MARZBĀN-NĀMA, an early 13th-century prose work in Persian consisting of various didactic stories and fables used as illustrations of morality and right conduct.

Background and genealogyMarzbān-nāma was written during the years 607-22/1210-25 by the translator/author Saʿd-al-Din Varāvini under the patronage of the vizier Abu’l-Qāsem Hārun, who was in service to the Ildegizid Atabak Ozbak b. Moḥammad in Azerbaijan (see Atābakān-e Āḏarbāyjān).  Marzbān-nāma has been translated fully or as an abridgement into Turkish, Arabic, French, and English.  It is said to be based upon a now lost earlier specimen, which was put down in the dialect of Tabaristan around the 4th/10th century, by Marzbān b. Rostam b. Šervin of the Bavandid dynasty (see ĀL-e BĀVAND; Ebn Esfandiār, I, p. 137; tr., p. 86), whose descendants traced their lineage to Sasanian kings (Kaykāvus b. Eskandar, p. 5). 

Varāvini’s Marzbān-nāma is in fact one of two versions known to us.  An earlier composition, a text of slightly different form and an expanded content bearing the additional title of Rowżat al-ʿoqul, was authored in 598/1201 by Moḥammad b. Ḡāzi Malaṭiawi, for the Saljuqid court of Rokn-al-Din Solaymān II (r. 592-600/1196-1204), at Konya (Qazvini, pp. 1062-66; Ṣafā, pp. 1004-5)There are two copies preserved in Paris and Leiden (Qazvini, p. 1062).  This rare and earlier version by Malaṭiawi has been published only in excerpted form (e.g., Houtsma, pp. 359-92; Malaṭiawi, tr. Massé, pp. 5-67; see also Qazvini’s edition, pp. ix-xii of preface).  Due to the nature of the expanded content in particular (regarding the number of chapters and tales), this version, which is less known but by no means less significant, more than merits scholarly investigation on its own terms.

Judging from introductory notes by Varāvini and Malaṭiawi, it is possible that both used the same source in existence around the 4th/10th century or earlier; but it is also possible that different compilations were already extant when Varāvini and Malaṭiawi were working on their own versions (Houtsma, p. 374; cf. Davis, pp. 109-10).  

Literary annals and surviving manuscripts suggest that Varāvini’s rendition has long been the version more widely available and copied.  This may be partly explained by timing: not only did it physically survive, but it also did so from the 13th century onward, when paper was more widely available (see Blair, p. 302).  What is more, Varāvini’s version was also translated and retranslated, first into Turkish in the 1300s by Shaikh Oḡlu, whose Turkish rendering was later translated into Arabic by Ebn ʿArabšāh in 852/1448 (see Qazvini, pp. 1073-75; Pedersen; Brockelmann; Burrill). 

The work is comprised of nine chapters (bāb) with main-framed stories, embedded minor tales, as well as Persian and Arabic poems, parables, sayings, and Qorʾanic expressions (for the sources of Arabic verses used, see Mahdawi Dāmḡāni).  Among the several extant manuscripts, only one (Ms. 216, dated 698/1299, at the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul) is known to include illustrations (three in total, being relevant to the patron, author, and the Prophet), all within the manuscript’s preface (Simpson, pp. 91-116).  Varāvini’s version first appeared bound and in printed format as a collation edited by Mirzā Moḥammad Qazvini as volume eight of the E.J.W. Gibb Memorial Series in 1909 (Figure 1).  It was reprinted in Iran in 1948.  Later a new, updated version with notes, variants, and appendices edited by Moḥammad Rowšan was published in 1976, followed by one edited with commentary by Ḵalil Ḵaṭib Rahbar in 1984. 

Sources of Marzbān-nāma as related to Varāvini’s authorship, the genre, and content. To what degree Varāvini’s version is based upon or is independent of the original text he used is not known (on this issue, see Borjian, 2009, pp. 12-13; Davis, p. 3).  Varāvini states in his preface, however, that the manuscript he consulted was in the Ṭabari dialect (ba zabān-e Ṭabarestān) of its period, and that he considered the contents as worthy of presentation in standard New Persian (Varāvini, pp. 6-7 in Qazvini’s ed., and pp. 10-11 in Rowšan’s ed.; Ṣafā, pp. 1007-8). 

