If you have ever started a new job, you may have found it difficult to catch up with the incomplete affairs in which your predecessor had been involved. You may be able to empathise then with James Morison, who took over as Resident in the Persian Gulf in September 1835. On Morison’s first inspection of the Residency treasury, he was taken aback by the large amount of money and valuable objects contained therein. Furthermore, Morison was alarmed that many of the items apparently belonged to individuals with no political or official connection to the East India Company; as a public office, the Residency treasury should normally only have been used to hold public money and valuables. Moreover, Morison was conscious that Bushehr, where the Residency was based, was in an unsettled and vulnerable state. If violence erupted in the area, the treasury would be an enticing and obvious target for thieves taking advantage of any disruption. Such was Morison’s unease about the contents of the treasury that he wrote to the Government of Bombay on 6 November 1835, seeking advice.
Photograph captioned 'Entrance to Bushire Residency', c 1870, author unknown. Photo 355/1/34. Public Domain
In his letter, Morison highlighted the most conspicuous items that he had discovered during his inspection: three packages, sealed with the mark of Rizā Qulī Mīrzā Nā'ib al-Īyālah, a member of the Persian [Iranian] ruling family and former Governor of Bushehr. As well as having a royal owner, these packages were notable for three reasons. Firstly, they were by far the most valuable articles in the treasury. Morison’s research lead him to believe that the packages were valued at 5-13,000 Persian tomans or 30-60,000 Bombay rupees – which translates to hundreds of thousands of pounds in today’s money. Secondly, the packages bore an inscription which stated that they should only be handed over either to Rizā Qulī, or someone who possessed a document signed by Lieutenant Samuel Hennell, Morison’s predecessor, permitting their release. This confirmed that the articles had been placed in the treasury with the knowledge of the previous Resident, although the question of this being a public or private transaction remained. Thirdly – and most worryingly – tumultuous events arising from the death of Fatḥ ‘Alī Shāh, Shāh of Persia, meant that the discovery of these articles within the Residency treasury could potentially be damaging to British-Persian relations.
Extract of the list of contents of Rizā Qulī’s treasure, including weapons and jewellery set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. IOR/F/4/1596/64626, f. 534r. Crown copyright, used under terms of Open Government License
Rizā Qulī was the son of the late Ḥusayn ‘Alī Mīrzā Farmānfarmā, Prince Governor of Fars, who had died in captivity following his failed attempt to claim the throne of Persia from his nephew, Muḥammad. When Ḥusayn ‘Alī had been captured, Rizā Qulī and two of his brothers had fled Shiraz. As Morison emphasised in his letter to Bombay, there was currently an extensive search being carried out by Manūchihr Khān Gurjī, the new Governor of Fars, to obtain the missing treasure and property of the late Ḥusayn ‘Alī. If reports were true, Morison was sure that Manūchihr Khān would already be aware of the extent and location of the packages currently held in the treasury. The situation, Morison feared, might lead to much misunderstanding and could place himself and the Ambassador at Tehran in a situation ‘of some delicacy and embarrassment’.
In response to Morison’s letter, the Government of Bombay instructed him to send the packages on board one of the East India Company’s ships of war for safekeeping until a decision could be made. They wrote to Hennell, the Acting Resident when the articles had been deposited in the treasury and who had been in Bombay on sick leave since July 1835. He replied to the Government on 11 February 1836, admitting that he had reluctantly agreed to hold Rizā Qulī’s private property in the treasury towards the end of 1834. He had felt obliged to do so due to the ‘intimate footing’ between Rizā Qulī and the British authorities in the Gulf, as well as the former’s kind treatment of all Residency members. With Rizā Qulī now on the run, it was unclear if or when he would return to Bushehr, and so Hennell suggested that the packages be sent to Basra and held securely on board a ship of war there, until Rizā Qulī could send an agent to collect them.
As for the diplomatic sensitivities, Hennell clarified that an agent of Manūchihr Khān had already made enquiries about missing treasure in July 1835. Hennell had been transparent with the agent, who seemed satisfied by Hennell's responses and made no further enquiries. The Government of Bombay criticised Hennell’s poor judgement in accepting Rizā Qulī’s private property, but focused on returning the packages to the fugitive prince as quickly as possible.
Morison's problem was solved. However, the incident perhaps served as an appropriate introduction to the role of Resident and the balancing act he would be required to perform when dealing with ruling families in the Gulf. Whilst beneficial to cultivate relationships with powerful elites, this could lead to difficulties when their power diminished and other individuals emerged as frontrunners to the throne. The favourable treatment shown to the British by Rizā Qulī had resulted in Hennell feeling somewhat obliged to agree to Rizā Qulī’s request, and to consequently bend the rules with regard to appropriate use of the Residency’s treasury.
The opening of the Divan-i Makhtumquli, a late 18th-early 19th-century Turkmen manuscript. (Divan-iMakhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 3v)
Of all the languages of state included within my curatorial bailiwick, Turkmen is undoubtedly the most neglected. It doesn’t help that the name is often applied to two divergent linguistic communities. For those interested in historical uses of the word, it often refers to Turkic or Turkophone communities between the Balkans and Central Asia practicing nomadic or semi-nomadic socio-economic organization. In this usage, it can sometimes be replaced by Turcoman or Turkoman, although the rule is far from hard and fast. Various dynasties that established polities in Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Iran are often described as Turkmen; think of the Aqqoyunlular, the Seljuks, and even the Qajars, to name a few. Today, the designation is still used by and for communities in some West Asian states. Many of these peoples still practice nomadic or semi-nomadic social and economic organization. In Turkey, a geographical determinant is often used to distinguish them from historic or Central Asian communities, especially with respect to those in Iraq. For those members of these groups resident in the Republic, other endonyms are now used for some communities previously referred to as Turkmen, such as the Yörük.
