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8 posts categorized "Afghanistan"

17 June 2019

Mazal tov ve-siman tov (Good Luck and Good Sign): Jewish marriage contracts in the British Library’s Hebrew collection

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The celebration of a marriage is one of Judaism’s happiest and most joyous communal events.

Jewish Wedding Song Siman Tov & Mazal Tov (YouTube)

To mark the occasion a marriage contract – a ketubah [1] (literally ‘a writ’) is drawn up stipulating the couple’s binding obligations and responsibilities. The writing of a ketubah has been an integral part of Jewish weddings for over 2,000 years.

A mandatory deed given to a Jewish bride on her wedding day for safekeeping, the ketubah is considered to be one of the earliest documents granting women legal and financial rights. Its traditional Aramaic text lays down the groom's financial obligations towards the bride, thus ensuring her protection and security, should the marriage dissolve, or the husband pass away. Depending on their geo-cultural area of production, or the social position of the families involved, Jewish marriage contracts might also stipulate: the provision of food and clothing by the husband, his pledge not to take a second wife, the dowry the wife brings to the household.

Since this is effectively a formal transaction, the contract is usually signed by at least two male witnesses, either before or immediately after the marriage ceremony. The ketubah is customarily read out loud to the couple during the wedding service, under the bridal canopy (hupah).

The bridal canopy and blessings recited at the wedding service. Collection of prayers, London, 1702-1714 (BL Harley MS 5713, f. 17v)
The bridal canopy and blessings recited at the wedding service. Collection of prayers, London, 1702-1714 (BL Harley MS 5713, f. 17v)

Decorated marriage contracts

The art forms found in Jewish marriage contracts vary from country to country, and reflect the artistic developments and trends of their original locales, at particular periods. Yet more than just being visually appealing objects, ketubot are historical records, revealing social patterns, traditions and values within the Jewish communities they stemmed from.

Few decorated Jewish marriage contracts from the Middle Ages have survived. The earliest examples, dating from around the 10th century CE, were discovered in the Cairo Genizah, a storeroom of discarded religious and secular Jewish documents, which had been preserved for nearly one thousand years, in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, old Cairo.

From around the 14th century CE onwards, the custom of decorating ketubot flourished among communities of the Sephardi diaspora, particularly in Italy, spreading gradually to other Jewish diasporic centres, including those in Asia.

In Italy the art of the ketubah reached its pinnacle in the 17th and 18th centuries CE. Beautifully ornamented specimens were executed by highly skilled scribes and illuminators, on parchment or vellum. Characteristic adornments found in Italian ketubot include: biblical scenes, cherubs, coats of arms, micrographic designs, temple columns, zodiac signs and various others.

Seen here is an elegant, exquisitely decorated contract from Modena, recording the nuptials of Ephraim son of Kalonymus Sanguini, and Luna daughter of Mordecai Faro. The elaborate ketubah features an imposing architectural structure, topped by winged cherubs holding trumpets and leafy branches. The magnificent double border is composed of intricate micrographic lacework, surrounded by cut out patterns on a red ground inhabited by biblical vignettes, and the signs of the zodiac. Perhaps in an attempt to increase its value, the contract’s original date of 1757 was changed to 1557.

 Italian ketubah, Modena, 1 October 1557 [ie. 21 October 1757] (BL Or.6706)
Italian ketubah, Modena, 1 October 1557 [ie. 21 October 1757] (BL Or.6706)

Oriental marriage contracts are scarcer than European ones, and serve as important examples of Jewish art and illumination of the areas they originated from. Some specimens flaunt bold and brilliant colouring and crude designs, while others exhibit native motifs and indigenous symbols. Here are two telling examples from our collection.

The first is a paper ketubah given by Pinḥas, son of Yosef, to Batsheva, daughter of Nethan’el in Herat, on 15th of Sivan, 5649, corresponding to 14th June 1889. The terms follow a fixed Afghani formula that specifies a gift from the groom of 200 and 25 zuzin (ancient Jewish coinage struck 2nd century CE), and his tosefet (additional gift) of 10 zuzin. The bride’s dowry amounts to 80 zehuvim (gold coins).

Afghan ketubah, Herat, 1889 (BL Or 15893)
Afghan ketubah, Herat, 1889 (BL Or 15893)

Although Jews have lived in Herat since early Islamic times, it became the largest and most influential Jewish community in Afghanistan during the 19th century CE, when persecuted Jews from the Persian town of Meshed streamed into Herat. As a result, decorated Jewish marriage contracts produced in Herat share many artistic characteristics with contracts from neighbouring Meshed.

The decorative programme is typical of contracts issued in Herat, and displays Islamic and Persian influences. The layout, as a whole, is very reminiscent of Persian carpets with a well-planned, orderly pattern. Written neatly in rows outlined in red ink, the square calligraphic text of the ketubah proper is framed by two concentric narrow bands. The rectangular band closest to the text is embellished with stylised violet and orange flowers and green foliage. The outer border is inscribed with copious good wishes, arranged in alphabetical order, each one beginning with the word siman (Hebrew for omen or sign) – siman orah, siman berakhah, siman gilah and so forth.

There is a conspicuous emphasis on the number five in contracts issued in Herat as in this example. The upper register consists of five arcuated compartments: three of which contain a single floral vase, while the other two are filled with verses from Isaiah 61:10. The lower register is occupied by a frieze made of five blank frames which were customarily reserved for the witnesses’ signatures. Instead, three witnesses signed their names just below the last line of the ketubah text. The use of the five-fold motifs was intentional as the number five (hamsa) is considered to have magical and protective powers in Islamic and Jewish cultures.

The second exemplar on parchment, records the betrothal in 1887 in Calcutta of Ya‘akov Hai Yosef Avraham Ta‘azi to Simhah, the daughter of Natan Yosef Douwek ha-Kohen. The layout is typical of marriage contracts created for the Indian Jewish communities between the 18th and 20th centuries CE, and consists of two distinct sections, the opening formula, or superscription, in the upper register, and the contract itself beneath. The superscription is written in Hebrew square characters, whereas the contract is penned in a semi-cursive Hebrew script. The superscription starts with an invocation to God, followed by blessings and good wishes to the newlyweds, and ends with biblical verses relating to marriage and fertility. The mohar (the groom’s marriage payment), tosefet (additional increment), and dowry specified in the contract amount to 7,555 rupees.

The finely embellished border is densely filled with red birds interspersed with stylised pink flowers and green foliage. The naively painted rampant tigers above the superscription, and the two long-tailed blue peacocks facing each other, are regarded as representatives of Indian fauna. The pair of silvery fish in the centre symbolise fertility. These figurative and decorative motifs are specifically associated with marriage contracts created for the Baghdadi Jews who settled in India.

