Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


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

01 March 2021

The Courtesan and the Preacher: The Romance of Mahsati, an Early Female Persian Poet

Opening of teh Romance of Mahsati
The opening of the anonymous romance of the female poet and musician Mahsati and Amir Ahmad the preacher’s son. Copy dated Rabiʻ I 867/1462 (British Library Or.8755, f. 22v)
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Mahsati was one of the earliest female poets of classical Persian but the biographical details about her are rather meagre. She probably lived in the eleventh or twelfth century and may have been from Ganja, but Nishapur, Badakhshan and Khujand have also been given as her place of birth by later authors. She is said to have served in the capacity of a secretary (dabirah) or singer and musician at the court of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1097-1118), but at least one historian also places her husband in the court Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud (r. 998-1030). In the late fifteenth century, Dawlatshah in his biographical dictionary Tazkirat al-shu‘ara confirms the connection with Sultan Sanjar and lists her among the ruler’s panegyric poets, along with others such as Adib Sabir, Rashid Vatvat, ‘Abd al-Vasih Jabali, and Anvari. Dawlatshah describes Mahsati as “the beloved of the sultan and elegant lady of the times” (mahbubah-yi sultan va zarifah-yi ruzgar) and includes an anecdote about how she won the sultan’s favour with her verbal skills as he was trying to mount his horse in the snow. She is said to have uttered this poem extemporaneously:

Heaven has saddled the mount of felicity for you, King,
And praised you among all the rulers,
In order that your steed’s golden shoe not get muddied
It has spread silver on the ground.

Mahsati is better known for her earthy poems, especially for the quatrains composed on the boys of the bazaar in the shahrashub (amorous, sometimes bawdy verse) genre. The corpus of her poems has increased over the years and modern editions contain between 250 to 300 poems, many of which are also attributed to other poets such as ‘Umar Khayyam.[1] The Swiss scholar, Fritz Meier, made a life-long study of Mahsati and published a corpus of her poems in Die schöne Mahsatī.[2] His research, especially on the fifteenth century romance starring Mahsati and her lover Amir Ahmad or Pur-i Khatib, who was the son of a preacher named Khatib, was published posthumously by Gudrun Schubert and Renate Würsch.[3]

The anonymous romance, Amir Ahmad u Mahsati, survives in at least three versions. One of these is in an illustrated manuscript in the British Library, Or. 8755, which also includes two other short versified narratives: Manqabatnamah, or Qissah-yi shir u div, on the exploits of Ali, and Qissah-yi Isma‘il about Ism‘ail and Ibrahim. The eighteen paintings in the manuscript, thirteen of which belong to the Mahsati romance, are in the Turkoman style.[4]

The story of Mahsati and Amir Ahmad is narrated in prose with 475 quatrains making up the dialogue by the main characters. It is told that Mahsati is the well-educated daughter of a mufti in Khujand whose special talent lies in impromptu versification. The townspeople disapprove of her musical abilities but when they complain to her father, he informs them that according to her horoscope she will become a courtesan. After her father’s death she and her mother move to Ganja where she settles in a tavern. She drinks wine, recites poetry, and even gets the king to fall for her charms. In the same town lives a preacher’s son, Amir Ahmad, who teaches around four hundred students. One night he dreams that he is being offered wine by a houri in paradise. Upon waking up he goes out and sees Mahsati as she plays music on a harp:

Mahsati sees Amir Ahmad for the first time
Mahsati and Amir Ahmad see each other for the first time (British Library Or.8755, f. 29v)
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In true fairytale fashion they fall in love with each other. Amir Ahmad leaves his home and begins to lead a dissipated life with his beloved. When his father has him locked up in a cell his pupils come to intercede on his behalf and hear his laments. His poems about Mahsati are mistaken by his father for verses on mystical love and he is thought to be cured of his lovesickness. But upon being released, he goes back to the tavern to be with Mahsati. As the condition of a wager with his father, he mounts a mule and is ready to go to the mosque if the beast leads him there, but the mule takes him right back to Mahsati.

