Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

27 September 2021

The art of small things (4): Juz’ markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

The Qur’an is traditionally divided into thirty parts of equal length called juz', which are of great practical significance as they facilitate the planned reading or recitation of the Holy Book in its entirety over one month, particularly the blessed fasting month of Ramadan. Each juz’ can further be subdivided into half (nisf), quarters (rubu‘) and eighths (thumn). The start of a new juz,’ and often the subdivisions too, may be indicated in a Qur’an manuscript through a number of graphic devices. These range from a marginal inscription or ornament to a marker within the text itself, or by highlighting the first few words of the new juz’ in red ink or in bold; sometimes all these devices might be found together in a single manuscript. Preferred ways of signifying the start of a new juz’ often vary regionally, and will be illustrated in this post by Qur’an manuscripts from different traditions in Southeast Asia held in the British Library, starting with a Qur’an from Patani.

Marginal ornament signifying the start of the 28th juz’, at the start of Surat al-Mujadilah, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 273v-274r
Marginal ornament signifying the start of the 28th juz’, at the start of Surat al-Mujadilah, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 273v-274r  noc

The East Coast of the Malay peninsula is home to two distinct styles of manuscript illumination, one centred in Terengganu and the other further to the north in Patani, but all Qur’an manuscripts from this region adhere faithfully to the same principles of text layout. This follows an Ottoman model known as ayat ber-kenar, whereby each juz’ occupies exactly ten folios of paper and hence twenty pages, and each page ends with a complete verse. As well as streamlining the copying process, this uniform layout also aids the memorization of the complete Qur’an, as each verse occupies the same position on the page in any manuscript consulted. Thus a new juz’ always commences at the top of a right-hand page, and is signalled by a beautiful marginal ornament, as shown above. In this manuscript all the juz’ markers are constructed according to the same basic design of two concentric circles inscribed in the middle al-juz’, but each is slightly different in coloration and in the detail of the delicate floral and foliate ornaments extending upwards and downwards.

Marginal ornaments signifying the start of (left) juz’ 10 in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century  Marginal ornaments signifying the start of juz’ 11, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century-Or 15227 f.103v-j.11
Marginal ornaments signifying the start of (left) juz’ 10 and (right) juz’ 11, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. The small inscription in red ink, maqra’, indicates a section for recitation. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 93v and 103v  noc

The Ottoman system of page layout is occasionally also encountered in Qur’an manuscripts from Java, but in general there are no set prescriptions for fitting a juz’ into a precise number of pages. In two Javanese Qur’ans in the British Library we see a quintessentially and uniquely Javanese method of signifying the start of a new juz’, by the placement of two marginal ornaments – very often semicircular in shape – at the midpoints of the outer vertical borders of the double-page spread, while the exact point in the text is marked with a composite roundel in red ink.

AStart of juz’2, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r
Start of juz’ 2, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r  noc

Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an.Add_ms_12343_f013r-det  Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an.Add_ms_12343_f012v-det
Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an’. The stylized letter 'ayn in the margin indicates ruku' divisions for recitation. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 12v and f. 13r (details)  noc

In two other Qur’ans from Java, the start of a new juz’ is just marked with a calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin, and an starburst roundel in red ink at the appropriate point in the text, as seen below in a manuscript from Madura, off the northeast coast of Java.

The beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surah al-Hjir (Q.15), in a Qur’an from Madura, 19th century. British Library, Or 15877, f. 130v
The beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surah al-Hjir (Q.15), in a Qur’an from Madura, 19th century. British Library, Or 15877, f. 130v  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, there was no pre-ordained system for copying the Qur’an. The number of pages required for each juz’ therefore depended on the style of writing of each scribe, while a conventional set of graphic symbols signified the exact starting point of a juz’ within a page of text. In the most elaborate manuscripts – such as the fine Qur’an Or 16915 shown below – the precise point of the start of the 14th juz’ is marked with a composite roundel made up of six intersecting circles; the first line of the juz’ is written in red ink and set within ruled frames; and a magnificent ornament in the adjcaent margin serves to draw the eye to the page.