In general, Marzbān-nāma is similar to other popular works of the medieval period, in the way that it encompasses various Perso-Islamic literary traditions (e.g., see Ḡazāli, tr., pp. xiii-xvi, 46-47).  While there is a religious tone invoked from the very first chapter, which is the mainstay of the book, the work also noticeably contains various pre-Islamic elements and references, which in turn blend different didactic themes of wisdom, advice, and Mirror-for-Princes:  this is seen in the repeated striving for moral rectitude, the constancy of sage advice, and above all the ideal of Persian kingship being upheld.

More specifically, Marzbān-nāma is known for its similarity in content to the Kalila wa Demna fables, one of many books that Varāvini tells his readers he consulted as a literary model (Varāvini, pp. 2-3, in Qazvini’s edition and pp. 5-6 in Rowšan’s).  Of particular note, however, is that while both Kalila wa Demna and Marzbān-nāma depict kings, viziers, and the running (smoothly or not) of a kingdom, in the Indian, Panchatantra-based Kalila wa Demna collection, the king is often weak and displaying naïveté in the management of his court.  In Marzbān-nāma, however, harmony at court is disrupted from the very beginning and then it is restored, and this is the main topos throughout the book. 

Narrative structure.  In the first chapter, Prince Marzbān endures friction with his brother, who is king, caused by the undermining of the court vizier.  Through debate and the aid of moral examples and fables, the brothers achieve harmony by the end of the chapter.  Each successive chapter explores various difficult challenges that a king may encounter, and how a restorative process with a positive outcome may result.  In chapter two, a ruler who is on his deathbed attempts to subdue the rivalry between his sons, by preparing the next in line and referring him to a trusted peer for guidance.   In chapter three, a royal daughter is preparing for marriage, but instead of the traditional custom of marrying for prestige or increased wealth, she prefers to marry a wise, modest man.  Chapter four portrays how a man who is steadied by wisdom and religion may overcome the temptations often inflicted by evil.  Chapters five, six, seven, and eight shift to animal framed stories, and each depicts how a well-intentioned king handles adversity at court or with an unruly neighbor, and by extension how the experience may apply to the successful rule of a kingdom.  The final chapter shows in a condensed form how all lessons also apply to the most vulnerable of beings, and it is precisely by this that the reader is meant to be edified and uplifted.  At the core of the entire text is the reinforcement of the maxim that Islamic justice and Islamic virtues are to be sought by the ruler and the ruled alike.    

Manuscripts.  The following is a brief sampling of the older extant manuscript copies of Varāvini’s Marzbān-nāma:  Ms. 216 (Library of the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul), the only known manuscript with illustrations, dated 698/1299; OR 6476 (British Library, London, used in the collation of Qazvini), dated 8th/14th century, displays evidence of more than one copier; Ancien Fonds Persan 384 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; also used in Qazvini’s  collation), dated 9th/15th century.  For these and other manuscript copies held in London, Paris, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, and throughout Iran, see Blochet; Dorn; Schefer (II, p. 209 with expanded details on Dorn); Meredith-Owens; Monzawi; Rieu (comparison between these catalogues shows some variance in dates and manuscript identification); also Mikluho-Maclay (I, p. 542; II, p. 144, partial update to Dorn); Richard (p. 386, an update to Blochet); Grube (p. 170, a 9th/15th-cent. anthology from Yazd, which includes Marzbān-nāma); Waley (p. 66; Marzbān-nāma written in the margins of Kalila wa Demna, and listed as text 2 of OR 13163). 


Iraj Afshar, “Manuscripts in the Domains of the Persian Language,” in A History of Persian Literature I, ed., J. T. P. de Bruijn, London, 2009, pp. 408-29. 

Arthur J. Arberry, Classical Persian Literature, London, 1958, pp. 179-85.

Moḥammad-Taqi Malek-al-Šoʿarāʾ Bahār, Sabk-šenāsi, 3 vols., Tehran, 1942, III, pp. 14-20.

Alessandro Bausani, La Letteratura Neopersiana, Rome, 2011.

Sheila S. Blair, “Baghdad: Calligraphy Capital under the Mongols,” in Ismail Safa Üstün, ed., Islâm medeniyetinde Bagdat (medînetü's-selâm) uluslararasi sempozyum: International Symposium on Baghdad (Madinat al-Salam) in the Islamic Civilization, Istanbul, 2011, pp. 297-316. 

