THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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119 posts categorized "Middle East"

05 April 2018

Making his mark: the seals of Tipu Sultan

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Over the past year or so I have been working on the library of Tipu Sultan, Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-1799), of which an estimated 600 volumes were deposited in the library of the East India Company between 1806 and 1808 and again in 1837 after the Library of its college at Fort William was disbanded (for more on this see my earlier post Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah (IO Islamic 3214). By now I have examined well over half of the British Library manuscripts, and a few in other libraries, but have been surprised at how few of the volumes actually contain the seal of Tipu Sultan himself. So far I have found only twenty-eight, some with more than one impression. With the exception of one, they can be divided into three basic types: a personal seal dated 1186 (1772/73), and official seals dating from 1215 (1787/88) and 1223 (1795/96) of the muhammadi or mawludi era.

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The opening pages of the highly illuminated and calligraphic Miʼat kalimah ʻAlīyah ʻālīyah Murtaḍawīyah (the 100 sayings of  ʻAli ibn Abi Talib) with an interlinear Persian verse translation. Tipu's personal seal dated 1186 (1772/73) is placed at the top. This manuscript was probably acquired in 1780 when the previous owner Nawab ʻAbd al-Vahhab was defeated by Hyder ʻAli’s forces and was despatched to Seringapatam with his family as prisoners (British Library IO Islamic 1662)
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Tipu's personal seal
In many ways this is the most interesting of the three seals as it perhaps reflects Tipu's personal interests. The rectangular seal is inscribed Tīpū Sulṭān 1186 (1772/73), measuring 16 x 11.5 mm (interior measurement: 15 x 11 mm). The seal predates Tipu's accession to the throne at the end of 1782 after the death of his father Hyder ʻAli.

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Tipu's personal seal dated 1186 (1772/73), placed in the right hand margin of the opening of the poem Masnavī-i khvurshīd va māh by Nasafi (British Library IO Islamic 241)
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It would take too long to go into details here and I hope to write more fully about it later, but to summarise, of the twenty-one volumes discovered so far, fourteen are volumes of poetry by Amir Khusraw, ʻAttar, Nasafi, Ahmad-i Jam, Zulali, Kamal Khujandi, ʻUrfi, Ahsan Allah[1] and others (but surprisingly not Firdawsi, Hafiz or Nizami). Other works with Tipu's seal include four historical works, a dictionary and two works on letter writing (inshāʼ). For the most part these volumes are very ordinary, only two, for example IO Islamic 1662 illustrated above, could be described as high quality. Since there were many other deluxe volumes in his collection which did not carry his seal, we can perhaps assume that it was the content Tipu especially valued.

It is not known when these manuscripts were acquired though at least five had belonged to Nawab ʻAbd al-Vahhab of Chittoor, brother of Muhammad ʻAli Nawab of the Carnatic, who was taken prisoner with his family in 1780. Another manuscript had belonged to the Qutb Shahs of Golconda and includes the seals of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (r. 1580-1612) and his successor Muhammad Qutb Shah (r. 1612-26) – his seal dated 1021 (1612/13).

The one exception to these otherwise literary manuscripts is IO Islamic 4683: a collection of original documents from Seringapatam bound together in one volume. This seal occurs occurs on documents dated 15 Jaʻfari, year Azal 1198 AH (1784), and 1 Ahmadi, year Dalv 1200 AH (1786), ie. dating from before 1787, the date of the earlier of his two official seals described below.


Official seals of 1787 and 1796
Within a few months of ascending the throne Tipu instigated calendrical changes by renaming the twelve months and the year names of the 60 year cycle, while still also using the traditional hijri era for the year. An example of this can be seen in the documents mentioned above. However in his fifth regnal year, he established a new lunisolar system which he called muhammadi or mawludi[2], ie. dating from the supposed birth of the Prophet which was taken to be in 572 AD. A further innovation was to record the numbers from right to left instead of the usual way round, from left to right.

The reasons for establishing this new era are not clear but Kirkpatrick (Select Letters, p. xxxi) mentions a letter dated 29 Izadi (11th month) of the year Dalv, ie. at the beginning of 1787, written shortly before the change, in which Tipu Sultan requested information from scholars as to the exact dates of the birth, mission and flight of the Prophet.

The new system was reckoned to begin with the month Ahmadi 1215, year Sha, which commenced on the 20 March 1787[3]. The new seal was no doubt created to mark the new era and it continued to be used during the following years. It is found at the head or to the right side of documents and official manuals written at his request. It reads Tipū Sulṭān, 5121, i.e. 1215 mawludi era (1787/88) and measures 19 x 15 mm (interior measurement: 16 x 13 mm).

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Official seal dated 1215 mawludi (1787/88) in Muʼayyid al-mujāhidīn, an official collection of 104 sermons in verse to be read at prayers, composed by order of Tipu Sultan by Zayn al-ʻĀbidin Mūsavī Shūshtarī. This manuscript, copied by the author, is dated 27 Ramazan 1221 muhammadi corresponding to 7021 (ie 1207) hijri (8 May 1793) (British Library IO Islamic 447, f. 1r)
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This seal has been found in three volumes so far:

  • IO Islamic 447: Muʼayyid al-mujāhidīn (mentioned above)
  • IO Islamic 1663: Fatavā-yi Muḥammadī, legal decisions arranged in 313 short chapters at the request of Tipu Sultan
  • IO Islamic 4685, a collection of orders (hukmnāmah) bound together in one volume. Seal impressions occur on ff 6v, 26v, 54r, and 84r, on documents dated 1221-2 mawludi (1793-5)

Eight years later a second seal was introduced. A description of this seal is given in Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī, regulations issued 21 Haydari, Hirasat, 1224 corresponding to 19 Rabiʻ I, 1121 hijri (22 September 1796) on the correct royal insignia to be used in seals and standards, and on the form of official cyphers to be used in different government departments. Instructions are given there for the special seal (muhr-i khāṣṣ) to measure one finger (angusht) by half with the tughra Tipu Sultan in the shape of a tiger’s (shīr[4]) mouth, and the four corners to carry the letters maw lū d-i Muḥammad. The tughra was also to contain 6 tiger (babrī) stripes.

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Instructions for the special seal from chapter 1 of Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī (British Library IO Islamic 2379, f. 4r)
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The design of this new seal is another example of Tipu's fondness for the tiger motif and was presumably introduced in 1796 to coincide with the orders. It reads: Tipū Sulṭān 3221 [ie. 1223] Maw lū d-i Muḥammad (1795/96). It measures 19 x 15 (17 x 13 mm) and like the earlier seal is found on documents and government manuals of which several copies exist.

