Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from March 2021

29 March 2021

Tomayto, Tomahto: Identifying Azerbaijani Manuscripts in the British Library Collections

Manuscript page with half-page painting in full colour of a man and woman in traditional Azerbaijani dress seated on the grass amidst various lively flora and fauna, with two columns of Arabic-script text above and below, surrounded by a thin red border with a thick gilt border around the entire page
An illustration of a dream sequence featuring two individuals seated in a garden from a 16th-century recension of the story of Layla and Majnun in the Azerbaijani language. (Füzulî, Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Azerbaijan, 16th century CE. Or 405, f 97r)
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As a Canadian in London, one thing that makes me roll my eyes is being asked to say the word “about”. Everyone expects me to exhibit what’s known as Canadian raising, where those of us from Southern Ontario say the word as if it were spelled “aboot”. People have a good chuckle, and I grumpily insist we don’t do that in Toronto, and then we go on our merry ways. It’s not really all that important, but it does make me think, sometimes, about the assumption that English words are meant to be read one and one way only. Perhaps “about” should sound like “aboot”; and “caught” and “cot” should be distinct from one another; and “think” and “fink” really ought to be homonyms. What about going the other way, from writing into speech? If I write “about”, how do you know I didn’t mean for it to be pronounced “aboot”? For London to be heard as Lundon? Or that “breed!” is actually an instruction for you to breathe? In truth, our assumptions about these choices say more about our own backgrounds and prejudices than we care to reveal. The same can be said about many other linguistic communities, both historic and current, around the globe. In the Turkic collections, a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon appears in our holdings of Azerbaijani manuscripts.

Page of printed text primarily in Arabic script with some Cyrillic script, arranged in three columns beneath a large black-ink masthead featuring Arabic calligraphy
The first page of the newspaper Nicat (Salvation), published in Azerbaijani in Arabic script during the Tsarist period. (Nicat, 1:1 (Baku: Nicat Qiraatxanǝsi, 20 November 1910). ORB.30/342)
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It wouldn’t be one of my blogs if it didn’t start off with some sort of caveat. So, let’s get it out of the way. I use the term “ Azerbaijani” broadly in line with Euro-Atlantic linguistics: to denote a Turkic language of the Oghuz sub-branch that is closely related to Istanbul Turkish , and that is spoken in the Caucasus (especially the Republic of Azerbaijan) and in northwestern Iran. In English, we also have recourse to the shortcut Azeri, which usually means the Turkic language Azerbaijani. But Azeri might also mean Old Azeri or Azari, a now-dormant Western Iranian language from the same region that might be linked genetically to Tati or Talysh. In the Republic of Azerbaijan, the official name of the language is Azərbaycan dili (“Azerbaijan language"), but it can also be called Azərbaycanca (making use of the -ca/cə language suffix), or, less frequently, Azəricə. In this region, Azerbaijani was largely written in the Arabic script until the early 20th century, when the Soviet authorities first imposed the Latin-based Uniform alphabet in the late 1920s, and then a modified Cyrillic alphabet in the 1930s. In 1991, the year in which complete independence was achieved, the Republic of Azerbaijan officially adopted the Latin script for the language.


The world-renown Iranian singer Googoosh performing the Azerbaijani folk song Ayrılıq in Azerbaijani. 
(©VestiKavkaza, uploaded to YouTube). 

South of the border, in Iran, the term “Azeri” usually refers to the old Iranian language and not the Turkic one. Here, the preferred terminology is Torki (ترکی, in Persian) or Türkçǝ (تۆرکجه, in Azerbaijani), and the dominant script is a modified Arabic one. While the varieties spoken in the Caucasus and Iran are distinct dialects, they do form a single linguistic grouping, relying on many common grammatical and lexical features, and share a common linguistic history. Speakers of the language in Iran vastly outnumber those in the Caucasus (perhaps 13 million to just over 9 million in the Republic, according to the CIA World Factbook as quoted on Wikipedia). Azerbaijani is not an official language in Iran, but can be found fairly frequently online and in printed media. Turkic-speakers have long been integrated into broader Iranian society, and many notable personalities in Iranian history come from Turkic backgrounds: Shah Ismail I; Ahmad Kasravi; and yes, even the world-renowned singer, Queen of contemporary Persian pop, Googoosh.

Stylized image of soldier in Soviet infantry uniform in red, gray, black and white, which detail in his face only, an colour blocking for rest of the image. Bold black text in Latin script is found on the left and top margins of the page
The cover of a periodical produced in Baku, Azerbaijan in the 1930s featuring the Latin alphabet imposed by Soviet authorities between 1927 and the late 1930s. (InqilaB vǝ Mǝdǝnijjǝt, 1-2 (Baku: AzǝriNǝshr, 1934). ITA.1986.c.18(9))
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As always, there are considerable political implications to the choice of terminology. My intention here is to mirror common Anglophone usage of the terminology, not to promote a particular movement or point of view. That said, the question arises: what makes something an “Azerbaijani” manuscript? The British Library holds some 7 manuscripts that can be described as containing texts in Azerbaijani. All of these are in an Arabic orthography that mirrors Ottoman Turkish quite closely, leaving Arabic words in their original spellings and marking only some vowels in non-Arabic words. This might make it seem as though telling Ottoman and Azerbaijani apart would be impossible, but there are a few clues. One of the easiest is the use of a syllable final -x (like the ch in loch) where Ottoman Turkish would have a -k. Çok “many” or “very” in Turkish becomes çox in Azerbaijani, and bakmak “to look” in Turkish is baxmaq in Azerbaijani, for example. Turkish employs the suffix -iyor for the present continuous, while Azerbaijani uses -ir. And, after the 16th century, Turkish uses only the suffix -miş for the perfective, while Azerbaijani has both -miş and -ip (in the 2nd and 3rd persons). There are, of course, other tells in terms of phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon, but these are usually the easiest. And they help clue us in, broadly speaking, to how to pronounce those undifferentiated spellings of Arabic words I mentioned up above.

