Asian and African studies blog

72 posts categorized "Iran"

13 September 2021

Epic Iran: Manuscripts from the Islamic era

Epic Iran display

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This early copy of the Divan of Hafiz (d.c.1389) was copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855 (October 1451). Although no place is mentioned in the colophon, the name of the scribe may be connected to Fushanj in the province of Herat, Afghanistan, possibly suggesting Herat as a place of origin. The paper is unusually heavy and includes 31 pages decorated with Chinese ornamentation containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of large sheets which were painted on before being cut up. The paper is dyed various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 March 2021

Tomayto, Tomahto: Identifying Azerbaijani Manuscripts in the British Library Collections

Manuscript page with half-page painting in full colour of a man and woman in traditional Azerbaijani dress seated on the grass amidst various lively flora and fauna, with two columns of Arabic-script text above and below, surrounded by a thin red border with a thick gilt border around the entire page
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)
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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.

Page of printed text primarily in Arabic script with some Cyrillic script, arranged in three columns beneath a large black-ink masthead featuring Arabic calligraphy
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)
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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.


The world-renown Iranian singer Googoosh performing the Azerbaijani folk song Ayrılıq in Azerbaijani. 
(©VestiKavkaza, uploaded to YouTube). 

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.

Stylized image of soldier in Soviet infantry uniform in red, gray, black and white, which detail in his face only, an colour blocking for rest of the image. Bold black text in Latin script is found on the left and top margins of the page
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))
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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.

Zoomed image of painting of bare-chested man seating among a collection of different animals in a river-side setting, in full colour. Above and below the image is Arabic-script text in black ink arranged into two columns with a thin red border inside a thicker gilt border
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)
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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.

Page tinted salmon with gold flecks, featuring an ornately decorative sun motife in gold, red, blue, black and pink, with geometric and floral illumination on its interior, and thin, ornate rays in black emanating from the sunSalmon-tinted page with gold flecks featuring two columns of Arabic-script text inside a text box, with ornate geometrical illumination in a semi-circle pattern atop a thick band, at the top of the page. Illumination features gold, blue, red, black and green inks
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)
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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.

Page of Arabic-script text in black ink arranged in two columns
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)
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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.

Page of text in Arabic script in black ink with occasional words written in red ink
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)
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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.

Page of text in Arabic script written in black ink arranged in two columnsPage of Arabic-script text in black in with geometric illumination band in centre, flanked by two triangles, under text in red ink
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)
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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
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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)

01 March 2021

The Courtesan and the Preacher: The Romance of Mahsati, an Early Female Persian Poet

Opening of teh Romance of Mahsati
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)
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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.[1] The Swiss scholar, Fritz Meier, made a life-long study of Mahsati and published a corpus of her poems in Die schöne Mahsatī.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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 sees Amir Ahmad for the first time
Mahsati and Amir Ahmad see each other for the first time (British Library Or.8755, f. 29v)
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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  f. 70a
The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati (British Library Or.8755, f. 70r)
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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 Usman  is brought home
A drunken Pir ʻUsman is carried home (British Library Or.8755, f. 75v)
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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 at a feast with the poets of Khurasan
Mahsati entertaining the poets of Khurasan (British Library Or.8755, f. 87r)
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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.

Mahsati and Amir Ahmad encounter a drunkard in the marketplace
Amir Ahmad and Mahsati accosted by a drunkard in the bazaar (British Library Or.8755, f. 95v)
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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.[5] 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
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[1] Dick Davis, The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women (Washington, DC: Mage, 2019), pp. 7-14.
[2] Fritz Meier, Die schone Mahsatī. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der persischen Vierzeilers (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1963).
[3] Die schöne Mahsatī. Der Volksroman uber Mahsatī und Amīr Ahmad, herausgegeben von Gudrun Schubert und Renate Würsch (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
[4] 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.
[5] 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.

22 February 2021

Patchwork for a Prince: Exploring Persian Anthology British Library Or.13193

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.

Marbled decoration Silvered decoration
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.

Horizontal view of a 'black' page
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.

Blue dragons intertwined with central animal-head motif
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?

A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages, Or13193 f16r A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages,Or13193, f15v
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.

Iskandar and the talking tree (Or.13193, f. 56r) Ouseley MS: Iskandar and the talking tree
Fig. 7: Iskandar and the talking tree (Or.13193, f. 56r). Public Domain
Fig. 8: The same subject from Firdausi's Shahnama (Bodleian Library MS. Ouseley Add. 176, f.311b). © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. CC-BY-NC 4.0. F

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.

Denise-Marie Teece, Assistant Professor of Art History, NYU Abu Dhabi
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Further reading

Meredith-Owens, G. M. “A New Illustrated Persian Anthology” British Museum Quarterly 34 (1970), pp. 122-125.