Indian ketubah. Calcutta, 11th November, 1887 (BL Or.15651)
Indian ketubah. Calcutta, 11th November, 1887 (BL Or.15651)

The development of printing brought with it new decorating techniques, which were also employed to embellish Jewish marriage contracts. A case in point is copper plate engraving. Invented in Germany in the 15th century CE, the use of copper engraving for book illustration became widespread only in the mid-16th century CE. From the 17 th century CE onwards, this complex, skilled craft gained greater popularity, becoming widely practised in Holland and other European countries, including England.

The handsome full copper engraved border adorning this London ketubah, was apparently modelled on a plate developed in Amsterdam in 1687. The contract documents the union of Elazar son of David Tsarfati and Rachel daughter of Joseph Cortisos, on 18 Iyar 5562, corresponding to 20 May, 1802. Penned in a semi-cursive Sephardi script the ketubah text is flanked on both sides with leaf-patterned pillars. Each vertical frame features a vase containing floral variations populated with birds. The top right vignette shows a courting couple, the top left features an expectant woman with two children, seemingly a symbol of fertility and motherhood. In the arched upper compartment, two winged putti hold a drapery inscribed: be-siman tov (with a good sign). Below the vase in the right hand border is the name H. Burgh, Sculpt. who appears to be the master printer responsible for the engravings.

Copper plate engraved ketubah. London, 1802 (BL Or 12376 H)
Copper plate engraved ketubah. London, 1802 (BL Or 12376 H)

The ketubot collection

The four Jewish marriage contracts described in this blog represent just a fraction of our significant holdings. As a matter of fact, a cursory survey of the ketubot preserved in the Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection, has generated some very interesting findings:

  • about 90 specimens from across three geographical zones - Asia, Europe and the Near East - have so far been identified
  • the ketubot originated in 16 countries, namely: Afghanistan, Egypt, England, Gibraltar, Greece, the Holy Land, India, Iran, Italy, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey & Ukraine (Crimea)
  • more than a third are unadorned, the rest featuring a broad range of decorative embellishments
  • nearly a third of our ketubot – c. 28 pieces traced thus far- were crafted in Italy
  • a fair number have been captured digitally as part of the on-going Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, and are accessible on our Digitised Manuscripts (DM)

More will be digitised and published on DM in the months ahead.

Further reading

Reuven Kashani, Illustrated ketubot of Afghanistan (in Hebrew). Jerusalem, 1978
– Illustrated Jewish marriage contracts from Iran, Bukhara and Afghanistan (in Hebrew). Jerusalem, 2003
Jose Luis Lacave, Medieval ketubot from Sefarad  [translated from the Spanish by Eliahu Green]. Jerusalem, 2002
Shalom Sabar, Ketubbah: the art of the Jewish marriage contract. New York, c. 2000

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies


[1] from the Hebrew consonantal root ‘ktv’ meaning writing; plural ketubot

10 August 2018

Testimonial presented to Sir Henry Lawrence

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One of the most unusual objects held in the British Library’s Visual Arts collection is an oversized silver candelabra that was presented to Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence (1806-57) as a ‘Testimonial’ from the ‘Friends of the Panjab’ in 1856. Lawrence was appointed as the British Resident in Lahore in 1846 and was the President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab. The Testimonial is currently on loan and featured at the exhibition Empire of the Sikhs at the Brunei Gallery, London which runs from 12 July – 23 September 2018.

The Lawrence Testimonial, by Hunt and Roskell after the design and model of Alfred Brown, 1853-56. British Library, Foster 1075 Noc

Henry Lawrence started his career as an army officer of the East India Company. He was trained at the Company’s Addiscombe College in south London and travelled to India when he was 16 to join the Bengal Artillery. Lawrence was in fact born in Ceylon and would spend the majority of his life in the subcontinent. From the onset of his career, he was keen to develop his linguistic skills and would become fluent in Persian, Hindi and Urdu. His language skills would prove to become useful and he was appointed as an assistant revenue surveyor for the revenue survey of India in the north-western provinces based in Moradabad from 1833. From the 1840s, Lawrence’s career shifted to a more political nature. In 1840, Lawrence was formally appointed as Assistant to the Governor-General's Agent for the Affairs of the Panjab and the North-West Frontier. In 1843, Lawrence became the Resident at the court of Nepal. Following the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845-46, Lord Hardinge appointed Lawrence as Agent at Lahore and subsequently the British Resident. Following the annexation of the Panjab in 1849, he served as President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab.

Add Or 2409 copy
Portrait of Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence painted by Delhi artist Ghulam Husain Khan, c. 1847.
British Library, Add Or 2409 Noc

According to the Illustrated London News (Feb 16, 1856), ‘this magnificent testimonial was projected in the year 1853 for presentation to Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence K.C.B. … upon the occasion of his voluntary relinquishing of the above appointment [President of the Board of Administration for the Affairs of the Panjab] for the no less honourable and important post of Governor-General’s Agent in Rajpootana.’ The Testimonial was in the Lawrence family’s collection until 1949, when it was deposited as part of the wider Lawrence archive to the India Office Records and Private Papers collection by Sir John Lawrence; shortly after the acquisition, the Testimonial was sent on long term loan to the National Army Museum and only returned to the Library in 2015. Tarnjeet Singh Padam, Leading Library Assistant at the British Library, volunteer for the UK Panjab Heritage Association, and a contributing curator for Empire of the Sikhs, located the Illustrated London News article which now provides the documentation regarding the circumstances of production and the symbolic significance of the multiple vignettes presented in this elaborate testimonial.

According to the Illustrated London News: ‘The figure on the summit represents India; beneath, in bassi rellievi, are five reclining Deities, representing the rivers of India. The branches, ornamented in the Indian style, carry twelve lights. The palm, plaintain, and the fig-tree encircle the shaft. On the base is a grand composition of figures, divided into three groups. The first is typical of the state of anarchy which existed in the Punjab previously to the introduction of British rule. One of Runjeet Singh’s body guard is attacked by a hill man-a dismounted irregular horseman lies dead on the ground, and above him is a wounded Akalie. The second group represents the conflict between the British and the Sikh forces which resulted in the conquest of the country by the former. The figures introduced are a Sikh irregular horseman mounted, opposed to by a British foot solider, and a Sikh artilleryman contending with a dismounted trooper. The third group represents the pacification of the Punjaub. Sir Henry Lawrence is represented in the act of receiving from an Afghan villager and a Sikh Chief their arms; in exchange for which he is about to present them with different implements of husbandry, held by Industry and Peace, which are represented by two female figures.’