The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati  f. 70a
The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati (British Library Or.8755, f. 70r)
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The father persists and sends his pious brother Pir ‘Usman to go and bring the profligate back, but he himself becomes drunk and has to be carried home.

A drunken Pir Usman  is brought home
A drunken Pir ʻUsman is carried home (British Library Or.8755, f. 75v)
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Upon the intercession of the king, the tavern is ordered to be closed and the drinkers to disperse. Mahsati goes off to Khurasan followed by Amir Ahmad. There he discovers her at a feast with three hundred distinguished poets and scholars.

Mahsati at a feast with the poets of Khurasan
Mahsati entertaining the poets of Khurasan (British Library Or.8755, f. 87r)
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The couple eventually returns to Ganja, where in the marketplace Mahsati sees and composes poems on a group of professional youths comprising a beer-seller, camel driver, spice-seller, bloodletter, barber, as well as a rind, a rakish drunkard.

Mahsati and Amir Ahmad encounter a drunkard in the marketplace
Amir Ahmad and Mahsati accosted by a drunkard in the bazaar (British Library Or.8755, f. 95v)
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There she also encounters the master poet Sana’i whom she satirizes in ribald verses. In the meantime, Amir Ahmad finally reconciles with his father and resumes his old life. Mahsati also repents and is allowed to marry her beloved. They lead a devout life and bring up god-fearing children. Eventually Amir Ahmad becomes the preacher of Ganja after his father’s death, and after his death his grave becomes a shrine for penitent drunkards.

The romance about Mahsati provides a contextualized narrative built around her poems. She is transformed into a pious, married woman who is repentant of her past life, but her earlier non-conventional persona persisted in the biographical accounts about her. However, one must be careful to not confuse either persona, the one that comes through in her poems as a poet of the bazaar, or in the romance with her conversion, with that of the actual individual.[5] Even if we do not have historical facts about her life, Mahsati’s poems were never forgotten over the centuries. Especially in the nineteenth century Persian literati in Iran and India sought to retrieve the voices of women and create a female canon of poets for which the inclusion of some classical poets was necessary to provide the authority of tradition. Mahsati, along with Rab‘ia Quzdari or Balkhi, feature in the small group of the earliest poets in these anthologies and continue to be remembered and read in the erstwhile larger Persianate world.

Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University
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[1] Dick Davis, The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women (Washington, DC: Mage, 2019), pp. 7-14.
[2] Fritz Meier, Die schone Mahsatī. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der persischen Vierzeilers (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1963).
[3] Die schöne Mahsatī. Der Volksroman uber Mahsatī und Amīr Ahmad, herausgegeben von Gudrun Schubert und Renate Würsch (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
[4] G.M. Meredith-Owens, “A Rare Illustrated Persian Manuscript,” The Memorial Volume of the Vth International Congress of Iranian Art & Archaeology, edited by A. Tajvid, (Tehran: Ministry of Culture and Arts, 1972), vol. 2, pp. 125 -131.
[5] For a discussion on the gender implications of Mahsati’s poetic voice, see Rebecca Gould, “Mahsatī of Ganja’s Wandering Quatrains: Translator’s Introduction,” Literary Imagination 13/2 (2011), pp. 225-227.

25 February 2021

Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

I have recently been writing on the British Library’s collection of eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, which have all been digitised. These eight manuscripts represent three regional traditions in the Malay world, with one fine Qu r’an from Patani on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, three from Aceh and four from Java. However, many more Qur’an manuscripts, mostly still held in private collections in Southeast Asia, are available digitally on the British Library website through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP). Some of these Qur’ans are in poor condition, with losses of text, but are nonetheless of great interest in representing certain manuscript traditions not otherwise easily accessible in public collections or publications.

Illuminated pages at the end of a Qur’an from Java, 19th century. Pondok Pesantren Tarbiyya al-Talabah, Keranji, East Java. EAP061/2/35, pp. 538-539.