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Seal dated 1223 mawludi (1795/96) heading an official register of names for different kinds of horses and bullocks, dated 1 Ahmadi, Shadab, 1226 (March 1798) (British Library IO Islamic 4684, f. 94v)
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This seal has been found in five volumes so far:

  • IO Islamic 1638, Mufarriḥ al-qulūb, a collection of mixed Persian and Dakhni songs collected for Tipu Sultan by Hasan ʻAli ʻIzzat and completed in AH 1199 (1784-5). For more on this manuscript see Kirkpatrick, Select Letters, pp. 391-3. This was one of many copies (see Ethe's Persian manuscripts in India Office Library nos. 2024-2032  and also Kirkpatrick (ibid, p.379)
  • IO Islamic 2379, Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī, regulations for the correct royal insignia for seals, on standards and the form of official cyphers to be used in different government departments, drawn up on 21 Haydari, Hirasat, 1224 corresponding to 19 Rabiʻ I, 1121 hijri (22 September 1796)
  • RAS Per 171, another copy of Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī
  • IO Islamic 4683, heading an official copy (f. 174v) of a consultation to the six government departments, dated 15 Ahmadi, Shadab (April 1798)
  • IO Islamic 4684 (see above)


Wax impression of a further official seal
Finally a unique  example of a European style wax sealing is found in IO Islamic 4683 attached to a consultation to Tipu's six government departments, dated 15 Ahmadi, Shadab (April 1798). The left-hand seal is inscribed yā ḥāfiz̤, and is possibly dated 1219 (1791/92), but if so, it is quite a few years earlier than the document it is connected to. Unfortunately I haven't been able to decipher the right hand seal. There were no doubt other seals of this type, but by virtue of their ephemeral nature they have not survived.

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Wax sealing  (British Library IO Islamic 4683)
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Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
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[1] Royal Asiatic Society RAS Per 310.
[2] See Kirkpatrick, W., Select Letters of Tippoo Sultan to Various Public Functionaries ... London, 1811, especially his notes on the calendar and Mauludi era, pp.xxvi-xxxvii; also Henderson, J.R., The coins of Haidar Alī and Tīpū Sultān. Madras, 1921. p. 28.
[3] The first year of the mawludi era is sometimes reckoned as 1786-7 AD, but fortunately some documents are dated in both the mauludi and the hijri era which makes a start date of 1787-8 incontrovertible.
[4] Shīr usually refers to a lion, but there is no doubt that tiger is implied here because of the babri 'tiger' stripe.

 

28 March 2018

Canonical Hindustani music treatises of Aurangzeb ‘Alamgir’s reign

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This guest post by Katherine Butler Schofield accompanies the podcast “The Maestro: Remembering Khushhal Khan Gunasamudra in Eighteenth-Century Delhi”, the second of six lectures and conversations she is presenting at the British Library in 2018 as part of her British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship “Histories of the Ephemeral: Writing on Music in Late Mughal India”.

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Fig. 1. The opening folios of the Sahasras, a compilation of dhrupad songs by the early 16th-century master-musician, Nayak Bakhshu, especially compiled for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Mid-17th century (British Library IO Islamic 1116, ff. 1v–2r)
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On 12th March 2018 I retold a revealing story about the great seventeenth-century Indian musician Khushhal Khan kalāwant ‘Gunasamudra’, the ‘Ocean of Virtue’. Khushhal Khan was one of the most feted Mughal court musicians of his time. Great-grandson of the most famous Indian musician of them all, Tansen, and chief musician to the Mughal emperors Shah Jahan (r. 1627–58) and Aurangzeb ‘Alamgir (r. 1658–1707), he was written about extensively in his lifetime as a virtuoso classical singer of exceptional merit and serious character. A portrait of him, dressed in pink and singing with other renowned court musicians at the wedding of Dara Shukoh in 1633, may be found in this c.1700 painting in the Royal Collection. In the podcast, I look at this larger-than-life figure from two perspectives. The principal one is a lengthy story that memorialised Khushhal Khan one hundred years after his heyday, as told by Mughal nobleman Inayat Khan ‘Rasikh’ in the first ever stand-alone biographical dictionary (taẕkira) of Hindustani musicians—the Risāla-i Ẕikr-i Mughanniyān-i Hindūstān-i Bihisht-nishīn (1753).

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Fig. 2. Inayat Khan’s taẕkira incorporated (beginning at the bottom of the page) into an anonymous general work on music written for emperor Shah ‘Alam II (r. 1759–1806)[1] (British Library Delhi Persian 1501, f. 9r)
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But in order to understand his dramatic tale of Khushhal Khan’s supernatural interference in the 1657–8 Mughal War of Succession between rival princes Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb, I also delve deep into the canonical Mughal treatises on Hindustani music, which were written in Persian during the reign of Aurangzeb. As well as providing some visuals to accompany the podcast, this guest post allows me to highlight further some of the incredible Mughal writings on Hindustani music held in the British Library.

Of all the arts and sciences cultivated in Mughal India outside poetry, it is music that is by far the best documented. Hundreds of substantial works on music from the Mughal period are still extant, in Sanskrit, Persian, and North Indian vernaculars. Theoretical writing on Indian music began very early, flourishing in Sanskrit from the very first centuries of the Common Era. The first known writings in Persian on Indian music date from the thirteenth century CE, and in vernacular languages from the early sixteenth. These often directly translated Sanskrit theoretical texts. A particularly authoritative model was Sharngadeva’s Saṅgīta-ratnākara, the Ocean of Music, written c. 1210–47 for the Yadava ruler of Devagiri (Daulatabad) in the Deccan. But Persian and vernacular authors added to their Sanskrit models in interesting ways. These two early examples from the British Library’s collections, Figures 3 and 4, offer translations of the Ocean of Music into Persian and Dakhni, but also include large additional sections presenting material contemporary to the times and places in which they were written. The first is the Ghunyat al-Munya or Richness of Desire, the earliest known Persian treatise specifically on Hindustani music, composed in 1375 for the Delhi-sultanate governor of Gujarat. The British Library’s copy is one of only two still extant.

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Fig. 3. The bherī or dhol, from the chapter on instruments. Ghunyat al-Munya (British Library IO Islamic 1863, f. 47v)
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The second is Shaikh ‘Abd al-Karim’s Javāhir al-Mūsīqāt-i Muḥammadī or Jewels of Music, a unique Persian and vernacular manuscript from the ‘Adil Shahi court of Bijapur, at the core of which is what remains of a c.1570 Dakhni translation of the Ocean of Music. (See Part 1  and Part 2 of my earlier discussion of this extraordinary text. See also digital version of this work). The Javāhir gets rid of the Ocean of Music’s outdated way of discussing the rāgas—the all-important melodic frameworks of Hindustani musical performances—and replaces it with a newfangled rāgamālā (‘garland of rāgas’) of peculiar vibrancy and potency.

