Bastan Nameh means Old / Ancient Chronicles. Ferdowsi notes the name as a source for his Shahnameh at the beginning of his section on Kaiumars / Gayomard / Gaya-Maretan. The Bastan Nameh/Namah/Nama/Name/Namak/Namag is lost to us as are the other of Ferdowsi's reputed sources, the Khodai or Khvatay Nameh/Nama/Namak/Namag, the Book of the Lord.
From The Shah Nameh of Firdausi translated by James Atkinson:
Preface (pgs. 10-14):
The following circumstances, respecting the origin of the poem and the life of the poet, are chiefly derived from the preface to the copy of the Shah Nameh which was collated in the year of the Hijreh 829, about 400 years ago, by order of Bayisunghur Bahader Khan. In appears from that preface that Yezdjird, the last king of the Sassanian race, took considerable pains in collecting all the chronicles, histories and traditions, connected with Persia and the sovereigns of that country, from the time of Kaiumers to the accession of the Khosraus, which, by his direction, were digested and brought into one view, and formed the book known by the name of Syur-al-Muluk, or the Bastan Nameh.
When the followers of Mahommed overturned the Persian monarchy, this work was found in the plundered library of Yezdjird. The preface above alluded to minutely traces its progress through different hands in Arabia, Ethiopia, and Hindustan. The chronicle was afterwards continued to the time of Yezdjird. In the tenth century, one of the Kings of the Samanian dynasty directed Dukiki (Dakiki) to versify that extensive work, but the poet only lived to finish a thousand distiches, having been assassinated by his own slave.
Nothing further was done till the reign of Sultan Mahmud Sabuktugin, in the beginning of the eleventh century. That illustrious conqueror, whose restless ambition extended his dominion from the Tigris to the Ganges, and from the mountains of Tartary to the Indian Ocean, with the intention of augmenting the glories of his reign projected a history of the kings of Persia, and ordered the literary characters of his court conjointly to prepare one from all accessible records. While they were engaged upon this laborious undertaking, a romantic accident, which it is unnecessary to describe, furnished the Sultan with a copy of the Bastan Nameh, the existence of which was till then unknown to him. From this work Mahmud selected seven Stories or Romances, which he delivered to seven poets to be composed in verse, that he might be able to ascertain the merits of each competitor. The poet Unsari, to whom the story of Rustem and Sohrab was given, gained the palm, and he was accordingly engaged to arrange the whole history in verse.
Firdausi was at this time at Tus, his native city, where he cultivated his poetical talents wilh assiduity and success. He had heard of the attempt of Dukiki to versify the history of the kings of Persia, and of the determination of the reigning king, Mahmud, to patronize an undertaking which promised to add lustre to the age in which he lived. Having fortunately succeeded in procuring a copy of the Bastan Nameh, he pursued his studies with unremitting zeal, and soon produced that part of the poem in which the battles of Zohak and Feridun are described. The performance was universally read and admired, and it was not long before his fame reached the ears of the Sultan, who immediately invited him to his court.
Another notice of his life states, that he and his brother Mahsud were originally husbandmen,occupied in the labours of the field at Tus, and that it was the persecution of a malicious enemy which drove the poet from his native place. Firdausi told his brother that he was unable to endure the insults that were continually heaped upon him, and proposed that they should depart together to another country; but Mahsud, not disposed to abandon his home, objected to this scheme. Firdausi however was determined to remain no longer at Tus, and immediately set out unfriended and alone on his way to Ghuznin.
When our author had reached the vicinity of the capital, he happened to pass near a garden where Unsari, Usjudi, and Furroki were sitting drinking wine. These celebrated poets observed a stranger approach, and one of them said: "If that fellow comes hither he will spoil our pleasure, let us therefore get rid of him at once by scolding him away." But the others disapproved of this harsh mode of proceeding, and thought it would be better, and more consistent with their condition and character, to overcome him by some stroke of learning or waggery. It was at length agreed among them that each should recite an extemporaneous verse, terminating with a word to which they supposed there were only two other rhymes in the language; "for doubtless," said one of them, "he will be puzzled to find a fourth, and will consequently quickly leave us to our own enjoyments." Soon after this preliminary step had been settled, Firdausi drew near, and mutual salutations having passed between them, they thus familiarly addressed him: " Here we are, engaged in making extemporaneous verses, and whoever is able to follow them up with promptitude and effect, shall be admitted as an approved companion to our social board."
Firdausi was willing and ready to submit to this test, and Unsari thus commenced upon an apostrophe to a beautiful woman:
The light of the moon to thy splendour is weak. (ending light=rushan)
The rose is eclipsed by the bloom of thy cheek. (ending bloom=golshan)
Thy eye-lashes dart through the folds of the joshun. (ending jushan)
It was now Firdausi's turn; and he said without a moment's pause, but with admirable felicity:
Like the javelin of Giw in the battle with Poshun. (ending poshan)
The poets were astonished at the readiness of the stranger in producing a fourth rhyme; and being totally ignorant of the story of Giw and Poshun, inquired of him from whence it was derived, when Firdausi related to them the onslaught or encounter as described in the Bastan Nameh. Upon whith they treated him with the greatest kindness and respect, and were so pleased with the power and genius he displayed on other subjects, that they recommended him to the patronage of Shah Mahmud ; an instance of disinterestedness, if true, highly honourable to the rival poets.