Zoomed image of painting of bare-chested man seating among a collection of different animals in a river-side setting, in full colour. Above and below the image is Arabic-script text in black ink arranged into two columns with a thin red border inside a thicker gilt border
An illustration of Mǝcnun amongst animals from an illustrated 16th-century manuscript in the Azerbaijani language. (Füzulî, Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Azerbaijani, 16th century CE. Or 405, f 73r)
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So what, exactly, do these manuscripts comprise? Usually literary works, but there are also a few historical items as well. Undoubtedly, the most awe-inspiring item is Or 405, Füzulî’s Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, copied in 1075 AH (1664 CE). This is Füzulî’s own recension of the classical tale, and one that he admits to having translated from a Persian source on the behest of his friends in Istanbul. This bit of information is important, as it shows how Azerbaijani functioned as a literary medium independently of Ottoman (or Istanbul) Turkish, permitting the translation and adaptation of texts from other languages in its own right. The copy held by the Library is a spectacular specimen of the tale, as it is accompanied by vivid and bright illustrations that relate to the stories found within the text. There are some lovely examples of Leyli in a graveyard and Mecnun among animals, all of which combine a simplicity of line and feature with motion and bright colours. And Or 405 also contains more than a few examples of the linguistic features that help us distinguish dialects, whether the presence of çox and yox (written چوخ and یوخ ), or the preponderance of -ip forms throughout.

Page tinted salmon with gold flecks, featuring an ornately decorative sun motife in gold, red, blue, black and pink, with geometric and floral illumination on its interior, and thin, ornate rays in black emanating from the sunSalmon-tinted page with gold flecks featuring two columns of Arabic-script text inside a text box, with ornate geometrical illumination in a semi-circle pattern atop a thick band, at the top of the page. Illumination features gold, blue, red, black and green inks
The şemse or sun motif (left) and opening text with unvan (right) of the Divan-i Xǝtai, exemplifying the lush illumination found throughout the volume. (Xǝtai, Divan-i Xǝtai, Iran or Azerbaijan, 16th century CE. Or 3380, ff 2r-v)
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Or 405 is the only illustrated manuscript in Azerbaijani held at the British Library, but it is by no means the only beautifully constructed volume in the language. Or 3380, the Divan-i Xǝtai, is a 16th century copy of the collected poetry of Shah Ismail I, whose poetic pseudonym or mahlas was Xǝtai/Khaṭā’ī (خطائى). The work’s imperial connections are made apparent by the beautiful gold artistry and calligraphy employed throughout the volume. Shah Ismail was of mixed heritage and grew up speaking both Azerbaijani and Persian. Supported by various Turkic communities, he rose to power by defeating the Aq Qoyunlu confederation, and established the Safavid Empire, becoming Shah of Iran in 1501 CE. Ismail I is famous for many different reasons, including the imposition of Twelver Shi’ism as the official religion of his Empire, but he was also a renown poet in his own right. This confluence of political and literary prestige is undoubtedly the reason why his mahlas is written in gold throughout the work. Its entire construction is impressive; an example of luxury bookmaking in Safavid Iran. But so too is the poetry, which addresses both temporal and sacred love.

Page of Arabic-script text in black ink arranged in two columns
A folio of text from another recension of the story of Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun in Azerbaijani, not composed by Füzulî. (Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Iran?, 18th century CE. Add MS 7936)
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The rest of the Azerbaijani items in the British Library’s holdings are not nearly as spectacular as Or 405 and Or 3380, but they do merit attention. The fourth text of Add MS 7936 is another version of Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun copied in the 18th century CE. This piece was written by an unnamed poet (not Füzulî), who appears to have made use of some of the Persian versions of the story to craft their own work in the 16th century CE. While the calligraphy and lack of illumination makes this a rather plain and run-of-the-mill text, the copyist’s alternation between one and two columns, prose and poetry, does provide an additional element of interest for those curious about the Azerbaijani literary set-up of the period.

Page of text in Arabic script in black ink with occasional words written in red ink
The densely packed script of the Tarix-i Sam or Samname, with the addition (?) of punctuation and Persian text in red. (Tarix-i Sam, Iran?, 1265 AH [1848-49 CE]. Or 11130, f 236v)
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The other three texts in the Arabic script are all translations, glosses or paraphrases of earlier Persian works, once again highlighting just how closely linked the history of Azerbaijani literature is to that of its Iranic neighbours. By and large, these are historical texts revolving around the lives and experiences of notable people, real or imagined. Or 11130, Tarix-i Sam İbn-i Nǝriman, also known as the Samname, for example, is an Azerbaijani rendition of a legendary history prepared for a meddah, or traditional storyteller, based on an earlier Persian version. The Samname derives from the Shāh-nāmah (and so includes stories of Rustam) and can be found in its Persian original in other British Library manuscripts, including Or 2926. The opening of the work is in Persian, but then continues into an Azerbaijani dialect in an orthography that departs slightly from what we would normally expect based on the other texts found in the British Library collections. I have banged on about this before (particularly when looking at Chagatai manuscripts), but it remains to be seen whether these idiosyncrasies reflect dialectal differences, or just the personal choices of Muhǝmmǝd Rıza İbn-i Mǝrhum Molla Abdurrıza, the manuscript’s copyist.