Detail showing Henry Lawrence receiving an Afghan villager Noc

‘The entablatures on the three sides of the Testimonial contain respective representations; - firstly, of the sacred Tank at Amritsar (the Pool of Immortality), with the Sikh temple in the centre; secondly, of Sir Henry Lawrence, with the Maharajah of the Punjaub and Chieftains seated in Durbar at Lahore, arranging for the payment of the troops, who were in a state of mutiny; and, thirdly, the establishment of the Lawrence Asylum in the Himalaya, for the children of European soldiers – allegorically represented by Benevolence under the guidance of Wisdom-removing the children from the plains to the salubrious regions of the Himalaya. At the angles are the Brahmin Bull, the Cashmere Goat and the Camel.’

In 2000, the descendants of Henry Lawrence donated to the British Library the Lawrence Album, which contained 66 drawings, prints and cut-outs, along with 35 photographs connected with the life of Henry Montgomery Lawrence (1806-1857) and Honoria Lawrence, née Marshall (1810-54), presented to their daughter Honoria Letitia (1850-1923) in 1859 by her aunt and godmother Charlotte Frances Lawrence (1814-1885). The album includes further information regarding the design of the testimonial, including a set of illustrations showing the original design by Alfred Brown which was manufactured by the silversmith Hunt and Roskell.

Illustration from the Lawrence Album, c. 1853-56. British Library WD 4464 Noc

Illustration from the Lawrence Album with the vignette of the Golden Temple at Amritsar on the base, c. 1853-56. British Library WD 4464 Noc

Further reading:
Susan Stronge (ed.), The Arts of the Sikh Kingdom, London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1999.
Davindar Toor, In Pursuit of Empire: Treasures from the Toor Collection of Sikh Art, London: Kashi House, 2018.


Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts  ccownwork


01 November 2015

New evidence for the style of the "Fraser artist" in Delhi: Portraits of Afghans 1808-10

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One of the earliest European scientific accounts of Afghanistan is Mountstuart Elphinstone’s An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India, which was first published by Longman, Rees, & Co in London in 1815 and went through several different editions in the 19th century.  Elphinstone’s embassy to Shah Shuja’, the King of Afghanistan (r. 1803-09) left Delhi in 1808 and proceeded via Bikaner, Bahawalpur and Multan, wishing to avoid the territory of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.  Beyond Bikaner they entered the remains of the Afghan empire created by the Shah’s grandfather Ahmad Shah Abdali, and as they journeyed north along the Indus they met there increasing numbers of Afghans.  The Shah was waiting to greet them in Peshawar, his winter capital.  The embassy is described in the first chapter of William Dalrymple’s recent The Return of a King (2013).  This blog is not concerned with the political motivation and results of the embassy (Shah Shuja’ was in fact dethroned in 1809, but was reinstated by the British in 1839 with disastrous consequences), but rather with the artists who must have accompanied it.  Elphinstone’s book contains ten illustrations of various Afghans in different costumes, which must have been done by Delhi artists accompanying the embassy in the period 1808-10.

In 1993 the British Library acquired an album containing the original drawings for all ten of the Delhi-school illustrations of Elphinstone’s work (now numbered Add.Or.4670-79).  The album (numbered WD4317) also contains four watercolours by Robert Melville Grindlay of visiting Afghans done at Poona in 1813, which also were published in Elphinstone’s book.  Grindlay, a Bombay Army man, subsequently founded the banking firm of Grindlay & Company in Bombay.  He was a skilled amateur artist and aquatints were made from his drawings for Scenery, Costumes and Architecture, Chiefly on the Western Side of India (London, 1826-30).  In 1813 Grindlay was given leave to accompany Lady Hood in a sketching expedition across peninsular India and stopped two months in Poona, where Elphinstone, after a year writing up his official report on the Afghan embassy, had been appointed Resident at the Peshwa’s court (1811-18).  There Grindlay drew the four portraits of local Afghans that were added to the drawings portfolio and sent off to the publisher in London with Elphinstone’s text.  In 1834 when in London and visiting the publisher, Grindlay was given back all the drawings, which he mounted up into this album along with other supplementary material and then subsequently offered it to Lord Elphinstone in 1865 when a biography of Mountstuart Elphinstone was being prepared after his death in 1859.

Seven of the drawings are of the greatest interest as evidence of the emerging naturalistic style of Delhi artists in the early 19th century.  The other three are more conventional equestrian portraits of court officials and do not concern us here (these are published in Dalrymple 2013).  Four of the paintings are by the one Delhi artist, c.1810.  These are highly competent drawings making use of a naturalistic pose against a plain ground.  Their clothes are softly modelled over their forms, textiles are rendered naturalistically, and flesh in a softly stippled technique.

BL Add Or 4670 Delhi c. 1810
A Khojeh of Uzbek Tartary.
By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 18.5 by 11 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl. X, opposite p. 469.  Add.Or.4670  noc

Elphinstone notes that the portrait represents ‘Mahommed Hussun, a native of Wurdaunzye near Bokhaura, whose father was an Uzbek and his mother a Syud’.  The natural swing of the unfastened coat is admirably caught by the artist, who has also added a stylized shadow of a sort that can be seen in all these drawings.

A Taujik in the Summer Dress of Caubul. By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 20 by 11.75 cm. Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl. IV, opposite p. 434. Add.Or.4673
A Taujik in the Summer Dress of Caubul.
By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 20 by 11.75 cm. Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl. IV, opposite p. 434. Add.Or.4673  noc

The Tajik’s clothes are fully detailed and their patterns modulated to fit over his body.

Man of the Tymunee Eimauk. By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 19.5 by 12 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl. XI, opposite p. 481.  Add.Or.4676
Man of the Tymunee Eimauk.
By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 19.5 by 12 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl. XI, opposite p. 481.  Add.Or.4676  noc

Elphinstone writes that ‘this is a good likeness of Kereem, a Hazaureh once in my service, but his face was more cheerful and good-humoured’.

Three more of the drawings are individually powerful portraits, by Delhi artists. 

Dooraunee Shepherd. By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 25 by 16 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl.  II (Dooraunee Shepherds), left hand figure only.  Add.Or.4671
Dooraunee Shepherd.
By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 25 by 16 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl.  II (Dooraunee Shepherds), left hand figure only.  Add.Or.4671  noc

The first of this group, a Durrani shepherd with beautifully modelled features, who stands against an uncoloured background, is a larger and more powerful version of the previous four, using the same technique and possibly by the same artist.  His subject’s upright stance, and those of the previous four, is an obvious forerunners of the work commissioned by the Fraser brothers five years later.