Edgar Blochet, Catalogue des Manuscrits Persans, 4 vols., Paris, 1905-34.

Habib Borjian, “Mazandaran: Language and People,” Iran and the Caucasus 8/2, 2004, pp. 289-328. 

Idem, Motun-e ṭabari, Tehran, 2009.

Carl Brockelmann, “Kalīla wa Dimna,” in EI2 IV, 1978, pp. 503-6.

Kathleen Burrill, “Sheykh-Oghlu,” in EI2 IX, 1997, pp. 418-419.

Paul Casanova, “Les Ispehbeds de Firîm,” in Thomas W. Arnold and Reynold A. Nicholson, eds., A Volume of Oriental Studies Presented to Edward G. Browne on His 60th Birthday, Cambridge, 1922, pp. 117-26. 

Edward William Davis, “The Tales of Marzbān-nāmah,” Ph. D. diss., University of Michigan, 1977.

Bemhard Dorn and Reinhold Rost, Catalogue des Manuscrits et Xylographes Orientaux de la Bibliothèque Impériale Publique de St. Pétersbourg, St. Petersburg, 1852.

Ebn ʿArabšāh, Fāḵerat al-ḵolafāʾ wa mofākahat al-ẓorafāʾ, ed. Ayman Buḥayri, Cairo, 2001.

Ebn Esfandiār, Tāriḵ-e Ṭabarestān, ed. ʿAbbās Eqbāl, 2 vols., Tehran, n.d.; tr. Edward G. Browne, as Abridged Translation of the History of Ṭabaristan, Leiden, 1905.

Sayyed Moḥammad Farzān, “Naẓar-i dar ḥawāši-e Marzbān-nāma,” in idem, Maqālāt-e Farzān, ed. Aḥmad Edārači Gilāni, Tehran, 1977, pp. 123-42.

Idem, “Taṣḥiḥ-i az Marzbān-nāma,” in idem, Maqālāt-e Farzān, Tehran, 1977, pp. 143-73.  

Charles-Henri de Fouchécour, Moralia: Les notions morales dans la littérature persane du 3e/9e au 7e/13e siècle, Paris, 1986.

Francesco Gabrieli, “Il settimo capitol del Marzbān-Nāmeh,” Rivista degli Studi Orientali 19, 1941, pp. 125-60.

Abu Ḥāmed Moḥammad Ḡazāli, Naṣiḥat al-moluk, ed. Jalāl-al-Din Homāʾi, Tehran, 1972; tr. Frank R. C. Bagley, as Ghazali’s Book of Counsel for Kings (Nasīhat al-mulūk), Oxford, 1964.

Ernst J. Grube, ed., A Mirror for Princes from India:  Illustrated Versions of the Kalilah wa Dimnah, Anvar-i Suhayli, Iyar-i Danish and Humayun Nameh, Bombay, 1991.

Martijn Theodor Houtsma, “Eine unbekannte Bearbeitung des Marzban-nameh,” ZDMG  52, 1898, pp. 359-92.

Ḵalil Ḵaṭib Rahbar, “Pažuheš-i dar Marzbān-nāma taṣḥiḥ-e ʿAllāma Qazvini,” in Farḵonda payām, Mašhad, 1981, pp. 325-54. 

ʿOnṣor-al-Maʿāli Kaykāvus b. Eskandar, Qābus-nāma, ed. Ḡolām-Ḥosayn Yusofi, Tehran, 1967.

Sigrid Kleinmichel, “Das Marzubān-nāme,” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Gesellschafts- und Sprachwissenschaftliche Reihe 18/3, 1969, pp. 519-34.

Idem, “Untersuchungen zu phonologischen, morphologischen Problemen im Marzbān-nāme 1-2,” Ph. D. diss., Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, 1971.

J. H. Kramers, J. T. P. de Bruijn, “Marzban-nāma,” in EI2 VI, 1991, pp. 632-33.

David M. Lang, “Parable and Precept in the Marzubān-nāme,” in Mary Boyce and Ilya Gershevitch, eds.,  W. B. Henning Memorial Volume, London, 1970, pp. 117-26. 

Reuben Levy, tr., Tales of Marzuban, London, 1959.