Or 5772, in contrast to the Samname, deals with the life and miracles of Şeyh Safi, a 13th century CE Kurdish Sufi mystic and poet from Ardabil, a city that has long had a heavy concentration of Turkic speakers. This 16th century manuscript also provides a fairly thorough account of the rules and precepts of the Safavid Order of Sufis. This particular text raises a different set of questions, ones not related to language. Translations in many of the Ottoman and Azerbaijani works can create issues of citation and attribution. Some translators make clear reference to their source text, while others don’t. Perhaps text compilers might have sampled heavily from a number of different works by the same author, or maybe they constructed paraphrases or compilations of various works, all with the same title or dealing with the same issue, but by different authors. Whatever the case, these items, among which Or 5772 should be classed, cannot always be matched to an original source text. The item in hand, for example, might be related to the Persian work Maqalāt va Maqāmāt by Şeyh Safi, but we will only know for certain when greater research is conducted on it.

Page of text in Arabic script written in black ink arranged in two columnsPage of Arabic-script text in black in with geometric illumination band in centre, flanked by two triangles, under text in red ink
Initial text (left) and the colophon (right) from the Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, along with the start of a Persian-language text at the end of the colophon. (Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, Iran?, 1199 AH [1784-85 CE]. Or 9839, f 2r and f 95v)
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We have a bit more luck with Or 9839, Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, which, as you might have guessed, is an Azerbaijani gloss of the 12th-13th century Persian work Bakhtiyār-nāmah. This tale, which follows a familiar pattern of a captive telling stories in order to delay their eventual execution, can be found in a variety of versions. Further investigation is needed on Or 9839, therefore, to determine the source text of the translation, and the Azerbaijani gloss’ connection to other recensions. This process is eased by the fact that the text of the Baxtiyarnamǝ also contains occasional interlinear glosses in Persian, which might be the original source text. These follow a pattern seen in other bilingual or multilingual works, in which one language (Azerbaijani) is written using nesih, while another (Persian) can be found in nestalik. The beginning and end of the volume feature much more wear and tear than the body of the text, and a number of smudged ownership seals can be found on f 98r. Combined with the fact that someone appears to have added ᶜUbayd-i Zākānī’s mesnevi Qiṣṣa-i Sangtarāsh on ff 95v-98r (maybe the copyist of the manuscript, Molla Muhamməd Rəsul vələd-i Muhamməd, himself?), it’s clear that this manuscript created in 1199 AH (1784-85 CE) was well-used, if not also well-loved, by its owners and readers.

Manuscripts are fascinating sources for the study of literature, history, language, religion and politics. They are also documents that link past generations with current and future ones, and help to preserve cultural heritage. The Azerbaijani-language manuscript collection at the British Library is small in number, but it does present an opportunity to fulfil both aspects of manuscripts’ potential usefulness. By identifying and describing them sensitively, these treasures can be made discoverable to scholars from around the world. They also become more accessible to Azerbaijani-speakers not engaged in scholarly research, and more amenable to be reintegrated into the evolution and articulation of their identities, wherever they might find themselves. Thanks to these processes, we might finally figure out just how the gilded words they contain were really meant to sound.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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For more information on the characteristics of various Turkic languages and dialects, see:

The Turkic Languages, ed. Lars Johanson and Éva Á. Csató (London: Routledge, 1998). (YC.1999.b.2111)

22 March 2021

A beautiful Qur’an manuscript from Kampar, Riau, digitised through EAP

A recent Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) project in Indonesia – EAP1020, ‘Preserving and digitising the endangered manuscript in Kampar, Riau Province, Indonesia’, led by Fikru Mafar and colleagues – has digitised one of the finest illuminated Qur’an manuscripts documented in Sumatra. The manuscript, EAP1020/5/1, which is written on Dutch watermarked paper and probably dates from the 19th century, is owned by Mr Muamar in the village of Air Tiris in Kampar. He inherited it from his parents, descendants of Datuk Panglima Khatib, a local hero of Kampar whose tomb is a popular attraction. Today Kampar is a small district (kecamatan) within the regency (kabupaten) of the same name in the province of Riau, but historically the Kampar is known as one of the great rivers of the kingdom of Siak, running from the Minangkabau highlands down through the central eastern seaboard of Sumatra to the Straits of Melaka. Siak was founded in the 17th century by Raja Kecil, a prince of Johor-Malay and Minangkabau heritage, and Kampar features prominently in the Malay chronicles of the period.

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

The Qur’an manuscript 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, this manuscript has lost its initial folio, which would have contained the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, set within a symmetrically matching illuminated frame. The rectangular border surrounding the text box contains a stylised representation of the shahadah, the profession of faith, la ilaha illa Allah, 'There is no god but God', repeated on all four sides in gold on a red ground. Calligraphic panels in gold on a green ground within ogival arches on the three outer sides give (above) the title of the surah from Mecca, (below) the number of verses, and (left) tanzil min rabb al-‘alamin (Q.56:80), ‘a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds’.

Although very damaged, detached fragments of one of the final leaves of this manuscript survive, and show that a similar double illuminated frame also occupied the final two pages, enclosing the last eight surahs of the Qur’an. The decorated frames comprised a rectangular calligraphic border on the three outer sides with the stylised shahada reserved in white against a blue ground, continuing with a floral scroll on the inner vertical side; on the three outer sides are ogival arches containing floriate motifs in gold on a red ground.

Digitally reconstructed image of the illuminated frame around the right-hand page at the end of a Qur’an manuscript in Kampar, 19th century
Digitally reconstructed image of the illuminated frame around the right-hand page at the end of a Qur’an manuscript in Kampar, 19th century. EAP1020/5/1, pp. 540, 542

The text of this finely-written Qur’an is set within ruled frames of red-red-black ink, and is laid out according to an Ottoman model popularised on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, with each juz’ or thirtieth part of the Qur’anic text filling exactly 20 pages, while each page of 15 lines ends with a complete verse. Thus in this Qur’an each new juz’ starts at the top of a right-hand page, with the first few words highlighted in red ink, and is marked with three beautiful illuminated medallions in the margin. The top roundel is inscribed al-juz’ in gold against a red or green ground, while the two lower roundels bear elegant foliate or floral patterns. On other pages, similar roundels mark the fractions of each juz’, respectively inscribed nisf (half), rub‘ (quarter) or thumn (eighth), while others bear the letter ‘ayn and indicate places where the reciter should bow (ruku’). However, apart from those for nisf, most of the other medallions are unfinished and uncoloured, and have been left in black ink outline.