To date, around 30 Qur’an manuscripts (or surviving parts) have been digitised through five EAP projects in Indonesia. There is one Qur’an from a madrasah (pesantren) in East Java (EAP061), two from Cirebon (EAP211) on the north coast of Java, and one from Buton (EAP212) off the southeast coast of Sulawesi. Larger numbers have been digitised in Sumatra, with six in Kerinci (EAP117) in the highlands of Jambi, 12 in West Sumatra (EAP144) and eight from Kampar (EAP1020) in Riau. In many cases it can be presumed that the Qur’an manuscripts were copied in locations local to where they are still held today, but a few may have been brought from elsewhere. An important contextual factor which helps to paint a fuller picture of reading and writing cultures is that some projects, such as that in Kerinci, have also documented large numbers of printed Qur’ans, many recognizable as lithographed copies published in Bombay in the second half of the 19th century, which were widely distributed thoughout Southeast Asia.

Qur’an manuscript from Buton, 19th century. EAP212/3/27, pp. 591-592.

One of the most recent EAP projects in Indonesia – EAP1020, collections in Kampar, Riau – has digitised a number of significant Qur’an manuscripts. The finest, EAP1020/5/2, has a beautifully illuminated frame in red, green and gold surrounding the beginning of the second chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Baqarah. Sadly, like many other Qur’ans digitised through EAP, this manuscript has lost its initial folio, which would have contained the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, set within a similar illuminated frame.

Illuminated frame around the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah; the first surviving page of a Qur’an manuscript in Air Tiris, Kampar, 18th or 19th century. EAP1020/5/1, p. 1

Another important Qur’an from Kampar, EAP1020/3/2, is actually a fragment consisting of only six folios. These 12 pages contain verses from the first two chapters of the Qur’an, Surat al-Baqarah and Surat Al 'Imran (pp.1-2 Q.2:278-283; [missing 1 folio]; pp.3-10 Q.3:7-49; [missing 1 folio]; pp.11-12 Q.3:61-73). This manuscript is immediately recognizable as a ‘Sulawesi diaspora’ style Qur’an, belonging to a distinctive school of Qur’anic manuscript art produced in locations all over the Malay archipelago associated with Bugis diaspora communities. However, no other examples of this school have so far been digitised, and so even though EAP1020/3/2 is only fragmentary it is useful to have a selection of openly accessible leaves available for further study.

EAP1020-3-2 (7)-3.26-30  EAP1020-3-2 (6)-3.20-26
Two consecutive pages from Surat Al 'Imran (Q.3:20-30) from a Sulawesi-style Qur’an copied in 1740 by a scribe born in Zabid, Yemen; the rest of this manuscript is held in the Museum Sang Nila Utama, Pekanbaru, 07.001.2007. EAP 1020/3/2, pp. 6-7

In fact, EAP1020/3/2 can be identified as originating from a Qur’an manuscript now held in the Museum Sang Nila Utama in Pekanbaru, the provincial capital of Riau, as 07.001.2007 (writen on the final page; the volume also has reference numbers on the covers of 07.5194.95 and 07.15/17). This volume is lacking the beginning, with the text starting in the middle of Surat Al 'Imran, Q.3:82, and thus continues – after a lacunum of one folio – from the fragment that is EAP1020/3/2. The volume is complete at the end and contains a colophon giving the date of completion as 4 Jumadilawal 1153 (28 July 1740), and identifying the scribe as Ibrahim al-Zabidi, who was born in Zabid, in Yemen.  This is a fascinating and rare piece of codicological evidence linking the manuscript tradition of the Malay world and  Yemen; although it is quite common to encounter Islamic manuscripts in Southeast Asia copied in Mecca, it is much rarer to find Yemeni connections attested to in writings.

MSNU  07-15-2017 (1)-ed
First page of the Sulawesi-style Qur’an, starting at Surat Al 'Imran (Q.3:82), Museum Sang Nila Utama, Pekanbaru, Riau, 07.001.2017. Photograph by A.T.Gallop, Nov. 2018.