Richard, Francis. “Un manuscript méconnu, l’anthologie poétique de la Bibliothèque nationale illustreée et signée par Behzad,” Studia Iranica 20 (1991), pp. 263-74.

Roxburgh, David. “The Aesthetics of Aggregation: Persian Anthologies of the Fifteenth Century,” in Islamic Art and Literature, ed. Oleg Grabar and Cynthia Robinson (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2001): 119–142.

Teece, Denise-Marie. “‘Compassionate Companion, Familiar Friend’: The Turin Safina (Biblioteca reale Ms. Or. 101) and its Significance,” Muqarnas 36 (2019), pp. 61-84.

——— Vessels of Verse, Ships of Song: Persian Anthologies of the Qara Quyunlu and Aq Quyunlu Period, Ph.D. diss., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2013.

18 January 2021

The Gombroon Diaries: a Rich Source on Eighteenth Century Persia and the Persian Gulf

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.

A list of account salaries due to Company's staff at Gombroon
A list of account salaries due to Company's staff at Gombroon (IOR/G/29/5/2 f 79v)
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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
A list of Rogums granted by the King of Persia (IOR/G/29/3 f 9v)
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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.

Descrption of the Persian fleet sailing to Khorfakkan
The Persian fleet sailing to Khorfakkan to assist the Imam against his rebellious subjects (IOR/G/29/5/9 f 375v).
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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 Phoenix imported from Basra
The Phoenix imported from Basra (IOR/G/29/11 f 8v)
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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.

Conflicts among the tribes
Conflicts among the tribes (IOR/G/29/12 f 21v)
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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.

The entry of Shah Tahmasp II into Esfahan after the defeat of the Afghans
The entry of Shah Tahmasp II into Esfahan after the defeat of the Afghans (IOR/G/29/5/3 f 96v)
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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 the marriage of Shahrokh Mirza Afshar
News of Shahrokh Mirza Afshar's marriage (IOR/G/29/10 f 84v)
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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 EIC to Sultan Muhammad Mirza  1727
Letter from the East India Company to Sultan Muhammad Mirza, 1727 (IOR/G/29/4 f 29v)
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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
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Further Reading

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.

21 September 2020

Curating Curation: Making Sense of the British Library’s Chagatai Collections

Full-page painting showing a man dressed in Central Asian clothing seated before his courtesans in similar dress
Chagatai Khan at in council with his courtesans. (Nusratnama, Central Asia, 970 AH/1563 CE. Or 3222, f 86r)
CC Public Domain Image

In March of this year, when the necessity of lockdown became painfully apparently to those in positions of authority, the British Library closed its doors to the public. Curatorial staff were asked to work from home. We were lucky; unlike many of our peers in other cultural institutions across the country – not to mention millions of other workers throughout the United Kingdom – we were not furloughed. We were asked, however, to begin working on tasks that did not require access to the Library’s physical collections. I decided to use this time to create long-overdue digital records for our Chagatai holdings, among other things. In this blog post, I’m going to share a few insights that I gained from this work about the composition of the collection.

The British Library holds nearly 150 manuscripts containing text in Qipchaq and Qarluq Turkic lects. Within the Library’s structures, these are generally referred to as “Chagatai manuscripts,” despite the fact that such nomenclature is at best controversial, and at worst wrong. Chagatai is a literary language used from the 15th to early 20th centuries CE. Its lack of a documented standard meant that some degree of variation was tolerated, but not to the extent that it might include works in all regional lects spoken by communities from Tabriz to Ürümqi. The use of “Chagatai” was convenient as an analog to Ottoman, however, even if it wasn’t correct, and it stuck as a label for these items throughout the latter part of the 20th century. For this reason, I’ve decided to leave the term relatively unchallenged for now, and to reserve a discussion of the collection’s linguistic diversity for a later date.

A page featuring text in Uyghur script inside multicultural angular waves, and text in Arabic script in the margins
Two texts grace this page: one in a Turkic lect written in the Uyghur script; and one in Persian in Arabic script, written in the margins. (Yazd, 835 AH/1431 CE. Or 8193, f 16v)
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Of the 150 items held, only five have been digitized. I wrote about two of them in this blog post from early 2019. To these, we can add three other volumes: the Nusratnama, a history of the Shaybanids from Genghis Khan down to Shaybani Khan (Or 3222); an incomplete copy of Gharaib al-sighar, a collection of poetry by the great Chagatai poet Navoiy (Or 13069); and an exquisitely illustrated majmua of poetry, moral tracts and religious doctrine in a Turkic language written in Uyghur script and Persian (Or 8193). This means that the vast majority of the Chagatai works held by the British Library can only be consulted at our St. Pancras Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and thus remain heavily restricted to the public for the time being.