Fig3_Javahir_f102r
Fig. 4. As well as being melodic frameworks for musical performance, the rāgas were personified and visualised as heroes, heroines, deities, jogis, and other beings with emotional and supernatural powers. Ragini Asavari. Javāhir al-Mūsīqāt-i Muḥammadī (British Library Or.12857, f. 102r)
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Sanskrit authors continued to write a variety of musical texts in the Mughal domains. But what’s notable in the seventeenth century is a substantial new effort to recodify and systematise Hindustani music, specifically for the new Mughal era, in more accessible languages. The first major piece of Mughal theoretical writing in Persian on Hindustani music could not be more canonical: the chapters on music and musicians written by Akbar’s great ideologue ‘Abu’l Fazl in his 1593 Ā’īn-i Akbarī (Volume III). What has recently emerged, thanks to the work of Richard David Williams, is that Mughal ventures to recodify Hindustani music seem to have moved from there into classical Hindi, or Brajbhasha, during the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Take, for example, Figure 1 above, the well-known Sahasras or Thousand Sentiments, the compilation for Shah Jahan of 1004 dhrupad songs by the early sixteenth-century master-musician, Nayak Bakhshu. Its preface is in Persian, but the songs themselves are in Brajbhasha.

Another example is an eighteenth-century interlinear copy of the premier Sanskrit treatise of the early seventeenth century, Damodara’s Saṅgīta-darpaṇa or Mirror of Music. Here, alongside the Sanskrit text, we have Harivallabha’s hugely popular mid seventeenth-century Brajbhasha translation, combined with an eighteenth-century gloss in modern Hindi by a living hereditary musician, Jivan Khan[2].

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Fig. 5. Interlinear copy of the Saṅgīta-darpaṇa produced for East India Company official Richard Johnson  (British Library IO San 2399)
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But it was in Aurangzeb’s reign that this recodifying impetus manifested itself in earnest in the Persian language, in a flurry of treatises designed to satisfy the needs of high-ranking connoisseurs of Hindustani music who were more comfortable in the offical language of the Mughal empire[3]. These six key treatises in Persian became the canonical core of Mughal music theory for the next two hundred years:

1) The Miftāḥ al-Sarūd or Key to Music, Figure 6: a translation of a lost Sanskrit work called Bhārata-saṅgīta by Mughal official Qazi Hasan, written for Aurangzeb in 1664 near Daulatabad[4]. Although this treatise is not itself available in the British Library (there is a beautiful 1691 illustrated copy in the Victoria and Albert Museum IS.61:1-197), a précis of it appears in the margins of some copies of the 1547 Persian translation of al-Qazwini’s famous Wonders of Creation.

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Fig. 6. Précis of Qazi Hasan’s Miftāḥ al-Sarūd in the margins of folio 48r of this nineteenth-century copy of the 1547 Bijapuri Persian translation of al-Qazwini’s Ajā’ib al-Makhlūqāt. On the facing page, a depiction of the planet Saturn (British Library IO Islamic 3243, ff. 47v-48r)
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2) The Rāg Darpan or Mirror of Rāga, an original work written in 1666 by high-ranking Mughal nobleman Saif Khan ‘Faqirullah’, completed when he was governor of Kashmir. Faqirullah cites extensively verbatim from the Mānakutūhala, an early sixteenth-century Hindavi work traditionally attributed to Raja Man Singh of Gwalior.

3) The Tarjuma-i Kitāb-i Pārījātak, Figure 7: the stunning 1666 Translation of Ahobala Pandit’s Sanskrit masterpiece Saṅgītapārijāta by high-ranking Mughal nobleman Mirza Raushan ‘Zamir’, for Aurangzeb. Zamir was a renowned poet in Brajbhasha, and was also Khushhal Khan’s disciple in the practical arts of music. This is an early copy from 1688.
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Fig. 7. The melodic outline of Ragini Todi, Tarjuma-i Kitāb-i Pārījātak (British Library RSPA 72, f. 28r)
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4) The fifth chapter of the Tuḥfat al-Hind or Gift of India, Figure 8: Mirza Khan’s famous work on Indian sciences written c. 1675 for Aurangzeb’s son Prince Muhammad A‘zam Shah (1653–1707), who himself wrote Hindustani songs and was the first patron of Niʻmat Khan ‘Sadarang’, the greatest musician of the next century. Almost all of this monumental work is drawn from Damodara’s Mirror of Music and Faqirullah’s Mirror of Rāga, but it is exhaustive, and was hugely influential in later centuries.

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Fig. 8. Sir William Jones’ copy of the Tuḥfat al-Hind, covered in his own annotations (British Library RSPA 78, f. 178v)
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5) The Shams al-Aṣwāt or Sun of Songs, written for Aurangzeb by the chief hereditary musician of his atelier in 1698, Ras Baras Khan kalāwant, son of Khushhal Khan and great-great-grandson of Tansen. This work is primarily a new Persian translation of Damodara’s Mirror of Music, but is full of invaluable insights from the orally transmitted knowledge of Ras Baras’s esteemed musical lineage.

6) The Nishāṯ-ārā or Ornament of Pleasure, by the hereditary Sufi musician Mir Salih qawwāl Dehlavi (‘of Delhi’). This treatise is most likely late seventeenth-century; certainly no later than 1722, the date of the Royal Asiatic Society copy RAS Persian 210 (5). But there is a possibility that it was written in Shah Jahan’s reign by his librarian, Mir Muhammad Salih ‘Kashfi’, as stated in the colophon of one British Library copy, Delhi Persian 1502c.

These and other treatises written in the time of Aurangzeb range over exceptionally wide musical terrain in significant depth. But if they have one overpowering and unifying theme, it is their concern with the nature of the rāga, and the need to understand the true basis of its tremendous supernatural power in order to control and harness it for the wellbeing of individual Mughal men and the empire as a whole.

For more on how Khushhal Khan was able to use Ragini Todi to put the emperor Shah Jahan under his spell, with fatal consequences, you will need to listen to the podcast! Here are a couple of additional visuals to guide your imagination as you do:

 and by way of explanation:

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Fig. 9. Inayat Khan’s story of Khushhal Khan ‘Gunasamudra’: dramatis personae

 

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Fig. 10. The scale of the Hindustani rāgas worked out on the string of the bīn according to Pythagorian ratios, and their supernatural correlations; distilled by Katherine Schofield from the Aurangzeb-era treatises of Ahobala, Mirza Raushan ‘Zamir’, ‘Iwaz Muhammad Kamilkhani, Ras Baras Khan, and Shaikh ‘Abd al-Karim

Katherine Butler Schofield, King’s College London
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With thanks to the British Academy and the European Research Council; and also to William Dalrymple, Bruce Wannell, and Richard David Williams. Any errors are mine.