MSNU  07-15-2017 (24)-small
Colophon of the Sulawesi-style Qur’an, dated 4 Jumadilawal 1153 (28 July 1740), naming the scribe as Ibrahim, as being of the Shafi'i school of law, and from Zabid in Yemen where he was born (al-Shafi'i madhhaban al-Zabidi baladan wa-mawlidan, with thanks to Colin Baker and Oman Fathurahman for this reading). Museum Sang Nila Utama, Pekanbaru, Riau, 07.001.2017.  Photograph by A.T.Gallop, Nov. 2018.

A considerable number of the Qur’an manuscripts digitised in West Sumatra, Kerinci and Kampar share the characteristics of the ‘Minangkabau’ Qur’an tradition. Very few decorated elements have survived, and in many cases, as in the case of the Kampar Qur'an above, only constitute the right-hand page of what would have been a double decorated frame across the opening two pages. The few examples do however illustrate the defining features of Minangkabau illuminated Qur’an manuscripts, namely a marked emphasis on the colour red, used in combination with the ubiquitious black (ink) and reserved white (of the background paper).

Illuminated initial second page of a Minangkabau Qur’an, framing the start of Surat al-Baqarah, from Surau Tanjung, Limau Sundai, Nagari Ampek Koto Hilia, in the kecamatan of Batang Kapeh, kabupaten Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra. EAP144/2/8, p. 1

Qur’an manuscripts in the Minangkabau tradition are generally plain, with simple textframes of two or three red ruled lines, or red and black lines, while verse markers are often hand-drawn black or red circles. Surah headings are in red ink and are sometimes set in ruled frames, while the start of a juz’ may be marked with a marginal inscription in red ink and the first few words highlighted in red ink. The hand is small and neat, and usually totally competent, and the text is written in strong black ink.

Opening pages of a Qur’an manuscript, from Mesjid Keramat, Kerinci, Jambi. EAP 117/22/1/1, p. 4

In my 2017 article ‘Fakes or Fancies?’ I wrote about some recent ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia, particularly Qur’an manuscripts, which needed careful analysis for a proper evaluation. A number could be classified as ‘enhanced’ manuscripts, namely original usually 19th-century manuscripts with recently-added decoration or text designed to increase the commercial value of the book. Others were evidently ‘new’ manuscripts, often written on non-traditional materials such as wood, leather or palmleaf, or in unusual formats such as scrolls or books of stitched palm leaves, usually with a deliberate blurring of clarity around the date of creation. The Kampar project digitised three examples of such ‘new’ Qur’an manuscripts, accurately dating them to the early 21st century, but recording the inclination of all the owners to regard these as ‘old’ manuscripts. These digitised 'new old' Qur’ans, all three of which are pictured below, therefore stand as a useful record of this recent market phenomenon, which is also discussed in Dr Ali Akbar’s aptly-titled blog series, Qur'an kuno-kunoan, 'So-called 'old' Qur'ans' and Jangan langsung percaya, ‘Don’t be so quick to believe’.

Closing pages of a very large new Qur'an manuscript, 21st century, held in Bangkinang, Kampar, Riau. EAP1020/3/1, p. 386

Detail from a new Qur'an written in 'gold' (felt-tip) ink, 21st century, held in Bangkinang, Kampar, Riau. EAP1020/3/13, p. 482

Part of the Qur'an newly copied on paper in scroll form, 21st century, held in Bangkinang, Kampar. EAP1020/3/12, p. 11

Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised through EAP
Each manuscript can be accessed though the EAP website by inserting the shelfmark below into the ‘Search all endangered archives’ box. Alternatively, a pdf with direct links to each manuscript can be found here: Download EAP Qurans-2021