Start of juz’ 14 at the beginning of Surat al-Hijr (Q. 15) in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 117v-118rr
Start of juz’ 14 at the beginning of Surat al-Hijr (Q. 15) in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 117v-118r  noc

Or 16915 is exceptionally rich artistically in not only signifying the start of each juz’ with illuminated marginal ornaments, but also indicating each eighth part through coloured roundels in the text accompanied by smaller marginal medallions. All are composed of a series of concentric circles often embellished with a variety of rays, petals, and vegetal ornaments added on four-fold or eight-fold principles, in the same palette of red, yellow, black and reserved white, but every single ornament is different, reflecting the artist’s delight in creating countless variations on a limited theme. Shown below (not to scale) is the complete set of marginal ornaments for the constituent parts of juz’ 10.

Or_16915-f.80r-j.10  ornament marking part of juz’ 10-Or_16915_f081r  ornament marking part of juz’ 10-Or_16915_f082v
From left, large ornament marking the start of juz’ 10; small roundel marking 1/8th of the juz’; roundel with monochrome petals (possibly added later) marking 1/4 juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 80r, 81r, 82v  noc

Or_16915_f083v  Or_16915_f085r
Left, star-shaped ornament marking 3/8th of the juz’; right, four-rayed medallion at 1/2 (nisf) of the juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 83v and 85r  noc

Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f087r  Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f088v  Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f089v
From left, roundels marking 5/8, 3/4 and 7/8 of the 10th juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 87v, 88v, 89v  noc

Despite such an abundant display of artistic virtuosity in this manuscript, it is hardly surprising that the artist’s creativty and stamina began to flag towards the end of the volume. Preparatory sketches are still in place for all the marginal ornaments, but many of the later ones have not been worked up and remain skeletal ink diagrams.

Unfinished marginal ornaments in a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s.-Or_16915_f114v  Unfinished marginal ornament, Or_16915_f240v  Unfinished marginal ornaments in a Qur’an from Aceh-Or_16915_f247r
Unfinished marginal ornaments indicating parts of a juz' in a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 114v, 240v, 247r  noc

There are two other Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh held in the British Library. Both of these highlight the first words of a new juz’ in red ink, and one also marks the precise point in the text with a composite illuminated roundel, but neither were created with marginal ornaments. However, Or 16034 bears testimony to additions by subsequent hands to highlight each new juz', with occasional inscriptions and pencilled ornaments added in the margins.

The start of juz’ 4 in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, indicated in the text by writing the first line in red ink, with later additions in the margin of the pencilled inscription al-juz’, a cross-shaped ornament, and the number ‘4’ in black ink. British Library, Or 16034, f. 20v
The start of juz’ 4 in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, indicated in the text by writing the first line in red ink, with later additions in the margin of the pencilled inscription al-juz’, a cross-shaped ornament, and the number ‘4’ in black ink. British Library, Or 16034, f. 20v  noc

As noted above, the standard division of the Qur’an is into thirty parts or juz’, but other principles of dividing the text are also known, for example into three, seven or ten parts. A division based on word-count identifies the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, in Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), as the precise mid-point in the Qur’an, and the significance of this word is often recognized in Qur’an manuscripts from the Malay world. Of the eight Southeast Asian Qur’ans in the British Library, three – two from Aceh and one from Java – highlight the word walyatalattaf either by rubricating in red ink or by elongating it and writing it in bold.

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalataf-12312-95v

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalataf-Or 15034 f.116v

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalaf-16915-f.131v
The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts, one from Java (top) Add 12312, f.95v, and two from Aceh (middle) Or 16034, f. 116v and (bottom) Or 16915, f. 131v.  noc

Over the course of this study of minor decorative elements found in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, very often it was the less polished manuscripts, with scribal errors or omissions or unfinished sections, which were the most helpful in reconstructing the process of copying and decorating Qur’an manuscripts, which seems to have progressed in the same order across the Malay archipelago. First the scribe would write out the entire Qur’anic text in black ink, using red ink for the the first words of a juz’ as necessary, and indicating the ends of verses with small marks. Then, verse markers – usually in the form of red or black ink circles – were added, and coloured in if necessary. The text was then checked for accuracy and to make good any omissions. Only after this stage were frames added to each page of text, composed in accordance with regional preferences. Titles of chapters or surahs were then added in red ink, and ruled frames placed around the surah headings. After this, marginal ornaments would be added to indicate the juz’ and other textual divisions.

