Asian and African studies blog

20 posts categorized "Central Asia"

25 September 2014

Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum

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Last week the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China opened at the British Museum. This exhibition documents the years 1400-1450, fifty years which saw the building of the Forbidden City and Beijing established as the capital city of China. It was also a time of intense diplomatic and cultural engagement with Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Some surprising exhibits on view resulting from cultural exchanges include the painting of a giraffe presented to the Yongle Emperor in 1414 as tribute by the Sultan of Bengal, Sayf al-Din Hamza Shah, and ‘The adoration of the Magi’, dating from c. 1495-1505, by the Italian artist Andrea Mantegna, depicting a Ming porcelain bowl. Equally exotic are two British Library 15th century Persian manuscripts, Add.16561 and Add.7759 copied in Shirvan and possibly in Herat on decorated paper exported from Ming China.

Prince entertained in a garden, the opening from an anthology of poetry produced in Shamakhi (Shirvan) in 873/1468, North Provincial Timurid style painting on Ming decorated paper (British Library Add.16561, ff. 1v-2r)

There were several missions exchanged between the Timurids and the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-24). After Timur's death, the first Chinese embassy to Shahrukh arrived in Herat in 815/1412. A second embassy arrived in Rabiʻ I 820/April 1417 with three hundred horsemen and gifts and presents sent by the Emperor of China consisting of falcons, brocades, velvets, silks, porcelain vessels and Chinese paper, etc. A third embassy reached Herat in Ramadan 822/October 1419 (see Thackston, p.279, citing the Persian sources Mujmal-i faṣīhī by Fasih al-Din Khvafi, and Maṭlaʻ-i saʻdayn  by ʻAbd al-Razzaq Samarqandi). Return missions also took place with the artist Ghiyas al-Din Naqqash, Baysunghur’s representative, keeping a detailed diary of his journey between December 1419 and August 1422 (see Thackston’s translation below).

Chinese paper was much valued by the Timurids and gave rise to a fashion for using coloured dyes and decorating with gold. It was regarded as good to write on. Slightly tinted paper was considered restful to the eye while dark colours suited coloured inks[1]. Add.16561, pictured below, is a collection of poetry by 12 different authors of the 14th and 15th century. It was copied in 1468 in Shirvan in present day Azerbayjan by Sharaf al-Din Husayn, a royal scribe, possibly at the court of the Shirvanshah Farrukh Yasar (1462-1501). The manuscript contains one double-page and seven single miniatures. The paper is highly polished and dyed different shades of pink, mauve and yellow/green, decorated with large flecks of gold.

Opening to the Dīvān of the 14th century poet Kamal Khujandi on highly polished gold flecked dyed paper. Copied by Sharaf al-Din Husayn Sultani, dated Shamakhi (Shirvan) at the beginning of Rabiʻ II 873/ Oct.1468  (British Library Add.16561, ff 2-3)

The second of the two manuscripts on display is Add.7759, the Dīvān of Hafiz, copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855/October 1451. Although no place is mentioned in the colophon, the name of the scribe may be connected to Fushanj in the province of Herat, Afghanistan, possibly suggesting Herat as a place of origin. The paper is unusually heavy and includes 31 pages decorated with Chinese ornamentation of which seven can be identified as containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The paper is coloured various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

A Chinese palace set against a background of mountains and lakes, with pine trees in the foreground (British Library Add.7759, f. 3r)

Facing pages of the Dīvān of Hafiz. Copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855/October 1451 (British Library Add.7759, ff. 60v-61r)

In her study of the New York Public Library Makhzan al-asrār (Spencer Persian 41), dated 25 Jumada I 883/24 August 1478, Priscilla Soucek demonstrated, by reconstructing several examples, that the decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of sheets which were painted before being cut up. A further example of the same feature can be seen in folios 17r and 10v below where the outlines of the mountains on the two pages are almost contiguous. As in the New York manuscript, the designs in Add.7759 are at right angles to the text.

Add7759_ff17r and 10v
Folios 17r (left) and 10v (right), formed from the same sheet of paper (British Library Add.7759)

Both Add.7759 and Add.16561 have now been fully digitized and will be published on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page during the next few months. This will hopefully allow a much needed detailed study to be made of the paper.

Ming: 50 years that changed China is open at the British Museum until 5 January 2015. An illustrated catalogue of the same title by the exhibition curators Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall is available from the British Museum shop.