EAP061 – East Java (1)
EAP211 – Cirebon, Java (2)
EAP211/1/2/36; EAP211/1/2/37
EAP212 – Buton (1)
EAP117 – Kerinci, Jambi (6)
EAP117/8/1/1; EAP117/22/1/1; EAP117/22/1/2; EAP117/23/1/3; EAP117/23/1/4; EAP117/30/1/3
EAP144 – Minangkabau (12)
EAP144/1/9; EAP144/1/13; EAP144/2/1; EAP144/2/5; EAP144/2/8; EAP144/2/10; EAP144/2/17; EAP144/2/19; EAP144/4/22; EAP144/4/29; EAP144/3/35; EAP144/5/49
EAP1020 – Kampar (8)
EAP1020/3/1; EAP1020/3/2; EAP1020/3/3; EAP1020/3/5; EAP1020/3/12; EAP1020/3/13; EAP1020/5/1; EAP1020/6/3

A.T. Gallop, 'Fakes or fancies? Some ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia'. Manuscript cultures, 2017, 10: 101-128.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

22 February 2021

Patchwork for a Prince: Exploring Persian Anthology British Library Or.13193

Many Persian poetry anthologies – particularly those produced during the 15th and early 16th century - display a kaleidoscopic use of decorated papers, and reveal an engaging celebration of color with every turn of the page. This ‘patchwork’ approach calls to mind the patched garments worn by ascetic figures in some Persianate paintings. Traditionally worn to signal their renunciation of material wealth, these patched robes and shawls are similar in spirit to the pieced kasaya cloths sometimes worn by their Buddhist ascetic counterparts. Ironically, a number of these patched kasaya cloaks are made from extremely luxurious materials – including silk textiles, sometimes given to monasteries by wealthy donors seeking favor. This translation of a modest patchwork into one composed of sumptuous materials transforms their original ‘recycled’ intention into an elegant transmutation. When viewed as works of art (instead of works of piety), these robes become refined visual ‘allusions’ to the idea of poverty and renunciation, rather than actual reflections of it. They are markers of asceticism, but elevate the original idea of patching by necessity, to one of luxury.

Marbled decoration Silvered decoration
Examples of so-called  ‘marbled’ (fig. 1) and  ‘silvered’ (fig. 2) pages (Or.13193, ff. 13r and 13v). Public Domain

We can detect a similar visual conceit at work in many of the ‘patchwork’ Persian poetry anthologies produced in the 15th and early 16th century. These manuscripts exhibit a ‘patched’ appearance, but often not from necessity. Rather, it is achieved only through a highly labor-intensive process of multi-layered artistic collaboration that transforms the manuscript into an elaborate and luxurious visual pun. This kind of  assembled ‘patchwork’ occurs in both upright-format manuscripts and albums as well as oblong-format manuscripts in 15th and 16th century. These oblong format manuscripts typically comprise anthologies of poetry and are referred to in contemporary texts as safina. The term safina is often translated as ship or boat - but it may be better understood as vessel or ark – that is, as a carrier of disparate cargoes.

An example of this type of safina poetry anthology is held today in the British Library, it contains 144 folios that measure about 8 x 20.5 cm, bound along their short side. The textual content is primarily ghazal-form poetry by about twenty poets. Two folios bear the name of the Aq Qoyunlu prince ‘Abu’l-‘Izz [Yamin al-Din] Yusuf Bahadur Khan. Yusuf was one of the sons of Sultan Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, and brother to Sultan Ya’qub Aq Qoyunlu. In the 15th century, the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty controlled much of Persia, as well as parts of present-day Iraq and eastern Turkey. A distinctive style of manuscript production emerged under their reign in centres including Shiraz and Tabriz; a number of surviving safina manuscripts may be connected with their patronage. Given the inscription naming Yusuf ibn Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, the production of the British Library safina has been dated sometime between 1470 and 1480 CE - prior to his death around 1490 CE.