Black and white image of typed text on rectangular paper
A black and white image of the acquisition slip for Or. 9660, the Tazkirat ul-cinān. 
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A number of obstacles present themselves in the cataloguing of these items, only some of which are unique to the collection. To start, the metadata that exists for this collection is fragmentary at best. Items acquired by the British Museum prior to 1888 are included in Charles Rieu’s 1888 Catalogue of the Turkish Manuscripts in the British Museum. Given the early date of this catalogue, it only carries those items marked as Additional Manuscripts or with Oriental Manuscript references less than 3300. To this we may add a skeletal handlist compiled by my predecessor, Muhammad Isa Waley. The list provided me with bare-bones descriptions of the Chagatai works held by the Library. On occasion, I was able to add information gleaned from our blue slips, or acquisition slips, for some of the items given Oriental (Or.) shelfmarks. Such data was sparse, but it does provide further indications about content, script, materials, and, on occasion, source and date of acquisition. In sum, the quality and length of the records added to the online system is highly variable, but at least it marks a start to the process of making the items more visible.

One of the pieces of data that is often missing from many of these sources is provenance. This often-overlooked part of the manuscript’s story can contain incredible narratives of knowledge transfer and trade, as well as dispossession, theft, and alienation. As a literary language, Chagatai was used primarily in Central Asia, Iran, Siberia, East Turkestan, and Northern India. It is no surprise, then, that many of the volumes in the Library’s possession come from these regions, although a few others were copied as far afield as Istanbul. Our holdings, however, demonstrate a unique distribution of origins compared to many other collections, owing largely to the history of the British Empire. Over a quarter of the items held by the Library are in some way connected to India, either as their place of creation or as a transit route. Compare this to the Jarring Collection in Lund, where most manuscripts are from East Turkestan; or the Bibliothèque nationale de France, with most of its holdings from Dunhuang; or the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, rich in Central Asian manuscripts. This makes the BL’s collection a fascinating object revealing as much about British desire for Turkic cultural heritage as it does about the context in which such heritage was created.

Page of text in Arabic script with red inked title at top Page with Arabic-script text and seals in black ink
Left: The start of the Vaqiat-i Baburi, the Chagatai-language version of the Baburnama, or autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. (Add MS 26324)
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Right: Ownership seals and inscriptions from the Vaqiat-i Baburi. (Add MS 26324, f 118v)
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British commercial and colonial actions in South Asia from the 17th through to the 20th centuries ensured a pronounced interest on the part of the British elite in the languages, history and cultures of the region. Sometimes directed towards scholarly pursuits, sometimes motived by political or military strategies, the sum of this fascination was the acquisition and transportation of South Asian physical heritage to the Imperial centre. Here, it was housed in museums and libraries, both public and private. These objects included Chagatai literary and scientific works penned by Mughal literati or copied by scribes for their influential patrons. The importance of the language for South Asian history is exemplified by two Chagatai versions of the Vaqiat-i Baburi (also known as the Baburnama), the autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. One copy, Add MS 26324, was purchased by the Museum from William Erskine in 1865. Erskine, a well-known Scottish orientalist and first translator of the Baburnama into English, occupied several colonial posts in India in the first half of the 19th century. Another, more complete 16th-century copy exists at IO Islamic 2538 (formerly part of the India Office Library). The presence of English annotation leads us to believe that this copy might have been used extensively by Annette Beveridge. Beveridge, a member of the late 19th-century British colonial elite in India, translated the Baburnama and the Humayun-nama into English, relying on both Chagatai and Persian sources.

Page featuring Arabic-script text inside elaborate illumination in gold, blue and red inks with floral patternsPage featuring Arabic-script text inside elaborate illumination in gold, blue and red inks with floral patterns
The double-page seccade from the start of the Divan-i Navā'ī. (Iran. Or 1374, ff 1v-2r)
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India also appears to have been an important market for imported manuscripts before the advent of British colonization. Or 8193, for example, was originally created in Yazd, Iran in 835 AH (1431 CE). At some point, however, it was acquired and moved to India, where it later passed into the possession of a British official, A. Seton. Other Iranian items likely arrived in the UK directly from Persia. Many of the men charged with an Imperial mission were apparently avid collectors of manuscripts. These manuscripts were eventually sold or bequeathed to the British Museum and the India Office Library during financial difficulties or after the men's passing. Add MS 7910, Divan-i Nava’i, for example, was acquired from Claudius Rich. Rich was a former British consular and commercial agent who had worked in India, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Syria and Egypt. A similar story can be told for Or 1374, an exquisite copy of Navoiy’s Divan featuring lacquered hunting scenes on its binding and a double-paged seccade. The volume was bequeathed to the Museum by Sir Charles A. Murray, British Ambassador to Qajar Persia from 1854 to 1859 and, just possibly, one of the instigators of the Anglo-Persian war of 1856-57.

