THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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30 posts categorized "Persian"

27 September 2017

A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama (Book of Conquest)

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While art historical research has focussed on the beauty and splendour of Persian miniature paintings, the study of Judeo-Persian manuscript art has lagged behind, receiving only more recently the attention and recognition it deserves. These paintings form part and parcel of manuscripts that have been copied in Judeo-Persian, that is a dialect or dialects of Persian heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic and written in Hebrew script. The major obstacles to studying these significant hand-written books have been a lack of knowledge of the language, unfamiliarity with the Persian and Judeo-Persian literary traditions, and also with the history of Persian manuscript art in general.

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Joshua and the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant and crossing the Jordan river, from the Fath Nama, Iran, gouache on paper, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century. The elaborate raised halo over Joshua's turban is a motif borrowed from Persian iconography, where it is especially associated with prophets (British Library Or 13704, f. 15r)
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A major change occured in 1985 when a scholarly study exploring the socio-historical and cultural factors that influenced the development of Judeo-Persian manuscript painting was published. This study by Vera Basch Moreen included a detailed inventory of miniatures in Judeo-Persian manuscripts held in major library collections. In it, she described twelve accessible Judeo-Persian manuscripts containing a total of 179 miniatures, as well as numerous additional decorative elements.

Persian manuscript art flourished particularly under the Safavid rulers (1502-1642) who deliberately encouraged the artistic expression of various population groups within their kingdom. The Safavid shahs not only patronized manuscript art, but some were gifted calligraphers and painters in their own right. As a result, during the Safavid period, the art of miniature painting spread from the royal workshops to the smaller aristocratic courts and ateliers, eventually reaching the marketplaces of Persia’s major cities. It was in these centres that the popular, provincial style of Persian manuscript art – to which the Judeo-Persian paintings belong – was born. Judeo-Persian manuscript illustration reached its pinnacle between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Some art historians have argued that Judeo-Persian manuscripts commissioned by Jewish patrons were actually illustrated and decorated in Muslim workshops. Their view is based on the stylistic similarities existing between Persian and Judeo-Persian miniatures. The identity of the artists who created them remains uncertain, essentially because none of the existing Judeo-Persian miniatures found in these manuscripts were signed.

In terms of their content, Judeo-Persian illustrated manuscripts can be divided into two main categories: a) Hebrew transliterations of Persian classic works such as those of Jami (1414-1492) and Nizami (1140-1202), two giants of the Persian literary tradition; and b) original works by prominent Jewish-Persian poets such as Mawlana Shahin Shirazi (Our Master the Royal Falcon of Shiraz, 14th century) and Imrani of Isfahan (1454–1536). Among Shirazi’s epic compositions are the Musa Nama (the Book of Moses) dated 1327 which contains narratives from the Pentateuch and has around 10,000 couplets (consisting of two rhyming hemistiches), and the Bereshit Nama (Book of Genesis) which he completed in 1358, comprising over 8,000 verses.
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Seven Priests blowing seven horns in front of the Walls of Jericho, from the Fath Nama, Iran, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century (British Library Or 13704, f. 31v)
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Composed around 1474, Imrani’s epic Fath Nama (Book of Conquest) is a poetical paraphrase of narratives from the biblical books of Joshua, Ruth and Samuel, consisting of about 10.000 verses.   Imrani endeavoured to uplift the biblical story to the level of the Persian epic, combining in his works Jewish and Islamic legendary and literary material. He is known to have written ten full compositions all of which except three deal with Jewish themes. Imrani’s works are permeated with a deep sense of exile and isolation and a pessimistic view of human condition. While composing the Fath Nama, Imrani had the support of a patron – Amin al-Dawlah (Trustee of the State) who was most probably a wealthy man, perhaps an official in the city of Isfahan. When his patron passed away, Imrani abandoned his work, resuming it only after he had found another patron named Rabbi Yehuda.

Or_13704_f032r  Or_13704_f050v
Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the People of Jericho (British Library Or 13704, f. 32r)
Right: Joshua and the Israelites at the battle of Ai (British Library Or 13704, f. 50v)
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Or 13704, the Fath Nama manuscript illustrated here, contains seven coloured illustrations[1] and numerous floral and faunal designs. The manuscript is incomplete, and, since it lacks a colophon, the exact date of its production and the names of its patron and creators are unknown. The assumption that the manuscript was written and decorated at the end of the seventeenth or the beginning of the eighteenth century is based largely on the style of its paintings and on the names of former owners’ inscriptions found within its pages. Several scribes were responsible for copying the text in a writing style characteristic of Persian Jews.

Or_13704_f075r  Or_13704_f085r
Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the enemies of the Gibeonites (British Library Or 13704, f. 75r)
Right: The death of the King of Makkedah (British Library Or 13704, f. 85r)
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This manuscript is one of two known illustrated copies of this work. Acquired in 1975, it was purchased from the estate of David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), a renowned bibliophile of Baghdadi origin, who travelled extensively in search of books and manuscripts for his private library. His collection of 1,153 manuscripts is described in a two-volume catalogue published by Oxford University Press in 1932 under the title Ohel Dawid (David’s Tent). Thanks to the Polonsky Foundation, this manuscript has now been digitised and is available digitally on our Digitised Manuscripts site to explore cover to cover.

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An example of the typical bird and flower decorations in Or 13074
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Further reading
Moreen, Vera Basch, Miniature Paintings in Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1985), pp. 40, 49-50.
–––, A Supplementary List of Judaeo-Persian manuscripts”, British Library Journal, Vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 1995), p. 72 and plate II.
Moreen, Vera Basch and Orit Carmeli, The Bible as a Judeo-Persian epic: an illustrated manuscript of Imrani's Fath-Nama (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2016). On Ms 4602 of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
David Yeroushalmi, Emrānī”, in Encyclopædia Iranica (1995).

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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[1] Folio 90v, the only illustration not included here, contains an unfinished sketch in outline of Joshua in battle against the five Amorite kings.

29 August 2017

A Hindu munshi’s ‘Chain of Yogis’: a Persian manuscript in the Mackenzie Collection

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Reading about the recently opened exhibition ‘Collector Extraordinaire, Mackenzie Collection exhibition’ at Lews Castle, Stornoway, in the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides - see our recent post Colin Mackenzie, collector extraordinaire -, I was reminded that there was a small but significant number of Arabic and Persian manuscripts in Colin Mackenzie’s collection which is often overlooked. In this post I will feature one which is especially interesting, the Silsilah-i jogiyān (‘Chain of Yogis’) which played an important role in Western understanding of Indian religious groups.

