Asian and African studies blog

08 August 2015

Cats in Persian manuscripts

Since August 8th is International Cat Day, it seemed a good excuse to publish some of the more picturesque felines from the manuscripts we have been working with during the last three years of our project ‘Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts’.

Double-page opening to the tales of the two jackals Kalilah and Dimnah, by Naṣr Allāh ibn Muḥammad, dated AH 707/1307-8. Here the king is enthroned on the left, surrounded by courtiers with two lions beneath and, on the right, hunting cheetahs, a horse and a hawk (Or.13506, ff 2v-3r)

The most frequently illustrated is probably the lion who features alternately as the noble king of the animals and a ferocious wild creature. In the context of animal tales, which abound in Persian literature, the lion is often accompanied by the leopard.  The snow leopard, especially, was prized for its coat which, like the famous tiger skin of the warrior Rustam, appears in paintings, worn by heroes and kings. Cheetahs were used as hunting animals, sometimes shown accompanying their masters on horseback. Tigers are less common in Persian manuscripts - except as clothing - , and domestic cats hardly feature at all.

The earliest examples (illustrated immediately above and below) are from Naṣr Allāh's translation of the Arabic version, Kalīlah wa Dimnah, of the tales of Bidpai. This manuscript is dated AH 707/1307-8 and originates from Southern Iran.

Hare and lion_Or13506_54 Or_13506_f041r
Left: The hare tricks the lion into attacking his own reflection in a well (Or.13506, f. 52v)
Right: The lion with its courtiers, leopard, wolf, gazelle and Dimnah the jackal (Or.13506, f. 41r)

Add.18579, a Mughal copy of Bidpai's tales, the Anvār-i Suḥaylī  by Ḥusayn Vāʻiz̤ Kāshifī, shows much more life-like felines. This copy was made especially for the emperor Jahangir between 1604 and 1611.

The lioness in conference with the leopard, the cheetah and other animals. Artist: Ustād Ḥusayn (Add.18579, f 146r)

A common theme at the beginning of manuscripts of Iranian origin is for King Solomon to be portrayed holding court, usually with Bilqis (Sheba) on a facing page, surrounded by animals, angels, divs (demons), and birds.

Solomon enthroned. Opening to a 16th century copy from Shiraz of Firdawsīʼs epic history of Iran the Shāhnāmah (IO Islamic 3540, f. 1v)

Here Guyumars, the first king of Iran and clad in the skin of a snow leopard, holds court in an idyllic age when all wild creatures were tamed (IO Islamic 3540, f. 17r)

An equally popular theme involving animal audiences is that of the lovelorn Majnun who, separated form his beloved Layla, wasted away in the desert with wild animals as his only friends.

Majnun in the wilderness, from Shah Tahmasp's imperial copy of the Khamsah by Niz̤āmī. Mid-16th century, painted by Mīrak (Or.2265, f. 166r)

In this copy of the same work, commissioned for the Mughal emperor Akbar and dated AH 1004/1595-6, Majnun affectionally strokes a tiger - you can almost see him purring. Beside him lies  a lion while pairs of cheetahs and leopards relax alongside animals who would normally be their prey. Artist: Sānvalah (Or.12208, f. 150v)

Another frequently illustrated 'lion' episode in Niz̤āmī's Khamsah occurs in the romance of Khusraw and Shirin.

In this scene the Sasanian king Khusraw Parviz and Shirin were feasting together when suddenly a lion approached the royal pavilion. Khusraw hit the lion with his fist and killed it instantly. From a Safavid manuscript dated AH 1076-7/1665-7 (Add.6613, f. 48v)

F031v_Khusraw kills a lion
This slightly unorthodox portrayal of the same scene - in which the lion looks more like a tame pet- comes from a recent acquisition originating from North or Western India from the Sultanate (i.e. pre-Mughal) period, dating from the end of the 15th century  (Or.16919, f. 31v)

Many other Persian manuscripts besides those already mentioned depict members of the cat family in incidental scenes of courtly life. An interesting example is this painting from the Sufi allegory Manṭiq al-ṭayr ‘Speech of the Birds’ by the poet Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār which shows a hunting cheetah carried on horseback.

The tale of two foxes from Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār's Manṭiq al-ṭayr. Late 15th or early 16th century from Herat (Add.7735, f. 84r)

Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s famous poem Manṭiq al-ṭayr (‘Speech of the Birds’), a Sufi allegory of the quest for God - See more at:

And finally an  example of the domestic cat:

Inside front cover from a Qajar binding depicting a woman with her attendant and pet cat. Late 18th century (Add. 7760)

Most of these manuscripts have been fully digitised. Follow the hyperlinks to explore them further.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


I enjoyed reading it. What about Ubaid's Mosh wa Gorbeh?

Editor: I'm glad you enjoyed it! We do actually have an illustrated copy (IO Islamic 4581) of a poem 'Mush u gurbah' by a Qajar poet 'Sha'iq', composed in 1828. It merits a blog of its own, so watch this space!

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