‘Another day Bahram went out hunting at dawn with a group of companions. His vizier Hormozd rode on his left, and a priest on his right, and the two told him tales of Jamshid and Feraydun [legendary early kings of Iran]. They took no dogs, cheetahs and hawks with them and searched through the morning, but by noon they’d found no trace of either onager [wild ass] or deer, and when the sun shone in the heavens like a bright coin, Bahram irritatedly made his way back from his expedition. A green area, filled with men and flocks, appeared, and many people gathered round to stare at the hunters. Bahram was weary and feeling short-tempered; he’d hoped to dismount and rest in the village, but no one came forward to meet him, and the place seemed inhabited by donkeys. He grew angry with the people there and looked askance at them, saying to his priest:
“May this green, prosperous village be a den
Of beasts – a wild and uncultivated fen –
And may the water dry in every ditch
And turn to stagnant and black as pitch!”
The priest knew how to fulfil Bahram’s command and he turned aside from the road and entered the village. He said, “This green area, filled with houses, people and flocks, has pleased King Bahram and he has a new plan for you. Rejoice in your hearts, you are all masters now and can make this a splendid place. Here women and children are masters too, and no one has to obey anyone else. Labourer and headmen are equal: men, women and children, you are all headmen of the village!” A cry of joy went up from the inhabitants; in their minds men and women were the same, and labourers and servants were equal to the village headman. Since the young men now felt no fear of authority, they cut off the heads of the village elders: everyone became muddled up with everyone else, and bloodshed became commonplace. The area became as confused and horrifying as the Day of Judgement, and the inhabitants fled. A few weak, old men stayed there, but every sign of activity or prosperity had gone. The whole village took on a rundown look: trees withered, irrigation ditches dried up, houses were now in ruins, fields were uncultivated, men and their flocks were nowhere to be seen.
A year passed, and the following spring Bahram again went hunting in that area. He reached the place that had seemed so pleasant and prosperous, but the village he remembered was not there. All the trees were dead, the houses in ruins, the fields empty of flocks and people. Bahram’s heart was wrung to see this; he feared God and wished to act justly. He said this to his priest, “Ruzbeh, it hurts me to see this lovely place in ruins, go quickly and provide them with money from my treasury, so that they won’t suffer any more.”
The priest left the king’s side and rode into the ruins. He went from house to house and finally found an old man who had no work. He dismounted, greeted him politely, and invited the man to sit with him. He said, “Old man, who has ruined this prosperous place?”
The old man answered him, “By chance one day
The king and his companions come this way.
A foolish priest with no sense in his head,
One of those noble idiots, born and bred,
Declared to us, ”You’re all the masters here,
Social distinctions are to disappear.
The ranks of those who rule and those who serve
Are niceties that no one need observe.”
As soon as he’d said that our little village
Was filled with fights and plundering and pillage:
May God reward that man’s stupidity
And fill his days with grief and misery!”
Grieved to hear this, Ruzbeh asked “Who is your village headman?” The man replied,
“A headman’s a place where grain is grown,
And men can reap the harvest they have sown.”
Ruzbeh said, “You are to be the headman here, you’re to rule over these ruins. Ask the king for cash, seed, cows, and donkeys, and bring back to your village whoever you can find who is destitute. You are to be the headman and they’re to do as you tell them. And don’t curse that priest who came here before, as he didn’t want to say what he did. If you need help from the king’s court, I’ll send you whatever you need. All you have to do is ask.”
The old man was pleased to hear this and forgot his former sorrows. He immediately went from house to house to find men to work on the irrigations channels and to start cultivating the land again. They asked neighbouring villages for donkeys and cows and set to work making the plain productive. The headman and his villagers worked hard at planting trees everywhere, and their hearts were filled with happiness each time they saw a house had been rebuilt. All those who had fled from the place weeping and wailing came back one by one when they had heard of the success of the old headman’s efforts. The watercourses in the streets were rebuilt, the stocks of cows, donkeys, and sheep multiplied in the pastures, and the trees that people planted everywhere made the former ruins look like paradise.
By the following year the village had responded to the old man’s efforts and was as he wished. Once again, at spring time, the king went hunting with his priest, Ruzabeh, and for a third time they came to the village. Bahram Gur saw the land under cultivation, the herds of animals, the fine buildings, the plains and mountain slopes covered with sheep and lambs, the water courses coming down from the foothills, and the village filled with handsome men. He turned to the priest and said, “Ruzbeh, what have you done? This fine village was in ruins, its people and animals had fled. What did you give them so that they were able to make it flourish again?”