Further reading

W. M. Thackston, “Report to Mirza Baysunghur on the Timurid Legation to the Ming Court at Peking” in A century of princes: sources on Timurid history and art. Cambridge, Mass, 1989, pp. 279-97

David J. Roxburgh,The Persian Album, 1400-1600: From Dispersal to Collection. Yale University, 2005, pp. 159-165

Priscilla Soucek, “The New York Public Library ‘Makhzan al-asrār’ and Its Importance, Ars Orientalis 18 (1988), pp. 1-37

Sheila S. Blair, “Color and Gold: The Decorated Papers used in Manuscripts in later Islamic Times,” Muqarnas 17 (2000), pp. 24-36

N. Titley, Persian Miniature Painting and Its Influence on the Art of Turkey and India: The British Library Collections. London, 1984, pp. 240-41


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

[1] Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi quoted by Qadi Ahmad, Calligraphers and Painters (tr. V. Minorsky), Washington, 1959, p. 113

16 September 2014

One-day Symposium: British Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Research

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One day symposium: British Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Research
British Library Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Friday, 31 October 2014, 9.30-17.30 (Programme details here)

Or_2265_f066v_1000Khusraw and Shirin listen to stories told by Shirin's handmaidens. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting in Safavid Tabriz style c 1540s,  ascribed to Aqa Mirak (British Library Or.2265, f. 66v)

The British Library is holding a one-day symposium on the theme of digitisation and new research on its collection of Persian manuscripts, one of the most significant in the world in both size and importance. It is currently mid-way through a partnership project with the Iran Heritage Foundation and other supporters to convert catalogue records for Persian manuscripts into digital format as well as to digitise selected items from the Library’s vast collection with a view to making the data freely accessible online to readers worldwide. The main underlying objectives are to aid scholarship on the cultures and history of the Islamicate and Persianate world, and to help preserve this delicate material for posterity. Although only a small number of manuscripts have been digitised to date, the range is expected to grow over the coming years thanks to continued public and private funding.

Progress so far has already facilitated some exciting developments and discoveries. Join project members and scholars to explore the Library's Persian collections and find out more about recent research.


Booking will be available from Monday 22 September from British Library Events . Tickets include a light lunch and refreshments and are priced at £15, £12 (over 60s), £10 (concessions).


Dr Sâqib Bâburî, British Library (abstract)
Two new sources for the study of Muḥammad Vājid ʿAlī Shāh in the William Irvine Collection

Dr Bruno De Nicola, University of St Andrews (abstract)
Rashīd al-Dīn’s World History: manuscripts of Jāmi‘ al-tavārīkh in the British Library

Dr Walter N. Hakala, University at Buffalo, SUNY (USA) (abstract)
Minimum taxable knowledge: the niṣāb genre of multilingual vocabularies in verse

Jeremiah Losty, British Library (Emeritus) (abstract)
James Skinner's artists

Dr Stephan Popp, Institut für Iranistik, Vienna (abstract)
Horoscopes as propaganda under Akbar and Shāh Jahān

Dr Katherine Butler Schofield, King’s College, London (abstract)
The confluence of two oceans: Hindustani music in the British Library Persian collections

Dr Emily Shovelton, Independent Scholar (abstract)
Margins of the Divine: the Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan  (British Library Add. 27261)

Dr Eleanor Sims, Editor of Islamic Art and Independent Scholar (abstract)
More from Mashhad? A recently re-discovered illustrated Shahnama manuscript of the 17th century

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, British Library (abstract)
Niẓāmī through digital eyes: observations on masterworks in the British Library


Further reading

Recent posts on some of our Persian manuscripts:

Indian Music in the Persian Collections: the Javahir al-Musiqat-i Muhammadi (Or.12857). Part 2
Indian Music in the Persian Collections: the Javahir al-Musiqat-i Muhammadi (Or.12857). Part 1
Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum
Persian letters from the Nawabs of the Carnatic 1777-1816
James Skinner's Tazkirat al-Umara now digitised
A Khamsah with illustrations ascribed to the painter Bihzad (Add. 25900)
A newly digitised unpublished catalogue of Persian manuscripts and postscript
Some portraits of the Zand rulers of Iran (1751-1794)
The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece


For further information: contact Dr. Sâqib Bâburî (


Iran_heritage_logoBarakatsmallgrey2Friends-BL-logo-PMS220 Logo



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


30 January 2014

Happy New Year 新年快樂

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31 January 2014 is the first day of the Year of the Horse, according to the traditional lunisolar Chinese Calendar.  According to this system years are counted in a series of sixty-year cycles, each identified by a combination of two Chinese characters – the first from a cycle of ten known as the Heavenly Stems representing the elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water, the second from a cycle of twelve known as the Earthly Branches represented by animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog and pig.