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[1] C A Storey’s handlist of the Delhi Persian collection states that the Shah ‘Alam of the colophon is Shah ‘Alam I (r. 1707–12), but it’s Shah ‘Alam II: the author adds a biographical note on Firoz Khan ‘Adarang’, fl. 1720–60s, calling him ‘today’s’ greatest musician.
[2] I am grateful to Richard David Williams for drawing my attention to this manuscript, and sharing his insights on it.
[3] Contrary to popular belief, Aurangzeb did not ban music. For more on Hindustani music and musical treatises in the time of Aurangzeb, see Katherine Butler Brown [Schofield], “Did Aurangzeb Ban Music?” Modern Asian Studies 41.1 (2007): 77–120; and Katherine Butler Schofield, “Reviving the Golden Age Again,” Ethnomusicology 54.3 (2010): 484–517.
[4] This treatise is sometimes erroneously dated 1674.

14 March 2018

A Mughal copy of Nizami’s Layla Majnun (IO Islamic 384)

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Some of our best-known Mughal manuscripts in the British Library’s Persian collection have already been digitised. These include the imperial Akbarnāmah (Or.12988 ), Akbar’s copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.12208), and the Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī, ‘Memoirs of Babur’, (Or.3714), to mention just a few. However far more works remain undigitised and many are comparatively little-known. Over the coming months we’ll be publicising some of these in the hope that people will become more familiar with them.

IO Islamic 384_f2r_2000 IO Islamic 384_f1v_2000
Opening of Nizami's Laylā Majnūn, copied by Muhammad Baqir in 1557-8 (British Library IO Islamic 384, ff. 1v-2r)
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Today’s choice is a copy of Nizami’s Laylā Majnūn, IO Islamic 384, one of the five narrative poems forming his Khamsah, ‘Quintet’. Consisting of approximately 4,600 lines of verse and completed in 584/1188, it tells of the fateful romance between Layla and Qays who, driven to madness (majnūn), took refuge in the desert with wild creatures as his only friends. When Layla eventually died of a broken heart, Majnun rushed to her grave and instantly died himself. Interpreted on several levels, the story of Layla and Majnun is one of the most popular Persian romances with versions by many of the best-known authors. Nizami’s poem was itself frequently copied and illustrated, especially in Mughal India.

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Layla and Majnun as children at school (British Library IO Islamic 384, f. 7r)
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This particular manuscript, IO Islamic 384, is dated Rabiʻ al-avval 965 (Dec 1557/Jan 1558) and was copied by Muhammad Baqir [ibn] Mulla Mir ʻAli, the son and pupil of the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli Haravi who worked in Herat and Bukhara. Muhammad Baqir migrated to India and was already, in Akbar’s reign, described as a noted calligrapher by Abu’l-Fazl (A’īn-i Akbarī, tr. Blochmann, p. 109). In India he worked for the courtier and patron ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan Khanan (Soucek, p. 169 citing Nihavandi’s Ma’āsir-i Raḥīmī).

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The colophon giving the date of completion: Rabiʻ al-avval 965 (Dec 1557/Jan 1558), and the name of the scribe Muḥammad Bāqir [ibn] Mullā Mīr ʻAlī (British Library IO Islamic 384, f. 50r)
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As can be seen from the image above, the manuscript begins with a fine illuminated heading. Additional illumination includes vertical bands separating the four columns of text, and chapter headings in red, set in rectangular panels of flowers on a gold ground. The five paintings were added some fifty years later. While none is attributed to any artist, Soucek has suggested that the painter might be Mushfiq who is known to have worked at ʻAbd al-Rahim’s court.

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Left: Layla’s father gives her in marriage to Ibn Salam (IO Islamic 384, f. 23r)
Right: A hermit brings Layla to the place appointed for her meeting with Majnun but she shrinks from the encounter (IO Islamic 384, f. 34v)
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Layla visits Majnun in the wilderness surrounded by animals (IO Islamic 384, f. 42r)
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Majnun throws himself on Layla’s tomb (IO Islamic 384, f. 48r)
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Our copy was purchased by the East India Company from Richard Johnson who acquired it in Lucknow, probably between 1780 and 1782 while he was Assistant to the Resident, Nathaniel Middleton (for more on Johnson and his collection see our earlier post ‘White Mughal’ Richard Johnson and Mir Qamar al-Din Minnat). Before that it had belonged, according to a Persian inscription on f. 1r, to one Faqir ʻAbd al-Hakim who had bought it for 22 rupees at the beginning of Ramazan in the first regnal year of an unspecified ruler.


Further reading

H. Pinder-Wilson , “Three Illustrated Manuscripts of the Mughal Period”, Ars Orientalis, Vol. 2 (1957): 413-422.


Priscilla Soucek, “Persian Artists in Mughal India: Influences and Transformations”, Muqarnas 4 (1987): 166-181.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
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01 March 2018

'South Asia Series' talks from April to May 2018

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The Asia and African Collections department at British Library (BL) is pleased to announce an exciting line-up of talks in April-May 2018, featuring a diverse array of subjects such as Muharram, Delhi waters, Tipu Sultan’s library collection, Sufism and Persian manuscripts, Mughal musical rivalries, colonial police and food! This is a series of talks based around the British Library’s ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ and the South Asian collections. The speakers will range from scholars and academics in the UK and elsewhere as well as our own curators, who will share their original and cutting-edge research, followed by discussions facilitated by BL curators and other specialists in the field. The presentations will take place at the Foyle Learning Centre at the British Library, between 5.30-7.00pm.

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Muharram festival, 1830-1840 (British Library Add.Or. 401)   noc

On 16th April 2018, David Lunn, Simon Digby Postdoctoral Fellow at SOAS,  will talk about transformations in the Shi’a festival of Muharram, which commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, in South and Southeast Asia during the colonial period. His talk entitled ‘Painting, Singing, and Telling Muharram in 19th-century India and Singapore focuses on various examples of art work from India in the British Library collections; the ‘Muharram processional scroll’, a painting from c. 1840 Madras now in the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore; and the Syair Tabut, a 146-quatrain Malay narrative poem from 1864 Singapore. These representations of Muharram will be viewed in the context of colonial era contests over public space and access to it.

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‘The Jharna or Waterfall at the Kootoob’ from Sir Thomas Metcalfe’s 'Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi,' 1842-44 (British Library, Add.Or.5475 )   noc

Matt Birkinshaw, who recently completed his PhD in Geography at LSE, focuses on a long history of urban water provision in Delhi on 23rd April 2018. In his talk ‘Waters of Delhi: Continuity and Change under Mughal, Company and British Rule’, he examines how Delhi transformed from being a city with a sophisticated systems of well, channels and canal under Mughal rule to becoming a dangerously unhealthy city with inadequate water and drainage concerns under British rule. In his talk he will trace how water was understood and accessed under different systems of rule, the changes and continuities in water supply and their present day relevance.

