Asian and African studies blog

9 posts from December 2014

30 December 2014

Curzon’s Durbars and the Alqabnamah: The Persian Gulf as part of the Indian Empire

On the 21 November 1903, George Curzon, the Viceroy of Britain’s Indian Empire, held an ostentatious ceremony aboard the Argonaut while anchored of the coast of Sharjah in the Persian Gulf. In attendance were all the rulers of the Trucial Coast (now the United Arab Emirates) along with other guests from the region. The Durbar (Persian darbār 'court'), as such performances were known, was part of a tour of the Gulf that was conceived by Curzon as a way of shoring up the frontiers of the Indian Empire against the threat of the other European powers.
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Lord Curzon’s Durbar aboard RIMS Argonaut, Sharjah (British Library, Photo 49/1(7))

This kind of ritual was a feature of rule borrowed by the British from the Mughal emperors they had replaced in India. It was an act of royal incorporation, designed to establish, legitimise, and entrench the hierarchies of empire. A photograph from the Dane collection at the British Library shows Curzon, enthroned at centre stage, surrounded by the symbols of Indian (the carpets, the guard of men behind) and British monarchical (the crowns in the roof of the tent, the Christian cross) authority. To the Viceroy’s right sit the Arab dignitaries. Some, deprived of chairs, are kneeling or sitting on the floor.

Curzon had held a much grander version of the durbar in Delhi earlier that year to mark the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India. The ‘Official Directory of the Delhi Coronation Durbar ’ tells us that, from the Gulf region, only the Sultan of Muscat’s son and some of the tribal leaders of the Aden Protectorate attended this lavish expression of imperial rule; a reflection of where the Gulf and its rulers stood within the colonial order.

Shah Jahan durbar_1500
Shah Jahan, Mughal Emperor, in durbar in the Diwan-i-Am at Delhi (British Library, Add.Or.3853)

Several years later, the Government of India wrote to the Political Residency at Bushire requesting that they revise the ‘extracts from the Alqabnamah’ that relate to the Gulf. The Alqabnamah (Persian alqābnāmah 'book of titles'), first compiled in 1865, was a register of Indian princes containing information on the correct title and form of address to be used for each. It included such details as the number of guns in a ruler’s salute and the material used for the bag that carried their correspondence.

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The 1935 edition of the Alqabnamah (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/734)

Between 1912 and the end of British rule in India in 1947, numerous revisions of the Alqabnamah were made. The discussion over these revisions reveals how the British viewed the political landscape in the Gulf. The evolution of the list shows the shifts in that landscape. From early on there is a clear hierarchy that is reflected in the distinctions accorded to each ruler, such as the terms of address used and with whom they could correspond with.

In 1912, Muscat was the only authority that could receive a letter from the Viceroy himself. This honour was granted to Bahrain and Kuwait five years later. The highest ranking officer that Qatar and the Trucial shaikhs would ever receive letters from was the Political Resident.

The wording used when addressing these rulers was also a matter that warranted much attention. During a clean-up of the register in 1925, Francis Prideaux, the Political Resident, initiated a discussion over the use of the term sa‘ādah, equivalent to ‘excellency’ or ‘grace’. Mirza ‘Ali, a Residency assistant, suggested that the word be used for Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. However, James More, the Political Agent at Kuwait, questioned whether Qatar qualified as an ‘excellency’. The Agent at Bahrain, Clive Daly, balked at the idea that the term be used for the Trucial shaikhs, arguing that their ‘position and political importance’ was ‘considerably less’ than that of the rulers of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, and that it would be ‘unnecessarily flattering’. By 1935 Bahrain and Kuwait were being addressed as ‘Your Highness’ while Qatar remained ‘Your Excellency’.

Extract from a letter from James More, Political Agent at Kuwait, outlining his suggestions for the correct forms of address for the rulers of Najd, Muscat, and Kuwait, 21 February 1926 (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/237, f. 80)

This order of importance can be explained by the political situation in the Gulf at the time. Bahrain was of economic significance to the British and its position made it an important transit point and base for naval operations. Up until the end of the First World War, Kuwait had an ambiguous relationship with Ottoman Turkey and it remained a potential entry point into the Gulf for other powers that the British wished to exclude. The promise of oil in all three countries was also a major factor.

The number of guns in a ruler’s salute reflects this same order. The Sultan of Muscat enjoyed the rare privilege of a twenty-one gun salute, putting him on a par with the most senior of Indian princes. Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar were each given seven guns. The Trucial Shaikhs, safely bound by century-old treaties and not deemed powerful enough to either be a problem or to offer any sort of advantage, were given the lowest salute of three guns each (except Abu Dhabi, which received five guns).

Extract from the 1935 edition of the Alqabnamah, showing the Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar entries (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/734)

Political changes in the region can also be detected in changes to the register. The Shaikh of Mohammerah (now Khorramshahr), for example, appears early on. At a time when Britain was seeking to maintain their economic dominance of south-western Persia, the Shaikh was given honours equivalent to those of Bahrain and Kuwait, sometimes higher. In 1926, however, following political centralisation under Reza Shah, the Shaikh lost most his power and the British lost their foothold in the area. Mohammerah was subsequently removed from the list.

Curzon’s tour of the region and the inclusion of its rulers in the Alqabnamah were both part of a process of locating the Gulf within Britain’s Indian empire. They are incidences of the Gulf’s incorporation into a system of ‘indirect rule’ that was born after the Great Rebellion of 1857 and was based upon more ‘traditional’ and ‘ancient’ articulations of authority. They placed each ‘princely state’ of the Persian Gulf within the colonial hierarchy, and helped to establish and normalise a regional order that reflected the political changes that occurred.

Many of the documents and photographs mentioned here, including copies and extracts from the Alqabnamah, are being digitised as part of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership and will be available online through the Qatar Digital Library.

