Asian and African studies blog

2 posts categorized "Judeo-Persian"

16 January 2017

The curious tale of Solomon and the Phoenix

Add comment

One of the more enigmatic manuscripts now in the British Library (IO Islamic 1255) from the rich library of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore (d. 1213/1799), is the untitled qiṣṣah or tale featuring a figure popular across the range of Persian literature, the Prophet Sulaymān (the biblical Solomon, son of David). In this tale, the prophet-king is confronted by the head of the ranks of birds, the Sīmurgh (Phoenix), expressing its disbelief in the doctrine of predestination (qaz̤āʾ va qadr). Having angered Allāh, Jibrāʾīl (the archangel Gabriel) is sent to inform Sulaymān of a prophecy foretelling the birth of the Prince of the East (Malikzādah-′i Mashriq) and the Princess of the West, daughter of the Malik-i Maghrib, who together bear a child out of wedlock. The Sīmurgh believes it can prevent this outcome. Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh conclude an agreement (qawl) to reassess the situation after fifteen years, by which time the accuracy of the prophecy would be apparent.

The Prophet Solomon and the Phoenix’s agreement is witnessed by members of his court; the two yogis in the foreground represent the assembled jinns. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library. British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 2v. Noc

The tale additionally interweaves several digressive subplots focussing on the adventures of the Prince of the East from his minority to adolescence. In the process, his development into a pious youth is mapped through a succession of episodes where he interacts with magical beasts, Satan, kings, courtiers, merchants, and sages. This didactic tale may be part of the ‘mirror for princes’ tradition, but as we shall later discover, there is more to it than appears at first glance.

The Prince of the East (not shown) overhears a king’s angry exchanges with his courtiers while seated amid special trees. Note the lengthy jamahs and sweeping turbans that indicate eighteenth-century courtly fashions, while the patterned floorcoverings attempt to capture the rich texture of contemporary embroidered and brocaded soft furnishings. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library. British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 8r. Noc

Profusely illustrated, the manuscript IO Islamic 1255 has surprisingly eluded scholarly attention. Although it ends without a dated colophon, the distinctive style and details of its 63 illustrations on 26 folios offer sufficient evidence to locate its origins in mid-eighteenth-century Deccan, possibly even the Carnatic, ruled by the Nawabs of Arcot. On the other hand, the coarse nastaʿlīq script tending toward taʿlīq makes it clear that this is not the product of an élite or royal workshop. The absence of gold illumination and the use of a muted colour palette further strengthen this impression. The unusually tall and narrow format underscores the peculiarity of the volume as a whole. Though the paintings have oxidised in areas, the manuscript must have been a valued item in Tipu’s library, as the work was bound in a contemporary finely-tooled, gilded, and painted leather binding.

The Prince of the East is discovered by his two Arabian horses while sheltering under the hide of a horse at the foot an isolated tree. This image shows the increased levels of pigment oxidation in paintings towards the end of the manuscript. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library, British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 22r. Noc

The tale’s literary significance is heightened when considering the version in another British Library manuscript catalogued recently, entitled Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr (IO Islamic 4806). We encounter the familiar characters of the Prophet Sulaymān, the Sīmurgh, the Prince of the East and Princess of the West, with the narrative sharing the same basic structure. Like the version in the Tipu manuscript, the tale’s author is not named. Differences lie in the laconic style of the substantially abridged account, with some passages and episodes rearranged, and others omitted. Occasionally, the simplicity of prose is abandoned in favour of a more formal style and additional poems, while adjectives and titles take on a distinctly courtly flavour. Notwithstanding, the overall feel is that of a relatively faithful retelling of the Tipu version.

The most original feature of the Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr is its introductory matter (ff. 1v-3r), which elevates it to the status of pseudo-history and prophetic tradition. Accordingly, when the Prophet Muḥammad was troubled by Meccan groups, Jibrāʾīl appears and gives him the seal of Sulaymān, a gift from Allāh. Jibrāʾīl is asked if it prevents death. He clarifies that there are two kinds of death, qaz̤ā-′i muḥkam or conspicuous (avoidable?) death and qaz̤ā-′i mubram or certain death. After a few days, Jibrāʾīl reappears and narrates the tale of Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh to demonstrate how nothing escapes the certainty of fate. The tale begins from this point forward in much the same way as the Tipu manuscript.

Illuminated sarlawḥ and opening passage of the Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr. British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 1v. Noc

The tale’s connection with the Prophet Muḥammad is established on the authority of a tenuous chain of transmission, mentioning the names of Ibn Saʿd (d. ca. 66/686), who heard it from Ḥasan Baṣrī (d. 110/728), who heard it from one of the unidentified muʿtamadān or confidants of the Prophet. Whether or not the chain of transmission is authentic, such details are unnecessary for the purpose of a mere adventure tale, indicating the intention to emphasise its moral and pious message. While subsequent details correspond closely with the Tipu manuscript, these extraordinary passages do not appear in that version.

The Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr manuscript is not dated and owners’ marks have been erased. It consists of 26 folios commencing with a gilded and painted sarlawḥ or headpiece, and has gold rulings throughout, with scribal nastaʿlīq on thin burnished paper. The nine brightly coloured illustrations are painted with sparsely populated simplistic compositions. Only the King of the West and the Prince of the East are depicted wearing Persian (Safavid) costume, while the remaining characters are dressed in eighteenth-century Hindustani attire. Neither manuscript has chapter or section headings, making it difficult to follow the programme of illustration in both manuscripts without closely reading adjacent text. A comparative list of illustrations in both manuscripts can be found here: Download Solomon and the Phoenix illustrations.

The King of the West’s men shoot at the Phoenix stealing the Princess’s cradle. Note the differentiation in status between figures reflected in their costume. Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr, British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 3v. Noc

The Princess of the West falls in love with the Prince of the East, who finds his way to the foot of the isolated tree where she is held captive by the Phoenix. The Princess here is dressed in the Hindustani peshvaz and dupattah, while the Prince sports a turban in a distinctly Safavid style with the ends of the qamarband always tucked in. Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr, British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 19r. Noc

Given that both manuscripts discussed here are associated with South Asia, one might be forgiven for taking this as an indication of the tale’s origins, perhaps traceable to some obscure Sufi source of moralistic parables. Evidence to counter this regional association is found in a fragile Judaeo-Persian manuscript from the British Library’s Gaster Collection (Or 10195). Although the fragmentary volume has several compositions in poetry and prose, one of these comprises yet another prose rendition of the same tale of Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh. While the work needs to be studied in detail, it would be particularly revealing if it could be verified that this version commences with or without the prophetic tradition, and whether it consists of the lengthier or abridged version. The systematic comparison of all texts may form the basis of future research to identify a common Urtext, which might not even be in Persian at all. It is hoped this article may mark the start of the process.

Bibliographical note on IO Islamic 1255
Charles Stewart, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the Late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore, Cambridge, 1809, p. 84, where it is listed as the third of the Persian fables. Hermann Ethé, Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the India Office, Oxford, 1903, vol. 1, coll. 544, no. 854. Another undated manuscript (IO Islamic 1627), also from Tipu Sultan’s library, reproduces over ff. 106v-111v an independent work based on a fragment of the same tale comprising episodes 14-28 (Ethé, no. 853).

Dr Sâqib Bâburî
Curator, Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork

I am grateful to Ursula Sims-Williams for referring me to IO Islamic 1255. I would also like to thank Ilana Tahan and Zsofia Buda for their research and help with Judeo-Persian.

08 March 2016

A Digital Revolution - hundreds of Hebrew manuscripts go on-line

Add comment Comments (0)

Our followers and readers will be delighted to learn that over 760 Hebrew manuscripts have now been uploaded to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts. Generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project aims at digitising and providing free on-line access to well over 1250 Hebrew handwritten books from the Library’s collection. The project, which began in 2013 is due for completion in June 2016, when the full complement of manuscripts will be available to a global audience.

Festival prayer book,  Mahzor, according to the rite of Provence. Opening of the morning prayer (Shaharit). Sephardic (Provencal) vocalised square and semi-cursive script of the 17th century. (Or. 5466, f. 7r

The host of digitized surrogates released to-date, represents the vast geographical expanse of Hebrew manuscript production, and offers many interesting examples of handwriting styles. Hebrew and other Jewish languages such as Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish and others, use an alphabet consisting of 22 consonantal letters, 5 of which are shaped differently when used at the end of words. These are known as otiyot sofiyot, literally, ‘final letters’. The Hebrew alphabet which lacks case letters and is written from right left, evolved from the Phoenician alphabet. Its ancient form (c. 10th to 6th century BCE)  was known as the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet or script.  Around the 6th century BCE, it was replaced by a square form of lettering known as ‘Ashuri’ (a stylized form of Aramaic script) that had allegedly originated in Assyria and has survived to this day. The vowels system (nikud in Hebrew) was developed between the 8th and 10th centuries CE in Tiberias (city located on the western shore of the Sea of  Galilee in the Holy Land), by scholars known as the Masoretes and has been used since then. Initially devised to facilitate the correct pronunciation and transmission of the Masoretic Bible, the Tiberian vocalization system was subsequently extended to other Hebrew texts and writings.

The main modes of Hebrew styles of script distinguishable in manuscripts are: square, semi-cursive and cursive. The semi-cursive mode is also known as rabbinic, a misleading term coined by Christian scholars in the 16th century. The principal difference between the three modes lies essentially in the number of strokes required to form the shape of a single letter. The amount of strokes needed to create square letters is higher than that required for semi-cursive characters, decreasing virtually to a single stroke when cursive letters are executed. The speed of writing can also very often determine how many strokes or serifs are needed to create a particular style of script.