People born in each of these years are traditionally believed to display particular characteristics –those born in the Year of the Horse, for example, are said to be passionate, talented, adventurous and independent but also self-centred and headstrong.

The Chinese Calendar was widely used in East and at various times was adopted in Japan, Korea, Tibet and Vietnam. In all these cultures the horse had a prominent role in practical life and was widely depicted in art.

Part of a printed almanac from Dunhuang dating from AD 877. Babylonian, Persian and Indian influences can be seen including the animal zodiac. (Or.8210/P.6)

In Chinese culture the horse is an animal that represents health and persistence and the written character for horse 馬 is found in many metaphors and idioms related to fortune and well-being.  For example, 千里馬 qiān lǐ mǎ (literally: 10,000-mile horse) is a metaphor used for talented people and 馬到成功 mǎ dào chéng gōng (literally: riding to success) is used to wish someone good fortune.

In pre-modern Japan the horse was highly prized by the warrior class and horsemanship was one of the key skills of the Samurai.  The image below is taken from Riō busshoku zusetsu ‘An illustrated explanation of the selection of strong horses and cows’ (Or.15562), an album dated 1647 depicting 97 horses and 14 cows, with anatomical annotations, by Kurosawa Sekisai 黒澤石齋 (1622-1678), an expert adviser on horses to the Tokugawa Shogunate.

A selection of different kinds of horses from the Japanese Riō busshoku zusetsu (Or.15562)

Although the Chinese calendar is not widely used in Thailand, the zodiac is important for fortune-telling. According to Thai horoscopes, people born in the year of the horse almost always achieve prosperity and wealth during their lifetime. They are often successful, but not always kind-hearted. They have to be careful in their thirties, sixties and eighties as there are certain years in which they can face danger or even death. It is important at these times to make much merit (in the Buddhist sense).

Horoscope for those born in the year of the horse (ม้า ma, as in Chinese). This illustration also shows the female avatar for the year of the horse and the banana tree. (Or.13650, f 4r)

Curators of the East Asian Section, Asian and African Studies

14 October 2013

New exhibition opens on Zoroastrianism

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Anyone who has been in the vicinity of the Brunei Gallery SOAS during the last few weeks could hardly have failed to notice the frenzied activity in preparation for ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’ which opened last Friday (see also my earlier post on this subject). Put together by Sarah Stewart, Lecturer in Zoroastrianism in the Department of the Study of Religions, SOAS, together with Pheroza Godrej, Almut Hintze, Firoza Mistree and myself, it is a first in almost every sense. Not only has the theme, Zoroastrianism from the 2nd millenium until the present date, never been presented in this way before, but the majority of the over 200 exhibits have never been on public view.

Bishop Eznik Kolbac‘i wrote this Refutation of the Sects around 440 AD. His criticism of Zoroastrianism was directed principally against the various forms of dualism. His work is valuable as a contemporary account of the religion at a time when the scriptures were still transmitted orally, a fact which Eznik mentions himself as a reason for the existence of so many conflicting views. The frontispiece of this first edition, published in Smyrna in 1762, shows Eznik instructing his pupils (British Library 17026.b.14)

I first met Sarah almost 30 years ago when we were students together in an elementary Pahlavi (a Middle-Iranian language) class at SOAS! Since then we have often discussed her dream of mounting an exhibition. The more familiar I became with the Zoroastrian material in the British Library, the more impressed I was with the incredibly wide range of materials we had. The Library's unique collection of Zoroastrian sacred texts, collected from the 17th century onwards, had been left untouched since the 19th century and I worked closely with our conservation department to restore them, hoping to get the opportunity to be able to exhibit them! The final choice of what to include was difficult, but I’m glad to say the British Library has made a significant contribution with over 30 major loans.