Primary Sources
British Library: India Office Select Materials, Dane Collection: ‘Photographs of Lord Curzon’s tour in the Persian Gulf, November, 1903’, India Office Records and Private Papers Photo 49/1
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘File 13/166 Forms of addresses while corresponding with native chiefs in the Gulf’, IOR/R/15/1/237
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘List Showing the Names, Titles and Modes of Address of the More Important Sovereigns, Ruling Princes, Chiefs, Nobles etc., Having Relations with the Indian Governmen, Alqabnamah’, IOR/R/15/1/734
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Official directory of the Delhi Coronation Durbar: 3 copies’, Mss Eur F112/466

Further Reading
David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, (London, 2001)
Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India, (Princeton, 1996)
Encyclodædia Iranica, ‘ALQĀB VA ʿANĀWĪN: titles and forms of address, employed in Iran from pre-Islamic times
Thomas Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj (The New Cambridge History of India), (Cambridge, 1995)
Kristopher Radford, ‘Curzon’s Cruise: The Pomp and Circumstances of Indian Indirect Rule of the Persian Gulf’, The International History Review, Vol. 35, Iss. 4, (Jul 2013)
John M. Willis, ‘Making Yemen Indian: Rewriting the Boundaries of Imperial Arabia’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 41 (2009), pp. 23-38


John Hayhurst, Project Officer – Gulf History Specialist, BL/QF Partnership


26 December 2014

Artistic visions of the Delhi Zenana

Three interesting portraits on ivory of Mughal ladies of the imperial zenana were acquired by the Visual Arts section in 2012, now numbered Add.Or.5719-5721.  All three were mounted in one frame with pasted down inscriptions below relating to the subject and the artist, while attached to the back of the frame were three envelopes which once contained the miniatures and which were written further particulars.  The paintings were sold in Delhi in these envelopes in 1900 by Sultan Ahmad Khan, who styles himself the son of one painter Muhammad Fazl Khan and grandson of another painter Muhammad ‘Azim, both of whom are named as artists in the inscriptions.  The purchaser must have put them into their present gilt frame and fortunately also preserved the various inscriptions and attestations.  All three are supposed to be portraits of some of the wives of the Mughal Emperor Akbar II (r. 1806-37).  For a more correct appreciation of who they might be, we rely on that invaluable on-line resource, The Royal Ark.  None of these ladies’ names unfortunately appears among the numerous wives of Akbar II, but that does not necessarily detract from the validity of the inscriptions of artistic interest. 

A lady meant to be Shaukat Begum, perhaps the great-granddaughter of Akbar II.  By Muhammad ‘Azim, Delhi, c. 1840-50.  Watercolour on ivory.  106 x 85 mm.  British Library, Add.Or.5719
A lady meant to be Shaukat Begum, perhaps the great-granddaughter of Akbar II.  By Muhammad ‘Azim, Delhi, c. 1840-50.  Watercolour on ivory.  106 x 85 mm.  British Library, Add.Or.5719  noc

The first portrait is a half-length of a Mughal lady facing the viewer holding a rose and draped in a red Kashmiri shawl, standing on a terrace with a column and balustrade behind overlooking the trees of a garden.  It is inscribed on the front: Portrait of Shaukat Begum of the harem of Akbar II.  Painted by Mohammed Aizim.  Original picture guaranteed by his grandson Sultan Ahmed Khan.  And on the back: Original picture by Mahommad Aizim artist who died about 1850.  Picture of Shaukat Begum of the harem of Akbar II. Sold and guaranteed by Sultan Ahmed Khan son of Mohommud Fuzul Khan & grandson of Mahomud Aizim Delhi 25 Jan 1900.  The details of the guarantor are also noted in Urdu.  The naturalistic viewpoint and the general setting of the portrait are of course derived from British portraits of the early 19th century which by this time had been seen in Delhi in considerable numbers.  What the Delhi artists contributed is their exquisite refinement of features and of details of clothing and jewellery.

There seems to be no Shaukat Begum listed among the wives of Akbar II.  However, Nawab Shaukat Sultan Begum Sahiba is listed as a daughter of Mirza Mahmud Shah, the second son of Mirza Babur (1796-1835), who was the seventh son of the Emperor Akbar II.  A very similar portrait on ivory but in an oval frame is in the V & A (IS.529-1950, Archer 1992, no. 259/7), where it is thought to be dated 1860-70, one of a set of portraits depicting Mughal ladies, all unfortunately without inscriptions.  For the artist, see below.

A lady meant to be Akhtar Mahal., one of the wives of Bahadur Shah Zafar.  By Muhammad Fazl, Delhi, c. 1850.  Watercolour on ivory.  Oval, 109 x 85 mm.  British Library, Add.Or.5720
A lady meant to be Akhtar Mahal., one of the wives of Bahadur Shah Zafar.  By Muhammad Fazl, Delhi, c. 1850.  Watercolour on ivory.  Oval, 109 x 85 mm.  British Library, Add.Or.5720  noc

The second of these images is an oval bust portrait of a lady holding a kitten.  Her loose hair is dressed in a rather European manner and she has no veil covering it.  It is inscribed on the front:  Portrait of Aktar Mahal Persian wife of Akbar.  Painted by Mahommed Faizul artist Delhi about 1825.  And on the back: Painted by Mahomed Fuzal portrait of Persian wife of Akbar [damage A]ktar Mahal.  Portrait is painted by Mohommed Faizal painter Delhi.  Zoolfkar Khan miniature painter Delhi [this last seems to be an attestation].  Nawab Akhtar Mahal Begum Sahiba is listed as the eighth wife of Akbar’s son and successor the Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1837-58), whom he married in 1847.  She was previously a concubine named Man Bai, which seems to be reflected here in her pose and attire.  Rather than the traditional format as seen in the other two portraits, the artist has been influenced by a more sentimental type of Victorian portrait.  Muhammad Fazl is not an artist about whose work anything is presently known.

A lady meant to be Sharafat al-Mahal, one of the wives of Bahadur Shah.  By Amir al-Din, c. 1850-60, after an original by Muhammad Fazl.  Watercolour on ivory.  87 x 68 mm.  British Library, Add.Or.5721
A lady meant to be Sharafat al-Mahal, one of the wives of Bahadur Shah.  By Amir al-Din, c. 1850-60, after an original by Muhammad Fazl.  Watercolour on ivory.  87 x 68 mm.  British Library, Add.Or.5721  noc

The third portrait is a half-length of a lady seated before a large cushion holding a necklace of pearls which she has taken from a jewel box.  Behind her are the standard curtain drape and the sky without an intervening balustrade.  It is inscribed in front:  Portrait of Asrafat Mahal wife of Akbar.  From original by Mahommed Faizul by his pupil Amiruddin.  And on the back: Picture of Ashrafat Mahal copy of original copied by Amiruddin pupil of Mahomed Fuzal son of Mahomud Aizim who died about 1850 [with the same guarantor’s details in English and in Urdu as Add.Or.5719 above].  A Nawab Sharafat al-Mahal Begum Sahiba [Moti Begum], a Sayyidani, is listed as the third wife of the Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar.  She was the mother of Mirza Mughal (1817-57), one of Bahadur Shah’s sons most active in the events of 1857 and who was one of the princes shot by Major Hodson on 22 September 1857.  Again the artist’s name is unknown.