Dooraunee Shepherd. By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 24.5 by 15.5 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl.  II, opposite p. 239, the figure on the right only, but reversed. Add.Or.4674
Dooraunee Shepherd.
By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 24.5 by 15.5 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl.  II, opposite p. 239, the figure on the right only, but reversed. Add.Or.4674  noc

The remaining two are contrasted studies, the first another Durrani shepherd still employing the conventions of Mughal painting for the subject’s face and landscape, with a more summary Europeanised treatment of the garments, and more smoothly modelled than Add.Or.4671.  He stands here against a landscape receding in belts of colour to the mountainous backdrop. 

A Khawtee Ghiljie in his Summer dress. By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 20.5 by 15.25 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl.  IX, opposite p. 443. Add.Or.4675
A Khawtee Ghiljie in his Summer dress.
By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 20.5 by 15.25 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl.  IX, opposite p. 443. Add.Or.4675  noc

The second, a portrait of a Ghilzai, is the most powerful painting in the album.  He is seated on a red carpet with a diaper pattern and a white wall behind.  He has a most powerfully rendered face, but his hands and feet are perhaps less successful.  This powerful sense of a personality rather than a type, allied to the figurative stance of the other standing figures, makes these drawings the earliest so far datable portraits showing European influence on Delhi artists, several of whom must surely have accompanied Elphinstone’s embassy.  The Delhi artists would have been employed with the two official surveyors Lieuts. Macartney and Tickell, as the embassy also had an information gathering purpose as well as a diplomatic one.  It is also to be noted that William Fraser was in the embassy, as was according to Hodson’s Officers of the Bengal Army (although unmentioned by Elphinstone) Robert Skinner, brother of James Skinner, who along with William Fraser profoundly influenced the stylistic development of Delhi artists.  Some of Fraser’s letters home describing Elphinstone’s embassy are published in Dalrymple 2013, ch. 1.

Page from the Fraser Album.  Three villagers standing on a hillside, Mohan Lal, diwan of Nawab Zabita Khan Bhatti, Muhammad, a barber, and the tax-gatherer Salotar.  By a Delhi artist, 1815-19.  Watercolour;  31.4 by 42.2 cm.  Add.Or.4058
Page from the Fraser Album.  Three villagers standing on a hillside, Mohan Lal, diwan of Nawab Zabita Khan Bhatti, Muhammad, a barber, and the tax-gatherer Salotar.  By a Delhi artist, 1815-19.  Watercolour;  31.4 by 42.2 cm.  Add.Or.4058  noc

We can see the results in one of the pages commissioned by William and James Baillie Fraser, in which the three men are depicted in the same casually relaxed attitude as Elphinstone’s Afghans, feet splayed, and with miniscule shadows, linked together by a fictitious landscape.  Although this album does not solve the problem of the emergence of the Delhi Company style, it proves that it was already in existence by 1810; and that artists capable of painting in a Europeanised naturalistic manner were known to Fraser before his brother James Baillie’s arrival in Delhi in 1815, which set the two brothers off in their commissioning of studies of local people.  The artistic capacity to do so was already in existence.


Further Reading:

Mildred Archer and Toby Falk, India Revealed: the Art and Adventures of James and William Fraser 1801-35, London, 1989.

William Dalrymple, The Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan, London, 2013

Mountstuart Elphinstone, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India, London, 1815.

J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012, ch. 4.


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

23 October 2014

Twenty more Persian manuscript treasures now online

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This month sees a new upload of 20 Persian manuscripts (8588 images) to the Library's Digitised Manuscripts, generously funded by the Iran Heritage Foundation, the Barakat Trust, the Friends of the British Library, the Soudavar Memorial Foundation, the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute and others. These works have been selected for their artistic, historical and cultural importance and are among the most treasured of the Library's Persian manuscripts. Bringing this work to fruition has been one of the most rewarding tasks I have done: being able to look deep into the detail of a painting, examining minute annotations and studying the text itself is a luxury which was previously only possible to the priveleged few who could make it to the Library's reading room. Now you can do it from your desk, on the bus, or even in the dentist's waiting room!

The works in this recent upload include:

Add.18188  Firdawsi's Shāhnāmah ('Book of kings'). Copied in 1486 by Ghiyas al-Din Bayazid Sarraf and illustrated with 72 miniatures, Turkman/Timurid style.

Add.27262  Saʻdi's Būstān ('Orchard') dated at Agra in November 1629 and illustrated with ten miniatures. The calligrapher was the well-known physician and poet Hakim Rukn al-Din Masʻud, known as Hakim Rukna, who emigrated from Iran to India in the reign of Akbar and subsequently became one of Shah Jahan’s favourite poets.

The poet Saʻdi and his companions meet a young man whose sheep was tamed by kindness (Add.27262, f. 37r)

IO Islamic 137  The Ẓafarnāmah, a history of the conquests of Timur by Sharaf al-Din Yazdi completed ca. 1424. Illustrated with 30 miniatures in the 16th century Shiraz style.

The defeat of Damascus. Timur watches the flames as the city burns (IO Islamic 137, f. 358r)

IO Islamic 138  The only known copy of the Khamsah ('Five poems') composed by the poet Jamali who lived at the beginning of the 15th century. Dated 1465 at Baghdad and illustrated with six miniatures.

IO Islamic 3214  The Sindbādnāmah, an anonymous version of the adventures of Sindbad in Persian verse. It was probably copied in Golconda, India, around 1575, and contains 72 illustrations.
The vizier’s tale of the confectioner, his unfaithful wife, and the parrot (IO Islamic 3214, f. 36v)

IO Islamic 3558
The Dīvān-i Khāqān, a beautifully illuminated copy in calligraphic shikastah of the poems of  Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar, Shah of Iran (r. 1797-1834), who wrote poetry under the name Khaqan.

Io_islamic_3558_fbrigr Io_islamic_3558_fbrigv
The Shah hunting and a floral arrangement on the inside and outside of the contemporary lacquer binding of Fath ʻAli Shah Khaqanʼs Dīvān (IO Islamic 3558, inside and outside front cover)

Or.166  The Aḥvāl-i Humāyūn Pādshāh. Princess Gulbadan Begam's autobiographical account of the reigns of her father, the Mughal Emperor Babur, and his successor, her brother Humayun. Although this manuscript probably dates from the early 17th century, it is the only known copy to have survived.

Or.343   Futūḥ al-Ḥaramayn, a poetical description of the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina and the rites of pilgrimage by Muhyi Lari (d.1526 or 1527). Includes 17 miniatures dating from the 17th century.