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Descriptions of the 12th, 13th and 14th groups of Shaiva ascetics: the Rukhara, the Ukhara  and the Aghori (BL IO Islamic 3087, ff. 24-25)
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Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821) was born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis but spent most of his life from 1783 until his death 38 years later working for the East India Company. His most important work was as a military engineer and surveyor in Mysore (1800-1809), in Java (1811-1812/13) and from 1815 until his death in 1821 as the first Surveyor General of India. During his long career Mackenzie built up a unique collection consisting of 1,568 manuscripts, 2,070 ‘local tracts,’ 8,076 inscriptions, 2,159 translations in addition to 79 plans, 2,630 drawings, 6,218 coins, 106 images and 40 antiquities (Wilson, vol 1, pp. 22-23). This collection today is divided between several different institutions in India and the UK including the British Library.

At the time of his death Mackenzie had been hoping to complete a catalogue of his manuscripts and books but this task was left to Horace Hayman Wilson to complete in 1828. Wilson gives details of 10 Arabic and 87 Persian mss (Wilson, vol. 2, pp. 117-144) which he rather dismissively described as (vol 1 p.lii) “of little consideration, but some of them are of local value”. In fact we have 94 Persian items in our collections at the British Library. These are mostly historical works, biographies, collections of letters in addition to a few volumes of poetry, tales, and philosophical and religious works.

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H.H. Wilson’s 1828 catalogue of Mackenzie’s Persian manuscripts, including no 81, Silseleh Jogiyan
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In 1828, in what was the first major work in English on the religions of India, Wilson published the first of two articles “A sketch of the religious sects of the Hindus”. The second, a continuation with the same title, was printed in 1832. Wilson’s account was based on two Persian works, both written by Hindu authors, one of which was Silsilah-i jogiyān (‘Chain of Yogis’) by Sītal Singh, Munshi to the Raja of Benares (Wilson, 1828, p.6). This was no 81 in Wilson's catalogue, now numbered IO Islamic 3087.

Sītal Singh (see Carl Ernst’s chapter on him, below) had been commissioned to write an account of the different religious groups in Benares in 1800 by a British magistrate John Deane. Also titled Fuqarā-yi Hind, it includes descriptions of 48 different types of ascetic groups divided into 5 chapters on Vaishnavas, Shaivas, Shaktas, Sikhs and Jains. The descriptions are followed by a short philosophical defence of the Vedanta and an early census of the different religious and professional groups to be found in Benares. In addition to this work, Sītal Singh wrote several other philosophical works and poetry under the name Bīkhwud.

IO Islamic 3087 includes 48 miniature portraits painted in the margins next to the relevant descriptions. Unlike the typically more sophisticated company paintings which occur in similar works, these are comparatively simplistic in style. Although the manuscript is not dated, the paper is watermarked J. Whatman 1816 so it must have been copied after that but before Mackenzie's death in 1821. Several of the paintings are dated between 13th and 27th January, but without any year. Perhaps these were the dates when the paintings were added in the margins.

The sects are arranged as below:

The sixteen Vaishnava sects
Gosain of Vindraban (f. 4v); Gosain of Gokul (f. 5v); Sakhibhava (f. 7r); Ramanandi (f. 8r); Vairagi (f. 8v); Virakta (f. 8v); Naga (f. 9r); Ramanuji (f10r); Kabirpanthi (f10v); Dadupanthi (f11r); Ravidaspanthi (f11v); Harichandi (f. 12r); Surnapanthi (f. 12v); Madhavi (f .13v); Sadhavi (f. 13v); Charandasi (f. 15r)

IO Islamic 3087_f5v_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f7r_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f10v_1500
Left: Gosain of Gokul (f. 5v); centre: Sakhibhava (f. 7r); right: Kabirpanthi (f. 10v)

IO Islamic 3087_f13v_a_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f13v_b_1500  IO Islamic 3087_f15r_1500
Left: Madhavi (f. 13v); centre: Sadhavi (f. 13v); right: Charandasi (f. 15r)
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The nineteen Shaiva sects
Dandi (f. 16r); Agnihotri (f. 17v); Yogi (f. 19r); Shankaracharya (f. 20r); Atit (f. 20v); Sanyogi (f. 22r); Naga (f. 22r); Avadhuta (f. 23r); Urdabahu (f. 23v); Akasmukhi (f. 24r); Karalingi (f. 24r); Rukhara (f. 24v); Ukhara (f. 24v); Aghori (f. 25r); Alakhnami (f. 25v); Jangama (f. 26r); Nakhuni (f. 26v); Chokri (f. 27r); Paramahansa (f. 28r)

 IO Islamic 3087_f16r_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f17v_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f20v_1500 
Left: Dandi (f. 16r); centre: Agnihotri (f. 17v); right: Atit (f. 20v)
IO Islamic 3087_f22r_b_1500  IO Islamic 3087_f23v_1500  IO Islamic 3087_f26v_1500
Left: Naga (f. 22r); centre: Urdabahu (f. 23v); right: Nakhuni (f. 26v)
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The four kinds of Shaktas
Bhakta (f .29v); Vami (f. 31v); Kanchuliya (f. 36v); Karari (f. 38r)

IO Islamic 3087_f31v.JPG_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f36v.JPG_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f38r.JPG_1500
Left: Vami (f. 31v); centre: Kanchuliya (f. 36v); right: Karari (f. 38r)
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The seven kinds of Nanakshahis (Sikhs)
Udasi (f. 40r); Ganjbakhshi (f. 40v); Ramra’i (f. 41r); Suthrashahi (f. 41r); Govindsakhi (f. 42v); Nirmali (f.  46v); Naga (f. 47v)
IO Islamic 3087_f41r_a_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f42v_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f47v_a_1500
Left: Ramra’i (f. 41r); centre: Govindsakhi (f. 42v); right: Naga (f. 47v)
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The two kinds of Sravakas (Jains)

IO Islamic 3087_f47v_b_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f48v_1500
Left: Sravaka (f. 47v); right: Jati (f. 48v)
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Further reading
Blake, David M., “Colin Mackenzie: Collector Extraordinary”, in The British Library Journal, vol. 17, No. 2 (Autumn 1991): pp. 128-150.
Wilson, Horace Hayman, The Mackenzie Collection. A descriptive catalogue of the oriental manuscripts, and other articles ... collected by Lieut. Col. Colin Mackenzie, etc. 2 vols. Calcutta: Printed at the Asiatic Press, 1828. vol. 1vol. 2
––– “Sketch of the religious sects of the Hindus”, Asiatic Researches, vol. 16 (1828): pp. 1-136  and vol. 17 (1832): pp.169-313.
Ernst, Carl W., “A Persian philosophical defense of Vedanta”, in Refractions of Islam in India: Situating Sufism and Yoga. India: Sage Publications, 2016, pp. 461-476.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian

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17 July 2017

Some bindings from Tipu Sultan's court

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In recent weeks I have been examining bindings of the British Library’s manuscripts which formerly belonged to Tipu Sultan, Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-1799). The British Library collection probably constitutes about 25% of the original Library as it was in 1799 after the fall of Seringapatam. The manuscripts originate ultimately from a number of different, largely unspecified, locations, but fortunately there is a distinct corpus (23 out of 242 so far examined) which can easily be identified as belonging to Tipu Sultan's court. These are works bound in his own individualistic style of binding or else were copied or composed at Seringapatam.