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Front board of Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an (British Library, IO Islamic 3562)   noc

In our last talk in April, Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator of Persian Collections, British Library, in her talk on 30th April, ‘Researching the Manuscript Collection of Tipu Sultan of Mysore’, will explore some of the rare and valuable manuscripts at the British Library that were once part of Tipu Sultan’s Library collection. Tipu Sultan of Mysore is one of the most colourful characters in the history of South Asia. On the one hand he is often castigated as a fanatical Muslim and brutal ruler but at the same time he is regarded by many as a martyr whose wars against the British foreshadowed the historic uprising of 1857 by around 50 years. On the basis of his collection, Ursula Sims-Williams will shed new light on the charismatic Tipu Sultan, whose library at the time of the fall of Seringapatam in 1799, was estimated to consist of about 2000 volumes.

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List of contents from the opening of a late-sixteenth-century collection of letters teaching mystical principles (British Library, Delhi Persian 1129B)  noc

We will begin May with another talk from one of our curators! On Wednesday 9th May, Sâqib Bâburî, Curator, Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project, will talk on ‘Sufism and Persian Manuscripts from the Delhi Collection’. Acquired by the Government of India in 1859, the ‘Delhi Collection’ was transferred to the India Office Library in 1876, and is now part of the British Library's collections. Sâqib Bâburi in his talk explores some of the rare manuscripts in the Delhi collection that specifically deal with Sufism, mysticism and metaphysics to help illustrate Delhi’s diverse spiritual traditions.

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Nawab Muhammad ‘Abd ul-Rahman Khan of Jhajjhar entertained by members of the Delhi kalāwant lineage, 1849 (British Library Add.Or. 4680)   noc

Katherine Butler Schofield, Senior Lecturer in Music at King’s College London, will present on the 14th May 2018 on musical rivalries in Mughal times as part of her series of talks at the British Library entitled Histories of the Ephemeral: Writing about Music in Late Mughal India. Her talk ‘The Rivals: Anjha Baras Khan, Adarang, and What Happened to Muhammad Shah’s Court’ based on 18th and early 19th musician biographies, a genre new to writing on music at the time, will offer unusual access to the history of elite artisans on the move in late Mughal and early colonial India. The biographies offer themselves as both a product and a record of the upheaval, dispersal, diversification and innovation of those times.

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Life in the Indian Police, by C.E Gouldsbury (London, 1912), p. 42  (British Library T 9029)   noc

On 21st May 2018, we have a talk on ‘Police in Colonial India: A Study of the Recruitment of Constabulary Labour in Late Nineteenth Century Bengal’, given by Partha Pratim Shil, Junior Research Fellow for research in History at Trinity College, Cambridge. The talk examines the archival corpus at the British Library for the study of the police establishment in Colonial Bengal. Using the police archive, Partha Pratim Shil demonstrates the different and new ways of looking at the recruitment of workers at the lowest rungs of the police, i.e., the constabulary in the Bengal and Calcutta Police establishments, in the late nineteenth century. The talk reveals how colonial police officials had to dip into the wider market of security work in Bengal to derive its constabulary, and how the operation of this labouring world shaped the colonial state apparatuses.

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Left:  Sultan Ghiyas al-Din seated on his throne and right: Cows being milked (British Library IO Islamic 149)   noc

We end our spring talks on 30th May 2018 with a presentation by Preeti Khosla, an independent scholar, on Mughal-era cookbooks. Her talk entitled ‘Reintroducing the Celebrated Niʿmatnāmah Half a Century Later ‘brings to life the gastronomic delights, aromas and indulgences of the 16th century Malwa court using the British Library manuscript, the Niʿmatnāmah. Dedicated to the Malwa Sultans, Ghiyas-al-Din Shah and Nasir-al-Din Shah, its many illustrations and accompanying text provide a rare vista into the decadence of this Sultanate court and its obliging female retinue. Evidently an illustrated manuscript that was esteemed over the centuries, this talk takes another look at the celebrated Niʿmatnāmah more than half a century after it came to light.

No advance booking for these talks is required, and the sessions are free to attend. For further info, please contact Dr. Layli Uddin, Project Curator of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ at layli.uddin@bl.uk. Please do come along, listen and participate!

21 February 2018

Endangered heritage: cultural sites at risk from conflict on postage stamps

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The appreciation of postage stamp designs transcends the mere aesthetic since their designs can be used to enhance our understanding on a range of contemporary concerns relating to heritage. This is best exemplified with the postage stamps of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen depicting heritage sites destroyed, or at risk of destruction from armed conflict.

Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
The Afghanistan 16 July, 1972 9 afghanis stamp (Fig. 1) depicts the Graeco-Bactrian Temple amongst the ancient ruins at Ai-Khanoum situated in present day Takhar Province, Northern Afghanistan. Initially believed to have been the Alexandria on the Oxus, established after Alexander the Great’s conquests in the region, it is now known to date to around 280 BCE during the rule of King Antiochus I. French and Russian Archaeologists worked on the site between 1964 and 1978 but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced the excavations to be abandoned. Tragically, Ai-Khanoum was heavily looted and much of it destroyed during the ensuing conflict.

Afghanistan 2b  Afghanistan 2b
Figs. 1 and 2

The 3 afghanis stamp from the same issue (Fig. 2) depicts the Buddhist Stupa at Hadda, close to the Khyber Pass in Kandahar Province. Over twenty thousand Buddhist sculptures fusing Buddhist and Hellenic artistic traditions from the second or first century BCE were excavated at the site. Much of this site was destroyed in the Afghan Civil Wars between 1989 and 1986 which followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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Figs. 3 and 4

The Afghanistan 21 March, 1951 20 poul (Fig. 3) and 27 September, 1985 10 afghanis (Fig. 4) stamps both depict the largest of the Bamiyam Buddhas, situated in the Hazarajat region of Central Afghanistan. Part of the historic silk-road trade route linking India and China, Bamiyan was an important Buddhist holy site. Statues of the Buddha were carved out of the sandstone cliffs during the sixth century. The largest being 55 metres in height was once renowned as the tallest Buddhist statue in the world. In March 2001 the Taliban’s Military and Spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, ordered the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Their destruction immediately sparked outrage and condemnation within the international community. In an interview Mullah Mohammed Omar stated that he ordered the destruction of the Buddhas as an act of protest and outrage against the vast sums of money being offered to conserve such ancient sites whilst millions of Afghans faced real privation. Nevertheless the act of destruction was widely regarded by the United Nations, UNESCO and others to be an act of iconoclasm by the Taliban.