Or.2839  Sūz va Gudāz (‘Burning and melting’) by Nawʻi Khabushani, the story of a bride whose betrothed was killed by a falling wall on his way to the wedding and her subsequent suicide on his funeral pyre. It was commissioned by Akbar's son Prince Danyal (1581-1614) who requested a change from traditional tales. It contains three miniatures and dates from the early 17th century.

Or.3714  Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī, the memoirs of the Mughal Emperor Babur (r. 1526-30), originally written in Chaghatai Turkish and translated into Persian at his grandson Akbar’s request by Mirza ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan in 1589. This imperial copy, containing 143 illustrations, mostly by attributed artists, was completed c. 1590-93.

Babur with birdcatchers near Kabul, in 1504. Artist: Shiyam (Or.3714, f. 190r)

Or.5302  Saʻdi's Gulistān ('Flower garden') copied in 975 (1567/68) in Bukhara (Uzbekistan) and ascribed in the colophon to the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli Husayni. It includes six Bukhara-style paintings which were commissioned at Akbar's request. The manuscript was 'improved'  in India in Jahangir's reign when seven more paintings were added, probably between 1605 and 1609.

Chaos in the classroom: the story of the schoolmaster who became infatuated with one of his pupils  (Or.5302, f. 80r)

Or.5637  Muʼnis al-arvāḥ ('The confidant of spirits'), an autograph copy by Princess Jahanara (1641-81), daughter of Shah Jahan, of her biography, composed in 1640, of the Sufi saint Muʻīn al-Dīn Chishtī (see blog: Princess Jahanara’s biography of a Sufi saint).

Or.7043  The Salīm Khānnāmah, a poetical history of the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Selim II (r.1566-1574) composed by Luqman in 1580. Copy dated 1099 (1687-88) containing eight miniatures, Ottoman

Or.7573  The Dīvān of Hafiz copied in Akbar’s reign in 990/1582-3 by ‘Abd al-Samad Shirin-qalam and enhanced by Jahangir c. 1611 with nine miniature paintings. Panels containing pairs of birds separate the verses thoroughout the volume. The final part of the manuscript including the colophon and one miniature is preserved at the Chester Beatty Library Dublin (see blog: Jahangir’s Hafiz and the Madrasa Jurist).

Or.8193  The 'Yazd' anthology, a collection of Turkish works written in calligraphic Uighur script in Yazd in 1431 with the addition of the Persian Dīvāns of Kamal-i Khujand and Amiri in the margins.

Facing pages with the Uighur text in the central panels and the Persian poems in the margins (Or.8193, ff. 46-47)

Or.11846  The Dīvān of Hafiz Saʻd copied by Shaykh Mahmud Pir Budaqi at Shiraz for the library of the Qaraqoyunlu prince Pir Budaq (d.1466).

The opening shamsah with a dedication to Abu'l-Fath Pir Budaq Bahadur Khan (Or.11846, f. 1v)

Or.12208  The emperor Akbar's copy of Nizami's Khamsah, dated between 1593 and 1595 and copied by ʻAbd al-Rahim ʻAnbarin-qalam. It contains 38 illustrated folios attributed to the major artists of the imperial Mughal studio and an original lacquered binding.

A scene from the Haft paykar in which the king escaped from a tower, carried off by magical bird. Artist: Dharamdas (Or.12208, f. 195r)

Or.12857  ʻAbd al-Karīm al-Qādirī Jawnpūrī's Javāhir al-mūsīqāt-i Muḥammadī, a musical treatise dedicated to Muhammad ‘Adil Shah (r.1626-56) dating from the 17th century which includes 48 Deccani miniatures from an earlier Dakhini manuscript dating from around 1570 (see blogs: Indian Music in the Persian Collections: the Javahir al-Musiqat-i Muhammadi (Or.12857). Part 1 and Part 2).

Or.12988  An imperial copy of the first volume of Abu'l-Fazl's history of the reign of Akbar, the  Akbarnāmah. Completed ca.1602, it contains 39 paintings and inscriptions (unfortunately pasted over during a previous refurbishment and now only visible with infrared photography) by Jahangir and Shah Jahan.
The baby Akbar and his mother Hamidah Banu Maryam Makani. Artists: Sanvalah and Narsingh (Or.12988, f. 22r)

Or.14139  The Dīvān of Hafiz, copied at Herat or Mashhad ca. 1470 by, according to Shah Jahan’s note on folio 1 , the famous calligrapher Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi. The whole work was refurbished and remargined at the Mughal court ca. 1605 with cartouches containing images of animals, birds, musicians, workmen, soldiers etc. 

The opening of the Dīvān-i Ḥāfiẓ, copied by Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi (Or.14139, f. 1v)

More details about these manuscripts, together with links to catalogue descriptions and related literature, can be found at Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts. This page is very much a 'work in progress' page to which we add continually, so please keep looking there to follow new developments.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


14 July 2014

A Khamsah with illustrations ascribed to the painter Bihzad (Add. 25900)

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Today's guest post by the Islamic art historian Barbara Brend celebrates the completion of a project sponsored by the Barakat Trust to digitise two Timurid manuscripts in the British Library's collection, both thought to be, in part,  illustrated by perhaps the most celebrated of Persian painters, Bihzad. Both manuscripts are copies of the Khamsah by Nizami. The later of the two, Or.6810, dating from  the end of the 15th century, was digitised some time ago and is the subject of two earlier posts (ʻThe Khamsah of Nizami: a Timurid Masterpieceʼ and ʻA Jewel in the Crownʼ). Add.25900 is the earlier copy. Clicking on the hyperlinks will take you directly to the digital copy and further details including a list of all the miniatures with hyperlinks can be accessed from our Digital Persian Project page.

The Khamsah of Nizami Add. 25900

The Khamsah (Quintet) of Nizami Add. 25900 is an example of a manuscript produced over time. A volume of princely quality necessarily involved the work of a number of specialists: the scribe probably in overall control of the workshop, binders, illuminators, perhaps painters, possibly even paper-makers unless this essential were bought in.  But there might be a failure of patronage: the initiating patron might die, or a political upheaval might scatter the workshop.  In these cases a manuscript on which talent, time, and money had already been expended might be put aside and at some later date a new patron would order further work on it.