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Front board of Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an with flap showing inscriptions 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 below. This binding is unusual of Tipu bindings for its use of gilt decoration. Note also the diced patterned background which is a feature of several other manuscripts. (IO Islamic 3562
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One of the most lavish is Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an (IO Islamic 3562), illustrated above (more on this in a future blog). Decorated heavily in gilt on a diced patterned background, the binding also includes a number of inscriptions. These were described in general terms by Charles Stewart in A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore, (Cambridge, 1809), p.v.

All the volumes that had been rebound at Seringapatam have the names of God, Mohammed, his daughter Fatimah, and her sons, Hassen and Hussein, stamped in a medallion on the middle of the cover; and the names of the Four first Khalifs, Abu Beker, Omar, Osman, and Aly, on the four corners. At the top is “Sirkari Khodādad,” (the government given by God); and at the bottom, “Allah Kāfy,” (God is sufficient).”

I thought it would be helpful to expand on these inscriptions which are stamped on the outside of the bindings. Typically, but not always, they consist of:

  1. Front top: Sarkār-i Khudādādī ‘God-given government’
  2. Front central medallion: Allāh, Muḥammad, ʻAlī, Fāṭimah, Ḥasan, Ḥusayn
  3. Back central medallion: Qur’an Surah 2:32: Subḥānaka lā ‘ilma lanā illā mā ‘allamtanā innaka anta al-‘alīm al-ḥakīm ‘Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.’
  4. Four corners: Ḥaz̤rat Abū Bakr Ṣiddīq; Ḥaz̤rat ʻUmar al-Fārūq; Ḥaz̤rat ʻUsmān ibn ʻAffān; Ḥaz̤rat ʻAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib
  5. Pendants hanging from central medallion: Allāh kāfī ‘God is sufficient’
  6. Cartouches: Lā ilāha illā Allāh Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh ‘There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger’
  7. Spine: Qur'an Surah 56:79: Lā yamassuhu illā al-muṭahharūn ‘None may touch it except the purified’

I_o_islamic_3562_fbrig copy  I_o_islamic_3562_fbrigr copy
Left: back board with inscriptions 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6; right: doublure; below: flap with inscription 7 which currently, perhaps as a result of restoration, lies on the outside of the front board. (IO Islamic 3562)
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I_o_islamic_3562_fbspi_a copy

A similar binding occurs on IO Islamic 3351, a less ambitiously decorated Qur’an, possibly dating from the 17th century but rebound at Seringapatam. Its small size (16.5 x 10cm) accounts for it only being inscribed in the central medallion, on the spine and with the usual sarkar-i khudādādī. Unlike many of Tipu's bindings, which have been altered during subsequent restoration, this one has been preserved in its original state with the flap designed to go inside the outer cover.

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Back board and flap showing inscriptions 3 and 7. (IO Islamic 3351)
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Less ambitious Tipu bindings show considerable variation and demonstrate that the inscriptions could be stamped quite carelessly as illustrated in the examples below.

IO Islamic 695_binding copy   IO Islamic 491
Left: IO Islamic 695, a late 18th century copy of works by Gīsū Darāz and ʻAṭṭār, with inscriptions 1, 2, 4 and 5 stamped somewhat inexactly on the binding; right: IO Islamic 491, Javāhir al-qur'ān, an index to bowing places (rukūʻ) copied for Tipu in 1225 of the Mauludi era (1797/98) with only inscription 1 at the head.
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Not all of Tipu Sultan's bindings included his characteristic inscriptions. Two examples of comparitively simple bindings are illustrated below.

IO Islamic 464 binding1 IO Islamic 464doublure
This manuscript is a translation into Persian from Dakhni by Ḥasan ʻAlī ʻIzzat of the love story of Lal and Gohar which was commissioned by Tipu Sultan in 1778. The binding is contemporary and still carries the Prize Agentsʼ label dating from when they were first examining the collection in 1799. (IO Islamic 464)
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IO Islamic 713 IO Islamic 713doublure
Another work commissioned by Tipu, his army regulations Fatḥ al-mujāhidīn by Zayn al-Dīn Shūshtarī. The scalloped flap is the only example I have found in the collection and unlike IO Islamic 3351 above, it was designed to lie on the outside. Note also the hole, presumably for ties. (IO Islamic 713)
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Altogether I estimate that the British Library has about 600 volumes from Tipu Sultan's collection. These consist of 197 volumes of Arabic and Persian manuscripts deposited in the Library on 16 July 1806, further volumes deposited in 1807 (204 vols) and April 1808 (68 vols) and a proportion of the 308 manuscripts sent to London in 1837 after the closure of Fort William College in Calcutta and the dispersal of its collections. For more on this see my earlier post Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah. I'm hoping that by examining the whole collection I may be able to discover more about the provenance of each volume and establish certain regional binding styles, but this is very much work in progress, so watch this space!


Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator, Persian
 CC-BY-SA

26 June 2017

A Rainbow in Stormy Skies: LGBT Writing in the northern Middle East

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On May 28, 2013, a small group of environmentalists gathered at Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the removal of trees. The police’s brutal response sparked the indignation of the city’s residents, and soon Gezi Park was flooded with ordinary citizens and activists. They voiced a number of grievances, chief among them the government’s refusal to engage with citizens about urban planning. The protests lasted for weeks, and the makeshift camp erected in the Park featured a dizzying array of groups: ecologists, Armenians, Kurds, Zazas, Alevis, Communists, syndicalists, anti-capitalist Muslims and LGBT rights organizations. The diversity of identities on display brought into the open the complex and sometimes confusing imbrications composing individuals’ self-identification in contemporary Turkey. Since the 1980s, sexual identities have played an increasing role in this construction, and over the last decade the stories and struggles of Turkish sexual minorities have been featured in a number of different media.

Neoliberalizm ve Mahremiyet Women with Mustaches
Neoliberalizm ve Mahremiyet ©Metis, 2011 and Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards ©University of California Press, 2005.

