Art & Culture
Read Time: 4 min

rudabeh, a princess of kabul

Redux Extra October 10, 2021
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Courage of Rudabeh, a Princess of Kabul

by Laurel Victoria Gray

[Silk Road Dance Company performance with musicians Tabla for Two at the Silk Road Dance Festival. Photo by John G. Walter]

Heroic women birth heroic sons. And what son could be considered more heroic than the legendary warrior, Rustam? A celebrated figure of the Shahnameh, the 10th-century epic literary masterpiece by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, Rustam embodies manly courage and strength. 

But what about his mother, Rudabeh, the princess from Kabul? Her beauty is described in the Shahnameh.

Roses bloom on her ivory cheeks.                                                                                                          Bells chime sweetly when she speaks.                                                                                                    The moon itself shines from her face.                                                                                              She is all light and air and charm and grace.

But Rudabeh is more than just another pretty face. She is a bold young woman who makes her own decisions, going against conventional behavior, even facing physical danger. 

The story of the meeting of Rustam’s parents – Rudabeh and Zal – is one of the most tender moments in the Silk Road Dance Company production of SHAHNAMEH! Adventures from the Persian Book of Kings. The young couple faces several challenges in their romance, made more impressive by Rudabeh’s strong sense of self-determination and defiance of convention to make her own decisions in life. Theirs was not an arranged union, not a forced alliance. It was a marriage by mutual choice. Surely, Rudabeh’s courage helped shape the character of her son, Rustam.

But first, a bit of backstory is required. The Shahnameh focuses more on Rustam’s father, Zal, who almost did not live past infancy because he was born with white hair. His father, King Sam, rejected him, fearing ridicule for having a seemingly “freakish” and ill-omened son. He orders that the baby be taken to the Albruz mountains and exposed to the elements and wild predators.

In fact, a huge bird nesting atop the mountains sees the infant as a possible meal for her hungry chicks. She is the magical Simurgh, the legendary bird of Persian mythology. She swoops down from her nest to carry off this morsel of humanity, but enchanted by his sweetness, decides instead to raise Zal as her own. 

Baby Zal is adopted by the Simurgh and her chicks. Scene from the Silk Road Dance Company’s performance of SHAHNAMEH: Adventures from the Persian Book of Kings @ WolfTrap Performing Arts Center.

Zal thrives, growing to manhood. Travelers’ tales of a powerfully built white-haired youth seen in the mountains reach the court of King Sam who, now filled with regret, realizes his son has survived. Sam goes to the mountain to meet Zal, askes forgiveness for abandoning him and welcomes him back into the family. As recompense, he promises to fulfill all of Zal’s wishes and sends his son to visit Zabulistan, an eastern province of his kingdom.

Heartbroken to see her foster son depart, the Simurgh gives Zal one of her magical feathers, telling him that should he ever need her help, he has only to burn the feather and she will come to his aid.

Here is where Rudabeh enters the story. Zal travels to the Zabulistan Province – roughly southern Afghanistan – arriving in the Kingdom of Kabul. He hears tales of the beautiful daughter of King Mehrab and he falls in love simply upon hearing the description and cannot sleep. Rudabeh learns of the handsome young prince and asks her handmaidens to investigate. They report favorably on his countenance and demeanor. Like Zal, Rudabeh cannot sleep, thinking about the noble young man.  She decides they must meet, a bold decision on her part. She lives in an impenetrable tower. When Zal expresses his desire to meet her, she valiantly makes an offer to allow him to use her long tresses to climb the walls. Happily, this drastic measure is avoided when Zal provides his own rope and climbs to the roof of the tower, where the two sit and talk.

Rudabeh challenges accepted cultural norms to meet with the young man. Their encounter remains chaste and Rudabeh learns enough of Zal, to choose him for her life partner. But Rudabeh’s father, King Mehrab, is enraged when he learns the couple has secretly met.

Scaling a tower proves to be only one of several obstacles. Now the couple must win approval from their parents. As it turns out, a deep and ancient animosity exists between their two families. [After all, Rudabeh’s grandfather was Zohhak, the evil king who fed the brains of young people to the serpents growing out of his shoulders!]  And Zal seemed unsuitable as well. After all, he had unusual white hair and grew up in a nest, raised by a bird – not the best references for a future son-in-law. 

But Zal reminds his father of the promise to fulfill all his son’s wishes. Fortuitously, an astrologer appears and declares that the offspring of the unlikely couple will be a great hero, destined to save the world. The wedding is celebrated and Rudabeh’s independent spirit, her will to choose her own husband, wins out. But she faces another, more deadly test, one of her physical courage – childbirth. 

When Rudabeh becomes pregnant, it becomes clear that the baby is unusually large. She goes into labor but, unlike a warrior who may cowardly run from a deadly fight, her ordeal cannot be avoided because the battlefield is within her own body. As Rudabeh hovers at the door of death, her husband remembers the gift of his own foster-mother, the Simurgh, and her magical feather. Zal burns the feather as directed and the Simurgh arrives in time to instruct attendants on how to perform what is a Caesarian section, cutting the baby out of the mother without killing her.

The miraculous baby is enormous and grows at alarming rate. He is, indeed, the future hero, Rustam. By the time he is five days old, he is the size of a much older child. When he reaches adulthood, he performs legendary feats to protect ancient Iran.

But Rustam would never have been born without the bold courage of a princess of Kabul and the compassion of an avian step-grandmother, the Simurgh. Rudabeh’s ability to make a choice, to follow the path of self-determination, and defy convention, made all the difference.

Heroic women birth heroic sons.

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