Serendipity – From Persian Poets to the Earl

From 420 – 438 CE, there ruled a Sasanian king by the name of Bahram Gor (406 – 438 CE) in Persia. He was a benevolent ruler whose reign was mostly peaceful. He is however mostly remembered for being the favorite protagonist of Persian poets.

Emperor Bahram Gor – a favorite of poets

The first poet to write about Bahram was Ferdowsi (940 – 1020), who made him the central figure in Ferdowsi’s epic masterpiece Shahnameh (Book of Kings) written between 977 and 101 CE.

Then in 1197, Bahram was the main protagonist in Nizami Ganjavi’s (1141 – 1209) romantic poem Haft Paykar (Seven Beauties), which was based on the Shahnameh. This was followed in 1302 by the poem Hasht-Bihisht (Eight Paradises) which was written by Amir Khosrow (1253 – 1325), and was based on Haft Paykar. Hasht-Bihisht is also framed around folktales and legends of Bahram Gor. However, in this poem Khosrow added the story of the Three Princes of Serendip.

The Italian Translation

An Armenian, known as M. Christoforo Armeno, who was born in Tabriz, Iran in the 16th Century, and was fluent in both Persian and Italian translated the story of the Three Princes of Serendip from Khusrow’s Hasht-Bihisht into Italian. He told the story verbally to a Venetian printer named Tramezzino  who published the story in a small volume of Oriental Tales under the name of Peregrinnagio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo in 1557.

With this translation, the legends and folklore associated with Bahram Gor finally entered Europe, gained a great deal of popularity, and were translated into German and French. Chevalier de Mailly’s French translation was further translated into English in 1722, and published under the title, The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Serendip.

Henry Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford

It was this translation that Henry Walpole (1717–97), son of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the 4th Earl of Orford read as a child and remembered long after as an adult when he coined the word “serendipity’ in a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann on January 28, 1754.