Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from August 2013

04 August 2013

The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination

An exciting project I’ve been working on during the last few months is ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’ a new exhibition opening this autumn at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies London.

One of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism originated amongst the Iranian peoples in Central Asia during the second millennium BC spreading east along the Silk Road as far as China and south-west to Iran where it was the religion of the Achaemenid kings (550-330 BC) and their successors until the Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century AD. The Zoroastrian sacred texts were composed in the Avestan (Old Iranian) language, but were transmitted orally and were not written down until the late Sasanian period (c. 224-651 AD). Even after that Zoroastrianism remained essentially oral in character with the earliest surviving manuscripts dating from the late 13th century. Central to the religion is the belief in Ahura Mazda (‘wise lord’), his spokesman Zarathustra (Zoroaster) and the dichotomy between good and evil.

One of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem Vohu, discovered at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein in 1917. Transcribed into Sogdian (a medieval Iranian language) script, this fragment dates from around the ninth century AD, about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text (British Library Or.8212/84)

This exhibition will be the first to provide a visual narrative of the history of Zoroastrianism and its rich cultural heritage. It will include sections on the spread of Zoroastrianism along the Silk Road, the Judaeo-Christian heritage, and Zoroastrianism in Iran from the Achaemenid empire up to and including the Islamic period. Further sections are devoted to Zoroastrianism in India, the Parsis and the Parsi diaspora. In addition to texts, paintings and textiles the exhibition will include a walk-in fire temple and a 10-metre glass etching based on the cast of the western staircase from the palace of Darius at Persepolis from the British Museum.

The exhibition is being curated by Sarah Stewart (lead curator) together with Pheroza Godrej, Almut Hintze, Firoza Mistree  and myself. As you can imagine, we have been having a wonderful time sourcing material to include. Not surprisingly — since I have been involved  — the exhibition will include a large number of loans from the British Library, which is fortunate in posessing one of the most important collections of Zoroastrian manuscripts. It will run from 11 October to 15 December 2013. A catalogue will be published by IB Tauris and there will be a two-day conference associated with the exhibition, ‘Looking Back: The Formation of Zoroastrian Identity Through Rediscovery of the Past’, on 11 and 12 October 2013.

During the next few months I’ll be writing about several of the exhibits, but meanwhile here are a few select items:

An illustrated copy of the Avestan Videvdad Sadeh, the longest of all the Zoroastrian liturgies. Copied in Yazd, Iran, in 1647 (British Library RSPA 230, ff. 151v–152r)

The martyrdom of the lady Tarbo, her sister and her servant who died during the reign of the Sasanian ruler Shapur II (r. 309-379). While the historicity of martyrologies such as this is questionable, they nevertheless represent a literary tradition of the early Christian community which is based on the realities of intermittent persecution under Sasanian rule. This very early Syriac manuscript dates from the fifth or sixth century AD (British Library Add.14654, ff. 13v-14r)


Cotton Augustus_5
Zoroaster, founder of the seven liberal arts, as portrayed in the French world chronicle, Le Trésor des histoires. Medieval Christian interpretations of Zoroastrianism, based on classical literature, often focussed on the figure Zoroaster who came to be regarded as a master of magic, a philosopher, and an astrologer, especially after the Renaissance, with its increased awareness of Greek and Hellenistic literature. Depicted here at his desk, Zoroaster is described as the founder of necromancy and the seven liberal arts. This copy dates from c.1475–80 (British Library Cotton Augustus V, f. 25v)

Parsis at prayer, the shoreline of Bombay in the distance. Early 19th-century oil painting by Horace Van Ruith (1839–1923) who visited Bombay between 1879 and 1884 and is known to have established a studio there (British Library Foster 953, detail) Images online

For more details, follow these links to the exhibition website and facebook page.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

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01 August 2013

An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani

Following from my last post about the recently digitised copy of Shah Tahmasp’s Khamsah of Nizami, we are pleased to announce that the British Library has now completed digitisation of another of its most famous and important Persian illustrated manuscripts: Add.18113, containing three of the five poems from the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani (1290-1349?). Partially modelled on Nizami’s earlier work, Khvaju drew extensively on traditional Iranian folklore. This manuscript, notable for its early calligraphy and illustrations, contains the story of Humay and Humayun, the Kamālnāmah (‘Book of Perfection’) and the Rawżat al-anvār (‘Garden of Lights’).

Humāy u Humāyūn was completed in 1331 in response to a request to enchant Muslim audiences with a Magian theme. Prince Humay, while hunting, is led by a ruby-lipped onager to the Queen of the Fairies who shows him a portrait of Humayun, daughter of the Emperor of China. He falls deeply in love and sets off to find her. His quest led him through many adventures but eventually he won her and became ruler of the Chinese empire. For a summary of the plot see Bürgel (below).