Qur’an, showing on the right-hand page the start of juz’ 5 (Q.3:93), with three illuminated marginal roundels; on the left-hand page an uncoloured roundel with ‘ayn-EAP1020-5-1.78-79
Qur’an, showing on the right-hand page the start of juz’ 5 (Q.3:93), with three illuminated marginal roundels; on the left-hand page an uncoloured roundel with ‘ayn. EAP1020/5/1, pp. 78-79

Marginal medallions indicating the parts of a juz’ or thirtieth portion of the Qu’ran-EAP1020-5-1.58-juz Marginal medallions indicating the parts of a juz’ or thirtieth portion of the Qu’ran-EAP1020-5-1.67-det Marginal medallions indicating the parts of a juz’ or thirtieth portion of the Qu’ran-EAP1020-5-1.72-rub Marginal medallions indicating the parts of a juz’ or thirtieth portion of the Qu’ran-EAP1020-5-1.74-thumn
Marginal medallions indicating the parts of a juz’ or thirtieth portion of the Qu’ran; from left, al-juz’, nisf (half),rub‘ (quarter) and thumn (eighth). EAP1020/5/1, p. 78

Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.38-juz-a Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.38-juz-b Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.58-juz-a Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.58-juz-b

Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.78-juz-a Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.78-juz-b Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.98-juz-a Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.98-juz-b
Eight illuminated marginal roundels with delicate floral motifs, each pair marking the start of a new juz', exactly 20 pages apart. Left to right, from top: juz' 3 (p. 38); juz' 4 (p. 58), juz' 5 (p. 78), juz' 6 (p. 98).  EAP1020/5/1

As is apparent on the pages shown above, this Qur’an was written with black irongall ink, which unfortunately in time always slowly corrodes the paper it is written on, especially in hot and humid conditions. The original pages of this Qur’an are badly affected, and in fact the manuscript reveals evidence of careful efforts to replace damaged pages with new leaves written in a more stable black ink, perhaps already in the 19th century. This conservation project appears to have been carried out initially using a commendably ‘minimally interventionist’ approach of only replacing the most damaged pages. Thus, after verse 91 of Surat al-Baqarah on p. 10, newly-copied replacement pages were inserted on pp. 11-22, before reverting to the original manuscript on p. 23. However, the image below of pp. 22-23 shows some stubs of paper in the gutter of the book indicating further missing folios. These two detached folios, of replacement pages, are in fact located at the end of the manuscript, and have been digitised as pp. 535-6 and 537-8. On closer examination, it can be seen that the text on p. 23 – which ends with Q.2:181 – has been crossed out, while the replacement page p. 538 contains only two verses, Q. 2:180-81, widely spaced out over three lines. Thus we can surmise that the replacement pages were carefully planned for Surat al-Baqarah verses 92-181, reverting to the original manuscript, on p. 24, with Q.2:182. However, because the new scribe did not follow the same finely-judged page layout system, he did not manage to fit the text onto exactly the same number of pages as in the original, and the final lines needed to be spaced out on the last page of the replacement section in order to connect with verse 182 in the original version.

On the left, pages of the original portion of the Qur’an, written in irongall ink, and now badly corroded; on the right, replacement pages-EAP1020-5-1.22-23
On the left, pages of the original portion of the Qur’an, written in irongall ink, and now badly corroded; on the right, replacement pages. EAP1020/5/1, pp. 22-23

The two sides of one of the replacement pages detached from between pp. 22-23, showing how the lines have had to be spaced out on the final page in order to match up with the text remaining in the original portion of the manuscript-EAP1020-5-1.538-ed  The two sides of one of the replacement pages detached from between pp. 22-23, showing how the lines have had to be spaced out on the final page in order to match up with the text remaining in the original portion of the manuscript-EAP1020-5-1.537-ed
The two sides of one of the replacement pages detached from between pp. 22-23, showing how the lines have had to be spaced out on the final page in order to match up with the text remaining in the original portion of the manuscript. EAP1020/5/1, pp. 537-538

This newer portion of the manuscript includes an elaborate double decorated frame in black ink marking the start of Surat al-Isra’ (Q.17), which was probably designed to be coloured but has been left unfinished. As noted above, these newly-copied pages do not follow the same clearly-defined page layout system of the original portion, and thus a new juz’ may commence in the middle of a page, and is indicated simply by writing the first words in red ink. Even in this new portion of the manuscript there have been losses of text, and the Qur’an ends abruptly in the middle of the 26th juz’, in Surat al-Fath (Q.48:20) on p. 534.

EAP1020-5-1.288-289
Uncoloured decorated frames in the middle of the Qur’an, marking the start of Surat al-Isra’. EAP1020/5/2, pp. 288-289

A number of factors such as the use of the Ottoman page layout model and the location of decorated double frames in the middle of the Qur’an at the beginning of Surat al-Isra’ - and even the use of irongall ink - suggest the influence of Qur’an manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula. Terengganu Qur’ans were the finest in Southeast Asia and were exported all over the Malay archipelago, and their influence was magnified from the 1860s onwards with the publication in Singapore of lithographed Terengganu-style Qur’ans, which were also widely distributed throughout the Malay world. However, the particular artistic influences noted in the Kampar Qur’an point to the other nexus of Qur’anic arts along the East Coast, towards the north in Patani, in southern Thailand. The Patani style of manuscript illumination is on the one hand less technically accomplished than that of Terengganu, but artistically more original and imaginative. This is particularly evident in decorative calligraphic panels in Patani Qur’ans, where great play is made of the massed parallel ranks of the upright lines of letters in the shahadah, often with fanciful looped flourishes to the tips, and the similarities are highlighted below.