Delhi artists in the first half of the 19th century were catering to a voyeuristic market and many imperial Mughal ladies from Nur Jahan onwards had iconographies set by these artists in this period.  Their features scarcely change from lady to lady – here Shaukat Begum and Sharafat Mahal look very alike with their pale oval faces, long dark hair and similar eyes, noses and mouths – and these features were also used for portraits meant to be of Mumtaz Mahal, Akbar II’s favourite wife and mother of his favourite son Mirza Jahangir, and were continued in portraits meant to be of Zinat Mahal, the favourite wife of the Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1837-58).  Earlier Mughal ladies were also given the same treatment – see Archer 1992 pp. 218-23 for the many examples in the V&A.  Those in the India Office Library’s collections are listed in Archer 1972 (pp. 204-08).  Their numbers have been added to since then and will be the subjects of future blogs.

Sultan Ahmad Khan’s inscription in 1900 tells us that he was the son of the artist Muhammad Fazl Khan, whose name is not otherwise known, and the grandson of Muhammad ‘Azim, about whom we know a lot more.  Emily Eden met this artist when travelling with her brother the Governor-General Lord Auckland to Lahore in 1838-39.  On her return in 1839 with her sketchbook full of portraits of the Sikhs she had met at Lahore, she records:  ‘I have had two Delhi miniature painters here translating two of my sketches into ivory, and I never saw anything so perfect as their copy of Runjeet Singh.  Azim, the best painter, is almost a genius;  except that he knows no perspective, so that he can only copy.  He is quite mad about some of my sketches, and as all miniatures of well-known characters sell well, he was determined to get hold of my book’ (Eden 1866, vol. 2, pp. 73-74).  The other painter is Jivan Ram, some of whose work in both oils on canvas and watercolour on ivory has surfaced in recent years and is the subject of a previous blog post and also of a forthcoming article by the present writer.

Miss Eden’s ‘Azim’ is possibly the same as the artist Shaikh ‘Azim, who produced a portrait on ivory of Kate Ford taken on the occasion of her marriage in 1845, and acquired in 2009.  It is inscribed on a backing sheet in English:  ‘Kate Ford. Taken by Sheikh Azim, Delhi, Nov. 13th 1845’; and in faint Persian in red:  kamtarin-i Shaykh ‘Azim musavvir sakin-i Dihli (‘the insignificant Shaykh ‘Azim the painter, resident of Delhi’).  The sitter is Catherine Margaret Ford, daughter of Major-General John Anthony Hodgson (1777-1848), Bengal Army 1800-48, and Surveyor-General of India.  Born in 1823, she was married in Delhi in 1845 to William Ford (1821-1905), Bengal Civil Service 1843-69.  She is seated dressed in a low cut dark blue gown with a Kashmir shawl draped around her.  Her hair is looped in front of her ears in the early Victorian fashion.  A vase of flowers stands on a table behind her.  All this is in the latest taste for female portraiture.

Mrs Catherine Ford, née Hodgson (b. 1823).  By Shaikh ‘Azim, Delhi. 1845.  Watercolour on ivory.  85 x 70mm.  British Library, Add.Or.5641.
Mrs Catherine Ford, née Hodgson (b. 1823).  By Shaikh ‘Azim, Delhi. 1845.  Watercolour on ivory.  85 x 70mm.  British Library, Add.Or.5641. noc

This portrait is in a very different style and although Delhi artists were able to change their style at will to suit their patron’s taste, it is possible that it is by a different artist.  There were several artists with similar names working in 19th century India and further inscriptions need to be discovered on other paintings to verify or disprove this identity.


J.P. Losty
Curator of Visual Arts, Emeritus  ccownwork


Further Reading:

Archer, M., Company Drawings in the India Office Library, HMSO, London, 1972

Archer, M., Company Paintings:  Indian Paintings of the British Period, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1992

Eden, Emily, Up the Country: Letters written to her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India, London, 1866

Losty, J.P., ‘Raja Jivan Ram:  a Professional Indian Portrait Painter of the Early Nineteenth Century’, in Electronic BLJ, forthcoming


23 December 2014

Christmas and New Year in the Persian Gulf: Protocol and Ceremony

In the British administered Persian Gulf, the festive period was a time of celebration for colonial officers and their families, yet it still required the imperial protocol and ceremony that helped to solidify hierarchies of power.

On Christmas and New Year's Day, as on the two major Islamic festivals and the monarch’s birthday, local rulers and notables paid personal calls to colonial officers, and the Residency or Agency building’s flagstaff was ceremonially dressed and decorated. Archival files dealing with general etiquette and procedures observed for the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha contain interesting details about how Christmas and New Year were observed in the Persian Gulf.

'Entrance to Bushire Residency' (Photo 355/1/34)

Christmas Greetings from the Persian Gulf
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Political Agent at Bahrain would receive personal visits from the ruling Al Khalifah sheikhs of Bahrain and local merchants on Christmas and New Year’s Day.

However, calls in person were not possible for the sheikhs of the Trucial Coast (modern-day United Arab Emirates) and Qatar with whom the Political Agent also corresponded, either personally or through a native agent. Therefore, letters and greetings cards were sent instead. Shown here are a few examples sent from Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah between 1924-1951.

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Two cards from Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/1942, f. 129v)

With a letter, dated 21 Shawwal 1356 [24 December 1937], offering belated thanks for the Political Agent’s Eid al-Fitr greetings, the Sheikh sent two cards. The first card offers thanks to the Political Agent for his Eid greetings [nashkurukum ‘alá tahni’atikum lanā bihādhā al-‘īd al-sa‘īd] while the second card wishes him a Happy Christmas [‘īd al-milād al-sa‘īd].

Another letter in Arabic, dated 11 Shawwal 1355 [25 December 1936] to the Political Agent contains the following: ‘On the occasion of Christmas [ḥulūl al-‘īd al-masīḥī] I offer you my heartfelt greetings praying to God to give you a long life full of prosperity’.

Letter from Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/1942, f. 58)

As well as sending his greetings to the Political Agent at Bahrain, Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr would also write to the Political Resident at Bushire, for example his letter of 5 Dhu al-Hijjah 1360 [29 December 1942] wishing him a merry Christmas and hoping that he should ‘enjoy good health and prosperity [kamāl al-ṣiḥḥah wa al-rafāh]’. The Political Resident responded with a letter dated 18 January 1943: ‘I thank you for your wishes for Christmas [‘īd milād sayyidinā al-masīḥ], and hope that you will enjoy good health and prosperity’.