Horizontal view of a 'black' page
Fig. 3: Horizontal view of a black coloured page (Or.13193, f. 3v). Public Domain

Although ‘patched’ in appearance, this manuscript would have been very costly to produce. Multiple layers of work were involved in the production of its multicolored paper supports – which often involved the application of various decorative techniques – including stencilled designs. The papers in the British Library safina are of various hues, some with additional painted elements. Some pages have been described as ‘marbled’ (fig. 1) – although not technically accurate. Some are entirely or partially ‘silvered’ (fig. 2) and subsequently tarnished - a feature seen in other safina manuscripts of the period.. A few folios are coloured black (fig. 3) or deep blue, but most folios exhibit softer pastel tones. The British Library safina also features a broad range of stencilled folios, which are among its most engaging aspects. With almost each turn of the page, one encounters a new motif or color combination. It seems that the artists who created these books derived pleasure in creating new and captivating juxtapositions.

Blue dragons intertwined with central animal-head motif
Fig. 4: Blue dragons intertwined with central animal-head motif (Or.13193, f. 27v). Public Domain

Looking closely at some of the stencilled and painted pages in the British Library safina, one notes folios that display figures of animals – flying ducks, swimming fish, and even wonderous creatures, such as blue dragons (fig. 4). Sometimes, human figures are playfully inserted within the stencilled designs.

In figs. 5 and 6, the figures are juxtaposed with calligraphic designs. In the scholarly literature, such stencilled and painted imagery in anthological manuscripts often has been overlooked or dismissed as mere ‘decoration.’ But, what significance could this imagery have held for the contemporary reader - and to what sources did the artists look for their inspiration? What relationship does this imagery have with the manuscript? In short - what is the function of these images, if not mere decoration?

A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages, Or13193 f16r A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages,Or13193, f15v
Figs. 5 & 6: A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages (Or.13193, ff. 15v and 16r). Public Domain

Turning to the stencilled calligraphy of these pages (figs. 5 & 6), the individual letters are written against swirling golden vine scrolls, making it somewhat difficult to decipher. Yet, if one is already familiar with these well-known lines from a poem by Hafez, the text is relatively easy to read:

Dar īn zamāna rafīqī kih khālī az khalal-ast
Ṣurāḥī-yi may-i nāb u safīna-i ghazal-ast

This may be translated as:

These days, the only friend[s] without fault[s]
are a bottle of wine and a safina of ghazals…

The decision to highlight this verse within the manuscript is, of course, to create a punning reference back to the manuscript – which is, itself, a safina of ghazals and the reader’s companion at that moment. The placement of these lines evokes the very act of reading the anthology at hand. It is as if the book itself is speaking directly to its reader.

In addition to such ‘meta-textual’ references, we find other stencilled imagery which alludes to well-known works of Persian literature located ‘outside’ of the manuscript. That is, these stories are often not mentioned in the surrounding text of the anthology but are easily recognized by those who are conversant with the popular literature of the period. Another stencilled folio – for example – shows a painted figure gesturing towards a strange tree with branches terminating in human and animal heads (fig. 7). The appearance of this so-called waqwaq tree is likely a reference to the story of Alexander the Great (Iskandar), as related in Firdausi’s Shahnama. In this portion of the Shahnama epic, Iskandar encounters the waq waq - or talking tree – a tree which bears the fruit of human heads. The tree speaks to Iskandar, foretelling of his death. In this stencilled depiction, however, the tree is shown not only fruiting with human heads, but also with a diversity of animal heads – a bull, a horse or donkey, a dragon, and others.

Iskandar and the talking tree (Or.13193, f. 56r) Ouseley MS: Iskandar and the talking tree
Fig. 7: Iskandar and the talking tree (Or.13193, f. 56r). Public Domain
Fig. 8: The same subject from Firdausi's Shahnama (Bodleian Library MS. Ouseley Add. 176, f.311b). © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. CC-BY-NC 4.0. F

If we compare this stencilled page with a manuscript folio in the Bodleian library collection, the similarity becomes clear. In a painting (fig. 8) from a Shahnama dated to the 1430s (Ms. Ouseley Add. 176), Iskandar raises his finger to his lip, in a state of surprise and likely dismay. The figure in the British Library safina, by contrast, seems to reach out and tickle the chin of the face in front of him. While the stencilled image is likely an allusion to the story of Iskandar found in the Shahnama, there may be more significance to this image. The tree with multiple talking heads might also be seen as a reference to the anthology itself. That is, the book as a gathering of many and diverse voices into one vessel - each of which speaks to us individually as we read through the pages of the manuscript.

Finally, returning to the double page in the British Library safina mentioned above, we see two small painted figures – a male figure above and a female below – within the stencilled designs (see again figs 5 & 6). Both hold books in their hands. The female figure – appearing to be a young girl – looks up across the empty space of the open book towards the boy above. Their placement activates the space – with one figure gazing at another across the open book – only made possible when the book is held in the hand. It may be that the two figures represent the young Layla (or Layli) and Qays – at their first meeting at school – according to the poet Nizami’s telling of their love story. While this identification may seem tenuous, further examination of the surrounding poem by the poet Ashraf reveals a reference to someone not going mad – or becoming ‘majnun.’ Accordingly, the small female figure – likely Layla - gazes up at the figure of the boy - who would later in their love story come to be known as Majnun. This placement may be coincidental, but if we imagine that these two figures do represent Layla and Majnun, this alignment of verse and image suggests an extremely sophisticated orchestration of the elements contained within this safina. Such coordination would allow for these small painted elements to reflect the text on the page, and the surrounding folios. The ‘shorthand’ appearance of the painted elements also requires that the anthology’s reader be familiar with not only Layla and Majnun’s story, but also with the imagery connected with illustrated manuscripts of Nizami’s text.

These types of representational references – the visual equivalent of intertextual allusions - are frequent in these safina manuscripts. Other paintings and stencilled imagery within this and other anthologies display similar connections between the ‘internal’ image and ‘external’ texts - demanding that their viewers possess a sophisticated familiarity not only with the popular literature of the period, but also with its common visual vocabulary. As David J. Roxburgh has noted in discussing the numerous surviving Persian anthologies created for the fifteenth-century Timurid ruler Iskandar Sultan: “The anthologies offered Iskandar Sultan…a range of visual idioms that equaled the textual genres in variety and complexity; reading and looking demanded of him a series of shifts in perceptive and cognitive engagement…in order for the visual puns, these subtle games and inventions to be discerned… This assumed a fair degree of visual literacy on the part of the viewer because the visual events are in fact a series of extremely subtle mutations and hybrids…” (Roxburgh, “Aesthetics,” 130). Rather than mere decoration, the visual elements of these safina anthologies approach the multivalent complexity of the texts that they accompany. Furthermore, many of these safina manuscripts function on the whole as a visual conceit – a patchwork translated into pages – perhaps making reference to the multicoloured, patched cloaks of Sufi adherents. How appropriate then, that their poetical content often embodies the works of this same group.

Denise-Marie Teece, Assistant Professor of Art History, NYU Abu Dhabi
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Further reading

Meredith-Owens, G. M. “A New Illustrated Persian Anthology” British Museum Quarterly 34 (1970), pp. 122-125.

Richard, Francis. “Un manuscript méconnu, l’anthologie poétique de la Bibliothèque nationale illustreée et signée par Behzad,” Studia Iranica 20 (1991), pp. 263-74.

Roxburgh, David. “The Aesthetics of Aggregation: Persian Anthologies of the Fifteenth Century,” in Islamic Art and Literature, ed. Oleg Grabar and Cynthia Robinson (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2001): 119–142.

Teece, Denise-Marie. “‘Compassionate Companion, Familiar Friend’: The Turin Safina (Biblioteca reale Ms. Or. 101) and its Significance,” Muqarnas 36 (2019), pp. 61-84.

——— Vessels of Verse, Ships of Song: Persian Anthologies of the Qara Quyunlu and Aq Quyunlu Period, Ph.D. diss., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2013.