Asian and African studies blog

75 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

14 November 2022

Alexander, Meet İskender: Turkic Manuscripts on Alexander the Great

Two page spread from manuscript showing circular map in black, blue, gold, and red inks. Mecca is at its centre, with snaking bodies of water in blue and smaller gold-ringed circles identifying cities and countries. The map is covered in writing in Arabic script.
A map of the world taken from the Nevadirü'l-garâip ve mevaridü'l-acayip with the Wall of Gog and Magog in the bottom right quadrant, north-east of Istanbul. (Mahmud el-Hatip el-Rumi, Nevadirü'l-garâip ve mevaridü'l-acayip972 AH [1564-65]. British Library Or 13201 ff 2v-3r)
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In October, we celebrated the opening of the Library’s flagship exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. The show explores the depth and breadth of Alexander’s influence around the globe, both as a historical personage and as myth. It should be no surprise that his persona is far from uncommon in the Turkic manuscripts held at the British Library. After all, many Turkic peoples inhabit regions that were deeply impacted by Alexander’s military campaigns, and their creative output forms an integral part of broader Islamicate literary traditions.

A single page of text in black and red inks in Arabic script divided into two columns with double outlines in red ink.
The start of Ahmedi's İskendername as found in a (Ahmedi, Kitab-i İskendername1252 AH [1837 CE]. British Library Or 1376 f 1v)
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The most obvious place to start this investigation is with the İskendername or Iskendernāmah, Ottoman Turkish and Chagatai renditions of the more widespread Alexander Romance. Literally “The Book of Alexander” (İskender being the Turkish rendering of Alexander), it contains a mixture of historical fact and historicized myth. It takes as its source document the Shāhnāmah, the 10th century CE Persian Book of Kings. The poet Nizāmī Ganjavī is renowned for his creation of a standalone Persian version of the Romance based on the Shāhnāmah, but Turkic works are not necessarily translations of this 12th-century text. The most common Early Anatolian Turkish work, for example, was created by Taceddin Ahmet İbn-i İbrahim el-Ahmedi (an English stub is here) in the 1390s CE. Ahmedi was a member of the ulema during the reign of Sultan Bayezit I. He claimed to be inspired by Nizāmī, but that his own work was more than a mere translation of Nizāmī’s Iskandarnāmah. The British Library holds eight Anatolian Turkish İskendernameler, 6 of which can be identified as following from Ahmedi’s recension (Or 1376 , Or 7234, Or 13837, Add MS 7905, Add MS 7918, Harley MS 3273). The authorship of another recension has yet to be traced (Or 8699), while Or 11056 contains a mixture of Ahmedi’s version and unattributed additions. These might include extracts from Karamanlı Figani’s late 15th century recension, although further research would be needed to confirm this.

A single page from a manuscript with Arabic-script text above and below a painting in gold, light blue, navy blue, orange, pink, green, purple, red, and black. The painting has four individuals in robes, two of which are carrying a coffin on a bier. The coffin is elaborately illustrated in gold with a small dome and an arm waving out the side. The scene is atop a light-blue background with floral patterns and framed with a gold arch.
The coffin of Alexander as described in Navoiy's Sadd-i Iskandarî, with the deceased King's arm waving out the side of the vessel. (Alisher Navoiy, Ḥayrat al-abrār. 1006 AH [1598 CE]. British Library Add MS 7909 f 105v)
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The Alexander Romance also appears in the works Alisher Navoiy, perhaps the greatest name in Chagatai literature. A prolific poet and intellectual, and the central pillar of classical Chagatai literary history, Navoiy crafted a mesnevi entitled Sadd-i İskandarî, which is included in his Khamsa (Or 400, Or 16183, Add MS 7908). The mesnevi takes its name from the Gates of Alexander, purportedly built by the Macedonian monarch in the Caucasus to keep tribes from Gog and Magog out of his territories. The underlying Syriac tale is on display in the exhibition, but Navoiy’s mesnevi is based on Nizāmī’s work. While none of the British Library versions contain illustration, a copy of Navoiy’s Ḥayrat al-Abrār (the first of the five texts that make up Navoiy’s Khamsah) at Add MS 7909 does contain multiple illustrations. In one of the paintings, we see Alexander’s coffin (also featured in the current exhibition) carried by two servants with the King’s arm dangling out of it.

A single page from a manuscript with black ink Arabic-script text at the top two-thirds of the page, and a gold-inked circular labyrinth at the bottom centred around red-inked Arabic-script text.
A schematic drawing of the fortress of Qusṭanṭiniyah (Istanbul), established by Zulkarneyn, at the end of the description of his feats. (Nāṣir Rabghūzī, Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā. 15th century CE. British Library Add MS 7851 f 178v)
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In various Islamic literary traditions, Alexander is often identified with Dhū al-qarnayn, or Zulkarneyn in Turkish orthography, a figure found in Surat 18 (Sūrat al-Kahf) of the Qur’an. It is in this form that we find him in some of the British Library’s other well-known Turkic holdings, particularly the Qisās al-anbiyā’. This work, originally ascribed to Ḥasan ibn Nāṣir al-Balkhī, contains the biographies of both prophets and kings, which explains Zulkarneyn’s inclusion. The British Library holds three complete or partial renditions of the Qisās, or Kısasu’l-enbiya, in Ottoman Turkish (Or 6372, Or 12815, Or 13020). By far, however, the best known of the BL’s Qisās ul-anbiyā’ copies is in a Central Asian Turkic language and found at Add MS 7851. Compiled in the 15th century and frequently referred to as the Rabghuzi, after the name of its author, Nāṣir Rabghūzī, the text is an essential source for the development of Turkic languages in the region. Rabghūzī himself states that he collected the work from various sources in the first decade of the fourteenth century CE, indicating the age of the underlying narrative. Zulkarneyn only gets twelve pages out of about 500 (ff 172v-178v), wedged between Jesus and the Asḥab al-kahf or Seven Sleepers, and ending with a schematic diagram of the fortress of Qusṭanṭiniyah (Istanbul) that he founded. The work hasn’t been digitized, but sections of it can be found on the Library’s Discovering Sacred Texts site. An abridged, later copy of the work can also be found at Or 5328, which is currently being digitized.

image from www.thedigitalwalters.org
Alexander the Great atop his black steed meeting the King of China. (Nevizade Atayi, Ḫamse-yi ʿAṭāʾī. 1133 AH [1721 CE]. Walters Art Museum, W.666 f 77r) 
CC Public Domain Image Rights held by the Walters Art Museum.

In 2019, I wrote about an illustrated copy of Nevizade Atayi’s Hamse that included homoerotic illustrations. As interesting as they might be, the images that accompany Atayi’s Heft Han aren’t the only reason to be drawn to the volume. One of the five poems contained in the work, Sohbetü’l-Ebkâr, or the Conversation of the Bachelors, includes a brief description of Alexander the Great’s march to China. Alexander never actually made it that far east, which gives us a clue to just how inflated the legends around him are. The British Library copy, sadly, doesn’t have an illustration of the ruler himself. Another volume, however, held at the Walters Museum in Philadelphia, does depict the Macedonian king at his legendary meeting with the King of China. In this painting, Alexander is atop a black steed and is adorned in a fur-trimmed gold coat with an elaborate crown.