There is, of course, another use of the word Turkmen, applied to a Central Asian people linked by language, culture, and history to the Turkmen of West Asia and the Balkans. Independent since 1991, Turkmenistan is at the centre of a linguistic community numbering some 11 million from northern Iran to Uzbekistan and from Afghanistan to Russia. This Turkmen language, also a member of the Oghuz branch of the Turkic family, was standardized in the 1920s and 30s by Soviet specialists, and was made the official language of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. Currently written in the Latin alphabet, the language boasts a well-documented, if understudied, literary corpus that extends back several centuries. This tradition is best exemplified by an 18th-century poet named Magtymguly Pyragy. He is the Turkmen equivalent of Alisher Navoiy or Shakespeare, both for the influence of his poetry on later Turkmen creatives, and for his position in state-driven literary historiography. While published and translated editions of Pyragy’s poetry are relatively common in Euro-Atlantic libraries (thanks, in part, to Turkmen state institutions’ drives to promote him), manuscripts are rare. We at the British Library, however, are exceedingly lucky to hold such a copy under the shelfmark Or 11414. And I was fortunate enough to have had it brought to my attention by Dr. Anton Ikhsanov, who completed his doctorate on Turkmen intellectual history at St. Petersburg State University.
(Left) The cover of a Soviet-era collection of Magtymguly Pyragy's poetry. (Magtymguly, Saĭlanan Goshghular (Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Neshriiaty, 1976. 14499.n.231)
(Right) A woodcut illustration of the poet. (Magtymguly, Saĭlanan Goshghular (Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Neshriiaty, 1976. 14499.n.231)
Magtymguly Pyragy was born around 1730 CE in Haji Qushan, Golestan province, contemporary Iran. He passed away in 1807 CE close to the current Iranian-Turkmenistani border, and was laid to rest in Aq Taqe-yi Qadim, Golestan Province, Iran. He received his education in Turkmen, Persian and Arabic at home and in the great centres of learning in the region, including Khiva and Bukhara, before traveling widely in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Iran, and West Asia. Pyragy’s peripatetic life and widespread impact exemplify the reach and diversity of Turkmen culture, and of the fluidity of boundaries among Oghuz-speaking peoples prior to the 20th century. It’s clear that this poet’s work was influential among speakers at the eastern fringe of the Oghuz linguistic space and beyond. But during the Soviet period, Magtymghuly Pyragy was elevated, along with a number of other pre-Revolutionary Turkic literati (including Navoiy, Abai, and Mirzǝ Fǝthǝli Axundzadǝ) to the rank of proto-Socialist visionaries. Their works were woven into the dominant (and state-sanctioned) socialist realist criticism, and libraries were written on the presence of anachronistic Marxist-Leninist dogma within their works.
(Left) An incomplete (?) poem or prose text, possibly on prayer or repentance, preceding the main Divan.
(Right) A series of religious invocations in Arabic in nestalik script.
In a way, this later trend is what makes Or 11414 so special. The manuscript is a relatively bare and simple one, with red pencil text boxes for some of the pages. The majority of the text is written in nestalik in black ink with a relatively thick-nibbed pen. It is arranged into two columns, and there are occasional dividers in red reading “va li-hi ayzan (وله أيضاً)”. At the start and end of the work, we notice texts written in a different hand and using a different pen. The first of these, on f 2r, is an odd addition that is difficult to read because of both smearing of the ink and the irregular handwriting. I’m unsure whether this is intended as another poem, or if this an account of an individual’s attempt at prayer and repentance. On f 140v, in contrast, there are religious invocations in beautifully ornate and elaborate nestalik, all of them in Arabic. In between these two poles, we find mostly the work of Magtymguly Pyragy, but also poems by other Turkmen poets, including Döwletýar Beg, Seýitnazar Seýdi, Gurbandurdy Zelili, Bende Murad, and Abdulnazar Şahbende.
An unruled page of Magtumguly Pyragy's poetry. (Divan-iMakhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 63r)
What makes this so important? We’re used to seeing manuscripts lauded and promoted because of their ornate illumination and illustrations. Sometimes, they’re publicized because of the high monetary value attributed to them through the commoditization of authors’ legacies and calligraphers’ pedigrees. But Or 11414’s worth lies in the fact that it most likely reflects the copying and circulation of Turkmen texts for the enjoyment and edification of as wide an audience as possible. It provides us with a rare view into the reading, writing, and copying cultures of Turkmen-speakers in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. And, more importantly, it creates a window onto their usage of the language and their estimation of Pyragy and his work before the heavy-handed intervention of Soviet authorities in the 1920s and 30s. The manuscript creates a counterpoint for the study and hypothesizing of a language and literary tradition that are both frequently overlooked by individuals and institutions outside of Central Asia.
There is, of course, another part to this story, one about provenance. How did this rare work make it into the British Library’s collections? A note in the back of the manuscript states that it was purchased from M. E. Denissoff on 10 February 1934. This likely refers to Elie Denissoff or Ilya Denisov, a Russian émigré who was the Secretary of the Russian Prime Minister in 1917. Denisov fled the Soviet Union to Paris and then Belgium, where he eventually engaged in scholarship on ecclesiastical history. Such biographical details would fit those of individuals who often sold manuscript material to the British Museum and similar institutions at the time. But it doesn’t explain how the volume came into Denisov’s possession in the first place. Thanks to Dr. Hugh Olmsted and his enlightening “Two Exiles: The Roots and Fortunes of Elie Denissoff, Rediscoverer of Mikhail Trivolis,” we have at least a glimpse into the possible origin of the manuscript.
Denisov was from an old Cossack family that had first come into the Imperial household’s good graces through its contributions to the Siege of Azov. When the October Revolution resulted in the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the Imperial system, Ilia escaped from St. Petersburg south to his family’s ancestral lands near Kuban. This provided only temporary respite, but it did ensure that he did not suffer the same fate as the rest of his family in St. Petersburg, who succumbed to war and persecution. He gradually made his way out of Russia via Baku into Persia. From Tehran, he requested temporary permission to re-enter Russian territory, and did so on the eastern shore of the Caspian, making his way to Ashgabat before crossing by sea again to Baku, and thence out to Istanbul, Bulgaria, and eventually France. Given this brief sketch, it is entirely possible that Denisov acquired the Divan-I Makhtumquli in Turkmenistan proper, and that the manuscript originated from Central Asia. What’s more, from a description of Denisov’s memoirs in Olmsted’s work, we know that the former visited the British Museum in the mid-1930s as part of his doctoral research on Maximus the Greek. The pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place, but only at the terminal end of the manuscript’s provenance.