This article on Juz’ markers is the fourth installment of a five-part series of blog posts on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first post is on Verse markers, the second on Text frames, the third on Surah headings, the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

20 September 2021

Kālāma Sutta and the premise of free thinking

Tipiṭaka or the ‘Three Baskets’ forms the canon of the teachings of the Buddha written in Pāli. The second ‘Basket’, Sutta Piṭaka, contains five Nikāyas or ‘collections’ of thousands of discourses attributed to the Buddha and his disciples. The Aṅguttara Nikāya, or ‘numerical discourses’ is divided further into eleven Nipāta or ‘books’, one of which includes the Kālāma Sutta (ကာလာမသုတ်) or the ‘Instruction of the Kalamas’ (Tika-Nipāta, Mahāvagga, Sutta no. 65, also known as the Kesamutti Sutta). The Kālāma Sutta is famous for encouraging free thinking and opposes dogmatism, fanaticism and any kind of intolerance. It expounds the idea that in order to gain clarity one has to also examine one’s mind and ideas.

Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century. Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

The British Library’s Myanmar (Burma) Collections hold several manuscripts of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Man/Pali 56 and Man/Pali 61 both contain the Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, including the Kālāma Sutta. They are beautifully manufactured palm leaf manuscripts, entirely gilded from the outside and placed between bevelled gilded wooden binding boards. These manuscripts belong to the Mandalay Palace Collection from 1886 and therefore date from the 19th century. Both manuscripts contain over 170 precisely incised palm leaves.

The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

In the Kālāma Sutta the Buddha is wandering around Kosala accompanied by a large community of monks (bhikkhus) and comes to Kesaputta town, inhabited by the Kalamas. The Kalamas ask the Buddha for advice. There are many holy and wise men who visit the town, each expounding their own doctrines and demolishing opposing ones. This leaves the Kalamas uncertain: which of these men speaks the truth?

The Buddha responds with these famous words:

"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.”

Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

The Buddha then goes on to explain that mental wellbeing can be acquired by overcoming greed, hate and delusion and goes through each of these in detail. The Kalamas agree that greed, hate and delusion can only cause harm and that the absence of these is thus beneficial. Following this the Buddha expounds that each person has the capacity to distinguish what causes harm and what causes happiness and therefore each person should follow their own judgement. Whatever one’s belief (or non-belief) in the hereafter, if one is free of hate and malice, that person will be able to find solace.

Distinguishing between what causes harm and what causes happiness is in the Kālāma Sutta not simply an act of reasoning or an intellectual exercise, it is the ability to distinguish what leads to the harm or benefit of not just oneself but of everybody.

The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.
The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.

Further reading:

"Kalama Sutta: The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry", translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

"Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas" (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Alfred Bloom, Critical Thinking in Buddhism: The Kalama Sutta. Shin Darma Net.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

13 September 2021

Epic Iran: Manuscripts from the Islamic era

Epic Iran display

In a recent blog I wrote about three of our Zoroastrian treasures which were part of the  Epic Iran exhibition organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. Sadly the exhibition is now over, but this second blog on the Islamic period manuscripts which we loaned can serve as a reminder for those who were lucky enough to visit, or as a visual reference for those who weren't so fortunate.

The exhibition was organised into broad themes, the first four on Iran up to the advent of Islam, the fifth section, The Book of Kings, acted as an introduction to Islamic Iran primarily through the epic Shahnamah (Book of Kings) completed by the poet Firdawsi around AD 1010.