The Monthly Review 1832
The last king of the Sassanian race having collected all the chronicles, histories, and traditions, connected with Persia, from the earliest period to the accession of Khosraus, had them digested under the general title, Bastan Nameh. This chronicle was afterwards continued, and, in the tenth century, ordered to be versified. A small part, however, was reduced to distiches, until the eleventh century, when the literary characters of the court were directed to prepare a history of the kings of Persia, from all accessible records. The Bastan Nameh was then discovered amongst other compilations; and from this work the reigning Sultan, Mahmud, selected seven stories, which he delivered to seven poets, to be reduced to verse, in order that he might be able to judge of their poetical pretensions respectively. A bard named Unsari gained the palm, and he was accordingly engaged to arrange the whole history in verse. At this period Firdausi was in his native city; and having heard of the wish of Mahmud, that the history should be versified, he succeeded in procuring a copy of the Bastan Nameh. He turned a portion of it into verse, which was so much admired, that he was immediately invited to the Sultan's court, where he speedily produced another poetical version of a part of the same chronicle.
The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 26
The Shahnameh is the Persian's national epic, and contains all his country's fabulous myths and authentic history, as far as he knows them, before the Mohammedan conquest, in the reign of Yezdjird, A.d. 641. It was compiled by Firdusi, by order of the Sultan Mahmoud, from an ancient chronicle called the Bastan-nameh (or Old book), which had been lost for ages, but was recovered during his reign from .(Ethiopia.
This Bastan-nameh appears to have been a record of all the popular legends (compiled by order of Yezdjird, or perhaps earlier*), and contained the shadowy mass of mingled truth and fable, in which, ut per nubem (to adopt the beautiful words of the captive in Plautus, as the haunts and familiar names of infancy dimly return to him), the national mind strove to have a faint memory of the events of its ancient childhood. Therein were depicted the feats of the olden champions of Persia, distorted and magnified through the mist of years; and the dan
fers and difficulties with which they ad to contend, being solemnized and made supernatural by the introduction of what Carlyle colls the " Time-element," became demons and enchantments. The legends and ballads that commemorated these achievements were preserved in a prose form in the Bastan-nameh, just as those of ancient Rome were preserved in its early historians ; and Firdusi's task was therefore much like that of Macaulay's in his " Lays," viz. to recover the " disjecti membra poetae " from the annals, and mould them again into a shape of beauty.
The American Whig Review, Volume 9
The history of the Persian Epic Poem itself is almost as romantic as any of the stories it contains. Yesdegerd, the last king of the Sassanian dynasty, wishing to give to the last period of his administration the most durable splendor, undertook with great labor to collect in a body all the chronicles, histories, and traditions floating among the people from the heroic times down to the time of his reign. To this rare collection he prefixed the title of "Bastan Nameh." Charlemagne in the same age rendered a similar service to the Frank nations of his dominions, but this Western collection, effected by the labor of Eginhard and other wise men of his day, has not reached us. The toils of the Eastern sages were destined to be ultimately more fortunate, and very few books were preserved through such a variety of circumstances tending to their destruction —if the history of Ferdousi speak true. We take it as preferred by many on the authority of Daulet Shah, Ferdousi's Persian biographer.
The great work had hardly been completed while Yesdegerd, the last of his race, still sat on the throne of Persia, when (about the year 636 of Christ—13 of the Hegira) the terrible Caliph Omar, at the head of that army which had successively conquered Phoenicia, Syria, and Egypt, driven before it like sheep the forces of Judea, and pressed back the invincible Roman Legions with the Emperor Heraclius at their head—threw himself like a mountain torrent on the peaceful domains of Persia. Yesdegerd found out pretty soon that this was not the time for collecting old ballads, and putting legendary tales together.
Omar, following out faithfully the dictates of Mahomet's policy, made war upon books and libraries as ferociously as he did upon men and armies. The burning of the celebrated Library of Alexandria, one of the largest and most precious in the world, was the act of this brutal conqueror.
The manuscripts taken from it served to heat the baths of that city for several months with their flames, a fact upon reading which the literati of Pope Leo X.'s time used to bathe the historic page with tears.
Whatever Persia then possessed of literary treasure was found in the sacking of the palace of Yesdegerd. The copy of the Bastan Nameh, which was the gem of that collection, would appear to be the only one formed up to that moment. It was regarded by the Mussulman general who found it with a kind of superstitious awe on account of its fame and the importance attached to it, and placed by him in the hands of Omar. The Caliph, to do him justice, was consistent in his hatred of literature, and could neither read nor write. Still he had the book examined and passages of it explained in his presence. He treated the glowing descriptions of Persian greatness with contempt; and with a laudable zeal to imitate his master, the person who held it cast it among the fragments of furniture and other worthless objects of the palace which strewed the room, in expectation of the fire.
Noisier occupations made all forget the manuscript, which was picked up by an Abyssinian, who, along with some of the vilest soldiery, was prowling about the palace to glean any serviceable remnants which might have escaped in the pillage. This man, in default of better luck, held on to the curiosity, which, on returning to his native country, he disposed of. It thus reached the court of the Abyssinian monarch, who ordered it to be translated into Amharic or Ethiopian, and was the means of preserving the heroic history of the Parses, as the original was soon after irrecoverably lost.
The dark night of Mahometan domination never extinguished totally the rays of knowledge in Persia, and it was always remembered by the learned that a book containing the glorious feats of the Persian heroes had been written, and, it was hoped, still existed. It was rumored that the Bastan Nameh had been translated into Arabic, and into several languages of Hindostan. So great an opinion was entertained of the book, that after a long time Seith Yakoub, a Prince of Khorasan, dispatched four of the most learned men in his dominions to India, with the character and honors of ambassadors, to solicit a copy from the government of the country. Their object having been successfully accomplished, the Bastan Nameh appeared again in the Persian language.