The final page of the Divan, likely with a final poem added in a different hand. (Divan-iMakhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 140r)
There is one last clue that is proving to be far more difficult to decipher. In addition to the note about Denissoff at the end of the manuscript, an annotation reads “Tina Negan”chik” (Тина Неганъчикъ)”. It’s not clear to me whether this is intended to be a name, and, if so, what role this person might have played in the item’s history. The use of the hard sign at the end of the word might point to a pre-Revolutionary orthography, or perhaps to nasalized and glottalized consonants, as in common in the current orthography of Crimean Tatar. Whatever the case, the all-powerful tool of Google searching has produced nothing of note, and it does appear that we might yet have to wait a bit longer before we’re able to know to what this refers.
Sometimes, big gifts come in small boxes. While Or 11414 doesn’t look like the type of manuscript that would leave us plenty of avenues for further study, that’s exactly what it has done. And at a time when increasing demands are made for the massaging and manipulation of cultural heritage to satisfy the demands of the social media machine, it bears remembering that there is value beyond being the perfect Instagram post. It just takes a bit of time and quietude to find it.
Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
Clement, V. (2018). Learning to Become Turkmen: Literacy, Language, and Power, 1914-2014, Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press. (YC.2019.a.1438)
Edgar, A. L. (2004), Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Princeton: Princeton University Press. (YC.2006.a.7110)
Frank, A. (2020), ‘Turkmen Literacy and Turkmen Identity before the Soviets: the Ravnaq al-Islām in Its Literary and Social Context,’ JESHO, 63 (3) : 286-315. (P.P.3779.hdd.)
Taylor, P. M. (2017), ‘Turkic poetic heritage as symbol and spectacle of identity: observations on Turkmenistan’s Year of Makhtymguly celebrations,’ Nationalities Papers, 45 (2) : 321-336. (ELD Digital Store Document Supply 6033.449000)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 Nizami's Makhzan al-asrar, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Tabriz or Qazvin, (BL Or.2265, ff. 2v-3r). Public Domain
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.
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 (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 CCBY
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:
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 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.
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’)
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.
Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian CCBY
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
An illustration of a dream sequence featuring two individuals seated in a garden from a 16th-century recension of the story of Layla and Majnun in the Azerbaijani language. (Füzulî, Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Azerbaijan, 16th century CE. Or 405, f 97r)
As a Canadian in London, one thing that makes me roll my eyes is being asked to say the word “about”. Everyone expects me to exhibit what’s known as Canadian raising, where those of us from Southern Ontario say the word as if it were spelled “aboot”. People have a good chuckle, and I grumpily insist we don’t do that in Toronto, and then we go on our merry ways. It’s not really all that important, but it does make me think, sometimes, about the assumption that English words are meant to be read one and one way only. Perhaps “about” should sound like “aboot”; and “caught” and “cot” should be distinct from one another; and “think” and “fink” really ought to be homonyms. What about going the other way, from writing into speech? If I write “about”, how do you know I didn’t mean for it to be pronounced “aboot”? For London to be heard as Lundon? Or that “breed!” is actually an instruction for you to breathe? In truth, our assumptions about these choices say more about our own backgrounds and prejudices than we care to reveal. The same can be said about many other linguistic communities, both historic and current, around the globe. In the Turkic collections, a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon appears in our holdings of Azerbaijani manuscripts.
The first page of the newspaper Nicat (Salvation), published in Azerbaijani in Arabic script during the Tsarist period. (Nicat, 1:1 (Baku: Nicat Qiraatxanǝsi, 20 November 1910). ORB.30/342)
It wouldn’t be one of my blogs if it didn’t start off with some sort of caveat. So, let’s get it out of the way. I use the term “ Azerbaijani” broadly in line with Euro-Atlantic linguistics: to denote a Turkic language of the Oghuz sub-branch that is closely related to Istanbul Turkish , and that is spoken in the Caucasus (especially the Republic of Azerbaijan) and in northwestern Iran. In English, we also have recourse to the shortcut Azeri, which usually means the Turkic language Azerbaijani. But Azeri might also mean Old Azeri or Azari, a now-dormant Western Iranian language from the same region that might be linked genetically to Tati or Talysh. In the Republic of Azerbaijan, the official name of the language is Azərbaycan dili (“Azerbaijan language"), but it can also be called Azərbaycanca (making use of the -ca/cə language suffix), or, less frequently, Azəricə. In this region, Azerbaijani was largely written in the Arabic script until the early 20th century, when the Soviet authorities first imposed the Latin-based Uniform alphabet in the late 1920s, and then a modified Cyrillic alphabet in the 1930s. In 1991, the year in which complete independence was achieved, the Republic of Azerbaijan officially adopted the Latin script for the language.
South of the border, in Iran, the term “Azeri” usually refers to the old Iranian language and not the Turkic one. Here, the preferred terminology is Torki (ترکی, in Persian) or Türkçǝ (تۆرکجه, in Azerbaijani), and the dominant script is a modified Arabic one. While the varieties spoken in the Caucasus and Iran are distinct dialects, they do form a single linguistic grouping, relying on many common grammatical and lexical features, and share a common linguistic history. Speakers of the language in Iran vastly outnumber those in the Caucasus (perhaps 13 million to just over 9 million in the Republic, according to the CIA World Factbook as quoted on Wikipedia). Azerbaijani is not an official language in Iran, but can be found fairly frequently online and in printed media. Turkic-speakers have long been integrated into broader Iranian society, and many notable personalities in Iranian history come from Turkic backgrounds: Shah Ismail I; Ahmad Kasravi; and yes, even the world-renowned singer, Queen of contemporary Persian pop, Googoosh.