A circular map of the world in black and red inks. The map is centred on Mecca identified by the black-inked Kaaba, with snaking bodies of water in red ink. Cities are identified by writing occasionally enclosed in black ink shapes. There is Arabic-script writing on the map.
A map of the world taken from the Tercüme-yi Haridatu'l-acayip with the Wall of Gog and Magog in the bottom centre, north-east of Istanbul (inside the fortified triangle). (Mahmud el-Hatip el-Rumi, Tercüme-yi Haridatu'l-acayip. 1047 AH [1637 CE]. British Library Or 7304 ff 3v-4r)
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A final source worth mentioning doesn’t really mention Alexander at all. But just as he entered people’s imaginations of divine kingship, so too did the geography of his campaigns influence their conception of the world. Perhaps this is the reason that Gog and Magog ( Ye’cûc ve Me’cûc in Ottoman Turkish) can be found on some Ottoman maps from the 16th and 17th centuries. While the origins of Gog and Magog are older than those of the Alexander Romance, their placement on maps nevertheless had to accord with their appearance in the stories. In Or 7304 and in Or 13201, Ottoman Turkish translations of the Arabic cosmology Kharīdat al-ᶜajāᵓib wa farīdat al-gharāᵓib (خريدة العجائب وفريدة الغرائب), for example, the map of the world contains the Wall of Gog and Magog at the bottom. Given the orientation of the maps and the rest of their content, this places it to the north-east of Istanbul but west of Azerbaijan; somewhere in contemporary Ukraine, perhaps. Just as Alexander was matched to the listing of prophets and kings, so too were the signposts of his story factored into a reckoning of the world.

A single page of text in black and red inks in Arabic script divided into two columns with double outlines in black and gold ink.A single page of text in black and red inks in Arabic script divided into two columns with double outlines in black and gold ink.
The Dastan-i İskender from Nevizade Atayi's Hamse, recounting his meeting with the Emperor of China. (Nevizade Atayi, Hamse.1151 AH [1738 CE]. British Library Or 13882, ff 139r-v).

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These are just a few of the examples of Alexander and the stories told of him found within the British Library’s Turkic-language manuscript collections. Their connections to Persian and other literatures gives us a hint of how İskender, or Alexander, formed one of many linkages between the literary traditions of Eurasia. For the full extent of the story, you’ll have to visit Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Luckily for you, it’s on until 19 February 2023.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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23 September 2022

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth

Readers may have noticed the new placards and billboards at the British Library announcing Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth which opens exactly four weeks today. Son of Philip II of Macedon and his wife Olympias, the historical Alexander was born in Pella, capital of Macedon in July 356 BC. By July 330 BC he had defeated the Persian army, becoming, at the age of twenty-five, ruler of Asia Minor, pharaoh of Egypt and successor to Darius III, the ‘Great King’ of Persia. During the next seven years, Alexander created an empire that stretched from Greece in the west to beyond the Indus river in the east – before his early death in Babylon aged thirty-two.

Alexander billboard

This exhibition, however, is not about history, but the first of its kind to explore 2,000 years of  storytelling and mythmaking. With objects from 25 countries in 21 languages, it shows how one figure could serve so many purposes, creating shared narratives of universal appeal. The Alexander Romance, composed originally in Greek in the third century AD, was at the heart of this storytelling. But legends also found their way into epic poetry and drama, and more recently into novels, comics, films and video games. You will see examples of all of these in the exhibition.

Out of approximately 140 objects, some eighty-six are from the British Library's collections. To give a taste of what’s in store, I have chosen to highlight a few of the thirty-eight exhibits from our own Asian and African collections.

A Christian Alexander
A Christian Alexander described as ‘enemy of devils’ heads this amulet scroll in the Ethiopian Ge‘ez language. Ethiopia, 18th century? (British Library Or.12859)
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The exhibition is arranged in six sections based around Alexander’s legendary life. After an introduction,  A Conqueror in the Making explores the different versions of Alexander’s origins, his education by the philosopher Aristotle and Bucephalus, his faithful warhorse.

Nahid is presented to Dara
Nahid, daughter of Philip of Macedon, is here married to the Persian emperor as part of a diplomatic alliance. Rejected on account of her bad breath, she was sent home, unknowingly pregnant, to Greece where she gave birth to a son, Alexander. This version of Alexander’s origins saw him, in Persian eyes, as the legitimate heir and successor to the throne. From the Darabnamah (Story of Darab), by Abu Tahir Muhammad Tarsusi, Mughal India, 1580–85 (British Library Or.4615, f. 129r)
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Aristotle instructs a pupil
Aristotle instructs a pupil in the Kitab na‘t al-hayawan (On the Characteristics of Animals). Baghdad?, about 1225 (British Library Or.2784, f. 96r)
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Section three, Building an Empire, describes Alexander’s victory over Darius III of Persia and his expeditions further east to India and China — by the way Alexander did reach India but he never went to China!

Alexander comforts the dying Dara
Alexander comforts the dying Darius and agrees to his final requests in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (Book of Kings). According to one Persian tradition, Darius was in fact his half-brother. Isfahan?, Iran, 1604 (British Library IO Islamic 966, f. 335r)
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Or_12208_f318r_3000_1500Or_12208_f318r_3000_1500
In Kandahar, Alexander was persuaded by a beautiful priestess not to destroy the sacred statue. This copy of the twelfth-century poet Nizami’s Khamsah (Five Poems) was especially commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar who had conquered Kandahar in 1595 while this manuscript was still being copied. The painting would have deliberately invited comparison between Akbar, famous for his religious tolerance, and Alexander. Artists: Mukund and La‘l, Lahore, 1593–95 (British Library Or.12208, ff. 317v–318r)
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In a section on Alexander’s relationships, we introduce the important people in his life: his wives, the powerful women he encountered, his general Hephaestion and the eunuch slave Bagoas.

Alexander's wedding to Roxana
The wedding of Alexander and Darius’ daughter, Roxana. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah (Book of Kings), Qazvin, Iran, about 1590–95 (British Library Add MS 27257, f. 326v)
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The Mythical Quest is the most fantastical section. Here Alexander travels through strange lands inhabited by people with faces in their chests, sirens, griffins and dragons. His journey leads him to the ends of the earth, into the skies above and to the bottom of the ocean, always seeking new experiences and the key to immortality.

Coptic fragment of Alexander Romance
This Coptic fragment of the Alexander Romance describes Alexander setting off to explore the Land of Darkness. When a mysterious voice predicted his imminent death, he turned back bringing with him some objects he had gathered in the dark. These later turned out to be diamonds. Atripe, Upper Egypt, 14th century (British Library Or.3367/2)
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The final section, Journey’s End, describes Alexander’s return to Babylon and the mystery of his subsequent death. His body was transported on a magnificent carriage to Egypt, where it was eventually placed in a mausoleum at Alexandria. The tomb is now lost, but his final resting place is still a subject of debate.

Iskandar's funeral procession
This popular prose version of Alexander’s life reflects a Persian tradition. In accordance with his final wishes Alexander’s coffin was carried through his dominions with his arm hanging loose to show that he travelled to the grave empty-handed. From the Iskandarnamah (Story of Alexander) by Manuchihr Khan Hakim, Tehran, 1857–58 (British Library 14787.k.8)
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Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth opens on 21 October. It will be accompanied by a book of the same title. Edited by Richard Stoneman, it includes nine essays by leading scholars together with images and descriptions of the exhibition items. During the next few months we’ll be writing blogs about several of the items in the exhibition, and also some which we were not able to include. Meanwhile tickets are already on sale and may be booked on our Events page.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
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We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


22 December 2021

A farewell to Jerry! J. P. Losty (1945-2021).

One of our most active contributors and colleague, J.P. Losty (1945-2021), passed away on the 29th of September. We are heartbroken by the news and will miss Jerry for his unfaltering generosity, sense of humour and his exceptional knowledge on the collections. Our thoughts are with his wife Kate and daughters Cat and Ellie.

Jerry started his career at the British Museum in 1971, joining as the Assistant Keeper of Sanskrit in the Department of Oriental Manuscripts. From 1986, Jerry worked in the Print, Drawings and Photographs section of The British Library; first as Curator and retiring as Head of Prints, Drawings and Photographs in 2005. His exhibition Art of the Book in India (1986) brought together an encyclopedic collection of South Asian manuscripts from across the world and the accompanying catalogue is still a valuable resource for researchers.