Shirin looks at the portrait of Khusrau watched by Shapur (British Library Add. 25900, f. 41r)

The Khamsah has a colophon dated 846/1442; its last private owner is named in a note on the fly-leaf, “James R. Ballantyne, Nov. 1837”.  Ballantyne (1774-1864) was a distinguished Scottish orientalist who worked in India from 1845 to 1861, subsequently becoming Librarian to the India Office.  One illustration in the Khamsah is usually considered, on stylistic grounds, to have been painted in Herat at the time of the colophon. It shows “Shirin contemplating the picture of Khusrau” (f. 41r).  For the third time Shapur, the friend of prince Khusrau, has hung his portrait on a tree in the mountain pastures where the princess Shirin disports herself with her ladies. The ladies have destroyed the first two pictures, but Shirin, already entranced by the first picture, herself moves to take possession of the third. The ladies, whose gestures indicate a degree of concern, have the pale and elegantly drawn faces characteristic of Herat painting on the 1440s; the face of Shirin, however, has been repainted with more emphatic features and an impression of volume in India in the time of Ballantyne. From the upper left Shapur observes the effect of his painting; he is concealed amongst rocks in which the painter of the 1440s has taken advantage of Chinese conventions of shading to introduce faces of grotesques, which also give an impression of volume, and thus the very opposite of the faces of the ladies.

Bahram Gur kills the dragon. Ascribed to Bihzad in the margin of the lower text panel (British Library Add. 25900, f. 161r)

Half a century later, in or around 1490, fourteen illustrations were added in Herat. “Bahram Gur slays a dragon” (f. 161r) is of this period.  The young prince Bahram Gur is a great hunter, particularly of the gur, the onager or wild ass. With a wealth of detail usually bestowed on the description of a beautiful young woman Nizami describes a female onager that catches Bahram’s attention. The prince follows her and she leads him to the cave of a dragon.  Bahram slays the dragon, slits it open and finds the onager’s foal inside. She then leads him on to a treasure that the dragon was guarding, and she vanishes.  The illustration bears an attribution to the great artist Bihzad, written vertically in the lower text panel.  It does not convey the sense of perfected design that we sometimes associate with the work of Bizhad, but it does demonstrate a keen imaginative sympathy.  The strongly coloured group of prince and horse are evidently dynamic, but the prince looks very young and his horse is tense and awkward: the prince could be anyone facing up to a challenge, for instance an artist undertaking the depiction of a subject. The mother onager is portrayed as something more than an ordinary animal: the painter seems aware of the poet’s description; he shows both the onager’s eyes, which slightly humanizes the face; and he places her just behind the horizon in the position traditionally used for observers.  The dragon, on the other hand, does not engage our sympathies; it remains entirely other.  There is, however, a strong sense of its movement as it creeps down from its high cave entrance, with the hint that there is a great deal more of its length to emerge, and perhaps even an impression that the part we already see is heavy with the foal it has eaten.

Mahan confronted by demons finds his horse transformed into a seven-headed dragon (British Library Add. 25900, f. 188r)

From the same book of the Khamsah, Haft Paykar (Seven fair Forms) is “Mahan confronted by demons” (f. 188r) from the story told to Bahram Gur in the Turquoise Pavilion. Already a rich young man, Mahan has been lured into seeking greater wealth and has found himself in a desert place confronted by demons with the heads of elephants and bulls, who carry flames. Further to this, the very horse that he was riding has sprouted wings and become a seven-headed dragon. The Herat painter—is this again Bihzad, working in a slightly different mode, or is it another?--gives the subject a slightly comic treatment that does not detract from its fundamental seriousness. With the clarity of late fifteenth-century Herat painting the demons, individualised as precise shapes, form a “road block” down the left-hand side. As in the previous picture, the rider-and-mount group is differentiated from the rest by strong colour; but here they do not press forward, instead the dragon heads turn on Mahan who strains backwards. The only element that moves forwards is the serpentine tail behind Mahan, while the dragon’s wings seem to hold Mahan like a vice.   

Nushabah recognises Iskandar from his portrait (British Library Add. 25900, f. 245v)

Evidently the manuscript was transported to Tabriz, when this was the centre of Safavid rule, as four illustrations were added in 1530s or early 1540s.  In this, the grandest of the four, Iskandar (Alexander the Great) has come to visit Nushabah, queen of Barda, in the guise of his own ambassador (f. 245v). Nushabah sees through his pretence and demonstrates the accuracy of her perception by showing Iskandar a picture of himself.  With its rocky foreground, this illustration still recalls Herat painting, but Iskandar’s turban, with its bold plumes and the elongated shape caused by its wrapping round a cap with a high central projection, proclaim the Safavid context—as do the turbans of various male attendants who, according to the text, should properly be female. Nushabah may not claim our attention at first, but gradually she does, wearing rather more red than Iskandar, enthroned and sitting in a royal pose, gesturing to the picture that shows she is not mistaken, the whole framed in a magical architecture.


Barbara Brend, Independent scholar

07 July 2014

A newly digitised unpublished catalogue of Persian manuscripts

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The British Library has exciting news for researchers of Persian manuscripts. The previously unpublished descriptions for a projected third volume of the Catalogue of the India Office Library's Persian manuscript collection have been digitised and made available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. The catalogue was already well under way in the 1930s but with the intervention of the 2nd World War, the project was never completed. It contains, however, descriptions of about 1,500 works and it is our sincere hope that by making them available, this part of the British Library’s collection will become more accessible to researchers interested in the literature, history and culture of the Persianate world. The digitisation of this important catalogue has been made possible by a grant from the Barakat Trust.

IO Isl 3682_f29r
The murder of Iraj by his brothers Tur and Salm in a 16th century Shahnamah partly illustrated by Muhammad Yusuf (see earlier post on this manuscript). One of the manuscripts included in the newly digitised catalogue (BL IO Islamic 3682, f. 29r)

Three giants of Persian scholarship

These draft descriptions, which were primarily written by hand, are the work of three towering figures in Oriental Studies in the UK.

The first scholar whose work is digitised here is Charles Ambrose Storey (1888-1968), who read Classics and Arabic at Cambridge.  He is famous for his monumental work, Persian Literature: A Bio-bibliographical Survey, which was intended as a response to Carl Brockelmann's Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur.  However, Storey's survey, though unfinished, is much more detailed and thorough, including the content of the works he discusses, information about the life of the author and others connected with the text, lists of known manuscripts with dates of their transcription, as well as a full bibliography of studies, modern editions, and translations. In 1919 Storey became Assistant Librarian and later Librarian at the India Office before being elected Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge in 1933, a great honour and distinction.  When Storey passed away, he left his worldly possessions to the Royal Asiatic Society, which has worked to publish posthumously the remainder of his survey.  In addition to his survey, Storey also generated a great deal of research on the Persian manuscripts in the India Office collections which he continued working on after 1933 and which was never published; it is this that has been digitised and made available on-line.  