Syrian Arab Republic
Elsewhere, the Syrian Arab Republic 10 October, 1968 Ancient Monuments issue also includes a number of stamps depicting heritage sites destroyed or at risk from conflict. The 15p stamp (Fig. 5), depicts the Monastery of St. Simeon the Stylite, established during the fifth century northwest of Aleppo. The Monastery is one of the oldest surviving Byzantine Churches in the world and consequently the church and village were designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2011. Initial fears for the site’s safety were raised during the Syrian conflict whilst it was under the control of Islamic State forces who have garnered widespread notoriety for their practice of destroying Islamic, Christian and other historical sites. Although safely recaptured by Kurdish forces in 2015, the monastery was heavily damaged by a possible air strike on 12 May 2016.

Syria 4_20170427_13510956 Syria 4_20170427_13510956
Figs. 5 and 6

The 50p stamp from the same issue (Fig. 6) depicts the Roman Theatre at Bosra situated in the district of Dar’a in south-western Syria. Carved out of black basalt in the mid second century CE, the theatre has a seating capacity for 15,000 people making it one of the largest and best preserved ancient roman theatres in the world. In March 2015, video footage was released showing rebel and Syrian Government forces battling amongst the ruins which resulted in the destruction of statues and shattered the stone work.

The second series of the Syrian Arab Republic 20 January 1969 Ancient Monuments Issue are also significant. The 25p stamp (Fig. 7) depicts the Baal-Shamin Temple in Palmyra which was consecrated in 32AD for worshipers of the Mesopotamian God Baal. Under Byzantine rule the temple was converted into a Christian Church before being again converted into a Mosque in 1132. The Mosque remained active until the 1920s when Franco-Syrian archaeological missions removed the post-classical additions to the site as part of a restoration process. The ruins were amongst the best preserved in Palmyra until August 2015 when Islamic State forces searching for hidden gold used explosives to demolish the site.

The 16p stamp from the issue (Fig. 8) depicts the Shrine of St John the Baptist housed in the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Built on the site of an old Christian Church in 634 CE, the Mosque is one of the oldest and largest in the world, widely regarded as Islam’s fourth holiest site. It houses the Shrine of St John the Baptist, a religious figure of importance to both Christian and Muslim believers. The tomb of the great Muslim leader, Saladin in also situated within an adjoining garden. For centuries the site has been a place where both Christians and Muslims have worshipped alongside one another peacefully. Although it remains undamaged, fears for the site's safety were raised in November 2013, after a mortar round landed perilously close to the mosque killing several people.

Syria 9_20170427_13540120 Syria 8_20170427_13533290Syria 9_20170427_13533290
Figs. 7, 8 and 9

Finally the 60p stamp (Fig. 9) depicts the Khaled ibn al-Walid Mosque in Homs, Syria. Although the current building was constructed in the twentieth century, the Mosque has been located at this site since 1265 CE. It is dedicated to and holds the mausoleum of Khalid ibn al-Walid, a military commander who led the Islamic conquest of Syria in the seventh century putting an end to Byzantine rule in the region. During the Syrian Conflict, the mosque was held by anti-government rebels and was consequently in 2013 shelled on a number of occasions causing significant damage to the building and tomb.

Republic of Iraq
A notable set of stamps depicting cultural sites impacted by the various conflicts in Iraq is the Republic of Iraq 1 December 1967 International Tourist Year Issue. The 15 fils stamp (Fig. 10) depicts the Minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. Established in 1172, the mosque was named after Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, a Turkic ruler of Mosul and Aleppo who ordered its construction. Having undergone significant development over the centuries, the mosque was made famous by its leaning cylindrical minaret nicknamed ‘al-Hadba’ (the hunchback) which was covered with elaborate Iranian style brickwork and surmounted with a white dome. In July 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first appearance as IS leader at the mosque and announced the establishment of a Caliphate. Sadly in July 2017, IS forces used explosives to demolish the site during their retreat from Mosul.
Iraq 1_20170427_14143661Iraq 1_20170427_14143661
Figs. 10 and 11

The 80 fils stamp (Fig. 11) depicts the Minaret of Samarra, originally part of the Great Mosque of Samarra constructed between 848 and 851CE. Although the mosque itself was destroyed in 1278 during the Mongol Invasion of Iraq; its outer wall and iconic minaret known as the Malwiya Tower survived. Constructed of sandstone, the minaret is a spiralling cone fifty-two metres high and thirty three metres wide with a spiral ramp. During the Iraq War, US troops used the top of the minaret as a lookout position, making the site a military target. Consequently in April 2005 Insurgent activity resulted in the top of the minaret sustaining bomb damage.

Yemen People’s Democratic Republic
The Yemen People’s Democratic Republic 15 December, 1998 International Campaign for the Preservation of Old Sana’a Issue, 75 fils (Fig. 12) depicts the city’s skyline. Yemen’s largest city is recognised to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and contains many architectural wonders including the Great Mosque of Sana’a, the ancient clay walls and the Yemen Gate all of which are over a thousand years old. Declared a world heritage site by the United Nations in 1986, many of the city’s important historical sites including the ninth century mosque of the prophet Shuaibi are being destroyed or damaged by military action in the ongoing conflict in the country, largely a result of aerial bombardment by Saudi Arabia with the backing of other nations.

Yemen 5_20170427_14391657  Yemen 5_20170427_14391657
Figs. 12  and 13

The Yemen People’s Democratic Republic 28 August, 1985 UNSECO World Heritage Site, 50 fils issue (Fig. 13), depicts the iconic skyline of Shibam, another of Yemen’s cultural sites at risk from military conflict. The city is famous for possessing some of the oldest skyscrapers in the world, made from mud brick, many of which rise to between five and eleven storey’s high. Although the town has existed for almost two thousand years, many of these houses originated in the sixteenth century although they have been continuously rebuilt. These historic buildings have been at increasing risk from damage since 2009 when it was targeted in an Al-Qaeda attack- and remain so due to the ongoing conflict in the country. Sadly the destruction and damage sustained to many important heritage sites throughout these regions is set to continue for the foreseeable future. It is a sobering thought that many of the cultural heritage sites depicted upon postage stamps from these nations might not be with us for much longer.

Images have been taken from the British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Access to these collection items can be made by booking an appointment with the British Library’s Philatelic Collections on philatelic@bl.uk.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections
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09 February 2018

Introducing Doctoral Students to the Asian and African Collections at the British Library

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Curators of the Asian and African Collections recently welcomed 45 eager doctoral students to a training day at the British Library. The session, for students in the first year of their PhDs, provided an introduction to the research materials on offer at the BL. Students came from universities throughout the UK, including Glasgow, Strathclyde and Newcastle.

