The Birth of Rustam: An Early Account of Caesarean Section in Iran

by RICHARD TORPIN, M. D. and IRAJ VAFAIE, B. M. Shiraz, Iran

The famous Iranian poet Firdausi was “Born a.d. 940 and died A.D. 1020-1025. He is considered one of the four most renowned of this ancient civilization along with Saade 1184-1292; Rumi 1207-1273, and Hafiz 1326-1389. Hafiz and Saade were natives of Shiraz, Firdausi of Tus, and Rumi of Balkh.

In a rather turbulent period of history, Firdausi spent many years in composing Shâhnama (a history of kings) in 60,000 couplets. This was based upon the prose Shâhnama of Abu Mansur, written a few years earlier. Arberry1 writes in regard to this as follows: “in about 980 Firdausi addressed himself in earnest to the labour which was to occupy him some thirty years. In the interval his fortunes had changed; the Samanid dynasty moved to its close; civil war made literature an unrewarding profession. By the time Firdausi had completed his Shâhnama in its final form (circa 1010) not only had he exhausted his patrimony, but a new royal house of Turkish blood was firmly established in Transoxiana. Mahmud the Ghaznavid, a fanatical conformist, dedicated himself to the high cause of rooting out heresy and infidelity wherever they were to be found. When Firdausi presented his vast epic in praise of Zoroastrian Persia to this man, hoping for imperial bounty to repair his impoverished estate, the auspices were inexorably adverse. Mahmud, who had’ already proved himself a great patron of science and letters acceptable to orthodoxy, failed to recognize the merits of Firdausi’s masterpiece and offered an insultingly small reward. Though the poet, in pardonable anticipation of favours to come, had prefixed a handsome panegyric to ‘that prince whose like was never seen, not since the Creator created the world,’ he now relieved his feelings by penning a savage satire.”

The following is the English translation by E. G. Browne:

Long years this “Shâhnama” I toiled to complete.
That the King might award me some recompense meet,
But naught save a heart wrung with grief and despair
Did I get from those promises empty as air!
Had the sire of the King been some Prince of renown,
My forehead had surely been graced by a crown!’
Were his mother a lady of high pedigree,
In silver and gold had I stood to the knee!
But, being by birth, not a prince but a boor,
The praise of the noble he could not endure!

Firdausi is beloved and quoted by the Iranian people of all classes for, in addition to the beauty of his poetry, he kept alive the great national spirit and he used relatively few foreign words which by his time had begun to infiltrate the language following the Moslem invasion of Mohammed in a.m. 622. At the present time approximately 30 per cent are Arabic.

This plate, a copy of one in a Persian Shâhnama of unknown publisher, shows Rudabeh lying on the couch with her husband Zal sitting on the floor beside the brazier in consultation with Simurgh, the magical bird, above. At the foot of the bed is Sindukht, the mother of Rudabeh.

This plate, a copy of one in a Persian Shâhnama of unknown publisher, shows Rudabeh lying on the couch with her husband Zal sitting on the floor beside the brazier in consultation with Simurgh, the magical bird, above. At the foot of the bed is Sindukht, the mother of Rudabeh.

To a foreigner one of the most interesting and entertaining accounts in literature are the adventures of a Hercules-Paul Bunyon ancient hero Rustam, who slew lions, draggers, and enemy armies with equal celerity. — One of the most moving sketches in Shâhnama is the story of the birth of Rustam. It is also one of the world’s earliest descriptions of caesarean section. The couplets relating this have been penned by a local Persian scribe (Bahri), of which few are left in this region, and the enlargement has-been photographed for reproduction here.

Iranian script of the birth of Rustam.

Iranian script of the birth of Rustam.

The translation is almost literal and even in its rendition into English gives the reader an insight into the beauty of this magnificent Iranian epic poetry. Young womanhood is compared in Iranian literature to the tall and graceful, always green cypress tree in the gardens here and also to the moon, while virile masculinity is likened to a lion.