The cover of a periodical produced in Baku, Azerbaijan in the 1930s featuring the Latin alphabet imposed by Soviet authorities between 1927 and the late 1930s. (InqilaB vǝ Mǝdǝnijjǝt, 1-2 (Baku: AzǝriNǝshr, 1934). ITA.1986.c.18(9))
As always, there are considerable political implications to the choice of terminology. My intention here is to mirror common Anglophone usage of the terminology, not to promote a particular movement or point of view. That said, the question arises: what makes something an “Azerbaijani” manuscript? The British Library holds some 7 manuscripts that can be described as containing texts in Azerbaijani. All of these are in an Arabic orthography that mirrors Ottoman Turkish quite closely, leaving Arabic words in their original spellings and marking only some vowels in non-Arabic words. This might make it seem as though telling Ottoman and Azerbaijani apart would be impossible, but there are a few clues. One of the easiest is the use of a syllable final -x (like the ch in loch) where Ottoman Turkish would have a -k. Çok “many” or “very” in Turkish becomes çox in Azerbaijani, and bakmak “to look” in Turkish is baxmaq in Azerbaijani, for example. Turkish employs the suffix -iyor for the present continuous, while Azerbaijani uses -ir. And, after the 16th century, Turkish uses only the suffix -miş for the perfective, while Azerbaijani has both -miş and -ip (in the 2nd and 3rd persons). There are, of course, other tells in terms of phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon, but these are usually the easiest. And they help clue us in, broadly speaking, to how to pronounce those undifferentiated spellings of Arabic words I mentioned up above.
An illustration of Mǝcnun amongst animals from an illustrated 16th-century manuscript in the Azerbaijani language. (Füzulî, Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Azerbaijani, 16th century CE. Or 405, f 73r)
So what, exactly, do these manuscripts comprise? Usually literary works, but there are also a few historical items as well. Undoubtedly, the most awe-inspiring item is Or 405, Füzulî’s Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, copied in 1075 AH (1664 CE). This is Füzulî’s own recension of the classical tale, and one that he admits to having translated from a Persian source on the behest of his friends in Istanbul. This bit of information is important, as it shows how Azerbaijani functioned as a literary medium independently of Ottoman (or Istanbul) Turkish, permitting the translation and adaptation of texts from other languages in its own right. The copy held by the Library is a spectacular specimen of the tale, as it is accompanied by vivid and bright illustrations that relate to the stories found within the text. There are some lovely examples of Leyli in a graveyard and Mecnun among animals, all of which combine a simplicity of line and feature with motion and bright colours. And Or 405 also contains more than a few examples of the linguistic features that help us distinguish dialects, whether the presence of çox and yox (written چوخ and یوخ ), or the preponderance of -ip forms throughout.
The şemse or sun motif (left) and opening text with unvan (right) of the Divan-i Xǝtai, exemplifying the lush illumination found throughout the volume. (Xǝtai, Divan-i Xǝtai, Iran or Azerbaijan, 16th century CE. Or 3380, ff 2r-v)
Or 405 is the only illustrated manuscript in Azerbaijani held at the British Library, but it is by no means the only beautifully constructed volume in the language. Or 3380, the Divan-i Xǝtai, is a 16th century copy of the collected poetry of Shah Ismail I, whose poetic pseudonym or mahlas was Xǝtai/Khaṭā’ī (خطائى). The work’s imperial connections are made apparent by the beautiful gold artistry and calligraphy employed throughout the volume. Shah Ismail was of mixed heritage and grew up speaking both Azerbaijani and Persian. Supported by various Turkic communities, he rose to power by defeating the Aq Qoyunlu confederation, and established the Safavid Empire, becoming Shah of Iran in 1501 CE. Ismail I is famous for many different reasons, including the imposition of Twelver Shi’ism as the official religion of his Empire, but he was also a renown poet in his own right. This confluence of political and literary prestige is undoubtedly the reason why his mahlas is written in gold throughout the work. Its entire construction is impressive; an example of luxury bookmaking in Safavid Iran. But so too is the poetry, which addresses both temporal and sacred love.
A folio of text from another recension of the story of Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun in Azerbaijani, not composed by Füzulî. (Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Iran?, 18th century CE. Add MS 7936)
The rest of the Azerbaijani items in the British Library’s holdings are not nearly as spectacular as Or 405 and Or 3380, but they do merit attention. The fourth text of Add MS 7936 is another version of Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun copied in the 18th century CE. This piece was written by an unnamed poet (not Füzulî), who appears to have made use of some of the Persian versions of the story to craft their own work in the 16th century CE. While the calligraphy and lack of illumination makes this a rather plain and run-of-the-mill text, the copyist’s alternation between one and two columns, prose and poetry, does provide an additional element of interest for those curious about the Azerbaijani literary set-up of the period.
The densely packed script of the Tarix-i Sam or Samname, with the addition (?) of punctuation and Persian text in red. (Tarix-i Sam, Iran?, 1265 AH [1848-49 CE]. Or 11130, f 236v)
The other three texts in the Arabic script are all translations, glosses or paraphrases of earlier Persian works, once again highlighting just how closely linked the history of Azerbaijani literature is to that of its Iranic neighbours. By and large, these are historical texts revolving around the lives and experiences of notable people, real or imagined. Or 11130, Tarix-i Sam İbn-i Nǝriman, also known as the Samname, for example, is an Azerbaijani rendition of a legendary history prepared for a meddah, or traditional storyteller, based on an earlier Persian version. The Samname derives from the Shāh-nāmah (and so includes stories of Rustam) and can be found in its Persian original in other British Library manuscripts, including Or 2926. The opening of the work is in Persian, but then continues into an Azerbaijani dialect in an orthography that departs slightly from what we would normally expect based on the other texts found in the British Library collections. I have banged on about this before (particularly when looking at Chagatai manuscripts), but it remains to be seen whether these idiosyncrasies reflect dialectal differences, or just the personal choices of Muhǝmmǝd Rıza İbn-i Mǝrhum Molla Abdurrıza, the manuscript’s copyist.