The other authors are the equally well-known scholars, Reuben Levy (1891-1966) and Arthur John Arberry (1905-1969).  Levy read Persian, Turkish and Semitic languages at Oxford and taught Persian there until moving to Cambridge in the 1920s, where he was a lecturer of Persian before becoming full professor in 1950. Records show that he was still cataloguing manuscripts for the India Office Library as late as 1959. He translated a number of seminal texts from Persian into English, including the Qabusnamah of Kay Kawus b. Iskandar in 1951.  

The third scholar to contribute to the planned third volume of the Indian Office Persian manuscripts catalogue was A.J. Arberry.  Like Storey, Arberry was employed by the India Office Library between 1934 and 1939, before being appointed to the Chair of Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and subsequently – again following in Storey’s footsteps – to the Sir Thomas Adams Professorship of Arabic at Cambridge University.  A profilic scholar, Arberry's many editions of texts and translations from Arabic and Persian, along with his books on a range of topics on the literature and culture of the Islamic world, number around 90 volumes.  Famous for introducing the poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi to the west, he also made elegant translations of the Qur'an and the poetry of Hafiz. Arberry also compiled catalogues of  the Arabic and Persian manuscript collections in the India Office Library, Cambridge University Library, and the Chester Beatty Library, all of which are indispensible tools for the researcher today.  

The opening of Qarabadin-i Qadiri, a medical pharmacopoeia by Muhammad Akbar Arzani, dated 1792 (BL Delhi Persian 843B)

How to use the catalogue

There are three manuscript sequences included in the catalogue: India Office (IO Islamic) Persian manuscripts acquired between 1903 and 1936, and Delhi Arabic and Delhi Persian — these last two formerly part of the Mughal Imperial Library, Delhi. The digitised catalogue consists of 3778 images grouped in 38 folders (Mss Eur E207/1-38) but arranged in a somewhat haphazard order, partly by subject and to some extent by author.

If readers wish to browse the catalogue, there are partial subject indexes to 33 of the 38 folders:

Folders 1-4:  Sufism, by Arberry:
Folders 5-9: History, by Storey
Folders 10-14 : mostly Sufism, by Levy
Folders 15-16: poetry, biography by Storey
Folders 17-24: miscellaneous, poetry, science by Levy
Folders 25-33: Delhi Persian 411-945, by Levy

Readers wishing to look up specific numbers quoted, for example, in Storey’s Persian Literature, or manuscripts listed in Fihrist (the online union catalogue of Arabic script manuscripts in the United Kingdom) should follow this link to the

Online index and concordance to vol 3 of the Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the India Office Library, Mss Eur E207 (unpublished)

This lists the contents of the catalogue in manuscript order. Each number is linked directly to its digital image on the web. If the description is several pages long, readers can move to the following or preceding page by using the forward and backward arrows at the top of the screen. A word of warning though: the numbers in the catalogue are largely unchecked and may sometimes be inaccurate!

To facilitate browsing the Delhi Persian collection, we have copied below a general classification of the collection according to a preliminary handlist (IO Islamic 4601-3) which was compiled in Calcutta under the supervision of H. Blochmann ca. 1869.

Delhi Persian 1-34: Qur'anic commentaries and treatises
Delhi Persian 35-72: Works on Hadith
Delhi Persian 73-122: Adʼiyah or devotional works
Delhi Persian 123-125: Principles of law
Delhi Persian 126-222: Law
Delhi Persian 226-253: ʻAqaʼid or doctrines
Delhi Persian 257-326: Kalam
Delhi Persian 329-417: Grammar
Delhi Persian 420-429: Rhetoric
Delhi Persian 431-507: Insha, or prose and letter-writers
Delhi Persian 508-567: Lexicography
Delhi Persian 569-783: History and biography
Delhi Persian 785-788: Physiognomy
Delhi Persian 789-797: Logic and dialectics
Delhi Persian 798-806: Natural philosophy
Delhi Persian 807-872: Medicine
Delhi Persian 873-899: Works on Mawaʻiz, homilies and khutbahs etc
Delhi Persian 902-953: Ethics
Delhi Persian 954-1198: Sufiism
Delhi Persian 1200-1202: Dreambooks
Delhi Persian 1302-1209: Anecdotes or comic writings
Delhi Persian 1210-1213: Riddles
Delhi Persian 1222-1420: Poetry
Delhi Persian 1424-1475: Mathematics and astronomy
Delhi Persian 1492-1499: Charms and geomancy
Delhi Persian 1500-1502: Music
Delhi Persian 1503-1550: Miscellaneous

Further Reading:
Storey, C.A., Persian Literature: A Bio-bibliographical Survey (London, 1972-ongoing). Section 1 is on line: Qur’anic Literature (1927)
Arberry, A.J., The Koran Interpreted: A Translation (Reprinted New York, 1996).
---------------,  Fifty Poems of Hafiz (Cambridge, 1962)
Levy, R., A Mirror for Princes: The Qābūs Nāma (London, 1951)

Nur Sobers-Khan, Curator for Turkey, Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar Museums Authority
Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

18 May 2014

The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece

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One of the best loved of the illustrated Persian manuscripts in the British Library is the Khamsah of Nizami Or. 6810. Made in Herat during the reign of Sultan Husayn Bayqara, and with one picture dated 900/1494-95, it contains some of the finest late 15th-century painting. The glorious colour and meticulous drawing of its illustrations strike the viewer immediately, while the depth and complexity of their meaning is endlessly fascinating. In addition the manuscript poses interesting problems of artistic attribution and patronage.

Harun al-Rashid and the barber. Ascribed in notes to Bihzad and to Mirak (BL Or.6810, f. 27v).

Illustrating a parable in Makhzan al-Asrar (‘Treasury of Secrets’), the first of the five books of the Khamsah, ‘Harun al-Rashid and the barber’ takes us inside a hammam (‘bathhouse’). We are well and truly inside since the plain doorway in the right marks the entry to an area of privacy, or relative privacy.  In its main saloon, men, with their gaze politely directed away from each other, are dressing or undressing with proper decorum. To the left is a more private space, its status is expressed in a more stately architecture: this is for the moment reserved for caliphal use. In it Harun al-Rashid is the direct object of attention of two attendants, and appears to have engrossed the activity of two more. This space is the focus of the narrative: the viewer’s eye has been led towards it from right to left, according to the reading direction of the Persian script. The text tells us that when Harun visits the hammam the barber who shaves his head asks for the hand of his daughter in marriage. Harun is incensed by this impertinence, which is, moreover, repeated on his subsequent visits.  Harun puts this problem to his vizier, remarking that it seems unwise to subject oneself to the double threat of an actual razor and a dagger-like word. The vizier speculates that the barber’s presumption might result from his standing over a treasure: the caliph should order him to move his position. Harun acts accordingly; standing on a different spot, the barber no longer feels himself the caliph’s equal; excavation reveals the treasure over which had been beneath his feet. 