The remaining parts of the collection came from majority Turcophone regions, most of which were never subjected to long-term direct British occupation or colonial rule. The Abushqa (Add MS 7886), for example, was copied in the Ottoman Empire (which was occupied, at various times and in various locales, by British forces, but never in its entirety). This Ottoman-Chagatai dictionary based on the poetry of the great Chagatai poet Alisher Navoiy likely arrived in London through commercial routes, highlighting the lucrative business of selling historic manuscripts to European visitors and residents.

Arabic-script text in black ink on marbled paper
A page of text from the Qisas al-anbiya' demonstrating the peculiarities of the language employed. (Add MS 7851)
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The manuscripts from Central Asia tend to be the stickiest in terms of identifying provenance. Only minimal information is provided in the handlists and the acquisition slips, and the source of the item isn’t always recorded in the volume itself. The Library holds 40-odd items from the region, some of which are absolute treasures. The Nusratnama, mentioned above, is a case in point. Recently made available online, it features breathtaking illustrations of each of the rulers in the Shaybanid line. Rieu informs us that this was a gift to the British Museum by Mr. Joseph King, but goes no further in identifying its putative journey to these shores. A similar lack of provenance information bedevils Add MS 7851, a 15th-century copy of Rabghuzi’s Qisas al-anbiya’. Rieu tells us it was formerly in the collections of Claudius Rich, and that’s where we lose its tracks. The work is of exceptional linguistic value, charting an intermediary stage between Khwarezmi Turkic and Chagatai, and its voyages over time have great importance in understanding intellectual history in the Turkic world.

Chinese and Arabic-script text with the latter enclosed in a stamped blue border and covered with Chinese calligraphy in red ink
A laissez-passer in Chinese and an Eastern Turkic lect granting travel permission to Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he can accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. (Kashgar, 1903. Or 13151)
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Finally, the approximately 40 items that were produced in East Turkestan/Xinjiang (combining the regions of Dzungaria and Altishahr) is a motley crew in terms of both provenance and content. Some of these items were brought – licitly or illicitly – to the Museum by Europeans who sought out the physical heritage of the Silk Road’s eastern branches. Chief among these was Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-British orientalist whose collections form a large part of the British Library’s International Dunhuang Project holdings. Only a small fraction of these items are in Turkic languages, including administrative or miscellaneous works that made their way back to the United Kingdom as packing materials (Or 12201). Other items speak to the social and political structures in place at the time of the expeditions. Or 13151 is a laissez-passer issued in 1903 in both Chinese and a local Turkic language to one Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he might accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. It is a rare window onto the life of one particular local participant in the global effort to understand the history of the region.

Unbound sheets with Arabic-script text inside a box
An unbound manuscript containing a Turkic translation of the Tārīkh-i Rashīdī. (East Turkestan. IO Islamic 4866)
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Another tranche of this subset likely came to the Library through the work of George Macartney, a British diplomat connected to the Chinese political elite through his mother. Macartney lived in Kashgar from 1890 to 1918 and was closely linked to various expeditions, including the Younghusband one. His wife, Catherine Macartney, worked with the Dunhuang Expedition regarding their acquisition of manuscripts. These might have included religious, literary or historical works such as IO Islamic 4846, 4848 and 4849, all of which relate the story of Ya’qub Beg, the leader of Yarkant who attained political independence for the region in the late 19th century.

From this overview of the British Library’s Chagatai collections alone, it’s clear that there is still so much more for us to learn about the origins and journeys of the individual pieces that make up the whole. What is obvious, however, is that collections reflect much more the proclivities and propensities of the personalities behind them than they do the total sum of a people’s creative output. The Chagatai holdings at the British Library provide us with insights into the linguistic, literary, religious, economic, political, social and intellectual histories of the Turkic peoples. But their selection and curation say much more about British officials’ and scholars’ engagement with this history, and the narratives they have woven about it, than they do about collectivities’ yearning to be seen and heard. In using this lens to understand and interpret a set of works, we can move beyond the idea of the archive as an objective monolith. In its place, we can reinvigorate our collections as one component in a broader effort towards an equal and mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and perspectives about the history of the Turkic world.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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12 November 2019

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

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 9r: The opening part of the Edîqeya Îmanî, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xanî
The start of the earliest Kurdish-Arabic dictionary in verse, the Nûbihara Biçûkan, composed by Ehmed Xanî. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 9r)
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Or 5932 14v
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

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.

Perhaps the most interesting of these repeated phrases, however, is the one that forms the outline of the haykal. The five lines that form the frame of the haykal are formed from one repeated sentence (and then the six chambers thus formed are filled with the other repeated sentences). The repeated sentence that forms the lines of the frame is:

  •  On that Day, the Kingdom shall be God’s, the Incomparable, the Most Manifest.

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
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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.

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