Detail of the side arch in the Kampar Qur'an, inscribed tanzil min rabb al-‘alamin (Q.56:80), ‘a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds’, in gold on green, and below, the shahadah in gold on red
Detail of the side arch in the Kampar Qur'an, inscribed tanzil min rabb al-‘alamin (Q.56:80), ‘a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds’, in gold on green, and below, the shahadah in gold on red. EAP1020/5/1, p. 1

Detail of calligraphic panel containing the shahadah in reserved white on a blue ground, in the illuminated frames at the end of the Kampar Qur’an
Detail of calligraphic panel containing the shahadah in reserved white on a blue ground, in the illuminated frames at the end of the Kampar Qur’an. EAP1020/5/1, p. 540

PNM MDetail of a calligraphic panel with the shahadah in gold on a red ground, in the intial illuminated frames of a Qur’an from Patani, 19th century. National Library of Malaysia, PNM MSS 328
Detail of a calligraphic panel with the shahadah in gold on a red ground, in the intial illuminated frames of a Qur’an from Patani, 19th century. National Library of Malaysia, PNM MSS 328

However, the replacement pages are made in a completely different idiom, incorporating elements from Minangkabau practice. This is particularly evident in the double frames in the middle, which even though unfinished are very comparable in structure to examples in Qur'an manuscripts from west Sumatra, with their localised articulations of the Sulawesi diaspora geometric style, with its characteristic triangular arches and pyramidal clusters of circles. This melange of Malay and Minangkabau influences is in fact a defining feature of the mixed or kacukan society of east Sumatra, 'with constant shifting and interaction between groups' (Barnard 2003: 2), and the different traditions reflected in the creation and preservation of this beautiful Kampar Qur'an can thus be seen as symbolising the fluid and diverse cultural ecology of the historic Siak empire.

Further reading:
Timothy P.Barnard, Multiple centres of authority: society and environment in Siak and eastern Sumatra, 1674-1827. Leiden: KITLV, 2003
A.T. Gallop, The spirit of Langkasuka? Illuminated manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula. Indonesia and the Malay World, July 2005, 33 (96): 113-182.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia 

15 March 2021

An early Tai-Chinese glossary in the Hua yi yi yu

The 14th century brought about remarkable changes in the northern part of Southeast Asia. Chinese records indicate that the reign of the first Ming emperor saw the encouragement of tributary relations with emerging states of Tai-speaking peoples with the aim of obtaining their symbolic acknowledgement of China’s cosmological centrality. By the end of the 14th century, the Ming court had established pacification offices in Yunnan and in Tai polities sharing a border with Yunnan, through which the emperor claimed to govern those states. Activities relating to the pacification offices, including the exchange of messages, reception of envoys, and military actions, were recorded in the “Veritable Records of the Ming” (Ming Shilu) from 1368 to 1644 CE. According to the Ming Shilu, the pacification offices involving Tai peoples were Che Li (Xishuangbanna), Babai-Dadian (Lan Na / Northern Thailand), Laowo (Laos), and Luchuan / Pingmian (both referring to Tai Mao / Shan polities).

Front cover of one rebound volume (160 x 252 mm) and title page of the Hua yi yi yu
Front cover of one rebound volume (160 x 252 mm) and title page of the Hua yi yi yu, British Library, 15344.d.10  noc

To make communication with the pacification offices possible, the Hua yi yi yu 華夷譯語, a multilingual dictionary, was compiled from 1407 onwards by the Bureau of Translators, which was the first office to occupy itself with the translation of documents from tributary polities. In 1511 the Babai Bureau officially started as the ninth office studying foreign languages, following offices for Mongol, Jurchen, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Persian, Dehong Dai, Uighur, and Burmese. The Xian Luo (Thai or Siamese) office started its work in 1579.

Six volumes of the Hua yi yi yu were acquired by the British Museum on 7 August 1885 from Joseph Edkins, a British protestant missionary and sinologist who had spent over fifty years in China. Each volume was originally bound in a traditional Chinese stitched binding which was replaced by a European hardcover binding for conservational reasons at the British Museum. With the other collections in the British Museum Library, the work was transferred to the British Library in 1973 (British Library 15344.d.10).

Volume six contains a Tai-Chinese glossary on 109 folios compiled by the Babai Bureau, which was initially catalogued as a “Pa Po-Chinese vocabulary” at the British Museum. The largest part of the original text was produced using woodblock printing technique on thin cream-coloured paper. This extremely thin paper adheres to a stronger sheet of white “recycled” paper, which has on its back a legal code from the Qing dynasty (1644 -1912). These sheets of paper are interleaved with additional sheets of “recycled” paper with text in the Manchu language. This method was used mainly when Chinese books were repaired during the 18th and 19th centuries to reinforce very thin printing paper.

Example of a page in the glossary with Tai words at the top, followed by the Chinese translation (second line) and Tai pronunciation in Chinese characters (third line)
Example of a page in the glossary with Tai words at the top, followed by the Chinese translation (second line) and Tai pronunciation in Chinese characters (third line). British Library, 15344.d.10  noc

The Chinese text is vertical and reads from right to the left. To read the Tai text, one must turn the book 90 degrees to the left as shown above so that the text is horizontal and reads from left to right. Yu wei along the vertical folds of the sheets give the titles of sections in the book.