To be certain, homosexuality, lesbianism, transgenderism and cross-dressing are far from new concepts to Turkish culture. Same-sex intercourse has been legal in Turkey (and the Ottoman Empire, its predecessor state) since 1858; 110 years before the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain. The topic of gay and lesbian relations in Ottoman society and its imagining among Orientalist writers  is particularly popular among Western scholars.

While Turkish authors do treat similar subjects within their works, contemporary issues of social, political and economic equality, as well as the battle against discrimination, are more likely to be explored within Turkish academic publishing. Scholars Cüneyt Çakırlar and Serkan Delice, have been particularly active in their writings, whether in collections of contemporary Turkish studies on gender, queer identity and politics or in their participation in the Queer Düş’ün series by *SEL Yayıncılık, which seeks to bring English-language Queer writing into Turkish. Other writers, too, address difficult issues, whether theoretical or practical. Evidence of such comes to us from works such as Neoliberalizm ve Mahremiyet: Türkiye’de Beden, Sağlık ve Cinsellik (Neoliberalism and Intimacy: Body, Health and Gender in Turkey), where we find Cenk Özbay’s study of neoliberal sociology and the case of rent boys, as well as Yener Bayramoğlu’s look at heterosexism and homosexuality within contemporary advertising.

Despite the early legalization of same-sex relationships in Turkey, social stigmas remain. Istanbul’s pride parade has been routinely attacked and/or banned in the past five years. Images of police brutality as a response to attempts at organizing celebrations appear frequently on social and mainstream media. Social and political pressures notwithstanding, those who refuse to conform to gender and sexual norms are still very much visible in Turkish culture and society. The image of the transvestite, in particular, is an exceptionally poignant one in referencing Turkish LGBT communities. The novels of Elif Şafak, one of Turkey’s foremost female novelists, routinely feature LGBT and transvestite characters. Şafak herself has spoken out about LGBT issues in Turkey in the English and Turkish media is filled with the sort of fluid concepts of gender and sexuality that provide three-dimensional, realistic portrayals of LGBT people in Turkey today. Transgendered people find their way into other media, too, including graphic novels, such as Büşra, a wry, satirical look at piety, political power and hypocrisy in the first decade of the 21st century. Even more striking are the novels in Mehmet Murat Somer’s series Hop-Çiki-Yaya, which feature a cross-dressing amateur detective who often interviews her clients in drag. Somer’s works are bold and flamboyant in both their characters and their treatment of a number of topics that would be considered taboo in most countries: transgender sex work; married heterosexual men having sex with men; and the interactions of religion, tradition and sexual identity.

In many ways, Turkey offers the most liberal of régimes with respect to sexual minorities. Among its immediate neighbours, consensual sexual relations between men are permitted in Greece, Bulgaria, Armenia and Azerbaijan, while they continue to be illegal in Iraq, Syria and Iran. Among the former group, only Greece and Bulgaria offer legal protection from discrimination. Despite this, authors, activists and artists producing in Armenian, Persian and Kurdish all continue to address LGBT issues and the struggles for recognition and acceptance across the region.

Mehmet Murat Somer The Prophet Murders Me as Her Again
The Prophet Murders
, the story of two murders at a transvestite club ©Serpent’s Tail, 2008; Me As Her Again, Nancy Agabian’s autobiographical work ©Aunt Lute Books, 2008

While homosexuality, lesbianism and transgenderism continue to be highly stigmatized inside Armenia proper, gay and lesbian issues are nonetheless present in Armenian literary and cultural circles. An example of one pioneer in this realm is the writer Armen of Armenia, whose trilogy Mayrenik’ Drash (Mommyland) tells the tragic story of three LGBT men in Armenia. The novels are unique in their presentation of the complexity of queer existence inside the Republic of Armenia, and the demands placed upon gay and bisexual men by the institutions of the military, the church and patriotism.

An estimated 7 to 10 million Armenians live in the diaspora, and among them are a number of writers who address the complex relationship between sexual and ethnic identity. Nancy Agabian, an American-Armenian author, has been particularly active in this respect. Agabian’s Me as Her Again, published in English in the United States, provides a moving vignette of the life and struggles of lesbians in the Armenian diaspora. In it, Agabian explores issues relating to sexual, gender and ethnic identity, interweaving the trials of a woman expressing her sexuality with those of an Armenian recovering her family’s buried past in Anatolia.

South-east of Armenia, the regional juggernaut Iran presents an even more complex case. Homosexuality remains illegal and punishable by death in the Islamic Republic. Nonetheless, gender reassignment is permitted according to a legal decision by the régime’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. Social stigmas around transgenderism are still rampant, and considerable confusion between gender and sexuality causes no end of distress to a great number of people. Nonetheless, homosexuality, lesbianism and transgenderism appear in many English- and Persian-language publications by authors in Iran and in exile. Academic works about LGBT relationships and the fluidity of gender in Iran are numerous, including the wryly-titled Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards  by Afsaneh Najmabadi. Although this work is a historical analysis of these concepts in Iranian society, Najmabadi has also turned a critical eye on the contemporary period with her study Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Najmabadi is currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her long history of activism in Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States demonstrates the saliency of issues of gender and sexuality for Persian-speakers throughout the diaspora.

Such topics come up in a myriad of different narrative products. Early 20th century poetry, such as that of Iraj Mirza, featured homoerotic themes similar to those in earlier Persian poetry. To paraphrase Najmabadi, sin was the realm of deeds rather than thoughts, and a man extolling the beauty of another man or boy was not necessarily deemed to be off bounds for Sufi and other poets of the Qajar period. By contrast, the historian Ja’far Shahri claims that it was modernization and the social change of the early 20th century that brought about a conscious “corruption” of the city of Tehran and a gradual hardening of attitudes about sexual and gender norms.

Professing Selves  The Moonlike
Professing Selves, on the complex and often problematic construction of gender identity in Iran today ©Duke University Press, 2013; The Moonlike, Behjat Riza’ee’s fictionalisation of a gruesome murder in Rasht that follows upon a forbidden love affair between two young women ©Bra Books, 1992

Among exile groups and communities, LGBT issues are alive in both magazines and monographs. As early as 1991, Bra Books in London published The Moonlike by Bahjat Riza’i, a barely fictionalized account of a lesbian affair gone wrong, ending in an honour killing near the city of Rasht in northern Iran. The Paris-based publisher Naakojaa most recently released a translation of the French graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Colour, which became a hit movie in 2013. This follows on its translations of Gore Vidal, the legendary bisexual American author. France has also provided us with filmic expressions of LGBT love in Iran with the 2011 movie Circumstance, by Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz. The film explores an illicit relationship between two young women in contemporary Tehran, and the various legal, political and socio-economic barriers that come make their love impossible.