It was also common for Political Agents to receive Christmas greetings from local merchants and notables as well as rulers. An example from Yusuf bin Ahmad Kanoo appears on headed stationary decorated with a star and crescent moon over a palm tree. The Political Agent responded with a quick line to thank him for his ‘kind note of greetings for Christmas and New Year’, and for a delivery of  ‘delicious fruit’ that was sent to mark the occasion.

Card from Yusuf bin Ahmad Kanoo to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/646, f. 26)

A further example is a letter, dated 24 December 1936, received from a prominent Qatari merchant, Salih bin Sulayman al-Man‘i: ‘On the occasion of Christmas [‘īd al-krismas], I write to offer you my heartiest congratulations and pray God to let you have many returns of the day in good health and full happiness’.

Letter from Salih bin Sulayman al-Man‘i to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/1942, f. 48)

Expats and Missionaries
Protestant missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church in America, known interchangeably as the American or Arabian Mission, were active in the Persian Gulf from the turn of the twentieth century. As well as their (not very successful) proselytizing to the indigenous population, they provided a religious framework for expats and the British colonial establishment residing in the region.

On 23 December 1936, Reverend Gerrit Van Peurseum, a missionary stationed at Bahrain, invited the Political Agent and his wife to a ‘Divine Service’ on Christmas Day at the American Mission. The Political Agent took part in the service by undertaking to read Biblical passages, which included Isaiah 9:2-8 and 11:1-10, and Luke 2:1-22.

Order of Service, Christmas 1936 (IOR/R/15/2/646, f. 128)

However, relations with the missionaries were not always straightforward. Dr Rev Louis P. Dame, another missionary stationed at Bahrain, wrote an annoyed letter to the Political Agent on Easter Sunday 1934 complaining that the Agency flags had been raised earlier that week for a ‘Moslem holiday’ (Eid al-Adha), but, as he wrote, ‘To-day is a Christian holiday, shouldn’t they be displayed also!’ The Political Agent wrote back with a one line response that ‘the flags of this Agency are displayed on the Christian holiday of Christmas.’

Letter from L. P. Dame to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/646, f. 40)

Indeed, the missionaries were viewed with some scorn since their practices and hymns were different from those to which some were accustomed. In his diaries, Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, the Adviser to the Government of Bahrain, describes the missionaries as ‘frigid’ and ‘tiresome’. In several entries on Christmas, he notes how they ‘annoyed everyone by singing some tiresome American hymns with no words or tune that anyone had ever heard before’ and how they provided ‘a very dull uninspiring service and unchristmassy hymns’.

The reality was that Belgrave, and most likely the British colonial establishment in the Persian Gulf, viewed the Mission’s Americaness with a degree of cultural snobbery. In addition, this was tinged with recurring suspicions that they were representing American geopolitical interests in the region, or, worse, they harboured secret loyalties to Germany due to their Germanic origins (see earlier post on American propaganda in post-war Bahrain). In another diary entry in 1926, Belgrave remarks: ‘[…] a long solo sung by a female with a dreadful voice and a German accent, and a sermon in broadest American which lasted half an hour’. We can only imagine what Belgrave would make of the prevalence today of ʻO Christmas Treeʼ based on the German song ʻO Tannenbaumʼ or the quintessentially ‘Christmassy’ and American ʻAll I Want for Christmas Is Youʼ by Mariah Carey.

Primary Sources
British Library, ‘File 27/2 I Etiquette’ IOR/R/15/2/646
British Library, ‘File G/7 I ʻId calls, letters and notices’ IOR/R/15/2/1942
British Library, ‘File G/7 II ʻId calls, letters and notices’ IOR/R/15/2/1943
University of Exeter, Special Collections, ‘Belgrave Diaries’, Papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, 1926-1957

Daniel A. Lowe, Arabic Language and Gulf History Specialist (@dan_a_lowe)

18 December 2014

The London Qazwini Goes Live

In a previous blog (Fashion in 14th century Mosul) we wrote about three leaves loaned to an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London from the British Library's copy (Or.14140) of the Arabic treatise ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt (عجائب المخلوقات وغرائب الموجودات), an encyclopaedic work on cosmology, generally referred to as Wonders of Creation, by Zakarīyā ibn Muḥammad al-Qazwīnī (c. 1203-83). This is the first work to deal with this subject in an exhaustive and systematic way in the Islamic world; it enjoyed great popularity and was translated into Persian and Turkish.

Fabulous giant bird illustrating the story of the how the man from Isfahan was rescued from a desert island and carried to safety by clinging to the bird's leg  (Or.14140, f. 39r)

I am delighted to announce that all 135 folios of Or.14140, containing 368 miniature paintings, have now been uploaded to the Qatar Digital Library, a project of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership to digitise the British Library’s Arabic scientific manuscripts (see Arabic scientific manuscripts go live in Qatar Digital Library).

ʻAmr ibn al-ʻĀs, conqueror of Egypt in AD 640-42, advises on how to restore the waters of the river Nile. The brick structure in the water is a Nilometer, a device for measuring the water flow in the flood season (Or.14140, f. 62v)

There are very few early Arabic copies of this text, and this manuscript is thought to have been produced in Mosul at the very beginning of the 14th century. According to the undated colophon, it was copied from a manuscript copied by the author himself. The British Library purchased it from a London dealer in 1983. Originally, when the manuscript was produced in the 14th century, it was a bound codex. When it came into the library the manuscript had lost its binding, and the leaves were in such a bad condition that each one required extensive conservation. Each leaf was painstakingly conserved, individually encased in plastic sheeting and framed in a card mount. It is now stored in eight boxes. It took a dedicated conservator almost four years to complete this project. Although it is now mounted in separate frames, its original codex format is preserved in the digital version which can be read from beginning to end in one sequence.

Once it was in a fit condition for study, Dr Stefano Carboni was able to conduct exhaustive research of the manuscript’s artistic contents. He identified the subject matter of each painting, and placed the manuscript within the art historical traditions of its age.  His descriptions are available in his thesis and are due to be published as a book in 2015 (see Further reading).

King Solomon sitting on his throne surrounded by Jinns with angels above (Or.14140, f. 100r)

This treasure of the British Library’s Arabic manuscript collection, also known as the London Qazwīnī, is best known for its miniature paintings. Covering a wide range of subjects, including such things as wildlife, plants, legendary beasts, mythical figures and daily life, the illustrations show influence from Byzantine painting traditions and display aspects of fourteenth-century costume and architecture. The manuscript is also a fascinating source for historians of Islamic art, and folios are often requested for exhibitions in the UK and abroad. Now you don’t need to wait for an exhibition to see this fantastic manuscript.