Or 5772, in contrast to the Samname, deals with the life and miracles of Şeyh Safi, a 13th century CE Kurdish Sufi mystic and poet from Ardabil, a city that has long had a heavy concentration of Turkic speakers. This 16th century manuscript also provides a fairly thorough account of the rules and precepts of the Safavid Order of Sufis. This particular text raises a different set of questions, ones not related to language. Translations in many of the Ottoman and Azerbaijani works can create issues of citation and attribution. Some translators make clear reference to their source text, while others don’t. Perhaps text compilers might have sampled heavily from a number of different works by the same author, or maybe they constructed paraphrases or compilations of various works, all with the same title or dealing with the same issue, but by different authors. Whatever the case, these items, among which Or 5772 should be classed, cannot always be matched to an original source text. The item in hand, for example, might be related to the Persian work Maqalāt va Maqāmāt by Şeyh Safi, but we will only know for certain when greater research is conducted on it.
Initial text (left) and the colophon (right) from the Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, along with the start of a Persian-language text at the end of the colophon. (Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, Iran?, 1199 AH [1784-85 CE]. Or 9839, f 2r and f 95v)
We have a bit more luck with Or 9839, Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, which, as you might have guessed, is an Azerbaijani gloss of the 12th-13th century Persian work Bakhtiyār-nāmah. This tale, which follows a familiar pattern of a captive telling stories in order to delay their eventual execution, can be found in a variety of versions. Further investigation is needed on Or 9839, therefore, to determine the source text of the translation, and the Azerbaijani gloss’ connection to other recensions. This process is eased by the fact that the text of the Baxtiyarnamǝ also contains occasional interlinear glosses in Persian, which might be the original source text. These follow a pattern seen in other bilingual or multilingual works, in which one language (Azerbaijani) is written using nesih, while another (Persian) can be found in nestalik. The beginning and end of the volume feature much more wear and tear than the body of the text, and a number of smudged ownership seals can be found on f 98r. Combined with the fact that someone appears to have added ᶜUbayd-i Zākānī’s mesnevi Qiṣṣa-i Sangtarāsh on ff 95v-98r (maybe the copyist of the manuscript, Molla Muhamməd Rəsul vələd-i Muhamməd, himself?), it’s clear that this manuscript created in 1199 AH (1784-85 CE) was well-used, if not also well-loved, by its owners and readers.
Manuscripts are fascinating sources for the study of literature, history, language, religion and politics. They are also documents that link past generations with current and future ones, and help to preserve cultural heritage. The Azerbaijani-language manuscript collection at the British Library is small in number, but it does present an opportunity to fulfil both aspects of manuscripts’ potential usefulness. By identifying and describing them sensitively, these treasures can be made discoverable to scholars from around the world. They also become more accessible to Azerbaijani-speakers not engaged in scholarly research, and more amenable to be reintegrated into the evolution and articulation of their identities, wherever they might find themselves. Thanks to these processes, we might finally figure out just how the gilded words they contain were really meant to sound.
Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
For more information on the characteristics of various Turkic languages and dialects, see:
The Turkic Languages, ed. Lars Johanson and Éva Á. Csató (London: Routledge, 1998). (YC.1999.b.2111)
The opening of the anonymous romance of the female poet and musician Mahsati and Amir Ahmad the preacher’s son. Copy dated Rabiʻ I 867/1462 (British Library Or.8755, f. 22v)
Mahsati was one of the earliest female poets of classical Persian but the biographical details about her are rather meagre. She probably lived in the eleventh or twelfth century and may have been from Ganja, but Nishapur, Badakhshan and Khujand have also been given as her place of birth by later authors. She is said to have served in the capacity of a secretary (dabirah) or singer and musician at the court of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1097-1118), but at least one historian also places her husband in the court Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud (r. 998-1030). In the late fifteenth century, Dawlatshah in his biographical dictionary Tazkirat al-shu‘ara confirms the connection with Sultan Sanjar and lists her among the ruler’s panegyric poets, along with others such as Adib Sabir, Rashid Vatvat, ‘Abd al-Vasih Jabali, and Anvari. Dawlatshah describes Mahsati as “the beloved of the sultan and elegant lady of the times” (mahbubah-yi sultan va zarifah-yi ruzgar) and includes an anecdote about how she won the sultan’s favour with her verbal skills as he was trying to mount his horse in the snow. She is said to have uttered this poem extemporaneously:
Heaven has saddled the mount of felicity for you, King, And praised you among all the rulers, In order that your steed’s golden shoe not get muddied It has spread silver on the ground.
Mahsati is better known for her earthy poems, especially for the quatrains composed on the boys of the bazaar in the shahrashub (amorous, sometimes bawdy verse) genre. The corpus of her poems has increased over the years and modern editions contain between 250 to 300 poems, many of which are also attributed to other poets such as ‘Umar Khayyam. The Swiss scholar, Fritz Meier, made a life-long study of Mahsati and published a corpus of her poems in Die schöne Mahsatī. His research, especially on the fifteenth century romance starring Mahsati and her lover Amir Ahmad or Pur-i Khatib, who was the son of a preacher named Khatib, was published posthumously by Gudrun Schubert and Renate Würsch.
The anonymous romance, Amir Ahmad u Mahsati, survives in at least three versions. One of these is in an illustrated manuscript in the British Library, Or. 8755, which also includes two other short versified narratives: Manqabatnamah, or Qissah-yi shir u div, on the exploits of Ali, and Qissah-yi Isma‘il about Ism‘ail and Ibrahim. The eighteen paintings in the manuscript, thirteen of which belong to the Mahsati romance, are in the Turkoman style.
The story of Mahsati and Amir Ahmad is narrated in prose with 475 quatrains making up the dialogue by the main characters. It is told that Mahsati is the well-educated daughter of a mufti in Khujand whose special talent lies in impromptu versification. The townspeople disapprove of her musical abilities but when they complain to her father, he informs them that according to her horoscope she will become a courtesan. After her father’s death she and her mother move to Ganja where she settles in a tavern. She drinks wine, recites poetry, and even gets the king to fall for her charms. In the same town lives a preacher’s son, Amir Ahmad, who teaches around four hundred students. One night he dreams that he is being offered wine by a houri in paradise. Upon waking up he goes out and sees Mahsati as she plays music on a harp:
Mahsati and Amir Ahmad see each other for the first time (British Library Or.8755, f. 29v)
In true fairytale fashion they fall in love with each other. Amir Ahmad leaves his home and begins to lead a dissipated life with his beloved. When his father has him locked up in a cell his pupils come to intercede on his behalf and hear his laments. His poems about Mahsati are mistaken by his father for verses on mystical love and he is thought to be cured of his lovesickness. But upon being released, he goes back to the tavern to be with Mahsati. As the condition of a wager with his father, he mounts a mule and is ready to go to the mosque if the beast leads him there, but the mule takes him right back to Mahsati.
The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati (British Library Or.8755, f. 70r)
The father persists and sends his pious brother Pir ‘Usman to go and bring the profligate back, but he himself becomes drunk and has to be carried home.
A drunken Pir ʻUsman is carried home (British Library Or.8755, f. 75v)
Upon the intercession of the king, the tavern is ordered to be closed and the drinkers to disperse. Mahsati goes off to Khurasan followed by Amir Ahmad. There he discovers her at a feast with three hundred distinguished poets and scholars.
Mahsati entertaining the poets of Khurasan (British Library Or.8755, f. 87r)
The couple eventually returns to Ganja, where in the marketplace Mahsati sees and composes poems on a group of professional youths comprising a beer-seller, camel driver, spice-seller, bloodletter, barber, as well as a rind, a rakish drunkard.
Amir Ahmad and Mahsati accosted by a drunkard in the bazaar (British Library Or.8755, f. 95v)
There she also encounters the master poet Sana’i whom she satirizes in ribald verses. In the meantime, Amir Ahmad finally reconciles with his father and resumes his old life. Mahsati also repents and is allowed to marry her beloved. They lead a devout life and bring up god-fearing children. Eventually Amir Ahmad becomes the preacher of Ganja after his father’s death, and after his death his grave becomes a shrine for penitent drunkards.
The romance about Mahsati provides a contextualized narrative built around her poems. She is transformed into a pious, married woman who is repentant of her past life, but her earlier non-conventional persona persisted in the biographical accounts about her. However, one must be careful to not confuse either persona, the one that comes through in her poems as a poet of the bazaar, or in the romance with her conversion, with that of the actual individual. Even if we do not have historical facts about her life, Mahsati’s poems were never forgotten over the centuries. Especially in the nineteenth century Persian literati in Iran and India sought to retrieve the voices of women and create a female canon of poets for which the inclusion of some classical poets was necessary to provide the authority of tradition. Mahsati, along with Rab‘ia Quzdari or Balkhi, feature in the small group of the earliest poets in these anthologies and continue to be remembered and read in the erstwhile larger Persianate world.
Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University
 Dick Davis, The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women (Washington, DC: Mage, 2019), pp. 7-14.  Fritz Meier, Die schone Mahsatī. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der persischen Vierzeilers (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1963). Die schöne Mahsatī. Der Volksroman uber Mahsatī und Amīr Ahmad, herausgegeben von Gudrun Schubert und Renate Würsch (Leiden: Brill, 2005).  G.M. Meredith-Owens, “A Rare Illustrated Persian Manuscript,” The Memorial Volume of the Vth International Congress of Iranian Art & Archaeology, edited by A. Tajvid, (Tehran: Ministry of Culture and Arts, 1972), vol. 2, pp. 125 -131.  For a discussion on the gender implications of Mahsati’s poetic voice, see Rebecca Gould, “Mahsatī of Ganja’s Wandering Quatrains: Translator’s Introduction,” Literary Imagination 13/2 (2011), pp. 225-227.
Many Persian poetry anthologies – particularly those produced during the 15th and early 16th century - display a kaleidoscopic use of decorated papers, and reveal an engaging celebration of color with every turn of the page. This ‘patchwork’ approach calls to mind the patched garments worn by ascetic figures in some Persianate paintings. Traditionally worn to signal their renunciation of material wealth, these patched robes and shawls are similar in spirit to the pieced kasaya cloths sometimes worn by their Buddhist ascetic counterparts. Ironically, a number of these patched kasaya cloaks are made from extremely luxurious materials – including silk textiles, sometimes given to monasteries by wealthy donors seeking favor. This translation of a modest patchwork into one composed of sumptuous materials transforms their original ‘recycled’ intention into an elegant transmutation. When viewed as works of art (instead of works of piety), these robes become refined visual ‘allusions’ to the idea of poverty and renunciation, rather than actual reflections of it. They are markers of asceticism, but elevate the original idea of patching by necessity, to one of luxury.
Examples of so-called ‘marbled’ (fig. 1) and ‘silvered’ (fig. 2) pages (Or.13193, ff. 13r and 13v). Public Domain
We can detect a similar visual conceit at work in many of the ‘patchwork’ Persian poetry anthologies produced in the 15th and early 16th century. These manuscripts exhibit a ‘patched’ appearance, but often not from necessity. Rather, it is achieved only through a highly labor-intensive process of multi-layered artistic collaboration that transforms the manuscript into an elaborate and luxurious visual pun. This kind of assembled ‘patchwork’ occurs in both upright-format manuscripts and albums as well as oblong-format manuscripts in 15th and 16th century. These oblong format manuscripts typically comprise anthologies of poetry and are referred to in contemporary texts as safina. The term safina is often translated as ship or boat - but it may be better understood as vessel or ark – that is, as a carrier of disparate cargoes.
An example of this type of safina poetry anthology is held today in the British Library, it contains 144 folios that measure about 8 x 20.5 cm, bound along their short side. The textual content is primarily ghazal-form poetry by about twenty poets. Two folios bear the name of the Aq Qoyunlu prince ‘Abu’l-‘Izz [Yamin al-Din] Yusuf Bahadur Khan. Yusuf was one of the sons of Sultan Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, and brother to Sultan Ya’qub Aq Qoyunlu. In the 15th century, the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty controlled much of Persia, as well as parts of present-day Iraq and eastern Turkey. A distinctive style of manuscript production emerged under their reign in centres including Shiraz and Tabriz; a number of surviving safina manuscripts may be connected with their patronage. Given the inscription naming Yusuf ibn Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, the production of the British Library safina has been dated sometime between 1470 and 1480 CE - prior to his death around 1490 CE.