Prince Humay and Azar Afruz find Bihzad drunk, sleeping under a cypress tree (Add.18113, f.3v)
Humay at the court of the Emperor (Faghfūr) of China (Add.18113, f. 12r)

Humay arrives at the gate of Humayun’s castle (Add.18113, f. 18v)

Humayun (in disguise) has challenged Humay to a duel. Defeated she removes her helmet before making up the quarrel (Add.18113, f. 23r)

Humay and Humayun feasting in a garden and listening to musicians (Add.18113, f.40v)

Humay on the day after their wedding has gold coins poured over him as he leaves Humayun’s room. The name of the artist, Junayd, is inscribed in the arch above Humayun's head (Add.18113, f. 45v)

The second poem, the Kamālnāmah (‘Book of Perfection’), completed in 1343, is a description of an allegorical journey describing moral and religious topics interspersed with anecdotes about kings and mystics. In the episode illustrated below. ʻAli ibn Abi Talib was travelling to a staging post when he was attacked by an oncoming horseman. His defeated assailant, at the point of death, lamented that he would end his life without achieving his heart’s desire, namely to fulfill his beloved’s request for ʻAli’s head.  On hearing this ʻAli spared his life: “If your affairs would indeed be settled by such an act, then I am ʻAli and this is my head, but do cease repining and pull yourself together. Take your sword and do as you will.” (Fitzherbert, p. 148). The story ends with the attacker’s conversion and their triumphal return together.
ʻAli threatens his attacker with a sword (Add.18113. f. 64v)

The third work — which may, on account of the position of the shamsah (see below), have originally been placed at the beginning of the volume — is the Rawżat al-anvār (‘Garden of Lights’), a Sufi masnavi completed in 1342, consisting of 20 discourses on the requirements for a mystical life and the ethics of kingship.

Sultan Malikshah ibn Arslan is here accosted by an old woman who reproaches him for allowing his soldiers to hunt her cow, the sole provider of sustenance for herself and her four fatherless children. The king repented and was thus saved, the moral being that one should always help the needy and can only be saved by good deeds (Add.18113, f. 85r)

In this final illustration the Sasanian ruler Nushirvan (Khusraw I Anushirvan, r. 531-78) discourses with his minister Buzurjmihr, epitomising the concept of the just ruler and the wise counsellor (Add.11813, f. 91r)

The volume itself has a complex history. The poems were copied by the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli ibn Ilyas al-Tabrizi al-Bavarchi (میر علی بن الیاس التبریزی الباورچی) in 798 (1396) at the Jalayirid capital Baghdad[1]. The paintings may have belonged with the original copy or have been added separately. The artist’s name, Junayd, a pupil of Shams al-Din who worked under the Jalayirid sultan Uways I (r. 1356-74), is inscribed on an arch on folio 45v (Junayd naqqāsh-i sulṭānī). The volume was subsequently refurbished for the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza (1517–49), the youngest of the four sons of Shah Ismaʻil (r. 1501–24) who founded the Safavid dynasty, at which time a page was detached and mounted in an album compiled for him by Dust Muhammad (Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., H 2154, fol. 20v). As the manuscript stands today, the pages are out of sequence and it is not certain exactly what the original order was. Scholars are currently studying the codicology, especially in relation to the illustrations.

The shamsah at the beginning of the Rawżat al-anvār, inscribed in the centre: ‘For the library of Prince Abu’l-Fath Bahram, mighty as Jam’ (ba-rasm-i kutub khānah-i Shahriyār Abū’l-Fatḥ Bahrām jam iqtidār) (Add.18113, f. 79r)

The manuscript was acquired by the British Museum 16 March 1850 from the sale of Major-General Thomas Gordon (1788-1841), known primarily for his role in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s and 1830s. Its digitisation was sponsored by the Iran Heritage Foundation as part of our collaborative Persian Manuscripts Digital Project.


[1] There were two calligraphers called Mir ʻAli Tabrizi active in the late 14th century: Mir ‛Ali ibn Ilyas, the calligrapher of this manuscript, and Mir ‛Ali ibn Hasan al-Sultani, who is credited with having invented the nastaʼliq script.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

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Further reading

Teresa Fitzherbert, “Khwājū Kirmānī (689-753/1290-1352): An Éminence Grise of Fourteenth Century Persian Painting”, Iran 29 (1991): pp.137-151
J. T. P. de Bruijn, “ḴᵛĀJU KERMĀNI” in Encyclopædia Iranica online
J. C. Bürgel, “Humāy and Humayūn: a Medieval Persian Romance”, in Proceedings of the First European Conference of Iranian Studies, Turin 1987, vol 2 (1990): pp. 347-57
The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture online, edited by Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair, with entries on Junayd and  Mir ʻAli Tabrizi (by Sheila Canby)