Ruzbeh answered, “One speech was enough to bring this ancient village to its knees, and one idea was enough to make it prosperous again, and so rejoice the heart of Persia’s king. You had ordered me to destroy the village using money from your treasury, but I was afraid of God’s judgement and the reproaches of noblemen and commoners. I saw that strife results when one has two thoughts, and knew that when a town has two masters it cannot survive. I told the village elders that there was no master over them, that women were masters now, and children too, as were servants and labourers. When the commoners became masters, the master’s heads were brought down to dust. This lovely place was destroyed by a speech, and I escaped reproach and did not fear God’s judgement. But then the king forgave them, so I went to them and suggested another course of action. I set a wise old man over them as their headman, someone who was eloquent and knowledgeable. Through his efforts he restored the village’s prosperity and made his inferiors’ hearts happy. Once one man was put in charge of the rest, things went well again: goodness increased and evil decreased. I showed them the way of evil and then I opened the door to God for them. If a man uses speech in the right place, it is worth more than fine jewels. If you want your soul to have no troubles, wisdom must be your king, and language your champion. May the king’s heart be eternally happy, triumphing over all evil and ruin.”
The king responded, “Ruzbeh, you are worthy of a crown!” He gave this clever and perspicacious man a purse of gold coins and a royal robe of honour, raising his head to the clouds in glory.’
[Abolqasem Ferdowsi, English translation into prose by Dick Davis, Penguin 1997]
Bahram V was the ruler of the Persian Empire between 420 and 438 AD and this story, written in the 10th Century, is set during his reign. It is a cautionary tale that demonstrates how a society can fall apart, but also how it can be built up again. The village is a microcosm of society and the events that occur mirror the process of dissolution and revival. Because the villagers did not greet the king and his entourage, this signals the beginning of the society’s fall, as the lack of manners and hospitality to strangers invited the king’s wrath upon them. The first speech given by the king’s priest is an example of the kinds of things touted by demagogues that preach egalitarianism, which then ensues in class warfare. The suggestion that everyone is equal results in a loss of focus and purpose other than removing power from those that have it in order to distribute it equally. Since each person is considered the same as everyone else, this results in confusion about who is to do what and so nobody knows what they should be doing. The distress that comes from loss of purpose when one is out of touch with their innate capabilities drives people to insanity, and so they become self-serving and opportunistic. The fact that no one can co-cooperate means that everybody becomes poor and no longer has a sense of common purpose. At this point, people begin to flee and leave for greener pastures, leaving only the old who are unable or unwilling to leave. And so, as there are no young folk, the society has no future.
However, upon the return of the priest once the king sees how destitute the village is, he finds the wisest of the old men, who knows how the society of his village fell apart and why. Because of his capability to understand this, he was appointed as the new headman of the village and was able to use the money given to him by the king to pay for new people to work for him. This demonstrates that there are natural leaders among a population, and that the wisest should be considered the most able to be so. Once there is somebody who can work with others and make use of their labour, their focus becomes finding what each person’s skills and abilities are in order to make use of them in working towards a common goal. The headman does not need to interfere in the lives of those that he commands, and so there is no resentment between people when they adopt the roles of master and servant. Thus, by recognizing the most agreeable purpose between individuals on a voluntary basis, a society can prosper and thrive.
When the king inquires about the splendid state of the village on his third visit, the priest explains that words and ideas can have a powerful effect upon a society, and can tear it down just as easily as they can build it up. By seeking to recognize a common truth with others, a society becomes functional and able to provide for the needs of those who inhabit it. This can only be done by working out the distinctions between those who can lead and those who follow. There is also the aspect of provider and dependant, which can be reflected in gender roles and definitions of maturity. As men are more likely to assume leadership roles, it does not make sense to expect this as something which women are as likely to fulfil, just as most men would struggle to perform roles better performed by women. Similarly, children are not considered capable of leadership as their immaturity makes them unsuited to the responsibilities of running a society.
However, whenever the natural tendency towards unity is disrupted and the idea of multiple leaders is introduced, society fractures into factions based on personal allegiance, and so people will not see themselves as part of a complete group, but as smaller competing collectives based on class, gender or race. When this happens, it results in hostility and bloodshed, and the benefits from the conflict are generally reaped by those who started trouble in the first place. But since the priest did not have a self-serving motive to begin with and was also able to promote truth and harmony, he appointed the old man to the role of leadership and returned the society to even better prosperity than before. Thus, the priest demonstrates that the mastery of language and the ability to convey truth or falsehood is a powerful tool that should not be abused if one has good intentions. King Bahram remarks that his priest deserves a crown, recognizing that wisdom is required to rule justly.