Fig. 3: Horizontal view of a black coloured page (Or.13193, f. 3v). Public Domain
Although ‘patched’ in appearance, this manuscript would have been very costly to produce. Multiple layers of work were involved in the production of its multicolored paper supports – which often involved the application of various decorative techniques – including stencilled designs. The papers in the British Library safina are of various hues, some with additional painted elements. Some pages have been described as ‘marbled’ (fig. 1) – although not technically accurate. Some are entirely or partially ‘silvered’ (fig. 2) and subsequently tarnished - a feature seen in other safina manuscripts of the period.. A few folios are coloured black (fig. 3) or deep blue, but most folios exhibit softer pastel tones. The British Library safina also features a broad range of stencilled folios, which are among its most engaging aspects. With almost each turn of the page, one encounters a new motif or color combination. It seems that the artists who created these books derived pleasure in creating new and captivating juxtapositions.
Fig. 4: Blue dragons intertwined with central animal-head motif (Or.13193, f. 27v). Public Domain
Looking closely at some of the stencilled and painted pages in the British Library safina, one notes folios that display figures of animals – flying ducks, swimming fish, and even wonderous creatures, such as blue dragons (fig. 4). Sometimes, human figures are playfully inserted within the stencilled designs.
In figs. 5 and 6, the figures are juxtaposed with calligraphic designs. In the scholarly literature, such stencilled and painted imagery in anthological manuscripts often has been overlooked or dismissed as mere ‘decoration.’ But, what significance could this imagery have held for the contemporary reader - and to what sources did the artists look for their inspiration? What relationship does this imagery have with the manuscript? In short - what is the function of these images, if not mere decoration?
Figs. 5 & 6: A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages (Or.13193, ff. 15v and 16r). Public Domain
Turning to the stencilled calligraphy of these pages (figs. 5 & 6), the individual letters are written against swirling golden vine scrolls, making it somewhat difficult to decipher. Yet, if one is already familiar with these well-known lines from a poem by Hafez, the text is relatively easy to read:
Dar īn zamāna rafīqī kih khālī az khalal-ast Ṣurāḥī-yi may-i nāb u safīna-i ghazal-ast
This may be translated as:
These days, the only friend[s] without fault[s] are a bottle of wine and a safina of ghazals…
The decision to highlight this verse within the manuscript is, of course, to create a punning reference back to the manuscript – which is, itself, a safina of ghazals and the reader’s companion at that moment. The placement of these lines evokes the very act of reading the anthology at hand. It is as if the book itself is speaking directly to its reader.
In addition to such ‘meta-textual’ references, we find other stencilled imagery which alludes to well-known works of Persian literature located ‘outside’ of the manuscript. That is, these stories are often not mentioned in the surrounding text of the anthology but are easily recognized by those who are conversant with the popular literature of the period. Another stencilled folio – for example – shows a painted figure gesturing towards a strange tree with branches terminating in human and animal heads (fig. 7). The appearance of this so-called waqwaq tree is likely a reference to the story of Alexander the Great (Iskandar), as related in Firdausi’s Shahnama. In this portion of the Shahnama epic, Iskandar encounters the waq waq - or talking tree – a tree which bears the fruit of human heads. The tree speaks to Iskandar, foretelling of his death. In this stencilled depiction, however, the tree is shown not only fruiting with human heads, but also with a diversity of animal heads – a bull, a horse or donkey, a dragon, and others.
If we compare this stencilled page with a manuscript folio in the Bodleian library collection, the similarity becomes clear. In a painting (fig. 8) from a Shahnama dated to the 1430s (Ms. Ouseley Add. 176), Iskandar raises his finger to his lip, in a state of surprise and likely dismay. The figure in the British Library safina, by contrast, seems to reach out and tickle the chin of the face in front of him. While the stencilled image is likely an allusion to the story of Iskandar found in the Shahnama, there may be more significance to this image. The tree with multiple talking heads might also be seen as a reference to the anthology itself. That is, the book as a gathering of many and diverse voices into one vessel - each of which speaks to us individually as we read through the pages of the manuscript.
Finally, returning to the double page in the British Library safina mentioned above, we see two small painted figures – a male figure above and a female below – within the stencilled designs (see again figs 5 & 6). Both hold books in their hands. The female figure – appearing to be a young girl – looks up across the empty space of the open book towards the boy above. Their placement activates the space – with one figure gazing at another across the open book – only made possible when the book is held in the hand. It may be that the two figures represent the young Layla (or Layli) and Qays – at their first meeting at school – according to the poet Nizami’s telling of their love story. While this identification may seem tenuous, further examination of the surrounding poem by the poet Ashraf reveals a reference to someone not going mad – or becoming ‘majnun.’ Accordingly, the small female figure – likely Layla - gazes up at the figure of the boy - who would later in their love story come to be known as Majnun. This placement may be coincidental, but if we imagine that these two figures do represent Layla and Majnun, this alignment of verse and image suggests an extremely sophisticated orchestration of the elements contained within this safina. Such coordination would allow for these small painted elements to reflect the text on the page, and the surrounding folios. The ‘shorthand’ appearance of the painted elements also requires that the anthology’s reader be familiar with not only Layla and Majnun’s story, but also with the imagery connected with illustrated manuscripts of Nizami’s text.
These types of representational references – the visual equivalent of intertextual allusions - are frequent in these safina manuscripts. Other paintings and stencilled imagery within this and other anthologies display similar connections between the ‘internal’ image and ‘external’ texts - demanding that their viewers possess a sophisticated familiarity not only with the popular literature of the period, but also with its common visual vocabulary. As David J. Roxburgh has noted in discussing the numerous surviving Persian anthologies created for the fifteenth-century Timurid ruler Iskandar Sultan: “The anthologies offered Iskandar Sultan…a range of visual idioms that equaled the textual genres in variety and complexity; reading and looking demanded of him a series of shifts in perceptive and cognitive engagement…in order for the visual puns, these subtle games and inventions to be discerned… This assumed a fair degree of visual literacy on the part of the viewer because the visual events are in fact a series of extremely subtle mutations and hybrids…” (Roxburgh, “Aesthetics,” 130). Rather than mere decoration, the visual elements of these safina anthologies approach the multivalent complexity of the texts that they accompany. Furthermore, many of these safina manuscripts function on the whole as a visual conceit – a patchwork translated into pages – perhaps making reference to the multicoloured, patched cloaks of Sufi adherents. How appropriate then, that their poetical content often embodies the works of this same group.