“Pa Po” is an alternative romanisation mode for Babai referring to the language spoken in Babai-Dadian. The term was coined by the sinologists Friedrich Hirth and F. W. K. Müller towards the end of the 19th century. It is mostly associated with the former kingdom of Lan Na, which is thought to have been geographically relatively equal with northern Thailand. However, according to the Ming Shilu Babai-Dadian was a larger polity. The Chinese records give several hints that Babai-Dadian extended east to Che Li (Jinghong in Xishuangbanna), south to Bo Le (possibly Phrae, bordering Sukhothai), west to Da Gu-la (possibly a pre-Ahom/Shan polity), and north to Meng-gen (Kengtung).

Contents of the glossary

On the first folio, only Hua yi yi yu is mentioned as the title for the whole work, literally meaning “Glossary of the pronunciation of foreign words”. The book title is followed by the title of the first section, and the first two entries in this chapter. There are usually four entries per page.

The book contains sixteen sections, which reflect the Chinese world view during the Ming dynasty. All volumes of the Hua yi yi yu in different languages follow this same structure, although some volumes contain a different number of entries, or sometimes the order of the sections is different, which may be due to binding and rebinding. The sections cover the following subjects:

1) Astronomy & astrology (fols. 1-8)
2) Geography (fols. 9-17)
3) Seasons and time (fols. 18-23)
4) World of plants (fols. 24-31)
5) World of animals (fols. 32-39)
6) World of men (fols. 40-47)
7) Human body (fols. 48-54)
8) Dwellings (fols. 55-57)
9) Implements & tools (fols. 58-63)
10) Garments (fols. 64-68)
11) Valuables (fols. 69-72)
12) Food (fols. 73-76)
13) Words of orientation (fols. 77-79)
14) Sounds and colours (fols. 80-82)
15) Numbers and trade (fols. 83-84)
16) Affairs of man (verbs and adjectives) (fols. 85-96)
17) Phrases of general use (97-109)


Example of Fak Kham script on a rubbing from an undated stone inscription found fifty km north of Kengtung, rubbing made in c. 2000
Example of Fak Kham script on a rubbing from an undated stone inscription found fifty km north of Kengtung, rubbing made in ca. 2000. British Library, Or. 16784  noc

The Tai script in the glossary has similarities with examples of the Fak Kham script (above) dating from between 1411-1827. The earliest known evidence of Fak Kham script is from a stone inscription at the Lamphun Museum (Ho Phiphitthaphan Lamphun) dated 1411 (Kannika Wimonkasem 1983). Fak Kham script was not only used in northern Thailand, but also in the areas of Kengtung and Laos. Similarities can also be found with the alphabet used in stone inscriptions that were discovered c. 50 km north of Kengtung and in Northern Laos in the areas of Luang Prabang and Muang Sing.

The glossary contains 800 words in the native language, with translations into Chinese language, and Chinese characters for pronunciation. The Chinese translation provides a word that would be understood by the Chinese user of the glossary, and therefore the original meaning of the corresponding word in the native language sometimes gets lost in translation. Misinterpretations occur with regard to titles and names. For example, the name “Maenam Khong” (Tai for Mekong River) was translated with the Chinese character for “lake”. Words of Pali and Sanskrit origin appear occasionally, as for example thevada (from Pali: devata). Paraphrases are very rare, which means that for each Chinese term there is mostly a plain Tai word without further explanation.

Particularly interesting is section two of the book which deals with geography. On folios 15/16 the following place names are mentioned: Pekking (Tai for Beijing, also used for China), Muang Chae (for Yunnan), Muang Phiang Siang Mai (Chiang Mai, also for Lan Na), Muang Swa (Luang Prabang, also for Laos), Muang Lue, Muang Khoen, the latter two referring to polities of the Tai Lue and Tai Khoen ethnic groups.

Folio 15 showing the names Pekking (Beijing), Muang Chae (Che Li), Muang Phiang Siang Mai (Chiang Mai), Muang Swa (Luang Prabang)
Folio 15 showing the names Pekking (Beijing), Muang Chae (for Yunnan), Muang Phiang Siang Mai (Chiang Mai), Muang Swa (Luang Prabang). British Library, 15344.d.10  noc

Because the pronunciation of each word in the native language is represented by Chinese characters in the glossary, it is possible to get an idea of how the spoken language would have sounded. However, it is not always possible to render the correct pronunciation of foreign words with Chinese characters. For example, the pronunciation of the letter r (ຣ) is usually given as l in the glossary, but there is no certainty as to whether the letter was indeed pronounced as l, or indeed as r, or left silent.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian  ccownwork

This post is a revised summary of an article “The 'Pa-Po'-Chinese glossary in the Hua Yi Yi Yu” published in the SEALG Newsletter, vol. 42 (December 2010), pp. 9-21.  I would like to thank my colleague Sara Chiesura, Lead Curator for Chinese, for her invaluable advice with this blog post.

Further reading

Douglas, Robert Kennaway, Supplementary catalogue of Chinese books and manuscripts in the British Museum. London: The British Museum, 1903
Franke, Wolfgang, Annotated sources of Ming history: including Southern Ming and works on neighbouring lands, 1368-1661. Revised and enlarged by Foon Ming Liew-Herres. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 2011
Hirth, Friedrich, 'The Chinese Oriental College'. Journal of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. XXII, London: 1887
Liew-Herres, Foon Ming and Volker Grabowsky (with Aroonrut Wichienkeeo), Lan Na in Chinese historiography: Sino-Tai relations as reflected in the Yuan and Ming sources (13th to 17th centuries). Bangkok: 2008
Müller, F.W.K., Vocabularien der Pa-Yi- und Pah-Poh-Sprachen, aus dem "hua-i-yi-yü"T’oung Pao Vol. 3 No. 1, 1892, pp. 1-38
Ross, Denison, New Light on the History of the Chinese Oriental College, and a 16th Century Vocabulary of the Luchuan Language. T’oung Pao Second Series, Vol. 9, No. 5 (1908), pp. 689-695
Wade, Geoffrey (ed.), Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu, an open access resource.  (accessed on 12.1.2011)
Wild, Norman, Materials for the Study of the Ssŭ i Kuan 四 夷 譯 館 (Bureau of Translators). Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies , University of London Vol. 11, No. 3 (1945), pp. 617-640
Wimonkasem, Kannika, ‘Akson Fak Kham thi phop nai silacharuk phak nua. Bangkok: 1983