Finally, the issue of gender and sexual identity within Kurdish sources is among the most difficult to piece together. Kurdish publishing is largely in its infancy, as the use of the language for mass publications in the regions in which Kurds live became a possibility only in the 1990s. Since then, identity construction, democratization, gender and income equality and the instability of an existence amongst seemly hostile nation-states has loomed large for many Kurdish writers. Despite this, there are instances of LGBT issues coming to the fore among Kurds at home and in the diaspora. In Turkey, Kaos GL has devoted a portion of its activities to bringing Kurdish-speaking members of sexual minorities out of the shadows. Whether endowing their Kurmanji-speaking readers with a new vocabulary to describe themselves and their communities in a positive and stigma-free way, or publicizing the efforts of a film director to bring to the screen the story of a Kurdish trans-woman living in rural Anatolia, Kaos GL has been forceful in bringing issues of sexual identity to the fore within the broader landscape of Kurdish social change.

In Iraq, Kurds have benefitted from more than 25 years of virtual and legal autonomy from Baghdad to build their own cultural institutions. The result has been a new confidence in self-expression, but one that is not always accepting of sexual minorities. Indeed, a number of campaigns regarding LGBT rights in the region – whether initiated by foreign bodies or domestic ones, such as the NGO Rasan – have been met with vociferous opposition. It may indeed still be too early for the publication of Kurdish LGBT fiction and non-fiction on the scale seen in other cultures across the region, but the seeds have undoubtedly been sown.

Among these various movements and trends, the British Library’s Asian and African collections remain committed to reflecting the diversity and richness of expression from across the Middle East. In doing so, we hope to provide students, scholars and the curious with a window onto the struggles and triumphs of a myriad of communities.

I would like to thank the following individuals for their assistance in connecting me to LGBT authors and publishers across the region: Armen of Armenia, Cüneyt Çakırlar, Kyle Khandikian, Hakan Sandal and Ayaz Shalal.

Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
 CC-BY-SA

Meanwhile don't forget to visit the exhibition Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty which is currently open at the British Library until 19 September 2017.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty

28 April 2017

A 17th century copy of Saʻdi’s collected works (IO Islamic 843)

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The Persian writer and poet Musliḥ al-Dīn Saʻdī of Shiraz (ca.1210-1291 or 1292) is without doubt one of the best-known and most skillful writers of classical Persian literature. With an established reputation even during his lifetime, his works have been select reading for royal princes and ʻset textsʼ for more humble students of Persian the world over. It is hardly surprising then that a corresponding number of deluxe copies survive of his works. A previous post (What were the Mughals' favourite books?) described some copies of his best known works, the Būstān (ʻFragrant Gardenʼ or ʻOrchardʼ) and the Gulistān (ʻRose Gardenʼ), in the Library's collection. Another sumptuous manuscript, which has also been digitised, is an early 17th century copy of his Kullīyāt (ʻCollected Worksʼ)IO Islamic 843 which was completed in 1034 (1624/25) by Maḥmūd, a scribe of Shiraz (al-kātib al-Shīrāzī), during the reign of Shah ʻAbbas (r. 1588-1629).

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The frontispiece portraying Shah ʻAbbas in a garden surrounded by courtiers and musicians, and accompanied by Turkish, Indian and European ambassadors (BL IO Islamic 843, ff 1v-2r)  noc

Very little is known about the poet’s life. Born in Shiraz, Saʻdī left his hometown to study in Baghdad. After a period of study at the Nizamiyah Madrasah, Baghdad, he set off on travels that lasted over thirty years. His experiences and adventures found their way into his writings, including being a prisoner of the Crusaders in Syria, visiting Kashgar, and killing a temple priest at Somnath in India. Many of these tales, however, have been proved to be anecdotal rather than biographical. Saʻdī returned to Shiraz in 1257, already a widely recognized poet and completed his two most famous works: the Būstān in 1257 and the Gulistān in 1258. These two works of poetry and prose respectively, contain anecdotes from the life of the author, moral teachings, and advices for rulers. Many stories communicate elements of Sufi teachings through their dervish protagonists. Other works reflect the changing political situation in Shiraz. Several of his poems are dedicated to the Salghurid dynasty, which ruled in Fars from 1148 to 1282, while later works are addressed to their successors the Mongols and their administrators.

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The heavenly journey (Miʻraj) of the Prophet mounted on Buraq approaching Leo and led by Gabriel with a green banner and Israfil with the seven-fold trumpet. From the beginning of the Būstān (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 94r  noc

This collection of Saʻdī’s work consists of 16 works that include, among others, the Gulistān and Būstān, Arabic and Persian Qaṣīdas (odes), Ghazals (love poems), Rubāʻīyāt (quatrains), and Khabīsāt (ʻnaughtyʼ poems). It has sumptuously illuminated openings and contains 18 paintings, including two double-paged illustrations (ff.1v-2r and 413v-414r). For details see Basil Robinson's catalogue description available here.

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Illustration from the Gulistān. Here the King, possibly representing Shah ʻAbbas, is travelling with a slave who, never having been in a boat before, complained of seasickness. Following advice on how to keep him quiet, the king has him thrown overboard and ʻrescuedʼ, the moral being that safety can only be truly appreciated by one who has experienced disaster. The ship is based on a European model of the period, with three masts and cannon at the port-holes (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 42v noc

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Illustration from the Khabīsāt (ʻnaughtyʼ poems) depicting a group of dervishes under a tree, one leading a handsome youth by the hand. The Khabīsāt (ff.391r-399r in this manuscript) is often omitted from printed editions of Saʻdī's collected works on account of its risqué nature (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 392r  noc

The illustrations are good examples of paintings of their time, but the illumination is of a much higher standard. Eight works have lavishly decorated openings: ff. 2v-3r, 34v-35r, 92v-93r, 175v-176r, 183v-184r, 223v-224r, 372v-373r, and 405v-406r. These consist of a central headpiece (sarlawḥ) and heading (ʻunvān) encased in ruled and decorated borders and a band containing foliate scrolling or alternating cartouches and quatrefoils. The outer margins are based on a pattern of diamond shaped lozenges or flower heads in red, black, brown and gold on a dark blue or gold ground with arabesque scrolls with pale blue, red and pink flowers. A variant contains flower heads which alternate with human and/or animal faces (ff.35-6, 175-6 and 372-3).