The Gombroon (Bandar-e ʻAbbas) Factory was established in 1623 to represent the interests of the East India Company (EIC) on the southern coast of Persia (Iran) and the Gulf. It soon became the centre of British trade and political activities following the expulsion of the Portuguese from Hormuz and Bahrain. A Chief Agent headed the Factory’s decision-making ‘Council’. The Council members coordinated with Sub-Agents, Brokers and local partners at the rest of the British establishments in Persia, primarily in Esfahan, Kerman and Shiraz.
In many ways, the Factory owed its existence and commerce in the region to certain royal grants confirming specific trading privileges known as Rogums (Ruqum or Raqams). These were granted to the British by the King (Shah) of Persia, and were renewed regularly.
A list of Rogums granted by the King of Persia (IOR/G/29/3 f 9v)
The daily consultations at the Gombroon Factory were recorded in diaries. Each diary usually covered a one year period. Copies of the diaries were dispatched by sail to the Company’s administrative headquarters in the Bombay Presidency. The surviving thirty-two diaries are an open gate to the social, political and economic history of eighteenth-century Persia and the Persian Gulf. These diaries are bound within thirteen individual volumes that are classified under the India Office Records’ (IOR) sub-series IOR/G/29/2-14. These are dated from November 1708 to February 1763. Any lacuna within these two dates would indicate that the diary either did not exist in the first place or was lost, misplaced, or removed from the records at some point. Most of the volumes include one diary each, apart from volumes IOR/G/29/5, 6, and 7 which contain nine, seven and six diaries respectively.
The Gombroon diaries record the day-to-day consultations that took place at the Factory. These cover the administrative decisions made, letters sent and received, visits to and from the Factory, trading activities, inland and offshore military operations, in addition to miscellaneous reports of other political and commercial events taking place in the region.
Apart from their administrative nature, the diaries stand out as an extensive and under-utilised source for the study of commercial activities in eighteenth century Persia and the Gulf. These can be glimpsed through the records they preserve of the activities of the British, Dutch and French trading companies, as well as local Persian and Arab merchants in the region. Such records help trace the history of foreign powers’ interest in the region, as well as encounters with and among local authorities.
The Persian fleet sailing to Khorfakkan to assist the Imam against his rebellious subjects (IOR/G/29/5/9 f 375v).
The records of commercial activities also reveal some remarkable information about the movement of ships and the busy ports at the time. Examples of the names of ships that appear regularly in the records are: the Success, the Prince George, the Prince Edward, the Fayz Rabbani, the Phoenix, and the Swallow. Among the many ports the ships sailed to and from are: Bandar-e ʻAbbas, Bombay, Basra, Bandar-e Rig, Surat, Bandar-e Charak, Mocha, Muscat and Bushehr.
The commercial aspect is also preserved in the records of traded commodities, mainly woollen goods, rice, rose water, grain, sugar, copper, spices, and coffee, in addition to the names of Persian currencies used at the time and their exchange rates in Indian rupees.
The highlights of the diaries, however, are the records they contain of the state of affairs and the never-ending inland and offshore military operations. These introduce the readers to the names of prominent military generals, regional governors and influential tribes involved in such operations. These include but are not limited to: Shah Tahmasp II, Nadir Shah Afshar, Ahmad Shah Afghan Dorrani, Shahrokh Mirza Afshar, Karim Khan Zand, Azad Khan Ghilzaʼi, Nasir Khan Al Mazkur, Shaikh Hatim bin Jubarah al-Nasuri, Shaikhs Rashid and Rahmah al-Qasimi and the tribes of Jubarah, the Banu Muʻin, the Al-ʻAli, and the Arabs of Julfar.
Indeed, a large number of towns and provinces are also mentioned in the diaries as part of the accounts of the military operations. These include Bandar-e 'Abbas, Esfahan, Qazvin, Yazd, Tabriz, Khorasan, Mashhad, Mazandaran, Shiraz, and Qishm Island.
In addition to the above, the diaries preserve some occasional, yet fascinating records of weddings, deaths, celebrations, personal disputes, etc. An example of these is the news of Shahrokh Mirza Afshar’s wedding and the choice of presents for the occasion.
News of Shahrokh Mirza Afshar's marriage (IOR/G/29/10 f 84v)
Another interesting example is a letter sent by the EIC to Sultan Muhammad Mirza, a claimant to the throne following the Afghan invasion of Persia, in which we learn that the prince had threatened to expel the Company from the Gulf to protect his friend Shaikh Rashid al-Qasimi of Basidu. The company was therefore pleading with Sultan Muhammad Mirza not to attack them, and promising to lift their unilateral blockade against Shaikh Rashid. Additional details about this letter and its historical context will be provided by my colleague Dr. Kurosh Meshkat in a separate forthcoming blog.
Letter from the East India Company to Sultan Muhammad Mirza, 1727 (IOR/G/29/4 f 29v)
With the variety of topics they cover, the Gombroon diaries stand out as primary source material on the commercial, political and military history of the region. The way in which these diaries are organised makes it difficult to search for a particular piece of information within them. In fact, it may be necessary to read a volume from cover to cover in order to spot the name of a certain person, ship, a place or an event. Nevertheless, thanks to the ongoing British Library-Qatar Foundation Partnership (BLQFP), these fascinating diaries and many other materials are now being catalogued, digitised, and made available on the Qatar Digital Library. Making such materials available allows those interested in the history of the region to easily browse the diaries, and appreciate and make use of the abundance and variety of their content spanning most of the eighteenth century.
Ula Zeir Content Specialist, Arabic Language, British Library-Qatar Foundation Partnership
British Library, India Office Records, Bandar ʻAbbas (Gombroon) Diaries and Consultations. IOR/G/29/2-14. Penelope Tuson, The Records of the British Residency and Agencies in the Persian Gulf. London, 1979.