Developed in the Orient, most probably before the 10th century CE, square lettering has been formally used for copying the text of the Hebrew Bible, for liturgical works, as well as for Torah scrolls, mezuzot (singular mezuzah - parchment scroll containing Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 & 11: 13-21, placed in a case and affixed to a door post) and tefilin (phylacteries). 

Add MS 15283
Page from the Duke of Sussex's Portuguese Pentateuch. Lisbon, Portugal, 1480-1490 CE (Add MS 15283, f. 42r)  noc

The three major modes of Hebrew script were used in most geo-cultural zones associated with medieval Hebrew book production, namely Ashkenazic (Franco-German lands), Byzantine, Italian, Oriental, and Sephardic (Iberian peninsula). Each zone had its own characteristic types and sub-types of scripts that were strongly influenced by trends prevalent in the host environment. For example, Jewish scribal practices that developed in Oriental and Sephardic territories under Muslim rule (i.e. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, as well as Spain from 711 to 1491 CE, Provence), show great affinity with Arabic calligraphy. Likewise, types of Hebrew script that crystalized in the Ashkenazic geo-cultural entity where Christianity was the dominant religion (England, France, Germany, Italy, post-1492 Spain) display similarities with archetypes of Latin script that were prevalent in those areas. A very good example of how Gothic handwriting affected the Hebrew square script is found in this codex made in Germany:

Festival prayer book, Mahzor , according to the Askenazi rite. Askenazic 'Gothic' square script, Germany, 1st half of the 14th century (Add MS 26896, f. 337v)  noc

The influence of early Arabic cursive writing is clearly noticeable in this 14th century hand-copied book in which the text was penned in a Sephardic current cursive script. The shapes of the Hebrew letters, the order and direction of the strokes, and the general layout of the calligraphic text bear remarkable similarities with Arabic script. Half down the page, a word was written diagonally. This scribal practice intended to keep the left margins aligned, was most probably borrowed from Muslim copyists, and became a fashionable decorative device particularly in Hebrew manuscripts copied in the Yemen.

Moses Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed in the Hebrew translation of Samuel ibn Tibbun. Spain, c. 14th century (Royal MS 16 A XI, f. 187v)  noc

Local trends determined also the type of writing instruments medieval Jewish scribes adopted for plying their trade. Thus, the quill was the popular implement for copying books in Christian territories, while in Muslim lands the reed was the scribes’ preferred tool. The former tended to produce tapered serifs, the latter more homogenous strokes.

The Persian and Yemenite square and semi-cursive sub-types are exemplified in two 15th century biblical manuscripts, as seen in the images below. It is important to mention that the semi-cursive and cursive modes failed to properly develop in medieval Yemen.

The Pentateuch, Haftarot (reading from the Prophets) and Psalms in Persian vocalised semi-cursive script. Hebrew & Judeo-Persian. Qom, Persia, 1483 CE (Or. 2451, f. 204v)  noc

The Former Prophets penned in square, vocalised Yemenite script. Yemen, 1460 CE (Or. 2370, f. 53r)  noc

The Italian Hebrew writing, like its Latin counterpart, appears to have preserved the Caroline style (a Latin calligraphic script used in Europe in the early Middle Ages and during the Renaissance). The rounded shape of the Italian Latin scripts is equally noticeable in the Hebrew scripts from that area, particularly in the semi-cursive style of writing. Our first example comes from a sidur (daily prayer book) written by the well-known scribe, scholar and geographer, Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol (1451-1526). He penned the text in a fine square hand. The letters are vocalised and slightly tilted. Note the flourishes shaped as question marks which were added after the Divine name represented by two ‘yod’ letters.

Add MS 18692, f.37v
Decorated daily prayer book according to the Italian rite. Opening of the Shema, the central prayer in Judaism, declaring the faith in one God. Scribe: Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol.
Ferrara, Italy, 1478 (Add MS 18692, f.37v)  noc

The second example is taken from an autograph manuscript written by the Italian rabbi Mordechai ben Judah Dato (1527-1585), and shows Italian Hebrew cursive script at its best. The rotundity of the characters is particularly evident here.

Collection of liturgical poems with a commentary by Mordechai Dato. Scribe: Mordechai ben Judah Dato. Italy, 1575-1599 (Add MS 27096, f. 3v)  noc

Our next blog will cover further significant items from the Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection which have been digitised since 2013.

Further reading

Ada Yardeni. The Book of Hebrew script: history, palaeography, script styles, calligraphy and design. Newcastle: Oak Knoll Press, 2002

Malachi Beit-Arié. The Making of the Medieval Hebrew Book: Studies in Palaeography and Codicology. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1993.


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies