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12 April 2013

Two 15th century Timurid masterpieces to be digitised

The Barakat Trust has generously awarded the British Library a grant to digitise two of our most treasured Persian manuscripts, Or.6810 and Add.25900, both copies of the Khamsah (‘Five Poems’) by the twelfth century poet Nizami. Both works include paintings by the master-painter of Herat, Bihzad (died 1535/36), who worked at the courts of the Timurid Husayn Bayqara (ruled 1469-1506) and the Safavid Shah Tahmasp (ruled 1524-1576).

Iskandar with the seven sages, dated AH 900 (1495/95), (Or.6810, f. 214r) 
Iskandar with the seven sages, dated AH 900 (1495/95), (Or.6810, f. 214r)   noc

Or.6810 dates from around 1494/95 and was written for Amir ʻAli Farsi Barlas, an amir of the Timurid Sultan Husayn Bayqara. It contains one double page and 20 single miniatures by Bihzad and other artists, and was one of the most precious manuscripts in the Mughal imperial library (see my recent post ‘A jewel in the crown’). It was still in the royal collection at the beginning of the 18th century and was probably taken as loot during the political upheaval which followed Nadir Shah’s conquest and the sack of Delhi in 1739. In December 1782 it was purchased by the collector Richard Johnson working for the East India Company in Lucknow, and was ultimately acquired by the British Museum in 1908.

Iskandar visits the wise man in the cave (Or.6810, f. 273r) Iskandar visits the wise man in the cave (Or.6810, f. 273r)   noc

Add.25900 was copied in 846 (1442) and contains 19 miniatures which were added after it was completed. One is contemporary, dating from 846 (1442), while 14, like those of Or.6810, date from Husayn Bayqara’s reign — f.77v is dated 898 (1492/93). Three of these are ascribed to Bihzad. The final four miniatures are Safavid Tabriz style paintings of around 1535-40. Before being acquired by the British Museum, the manuscript belonged to the Indologist James Robert Ballantyne (1813-1864), Librarian of the India Office Library from 1861 to 1864, who had acquired it in November 1837.


Battle between Iskandar and Dara, ascribed to Bihzad, from the Iskandarnāmah (Add.25900, f.231v)  

Battle between Iskandar and Dara, ascribed to Bihzad, from the Iskandarnāmah (Add.25900, f.231v)    noc 


When digitised these two manuscripts will be freely available to look on the British Library's digitised manuscripts page:

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Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


I'm very much looking forward to the digitisation. Are the three (superb) illustrations you've shown in this blog all by Bihzad? And how many Bihzad illustrations are there altogether in the two manuscripts?

Re Bihzad:

This is a very interesting question. These three paintings are ascribed to Bihzad. In fact most of the miniatures in these two manuscriots are ascribed to individual artists, including Bihzad, i.e. their names in Persian are written somewhere on the page, but of course this is not in itself absolute proof!

In our 1977 catalogue of Persian miniatures in the British Library, Norah Titley wrote of Add.25900 "15 bear the signature of Bihzād" and of Or.6810, she wrote that 6 were considered to be by him. However, Bihzad scholarship has moved on since then!

I'll be writing some more about this, so "watch this space".

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