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On display at the doctoral open day: (left) Ganjifa card set featuring the avatars of Vishnu from 19th-century Orissa, India (BL Or 13,692); (right) illustration of animals, probably for a board game. Commissioned by Richard Johnson, Lucknow, c. 1780-82 (BL Johnson Album 5,9)

We know that our vast and wide-ranging collections may be a little daunting when starting out on research. The annual doctoral open day aims to give students an understanding of the overall picture, as well as helping them to start navigating the collections in the best way for their own research.

Arabic comic 2  OR 16442 Quran board
(Left) a comic from the British Library’s Arabic collections: Skefkef, issue 3, published in Morocco; (right) section of Qur’an board, probably from Somalia, used for learning the Qur’an (BL Or. 16442)

The day began with a talk on research at the British Library, and an overview of the Asian and African Collections ­from the Head of Department, Dr Luisa Mengoni. Curators then gave introductions to our holdings on and from:

There were also presentations on the India Office Records and from our Digital Research team. The British Library’s materials are in many formats – books, serials, newspapers, electronic resources, manuscripts and archives, maps, audio-visual items and philatelic material. The Asian and African Collections have material in all the major languages of Asia and Africa, and in many less widely spoken languages too.

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A wide range of exhibits on display at the doctoral open day

After this glimpse of what’s available, students received practical help in using the catalogues as well as an opportunity to see displays of richly illuminated manuscripts, books, and other treasures from our collections. There was plenty of time to interact with curators and gain advice on individual research projects.

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The Turkish and Turkic stand

The afternoon finished with a talk by Dr Richard Williams, Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, who shared his experiences of using the British Library’s collections and provided plentiful tips for life after the PhD.

The day brought together students with a huge range of research interests, from women’s translations of the Qur’an to the medical history of refugee camps, and provided opportunities to get to know other doctoral researchers in similar or different disciplines.

95% of those completing feedback forms rated the day ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. Most important, students’ confidence in their ability to do their research at the BL vastly increased. The proportion of those ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ in using our collections rose from 27% beforehand to 100% at the end of the day. ‘Very useful & good day,’ one student commented. ‘Staff were very helpful and approachable.’

What next? The next Asian and African doctoral open day will be held early in 2019, for students starting their PhDs in autumn 2018.

In the meantime, current PhD students are invited to apply for a range of 3-month PhD research placements at the British Library.

These projects include:

The closing date for applications is 19 February 2018.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, African Collections, with thanks to colleagues for the wide range of photographs
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05 February 2018

African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia

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February 6th marks the opening of a new display, “African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia,” in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. It will be the first exhibit to be held at the Library devoted entirely to Ethiopian manuscripts, exploring the culture of a manuscript tradition which extends back to the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Ethiopian collections in the British Library include over 500 manuscripts most of which are written in Ge'ez and were acquired from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. The collection is especially strong in illuminated manuscripts of the 16th and 17th centuries and also contains, in addition to biblical texts, an important collection of Ethiopian magical and divinatory scrolls. On display is a selection of twelve exhibits chosen to demonstrate the arts of painting and calligraphy besides serving as an introduction to Ethiopian literary traditions.

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Christ, the Virgin Mary, Michael, Gabriel and the Twelve Apostles appearing to St. Takla Haymanot at Easter. From the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot. 18th century (BL Or. 728, ff. 80-81)
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Highlights of the display are:

The Four Gospels

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St. Luke the Evangelist accompanied by two disciples. At his feet are two Abyssinian ground hornbills. Lasta, early 17th century (BL Or. 516, f.100v)
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The four Gospels are the central religious scriptures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which traces its history to the first century AD, when an Ethiopian court official on pilgrimage to Jerusalem was met on his way back by St. Philip who baptised him (Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40).


The Octateuch, the Four Gospels and other ecclesiastical works

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The adoration of the Magi, 17th century (BL Or. 481, f. 101r)
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Written on parchment in Ge'ez during the second half of the 17th century, this manuscript consists of the first eight books of the Old Testament (Genesis-Ruth), the Gospels and other ecclesiastical works. It is decorated with coloured borders and contains many illustrations. This volume also contains copies of many 14th century deeds of gift and grants of various kings.


Deggwa or Hymnbook

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A portrait of the 13th century St. Takla Haymanot, founder of the monastery of Debra Libanos and one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The priests are depicted in distinguishable turbans, colourful robes and holding crosses and multi-coloured umbrellas (BL Or. 584, f.154v)
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The Deggwa is the liturgical collection of hymns and chants used in the Ethiopian Church. The hymns are arranged according to the calendar and divided by the seasons of the liturgical year. The book also provides the orders of service for various feasts of saints, martyrs, angels, Sundays and festivals such as Antiphonary for the Fast of Lent. The composition of hymns in the Deggwa is attributed to St. Yared of Aksum (505-571 AD).


The Revelation of St. John

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St John in the presence of God. Illuminated manuscript with 126 paintings illustrating the life and death of the apostle St. John. Gondar, Ethiopia 1700-1730 (BL Or. 533, f. 3r)
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The Revelation of St. John of Ephesus is the last book in the New Testament, traditionally called Abuqalamisis in Ethiopian. This copy was composed at the beginning of the eighteenth century for King ʻlyasu I (r. 1682–1706) and Queen Walatta Giyorgis. This volume is an exceptional example of Ethiopian art containing 126 paintings. This painting was inspired by a series of woodcuts depicting the Apocalypse by the 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer.


Carry case for a Psalter

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Leather bag containing a manuscript Psalter (BL Or.9036)
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The Psalter is one of the most frequently copied texts. Used as a daily prayer-book in religious ceremonies, it needed to be portable. This example is preserved with its traditional carry case.


Copper gilt cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot

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Front cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot, one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 18th century (BL Or. 728)
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This manuscript was copied during the reign of king ‘Iyasu II (r. 1730-55) and, like the majority of Ethiopian manuscripts in the British Library, has retained its original binding. This is the only known example, however, of a copper gilt cover, comprising carvings of figures and of the cross.

Digital Ethiopian
Some of our Ethiopian manuscripts are being digitised as we write and will shortly be made available on our website as part of Heritage made Digital. This is one of the Library’s five main focuses for the coming years and for the first time, the British Library has allocated a part of its government grant towards digitisation. During the next two years we aim to digitise some 250 manuscripts from the Ethiopian collection. The first 25 manuscripts have already been catalogued and imaged, and will soon be available online. We’ll be writing more about Ethiopian manuscripts as they go live so follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa and watch this space to keep in touch!