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The beginning of the Gulistān, copied by Maḥmūd of Shiraz (BL IO Islamic 843, ff. 34v-35r noc

2v
405v 34v  
175v
Details of illuminated openings on ff. 2v405v34v, and 175v. The faint grid marks are from gauzing which, regrettably, was regular conservation practice in the early-20th century (BL IO Islamic 843)   noc

This manuscript was purchased in 1807 from the East India Company civil servant Richard Johnson (1753–1807). His collection formed the backbone of the newly established East India Company Library, consisting of 716 manuscripts, mostly Persian and Arabic, and 64 albums of paintings. Johnson left India in 1790 
and did most of his collecting at Lucknow between 1780 and 1782 and at 
Hyderabad between 1784 and 1875. This particular manuscript was no doubt purchased there having been taken to India at some point in the 17th century.


Further reading
W. M. Thackston (tr.), The Gulistan (Rose garden) of Sa'di: Bilingual English and Persian edition with vocabulary. Bethesda: Ibex, 2008.
G. M. Wickens (tr.). Morals Pointed and Tales Adorned: The Būstān of Saʻdī. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974.
B. W. Robinson, Persian Paintings in the India Office Library: A Descriptive Catalogue. London: Sotheby, 1976.

Wojciech Tworek and Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

12 April 2017

Campaign medals from the India Office collections

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As part of our holdings at the British Library, the India Office collection of medals can now be found on the Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue.  The extensive collection includes more than 500 medals, which range from campaign medals, orders of knighthood, as well as  decorations. This blog features a few of the eighteenth century medals issued to Indian officers.

The earliest campaign medal issued and in the collection is the Deccan Medal 1778-84. The Deccan medal, issued in either gold or silver, was issued by the East India Company to Indian officers who fought in Gujarat for the 1st Maratha War of 1778-82 and in the Carnatic during the 2nd Mysore War of 1780-84. The Deccan Medal, here in silver, features on the obverse a figure of Britannia seated on a military trophy, holding a laurel wreath in her right hand out towards a fort where the British flag is flying. A Persian inscription that reads: Presented by the Calcutta Government in memory of good service and intrepid valour, AD 1784, AH 1199 is in the centre on the reverse. Around the circumference of the medal on this side is written: ‘Like this coin may it endure in the world, and the exertions of those lion-hearted Englishmen of great name, victorious from Hindostan to the Deccan, become exalted.’

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The Deccan Medal, silver circular medal, 1.6". British Library, Foster 4000  noc 

During the 3rd Mysore War of 1790-92, the Mysore campaign medal was issued in either gold or silver, by the East India Company to Indian troops who fought against Tipu Sultan. The Mysore Medal, here in silver, features on the obverse a sepoy with his foot resting on a dismounted cannon with a fortified town in the background. Inscribed on the reverse is For Services in Mysore AD 1791-1792 in four lines within a wreath, with a Persian inscription outside the wreath that reads: ‘A memorial of devoted services to the English Government at the war of Mysore. Christian Era, 1791-1792, equivalent to the Mahomedan Era, 1205-1206’.  

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Medal issued during the Campaign in Mysore, 1790-92, silver circular medal, 1.5". British Library, Foster 4001 noc

During the 4th Mysore War of 1799, both British and Indian officers who fought at Seringapatam, were presented with the Seringapatam medal. This was issued in silver-gilt, silver, bronze or pewter. The Library's collection holds 84 Seringapatam campaign medals (Foster 4005-4089). On the obverse is a representation of the storming of the beach at Seringapatam with the meridian sun signifying the time of the storm. Below this image is a Persian inscription that reads: 'The Fort at Seringapatam, the gift of God, the 4th May 1799'. The reverse shows a lion subduing a tiger with a banner overhead that shows the Union badge and an Arabic inscription that reads: 'The Lion of God is the conqueror'.

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Medal (obverse and reverse) issued in Seringapatam, 1799, Silver-gilt circular medal, 1.9". British Library, Foster 4005  noc

India Office medals can be viewed by appointment only in the Print Room, Asian and African Studies Reading Room. For further details and appointment requests, please send an email to apac-prints@bl.uk.

 

Further reading:

E.C. Joslin, The standard of catalogue of British orders, decorations and medals, 2nd edition (London, 1972)

J.H. Mayo, Medals and decorations of the British army and navy, 2 volumes (Westminster, 1897)

 

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator

 

03 April 2017

On display in the Treasures Gallery: Humayun’s meeting with Shah Tahmasp

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In conjunction with the British Library’s Learning Team we recently held a very successful study day:  Mughal India: Art and Culture. To coincide with the event we have installed three new ʻMughalʼ manuscripts in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. These are: A Royal copy of Nizami’s ‘Five poems’, dating from Herat, ca.1494 (Or. 6810, f. 3r), A mother rebukes her arrogant son, a copy of Saʻdi’s Būstān dated at Agra, 1629 (Add. 27262, f. 145r) and, the subject of my post today, Humayun received by the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp of Iran, from Abu’l-Fazl’s Akbarnāmah, dating from Agra, ca. 1602-3 (Or. 12988, f. 98r). All these manuscripts have been digitised and can be seen by following the hyperlinks.

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The Mughal Emperor Humayun's meeting with Shah Tahmasp of Iran in 1544 by the artist Sanvala, 1602-3. Note what are probably the painter's instructions partially covered in the lower margin (British Library Or. 12988, f. 98r)  noc

The manuscript on display is the first of a three-part imperial set (Losty and Roy, pp. 58-70) of the Akbarnāmah ‘History of Akbar’, an official history written by the court historian Abu’l-Fazl.  This volume describes the reigns of Akbar’s predecessors and his childhood and contains 39 paintings ascribed to major artists of the imperial court. The copyist was the famous  calligrapher Muhammad Husayn Kashmiri[1]. A second volume of the same set is preserved in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (Indian Ms 3, see Leach, pp. 232-300). The painting is ascribed to the artist Sanvala and depicts the two monarchs meeting in July 1544. The setting, in a luxuriously furbished tent, includes a backdrop of distant snow-clad mountains, verdant pastures and a medieval city. Quoted above the painting are some typically bombastic verses by the Safavid poet Mirza Qasim Gunabadi [2] (Abu’l-Fazl, p. 81, Thackston's tanslation):

Two Lords of Conjunction meeting at one assembly like the sun and the moon,
Two lights of vision for the eye of fortune,
 two blessed holidays for the month and year,

Two stars with which the firmament is adorned, together in one place like the Farqadain[3],
Two world eyes, rein to rein, bending toward each other like two eyebrows,

One constellation the location for two lucky stars in the firmament, one casket the place for two exalted pearls.