Jerry has left us an incredible legacy at the British Library, from shaping the collection with his ambitious programme of acquisitions over a 34-year career, arranging our internal storage of the paintings in such a detailed fashion (by style and then in chronological order), and also leaving copious details in the catalogue records and articles on the breadth of the collection. Since retirement, Jerry’s impressive range of publications – more than 26 books – has opened our eyes to fresh approaches to Indian painting. His ability to write accessible articles, whether for the British Library’s Asia and Africa Blog, or his countless monographs, really demonstrates his dedication to the field and ensures that his information is as helpful to the academic scholar as for a general audience. 

As Jerry's extensive career can be better outlined by one of his many peers, this blog post looks at Jerry's contributions post-retirement. On retiring in May 2005, Jerry spent the initial months devoting time to his other interests such as music, travelling and spending time with his family. This respite was short lived as Jerry was invited back to the Library to guest curate The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's Great Epic and wrote the accompanying publication which launched in 2008. 

Jerry looking at decorative objects to be displayed at the Ramayana exhibition in 2008. Photo credit: Janet Benoy.
Jerry looking at decorative objects to be displayed at the Ramayana exhibition in 2008. Photo credit: Janet Benoy.

After wrapping up the Ramayana project, Jerry started to focus on his research on later Mughal paintings. From 2008 through 2012, Jerry was exceptionally busy working on a range of projects. He completed his research on Mazhar Ali Khan's Panorama of Delhi and published a monograph titled Delhi 360 (Roli Books, 2012). This detailed publication cross-checked the illustrated monuments with extant buildings that were drawn in 1846 by the artist Mazhar Ali Khan from the viewpoint of the Lahore Gate at the Red Fort. Jerry also supported my first major British Library exhibition, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, giving me guidance on early Mughal manuscripts and graciously co-authored the book in a record 4 month window. Jerry also supported the South Asia section curators Marina Chellini and Leena Mitford with the ambitious Digital Re-unification of the Mewar Ramayana in 2014. In acknowledgement of his lifetime work on Indian art, Jerry was awarded the Colonel James Tod award at the Maharana of Mewar Annual Function in Udaipur in March 2016.

Jerry and Maharana of Mewar
Maharana Arvind Singh of Mewar and J.P. Losty, March 2016. Photo credit: Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation.

In terms of publications, between 2010-2021, Jerry was regularly invited to contribute to a range of exhibition catalogues including The Indian Portrait (National Portrait Gallery, 2010), Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi (Yale University Press, 2012), Masters of Indian Painting (Artibus Asiae, 2015), and Forgotten Masters (Wallace Collection, 2019). Aside from his many articles, Jerry also published the following books:

  • Sita Ram's Painted Views of India: Lord Hastings's Journey from Calcutta to the Punjab, 1814 - 15 (Roli Books, 2015)
  • Indian Paintings of the British Period in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Collection (Museum of Indian Art, Hyderabad, 2016)
  • Mystical Realm of Love: Pahari Paintings from the Eva & Konrad Seitz Collection  (Francesca Galloway, 2017)
  • Indian life and people in the 19th century: Company paintings in the Tapi Collection (Roli Books, 2019)
  • Court and Courtship: Indian Miniatures in the Tapi Collection (Niyogi Books, 2020)

For the followers and readers of the Asian and African Studies Blog, Jerry was one of our key supporters from the launch of the Blog in 2012. Jerry immediately joined in and offered to contribute short articles on parts of the collection that he had continued to research during his retirement. As a fitting tribute, here is a roll call of his contributions since 2012. 

Image: Nawab ‘Abd al-Rahman of Jhajjar in his court in cool weather with his two young sons and various courtiers and attendants. By Ghulam ‘Ali Khan, dated January-February 1852. British Library, Add.Or.4681. The Search for Alexander Hadarli.
The first blog post Jerry authored was on his research on Alexander Hadarli, a European at the court of the Nawab of Jhajjar who featured in this durbar scene in 1852. Jerry's chance discovery of archival information helped him realise that this this figure was in fact the noted Urdu poet Azad who flourished in Delhi during the mid-19th century.
Image: Robert Smith, Aurangzeb’s Mosque at Varanasi, 1814.  Watercolour on paper, 19 by 35 cm.  WD2089 Disentangling the Robert Smiths
Jerry was keen to explore and understand the careers and artistic styles of the two Robert Smiths that flourished in the 19th century. This blog post looks at the works of Colonel Robert Smith (1787-1873), of the Bengal Engineers, who was the controversial architect who repaired the Qutb Minar between 1825-30 after previous damage caused by an earthquake.
Portrait of Raja Shamsher Sen of Mandi Pahari Paintings at The British Library
While the strength of the British Library's South Asian paintings collections are without doubt Mughal paintings and manuscripts, Jerry highlighted the small collection of Pahari paintings that had been acquired by the Library since the early 19th century through the present day.
Portrait of Gervase Pennington by Jivan Ram

A new portrait miniature by Jivan Ram acquired
Jerry was interested to learn more about the artist Raja Jivan Ram that the art historian and British Library (India Office) Curator Mildred Archer had documented in one of her publications. On acquiring a new portrait by Jivan Ram of the British officer Gervase Pennington in 2013, Jerry started to piece together Jivan Ram's career and stylistic use of oil on board and watercolour on ivory for both a short blog post and an article in the eBLJ: Raja Jivan Ram: A Professional Indian Portrait Painter of the Early Nineteenth Century (bl.uk)

Detail of a Mughal painting of flower studies, c. 1635
Mughal flower studies and their European inspiration
Possibly one of Jerry's most popular blog posts; this post looked at the influences for Mughal flower studies produced for Prince Dara Shikoh during the middle of the 17th century and discussed connection to Adriaen Collaert, Florilegium. 
Hanuman is brought bound before Ravana and his tail set on fire.  Ramayana, Sundara Kanda.  Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, c. 1650.  British Library, IO San 3621, f.9r Curator's perspective: accessing the Mewar Ramayana
Jerry wrote a candid article on working on the Mewar Ramayana, a 17th century manuscript that consisted of 8 volumes, 6 of which are held by the British Library. The blog post was to complement the Digital Re-unification of the Sanskrit epic with CSMVS in Mumbai.
Nayaka ko prakasa biyoga sringara, Krishna’s ‘open’ love in separation (Rasikapriya 1, 27-28).  301 x 217 mm.  Deccan, perhaps Aurangabad, 1720-30. British Library, Add.21475, f.4

For a particular album of Martha and Deccani paintings, Jerry wrote two blog posts:

 

The Takht Sri Harmandir Patna Sahib.  Inscribed: ‘N2 Gunga Govind Sing’s Temple at the confluence of the Baugrutty and Jalangi Rivers.  Augt 1820.’  WD4404, f.2.  noc Charles D'Oyly's voyage to Patna
Jerry often researched and wrote about amateur artists that worked for the East India Company, such as Charles D'Oyly who was employed by the Bengal Civil Service and was influenced by the English artist George Chinnery.
A model of a lion.   By Gangaram, 1790.  Wax, possibly dhuna, the aromatic gum of the shal tree (Shorea robusta), painted; size of wooden base: 20.5 x 9.75 x 2cm; animal 12.5cm at highest point of mane.  F872  noc

'A very ingenious person': The Maratha artist Gangaram Cintaman Tambat
On joining as Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Library in 1986, Jerry started to work on the artist Gangaram who was employed by Sir Charles Warre Malet of the Bombay Civil Service, including his detailed illustrations of rare animals in Pune. 


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

Artistic Visions of the Delhi Zenana
Jerry researched the rise of portrait miniatures on ivory in 19th century Delhi. The acquisition of a set of watercolour paintings on ivory gave him the opportunity to explore a few lesser known Delhi artists and their portraits of women of the Mughal household.

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

New evidence for the style of the "Fraser artist" in Delhi: Portraits of Afghans 1808-10
Jerry avidly wrote about 19th century Delhi and the so-called Fraser artist in Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire (British Library, 2012).  

Two oxen fighting.  Deccan, probably Bijapur, early 17th century.  Marbled paper, wash and gold.  100 by 130 mm (page 190 x 295 mm).  British Library J.53, 3 (detail)

Jerry wrote several blog posts on Deccani paintings including:

Detail of the Taj Mahal from Or 16805

The 'Agra Scroll': Agra in the early 19th century
After the British Library acquired s seven-metre long panoramic view of the Agra riverfront, Jerry and the eminent art historian Dr. Ebba Koch (Vienna) started their in-depth research to document the architectural views. Jerry and Ebba's full article can be read via the eBLJ: The Riverside Mansions and Tombs of Agra: New Evidence from a
Panoramic Scroll Recently Acquired by The British Library

 

Bridge of boats across the Ganga at Kanpur and Major Gilbert’s house. By Sita Ram, 1814-15.  BL Add.Or.4747


The Gilbert Artist: A Possible Pupil of Sita Ram
Jerry's last contribution for the Blog in 2019 by no means was his last article or monograph. Continuing on from his extensive research on the artist Sita Ram, Jerry wanted to delve deeper into the collection to document the connections between Sita Ram's picturesque painting style to others in the collection.

Jerry's full list of publications can be found via the British Library's Research Repository or Academia.edu. 

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

04 October 2021

Khadija Saye’s Art and the ‘Toothbrush Tree’

The British Library exhibition ‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ (3 Dec 2020–7 Oct 2021) shows nine self-portraits by this talented and innovative Gambian–British artist. In each, she displays a particular artefact associated with Gambian culture. In this blog, Kadija Sesay, the exhibition’s external curator, explores the cultural and scientific uses of one of these objects.

The multiple properties and uses of the Salvadora persica, commonly known as ‘the toothbrush tree’, can be sourced from every aspect of the tree - the seeds, bark, stem, leaves and flowers - for food, medication and scientific purposes. Wherever it is native to a region, which is most of the African continent, South Asia and the Middle East, it has claimed a significant position within society. Its many uses seem to bestow near-magical properties on it, and it is thought to provide solutions and remedies for everyday problems and ailments.

Sothiou (Chewing-sticks/toothbrush), Khadija Saye (2017)

The botanical description of the Salvadora persica is of a large, well-branched evergreen shrub or tree, from the Salvadora species. As well as the Salvadora persica (known as Khari Jaal in India), this species includes the Salvadora oleoides (known as Meethi Jaal in India).

Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations
Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations: Encyclopédie méthodique, ou par ordre de matières par une Société de Gens de Lettres, de Savans, et d'Artistes. Botanique. Recueil de planches. Vol. 1. (Paris, 1823).  British Library, J/12215.r.1/12a. Noc

Medical and other scientific elements feed into the tradition and culture of those societies where it is found, as the health benefits of using the miswak for oral hygiene are well known. They have been used for cleaning teeth for centuries. They are cheaper than imported toothbrushes and toothpaste, and scientific studies have shown them to have antibacterial properties that maintain and enhance oral hygiene, contributing to strong teeth and healthy breath. For these practical, economic and health reasons, they have been recommended for regular use by the World Health Organization within the communities in which they grow.

In The Gambia, the longer branches of the tree carry varying spiritual meanings within African indigenous faith: they may be used to make proclamations or promises to God, to invoke the spirits of the ancestors, or to claim protection from Satan.

The shorter branches, as well as being used for toothbrushes at home, have cultural attributes specifically for women as they also symbolise, when seen in public, that they are women who are due respect. As sothiou is known to have cleansing properties, the visual symbol of a woman using it reflects on her personal cleanliness, not only with respect to her mouth and body, but in the way that she leads her life. This in turn reflects on the raising of her daughters, showing that they maintain their personal cleanliness and virginity.

Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017
Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017.
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London. © The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Clean teeth are a symbol of beauty, too. Therefore, older married women in The Gambia known as ‘Jegg’ (younger married women will be referred to as ‘small Jegg’) can be seen publicly with sothiou in their mouths when they attend high-end events and family ceremonies such as weddings. For these reasons, it is common to see women who use sothiou more than men.

The commonly known attributes of the Salvadora persica have led to further research and investigation of its properties, some of which are highlighted briefly here.

For culinary use, the fruit of the tree is an edible sweet berry which can be fermented into a drink. In East Africa, the leaves are cooked in a sauce as a vegetable dish and although bitter in taste, the shoots and leaves can be included as part of a salad.

The plant’s potential pharmaceutical and other scientific uses are many. The seeds, for example, are commonly used as a diuretic and the oil from the seeds is used to ease rheumatism. The bark and root, apart from producing antiplaque agents, are also being investigated by scientists for a number of other apparent qualities including analgesic, anticonvulsant and antibacterial properties. The stem bark, for example, is used for gastric problems.

The use of Salvadora persica has shown that reliance on natural organisms supports the communities in which they grow, where they simultaneously become woven into local cultures and traditions. In her artwork, Khadija Saye has captured culture, history, tradition and science simply by focusing on and drawing our attention to an object which simultaneously reinforces the importance of our natural environment locally and globally. As her work so powerfully testifies, the information and knowledge that local communities carry in their family, traditions and culture should be recorded so that more research can be undertaken.

Other objects in the work of Khadija Saye were discussed in the British Library event ‘Cowries, Incense and Amulets’ on 17 May 2021.

Further reading

Basil H. Aboul-Enein, ‘The miswak (Salvadora persica L.) chewing stick: cultural implications in oral health promotion’, The Saudi Journal for Dental Research, 5, 1, (2014), 9-13.
World Health Organization, Prevention of oral diseases. WHO offset publication No. 103. Geneva: World Health Organization; 1987), p. 61.
M. Khatak, S. Khatak,1 A. A. Siddqui, N. Vasudeva, A. Aggarwal, and P. Aggarwal, ‘Salvadora persica’, Pharmacognosy Reviews 4, 8 (2010), 209–214.

Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, 'Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe' Ccownwork

 

13 September 2021

Epic Iran: Manuscripts from the Islamic era

Epic Iran display

In a recent blog I wrote about three of our Zoroastrian treasures which were part of the  Epic Iran exhibition organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. Sadly the exhibition is now over, but this second blog on the Islamic period manuscripts which we loaned can serve as a reminder for those who were lucky enough to visit, or as a visual reference for those who weren't so fortunate.

The exhibition was organised into broad themes, the first four on Iran up to the advent of Islam, the fifth section, The Book of Kings, acted as an introduction to Islamic Iran primarily through the epic Shahnamah (Book of Kings) completed by the poet Firdawsi around AD 1010.

Bahram Gur hunting with Azadah
This detail from Firdawsiʼs Shahnamah shows the Sasanian ruler Bahram Gur (Bahram V, r. 420-38) hunting with the slave girl Azadah. Iran, 1486 (BL Add MS 18188, f. 353r). Public Domain

Tracing the history of the Iranian people from the beginning up until the defeat of the Sasanian ruler Yazdegird III in 651, the Shahnamah combines myth and tradition in what is perhaps the best known work of Persian literature. Many hundreds of illustrated copies survive today dating from the Mongol period onwards. The story depicted here, in a manucript dating from the Turkman/Timurid period shows Azadah, a slave-girl who was a fine harpist, riding behind Bahram on his camel on a hunting expedition. On this occasion Bahram performed the remarkable feat of shooting two arrows into one gazelle's head,  cutting off the antlers of another and hitting a third as it raised its foot towards its ear. When Azadah expressed sympathy for the gazelles instead of praise for Bahram’s skill, he took offense, flung her to the ground, and let his camel trample her.

The sixth section, Change of Faith explored Islam in Iranian culture, the transition from Arabic to Persian and the important Iranian contribution to Islamic science.