Bahram Gur hunting with Azadah
This detail from Firdawsiʼs Shahnamah shows the Sasanian ruler Bahram Gur (Bahram V, r. 420-38) hunting with the slave girl Azadah. Iran, 1486 (BL Add MS 18188, f. 353r). Public Domain

Tracing the history of the Iranian people from the beginning up until the defeat of the Sasanian ruler Yazdegird III in 651, the Shahnamah combines myth and tradition in what is perhaps the best known work of Persian literature. Many hundreds of illustrated copies survive today dating from the Mongol period onwards. The story depicted here, in a manucript dating from the Turkman/Timurid period shows Azadah, a slave-girl who was a fine harpist, riding behind Bahram on his camel on a hunting expedition. On this occasion Bahram performed the remarkable feat of shooting two arrows into one gazelle's head,  cutting off the antlers of another and hitting a third as it raised its foot towards its ear. When Azadah expressed sympathy for the gazelles instead of praise for Bahram’s skill, he took offense, flung her to the ground, and let his camel trample her.

The sixth section, Change of Faith explored Islam in Iranian culture, the transition from Arabic to Persian and the important Iranian contribution to Islamic science.

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Pursued by a figure with a club, Adam and Eve are accompanied by the peacock and dragon who, at Satan’s instigation, had been responsible for their fall. From the Qisas al-anbiya (Stories of the Prophets) by al-Naysaburi. Shiraz, Iran, 16th century (BL Add MS 18576, f. 11r) Public Domain

There are several different collections in Arabic and Persian with the title Qisas al-anbiyaʼ, stories adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. One of the best-known and most illustrated is the collection composed in Persian by the 12th century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi. Add MS 18576 illustrated here is one of sixteen known illustrated copies of al-Naysaburi’s compilation, all produced in Safavid Iran between 1565 and 1585. The portrayal of Adam and Eve agrees with a passage in the Qurʼan (Surah 20, verses 120-21) ʻSo the two of them ate of it, and their shameful parts revealed to them, and they took to stitching upon themselves leaves of the Garden.ʼ Their fiery haloes, however, indicate that they still had some phrophetic status.

  The constellations Aquila and Delphinus
The constellations Aquila and Delphinus from the Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of the Images of the Fixed Stars) by al-Sufi. Iran, possibly Maragha, 1260-80 (BL Or 5323. f. 28v). Public Domain

The tenth-century Iranian astronomer ʻAbd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903–86) is the author of several important Arabic texts on the stars and is regarded as one of the greatest Islamic scientists. His most important text, represented here, is the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabitah, based on Ptolemy's Almagest, in which he gives a full description of the classical system of constellations, observed both from the earth and from outside the celestial globe. The outlines of each constellation and the stars belonging to it are therefore drawn twice, their image mirrored in the second drawing.

Describing the rise of Persian poetry, the seventh section, Literary Excellence, was devoted to how Persian emerged as a literary language from the tenth century onwards. As a result of royal patronage poets flourished at court and workshops developed in which calligraphy, illumination and painting were practiced at the highest levels.

Collection of divans
Lyrical poems of Adib Sabir, the panegyrist of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1118-57). Tabriz, 1314 (BL IO Islamic 132, f. 49r) Public Domain

This manuscript, an anthology of poetry by Muʻizzi, Akhsikati, Adib Sabir, Qamar, Shams Tabasi and Nasir Khusraw, was very likely copied in Tabriz in the scriptorium of the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din. Copied by ʻAbd al-Muʼmin al-ʻAlavi al-Kashi between Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 713 and Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 714 (February 1314–February 1315), it closely resembles other secular manuscripts prepared for Rashid al-Din during the same period. The manuscript contains altogether 53 illustrations in a simplified Mongol style, mostly depicting, as here, the poet receiving a robe of honour from Sultan Sanjar.

