Take this,’ she said, ‘thy father’s token wear,
And promised glory will reward thy care.’
The hour is come, but fraught with bitterest woe,
We meet in blood to wail the fatal blow.”

The loosened mail unfolds the bracelet bright,
Unhappy gift! to Rustem’s wildered sight,
Prostrate he falls—“By my unnatural hand,
My son, my son is slain—and from the land
Uprooted.”—Frantic, in the dust his hair
He rends in agony and deep despair;
The western sun had disappeared in gloom,
And still, the Champion wept his cruel doom;


One unique feature of the poem is its view of kingship. The kings of the Shahnameh are fallible, and quite often portrayed as less capable and moral than their advisors. A significant number of kings also abdicate, and both Zal and Rostam play roles as kingmakers. The kingship portrayed in the epic is a far cry from the absolutist, semi-divine institution of the Achaemenid kings, so clearly visible on their monuments and in contemporary Greek accounts. Indeed, the epic’s view of kingship so displeased the absolutist Pahlavi shahs of the twentieth century that they largely ignored the epic.

This difference is likely due to Ferdowsi coming from Khorasan, in the eastern part of the historical Persia, far from the power centers as Persepolis, Ecbatana, and Ctesiphon. Not only could people in the provinces speak more freely away from the king’s watchful eye, but they retained a sense of the tribal leadership that predated the organized, hierarchical structure of the Persian Empires. Those attitudes likely survived in the oral traditions that Ferdowsi collected from his native province.

Kay Khosrow in his abdication speech says:


“That which I sought for, I have now obtained.
Nothing remains of worldly wish, or hope,
To disappoint or vex me. I resign
The pageantry of kings, and turn away
From all the pomp of the Kaiánian throne,
Sated with human grandeur.—Now, farewell!
Such is my destiny. To those brave friends,
Who, ever faithful, have my power upheld,
I will discharge the duty of a king,
Paying the pleasing debt of gratitude.”


Here Ferdowsi portrays, as stated through a character he has portrayed as the ideal ruler, kingship as a burden, and the royal pomp and splendor as “pageantry.” What the retiring king truly values is the loyalty of his friends, and sees his gratitude to them as a “pleasing debt.” Far from a quasi-divine emperor, Ferdowsi’s shah is quite human, discharging a duty and grateful to his supporters.

Ferdowsi concludes the epic with an admonition to Mahmud of Ghazni in remarkably direct language:


Know, tyrant as thou art, this earthly state
Is not eternal, but of transient date;
Fear God, then, and afflict not human-kind;
To merit Heaven, be thou to Heaven resigned.
Afflict not even the Ant; though weak and small,
It breathes and lives, and life is sweet to all.
Knowing my temper, firm, and stern, and bold,
Didst thou not, tyrant, tremble to behold
My sword blood-dropping? Hadst thou not the sense
To shrink from giving man like me offence?
What could impel thee to an act so base?
What, but to earn and prove thy own disgrace?
Why was I sentenced to be trod upon,
And crushed to death by elephants? By one
Whose power I scorn! Couldst thou presume that I
Would be appalled by thee, whom I defy?
I am the lion, I, inured to blood,
And make the impious and the base my food;
And I could grind thy limbs, and spread them far
As Nile’s dark waters their rich treasures bear.
Fear thee! I fear not man, but God alone,
I only bow to his Almighty throne.
Inspired by Him my ready numbers flow;
Guarded by Him I dread no earthly foe.
Thus in the pride of song I pass my days,
Offering to Heaven my gratitude and praise.
. . .

Now mark Firdusi’s strain, his Book of Kings
Will ever soar upon triumphant wings.
All who have listened to its various lore
Rejoice, the wise grow wiser than before;
Heroes of other times, of ancient days,
Forever flourish in my sounding lays;
. . .

The toil of thirty years is now complete,
Record sublime of many a warlike feat,
Written midst toil and trouble, but the strain
Awakens every heart, and will remain
A lasting stimulus to glorious deeds;
For even the bashful maid, who kindling reads,
Becomes a warrior. Thirty years of care,
Urged on by royal promise, did I bear,
And now, deceived and scorned, the aged bard
Is basely cheated of his pledged reward!


This passage has spurred much discussion. The generally accepted view is that Mahmud of Ghazni reneged on a promised reward for finishing the epic, and this remonstrance was Ferdowsi’s revenge. But even so, it is far from an embittered personal attack. Instead, Ferdowsi attacks tyranny in general and its presumptuousness, presenting an argument that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. By giving offense to the poet, the ruler condemned himself to perpetual infamy, his wrongs being commemorated for all time in the great epic. Before closing his poem, Ferdowsi once more presents his objective for the epic, this time as having been achieved: the wise grow wiser, the meek are emboldened, and the ancient tales of his people’s heroes “forever flourish.” Ferdowsi, like Horce and Sir Philip Sidney, sees the end of poetry as both to teach and to delight.


III. Legacy

The Shahnameh had the immediate effect of reviving Persian as a literary language. Though it was not the first work of poetry in the New Persian that emerged after the Islamic conquest, its sheer scale and its comprehensive treatment of Persian mythology and history made it immediately the most important work in the language and ensured its impact on Persian culture was both profound and enduring.