Over and above the requirements of the narrative, the depiction of the hammam is the gift that the artist makes to the viewer. There are minutely observed practical details such as the soot deposited on the walls by the lamps in the private room, or the precise position of hands that wring a wet towel in the public space; and there is the symbolic detail that the caliph’s robes and crown are temporarily laid aside, so that in a sense he becomes a vulnerable man on a level with the others. There is careful observation and judgement in the use of colour: the dark buff tiles of the floor are evidently not glazed, so that even when wet they will not be slippery; their colour is beautifully set off by the array of blue towels of varying stripe that blazon the function of the establishment, and that are secured into the main composition by the rod that lifts them to or from the drying line.

Is this picture the work of the great painter Bihzad? The names of both Mirak, the older master, and of Bihzad have been written underneath it at an unknown date, but the majority of scholars would attribute it to Bihzad. Writing in 1605, the Mughal emperor Jahangir, then in possession of the manuscript and priding himself on his connoisseurship, asserted that 16 of its pictures were by Bihzad, five by Mirak, and one by ʿAbd al-Razzaq, though he did not specify which (See earlier post: ‘A Jewel in the Crown’).

The Prophet mounted on the Buraq and escorted by angels passing over the Kaʻbah (BL Or.6810, f. 5v).

One of the pictures to which no notes of attribution have been added is the ‘Miʿraj’ (‘ascent’), the picture of the Prophet Muhammad carried up into the heavens on the back of the Buraq, a mount with a human face—the Buraq’s face suggests the work of Mirak, the other faces less so. The Prophet is seen in a swirl of golden clouds and surrounded by angels, against a night sky. He is above the black-draped Kaʿbah, with the town of Mecca around it treated in fascinating detail, albeit in a rather persianate architecture replete with blue and turquoise tiling. The picture follows the type of one produced some 80 years earlier in the Miscellany for Iskandar Sultan BL Add. 27261 of 1410-11 (see earlier post: ‘The Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan’). The later picture has, however, two brilliant innovations. The Prophet is here looking around him in wonder, and the precinct of the Kaʿbah contains two human figures that are so tiny that the viewer seems to look down on them from an immense height.

Iskandar, in the likeness of Husayn Bayqara, with the seven sages. An inscription in the arch of the window is dated AH 900 (1494/95). (BL Or.6810, f. 214r).

This magnificent manuscript clearly draws upon the talents of artists of the royal workshop, but it does not display the name of Sultan Husayn Bayqara, who ruled Herat from 1469 to 1506, as patron, instead a line on one of the arches of Shirin’s palace (f. 62v) says that it was made for the Amir ʿAli Farsi Barlas, and it seems that he is depicted in the frontispiece. Nevertheless, it is beyond doubt that it is Sultan Husayn Bayqara who appears, in proxy portraiture, in illustrations to the story of Iskandar (Alexander the Great), as an ideal king, surrounded by philosophers (above) or showing respect for a holy man (below).

Iskandar, in the likeness of Husayn Bayqara, visiting the wise man in a cave. Ascribed to Bihzad underneath, but to Qasim ʻAli in the text panel. (BL Or.6810, f. 273r).

Thanks to the generosity of the Barakat Trust this manuscript has been fully digitised and can be viewed in our digitised manuscripts viewer (click here Or.6810). Follow this link for a detailed catalogue description with links to all of the miniatures.

Further Reading

Ebadollah Bahari, Bihzad: Master of Persian Painting, London and New York, 1996.
Basil Gray, Persian Painting, Geneva, 1961.
Thomas W. Lentz and Glenn D. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision, Los Angeles, 1989.
John Seyller, ‘Inspection and valuation of manuscripts in the Imperial Mughal Library’, Artibus Asiae, LVII, 3/4 (1997), pp. 243-349.
Ivan Stchoukine, Les peintures des manuscrits Tîmûrides, Paris, 1954.


Barbara Brend, Independent scholar


20 May 2013

'The Mughals: Art, Culture and Empire' in Kabul

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Queen's Palace, Babur Gardens, Kabul
12 May - 25 June 2013

The hugely successful Mughals exhibition at the British Library has now been made accessible to an Afghan audience in the form of high-quality digital facsimiles of the majority of the items seen in the original exhibition. The venue of the present exhibition, which opened in the Queen’s Palace in the Babur Gardens in Kabul, is particularly appropriate, situated as it is only a stone’s throw from the tomb of Babur, the first Mughal emperor.

Babur's Tomb in Babur's Garden, Kabul. Photograph by John Falconer.
Babur's Tomb in Babur's Garden, Kabul  
  ccownwork John Falconer

The exhibition forms part of an ongoing collaborative partnership between the British Library and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, supported by the Norwegian Government through the Afghan Cultural Initiative.

The exhibition was opened on Sunday 12 May at an event attended by representatives from the diplomatic community, Afghan cultural institutions and the Afghan Government. Opening addresses were given by Ajmal Maiwandi (CEO Aga Khan Trust for Culture), Sayed Musadiq Khalili (Deputy Minister of Information and Culture), H.E. Nurjehan Mawani (Diplomatic Representative, Aga Khan Development Network), H.E. Nils Hangstveit (Norwegian Ambassador to Afghanistan) and John Falconer (British Library).

The exhibition will be on view in Kabul until 25 June. It is hoped that the exhibition will also tour within Afghanistan, to Herat and/or Balkh.

The mounting of a facsimile version of the Mughals exhibition in Kabul is the second collaboration between the British Library and Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and follows an exhibition of prints, drawings and photographs of Afghanistan from the British Library collections, which was seen in the same location in 2010.

Photograph albums of the installation, exhibition and opening event can be viewed at

A few photographs from the exhibition follow.
Mughals exhibition, Queen's Palace, Babur's Gardens, Kabul. Photograph by John FalconerMughals exhibition, Queen's Palace, Babur's Gardens, Kabul 
 ccownwork John Falconer


Installing Mughals exhibition, Queen's Palace, Kabul. Photograph by John Falconer.
Installing Mughals exhibition, Queen's Palace, Kabul
 ccownwork John Falconer


Mughals exhibition, Queen's Palace, Kabul. Photograph by John Falconer.
Mughals exhibition, Queen's Palace, Kabul 
 ccownwork John Falconer

For more images of the installation, exhibition and opening event, see the Flickr album:

To read more about the British Library's exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, please see our blog post 'A farewell to the Mughals'.


John Falconer
Lead Curator, Visual Arts