In 1530, the Mughal Emperor Humayun inherited an empire that was far from consolidated and after his decisive defeat by Sher Shah Suri at the battle of Kannauj in 1540 he was forced to retreat. He spent the next three years attempting to regain his position in Sindh during which he met and married Hamida Banu who gave birth to Akbar at Umarcot on 15 Oct 1542. Unsuccessful in Sindh and at the same time thwarted in his attempt to retreat to Kandahar he decided late in 1543 to seek the protection of the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576), leaving the 15 month old Akbar behind with his relatives.

Humayun’s stay in Safavid Iran is described by Abu’l-Fazl in glowing terms almost as if it were a recommendation for TripAdvisor. Shah Tahmasp couldn't have been more delighted to host Humayun's visit and ordered drums to be beaten in celebration for three days in his capital Qazvin. Incredibly detailed instructions for Humayun's reception were sent to the Governor of Herat which included marmalades of Mashhad apples to be served after sherbet prepared with lemon syrup and chilled with ice and snow. Once the visitors reached Mashhad and were joined by the Shah’s amirs, 1,200 different dishes of food fit for a king were to be served at each meal!

After Noruz at Herat and much successful sightseeing, Humayun caught up with the Royal Camp between Abhar and Sultaniya and met the Shah in July 1544 in a ʻlofty palace, on which painters had long been at work executing marvels of their craftʼ (Abu’l-Fazl, p. 79). Princely celebrations were held daily and gifts exchanged. After several days the royal party moved on to Sultaniya where a hunt was organised. This was followed by two more hunting parties at the end of which Humayun was sent on his return journey accompanied by the Shah's son Prince Murad, 12,000 horsemen and 300 arms bearers from the Shah's own bodyguard.

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Humayun and Shah Tahmasp hunting at Sultaniya. Principle portraits by Narsingh, remainder by Ganga Sen (British Library Or. 12988, f. 103r)  noc

Apart from a brief moment of tension alluded to by Abu’l-Fazl in just two short sentences, it would seem that relations between the two rulers could not have been better. However a quite different impression is given in Tazkirat al-vāqi‘āt ‘Memoir of Events’, by Jawhar Aftabchi, Humayun's personal ewer-bearer, who accompanied Humayun in exile to Iran and during his subsequent struggle to regain the throne. Unlike the Akbarnamah which was an official chronicle of Akbar's reign, Jawhar’s account is a much more detailed record of events and to judge from his own references, he was always close to the Emperor and was therefore present at important conversations.

One of the first things Tahmasp asked Humayun, according to Jawhar, was whether he was willing to wear the tāj (the typical Safavid batonned headdress). He was happy to agree to this but the next day he was ordered to convert to Shiʻa Islam (Thackston, p.122):

Firewood had been gathered for an entertainment for the emperor. The shah sent a message, saying, ʻIf you embrace our religion, we will support you. Otherwise, we wonʼt. We will set fire to all the people of your religion with this kindling and burn you up!ʼ

As a staunch Sunni, Humayun initially refused but eventually agreed under duress, at least temporarily, and continued to enjoy his host’s generous hospitality. However Tahmasp had not apparently given up the idea of killing Humayun. On hearing his planned treachery Tahmasp's sister burst into tears. When he asked her why, she replied (Thackston, p. 126):

‘... you have enemies in all four directions: Ottomans, Uzbeks, Circassians, and Franks. It has been heard that Muhammad Humayun Padishah has a son and brothers. What will be gained by harming him? If you cannot have compassion on him and help to elevate and assist him, give him leave to go wherever he can.’ The shah listened to this. Immediately he cheered up and said, ‘All my amirs have been giving me their foolish advice, but none is better than what you have said.’

Another example of a situation saved by a woman!

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Passage from a copy dated 1610 of Jawhar's Tazkirat showing the passage describing Shah Tahmasp's proposed treachery with a marginal comment by the Safavid prince Sultan Muhammad Mirza (see below). The pencilled annotations are probably by Charles Stewart who published a translation of this manuscript in 1832 (British Library Add. 16711, f. 76r)  noc

An interesting postscript to this story is told us by Charles Stewart who was lent this manuscript (Add. 16711) by his friend William Yule from whose estate it was acquired by the British Museum in 1847. Yule had suggested that he should publish a translation. He writes (Stewart, p. 70):

About the time that Major Yule procured this MS. there was a descendant of the Seffy family residing at Lucknow, who received a small pension from the Nuwab Assuf addowleh, and bore the title of Persian Prince. Major Yule having lent him the MS. he wrote on the margin at this passage [over Tahmasp's contemplated treachery, f.76r], ʻThe author has here been guilty of falsehood, or he must have been deranged, as this circumstance has never been mentioned by any other historian.ʼ

The Safavid prince concerned was Abu'l-Fath Sultan Muhammad Mirza Bahadur Khan Safavi, a son of  Shah Sultan Husayn II, who lived as a pensioner in Lucknow from 1793 or 4 until his death in 1816 or 17.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

Further reading
J.P. Losty, and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library. London, 2012
Linda York Leach, Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library, vol.1. London, 1995
Abu'l-Fazl, The History of Akbar, vol. 2; edited and translated by Wheeler Thackston. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016
Three Memoirs of Homayun; edited and translated by Wheeler Thackston. Costa Mesa, 2009
Charles Stewart, The Tezkereh al Vakiāt; or, Private Memoirs of the Moghul Emperor Humāyūn. London, 1832

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[1] The manuscript has no colophon but a damaged and over-pasted note by the Emperor Jahangir on f.1r mentions ʻthe musk-like string of pearls of …[cut off]…. Kashmiriʼ, which must surely refer to Muhammad Husayn Kashmiri zarrin-qalam. I thank S. Baburi for his help with this inscription.
[2] Author of a poetical history of Shah Ismaʻil Safavi. For more on him see C. Rieu, Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 2 (London, 1881), pp. 660-1.
[3] The two inseparable stars in Ursa minor.

14 February 2017

Romancing the Tome: Love in Illustrated Persian Manuscripts

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For anyone inspired by celebrations of St Valentine’s day, Persian literature has much to offer. Whether it be platonic adoration, romantic affection, or star-crossed disappointment, Persian poetry in particular has something to say about it. With a written tradition stretching over a millennium, much of it still preserved in manuscripts, we explore here a few select examples of epic and romantic compositions from the British Library’s growing collection of digitised Persian manuscripts available online to observe wonderful and alternative responses to love, physical and spiritual.