Further reading

Stefano Carboni, “The London Qazwini: An Early 14th Century Copy of the ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt,” Islamic Art: An Annual Dedicated to the Art and Culture of the Muslim World 3, 1988-89, pp. 15-31.
—, “The Wonders of Creation and the Singularities of Ilkhanid Painting: A Study of the London Qazwini British Library Ms. Or. 14140,” Ph.D. diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1992. Download free from British Library Electronic Theses Online Services (ETHoS).
—, The 'Wonders of Creation': a Study of the Ilkhanid 'London Qazwini', Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2015.


Colin F. Baker, Lead Curator, Middle Eastern Studies

16 December 2014

The British Library and Shandong University sign a Memorandum of Understanding

On Wednesday December the 3rd, a delegation from Shandong University visited the British Library. During a ceremony at the presence of the Director of Collections of the British Library, Caroline Brazier, and the President of Shandong University, Zhang Rong, a Memorandum of Understanding between the two institutions was signed.

Zhang Rong (left), President of Shandong University and Caroline Brazier (right), Director of Collections of the British Library, sign the Memorandum of Understanding

Shandong University (山东大学Shandong Da xue) is a public university in the province of Shandong, with one of the largest students’ populations (about 60,000) in China, of which about 1.800 are international students. Shandong University offers master and doctoral degree programs in all major academic disciplines covering the humanities, science, engeneering and medicine. It was officially founded in 1901 in the city of Jinan as the Imperial Shandong University (山东大学堂 Shandong Da xue tang) and nowadays it comprises 8 campuses located in three different cities (Jinan, Qingdao and Weihai). Its notable alumni and professors are many. Among them, we find the German Professor and Nobel Prize for Physics Peter Grünberg and the Chinese novelist Mo Yan, Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.

Zhang Rong (left), President of Shandong University, presents a gift from China

The British Library and Shandong University aim to cooperate in the future with cataloguing and the digitisation of especially important items held in the Chinese Collections at the British Library. These projects will form part of the Shandong University plan to publish selected titles and catalogues of rare books and manuscript collections of Chinese items in international libraries and institutions. They will be curated by the “Zihai” Editorial Centre of Shandong University in collaboration with the Asian and African Studies Department of the British Library. Prof. Zheng Jiewen and Prof. Liu Xinming, respectively Director and Deputy Director of the “Zihai” Editorial Centre, will work together with the curator of the Chinese section at the British Library in selecting the material for the project.

The delegation from Shandong University, together with the British Library representatives during the signature ceremony


Sara Chiesura, Asian and African Studies

12 December 2014

Early Chinese rhyme dictionary now on display at the British Museum

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China runs at the British Museum until 5 January 2015. The exhibition focuses on the years 1400-1450 when the Chinese empire reached a peak in its cultural and artistic production.  At the same time trade and exchange with other lands also flourished and the impact of Chinese culture was widely felt across Asia. 

By the time of the Ming Dynasty the interaction between China and Japan was already an ancient one.  For more than eight centuries official trade and diplomatic embassies had taken place between the two countries and many aspects of Japanese government, religion, philosophy, art and literature had been influenced by contacts with China.

Among the British Library items loaned to the British Museum’s Ming exhibition is Shūbun inryaku 聚分韻略, a rhyme dictionary to aid in the composition of Chinese poetry.  It was compiled by the celebrated monk-poet Shiren 師錬 (1278-1346), also known as Kokan 虎関, who resided at the Nanzenji 南禅寺 in Kyoto, the leading temple of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism.

The work has a preface by the compiler dated Kagen 4 [1306] and a postscript dated Tokuji 2 [1307].  The British Library’s copy belongs to an edition printed at the Reigen’an 霊源菴, part of the Tōfukuji 東福寺, a Zen temple in Kyoto, in Ōei 19 [1412].  This is the earliest dated edition of the work although copies survive of two undated but possibly earlier editions and a version of the work may have been published during the lifetime of the compiler (ie. pre-1346)[1].

End of preface of Shūbun inryaku , showing the date Kagen 4 嘉元丙午 [1306] and the name of the compiler Kokan Shiren 虎関師錬 (British Library Or.72.g.20 f. 6v-7r)

The use of Chinese characters or kanji 漢字 (literally ‘Han script’) was introduced to Japan in the fifth century and initially the Chinese language was the medium of written communication.  Later, systems were developed for representing the sounds and grammatical structures of the Japanese language:  man’yōgana, hiragana and katakana – all of which were based on Chinese characters.

Composition of Chinese poetry (kanshi 漢詩) was a popular pastime among the Japanese elite and the earliest anthology, the Kaifūsō 懐風藻 ‘Fond Recollections of Poetry’ was compiled in 751. It includes 120 poems by 64 different poets, many of them members of the Imperial Family or high-ranking courtiers.

The Shūbun inryaku is one of the earliest Japanese examples of insho (Chinese:yun shu 韻書, dictionaries of Chinese characters arranged according to rhyme and tone to assist in the composition of classical Chinese poetry.  Standard kanji dictionaries are organised according to a system of radicals reflecting the component parts of the individual character.  In Chinese rhyme dictionaries, the characters were first arranged by tone and then each of the four tones was divided into rhyme groups (Japanese: in, Chinese: yun ), traditionally named after the first character of the group.

The beginning of the Shūbun inryaku showing the first rhyme group headed by the character 東 (east).  The copious handwritten annotations in black and red show that this was a well-used reference work (British Library Or.72.g.20 f. 8v)

The compiler of the Shūbun inryaku, Shiren, entered holy order on Mt Hiei in 1287 at the age of 9.  In addition to Buddhism he also studied Chinese language and classics from the age of 17 and learned calligraphy from the famous Chinese monk Yishan Yining 一山 一寧 (1247-1317).  He rose through the Buddhist hierarchy to become abbot of the Tōfukuji and Nanzenji temples and in 1342 was accorded the eminent title of Kokushi 国師 ‘National Master’ by Emperor Go-Murakami, being subsequently known as Honkaku Kokushi 本覚国師.  In addition to an anthology of poetry called the Saihokushū 済北集, Shiren also wrote the Genkō Shakusho 元亨釈書, a 30-volume work completed in 1322 which is the oldest history of Buddhism in Japan, and Butsugo shinron 仏語心論, a treatise on the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.