A renaissance of Persian poetry quickly followed, including the famous Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), which contain several allusions to the Shahnameh, and the panegyrics and elegies of Shihabuddin Am’aq (c. 1050-1148). Persian poets who wrote epics in conscious imitation of the Shahnameh’s style and Pre-Islamic subject matter include As’ad Gurgani (fl. 11th c.) in Vis and Ramin, Asadi Tusi (c. 1000-1073) in the Garshaspnameh, and Nezami (1141-1209) in the Khamsa (also called the Five Treasures). The Persian tradition also developed a tradition, Islamic mystical poetry, as exemplified in the works of Sanai (1085-1131/41), Attar (c. 1145-1221) and, more famously, Rumi (1207-1273), Saadi (1210-1291/2), and Hafez (c. 1325-90). Sanai believed that Persian poetry had its true origins in Ferdowsi Another poet, Anvari (1126-89), was more effusive, saying of Ferdowsi, “He was not just a teacher and we his students; he was like a god and we are his slaves.”

Studying the epic was considered necessary for mastery of the Persian language. Indeed, the modern Persian language is largely the same as that used in the epic—in no small part due to the epic’s centrality to the study of the Persian language. In this way, Ferdowsi’s role was similar to Dante’s, his work defining the language itself.

Starting with Mahmud of Ghazni in Ferdowsi’s own lifetime, Persia fell to various conquering peoples: the Seljuq Turks in 1037, the Mongols in 1256, and the hybrid Turkic-Mongol empire of Timur in 1370. These Turkic- and Mongolian-speaking conquerors had no written language or literary traditions of their own, and they quickly adopted Persian as their official, court, and literary language. The Turks even accepted the Shahnameh as their own history, considering themselves to be the heirs of Afrasiyab’s Turanians in the epic. Later Seljuk rulers even adopted the names of kings from the epic: Kay Kobad, Kay Khosrow, and Kay Kavus.

The Ottoman Turks, the Seljuqs’ eventual successors, also used Persian as their official, court, and literary language for the first few centuries of their rule—despite being archenemies of the Persian shahs. Persian would also serve as the court language of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) and the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) in India, and in some Mughal successor states into the twentieth century. It also served in the same capacity in the successor states of the Mongol Empire in Central Asia, also into the twentieth century. To illustrate its importance, Persian was the only non-European language known by Marco Polo, and the only one he needed to use on his journey to China.

In Persia itself, Shah Ismail I (r. 1501-24), founder of the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736) and considered the founder of modern Iran, was the first native Persian ruler after nearly five centuries of Turkic and Mongol rule. He was also profoundly influenced by the Shahnameh—so much so that he named all of his sons after characters from the epic – and sought to continue its tradition as a celebration of Persian national identity and a reassertion of native Persian rule. After defeating the Uzbeks at Merv in 1510, he commissioned the Khorasani poet Hatefi (1454-1521) to write a Shahnameh-like epic to commemorate his new dynasty. This started the regular practice of Savafid shahs commissioning masnavi (written in couplets) poems patterned after the Shahnameh. The Safavid shahs also commissioned illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnameh itself, which are prized as some of the highest achievements of Persian art.

The Shahnameh’s legacy also spread outside of Persia and continues to the present day. Georgian poetry, with a rich tradition of its own, borrowed heavily from the Shahnameh’s stories and characters, which then entered the Russian imagination with Russia’s annexation of Georgia in 1801. Further West, Persian poetry inspired Goethe to write his last major cycle of poems, West-Eastern Divan (1827), in which he wrote, alluding to the Shahnameh, “It will always seem strange to the historians that no matter how many times a country has been conquered, subjugated and even destroyed by enemies, there is always a certain national core preserved in its character, and before you know it, there re-emerges a long-familiar native phenomenon.” In English, Matthew Arnold retold the story of Sohrab and Rostam in his own verse. Stories from the Shahnameh are also a favorite subject of Indian and Iranian film through the present.


IV. Conclusion

Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh illustrate the power of poetry, how a single poem by a single poet can change the course of cultural history. Persia was a conquered nation and the Persian language had fallen from its status as a national language. Although hints of linguistic revival stirred, Ferdowsi would single-handedly become the force that revitalized not just Persian language, but Persian culture itself. The Shahnameh burst upon the scene, and a full-fledged literary renaissance followed. Persian, no longer a repressed language, became a prestigious language, the language of royal courts and high literature from Constantinople to Delhi and beyond. In the end it would be the poet who wielded his power over kings and emperors.



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3 Responses

  1. Roy E. Peterson

    Illuminating intellectual treatise on the power of poetry in history and culture. Fascinating reading. Thank you for sharing this with us!

  2. David Bellemare Gosselin


    Given that poetry serves as the fount of the imagination, Shelley is correct in saying that “It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought.”

    He is correct since any idea, whether in science or in art is first born in the imagination, before then being formalized into some complete deductive process.

    To the degree the poetic imagination is weakened, science and civilization (as opposed to simple mechanical innovation) will ultimately suffer and decline.

    Goethe said so much when he wrote “the decline of literature signals the decline of a nation.”


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