Aḥmad Mahdawi Dāmḡāni, “Maʾāḵaḏ-e abyāt-e ʿarabi dar Marzbān-nāma,” Yaḡmā 18, 1965, pp. 297-99, 346-49, 401-3, 475-78, 534-36, 644-47; 19, 1966, pp. 34-36, 83-86, 186-89, 250-53, 302-4, 460-63, 579-81; 20, 1967, pp. 83-85, 528-32, 600-3; 21, 1968, pp. 18-20.

The above articles are collected in the volume: Aḥmad Mahadavi Dāmḡāni, Hāṣel-e awqāt (Summing-Up, A Collection of Essays), ed. Seyyed 'Ali Moḥammad Sajjādi, Tehran, 2002, pp. 141-249.

Moḥammad b. Ḡāzi Malaṭiawi, Rawżat al-ʿoqul, tr. Henri Massé, as Le Jardin des Esprits (Rawzat-al-ʿoqoul de Mohammad Ibn-Ghazi de Malatya)1er Partie, Paris, 1938.

Julie Scott Meisami, “Genres of Court Literature,” in A History of Persian Literature I, ed. J. T. P. de Bruijn, pp. 233-69.

Glyn Munro Meredith-Owens, Handlist of Persian Manuscripts (Acquired by the British Museum) 1895-1966, London, 1968.

N. Mikluho-Maclay, ed., Handlist of the Persian and Tajik Manuscripts, Institute of the Peoples of Asia, 2 vols., Moscow, 1964.

Mahdi Moḥaqqeq, “Yāddašthā-i dar bāra-ye Marzbān-nāma,” FIZ 8, 1960, pp. 37-71; repr., in idem, Bist maqāla, Tehran, 1989, pp. 1-50.

Aḥmad Monzawi, Fehrest-e nosḵahā-ye ḵaṭṭi-efārsi, V, Tehran, n.d., pp. 3626-28.

J. Pedersen, “Ibn ʿArabshāh,” in EI2 III, 1971, pp. 711-12.

Naṣr-Allāh Purjawādi, Zabān-e ḥal dar ʿerfān wa adabiyāt-e pārsi, Tehran, 2006, pp. 780-84.

Taqi Purnāmdāriān, “Negāh-i ba taṣwir-āfarini dar Marzbān-nāma,” in Moḥammad Rowšan, ed., Kongera-ye taḥqiqāt-e irāni VIII/1, Tehran, 1978, pp. 84-127.

Moḥammad Qazvini, “Dar bāra-ye Marzbān-nāma,” in idem, Maqālāt-e Qazvini IV, Tehran, 1984, pp. 1055-83. 

Francis Richard, Catalogue des Manuscrits Persans I: Ancien Fonds, Paris, 1989, II, forthcoming.

Charles Rieu, Supplement to the Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum (now in the British Library), London, 1977.

Jan Rypka et al., History of Iranian Literature, ed. Karl Jahn, Dordrecht, 1968. 

Ḏabiḥ-Allāh Ṣafā, Tāriḵ-e adabiyāt dar Irān, 5 vols. in 8, Tehran, 1959-92, II, pp. 1003-08.

Charles Schefer, “Notice sur le Merzban-namèh,” in idem, Chrestomathie Persane: à l’usage des élèves de l’école spécial des langues orientales vivantes, 2 vols., Paris, 1883-85, II, pp. 194-211.

Mariana S. Simpson, “The Role of Baghdad in the Formation of Persian Painting,” in Chahryar Adle, ed., Art et Société dans le Monde Iranien, Paris, 1982, pp. 91-116.

Saʿd-al-Din Varāvini, Marzbān-nāma, ed. Mirzā Moḥammad Qazvini, as The Marzuban-nama: A Book of Fables Originally Compiled in the Dialect of Tabaristán and Translated into Persian by Sa’du D-Din i Warāwīnī, London and Leiden, 1909; ed. Moḥammad Rowšan, 2 vols., Tehran, 1976; ed. Ḵalil Ḵaṭib Rahbar, Tehran, 1984; tr. Marie-Hélènne Ponroy, as Contes du Prince Marzbân, Paris, 1992.

Muhammad Isa Waley, Supplementary Handlist of Persian Manuscripts 1966-1998, London, 1998.

(K. Crewe Williams)

Originally Published: January 1, 2000

Last Updated: March 26, 2014