08 March 2021

A Malay Qur’an manuscript from Patani

The finest Qur'an manuscripts in Southeast Asia were produced on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula. Especially sumptuous were the Qur'ans of Terengganu, notable for their technical finesse and lavish use of gold, which were prized all over the archipelago. Further north, the Malay kingdom of Patani - now part of Thailand - has long been recognized for its artistry, manifest in a range of art forms including weaponry, grave stones and primarily wood carving, as beautifully captured in the exhibition book Spirit of Wood (Farish and Khoo 2003).  The best Qur'an manuscripts from Patani are notable for their perfect proportions and and betray a more individualistic aesthetic than the more rigorous and disciplined Terengganu Qur'ans.

An exquisite small Qur’an manuscript in the British Library, Or 15227, which has been fully digitised, is at first glance characteristically Patani in style. Illuminated frames enclose the opening chapters of the Qur’an, with the Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the first verses of the Surat al-Baqarah on the left.  Although positioned separately on two facing pages, the two frames radiate an intimate and empathetic connection, like a bashful bridal couple on a dais.

Illuminated frames at the start of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 3v-4r
Illuminated frames at the start of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 3v-4r  noc

As can be seen from the diagram below outlining the key features of the 'Patani' style of manuscript illumination, this Qur'an manuscript contains numerous typically Patani elements.  These include ‘interlocking wave’ arches on the vertical sides composed of two intersecting arc surmounted by an ogival dome, and a small border of little chilli peppers (cili padi) or seeds.  These can be seen in the pair of decorated frames located at the end of the Qur’an, containing the final two chapters, with Surat al-Falaq on the right and Surat al-Nas on the left.

Characteristic features from the Patani style of manuscript illumination, reproduced from Gallop 2005: 119, Figure 2.
Characteristic features from the Patani style of manuscript illumination, reproduced from Gallop 2005: 119, Figure 2.

Illuminated frames at the end of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 303v-304r
Illuminated frames at the end of the Qur’an, with 'interlocking wave' arches. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 303v-304r  noc

Interlocking wave arch, with chilli pepper border below of blue and red seeds. British Library, Or 15227, f. 303v (detail)
Detail of the 'interlocking wave' arch, with chilli pepper border below of alternating blue and red seeds. British Library, Or 15227, f. 303v (detail)  noc

Another interlocking wave arch. British Library, Or 15227, f. 222v (detail)
Another interlocking wave arch. British Library, Or 15227, f. 222v (detail)  noc

The Qur’an is written in fine small controlled hand, and like all East Coast Qur’an manuscripts, is copied in accordance with a model of page layout perfected by the Ottomans in the 17th century.  In this ayat ber-kenar system, each juz’ or thirtieth part of the Qur’an occupies exactly 10 folios of paper or 20 pages, with each page ending with a complete verse. Thus each new juz’ always starts on the top line of a right-hand page in the manuscript, and is marked with a beautiful marginal ornament composed of a concentric circle inscribed al-juz’, extended upwards and downwards with floral motifs. Inscribed in tiny red letters alongside each juz’ marker is the word maqra’, indicating the start of a selection of text for recitation.

Marginal ornament marking the start of juz’ 14, which is also the beginning of Surat al-Hjir. Or 15227, f. 133v
Marginal ornament marking the start of juz’ 14, which is also the beginning of Surat al-Hjir. British Library, Or 15227, f. 133v  noc

Although the juz’ markers are all composed of the same basic components of a concentric circle with floral ornaments, each is coloured and finished individually with a different selection of pigments. The ending of the finial at top and bottom with a little droplet is a typically Patani feature - in Terengganu Qur'ans, such finials would end in a fine tapering line.

Marginal ornaments marking the start of juz’ 5  Marginal ornaments marking the start of juz’ 6  Or 15227 f.63v-j.7  Marginal ornaments marking the start of juz’ 7
Marginal ornaments marking the start of juz’ 5, 6, 7 and 8, each located exactly 10 folios apart. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 43v, 53v, 63v and 73v.  noc

In Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts, chapter or sura headings are rarely ornamented with colour, save in the finest examples from the East Coast, such as this manuscript. On the final two pages towards the end of the Qur'an, a beautiful selection of coloured headings can be seen in the cluster of short suras in the final juz 'amma.  The title of the sura, the location of its revelation in Mecca or Medinah, and the number of verses (aya) it contains, is inscribed in reserved white against a ground of five alternating red and either green or blue panels.

Colourful chapter headings, with the titles of the surah reserved in white against a selection of coloured bands of alternating red with their green or blue. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 302v-303r
Colourful chapter headings, with the titles of the sura reserved in white against a selection of coloured panels. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 302v-303r  noc

While the architectural structure of the illuminated frames and decorative motifs are undoubtedly Patani, there are a number of unusual features which make this a uniquely hybrid manuscript.  The uniformly repeating floral motifs, and the deep strong palette, recall Terengganu production, compared to the generally more organic vegetal motifs and pastel hues found in Patani manuscripts.