The growing importance of Zen Buddhism in Japan during the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1333-1573) Eras led to a renewed interest in Chinese culture.  Many Zen monks composed poetry and prose in Chinese and these works have come to be known collectively as Gozan bungaku 五山文学 or ‘Literature of the Five Mountains’.

The term ‘Five Mountains’ refers to the principal Rinzai temples - five in Kyoto and five in Kamakura  -which were both protected and controlled by the shogunate.  The system underwent a number of revisions until 1386 when the designated temples were the Tenryūji 天龍寺, Shōkokuji 相国寺, Kenninji 建仁寺, Tōfukuji 東福寺 and Manjuji 萬壽寺 in Kyoto and the Kenchōji 建長寺, Engakuji 円覚寺, Jufukuji 壽福寺, Jōchiji 浄智寺 and Jōmyōji 浄妙寺 in Kamakura.  The Nanzenji occupied a pre-eminent position above all 10.

The Gozan temples were the focus of printing activity in Japan during the 14th and 15th centuries when many Chinese works were reprinted.  Collectively these books are referred to as Gozan-ban or ‘Five Mountain Editions’.  Over 400 different works have been identified, the majority relating to Zen and other Buddhist sects.  However, 100 are non-Buddhist including Confucian texts and literary works.  They have a distinctly Chinese style since they were often reprints of Song or Yuan Dynasty editions or, in the 14th century at least, because the woodblocks from which they were printed had been carved by Chinese blockcutters who had crossed to Japan.  The British Library has some 30 Gozan-ban in its Japanese collection.  One of these, an edition of the Rongo 論語 or ‘Analects of Confucius’ (British Library ORB.30/171), printed c.1390-1450 is also included in the British Museum’s Ming exhibition.

Title page of Rongo 論語 or ‘Analects of Confucius’, printed c.1390-1450, showing handwritten Japanese glosses and marginal notes as well as the seals of previous owners (British Library ORB.30/171)

ORB 30-196 Kunshin koji
Kunshin koji
君臣故事 ‘Moral stories for sovereigns and subjects’, a guide to Confucian behaviour and one of the few illustrated Gozan-ban. c.1370 (British Library ORB.30/196)

Most of the British Library’s Gozan works, including the Shūbun inryaku, Rongo and Kunshin koji illustrated above, were acquired by the British Museum Library in 1884-1885 as part of the collection of the diplomat and bibliophile Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929).

Ming: 50 years that changed China is open at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.

Select bibliography

Carpenter Bruce E., 'Priest-Poets of the Five Mountains in Medieval Japan', in Tezukayama Daigaku ronshū, no. 16, 1977, Nara, Japan, pp. 1-11.

Gardner, Kenneth B, Descriptive catalogue of Japanese books in the British Library printed before 1700. London and Tenri, 1993.

Kawase, Kazuma, Kojisho no kenkyū 古辞書の研究. Tokyo 1955, revised edition 2007

Todd, Hamish A., ‘The Satow Collection of Japanese Books in the British Library: its History and Significance’ in Daiei Toshokan shozō Chōsenbon oyobi Nihon kosho no bunkengakuteki gogakuteki kenkyū  大英圖書館所蔵朝鮮本及び日本古書の文獻學的・語學的研究.  Toyama University, 2007)

Ury, Marian, Poems of the Five Mountains: An Introduction to the Literature of the Zen Monasteries, Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, No 10, 1992.


Hamish Todd, Asian and African Studies

[1] For more details see: Kawase, K. Kojisho no kenkyū, p.479.


08 December 2014

William Beckford's albums on Hindu mythology

The English novelist and noted bibliophile William Beckford is highlighted in the British Library’s current exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination’. Exhibition curators (Greg Buzwell, Tanya Kirk and Tim Pye) feature Beckford’s Gothic novel Vathek as one of the earliest examples in this style. Beckford’s masterpiece expressed the ‘orientalist vision of hell’ and Beckford achieved this by combining ‘the fantastical, the perverse and the demonic to produce a remarkable Gothic novel’.

William Beckford by Sir Joshua Reynolds Oil on canvas, 1782. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 5340
William Beckford by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Oil on canvas, 1782. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 5340
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Visitors to the exhibition and readers of this blog may be interested to learn that Beckford (1760-1844) was an avid collector of prints, drawings, paintings and travel accounts relating to the Indian subcontinent and China. In fact, after Beckford’s first edition of Vathek was printed in 1786, he acquired an extensive collection of albums of Indian miniature paintings from the collection of the Swiss mercenary Antoine-Louis Henri Polier (1741-95), who was employed by the East India Company. Allegedly, the acquisition was arranged through the artist Vincent Brandoin, a friend to both Beckford and Polier, possibly around the time of Polier’s death. Lucian Harris, who researched the history of Beckford’s collection of Indian paintings, suggests that Beckford’s ‘albums of Indian miniatures probably constituted the largest body of such material in private ownership in Britain in the early nineteenth century’ and by 1819 ‘he owned about twenty-three or twenty-four albums of Indian material’.

Reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in England after inheriting a fortune at the age of ten, he amassed one of the greatest collections of art and books. Due to financial difficulties relating to his plantations in Jamaica, a major part of his library at Fonthill Abbey was disposed at auction between the years 1807-1823.  At the sale of 6 May 1817, the highest price paid for a single lot was obtained for the two volumes of miniatures ‘representing the system of Indian Mythology’, from the personal collection of Colonel A. L. H. de Polier, £267.15s0d’ (Gemmett 1972, p. 52). These albums changed hands several times, purchased by Beckford’s solicitor Mr. White in 1817 and later sold by a Mr. G. Baumgartner in 1894 to the British Museum (see Losty 1982, p. 150).