Account of the birth of Rustam

Nowhere in the world up to now has a cypress become pregnant. She who was like the brightness of the Spring had become faded, and her heart was clouded with sorrow and pain. The burden Rudabeh bore within her caused her to shed bitter tears. Her abdomen and body also had become tense and corpulent, and her rosy features yellow as saffron. Said the mother of Rudabeh, “O my dear daughter, what has happened that you have become so yellow?’
She replied, “Day and night I am calling out, and have become so sleepless and laded that though living it is as though I were dead.
“I think it is time that I should be relieved of this burden.”

You would think that what was in her abdomen was made of stone or iron. One day it happened that she fainted, and a cry rang out from Zal’s porch. It was Sindukht [Rudabeh’s mother], who cried out and began to claw her face and tear out her scented hair.
One by one they carried the news to Zal that (he leaves of the graceful cypress had faded.

Photograph of a stone relief carving of mythical character Rustam Zal; at the Museum of Shiraz.

Photograph of a stone relief carving of mythical character Rustam Zal; at the Museum of Shiraz.

Zal came to Rudabeh’s bedside, heart-sore and with grief-stricken face. All the members of the household with dishevelled heads and distraught faces began tearing out their hair. Then a thought struck Zal, and as he pondered, his mind became more composed. He remembered the feather of the Simurgh [a fabulous bird] and he laughed and passed on the good news to Sindukht. He called for a brazier, on which a fire was kindled, and he burnt part of the feather.

Instantly the air became darkened, and the bird that fulfils desires flew down. It seemed like a cloud pouring out coral-like drops, soothing to the soul. [There is a play on words here, impossible to render into English, the Persian word for ‘”coral” having two meanings.] Zal saluted the bird and praised and appealed to it.

The Simurgh said, “Why this sadness? Why are your eyes wet with tears? Within that silver cypress of moonlike countenance there is a lion which will be famous. First, make the moon-faced one drunk and relieve your mind of fear and anxiety. Then watch how an intelligent person works a spell and brings the lion out of the box. He will incise the flank of the graceful cypress so that she will not feel any pain. He will then pull out the lion cub from the flank of that moon-faced one, which will be full of blood. Awkward he will suture the incision he had made. Cast out all fear, grief, and anxiety from your mind! Then take an herb which I will tell you; mix it with milk and musk; grind all three together, and dry the mixture in the shade; apply it to the wound, and you will see that in due course she will be restored. Then place one of my feathers there, and she will be happy under my protection. You should rejoice at what I have said, and thank God, that lie has given you so noble a tree, which may every day bring forth auspicious fruit for you. In no way be sorrowful that your fertile branch is about to bear fruit.”

Having said this, the bird plucked one of its feathers from its wing, threw it down and flew up into the sky. Zal took up the feather, went, and did what the bird had said. O how strange! All the people were watching anxiously with their eyes full of tears and weary in heart. Tears flowed from the eyes of Sindukht, and she asked when the baby would come out of the flank.

Then there came a dexterous mobbed [Zoroastrian priest] who made the girl intoxicated with wine. Then he incised the flank without causing pain, and found the baby in its place, and pulled it out without injury. No one in the world had ever seen such a miracle. It was a child of lion-like appearance, long of limb and pleasant to behold. Men and women were astonished at the sight for no one had ever heard of an infant of such elephant-like proportions.

Day and night, the girl slept on insensible under the influence of the wine. Then they sutured the wound, and with drugs relieved all pain.
When she awoke, she began to talk to Sindukht. They dropped gifts of gold and jewels over the mother, and offered thanks to God.
They brought the child to her, and bore him aloft like a shield. Though one day old, he looked like a year old. He was like a heap of lilies and tulips. The graceful cypress laughed when she saw in her boy the signs of kingly majesty. “I am relieved [rustam] of suffering,” she said. So the boy was named Rustam.

Rudabeh must have survived because she appears in sequences many years later when Rustam fought a duel, unknowingly, with his own son and mortally wounded him. In addition to the vivid details of the operation itself, this account records one of the earliest descriptions of toxaemia of pregnancy. It is also a tribute to the fortitude and endurance of the Persian women exhibited daily at the present time.

Translation made by E. A. Khorramzadeh, fourth year medical student, and collected and amplified by the Rev. Norman Sharp, Instructor in Persian Literature, University of Shiraz, and long-time student of ancient and modern Persian script.