Even more unusual though is the location of two further pairs of illuminated frames. The positioning of decorated frames in the centre of a Qur’an manuscript from Southeast Asia is one of the most dependable indicators of regional origin: in Acehnese Qur’ans decorated frames in the middle always mark the start of the 16th juz’, at Surat al-Kahf v. 75; in Java and the Sulawesi diaspora it is always the beginning of Surat al-Kahf which is ornamented; while on the East Coast of the peninsula, if illuminated frames are located in the middle they invariably adorn the beginning of the 17th chapter, Surat al-Isra’. Yet in this small manuscript, uniquely, double decorated frames mark the start of both Surat al-Kahf and Surat Yasin. Indeed, despite the special significance of Surat Yasin in the hearts and lives of all Muslims, this is the only Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscript known in which the beginning of Surat Yasin is marked with illuminated frames.

Illuminated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf. British Library, Or 145227, ff. 149v-150r
Illuminated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf. British Library, Or 145227, ff. 149v-150r  noc

Illuminated frames marking the start of Surat Yasin. Or.15227, ff.222v-223r
Illuminated frames marking the start of Surat Yasin. Or.15227, ff. 222v-223r  noc

A further very unusual feature of this manuscript is the presence of two further pairs of monochrome decorated frames, drawn in black ink and with empty text boxes, found at the end of the manuscript. These are positioned immediately before and soon after the illuminated frame around the final two chapters of the Qur’an, and are significantly different from all the other polychrome frames in structure. In the first set, the inner frame around the text box is similar in composition to the final pair of illuminated fromes on the following folio, but it has an additional outer border hugging the edge of the paper.  These outer borders are a standard feature of larger quarto-sized Terengganu Qur’ans, but are rarely found in smaller octavo-sized Patani Qur’ans such as this. The second pair  sets the arched frames around the empty text boxes within red and black-lined arcs, highlighting the geometric proportions of the genre.

Black ink frames with an outer border in the Terengganu style, at the end of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 15227, ff.303v-304r
Black ink frames with an outer border in the Terengganu style, at the end of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 15227, ff.303v-304r  noc

Black ink frames at the end of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 15227, 306v-307r
Black ink frames at the end of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 15227, 306v-307r  noc

The manuscript is written on Italian paper with watermarks of moon face in shield and the countermark ‘AG’ [Andrea Galvani], indicating that the paper was made at the Galvani papermill in Pordenone near Venice in the second half of the 19th century.  The binding is entirely typical of Patani Qur’ans, with a plain black cloth cover, with intricately stitched endbands. The black paper doublures can be seen as confirmation of the production of this Qur’an manuscript in a Thai cultural zone such as Patani, as black paper is commonly used for Thai manuscripts.

Black cloth spine of binding with intricately stitched endbands of red and green thread. British Library, Or 15227, spine.
Black cloth spine of binding with intricately stitched endbands of red and green thread. British Library, Or 15227, spine.  noc

Southeast Asian Qur'an manuscripts almost never contain colophons giving the name of the scribe, or of the patron for whom the Qur'an was copied.  All we have in this manuscript is one tantalizing line written in Malay, set within another monochrome frame on a single page, which simply tells us the manuscript was written in the month of Shawal.

One line written in Malay - tatkala surat Qur'an ini pada bulan Shawal, 'this Qur'an was written in the month of Shawal' - in a monochrome outline of a frame. British Library, Or 15227, f. 1v
One line written in Malay - tatkala surat Qur'an ini pada bulan Syawal, 'this Qur'an was written in the month of Shawal' - in a monochrome outline of a frame. British Library, Or 15227, f. 1v  noc

However, there are hints that the same artist might also have been responsible for illuminating a beautiful copy of the Mawlid sharaf al-anam, songs in praise of the prophet, held in the National Library of Malaysia as MSS 819.  It is difficult to compare the calligraphy as the Kitab Mawlid is written in two registers, with the Arabic text in bold with a tiny interlinear Malay translation.  But two features of the decorated frames - the four-petalled floral motifs in yellow with dark blue centres, and the striking borders of yellow plaited rope on a red ground with white and blue floral flourishes - are so similar as to suggest the hand of the same artist.

The same four-petalled yellow flower with dark blue centre can be seen in British Library Or 15227, f. 149v   PNM MSS 819  DHPa-RH-crop
The same four-petalled yellow flower with dark blue centre can be seen in both British Library Or 15227, f. 149v (left) and National Library of Malaysia MSS 819 (right).

Yellow plaited rope on a red ground with white and dark blue floral motif-Or.15227  ff.222v-border

Yellow plaited rope on a red ground with white and dark blue floral motif-PNM MSS 819
Yellow plaited rope on a red ground with white and dark blue floral motifs in British Library Or 15227, f. 222v (top) and National Library of Malaysia MSS 819 (bottom).

Kitab Mawlid sharaf al-anam, 19th century. National Library of Malaysia, MSS 819Kitab Mawlid sharaf al-anam, 19th century. National Library of Malaysia, MSS 819

Further reading
A.T. Gallop, ‘The spirit of Langkasuka? illuminated manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula’, Indonesia and the Malay World, July 2005, 33 (96): 113-182, pp.146, 161.
A.T. Gallop, 'Palace and pondok: patronage and production of illuminated manuscripts on the east coast of the Malay peninsula', Warisan seni ukir kayu Melayu / Legacy of the art of Malay woodcarving, ed. Zawiyah Baba; pp.143-162. Bangi: ATMA, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2010.
Farish A. Noor and Khoo, Eddin, Spirit of wood: the art of Malay woodcarving. Works by master carvers from Kelantan, Terengganu and Pattani. [Hong Kong]: Periplus, 2003.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

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)
 noc copy

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)
 noc copy

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)
 noc copy

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)
 noc copy

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)
 noc copy

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)
 noc copy

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
 ccownwork copy

 

-------------------

[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.