An opening from Volume 1 on Hindu mythology showing Varaha the boar avatar, bearing on the tip of his tusk the Earth depicted as a cone containing mountains and sky with the goddess within it, the demon Hiranyaksa lying supine below, his arms cut off. Lucknow, c. 1780. British Library, Or.4769, f. 11
An opening from Volume 1 on Hindu mythology showing Varaha the boar avatar, bearing on the tip of his tusk the Earth depicted as a cone containing mountains and sky with the goddess within it, the demon Hiranyaksa lying supine below, his arms cut off. Lucknow, c. 1780. British Library, Or.4769, f. 11  noc

Antoine Polier is one of the most significant patrons of late Mughal painting in the 18th century in northern India. In 1773, Polier was assigned by the Company to the court of Navab Shuja al-Daula of Avadh serving as the chief engineer and architect. In the town of Faizabad, Polier established a small studio of artists who worked at his residence. According to Polier’s letters at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the studio was led by the painter Mihr Chand and supported by two other junior artists, whose names have yet to be corroborated with artistic evidence. Mihr Chand and his colleagues were commissioned to paint portraits of the provincial governor Navab Shuja al-Daula, portraits of Mughal emperors, topographical views of Agra, Kashmir and Delhi, as well as copies of seventheenth century Mughal and Deccani paintings acquired by the French mercenary and Faizabad resident Jean-Baptiste Gentil. Between 1773-86, the studio assembled at least fifteen albums of paintings featuring early Mughal and Deccani paintings purchased by Polier and the new commissions. An example of Mihr Chand's style is featured below.
Portrait of Asaf al-Daula, Navab of Avadh by Mihr Chand, 1773-75. British Library, Add.Or.4390
Portrait of Asaf al-Daula, Navab of Avadh by Mihr Chand, 1773-75. British Library, Add.Or.4390 noc

Antoine Polier also commissioned the two volumes on Hindu mythology (mentioned above) between 1773-86. Each volume (British Library Or.4769 and Or.4770) contains 32 folios with miniature paintings surrounded by decorative floral borders. The floral borders are consistent with other albums prepared for Polier. Inside the first volume (Or.4769), there are 9 pages of text by Polier describing each of the paintings and entitled ‘Explanation of the drawings of Hindu Mythology’. These two volumes have significant art historical value as they cast light on Polier’s personal interest in the subject and his role as patron. None of the other albums that were commissioned by Polier include such detailed notes on the individual works. Nor is such information included in Polier's correspondence.

Polier's notes inside the first volume on Hindu mythology, British Library, Or.4679.
Polier's notes inside the first volume on Hindu mythology, British Library, Or.4679.  noc

In viewing the paintings in the Hindu mythology volumes, it is immediately evident that these are incongruous to the style of paintings by Mihr Chand included in Polier’s albums. While the subject matter and delineation of the figures are traditional, the background landscapes are more simplistic; pale washes of colour are used to represent the sky or ground. Additionally, a formulaic approach is taken to casting shadows; thin dark shadows are drawn projecting behind figures. The overall compositional format is suggestive of European intervention. Although none of the paintings are signed and are by at least two different artists, they are stylistically similar to other paintings produced in Lucknow in the 1780s (see works commissioned by Richard Johnson).

Karma, standing four armed, haloed, bearing conch, discus, lotus and club, purple in colour with yellow dhoti and gold ornaments.  Lucknow, c. 1780. British Library, Or.4769, f.2.
Karma, standing four armed, haloed, bearing conch, discus, lotus and club, purple in colour with yellow dhoti and gold ornaments.  Lucknow, c. 1780. British Library, Or.4769, f.2.  noc

It is rather curious that William Beckford opted to sell these two volumes on Hindu mythology in 1817 while keeping many of the others. Although the contents of Beckford's library at Fonthill Abbey were up for sale over the years, the finest albums he acquired through Polier's collection were never sold. After his death in 1844, the albums were transferred to his daughter Susan, the Duchess of Hamilton, and kept at Hamilton Palace Library (Scotland). In 1882, the twelfth Duke of Hamilton privately sold twenty albums of Indian miniatures (along with other contents of the library) to the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin. Today, the Polier-Beckford-Hamilton albums can be viewed in the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin. The two Polier-Beckford albums on Hindu mythology are kept in the British Library.

On a side note, William Beckford's Gothic revival country house Fontill Abbey which was demolished in 1846, is now featured in a video game - which allows gamers to explore the country house through an underwater journey. Perhaps this may be of interest to readers and Beckford fans.

Further reading:

Alam, M. and Alavi, S. (ed). A European Experience of the Mughal Orient: The I'jaz-i Arsalani (Persian Letters, 1773-1779) of Antoine-Louis-Henri Polier, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New Delhi, 2001.

Gemmett, R.J. (ed). Sale Catalogues of Emminent Persons, Volume 3, Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London, 1972.

Gemmett, R. J. (ed). The Consummate Collector: William Beckford's Letters to His Bookseller, Michael Russell Publishing, Norwich, 2000.

Harris, L. 'Archibald Swinton: A New Source of Albums of Indian Miniatures in William Beckford's Collection, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 143, No. 1179, (June 2001), pp. 360-366.

Harris, L.  British collecting of Indian art and artifacts in the 18th and early 19th centuries (University of Sussex, 2002)

Losty, J.P., The Art of the Book in India, British Library, London, 1982.

Roy, M., "Origins of the late Mughal painting tradition in Awadh" in Markel and Gude, India's Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, Prestel, 2010.

Roy, M., 'Some Unexpected Sources for the Paintings by the Artist Mihr Chand, son of Ganga Ram', South Asian Studies, Vol. 26: 1 (2010) pp. 21 — 29.


Malini Roy
Visual Arts Curator 


05 December 2014

George Percy Churchill’s Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables

In 1906, the Government of India Foreign Department published (and republished in 1910) an index of prominent Qajar statesmen, compiled by George Percy Churchill, Oriental Secretary at the British Legation in Tehran. According to Cyrus Ghani, this collection of notes and genealogical tables, entitled Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables, is the only document of its kind and serves an ‘indispensible source to ascertain who the British held in high regard and who they considered to be pro-Russian or independent’ (Ghani, pp. 78-79). Indeed, the importance of the work is attested to by numerous references in monographs and in entries in, for example, the invaluable reference tool Encyclopædia Iranica.

Left: 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)
Right: 'Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables', 1910 (British Library, IOR/L/PS/20/227)

Copies of the Biographical Notices are available in the records of the India Office and Foreign Office held at the British Library and National Archives respectively. Only three further copies appear to be held in libraries at Bamberg, Cambridge and Canberra, though a 1990 translation into Persian is more widely available (Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ, 1990).

Churchill’s Draft Text
However, a little-known manuscript draft of the Biographical Notices exists in the archive of the Bushire Residency, a part of the India Office Records (‘Biographical Notes’, IOR/R/15/1/746), and is now digitised and available online.

Manuscript note in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 3v)

In a signed note (f. 3v), Churchill remarks that he compiled his work from a variety of sources, in particular from Lieutenant-Colonel H. Picot’s, Biographical Notices of Members of the Royal Family, Notables, Merchants and Clergy (1897), which he endeavoured to update and amplify. The draft has the appearance and feel of a scrap-book, with cut-outs of entries from Picot’s work and other printed reports, juxtaposed with up-to-date information written in Churchill’s own hand, as well as seal impressions, signatures, photographs and other elements pasted in.

'Tree of the Royal Kajar House' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, ff. 28v-29r)

In addition to the biographical entries, the draft includes an impressive hand-written genealogical ‘Tree of the Royal Kajar House’ (ff. 28v-29r); a list of words used in the composition of Persian titles (ff. 4r-5v); a list of Persian ministers, provincial governors and others receiving Nowruz greetings in 1904 (ff. 33v-34r); and a list of the principal of Persian diplomatic and consular representatives (ff. 30v-31r). Appearing on folios 32v-33r, quite incidentally with notes written on the back, is a seating plan for a dinner of the Omar Kháyyám Club on 23 November 1905.

Seating plan for the Omar Khayyam Club Dinner, 23 November 1905 (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, ff 32v-33r)

An Abundance of Seals
What stands out most in Churchill’s draft is the abundance of seal impressions – over 300 of them –  that appear to have been cut out from Persian correspondence and envelopes. These appear next to the biographical entry of the seal owner, and, in some cases, a single entry is accompanied by multiple seal impressions reflecting the use of different seal matrices at different dates and containing personal names or official and honorific titles. In addition, there are three clusters of seal impressions that are not associated with specific biographical entries, and these include seals of Qajar rulers, such as Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) and Muhammad Shah (r. 1834-1848), as well as other Qajar statesmen.

Draft entry and print entry for Arfa' ud-Daulah (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 66v; IOR/L/PS/20/227, p. 10)

Entry for  Mirza ʻAli Asghar Khan Amin us-Sultan in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 55r)

Seals Set within Illuminated Frames
Two clusters of seal impressions on folios 2v and 29v contain three examples of seals set in ornately decorated illuminated frames that have been cut out from firmans of Farmanfarma Husayn ‘Ali Mirza, Governor-General of Fars, dated 1229 AH (1813/14 CE). This art form developed in Iran during the later Safavid and Qajar eras, spreading throughout the Islamic world. Annabel Gallop and Venetia Porter note such illuminated framed seals with ‘their own architectural constructs’ or else ‘nestling within a bed of petals, sitting at the heart of a golden flame or sending forth rainbow-hued rays’ (pp. 170-172).

007_1000 009_1000
Seal impressions on folios 2v (left) and 29v (right) from 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)

Embossed Seals and Printed Stationery
The other cluster of cut-outs found on folio 3r are in fact not ink seal impressions, but impressions of embossed (blind-stamped) seals and decorative printed letterheads of specially-printed stationery. These are variously dated and include those of Amin al-Dawlah and Mas‘ud Mirza Zill al-Sultan, and contain decorative symbols such as laurel reefs, crowns, and the lion and sun national emblem (shir u khurshid).

A collection of embossed and printed seals in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 3r)

Embossed seals made with metal presses came into use in Europe in the latter part of the eighteenth century mainly among companies and institutions, but also by individuals. In the nineteenth century, this practice had become widespread in Ottoman bureaucracy. This collection, taken together with seal presses in museum collections in Iran (Jiddī, p. 75), demonstrates that the practice had become well-established in Qajar administration. Moreover, the embossed seals juxtaposed with traditional ink seal impressions in this volume point towards the ‘changing relations of production and advancing commercialization’ as a result of colonialism and globalisation that affected Islamic diplomatics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Messick, pp. 234-235). Indeed, it has been noted that such embossed seals appeared at around the same time as other developments, such as the widening use of printed letterheads and rubber stamps (Gallop and Porter, p. 122).

Photographic Images
A number of the biographical entries are also accompanied by photographs of the subject in official dress. These are found on folio 48 for Mirza ‘Ali Asghar Khan Amin al-Sultan; two cut out photographs of Hakim al-Mulk Mirza Mahmud Khan and one of Hakim al-Mulk Ibrahim Khan on folio 114v; and one of Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1896-1907) on folio 163v.

Photographs found in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)

The Importance of Churchill’s Work
In one sense, Churchill’s work represents an important work in the context of British colonial knowledge of the political landscape of Qajar Iran at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, as has been noted by Gallop and Porter (p. 154), the presence of an abundance of seal impressions reflects the keen eye of an enthusiastic collector. However, we should not necessarily view collecting and colonial intelligence gathering as mutually exclusive fields. As Carol A. Breckenridge has noted: ‘The world of collecting was considerably expanded in the post-enlightenment era. With the emergence of the nineteenth-century nation-state and its imperializing and disciplinary bureaucracies, new levels of precision and organization were reached. The new order called for such agencies as archives, libraries, surveys, revenue bureaucracies, folklore and ethnographic agencies, censuses and museums. Thus, the collection of objects needs to be understood within the larger context of surveillance, recording, classifying and evaluating’ (p. 195-96).

Indeed, seal impressions were collectable not only as objects of Orientalist curiosity and research, but also as the preeminent symbol of personal and political authority, power and hierarchy, as well as ownership. Although Churchill’s collection of seal impressions was absent from the final printed version of the Biographical Notices, the draft text provides researchers with a valuable source for the study of Qajar seals and sealing practices at the turn of the twentieth century, at a time in which the Islamic seal was being replaced by other instruments of textual and visual authority, such as embossed seal and photographs.


Primary Sources
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Biographical Notes’, IOR/R/15/1/746
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Biographical notices of Persian statesmen and notables’, IOR/L/PS/20/227
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Persia: biographical notices of members of the royal family, notables, merchants and clergy’, Mss Eur F112/400
The National Archives (TNA), ‘PERSIA: Biographical Notices. Persian Statesmen and Notables’, FO 881/8777X and FO 881/9748X

Further Reading
Carol A. Breckenridge, ‘The Aesthetics and Politics of Colonial Collecting: India at the World Fairs’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 31, No. 2 (April, 1989), pp. 195-216
Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, New York, 1996-
Cyrus Ghani, Iran and the West: A Critical Bibliography (London: Kegan Paul International, 1987)
Annabel Teh Gallop and Venetia Porter, Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World (Kuala Lumpur, 2012)
Muḥammad Javād Jiddī (trans. M. T Faramarzi), Muhrhā-yi salṭanatī dar majmūʻah-i Mūzih-i Kākh-i Gulistān [Royal seals in Golestan Palace Museum collection] (Tihrān, 1390 [2011])
Brinkley Messick, Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkley, 1993)
George Percy Churchill (trans. Ghulām Ḥusayn Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ), Farhang-i rijāl-i Qājār (Tihrān, 1369 [1990])


Daniel A. Lowe, Arabic Language and Gulf History Specialist (@dan_a_lowe)