The Divan of Hafiz (Add MS 7759)
Facing pages of the Divan of Hafiz on Chinese paper. Possibly Herat, Afghanistan, 1451 (BL Add MS 7759, ff. 60v-61r). Public Domain

This early copy of the Divan of Hafiz (d.c.1389) was copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855 (October 1451). Although no place is mentioned in the colophon, the name of the scribe may be connected to Fushanj in the province of Herat, Afghanistan, possibly suggesting Herat as a place of origin. The paper is unusually heavy and includes 31 pages decorated with Chinese ornamentation containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of large sheets which were painted on before being cut up. The paper is dyed various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

Prince Humay reaches Princess Humayun's castle
Humay arrives at the gate of Humayun’s castle. From Humay u Humayun  (Humay and Humayun) of Khvaju Kirmani. Baghdad, Iraq, late 14th century (BL Add MS 18113, f. 18v). Public Domain

Add MS 18113 contains three poems from the Khamsah (Five Poems) by Khvaju Kirmani (1290-1349?). The first, the story of the lovers Humay and Humayun, was completed in 1331 in response to a request to enchant Muslim audiences with a supposed ʻMagianʼ theme. The poems were copied by the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli ibn Ilyas al-Tabrizi al-Bavarchi in 798 (1396) at the Jalayirid capital Baghdad. The paintings most probably belonged to another copy and were added afterwards. The artist of one of them was Junayd, a pupil of Shams al-Din who worked under the Jalayirid sultan Uways I (r. 1356-74), who inscribed his name on an arch in an illustration on folio 45v. The manuscript stayed in royal hands at least until the Safavid era when it was refurbished for the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza (1517-49), the youngest of the four sons of Shah Ismaʻil (r. 1501-24).

The construction of the palace at Khavarnak
The building of the palace of Khavarnaq. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting attributed to the master-painter Bihzad. Herat, late 15th century (BL Or.6810, f. 154v). Public Domain

This beautiful copy of the Khamsah (Five Poems) by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami entered the Mughal Imperial Library in Akbar's reign and was regarded as one of the most treasured possessions in his collection. Its importance lies chiefly in its decoration and illustrations which include paintings by the master-painter of Herat, Bihzad (flourished during the reign of the Timurid Husayn Bayqara, 1469-1506). ‘The building of the palace of Khavarnaq,’ ascribed to Bihzad in a note underneath, shows the structure of the pavilion: the scaffolding, a ladder, men chipping bricks, transporting them and actually positioning them on the building.

The opening of Shah Tahmasp's Khamsah
The opening of Nizami's Makhzan al-asrar, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Tabriz or Qazvin, (BL Or.2265, ff. 2v-3r). Public Domain

Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad; Khusraw sees Shirin bathing
Left: Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Painting ascribed to Mirza ʻAli (BL Or.2265, f. 53v). Public Domain
Right: Prince Khusraw spies Shirin bathing. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin. Painting ascribed to Sultan Muhammad (BL Or.2265, f.77v). Public Domain

Or.2265, a 16th century copy of Nizami's Khamsah (Five Poems), is perhaps the most spectacular of our manuscript loans. Originally copied between 1539 and 1543 for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-76), it was augmented by the addition of 14 full page illustrations by some of the most famous court artists of the mid-16th century. Further pages were inserted probably during the 17th century, and again at a later stage, perhaps when the manuscript was rebound in the early 19th century at the court of Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar (r. 1797-1834) who in 1243 (1827/28), according to a note inside, presented it to his forty-second wife Taj al-Dawlah.

The ninth section The Old and the New focussed on the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925), introducing an element of modernisation and developing new relationships with Europe.

The Iranian army defeats the Russians
Fath ʻAli Shah's heir ʻAbbas Mirza about to slay the Russian general Gazhadand with the Russian army in flight. From the Shahanshahnamah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Iran, 1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f. 387v). Public Domain

With Firdawsi's Shahnamah as a model, Fath‘Ali Shah commissioned the Shahanshahnamah (Book of the King of Kings) by the court poet Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba. Presented to the East India Company, this was one of several equally sumptuous copies given as diplomatic gifts to various European dignitaries.

Portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah
Portrait of Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896), seated on a European style sofa, by Muhammad Isfahani. Iran, 1856 (BL Or.4938, f.4r). Public Domain

Although the exhibition has now closed, the published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture

Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian
CCBY

Further reading 

Most of these manuscripts have been digitised and can be explored by following the hyperlinks given above or by going to our Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts page. The following blogs also give further information:

An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani
The archaeology of a manuscript: the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani
Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum
A Jewel in the Crown: A 15th century illustrated copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.6810)
The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece