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12 November 2019

A testament to diversity: Kurdish manuscript collections at the British Library

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In the exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, we explored the connections between power and the written word. The use of writing can be an exceptionally efficient means of expanding a state's sovereignty far beyond the reach of its armies. Similarly, when a particular community or government chooses to use a particular script or language, it bestows upon that means of expression a sheen of officialdom and prestige synonymous with state sponsorship.

Or 11996 ff1v-2r Mam u Zin
The opening pages of Mam û Zîn by Ehmed Xani, copied in 1221 AH/1806-7 CE (Or. 11996, ff. 1v-2r)
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What does this have to do with the British Library's holdings of Kurdish manuscripts? For starters, it helps us to understand the context within which they were created. Unlike Ottoman Turkish, Arabic or Persian, Kurdish was not the language of a widespread, long-lasting Imperial power. As a result, prior to the end of the 20th century, it was not employed over long periods of time as a vehicle for the creation of state documents, or a state-sponsored literary corpus. Moreover, Kurdish was not the liturgical language of a large religious community with a long tradition of written cultural production. Hebrew might not have been a state language for thousands of years before the creation of the State of Israel, but its use as a liturgical language by Jews around the world helped ensure the creation of a hefty corpus of both religious and secular material in it. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for Syriac. Kurdish was thus doubly disadvantaged in finding patronage for the creation of a large written canon prior to the 20th century, and as a result, we are left with relatively fewer manuscripts in it than compared to Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Hebrew or Syriac.

Or 6444 f11r Gorani Anthology_1500 Or 6444 f55r Gorani Anthology_1500
Two pages of poetry in Gorani from the Gorani anthology in safina format. Copy dated 1197 AH/ 1782-4 CE (Or. 6444, f. 11r and f. 55r)
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Indeed, the British Library holds a total of 8 manuscript texts in Kurdish, compared to the estimated 4000 items in Turkic languages. Of these, only 6 are volumes composed entirely, or nearly entirely, of poetry written in Kurdish. The best known of these is Or. 6444, a codex of Gorani poetry, which was transliterated and translated by Mr. Anwar Soltani, and eventually published as a bilingual edition entitled Anthology of Gorani Kurdish Poetry (YC.1999.b.8850). Some of the poetry included in the volume was composed by well-known Kurdish authors. None of them, however, is as famous as Ehmed Xanî, the author of the Kurdish epic Mam û Zîn, which the Library holds in manuscript form under the shelfmark Or. 11996. This work is a meditation on forbidden love, but it also encapsulates some of the core themes of a nascent Kurdish national identity. Mam û Zîn has been copied and published numerous times, especially since the creation of a de-facto Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq following the first Gulf War, when the Kurdish publishing industry blossomed. Nonetheless, this manuscript recension brings to life a historical dimension of the development of Kurdish literacy in the Middle East, while also acting as a window onto Xanî's poetical genius.

Or 8208 Seyfu-l-mulûk f45v-46r
Two better-preserved pages of the Seyfu'l-mulûk showing a fully-vocalized rendering of the Kurmanji text. Copy dated 1286 AH / 1869-70 CE (Or. 8208, ff. 45v-46r)
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Among the other Kurmanji Kurdish manuscipts is Or. 8208, a poem known as Seyfu'l-Mulûk, or The Sword of Kings. The Library's copy is badly damaged, and although the text is largely legible, many of the pages have lost their edges, in some cases depriving readers of complete words of phrases. This story is set in Egypt, where the action revolves around the adventures of a particular prince, but the origins of the tale are Persian. Versions of the Seyfu'l-Mulûk can be found across the Islamic world, and this Kurdish version attests to the manner in which such texts were accepted and assimilated into broader Kurdish creative culture.

Add MS 7829 ff91v-92r. Gorani Poem
A section of the Gorani translation of Khvurshīd-i Khāvar, early 19th century (Add MS 7829, ff. 91v-92r)
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Add MS 23554 f37r Bahram u Gulandam
A folio of Bahrām va Gulandām translated into Gorani showing a later addition to the text, early 19th century (Add MS 23554, f. 37r)
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Other items within the Kurdish collections are translations of well-known Persian works into the Gorani dialect. Add MS 7829 presents us with two stories: that of Leyla and Mecnun; and another of Khvurshīd-i Khāvar. Add MS 7826, in contrast, is a Gorani translation of Khusraw va Shīrīn. Finally, Add MS 23554 is the story of Bahrām va Gulandām, yet another Persian epic of reasonable fame amongst Middle Eastern communities. The simple production of all three manuscripts, as well as the lack of information about the copyist or where they were created, lead us to believe that they were part of a broader reading culture among Kurdish speakers. They might not be remarkable items of art and luxury, but their construction and formatting provide us with valuable information about the manner in which Kurds read and shared literature in their native tongue, all while remaining part of a broader West Asian cultural space.

Or 5932 14v
The start of the earliest Kurdish-Arabic dictionary in verse, the Nûbihara Biçûkan, composed by Ehmed Xanî. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 9v)
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Or. 5932 9r: The opening part of the Edîqeya Îmanî, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xanî
The opening part of the Edîqeya Îmanî, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xanî. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 14v)
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The last item in the collections containing Kurdish poetry is Or. 5932. It contains two Kurmanji Kurdish poems among various other works in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and Persian. The first Kurmanji Kurdish work is the Nûbihara Biçûkan, composed by Ehmed Xanî as a means of teaching the Arabic language to Kurdish students at madrasas. The second is known as the Edîqeya Îmanî, another didactic work originally composed by Ehmed Xanî. The Edîqeya was also traditionally used as a starter text by Kurdish students at madrasas. The inclusion of these two particular poems in the codex is apt, given that the final text is an Arabic didactic poem aimed at helping Persian-speaking students learn the Arabic language; a mandatory subject for anyone studying the Qur'an.

One of the most challenging aspects of creating a cohesive and cogent collection of Kurdish works is the dialectical differences that exist between Kurdish speech communities. Today, there are two main dialects, or languages (the distinction is far from hard and fast), spoken and written across the Middle East. Kurmanji is the dominant Kurdish language in North and West Kurdistan, primarily spoken by Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Armenia, as well as parts of northern Iraq and north-eastern Iran. Sorani, by contrast, is used primarily in Central and East Kurdistan, covering northern Iraq and western Iran. Today, Kurmanji in Turkey and Armenia is written in Latin script, while Sorani in Iraq and Iran is written in Arabic script (as is Kurmanji in Syria). Cyrillic script was used in Armenia prior to 1991, but Armenian Kurds and Yezidis have since switched to the Latin standard. Add to this a plethora of local dialects that differ, in various degrees, from the commonly used lects of Amed (Diyarbakır), Slêmanî and Hêwler, and the related but distinct Zazaki and Gorani languages, and you get the totality of the Kurdophone sphere. All of this leads to a situation of remarkable diversity within the written corpus, one not usually seen in that of a state language. All texts in the British Library's Kurdish manuscript collections are written in Arabic script, which bedevils the task of the cataloguer. They are faced with the exceptionally difficult task of properly identifying the dialect of the text, in addition to the other pertinent information relating to the manuscripts, without the handy tool of state-sponsored standardization usually employed when cataloguing published works.

Add MS 26319 ff2v-3r Laki
A page of the Persian-Laki dictionary featuring terms in both languages written in neat nasta'liq. Dated 1811 CE (Add MS 26319, ff. 2v-3r)
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Add MS 26319 ff9v-10r English Kurdish
A page of the English-Kurdish wordlist featuring terms of common usage. Early 19th century (Add MS 26319, ff. 9v-10r)
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Linguistic diversity, far from being a hindrance, enriches our collections. In addition to the variety of dialects reflected in the poetic works, the British Library also holds a number of handwritten wordlists of Kurdish dialects in Iraq and Iran. The first of these, found under the shelf mark Add MS 26319, round out the collections and help to bolster our corpus of scholarly material relating to the Kurdish linguistic space. The codex is one that was created by the last owner of the manuscripts - C. J. Erskine - prior to its purchase by the British Museum in 1865. It holds an English-Kurdish glossary, as well as Persian-Laki Kurdish and Persian-Ardalani Kurdish (possibly a reference to Gorani) wordlists. While far from serious linguistic treatises on Kurdish dialectology or grammar, they do nonetheless provide a look at some of the pre-standardization aspects of Kurdish speech communities. They point to the ways in which linguistic diversity among the Kurds was conceived, sometimes by Western Orientalists, and sometimes by Kurds themselves. Such glossaries were a common phenomenon among British military and colonial officials, and more official versions were often published by governmental agencies. One need only look at IOR/L/MIL/17/15/52, a mass-produced multilingual volume entitled "Vocabularies: English, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, Syriac" (digitised as part of the Qatar Digital Library), to see their importance within the context of the late British Empire.

Together, this motley collection of holdings produced by Kurds and colonial administrators provides a unique entry point to pre-20th century Kurdish cultural life. A lack of state sponsorship deprived Kurdish communities of some of the resources needed to create a written canon on the scale of the Persian, Arabic or Ottoman Turkish ones. It did not, however, stops the Kurds from seeking to write down, share and disseminate texts, and to preserve their cultural production for future generations. The British Library is lucky to be custodian of a small snapshot of such dynamics, which it aims to make available to all those seeking to understand better the history of Kurdish cultural expression.

The author would like to thank Mr. Yakup Aykaç of Artuklu Mardin Üniversitesi for his great help in the identification and description of Kurmanji Kurdish works within the British Library's collections.

Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
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29 October 2019

The Star Tablet of the Bab

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A second post by our guest contributor the Baha'i scholar Dr. Moojan Momen celebrates the bicentenary of the birth of the Bab with an account of one of our most important manuscripts, the Star Tablet written in his own hand.

Today—29 October 2019—Baha’is around the world are commemorating the bicentenary of the birth of the Bab. He was the first of two figures whom Baha’is regard as the founders of their faith. The Bab was the forerunner, preparing people for the appearance of Baha’u’llah, whose teachings Baha’is follow.

The British Library holds one of the world’s best collections of Babi and Baha’i manuscripts. Among the most important of these is one in the handwriting of the Bab himself. It is in the shape of a five-pointed star, called a haykal or temple, because it is representative of the head, two arms and two legs of the human form. However, to appreciate this manuscript, it is necessary to understand something of its context.

The Babs star tablet.bl.uk
The Haykal, the Star Tablet of the Bab (BL Or 6887). Public Domain


The Bab

The Bab first announced his mission in 1844 in the city of Shiraz in Iran. During a brief, six-year ministry, he stirred up a great deal of controversy and consternation—especially among the religious leaders of Iran—with his claims and the writings he produced in support of these. For most of the years up to his public execution in 1850, the Bab was under house arrest or in prison, while thousands of his followers were also killed.

It was not just that the Bab’s claim to be the Twelfth Imam or Imam Mahdi, the messianic figure expected by the Shi`i Muslims of Iran, was highly audacious. But, just as Jesus had refrained from conforming to the expectations of the Jews for a military messiah who would lead them to victory over the Romans and establish the dominion of their people, the Bab did not comply with the expectation of Shi`i Muslims that the Twelfth Imam would lead them to a great victory over their enemies and would establish their religion throughout the world. Instead, the Bab interpreted the Traditions (hadīth) that led to these expectations in a spiritual sense and proclaimed that his words were Divine Revelation and he was the inaugurator of a new religious dispensation superseding Islam.

Shrinebab-terraces-night
The Shrine of the Bab and the terraces above and below it at night. Copyright © Bahá'í International Community


The Creation and Significance of the Haykal

In several of his works, the Bab gives instructions for the writing of a haykal, the pentagram or five-pointed star. In the Persian Bayan he states that the five lines that make up the frame of the pentagram create six chambers.PentogramIn the Persian and Arabic alphabet, each letter has a numerical value and this fact was used a great deal by the Bab. Five is the numerical equivalent of the letter H and six the numerical equivalent of the letter W. Together they represent the word Huwa which means “He” and is a common way of referring to God in Islamic mystical literature.[1] The word “Bab” is also equivalent to 5 (B=2, A=1, B=2). The five lines are the outer or manifest and the six chambers created are the inner or hidden. Thus the Bab (= 5) is the outer appearance or Manifestation of the Unseen and Unknowable Divinity (Huwa). In Babi and Baha’i scripture, the Bab is called a Manifestation of God, which should be understood as the Manifestation of the Names and Attributes of God (not that he is an incarnation of God). Indeed, for Baha’is, the prophet-founders of all of the religions have an equal station as Manifestations of God.

The Bab specifies that the pentagram should be carried by men about their person. For women, he gives a different design of six concentric circles, thus forming five spaces in which his verses should be written. Thus the same pattern of five and six also are created in this way. This could be seen as a symbol of the fact that women and men are equal but different.[2] The haykal (temple) represents the temple of a human being, the Perfect Man, and the circle represents the Sun of Truth—both of these representing the Manifestation of God, the Bab.

Daira
Dā’ira
(Circle), drawn according to the instructions given by the Bab. From Qismatī az Alvāḥ-i Khaṭṭ-i Nuqṭah-ʼi Ūlā va Āqā Sayyid Ḥusayn Yazdī ([Tehran?]: n.pub., n.d.), p. 11. Image Courtesy of the Afnan Library

The wearing of amulets containing passages of the Qur’an as a protective talisman is a common custom among Muslims, usually believed to bring good luck or to give protection. The Bab did not prohibit such practices but rather wanted to educate his followers gradually away from them. He saw their function more as a spiritual protection rather than a physical one. He wanted to direct the thoughts of his followers towards their symbolic meaning, towards God and the Manifestation of God, who guides humanity. In the Persian Bayan, the Bab states that the six chambers within the pentagram and the five partitions made by the six circles in the dā’ira should be filled with verses from his writings, but he leaves the creator of the pentagram free to choose which writings to place there. The important point that the Bab makes in this passage, however, is that the purpose of this is not to achieve some magical effect but rather that what is written on the paper should appear in the soul of that person.[3] In other words that they should become the embodiment of the Divine attributes contained in the passages from his writings. And so, men are called the “possessors of the pentagram (haykals)” and women are called the “possessors of the circle (dā’ira)”, not just because that is what each carries but because the Manifestation of the Names and Attributes of God is enshrined within the heart of each individual.[4] Baha’u’llah was later to put this more succinctly thus (Arabic Hidden Words, no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

The second important point that the Bab makes in this passage is that his intention in asking his followers to carry these pentagrams and circles is that by having their attention constantly turned towards God, his followers will, in the day when the next Manifestation of God appears, immediately turn to him.

The British Library haykal of the Bab

The haykal which the British Library holds (Or 6887) is on a large sheet of pale pink paper (27.5cm x 40.5cm) in the exquisitely beautiful and carefully written handwriting of the Bab. Although the words are written very small—such that a magnifying glass is necessary to read it—almost every word is clearly legible and elegantly formed. There is no indication of the person for whom this haykal was written. It is possible to speculate that it was written towards the end of the Bab’s life because it is similar in wording to such works as the Kitāb al-Asmāʼ and the Panj Sha’n, which were written while the Bab was imprisoned in isolated fortresses in the northwest of Iran in the last three years of his life.

Or_6887_f001r-magnification X2
Close-up of the Haykal of the Bab at twice magnification showing the detail of his writing (BL Or 6887). Public Domain

In many religions, there is a tradition of repetitive chanting of short significant phrases; for example dhikr in Sufism, hesychasm in Orthodox Christianity and mantras in Hinduism and Buddhism. This haykal of the Bab is similar in that it comprises repetitions of short rhymed and rhythmical sentences. As with many other writings of the Bab, it is clear that the words are intended to be chanted out loud and experienced as much as understood. The performative aspect is at least as important as the intellectual. The performative nature of the Bab’s own composition of such works and the effect it had on others can be gleaned from an incident that is recorded about him. This occurred in Isfahan in the house of the Imam-Jum‘ih (the leader of Friday prayers), one of the religious dignitaries of the city, which at that time was the foremost centre for religious studies in Iran. The Bab was accommodated in this house for the first period of his stay in Isfahan and many of the clerics and religious students in the city would come in the afternoons and evenings to hear him speak and to ask him questions. When asked to reveal a commentary on the Sūrat al-ʻAṣr (Qurʻan 103), the Bab began to chant and:

They seemed as if bewitched by the magic of His voice. Instinctively they started to their feet and, together with the Imám-Jum’ih, reverently kissed the hem of His garment. Mullá Muhammad-Taqíy-i-Haratí, an eminent mujtahid, broke out into a sudden expression of exultation and praise. “Peerless and unique,” he exclaimed, “as are the words which have streamed from this pen, to be able to reveal, within so short a time and in so legible a writing, so great a number of verses as to equal a fourth, nay a third, of the Qur’án, is in itself an achievement such as no mortal, without the intervention of God, could hope to perform.” (The Dawn-Breakers, (ed. and trans. Shoghi Effendi), p. 202

The content of the haykal may be described as a paean of praise to God. The words consist of repeated rhymed and rhythmic sentences, such as:

  • All the kingdoms of the heavens and the earth and whatsoever lieth between them are God’s, and His power is supreme over all things.
  • Unto God belong the kingdoms of the heavens and the earth and whatsoever lieth between them, and He, in truth, is potent over all things.
  • Nothing whatsoever can escape His knowledge.
  • Unto God belong the kingdoms of the heavens and the earth and whatsoever lieth between them, and He, in truth, hath knowledge of all things.
  • Nothing whatsoever in the whole of creation can thwart His Purpose.
  • He calleth into being whatsoever He willeth at His behest.

Given what has been said above about the Bab’s stated intention that these haykals be a constant reminder to his followers about the need for them to watch attentively for the coming of “Him whom God shall make manifest” and to obey him when he comes, we can read the Words “On that Day” as meaning “On the Day of the coming of ‘Him whom God shall make manifest’”. In addition, given that the most manifest aspect of God is the Manifestation of God (the founder-prophets of the major religions), the words “the Kingdom [or sovereignty or dominion, mulk] shall be God’s, the Incomparable, the Most Manifest" also points to “Him whom God shall make manifest”, the next of these Manifestations of God to come after the Bab. And so this key sentence that frames all the other sentences in this haykal can be considered to say: “On the Day of the coming of Him whom God shall make manifest, sovereignty shall belong to him.”[5] Baha’u’llah claimed, and Baha’is believe that, “He whom God shall make manifest” is Baha’u’llah. For example, Baha’u’llah wrote in the Kitab-i Aqdas (ʻthe Most Holy Bookʼ):

O people of the Bayan [followers of the Bab]! Fear ye the Most Merciful and consider what He [the Bab] hath revealed in another passage. He said: “The Qiblih [direction of prayer] is indeed He Whom God will make manifest; whenever He moveth, it moveth, until He shall come to rest.” Thus was it set down by the Supreme Ordainer when He desired to make mention of this Most Great Beauty [i.e. Baha’u’llah himself].

Moojan Momen, Independent Scholar
 ccownwork


Further reading

Peter Smith, “An introduction to the Baha’i Faith” in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts
Moojan Momen, “Baha'i sacred texts,” in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts
––––, “Central figures of the Baha'i Faith,” in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts
––––, “Marking the bicentenary of the birth of the Bāb

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[1] Persian Bayan, vahid 4, chapter 5.
[2] To be more precise, the Bab says that each circle is a unity (vāhid, numerologically equivalent to 19) and so the five circles are equivalent to lillāh (for God, numerologically equivalent to 95). Thus both the pentagram (Huwa) and the circle (lillāh) are pointers to God.
[3] Persian Bayan, vahid 4, chapter 5.
[4] Nader Saiedi, Gate of the Heart ([Waterloo, Ont]: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2008), pp. 329-330.
[5] I am grateful to Dr Omid Ghaemmaghami for his suggestion regarding this point and for his assistance with the provisional translation of these passages.

24 September 2019

Marking the bicentenary of the birth of the Bāb

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Today's post coincides with the launch of  the British Library's new learning resource Discovering Sacred Texts  and exhibition of Sacred highlights in the British Library’s permanent Treasures Gallery. Our guest writer is the Baha'i scholar Dr. Moojan Momen who writes about the three unique works of the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh, the twin founders of the Baha'i Faith which are on display for the first time.

Section of teh Bab's Star Tablet, Or 6887
A section of a tablet hand written by the Bāb in the form of a five pointed star (BL Or 6887). Public Domain

October 2019 marks 200 years since the birth of Sayyid ‘Alī Muḥammad Shīrāzī (1819-1850), known as the Bāb (the Gate), one of the two founders of the Baha'i Faith. A merchant from Shiraz, Iran, the Bāb founded his own distinctive religious movement as well as preparing his followers for the coming of  “Him whom God shall make manifest,” Bahā’u’llāh (1817-1892). Both the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh are considered by Baha'is as Manifestations of God, intermediaries between God and humanity, who reveal God’s will for the age in which they come. Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Moses, Zoroaster, Krishna and the Buddha are also considered by Baha'is as Manifestations.

Western responses to the Bāb

Accounts of the life of the Bāb and the brutal treatment meted out to his followers, made a profound impression both in Iran and further afield, especially in the West, where many thought the story of the Bāb reminiscent of that of Christ. Gobineau’s Religions et Philosophies dans l’Asie Centrale (1865) was the most influential volume in carrying the story to Western minds. The poet Matthew Arnold wrote in 1871 that “most people in England have a least heard the name” of the Bāb,[1] an indication of how deeply his fame had penetrated into far-off societies. An ongoing survey has discovered that almost 1,400 articles about the Bāb movement appeared in the Western press between 1845 and 1859. With his books such as A Year Among the Persians (1893), Cambridge orientalist Edward G. Browne did much to familiarise readers with the Bāb’s “gentleness and patience, the cruel fate which had overtaken him, and the unflinching courage wherewith he and his followers, from the greatest to the least, had endured the merciless torments inflicted upon them by their enemies.”[2]

Writing in 1925, French writer Jules Bois recalled:

All Europe was stirred to pity and indignation over the martyrdom of the Bāb…among the littérateurs of my generation, in the Paris of 1890 the martyrdom of the Bāb was still as fresh a topic as had been the first news of his death. We wrote poems about him. Sarah Bernhardt entreated Catulle Mendès for a play on the theme of this historic tragedy…[3]

Another influential figure whose attention was captured by the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh was Tolstoy, who wrote that the Baha'is

have a great future…because they have thrown away the artificial superstructures which separate [the religions] from one another and are aiming at uniting all mankind in one religion…And therefore, in that it educates men to brotherhood and equality and to the sacrificing of their sensual desires in God's service, I sympathize with [it] with all my heart.[4]

Bābī and Bahā’ī Scriptures

The religion founded by the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh is very much a religion of the Book. Baha'is believe that central to all the world’s great faiths, the power of the “Word” inspires human beings to develop their noblest qualities and create new patterns of society. Baha'i scriptures consist of the words of the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh that were immediately written down, authenticated, and shared far and wide.

Iranians considered calligraphy the highest art form and the Bāb’s own calligraphy is of exceptional quality. His works were often composed in the shape of a five-pointed star, called a “Temple” (ḥaykal) because of its resemblance to the human form. The British Library holds an example of such a manuscript in the Bāb’s own handwriting, the only known copy of this work.

The handwriting of the Bāb in the form of a five pointed star, the ḥaykal  (BL Or 6887)
The handwriting of the Bāb in the form of a five pointed star, the aykal  (BL Or 6887). Public Domain

The Bāb placed a great emphasis on perfection and refinement. “Whoever possesseth power over anything,” He wrote, “must elevate it to its uttermost perfection that it not be deprived of its own paradise.”[5] He gave the example of a piece of paper upon which some words have been written. The ‘paradise’ of that paper is to be adorned with gold illumination and patterns. In trying to bring all things to perfection, a human being is replicating the work of God, who brought into being the whole of creation in such a state. These ideas of the Bāb continue to influence the Bahā’ī community, especially in the building of Bahā’ī houses of worship around the world.

Picture of the Bahā’ī House of Worship in Delhi, India
The Baha'i House of Worship in Delhi, India. Copyright © Bahá'í International Community

Encounter with an Irish doctor

Considered a heretic, the Bāb was put on trial in July 1848 and bastinadoed. An Irish physician resident in Tabriz, Dr. William Cormick treated the Bāb’s wounds and left this account of him:

He was a very mild and delicate looking man, rather small in stature and very fair for a Persian, with a melodious soft voice, which struck me much…In fact his whole look and deportment went far to dispose one in his favour.[6]

Dr William Cormick
Dr William Cormick. Courtesy of Connections

The Bāb was executed in 1850. Thousands of Babis were also killed, many of them in the most gruesome ways.

It was while incarcerated in 1852 in a subterranean dungeon in Tehran that one of the most distinguished of the Bāb’s followers, Bahā’u’llāh (his title means “the Glory of God”), had a spiritual experience that is regarded as the birth of his own prophetic mission. He was subsequently exiled to Baghdad, beginning a 40 year period of banishment and imprisonment at the hands of the Persian and Ottoman authorities.

The Writings of Bahā’u’llāh

In Baghdad, Bahā’u’llāh wrote a number of major works, such as The Seven Valleys and The Hidden Words, as well as his foremost theological treatise, the Kitāb-i Īqān (the Book of Certitude). After ten years, ahead of a further exile, Bahā’u’llāh declared himself to be “He whom God shall make manifest” that the Bāb had foretold. From Edirne in what is now European Turkey, Bahā’u’llāh announced himself to be the Promised One prophesied in all religions and proclaimed his mission in letters to the world’s major kings and leaders, including Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, Tsar Alexander II and Pope Pius IX.

Bahā’u’llāh too was an exceptional calligrapher. The British Library has in its collection an example of some of his handwriting exercises as a child.


Album-of-Bahai-calligraphy-or_11098_f016r-15v
Calligraphic exercises of Bahā’u’llāh when a child (BL Or 11098). Public Domain

On many occasions his writings came into being in an extraordinary manner. Firstly, his secretary would have ready a number of reed pens and stacks of large sheets of paper. Bahā’u’llāh would then dictate to his secretary, speaking rapidly or chanting without pause. Such was the speed with which these verses had to be captured on the paper that they were only readable by the scribe himself.

Bahai-Revelation-Writing-or_16641_f001v
Revelation Writing: the script developed by Bahā’u’llāh’s secretary as a shorthand for taking his dictation (BL Or 16641). Public Domain

Later, the secretary would copy out what he had written in a legible handwriting. Bahā’u’llāh then approved the text. This version would then be copied and shared throughout the Middle East, and even as far afield as India, Burma (Myanmar) and China. Many Bahā’īs would bind collections of these writings into finely decorated volumes.

Collection-of-bahai-tablets-or_7852_f004r-3v
Illumined leaf from a volume of Bahā’u’llāh’s writings (BL Or 7852, ff. 1-2). Public Domain

Encounter with E.G. Browne

Finally imprisoned by the Ottoman authorities in the walled city of Akka (Acco), Bahā’u’llāh, wrote the most important of his works, the Kitab-i Aqdas (the Most Holy Book). In 1877, he moved to a mansion outside the city where he was visited in 1890 by Professor Edward G. Browne, who described the impression Bahā’u’llāh made upon him:

Edward-granville-browne
Portrait of Prof. E.G. Browne at about the time he visited Bahā’u’llāh. Public Domain, Courtesy of Moojan Momen

The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one's very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow; while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet-black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!

A mild dignified voice bade me be seated, and then continued:- “Praise be to God that thou hast attained!... Thou hast come to see a prisoner and an exile.... We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment.... That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled—what harm is there in this?... Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come...” [7]

Bahā’u’llāh’s shrine outside of Akka is considered the holiest place in the world by Baha'is. On Bahā’u’llāh’s instruction, the remains of the Bāb, which had been hidden in Iran for 50 years, were transferred to the Holy Land. In 1909 they were interred in a simple mausoleum on the slopes of Mount Carmel across the bay from Akka. They now rest beneath a majestic golden domed shrine, surrounded by exquisite terraced gardens.

Shrine of the Bab
The Shrine of the Bāb on Mount Carmel. Copyright © Bahá'í International Community

Today, Baha'is, who number several millions and live in nearly every country in the world, are engaged with their friends and neighbours in a collaborative programme that aims to develop the spiritual and material prosperity of their communities.


Moojan Momen, Independent Scholar
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[1] Matthew Arnold, “A Persian Passion Play”, The Cornhill Magazine, vol. 24 (London, 1871, pp. 668-71), p. 668; also in Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism (London: MacMillan, 4th ed. 1884, repr. 1902), p. 226.
[2] Edward Granville Browne, A Year among the Persians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, new ed. 1926), p. 330.
[3] Jules Bois, “The New Religions of America. III – Babism and Bahaism”, Forum, vol. 7 (Concord, NH, USA, July, 1925), pp. 1-10.
[4] Paul Birukoff, Tolstoi und der Orient: Briefe und sonstige Zeugnisse über Tolstois Beziehungen zu den Vertretern orientalischer Religionen (Zurich: Rotapfel, 1925), pp. 99-100; translated in Moojan Momen, The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts (Oxford: George Ronald, 1981), p. 55.
[5] “The Bāb, Persian Bayān, Vāḥid 4, Chapter 11”. Translated in Nader Saiedi, Gate of the Heart ([Waterloo, ONT]: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2008, p. 255.
[6] Edward G. Browne, Materials for the Study of the Bábí Religion, p. 262.
[7] ———, A Traveller’s Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. xxxix-xl.

08 August 2019

Emanating light: Illumination in Islamic manuscripts

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Without the ability to travel time it may forever be impossible to restage the medieval and early-modern viewing conditions of Islamic manuscripts. Whereas in paintings books are often shown being enjoyed outdoors, architecture can offer insights into the experience of manuscripts indoors.

Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14)
Fig. 1: Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14). Public domain

Consider the wholly illuminated central prayer niche (miḥrāb) at the Jāmi‘ Masjid of Bijapur in Deccan India (mosque: 1576; miḥrāb: 1636) (fig. 2). The entire niche is covered with calligraphy and micro-architectural details that are a mise en abyme within the mosque. Hanging lamps and manuscripts that likely represent the Qur’ān fill smaller niches at the dado level flanking both sides of the central niche. The books bear gilt bindings and the lamps have delicate golden tassels that accentuate their light-giving quality. The simple juxtaposition of lamps and books reminds us that the viewers of these manuscripts did not encounter them under the harsh lighting of today’s modern libraries. In an assessment of illumination, the problem of light is inescapable.

Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636
Fig. 2: Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

Generally, manuscript illumination is a practice where reflective substances have been applied to the surfaces of books. These surfaces include the binding, support (paper, parchment), and the edges of the support. While illumination is most commonly associated with gold, other metals including silver and tin are also used to create lustre. I refer here to gold as shorthand, but the material was in fact a liquid gold or alloy that was malleable to various surfaces and showed a variety of hues. This material can be flattened, painted, scattered, and pricked to create different effects on the surface of a support (fig. 3).

Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)

Figs. 3a and 3b: Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)

Illumination occurs everywhere on the page: its edges, borders, line rulings (jadval), rosettes (shamsahs), frontispieces (sarlawḥs), headpieces (‘unvāns), headings, interlinear space, the writing itself, and even the edges (fig. 4). There is no authoritative handbook for these terms in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, etc., and this nomenclature has evolved with convention. For example, the term ‘unvān has caused some confusion. The word literally denotes ‘title,’ and therefore I have used it for headpiece. In the British Library’s Persian manuscript catalogue edited by Rieu, ‘unvān denotes anything from illuminated headpiece to frontispiece (single or double page) to heading. Beyond references to illuminators (mudhahhib), the practice of illumination (tadhhīb), other words formed with the Arabic root dh-h-b or the Persian word zar, the textual record offers remarkably little prescriptive terminology for illumination. Even less defined are the names for particular illuminated patterns. While some of these patterns have analogues in architectural ornament, they do not always seamlessly translate to book decoration. For this reason, one safe compromise is to use English words, yet this can often be dissatisfying.

Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)
Fig. 4: Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Regardless of the lack of an established technical vocabulary, illumination and light (nūr) are everywhere in Islamic art and architecture. This is best attested by the Qur’anic Light verse (24:35) that begins, "God is the light [nūr] of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His light is a niche [mishkāt] wherein is a lamp [miṣbāḥ]," which frequently graces miḥrābs. Widespread lamp imagery such as that found in Bijapur’s Jāmi‘ Masjid also alludes to it. When books like the Qur’an or poetry reflected light through their illumination, this took on a divine significance. Through technologies such as multi-spectral imaging it may be possible to recover how premodern manuscripts looked by candlelight and evaluate the effects of how different lighting changed the experience of these books. Collaborations between architectural historians and scientists have started to reveal how sites such as the Mosque of Córdoba looked when lit with early Islamic glass lamps (Kider, Fletcher, Yu, Holod, Chamlers, and Badler, 2009).

Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699
Fig. 5: Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699). Public domain

In painting, illumination has been applied to nearly all forms. Fire, the sun, skies, and halos are popular gold elements. In her several articles and books on images of the Prophet Muhammad, Christiane Gruber has demonstrated how this tradition evolved. On the double-page frontispiece of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī dated 1571 from Safavid Qazvin (Fig. 5), gold is deployed profusely in a scene showing the Prophet’s ascension (mi‘rāj). In the flowering cartouches in the borders, the swirling clouds, and the fire they cast upon the Prophet and his steed Burāq, this page is fully illuminated. The dramatic interplay of these gold swirls and lapis blue surface would have created a startling effect especially if this page were viewed in low light. In experiencing the open book, the light of Muhammad (nūr Muḥammad) would have certainly shone onto the viewer.

Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar
Figure 5: Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

The study of book illumination should be placed in an expanded visual context that also includes architecture. In an early fifteenth-century Deccan shrine/tomb initially studied by Helen Philon (2000), I later drew comparisons between its domed apex and specific Indian maṇḍalas or yantras that Philon previously compared to Islamic talismanic bowls as well. Yet, the entirety of the shrine is covered in gold illumination. One of the clearest comparisons between the apex and a manuscript would be an illuminated shamsah or starburst. The completely calligraphed golden dome when lit with lamps would reflect light onto visitors below.

Illumination in Islamic manuscripts thus is no simple matter. Here, I have tried to make its obvious connection to light both practically and spiritually. While the majority of my research for the British Library has involved developing a method to catalogue illumination in Persian manuscripts (ca. 100 manuscripts completed), I do sometimes imagine the buildings and spaces in which they once were read, enjoyed, and seen. For, illumination allowed books to emanate light.

With thanks to Umberto Bongianino, Eleanor Sims and Ursula Sims-Williams.

Use #BL_IslamicIllum to share your favourite examples of illumination at the library and follow @_nainsukh for more!

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD placement
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Further reading:

Akimushkin, Oleg F. and Anatol A. Ivanov. 1979. “The Art of Illumination.” In The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th-16th Centuries, ed. Basil Gray, London: Serindia, 35-57.

Brend, Barbara. 2015. “The Management of Light in Persian Painting.” In God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth: Light in Islamic Art and Culture, eds. Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, New Haven: Yale University Press, 198-229.

Gruber, Christiane. 2019. The Praiseworthy One: the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic texts and images. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Waley, Muhammad Isa. 1997. “Illumination and its Function in Islamic Manuscripts.” In Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, eds. François Déroche and Francis Richard, Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 87-112.

Wright, Elaine. 2018. Lapis and gold: exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an. London: Chester Beatty Library in association with Ad Ilissvm.

18 July 2019

The first Iranian newspaper: Mirza Salih Shirazi’s Kaghaz-i akhbar

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Todays guest blogger is Borna Izadpanah, PhD Candidate, University of Reading. Borna is a typeface designer and researcher based in London. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading working on the history of typographic representation of the Persian language.

ithographed portrait of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī by Karl von Hampeln   1868 statue by John Henry Foley of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī in the Asia group of the Albert Memorial, Kensington Garden
Left: the 1829 lithographed portrait of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī by Karl von Hampeln. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia; right: the 1868 statue by John Henry Foley of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī in the Asia group of the Albert Memorial, Kensington Garden. Photo by the author

In 1837, the first Iranian newspaper was published in Tehran by Mīrzā Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī, one of five students dispatched to England under the patronage of the crown prince ʻAbbās Mīrzā with the mission to acquire a knowledge of modern European sciences. Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ kept a journal of his time in England that lasted from 1815 to 1819, a manuscript of which is currently held at the British Library (BL Add. 24,034).

Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s journal reveals significant information regarding his interest in the ‘art of printing’, which led him to an apprenticeship under an English printer and typefounder (most likely Richard Watts). He also recorded an account of his encounter with newspapers in London. Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ translated the word newspaper into Kāghaz-i akhbār [literary news-paper]. Perhaps, for this reason, Kāghaz-i akhbār (and often Akhbār-i vaqāyiʿ [news of events]) is used in most sources to refer to his untitled newspaper.

Folio 133r of the manuscript copy of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue containing information concerning his encounter with newspapers in London (BL Add. 24,034)
Folio 133r of the manuscript copy of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue containing information concerning his encounter with newspapers in London (BL Add. 24,034). Public domain

Before his return to Iran in 1819, Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ, with the help of Richard Watts, purchased a typographic press to be shipped to Iran. Later he established a lithographic press in Tabriz, with a press and equipment that were imported from Russia. A single copy of the first publication from the latter press, a lithographed Qurʼān (Ramaḍān 1249/1834), has only recently come to light and is now preserved at the Majlis Library in Tehran.

Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s seal
Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s seal which reads al-Wathiq al-rajī Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ ‘confident and hopeful [of the forgiveness of the God] Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ' (National Archive FO 60/23). Courtesy of the National Archives, UK.

A few years later, Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ published a newspaper in Tehran under the royal decree of Muḥammad Shāh Qājār. Initially a lithographed Ṭalīʿa [pre-publication advice] of this newspaper appeared between 29 December 1836 and 8 January 1837. In 1945, the Persian journal Yādigār published the entire content of the Ṭalīʿa, the only known copy of which was reportedly in the possession of Ḥāj Muḥammad Āqā Nakhjavānī. According to this Ṭalīʿa, one of the main missions of this monthly newspaper was to educate and inform the residents of the mamālik-i maḥrūsa-i īrān [the guarded domain of Iran] about the news of the Eastern and Western nations. This newspaper was to be distributed to different parts of the country (See Yādigār, 1945).

In 1839, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society published an article entitled ‘Persian newspaper and translation’ in which the entire content of Kāghaz-i Akhbār from Muḥarram 1253 (7 April - 6 May 1837) was printed with movable type followed by an English translation. This article also provided a brief description of the newspaper and its editor: lithographed and printed at Tehran … under the editorship of Mirza Salih, one of the public secretaries of H. M. the Shah of Persia … two large folios, printed on one side only; it is closely written in a plain hand, and is surmounted by the Persian emblem of the Lion and Sun’ (JRAS, 1839, p. 355). Unfortunately no copy of this newspaper survives today in the archive of the Royal Asiatic Society in London.

The typeset reproduction of Kāghaz-i akhbār from Muḥarram 1253 (7 April - 6 May 1837), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1839)
The typeset reproduction of Kāghaz-i akhbār from Muḥarram 1253 (7 April - 6 May 1837), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1839). Public domain

Also, in 1839, Richard Wilbraham in his Travels in the Trans-Caucasian Provinces of Russia reported that ‘a lithographic press has been established of late year in Tehran … within the past year a newspaper has been printed in the capital’ (Wilbraham, 1839, p. 46).

Perhaps the first Persian source that mentioned an existing copy of the Kāghaz-i akhbār was an article entitled ‘Gāzit-i āntīka-yi īrān’ [antique Iranian gazette] in the Persian newspaper Akhtar, printed in Istanbul in 1876. According to this report, an ‘Iranian merchant’, had provided Akhtar with an imperfect copy (lacking the first page) of ‘an antique Iranian gazette’ from approximately 40 years earlier, which contained news of foreign nations including Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Spain, England, and France (See Akhtar, 1876, pp. 2–3).

Finally, in 1968, the leading Iranian newspaper Kayhn for the first time published a rather unclear ‘picture of the first and oldest Iranian newspaper’. According to Kayhn, the Iranian scholar Hamīd Mowlānā was granted permission to photograph this ‘unique copy’ of Kāghaz-i akhbār at the British Museum (Kayhn, 1968). In the following year, a clearer reproduction of the front page of a British Museum copy of Kāghaz-i akhbār (Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253/3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837) appeared in the first published edition of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue, as ‘the only extant copy of the newspaper’ (See Rāʼīn, 1969, p. 27). In fact, this was perhaps the first time that a reproduction of an issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār, which was previously only known through secondary sources, was published.

The Kayhān report entitled ‘picture of the first and oldest Iranian newspaper’. The photograph shows Hamīd Mowlānā (left) presenting a facsimile of the Kāghaz-i akhbār to Alī-Qulī Ardalān (3 August 1968)
The Kayhn report entitled ‘picture of the first and oldest Iranian newspaper’. The photograph shows Hamīd Mowlānā (left) presenting a facsimile of the Kāghaz-i akhbār to Alī-Qulī Ardalān (3 August 1968)

With regard to the ‘discovery’ of the Kāghaz-i akhbār at the British Museum there are some conflicting statements. Hamīd Mowlānā later claimed to have ‘discovered’ two copies of the Kāghaz-i akhbār at the British Museum in 1963 (Mowlānā, 1979, p. 15). However, in his PhD thesis –submitted in the same year– Mowlānā writes that ‘today, unfortunately no copy of Akhbar Vaghayeh is extant’ (Mowlānā, 1963, p. 200). Moreover, the only copy of Kāghaz-i akhbār that appears in Mowlānā’s studies, and seemingly all the subsequent studies of this newspaper, is the same issue from Jumādá al-Ūlá; no visual representation of the second issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār seem to have appeared in any publication to this day.

The reproduction of Kāghaz-i Akhbār from Jumādá al-Ūlá in the first published edition of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue, edited by Ismāʿīl Rāʾīn and published in 1969.
The reproduction of Kāghaz-i Akhbār from Jumādá al-Ūlá in the first published edition of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue, edited by Ismāʿīl Rāʾīn and published in 1969.

In recent years I have tried to trace the cited copies of the Kāghaz-i akhbār in order to study their printing quality and other aspects of their production which could not be deduced from the existing reproductions. According to my investigation, no archive or library catalogue bears any record of an extant copy of Kāghaz-i akhbār –apart from a microfilm at British Library (Or.Mic.4776) which proves that the British Museum at some point possessed two copies of this newspaper. However, I was unable to find a shelfmark or any reference concerning the current location of these two issues. Thus, this led to the assumption that these copies had been lost or even destroyed.

Ultimately, however, and thanks to Dr Goel Cohen who drew my attention to the studies of another Iranian scholar Alī Mushīrī, I was able to locate the copies of the newspaper, which had been moved from the British Museum to the British Library. This investigation led me to the shelfmark O.P. 3 (13), cited in two Persian articles by Alī Mushīrī (Mushīrī, 1963 & 1964) which are probably the earliest sources to introduce the British Museum copies although they did not actually include any visual representation of Kāghaz-i akhbār.

This post is notably perhaps the first report in which the both known copies of the Kāghaz-i akhbār are shown – particularly in their present condition. They were inserted into a large anonymous volume containing miscellaneous newspapers in Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Turkish, Sinhala, Japanese, etc. The two issues are from Rabīʿ al-Thānī 1253 (5 July 1837 - 2 August 1837) and Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253 (3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837). They are completely intact and have been layered by Japanese tissue paper that has stiffened the original paper. This, however, has also desaturated the black printing ink which only appears on one side of the paper.

The Rabīʻ al-Thānī 1253 (5 July 1837 - 2 August 1837) issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P. 3 (13)).
The Rabīʻ al-Thānī 1253 (5 July 1837 - 2 August 1837) issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P. 3 (13)). Public domain


The Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253 (3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837) issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P. 3 (13))
The Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253 (3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837) issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P. 3 (13)). Public domain

The illustration of the emblem of Iran Shīr va khurshīd [Lion and Sun] with minor variations appears on both issues. The main headline, which is written in riqaʻ style, reads ‘news of the month of … of the year … that was printed in Dār al-khilāfa [the abode of the caliphate] of Tehran’. As what seems to be a general rule, the right-hand folio contains the ‘news of the Eastern nations’ and the left-hand folio contains the ‘news of the Western nations.’ The main text is written in an elegant nastaʻlīq hand, with the name of cities and countries highlighted in riqaʻ style. The approximate size of a single page is 42 in 27 centimetres.

The emblem of Iran Shīr va khurshīd [Lion and Sun].
The emblem of Iran Shīr va khurshīd [Lion and Sun]. Left: Jumādá al-Ūlá issue and right: the Rabīʻ al-Thānī issue. Public domain

Some Persian sources have stated that these issues of Kāghaz-i akhbār were sent to the British Museum by an employee of the British legation in Tehran since they contained the news of the death of the King William IV and the coronation of the Queen Victoria (this is reflected in the Rabīʿ al-Thānī issue). Alī Mushīrī mentions a certain ‘Charles Sundt’ as the person responsible for sending the papers to England (Mushīrī, 1964, p. 609). I have not been able to find anyone fitting that description, but, it is possible that the person in question, whose name might have been misspelled in the Persian transliteration, is Charles Stuart, the secretary to the British Envoy to Persia, and the author of Journal of a residence in northern Persia and the adjacent provinces of Turkey .

Primary sources
Microfilm containing two issues of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL Or.Mic.4776)
The manuscript of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s journal (BL Add. 24,034)
The anonymous volume containing two original copies of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P.3)

References
‘‘Aks-i avvalīn va qadīmītarīn rūznāma-yi īrān dar muʼassisa-yi ʻālī maṭbūʻāt’, in Kayhn (Tehran newspaper), 3 August 1968, p. 14.
‘Gāzit-i āntīka-yi īrān’, in Akhtar (Istanbul newspaper), 15 February 1876, pp. 2–3.
Hamīd Mowlānā, Journalism in Iran: a history and interpretation, PhD thesis, Northwestern University, Illinois, 1963.
Sayr-i irtibāṭāt-i ijtimāʻī dar īrān, Tehran, 1979.
Alī Mushīrī, ‘Avvalīn ruznāma dar īrānī’, in Khvāndanīhā, Vol 24, No 29, 1963, pp. 25&46.
— ‘Avvalīn ruznāma-yi īrānī’, in Sukhan, Vol 14, No 7, 1964, pp. 906–11.
‘Persian newspaper and translation’ in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland , Vol 5, No 2, 1839, pp. 355–371.
Ismāʿīl Rāʾīn, Safarnāma-yi Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī, Rawzan, Tehran, 1969.
‘Tārīkh-i rūznāmanigārī dar īrān’, in Yādigār, Vol 1, No 7, 1945, pp. 6–17.
Richard Wilbraham, Travels in the Trans-Caucasian provinces of Russia, London, 1839.

With special thanks to Goel Cohen, Gerry Leonidas, Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, Fiona Ross, Graham Shaw and Michael Twyman.

Borna Izadpanah, PhD Candidate, University of Reading
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08 July 2019

Rustam: The Hero with Red Hair

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Today's post comes from Dr Peyvand Firouzeh, Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Foundation & American Council of Learned Societies at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck- Institut. Peyvand has been a frequent visitor to our Reading Room during her research on the art and material culture of the Islamic world, especially early modern Iran and India. 

The Shahnama (Book of Kings), was completed ca. 1010 by the poet Ferdowsi in Persian. It is the most-popularly copied, illustrated, and circulated epic that has survived in Persianate societies. One of the most frequently depicted, key protagonists of the Shahnama is the hero Rustam, known for his remarkable physical strength and, as Ferdowsi put it, ‘elephant-bodied’ (pil-tan) stature.

In manuscript illustrations, Rustam is known for specific attributes that help distinguish him immediately from others: particularly, his tiger-skin surcoat and leopard headwear, and sometimes his ox-headed mace and leopard-skin saddle. But another feature of Rustam’s appearance has remained rather neglected: his red hair. This detail caught my eye while working on a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Shahnama, Or. 1403, at the British Library. A quick look through the manuscript proved that every depiction but one shows Rustam with red facial hair.

Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam overthrows Puladvand. 1438 (BL Or. 1403, f. 183v)
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam overthrows Puladvand. 1438 (BL Or. 1403, f. 183v)
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In my attempts to contextualise this feature of Rustam’s appearance, I could only find brief mentions in previous literature: observations that note Rustam’s red hair in a single manuscript (for example, Clinton and Simpson, 178), or associate it with a specific workshop (Goswamy, 25), or with certain periods – for instance the fifteenth-century (Robinson (1951), 83), or the Safavid period (Robinson (2005), 261). It has rarely been acknowledged as a widespread phenomenon (Swietochowski, 186).

Rustam’s red hair, however, crosses geographical and temporal boundaries. It is found in manuscripts attributed to Baghdad, Shiraz, Tabriz, Isfahan, Gilan, Mazandaran, and several workshops in India, starting from some of the earliest surviving illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama in the fourteenth century. Indeed, the red hair is just as old as other iconographic features like the tiger-skin coat and leopard-skin headwear, which are thought to have emerged, respectively, in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscript paintings (Robinson (2005), 253, 256, and 258).

Garsivaz prostrating himself before Siyavush in the presence of Rustam. 14th century
Scene from the Shahnama: Garsivaz prostrating himself before Siyavush in the presence of Rustam. 14th century, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1940.12)

Rustam Kills the Turanian Hero Alkus with his Lance. ca. 1450, India
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam Kills the Turanian Hero Alkus with his Lance. ca. 1450, India (The David Collection, Copenhagen, Inv. no. 3/1988). © Pernille Klemp

Rustam leads an attack on the Turanians' allies. ca. 1590, Shiraz
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam leads an attack on the Turanians' allies. ca. 1590, Shiraz (BL IO Islamic 3540, f. 176r)
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Of course, to understand the full extent of Rustam’s image as a redhead, a complete survey would be necessary. Based on the material surveyed so far, it seems that in the earliest surviving Shahnama manuscripts from the fourteenth century, the hero is predominantly depicted with red hair, though not completely consistently: this is the case in all of the four surviving Shahnamas made under the Inju dynasty (see H. 1479 , Dorn 329), one of the so-called Small Shahnamas, as well as several other Ilkhanid Shahnama paintings. The red hair features quite regularly in illustrated Shahnamas of the fifteenth century, while the ratio of the hero’s image with red hair to his total surviving depictions seems to drop increasingly from the Safavid period forward.

Rustam slays Ashkbus and his horse. ca. 1350, Ilkhanid
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam slays Ashkbus and his horse. ca. 1350, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1944.56)

Rustam rescues Bijan from the well, detail showing the red pigment. 1341, Inju, Shiraz
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam rescues Bijan from the well, detail showing the red pigment. 1341, Inju, Shiraz (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1945.7)

Rustam shoots Isfandiyar in the eyes with a double-pointed arrow, detail showing Rustam’s facial hair with a darker shade. 1486, Shiraz
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam shoots Isfandiyar in the eyes with a double-pointed arrow, detail showing Rustam’s facial hair with a darker shade. 1486, Shiraz (BL Add. 18188, f. 292v)
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With some exceptions, there is usually a good degree of consistency throughout a single manuscript, and some of the inconsistencies could be due to later repairs and repainting. In general, there are also common scenes that eliminate the facial hair to show Rustam in his youth, or depict white hair to indicate old age.

Rustam slaying the white elephant
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam slaying the white elephant, detail showing Rustam with red eyebrows and hair, but no facial hair, hinting at his young age. 14th century, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1929.35)

The emergence of red hair in paintings requires more in-depth study of medieval physiognomy. Christ, too, was commonly depicted with red hair, especially in the fourteenth century. Apart from the connection with blood and bloodshed, there also seems to have been a connection between physical strength and red hair, which Robinson and Swietochowski mention in passing (Robinson (2005), 261; Swietochowski, 186). That ideas about this connection were circulating in the medieval Islamic world can, for instance, be witnessed in descriptions of the Sufi writer Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam (d.1141), who is recorded to have red hair, wine-coloured beard, tall stature, and striking physical strength, which earned him the title Zhanda-pil (Moayyad and Lewis, 8), a term used commonly by Ferdowsi to describe things, animals, and people – including Rustam – that were awe-inspiring.

Unlike the tiger-skin coat (babr-i bayan), which is mentioned by Ferdowsi in the Shahnama, and similar to the leopard headwear, it has been noted in passing that there is no indication of Rustam’s red hair in the text of the Shahnama (Swietochowski, 186). This seems to be the case for most copies. However, in some versions of the epic, there are two lines that do note Rustam’s red hair, and raise interesting questions about the relationship between text and image. The lines occur in the section on the birth of Rustam where Rudaba, Rustam’s mother, had to have a caesarean to deliver the immense baby. The lines in question are among the first that describe Rustam at the moment of birth, bringing together metaphors of light, blood, and the colour red:

The hair on his head all red, his hair like blood,
he emerged like the shining Sun.
Both hands full of blood, he was born of his mother,
No one has ever known of a child like this.

همه موی سر سرخ و مویش چو خون
چو خورشید رخشنده آمد برون
دو دستش پر از خون ز مادر بزاد
ندارد کسی این چنین بچه یاد

birth of Rustam. 1616, Mughal, India
Scene from the Shahnama: birth of Rustam. 1616, Mughal, India (BL  Add. 5600, f. 54r)
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Interestingly, the authenticity of these two lines has been questioned. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh leaves them out (Khaleghi-Motlagh, vol.I, 267-8), while Dabir Siyaqi includes them in the main text (Dabir Siyaqi, 136), and Ashtiani and others record them in footnotes (Khalifeh, vol.I, 213). I have not yet come across any illustrated manuscripts – even those depicting Rustam with red hair – which include these lines. Yet, the existence of these verses attests that at some or multiple points there was a written – and perhaps oral – dimension to such iconography.

Explaining this disparity between text and image requires more in-depth research into the iconography and textual variations of the Shahnama. Whether the text predates or was inspired by the image remains unclear for the time being, but two preliminary points can be mentioned here.

First, it is possible that earlier texts, images, and oral traditions that have not survived led to the choice of this iconography for Rustam. There is both textual and visual evidence for the transmission of the legends of Rustam dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, before the completion of the Shahnama by Ferdowsi in the eleventh century (Eighth and ninth century versions of the Rustam cycle and Sims-Williams & Sims-Williams (2015), 252-254). Moreover, several depictions of Shahnama scenes on pre-1300 objects and architecture attest to the transmission of the hero’s visualisations prior to the earliest illustrated Shahnama manuscripts that have reached us.

But there is no reason to assume that images of the Shahnama were strictly dependant on texts, either of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama or related legends. Images of a hero like Rustam – like many other people and narratives in the Shahnama – were popular beyond the medium of the book and had a life of their own. Visual traditions of the Shahnama offer multiple examples of artists who took the liberty to depict extra-textual details. Another way to explain the text-image disparity in the case of Rustam is the possibility that his image as a redhead came first, and subsequently found its way into written traditions, either directly or by way of oral traditions. If so, this could be an interesting case where the pictorial, verbal and textual forms of the Shahnama converge on a single figure, and the former informs the latter.

My sincere thanks to Rachel Parikh and Charles Melville for their help with this blog post.

 

Further Reading
Clinton, Jerome W. and Marianna S. Simpson. “How Rustam Killed White Div: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry.” Iranian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2006): 171-197.

Ferdowsi, Abu’l-qasem. Shahnama, edited by Djalal Khaleqi-Motlaq. New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1987.
Shahnama, edited by Muhammad Dabir Siyaqi. Tehran: Qatreh, 2007.
Shahnama, edited by ‘Abbas Iqbah Ashtiani and Bahman Khalifeh. Tehran: Talayeh, 2007.

Goswamy, B. N. A Jainesque Sultanate Shahnama and the Context of pre-Mughal Painting . Zürich: Museum Rietberg, 1988.

Moayyad, Heshmat and Franklin Lewis, eds. and transl. The Colossal Elephant and His Spiritual Feats: Shaykh Ahmad-e Jam, The Life and Legend of a Popular Sufi Saint of 12th-Century Iran . Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2004.

Robinson, B. W. “The National Hero in Persian Painting.” Journal of the Iran Society, Vol.1, No. 3 (1951): 80-85.
—  “The Vicissitudes of Rustam.” In The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand, edited by Bernard O’ Kane, 253-268. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas and Ursula. “Rustam and his zīn-i palang.” In: From Aṣl to Zāʼid: Essays in Honour of Éva M. Jeremiaś, edited by I. Szánto, 249-58. Piliscsaba: Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2015.

Catalogue entry (p.186) by Marie Lukens Swietochowski in: Ettinghausen, Richard. Islamische Kunst: Meisterwerke aus dem Metropolitan Museum of Art New York . Berlin [u.a.]: Rembrandt-Verlag [u.a.], 1982.

 

Peyvand Firouzeh, Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Foundation & American Council of Learned Societies at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck- Institut.
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20 June 2019

Islamic Painted Page: Growing a Database

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Today's post is by Stephen Serpell announcing the launch of the new version of his online database Islamic Painted Page, now hosted with the University of Hamburg. In a world where individual institutions still maintain their idiosyncratic approaches to locating and displaying digitised images, this resource is a major breakthrough.

Since its launch in 2013, Islamic Painted Page (IPP) has grown into a major online database of Islamicate arts of the book, with over 42,000 references to paintings, illuminations and bindings from over 270 collections around the globe – of which the British Library is one of the most important.

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IPP is found at www.islamicpaintedpage.com and it does two things. First, it enables users to locate and compare works worldwide using a single database, displaying images wherever possible; and second, it signposts users onward to more authoritative sources, with hotlinks direct to the specific image pages of collection websites where available, and page-specific references for printed publications.

The website enables users to search by picture description, collection, accession number, date, place of origin, manuscript title or author, or publication – or any combination of these. So it is possible, for example, to find with a single search 77 different interpretations of the famous scene where Khusrau sees Shirin bathing, with IPP itself showing images of 36 of them.

Five British Library versions of “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”
4 out of 77: Five British Library versions of “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing” (BL Add. 6613, f.42r, IO Islamic 138, f.75r, Or. 2265, f.53v, Or. 2933, f.19v)

Or one could look into the development of non-figurative illumination and page decoration during the reign of Sultan Ḥusayn Bāyqarā in Herat, 1469-1506 (70 different results); or search under an accession number to locate reproductions of works not currently published online, such as the paintings from the Topkapi Royal Turkman Khamsah H762; or search by a particular classical author, for example to study the star charts in different manuscripts of the Ṣuwar al-kawākib of al-Ṣūfī. And one can even search the contents of a publication, perhaps to check if it contains relevant illustrations, or to cross-check for metadata that was left out of the printed text (IPP is good for filling in missing details).

IPP aims to help users find not just images of works, but also articles and commentaries about them; so its search results list all the publication references it holds on each item, with the collection website location topmost if one exists. This means that well-known works return multiple “hits” in a search; for example the Miʻraj painting in the British Library’s celebrated Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (Or. 2265, f.195r) is one of the most-published of all Islamicate miniatures and comes up with 25 references. However very few works achieve such fame, and in fact the database currently holds about 42,500 references for its total of about 30,000 separate items - so on average, each item only appears in 1.4 publications.

“The Miʻraj of the Prophet” from the Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (BL Or. 2265 f.195r).
Multiply published: “The Miʻraj of the Prophet” from the Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (BL Or. 2265 f.195r). Public Domain

This illustrates a further use of the database; its very large size means that it could be used as a starting point for statistical analysis, for example to chart the production of particular illustrated works against place of production or by date, or how the popularity of certain scenes has varied over time.

Islamic Painted Page, main search page

Finding needles in haystacks: Islamic Painted Page, main search page

The database originated simply from one individual’s frustration over the difficulties of studying Islamicate miniature paintings and illuminations, since they are dispersed all over the planet and references to them are scattered throughout a daunting corpus of literature; and even though many are now published online, it can still be very laborious to find relevant links. This led to a personal database that soon grew to point where it seemed likely to be useful to others, if only it could be placed online. A grant from the Iran Heritage Foundation made the website possible in 2013 with an initial 12,300 entries. Subsequent support from the Islamic Manuscript Association in 2015 improved the website’s utility for manuscript studies, including proper attention to transliteration. By this time the database had already grown to 20,600 references and had built in item-specific links to VIAF, WORLDCAT and FIHRIST so that users can just click to find fuller, authoritative information on authors and works, print publications, and - for UK items - manuscript details. Needless to say, a private sideline had by then become a mega-hobby.

However the most exciting subsequent step has been adding actual images of the paintings, illuminations and bindings wherever possible. Copyright prevents the database from reproducing illustrations in printed works, but IPP also covers works published online; and in many cases this has enabled IPP to show images that have been published as Creative Commons or Public Domain, or where a collection has given special permission.


Example search results (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)
Example search results (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)


Flyout details for one result (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)
Flyout details for one result (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)

It was a particular pleasure in 2018 to receive permission to incorporate images for the British Library, since it houses one of the world’s most important collections of Islamicate manuscripts and has been digitizing many of its finest holdings. Together with coverage of 19 other collections, IPP is now able to display thumbnails and larger images for about 50% of its references so far; and it is the inclusion of images that transforms the usefulness of the site for most researchers. It should be stressed that every thumbnail and every flyout image in IPP acknowledges the collection source and provides a folio-specific weblink to the relevant collection webpage, together with a recommendation to proceed to the collection website for authoritative images and other details.

Along the way, IPP has had to confront some difficult issues. Users need to be able to search efficiently, especially if they are trying to find a painting of a particular scene; but this requires consistent descriptions, whereas different authorities give different titles to the same scene (eg Khusrau sees Shirin bathing; Khosrow spies Shirin bathing; Shirin bathes observed by Khusrau….). To help manage this, IPP uses just one consistent description for each scene, but also holds the corresponding alternative descriptions. This ensures that users who cannot find what they want among the “consistent descriptions” can still search among the “alternative descriptions” if necessary.

The price for this simple-sounding device is that IPP not only has to check for consistent titling across the entire database for every new entry, but also has to maintain entire sub-databases of descriptions listing every scene encountered in each of about 30 of the most popular painting cycles, such as those illustrating the Khamsah of Niẓāmī (where artists have represented over 300 different scenes), the Haft Awrang of Jāmī and the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (which extends to over 1,000 scenes and where the work of the Cambridge Shāhnāmah project must be fully acknowledged). Hobbyists, beware!

RAS239-7r RAS239-16v RAS239-32v RAS239-44r
Four scenes from the Shāhnāmah painting cycle (Royal Asiatic Society MS 239, ff. 7r, 16v, 32v, 44r)

Different authorities also ascribe different dates and places of origin to the same items. IPP respects this but it does result in inconsistent metadata between the relevant IPP references. And even authorities can make mistakes, or fail to provide essential details, and publications can suffer misprints; IPP has filled in a lot of missing accession numbers and corrected a lot of wrong ones.

IPP includes thousands of references to non-figurative illuminated pages and bindings, as well as covering figurative pictures; and an important upgrade is in hand to improve the detail of its 2,500 references to decorated Qurʼan pages.

Non-figurative examples – bindings, illuminations, decoration
Non-figurative examples – bindings, illuminations, decoration (BL Add. 16561, Add. 18579, IO Islamic 843 f.34v, Or. 12988 f.2r)

IPP is an academic resource and its future clearly needs to lie with an academic institution, not with an individual. For that reason, about a year ago IPP began a relationship with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures that aims to enrich the database’s features and extend the coverage of works published online as well as in print. One of the first fruits of this collaboration has been the re-launch of the IPP website hosted and supported by the University of Hamburg, with a new look and a number of improvements to the user interface.

Meanwhile the database continues to grow and it is planned to include more images, enlarge its coverage of collections and secondary sources from the Muslim world, and extend its geographical scope. In this way, it is hoped that IPP can act as a multi-disciplinary resource and assist not only art historians and manuscript scholars, but also contribute to digital humanities and wider cultural studies.

The author would like to thank Dr. Barbara Brend, Professor Charles Melville and Dr. Teresa Fitzherbert, as well as his own wife Elizabeth, without whose support, encouragement and patience Islamic Painted Page would never have come into being.

Stephen Serpell, Islamic Painted Page
Research Associate, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC), University of Hamburg
stephen.serpell@uni-hamburg.de
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4547af8200c-pi

17 June 2019

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

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


Jewish Wedding Song Siman Tov & Mazal Tov (YouTube)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Italian ketubah, Modena, 1 October 1557 [ie. 21 October 1757] (BL Or.6706)
Italian ketubah, Modena, 1 October 1557 [ie. 21 October 1757] (BL Or.6706)
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Oriental marriage contracts are scarcer than European ones, and serve as important examples of Jewish art and illumination of the areas they originated from. Some specimens flaunt bold and brilliant colouring and crude designs, while others exhibit native motifs and indigenous symbols. Here are two telling examples from our collection.

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

Afghan ketubah, Herat, 1889 (BL Or 15893)
Afghan ketubah, Herat, 1889 (BL Or 15893)
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Although Jews have lived in Herat since early Islamic times, it became the largest and most influential Jewish community in Afghanistan during the 19th century CE, when persecuted Jews from the Persian town of Meshed streamed into Herat. As a result, decorated Jewish marriage contracts produced in Herat share many artistic characteristics with contracts from neighbouring Meshed.

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

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

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

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

Indian ketubah. Calcutta, 11th November, 1887 (BL Or.15651)
Indian ketubah. Calcutta, 11th November, 1887 (BL Or.15651)
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The development of printing brought with it new decorating techniques, which were also employed to embellish Jewish marriage contracts. A case in point is copper plate engraving. Invented in Germany in the 15th century CE, the use of copper engraving for book illustration became widespread only in the mid-16th century CE. From the 17 th century CE onwards, this complex, skilled craft gained greater popularity, becoming widely practised in Holland and other European countries, including England.

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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[1] from the Hebrew consonantal root ‘ktv’ meaning writing; plural ketubot