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Illustration to a ghazal celebrating love and music from an undated Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ. The painting is unsigned (BL Grenville XLI, f. 66v noc

We begin with a painting (Grenville XLI, f. 66v) illustrating a lyric poem or ghazal (rhyming a-a, b-a, c-a, and so on) by one the genre’s most distinguished exponents, Ḥāfiẓ of Shīrāz (d. circa 1202). Although its tone is initially celebratory, the composition continues by examining different aspects of the lover’s condition, gradually moving toward the melancholic. Couplets 1, 2, and 6 illustrate this shift:

Love's musician possesses an amazing instrument and sound / every air composed strikes a chord.
May the world never empty of lovers’ laments / their sound possesses a delightful harmony.
Showing tears of blood, doctors commented / it is the disease of love, requiring heartrending medication.

The painting is broadly consistent with the ghazal’s narrative arc, showing seated musicians in the foreground facing several figures on a canopied stone platform. The mature male on the left is presumably Ḥāfiẓ addressing his patron, seated on the right, notionally depicted here as a youth absorbed in love’s sorrows.

Although the manuscript is not dated, it is thought to have been transcribed around 1600-1605 in Timurid/Mughal India, and illustrated very soon after. Some of the damage caused to other figures in the same scene is due to the partial obliteration of faces and strategic overpainting (now partially removed), ordered by later owners. Another Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ (Or 14139, f. 47r) refurbished with decorated margins just a few years earlier at the same court isolates the celebratory theme of the first couplet interpreted more straightforwardly as a European musical entertainer playing a fiddle-like instrument while dancing on the spot, and enclosed within an ornamental cartouche.

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Ghazal celebrating love and music from a Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ dateable to circa 1470, with illumination added in the margins as part of later refurbishment (BL Or 14139, f. 47r)  noc

Epic poetry and romances play an important role in distilling specific personal traits and emotional states in the characters of the heroes, heroines, and lovers they seek to celebrate, and thereby humanising the ghazal’s expressive and frequently abstract repertoire of conceits and metaphors. The exploits of the archetypal hero, Sasanian ruler Bahrām Gūr (Bahrām V, d. 438), are the subject of several works of epic poetry, notably the Haft Paykar, part of the Khamsah or Quintet of poems by Niẓāmī of Ganjah (d. 599/1203). In one of the finest manuscript treasures at the British Library, the interpretation of a distinctly amorous scene has been the source of some confusion (Or 2265, f. 221r).

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Scene from the tale of King Turktāzī and Turktāz, queen of the faeries, as told by the Princess of India in the Haft Paykar from Shāh Ṭahmāsp Ṣafavī's Khamsah of Niẓāmī. Signed by Muḥammad Zamān, dated 1086/1675-76. For more on this painting see Some paintings by the 17th century Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman (BL Or 2265, f. 221v)  noc

The Haft Paykar’s allegorical narrative describes Bahrām Gūr’s encounters with seven princesses over the period of seven evenings. An illustration close to the beginning of the narrative appears at first to depict the first of the seven encounters, specifically, with the Princess of India dressed in black, representing Saturn. A closer reading of the text indicates the painting is an illustration from an edifying tale told by the Indian princess of King Turktāzī entertained by Turktāz, queen of the faeries.

After a lengthy description of Turktāzī awaking in an enchanted garden, the mas̲navī (couplets rhyming a-a, b-b, c-c, and so forth) gradually recounts the impression made be the queen’s magical arrival and unveiling to expose her European (literally Rūmī or Byzantine) features and complexion. Following tender exchanges, the romantically-charged feast of duck (replaced in the painting by pomegranates) and wine takes on a renewed intensity. It is at this point the surge of passion is delicately summarised by the use of familiar musical metaphors establishing the convivial mood:

The musician entered and cup bearers departed / joyousness hardly needed an excuse.
Every imperforate pearl was pierced (in sequence) / every song followed another.
Dance opened the field to form a circle / entering on foot, skipping and gesturing.

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Zayd revives the fainting Laylá and Majnūn (Qays) in the wilderness in Laylá va Majnūn from the Khamsah of Niẓāmī written for  the Timurid/Mughal Emperor Akbar I. Ascribed to Farrukh Chelah (BL Or 12208, f. 123r)  noc

In another mas̲navī from the same work, but a different illustrated manuscript (Or 12208, f. 122v), Niẓāmī records with particular sensitivity the doomed relationship of two pre-Islamic lovers, Laylá and Majnūn (originally known as Qays). Qays, distracted with love’s ardour for his beloved since childhood, Laylá, is driven to the wilderness where he is reduced to rags. It is at this point he is given the epithet majnūn, Arabic for ‘possessed by jinns’ or ‘maniac.’ Later, a mutual friend, Zayd, momentarily reunites Majnūn with Laylá in the vicinity of her tents. The scene of their dramatic meeting is evoked in the following selection of couplets:

Majnūn, upon seeing his beloved / glimpsing his soul in a dark veil.
He, alive, though spiritless / she, withholding her life, yet dead.
The two lovers collapsed, senseless / worldly sounds evade their ears.
Bloodthirsty beasts encircle / sharpening their claws in the dead.
The two fallen lovers remained / until midday on the path.

We see in the exquisitely detailed painting by Farrukh Chelah (ascribed in the lower border) that Laylá and Majnūn are being revived by Zayd with a bottle of perfume, just as the text specifies. However, Farrukh Chelah has used this illustration as an opportunity to fill his composition with an array of vegetal, animal, and topographical features that go beyond the text, to make a visually stimulating whole.

Returning to the ghazal genre, a perennial concern to literary critics is the degree to which poets and their audiences, including later illustrators of their works, interpret meaning. Insofar as the Persian language is essentially gender neutral, that is, you cannot automatically infer from a text whether the subject is male or female in the absence of a gendered attribute, poets have in the past been able to encode into their compositions both heterosexual and homosexual references. Such constructive ambiguity, to borrow a recent term, has in turn been exploited by illustrators to respond to the demands of their patrons, in determining the male or female gender of the beloved as described.

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An older man clasps the hand of a departing adolescent boy, based on a ghazal from the Kullīyāt of Saʿdī, dated 1624 (BL IO Islamic 843, f. 322r)  noc

In a painting from a lavishly illustrated copy of the Kullīyāt or compendium of collected works by Saʿdī (d. 690/1291), dated 1624 and made in Safavid Shīrāz, the poet’s place of birth (IO Islamic 843, f. 322r), we witness the interplay between words and the painted image. The scene shows men seated around a pool, several of them with books in hand, indicating a genial poetic gathering. The bearded man seated in a recess clasps the hand of an adolescent boy about to depart. The relevant couplet illustrated here does not, however, mention either the gathering of men, the reading of poetry, or the detention of a boy specifically, except for the daring khvājah, who is in this context a mature man. It is evident from the range of certain visual interpretations of gender in illustrated manuscripts of poetry that patrons and readers generally approached such nuanced subjects with latitude.


Sâqib Bâburî

Curator, Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project
 ccownwork