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Pursued by a figure with a club, Adam and Eve are accompanied by the peacock and dragon who, at Satan’s instigation, had been responsible for their fall. From the Qisas al-anbiya (Stories of the Prophets) by al-Naysaburi. Shiraz, Iran, 16th century (BL Add MS 18576, f. 11r) Public Domain

There are several different collections in Arabic and Persian with the title Qisas al-anbiyaʼ, stories adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. One of the best-known and most illustrated is the collection composed in Persian by the 12th century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi. Add MS 18576 illustrated here is one of sixteen known illustrated copies of al-Naysaburi’s compilation, all produced in Safavid Iran between 1565 and 1585. The portrayal of Adam and Eve agrees with a passage in the Qurʼan (Surah 20, verses 120-21) ʻSo the two of them ate of it, and their shameful parts revealed to them, and they took to stitching upon themselves leaves of the Garden.ʼ Their fiery haloes, however, indicate that they still had some phrophetic status.

  The constellations Aquila and Delphinus
The constellations Aquila and Delphinus from the Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of the Images of the Fixed Stars) by al-Sufi. Iran, possibly Maragha, 1260-80 (BL Or 5323. f. 28v). Public Domain

The tenth-century Iranian astronomer ʻAbd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903–86) is the author of several important Arabic texts on the stars and is regarded as one of the greatest Islamic scientists. His most important text, represented here, is the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabitah, based on Ptolemy's Almagest, in which he gives a full description of the classical system of constellations, observed both from the earth and from outside the celestial globe. The outlines of each constellation and the stars belonging to it are therefore drawn twice, their image mirrored in the second drawing.

Describing the rise of Persian poetry, the seventh section, Literary Excellence, was devoted to how Persian emerged as a literary language from the tenth century onwards. As a result of royal patronage poets flourished at court and workshops developed in which calligraphy, illumination and painting were practiced at the highest levels.

Collection of divans
Lyrical poems of Adib Sabir, the panegyrist of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1118-57). Tabriz, 1314 (BL IO Islamic 132, f. 49r) Public Domain

This manuscript, an anthology of poetry by Muʻizzi, Akhsikati, Adib Sabir, Qamar, Shams Tabasi and Nasir Khusraw, was very likely copied in Tabriz in the scriptorium of the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din. Copied by ʻAbd al-Muʼmin al-ʻAlavi al-Kashi between Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 713 and Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 714 (February 1314–February 1315), it closely resembles other secular manuscripts prepared for Rashid al-Din during the same period. The manuscript contains altogether 53 illustrations in a simplified Mongol style, mostly depicting, as here, the poet receiving a robe of honour from Sultan Sanjar.

The Divan of Hafiz (Add MS 7759)
Facing pages of the Divan of Hafiz on Chinese paper. Possibly Herat, Afghanistan, 1451 (BL Add MS 7759, ff. 60v-61r). Public Domain

This early copy of the Divan of Hafiz (d.c.1389) was 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 containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of large sheets which were painted on before being cut up. The paper is dyed various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

Prince Humay reaches Princess Humayun's castle
Humay arrives at the gate of Humayun’s castle. From Humay u Humayun  (Humay and Humayun) of Khvaju Kirmani. Baghdad, Iraq, late 14th century (BL Add MS 18113, f. 18v). Public Domain

Add MS 18113 contains three poems from the Khamsah (Five Poems) by Khvaju Kirmani (1290-1349?). The first, the story of the lovers Humay and Humayun, was completed in 1331 in response to a request to enchant Muslim audiences with a supposed ʻMagianʼ theme. The poems were copied by the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli ibn Ilyas al-Tabrizi al-Bavarchi in 798 (1396) at the Jalayirid capital Baghdad. The paintings most probably belonged to another copy and were added afterwards. The artist of one of them was Junayd, a pupil of Shams al-Din who worked under the Jalayirid sultan Uways I (r. 1356-74), who inscribed his name on an arch in an illustration on folio 45v. The manuscript stayed in royal hands at least until the Safavid era when it was refurbished for the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza (1517-49), the youngest of the four sons of Shah Ismaʻil (r. 1501-24).

The construction of the palace at Khavarnak
The building of the palace of Khavarnaq. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting attributed to the master-painter Bihzad. Herat, late 15th century (BL Or.6810, f. 154v). Public Domain

This beautiful copy of the Khamsah (Five Poems) by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami entered the Mughal Imperial Library in Akbar's reign and was regarded as one of the most treasured possessions in his collection. Its importance lies chiefly in its decoration and illustrations which include paintings by the master-painter of Herat, Bihzad (flourished during the reign of the Timurid Husayn Bayqara, 1469-1506). ‘The building of the palace of Khavarnaq,’ ascribed to Bihzad in a note underneath, shows the structure of the pavilion: the scaffolding, a ladder, men chipping bricks, transporting them and actually positioning them on the building.

The opening of Shah Tahmasp's Khamsah
The opening of Nizami's Makhzan al-asrar, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Tabriz or Qazvin, (BL Or.2265, ff. 2v-3r). Public Domain

Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad; Khusraw sees Shirin bathing
Left: Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Painting ascribed to Mirza ʻAli (BL Or.2265, f. 53v). Public Domain
Right: Prince Khusraw spies Shirin bathing. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin. Painting ascribed to Sultan Muhammad (BL Or.2265, f.77v). Public Domain

Or.2265, a 16th century copy of Nizami's Khamsah (Five Poems), is perhaps the most spectacular of our manuscript loans. Originally copied between 1539 and 1543 for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-76), it was augmented by the addition of 14 full page illustrations by some of the most famous court artists of the mid-16th century. Further pages were inserted probably during the 17th century, and again at a later stage, perhaps when the manuscript was rebound in the early 19th century at the court of Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar (r. 1797-1834) who in 1243 (1827/28), according to a note inside, presented it to his forty-second wife Taj al-Dawlah.

The ninth section The Old and the New focussed on the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925), introducing an element of modernisation and developing new relationships with Europe.

The Iranian army defeats the Russians
Fath ʻAli Shah's heir ʻAbbas Mirza about to slay the Russian general Gazhadand with the Russian army in flight. From the Shahanshahnamah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Iran, 1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f. 387v). Public Domain

With Firdawsi's Shahnamah as a model, Fath‘Ali Shah commissioned the Shahanshahnamah (Book of the King of Kings) by the court poet Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba. Presented to the East India Company, this was one of several equally sumptuous copies given as diplomatic gifts to various European dignitaries.

Portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah
Portrait of Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896), seated on a European style sofa, by Muhammad Isfahani. Iran, 1856 (BL Or.4938, f.4r). Public Domain

Although the exhibition has now closed, the published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture

Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian
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Further reading 

Most of these manuscripts have been digitised and can be explored by following the hyperlinks given above or by going to our Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts page. The following blogs also give further information:

An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani
The archaeology of a manuscript: the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani
Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum
A Jewel in the Crown: A 15th century illustrated copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.6810)
The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece

30 August 2021

Epic Iran: Some Zoroastrian Treasures

Epic Iran  general view

The British Library has an unrivalled collection of Zoroastrian manuscripts and therefore welcomed the opportunity to display three of its Zoroastrian treasures in the current exhibition Epic Iran organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. The exhibition is open until 12 September 2021 by ticketed admission only. Tickets must be purchased in advance and are released on Tuesdays at 12.00. 

The exhibition covers approximately five millennia of Iranian history and is the first of its kind since the Royal Academy's International Exhibition of Persian Art of 1931. Arranged in nine sections it explores and brings together the whole range of Iranian material cultures from the earliest known writing to the 1979 Revolution and beyond. Out of around 300 exhibits, the British Library contributed fifteen manuscripts which will be the subject of two blogs. In this first post I will focus on the three Zoroastrian items.

Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Iranians, owes its name to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) whose hymns (Gathas) are thought to have been composed 1500-1000 BCE. It teaches the importance of good thoughts, words, and actions, in a dualistic cosmos where the forces of the All-knowing Lord, Ahura Mazda, are constantly opposed by those of the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu. Originating in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism spread east to China and south to Iran where it became the main religion from the sixth century BCE until the mid-seventh century CE. After the arrival of Islam, Zoroastrian refugees from Iran established settlements in Gujarat, India, where they were called Parsis (‘Persians’). Zoroastrian diaspora communities have since become established worldwide.

Zoroastrianism is essentially an oral religion. The oldest scriptures, referred to as the Avesta or Zend, are in an Old Iranian language, Avestan. They were not written down, however, until around the sixth century CE during the Sasanian period, many centuries after their composition. Even after that, the main liturgical texts were transmitted orally. This is partly the reason that, apart from the Ashem vohu fragment mentioned below, there are no manuscripts surviving from before the end of the thirteenth century.

The earliest extant Zoroastrian text, the Ashem Vohu prayer

The Ashem Vohu  Or.8212:84
The Ashem vohu prayer transcribed in Sogdian script, dating from around the ninth century CE (British Library, Or.8212/84). Public domain

This fragment dates from around the ninth century CE and comes, not from India or Iran, the lands associated today with the Zoroastrianism, but from Dunhuang in Central China, where it was discovered in the Mogao caves by Aurel Stein in 1907. It contains a short text in Sogdian (a middle-Iranian language) about the prophet Zarathushtra followed by a phonetic transcription into the Sogdian script of one of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, composed originally in Avestan. Remarkably, the language of the prayer is neither recognisable as Sogdian nor Avestan, but is likely to represent a much older Iranian dialect, perhaps an archaic form of Avestan. The prayer must have been preserved orally in this ancient form, which remained unaffected by the codification of the Avesta in the Sasanian period, when the sacred texts were first written down (N. Sims-Williams, The everlasting flame, p.94).

Zoroastrianism was carried eastwards to China from the early centuries of the first millennium CE by Sogdian traders, whose homeland was the area of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan. This document provides written evidence for its continuation there up to the ninth century and, more importantly, it is the only example of its kind, dating from about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text.

An illustrated law book

Videvdad sadeh  RSPA 230
The opening to chapter nine of the Videvdad Sadah (British Library, RSPA 230, ff. 151r-152v). Public domain

The Videvdad Sadah is a liturgical presentation in Avestan of the most important of Zoroastrian legal works, the Videvdad (‘Law repudiating the demons’). The text, described as sadah (‘clean’), i.e. unaccompanied by any commentary, is recited in a ritual context. This opening shows the beginning of chapter nine which concerns the nine-night purification ritual (barashnum nuh shab) for someone who has been defiled by contact with a dead body.

Most of our Zoroastrian manuscripts originate from India, copied by and for the Parsi community which traditionally emigrated from Iran from about the eighth century onwards. This beautifully written and decorated copy, however, was made in Yazd, Iran in 1647 by a Zoroastrian Mihrban Anushirvan Bahram Shah who copied it for a Zoroastrian of Kirman called Marzban Sandal Khusraw. Whereas Zoroastrian manuscripts are generally unillustrated except for small devices such as verse dividers and occasional diagrams, this one, exceptionally, contains seven coloured illustrations six of trees and one diagram. The heading here has been decorated very much in the style of contemporary illuminated Islamic manuscripts.

This copy was most likely brought to India from Iran by the Iranian poet and writer, Siyavakhsh Urmazdyar, himself a descendant of the original patron, in the mid-nineteenth century before being acquired by Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner (fl.1817-1895), a successful Bombay businessman who presented it the Royal Society, London in May 1864. Transferred to the India Office Library in 1876, it was incorporated into the British Library collection in 1982.

The Bundahishn (‘Primal Creation’) 

The book of creation  Mss Avestan 22  ff 82-83
Chapter 27 of the Bundahishn,‘On the nature of the plants’ (British Library, Mss Avestan 22, ff. 82v-83r). Public domain

The Bundahishn, or ‘Primal Creation,’ is perhaps the most important Zoroastrian work on cosmogony and cosmography. Composed in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) during the early Islamic period, it is conventionally dated to the ninth century. It presents the Zoroastrian world view beginning with a detailed account of the perfect creation of the All-knowing Lord, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd in Middle Persian), which was attacked by the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), and contaminated with disease and death. The cosmic drama culminates in the resurrection of the dead and the defeat and removal of Evil from Ohrmazd’s world and its perfection at the end of time. The cosmographic parts of the text include descriptions of the world’s lands, rivers, lakes, mountains, plants animals, and human races.

The text of the Bundahishn is preserved in two distinct versions, an Indian and a more complete Iranian one. This manuscript gives the text of the Indian Bundahishn and is written in Pazand, a phonetic Avestan script. Copied in India in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, it was acquired by East India Company surgeon Samuel Guise (1751-1811) while working at the East India factory at Surat and was purchased by the East India Company Library after his death.

A published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture.

Readers who can visit the British Library can also see a small display of Zoroastrian manuscripts in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library


Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian

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Further Reading

Domenico Agostini and Samuel Thrope (tr), The Bundahišn: the Zoroastrian Book of Creation, New York, 2020
Almut Hintze, ‘An introduction to Zoroastrianism,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
Jenny Rose, ‘Zoroastrianism from the early modern period,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
Ursula Sims-Williams, ‘Zoroastrianism in late antiquity,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
–––––, ‘Zoroastrian Manuscripts in the British Library, London’, in A. Cantera (ed.) The Transmission of the Avesta (Wiesbaden, 2012): 173-94
–––––, ‘Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library
Sarah Stewart with Firoza Punthakey Mistree, Ursula Sims-Williams, The everlasting flame: Zoroastrianism in history and imagination, London; New York, 2013

17 May 2021

"Oyez, Oyez, Oyez": Hebrew Manuscripts Exhibition Re-opens

After sporadic closures throughout 2020 and the recent national lock-down, we are pleased to announce the eagerly anticipated re-opening on 18th May of the stimulating and beautifully designed British Library exhibition, Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word.

Embellished initial word panel with dragons and fabulous animals
Embellished initial word panel with dragons and fabulous animals. Sefer ha-Terumah (Book of the Heave Offering). Germany, 1307 (Add MS 18424, f. 31r detail)
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The 44 artifacts brought together for this exhibition convey powerful messages:

  • the magnitude of written culture as the bond connecting Jewish communities from all corners of the world
  • the centrality of Hebrew language and script linking Diaspora Jews, and documenting their experiences
  • the living proof of the centuries-long culture, history, and traditions of the Jewish people
  • high points and signs of conflict, as well as the exchanges of ideas and knowledge in the relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in the communities they lived in

Spanning a millennium, most of the showcased objects come from the British Library’s outstanding, multi-faceted Hebrew manuscript collection. In the glass cases arranged in the centre of the gallery well-known iconic specimens rest alongside unknown pieces on display for the very first time.
Viewers are taken on a voyage of discovery through four sections clearly demarcated by thematic text panels. The Bible and beyond section presents core Jewish religious texts from around the world.

Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance  Germany  1300-1324
Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance, Germany, 1300-1324 (Add MS 15282, f.28r)
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The beautifully wrought, 700-years old Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch is open at the story of Abraham sacrificing a ram instead of his son Isaac, captured here in a stunning micrographic design. Micrography is the weaving of minute lettering into abstract, geometric, and figurative patterns. It is a scribal practice unique to Jewish art that began in the 9th century CE in Egypt and the Holy Land and has continued to this day.

Also on view in this section is a 13th century incomplete copy of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud (literally ‘learning’) is the ultimate guide to religious law in Judaism. It is the largest corpus of Jewish knowledge, teachings and traditions accumulated over many centuries. The Babylonian Talmud, as its name implies, was compiled by scholars in Babylonia (present day Iraq). Although committed to writing around the year 500 CE, it continued to be edited for close to two centuries afterwards. During the Middle Ages and early modern period, the Talmud was the target of unrelenting condemnation and censorship by Christian authorities. Its allegedly offensive and blasphemous contents, led to frequent public burnings and the destruction of numerous copies. The copy on display has fortunately survived intact.
Babylonian Talmud  fragments. 13th century
Babylonian Talmud, fragments. Germany (?), 13th century copy (Add MS 25717, f.72v)
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The Living together part of the exhibition offers glimpses of the interaction between Jews and non-Jews through historical accounts, legal documents, and literature. Among the splendid artifacts on display are Perek Shirah and Sefer ha-zikuk. Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song) is an ancient hymn of praise in which every created thing – from the animate to the celestial – thanks God for its existence. The praises are mostly biblical verses, often taken from the Book of Psalms. The right page illustration which shows 13 different animals, opens the chapter on the four-legged beasts.

Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Copy  ca.1740 (Or 12983  f.13r Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Copy  ca.1740 (Or 12983  f.13r
Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Vienna, Austria (?). Copy, ca.1740 (Or 12983, ff. 12v-13r)
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The pictorial style in this charming 18th century manuscript copy of Perek Shirah was evidently influenced by contemporary European art. The 5 miniatures and the Hebrew and Yiddish text in the manuscript are the work of Aaron Wolf Schreiber Herlingen of Gewitsch, a prominent Moravian scribe-illustrator who was active from 1719 to 1752, primarily in Vienna. Some 50 manuscripts created by him are known to have survived.

Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation) is a manual of censorial principles and index of some 450 Hebrew works that allegedly contained morally detrimental, anti-Christian words and passages. Expurgators or revisers of Hebrew books, as they were sometimes called, deleted content they suspected referred to Christians in a negative way. On show is a 17th century manuscript copy of the original Sefer ha-zikuk Dominico Irosolimitano compiled in 1596 in Mantua.

Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation). Modena  Italy  17th century copy. f.42r Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation). Modena  Italy  17th century copy. f.42r
Sefer ha-zikuk
(Book of Expurgation). Modena, Italy, 17th century copy (Or 6639, ff. 41v-42r)
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An established expurgator of Hebrew books in the service of the Catholic Church in Italy, Dominico Irosolimitano was a converted rabbi formerly known as Samuel Vivas (b. Holy Land 1550; d. Italy 1620). He was active in many Italian cities including Mantua, Milan and Rome, and was responsible for censoring some 20,000 Hebrew books and manuscripts during a career that extended over 40 years.

The Power of letters and words section reveals how Jewish kabbalah seeks to better understand the world and the Divine, and shows the centrality of the Hebrew alphabet in kabbalistic theory and practice.
One of the most prominent Jewish kabbalists in medieval Spain was Abraham Abulafia (b.1240- d. after 1290). He founded Prophetic Kabbalah, a unique mystical method to reach a state of union with God. Among his many works Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba (Life in the World to come), known also as Sefer ha-‘igulim (Book of circles) is particularly significant.
The circles in this 15th century manuscript copy of the work, contain Abulafia’s instructions for mystical meditation, reminiscent of practices in Buddhism and Hinduism. The techniques include: combining letters, reciting and visualising the Divine names, breathing exercises and poses. The reader is meant to enter each circle through an ‘entrance’ clearly indicated by a decorative pin-like marker at the top. Latin translations of Abulafia’s writings influenced many Renaissance Christian kabbalists, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola being one of them.

Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy  15th century copy (Or 4596  f. 89r) Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy  15th century copy (Or 4596  f. 89r)
Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy, 15th century copy (Or 4596, ff. 88v-89r)
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The exhibited small parchment amulet was created sometime in the 18th or 19th century. Its creases clearly prove that such amulets were folded and kept in the owner’s clothing, purse or in an amulet holder, and were carried around.

Hebrew amulet. 18th-19th century (Or 16206)
Hebrew amulet. 18th-19th century (Or 16206)
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Amulets are believed to have magical powers, bring good luck and ward off evil, sickness, and other misfortunes. They have been used for centuries and are mentioned in the Talmud (the Talmudic term is kame’a). The most common types were for childbirth. In earlier times, high levels of childbirth and infant mortality led people to seek protection from the mysterious forces that seemingly had power over these events.

Hebrew amulets include symbolic designs, kabbalistic inscriptions, angels’ names, and permutations on the Names of God, as this specimen written for Esther bat Miriam shows. It was intended to guard her from all possible misfortunes at all times of day.

The final part of the exhibition – Science and scholarship - explores how Jewish thinkers have spread knowledge and have contributed new ideas to scholarship.

Living in communities scattered across the globe, many Jewish scholars were multilingual. At the crossroads of different cultures, they translated works between Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. Their most important contribution was transmitting Arabic and Greek ideas from these works to Christian Europe and their own co-religionists.

Avicenna  The Canon of Medicine (Hebrew translation of Books III and V). Spain or Italy  1479
Avicenna, The Canon of Medicine (Hebrew translation of Books III and V). Spain or Italy, 1479 (Harley MS 5680, f. 209r)
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In 1279, the Italian Jew, Nathan ha-Me’ati, translated the 11th-century Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna) from the original Arabic into Hebrew. The Canon was the most influential work of medieval medicine and the translation created new Hebrew medical vocabulary. This page from a 15th-century copy shows the end of Book V, which lists 650 recipes for medicines.

Another medieval Jewish scholar whose translations helped disseminate scientific ideas and knowledge was Jacob Anatoli (c. 1194-1256) who hailed from Provence, southern France.
In 13th century Naples, under the patronage of the enlightened Emperor Frederick II, Jacob Anatoli translated al-Farghani’s Compendium into Hebrew using both the original Arabic text and a Latin translation. The Compendium was an Arabic summary of Ptolemy’s Almagest, and it played a key role in spreading Greek astronomical knowledge in medieval Europe. Titled Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah (Compendium of Astronomy and Elements of Heavenly Movements), the manuscript on view is a 16th-17th century copy of Anatoli’s Hebrew translation.

Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah f147v Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah f147v

Al-Farghani, Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah (Compendium of Astronomy and Elements of Heavenly Movements). North Africa (?), 16th-17th century (Add MS 27107, ff. 147v-148r)
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Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is open until Sunday 6 June 2021.

Follow this link for a 3D virtual tour of the exhibition.

Other platforms with Hebrew manuscript content:

We are extremely grateful to the Dr Michael and Anna Brynberg Charitable Foundation for generously supporting this exhibition. With thanks to the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, the Shoresh Charitable Trust, and The David Pearlman Charitable Foundation.


Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections
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18 February 2021

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library

On 3 December 2020, the British Library opened its exhibition of Khadija Saye’s last photographic series: ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’.

The opening had been postponed from its original date in May because of the pandemic. With great good fortune, we emerged from the second national lockdown just in time to hold the virtual private view on its rescheduled date. For nearly two weeks thereafter, the nine beautiful, challenging and intricate photographs in the series were open to the public. But then London went into Tier 4, and we had to close again.

Curators seated in front of the Khadija Saye exhibition
Setting up for the virtual private view, 3 December 2020
Photographer: Luisa Elena Mengoni
CC Public Domain Image

The exhibition reopened at the British Library in May 2021 and the exhibition run has been extended to 7 October 2021. Advance booking is no longer necessary.

Photo of display of four works by Khadija Saye with accompanying text
‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library
Photographer: Jean-Philippe Calvin
© British Library corporate events

Khadija Saye (1992–2017), an artist of extraordinary promise, was British-born and of Gambian parentage. She was tragically killed in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, at the age of just 24. At the time, she was exhibiting works in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and on the cusp of major success. Her mother, Mary Ajaoi Augustus Mendy, also died in the fire.

This blog reproduces all nine of the powerfully evocative self-portraits in this series, along with the captions for each work which we, as curators, researched and wrote as we explored the multi-layered meanings the artist presents.

Into these eloquent photographs, Saye weaves symbols of her Gambian heritage, most with spiritual significance. The nine works form an extended meditation on spirituality, trauma and the body. They reference both The Gambia and religious faith as sources of strength in the face of trauma – which, for Saye, included the experience of racism in Britain. As she wrote: ‘In these questionable times we need positive imagery to push against the vile xenophobia and trash headlines.’ The works also weave connections to indigenous religion, and to her Christian mother and Muslim father and their ancestors.

Photograph developing in chemical bath, held by Khadija Saye
Khadija Saye developing her work
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The works have a particularly atmospheric quality, created by Khadija Saye’s decision to use the wet collodion photographic process, invented in 1851. This is laborious, involving the use of glass plates and unstable chemicals, and its results are unpredictable.

Saye wrote about this process: ‘…Image-making became a ritual in itself. [In] making wet plate collodion tintypes no image can be replicated and the final outcome is out of the creator’s control. Within this process, you surrender yourself to the unknown, similar to what is required by all spiritual higher powers: surrendering and sacrifice.’

Saye printed these photographs onto metal sheets, producing artworks known as tintypes, which were digitally scanned before the Grenfell fire. The six tintypes on display in Venice survived the fire; others were destroyed in it, along with a suitcase containing some of the objects featured in the artworks. The tintype of ‘Peitaw’ will be on display in our major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, until 23 August.

In 2017, Khadija Saye worked with master printer Matthew Rich to produce ‘Sothiou’ as a silkscreen print. The remaining prints were made after her death. It is the artist’s proofs of these prints, on loan from the estate of Khadija Saye, that are displayed in the British Library exhibition of the ‘in this space we breathe’ series.

The artworks below are presented with (in slightly edited form) the labels and quotations that accompany them in the exhibition.

Khadija Saye, her back to the camera, regards different-sized sticks in her left hand
Sothiou
(Chewing-sticks/toothbrush)
Khadija Saye (2017)
Printed by Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye photographs herself here with branches of the salvadora persica, the tree from which chewing-sticks, used as toothbrushes, are taken. These signify purification, as well as invocation of the spirits of the ancestors. She was introduced to indigenous ritual practices in The Gambia by her mother.

Sothiou was the first of six works in this series displayed by the artist in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.

The artist associated the photographic process with the idea of purification, writing that ‘The process of submerging the collodion-covered plate into a tank of silver nitrate ignites memories of baptisms, the idea of purity and how we cleanse in order to be spiritually sound.’

The titles of the works in this series are in Wolof, a language of The Gambia and Senegal.

Khadija Saye with three small light-coloured squares, strung together, across her closed eyes
Tééré
(Amulet)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The string of protective amulets Saye uses in this image belonged to her father. Wearing amulets – words from the Qur’an written onto paper, here sewn into leather packets – is a common Islamic practice in Africa. In this work, Saye openly displays items usually concealed under clothing.

The artist’s pose and expression suggest a moment of prayer. Saye said that she created this series ‘from a personal need for spiritual grounding’.

Khadija Saye holds a pot to her ear
Andichurai
(Incense pot; usually andi churai)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a red clay pot with white decoration, made using techniques specific to the SeneGambia region. Universal in Gambian homes, the andi churai burns incense to drive away evil spirits in order to provide protection. In Gambian culture, the strong scent of the incense is closely associated with women and femininity.

Khadija Saye with several dark and light oval shapes in front of her face
Limoŋ
(Lemon)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

In this surprising and ambiguous image, the artist holds a string of plastic lemons in her mouth. In The Gambia, the lemon is seen as a Western fruit, but it also implies cleansing the body and protection from evil spirits.

Saye may have intended a reference to Beyoncé, one of her role models, and her influential 2016 album Lemonade, with its historical vision of a liberated, Black, matriarchal society.

A person only partially visible places a cow horn on the back of Khadija Saye’s neck
Nak Bejjen
(Cow’s horn)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Gambian healers use cows’ horns in rituals to suck impurities from a person’s body. Cows’ horns are also associated with desolation and famine, when cows cannot survive. This work may speak of both trauma and healing.

The ‘healer’ in this image carries a small bag, perhaps containing medicinal equipment. The illusion of smoke from the horn may be a result of the wet collodion photographic process.

Khadija Saye wrote of the relationship between her art, the body and trauma: ‘We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance. It’s in these spaces…[that] we identify with our physical and imagined bodies. Using myself as the subject, I felt it necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience.’

Khadija Saye’s hand, palm outward and with small goat horns on her thumb and fingers, obscures her face
Ragal
(Fear)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye wears goats’ horns on her fingers as she shields her face. These objects are used in divination, the process of discovering the reasons for life’s events and problems, and what can be done to change them. This image may suggest both fear of the future and the possibility of drawing on Gambian knowledge and spirituality to find a way through difficulties.

Throughout this series, the artist wears black – an unusual choice for a young Gambian woman.

Khadija Saye, only her arm and the side of her body visible, holds a long string of beads
Kurus
(Prayer beads)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

These Muslim prayer beads reference spiritual support in a time of difficulty. Prayer beads are also used by Christians. The mingling of Islam, Christianity, Rastafarianism and, in Saye’s words, ‘African spirituality’ is common in The Gambia.

Women are not usually seen in public with Muslim prayer beads in The Gambia. In her work Saye, who ‘thought a lot about the traditional roles African women take within the male-dominated space’, subverts expectations around gender roles.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, holds a large bunch of cowrie shells in her mouth
Peitaw
(Cowrie shell(s))
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a bunch of cowrie shells, strung together, in her mouth, and wears a cowrie-shell bracelet on her arm. In Gambian culture, her pose, supporting her chin on her hand, suggests unhappiness or discontent.

Used as currency for centuries, cowrie shells represent wealth and fertility and are used in divination as well as jewellery. For Africans in the diaspora, they symbolise connection with the continent.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, with the blurry outlines of plastic flowers found her neck
Toor-Toor
(Sprout, grow)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The artist has draped herself in strands of plastic flowers. These are often used to decorate homes in The Gambia, found on shrines, and worn by practitioners of indigenous medicine. The flowers may also link with Saye’s interest in popular culture, particularly her love of RuPaul, who plays with floral drag.

This work experiments with contrast and balance between her life in Britain and The Gambia, and between her personal and professional growth.

In conclusion, we quote Khadija Saye’s own moving words on her legacy: ‘Whether it’s now or ten years down the line, I have this idea of opening doors – like previous artists of colour… I feel I have the potential to do the same.’

Khadija Saye has unwittingly spoken for so many young people struggling to find themselves in the world today. The resounding message of her work is that if she can do it, others can too. Visits with her mother to her Gambian home enabled her to embrace her family and cultural heritage to weave into her art, root herself, make herself stronger and map out where she was going.

For more on Khadija Saye and her art, watch this film.

The British Library’s set of Khadija Saye’s ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’ series (shelfmarks P3394-3402) will be available to researchers in the Print Room of our Asian and African Studies Reading Room – appointment necessary (please contact apac-print@bl.uk).

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ runs at the British Library until 7 October 2021. Find out more.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, British Library
Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe
CCBY Image

The British Library would like to thank all those who made the exhibition possible: The Estate of Khadija Saye, The Family of Khadija Saye, David Lammy, Nicola Green, Lucy Cartledge, Ana Freitas, Marloes Janson, Hassum Ceesay, Njok Malik Jeng, Victoria Miro, John Purcell Paper, Erica Bolton, Jealous, Almudena Romero, Christie’s and M.A.R.S.

The Khadija Saye Arts programme at IntoUniversity provides schoolchildren with visual arts experiences and education in her memory.

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