Eyob Derillo, Cataloguer, Ethiopian Manuscripts Digitisation Project
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19 January 2018

“The Hero’s Rock”- When the Kurds Rebelled

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Along the road from the oil-rich multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk towards the modern cosmopolitan Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, there sits a rather large boulder. For the most part this boulder is unremarkable, probably shaken from the mountain above it by an earthquake in times past. Yet, to the inhabitants of Iraqi Kurdistan this boulder has become a symbol of the injustices they have faced in the 20th century and their on-going struggle for Kurdish self-governance and independence. The Kurds of Iraq have nicknamed the boulder “Barda Qaraman” or the “The Hero’s Rock”.

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Monument to the Barda Qaraman or “The Hero’s Rock” (back central) and Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji between Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. Photo: General Board of Tourism of Kurdistan Iraq

It was behind this boulder, at the end of the First World War, that the leader of the first Kurdish nationalist uprising, Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, personally took on the British Empire in the name of Kurdish statehood. This is the untold story of the first Kurdish rebellion by the self-proclaimed ‘King of Kurdistan’ against British rule as preserved within the India Office Records at the British Library.

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Map: ‘Kurds and Kurdistan,’ 1919, showing the road from Kirkuk to Sulaymaniyah (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22, p. 117 noc

As the grip of the Ottoman Empire eased at the end of the First World War the British found it difficult to establish control over the rugged and mountainous terrain of the Kurdish provinces of the old Empire that now became into their sphere of influence. The Kurdish people are often quoted saying they “have no friends but the mountains” and for the early years of engagement with the British the mountains served them well. The lack of a railway line into Kurdistan and the inhospitable terrain made communication and the movement of troops difficult. Moreover, mounting economic pressure on the British treasury to reduce spending on imperial projects meant the need for a railway in Kurdistan was never met. This allowed the Kurds a much needed political space to contemplate their post-war future.

At the end of the First World War, the Kurds had initially asked for British rule and protection on account of their impoverished state. Previous Turkish and Russian rule had left many villages desolate and in a state of famine. Needing to remedy their inability to hold Kurdistan the British agreed to Kurdish requests and installed a colonial system of indirect rule. They worked to reinforce Kurdistan’s feudal and tribal structures by giving tribal elders the ability to feed their people, and rebuild their villages.

To have some semblance of control the British also decided to appoint a local Kurdish notable Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji as governor of lower Kurdistan in 1918 to act as their regional representative. To support Sheikh Mahmud’s governance and in some part to pacify his known rebellious nature, British officials travelled to the west and north of Sulaymaniyah to garner support for the new system of British rule. They replaced Arab and Turkish officials with Kurdish ones, in effect giving the Kurds their first taste of self-rule.

Sheikh_Mahmoud_-_Kurdistan's_King_(1918-1922)
Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, 1920s  noc

At the end of 1918 doubts began to arise about the wisdom of allowing Sheikh Mahmud to increase his power in the region. This excerpt from a Military Report of 1919 titled ‘The Kurds and Kurdistan’ documents the changing British attitude towards him (p. 81):

Unfortunately, he is a mere child as regards intellect and breadth of view, but a child possessed by considerable cunning and undoubtedly inspired by an inordinate ambition. Moreover, he was surrounded by a class of sycophants who filled his head with extravagant and silly notions, leading him to style himself ruler of all Kurdistan and encouraging him to interfere in affairs far beyond the borders of the sphere allotted to him.

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ʻKurds and Kurdistanʼ, 1919 (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22, p. 81)  noc

Realising that giving Sheikh Mahmud more power and broadening his rule could be dangerous the British decided to restrict his authority. They prevented the incorporation of the Iraqi towns of Kifri and Kirkuk into his jurisdiction and removed the powerful Jaff tribe from under his rule, deciding instead to deal with them directly. This influenced other tribes to seek direct contact with the British and thus support for Sheikh Mahmud quickly waned retracting his zone of influence to the immediate vicinity of Sulaymaniyah city. Responding to this challenge and in an attempt to force the creation of separate southern Kurdistan under his rule he rebelled against the British on 22nd May 1919.  

With the support of a tribal coalition of men and horses Sheikh Mahmud defeated a small group of Kurdish levies and imprisoned the British officers and their staff in their houses in the city of Sulaymaniyah. He then appointed his own mayor, seized the government archives and money from the treasury. He also cut the telegraph-line between Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, essentially annexing southern Kurdistan from British rule. The next day a British aerial reconnaissance of the area in revolt noted that the city of Sulaymaniyah was filled with armed men. What is more, the imprisoned British officers made themselves known to the aviators by signalling to them from their houses.

After rounds of heavy RAF bombing and machine-gunning of Sulaymaniyah city and the surrounding villages, Sheikh Mahmud’s rebellion was forced out of the city towards the surrounding hills and valleys. According to accounts, it quickly became clear that Sheikh Mahmud’s Kurdish forces were by and large ill-prepared to face trained soldiers on the battlefield let alone a sustained RAF air bombardment that resulting in heavy casualties and the gutting of entire villages and neighbourhoods. With the Sheikh’s ammunition supplies running low many of his allies began to lose faith, some switching sides as the battle went on. The rebellion culminated in the standoff at the ‘Bazian Pass’.

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‘Bazian Pass. Road leading from Kirkuk to Sulaimani’, Edwin Newman Collection, 23 May 2012 (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Newman Collection, Album AL4-B, p 32, no. 1)  noc

The ‘Bazian Pass’ is a gap between the Sulaymaniyah valleys and the Garmian plains, that is hemmed in by mountains. In the hope of stopping the British advance Sheikh Mahmud’s forces constructed a stone wall across the pass. However, a British pilot spotted that the wall was not effectively constructed and on the 8th of June 1919 pilots bombed the pass and its surrounding areas weakening the defences and hitting Sheikh Mahmud’s troops hard. This was followed on the 18th of June by a further attack which brought down the wall. Sheikh Mahmud’s men were then easily routed. Some were killed, but the majority were wounded and imprisoned. Sheikh Mahmud himself was found injured taking cover behind the large boulder on the east of the pass. Once they had control of the pass the British quickly returned to Sulaymaniyah and disarmed the local population freeing the imprisoned British officers. Sheikh Mahmud himself was tried, and imprisoned in India only to be released a few years later.

Primary sources
‘Kurds and Kurdistan’, India Office Records and Private Papers’, 1919, IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22
‘Mesopotamia: British relations with Kurdistan’, India Office Records and Private Papers, 27 Aug 1919, IOR/L/PS/18/B332
‘Persia: operations against Sirdar Rashid and Sheikh Mahmoud’, India Office Records and Private Papers, 23 May 1923-2 Aug 1923, IOR/L/PS/11/235, P 2756/1923

Shkow Sharif, Asian and African Collections
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