A 12th or 13th century copy of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmudic period in Babylonia largely overlapped with the Sasanian empire (224-651 AD) and during this period the Babylonian rabbis shared numerous intellectual and cultural concerns with their neighbours, the Zoroastrian priests at Ctesiphon, capital of the Sasanian empire. These affected matters of civil and criminal law, private law, theology, and even ritual (British Library, Harley 5508, ff.69v-70r)

Several people have asked me what my ‘favourite’ exhibits are! The 7th century BC cuneiform tablet from Nineveh, thought to contain the name of the principal Zoroastrian deity, Ahura Mazda (‘Wise Lord’), and a 4th century Achaemenid document from northern Afghanistan attesting the earliest use of the Zoroastrian day names and offerings for the Farvardin (spirits of the dead) must be amongst the most significant items. Equally impressive are the stunning ossuaries from 7th century Sogdiana and the beautiful Parsi portraits and textiles dating from the 19th century, the result of flourishing trade with China. A gallery on the top floor also includes works by the modern artists Fereydoun Ave, Mehran Zirak and Bijan Saffari. I mentioned a few British Library favourites in a previous post (The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination). Here are a few more:

Yates Thompson 28_f51r
The concept of Zoroaster as a magician or philosopher from the East is widespread in European literature, particularly after the Renaissance with its increased awareness of Greek and Hellenistic literature. This Italian translation by Bono Giamboni of Li Livres dou Trésor by Brunetto Latini (1230–94) dates from 1425. Of Zoroaster he writes: ‘And at that time a master called Canoaster [i.e. Zoroaster] discovered the magic art of spells and other wicked words and wicked things. These and many other things happened during the first two ages of the era that finished in the time of Abraham.’ (British Library, Yates Thompson 28, f. 51r)

‘The woman who didn’t obey her husband’. This engraving, dating from 1798, from the Persian Arda Viraf Nameh (the visionary journey of Viraf the Just to heaven and hell), is displayed in the exhibition alongside the original which is now part of the John Rylands Collection, Manchester (British Library, SV 400, vol. 2 part 3, facing p. 318)

The exhibition is free and open until 15 December, Tuesday- Saturday 10.30 - 17.00 (late night Thursday until 20.00, special Sunday opening on 15 December). For more details, follow these links to the exhibition website and facebook page.

The exhibition catalogue, edited by Sarah Stewart, includes 8 essays and photographs of every item in the exhibition. It is available from the publishers I.B. Tauris and from the SOAS bookshop (at a special discount price of £17).

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

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27 September 2013

International Dunhuang Project: 20th Anniversary

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Cave 16 at the Mogao caves, Dunhuang. Photograph by M. Aurel Stein, c. 1905.

Little was known of the Silk Road until archaeologists uncovered ancient cities in the desert sands, revealing astonishing sculptures, murals and manuscripts. The Buddhist cave library near Dunhuang in western China was one such remarkable discovery. Sealed around AD 1000 and only re-discovered in 1900 it contained over forty thousand manuscripts and paintings. Other sites have yielded tens of thousands more artefacts. These unique items have fascinating stories to tell of life on this ancient trade route. Owing to international archaeological activity most, however, were dispersed in the early 1900s to institutions worldwide.

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) was formed in 1994 by the major holding institutions with the vision of reuniting these artefacts through digital photography, using web technologies to make them freely accessible to all and ensuring international standards for their preservation and cataloguing. Directed by a curatorial and imaging team at the British Library, IDP UK went online in 1998 and multilingual websites hosted by IDP partners soon followed, starting with IDP China in 2002. The international teams have an immense task but their work in conserving, cataloguing and digitising the manuscripts, paintings and artefacts has started to give a voice to the people who once lived in the cities, worshipped in the temples and traded in the markets of the Silk Road.

Hundreds of thousands of images of manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artefacts along with catalogues, translations, historical and modern photographs, explorers’ archives and more are already freely available to all on IDP’s multilingual website and are widely used by scholars, schoolchildren and others.

As part of its 20th anniversary celebrations, IDP will be arranging a series of events over autumn 2013 to spring 2014. These will include an exhibition of photographs, a conservation show and tell, an afternoon of lectures and a reception, a selection of twenty favourite items from IDP’s patrons, partners, supporters and users, and a special edition of our newsletter, IDP News. Further details will be announced shortly and will also be publicised on the IDP home page, the IDP blog and our Facebook page.

Our launch event will be a lecture given by Tim Williams (UCL). ’Mapping the Silk Road’ will take place at the British Library Conference Centre (map) on November 1 2013 at 6.30pm. Entrance is free and all are welcome. For further details and online booking visit the British Library What's On pages.

Frontispiece of a printed dated copy of the Diamond Sutra.

IDP is dependent on external funding. Our work so far has been enabled by the generous and loyal support of individuals, foundations and funding bodies worldwide. Your help is essential. You can donate directly online, Sponsor a Sutra or if you wish to discuss support of a major project please visit the IDP website to contact us.

Vic Swift, International Dunhuang Project


04 August 2013

The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

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