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57 posts categorized "Iran"

04 April 2016

Eighth and ninth century versions of the Rustam cycle

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Stories of the hero Rustam and his trusty steed Rakhsh, immortalized by the tenth century poet Firdawsi in his epic poem the Shahnamah (ʻBook of kingsʼ), are among the best loved in the whole of Persian literature. Not so well-known, however, are unique versions of the same story dating from the eighth and ninth centuries which are currently on display in the international exhibition The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination at the National Museum, Delhi (More on this exhibition in my recent post Celebrating Noruz in Delhi with new 'Everlasting Flame').

Introducing the Rustam story in the eighth century Panjikent wall paintings to Dr. Najma Heptulla, Minister of Minority Affairs, at the exhibition opening in Delhi. Photo: National Museum

Rustam's Rakhsh in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah
Rakhsh was no ordinary horse. The Shahnamah tells us how Rustam inspected the horses of Zabulistan and Kabul and finally selected a colt with the chest and shoulders of a lion, as strong as an elephant, and the colour of rose leaves scattered on a saffron background. This colt, already known as ‘Rustam’s Rakhsh’, was, it seems, pre-destined to carry the defender of the land of Iran.

Rakhsh was not only fast and strong, he was intelligent and an active protagonist. Perhaps his best-known exploit was the first of the seven ‘trials’ which Rustam underwent on the quest to liberate king Kavus from the demons of Mazandaran. Exhausted by his long journey, Rustam fell asleep. Nearby, however, hidden in the reeds was a fierce and hungry lion. The lion attacked but Rakhsh pounded the lion’s head with his hooves, bit his neck and tore the lion into pieces. When Rustam woke, the lion was dead.

Rakhsh kills a lion. From Firdawsi’s Shahnamah. Copied in 891/1486, Turkman/Timurid style (British Library Add.18188, f. 90v)  noc

In future, Rustam ordered, Rakhsh was to wake him if an enemy drew near. However, during the third ‘trial’, Rustam, while asleep, was approached again, this time by a monstrous dragon. Twice woken by his horse Rakhsh, in the darkness of the night he failed to see any danger and went back to sleep. Woken a third time, however, Rustam finally saw the dragon and with Rakhsh’s help succeeded in killing him.

Rustam and Rakhsh in the third ‘trial’ when together they defeat a dragon, Rakhsh biting the dragon while Rustam cuts off his head. Copied in 891/1486, Turkman/Timurid style (British Library Add.18188, f 91v)  noc

The Sogdian Rustam fragment
The Middle Persian Xwaday-namag ‘Book of kings’ (de Blois, “Epics”), one of the sources on which Firdawsi drew, was probably not a poem, but rather a prose compendium of legendary and historical traditions put together toward the end of the Sasanian empire. Although it is referred to frequently in Arabic sources, no extant copy survives as such. The name Rustam, however, began to be common at the very end of the Sasanian period, in the seventh century, no doubt reflecting the fact that by this time the Rustam legend had become widely popular in the Western Iranian lands, especially in Sogdiana (modern day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) the homeland of the Sogdians (Sims-Williams, 2015).

The British Library is fortunate in having in its collections part of a fragment of the story written in Sogdian (an eastern Iranian language spoken by the Sogdians), which probably dates from the ninth century. It was discovered in 1907 in cave 17 at Dunhuang, China, during Stein’s second expedition to Central Asia. The upper part of the same manuscript was subsequently acquired by Paul Pelliot the following year and is now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Together these two fragments form the only surviving textual evidence for an early Rustam cycle, copied some 200 years before Firdawsi completed his epic poem.

[Paris fragment] ... [The demons] immediately fled towards [the city]. Rustam went in pursuit right up to the city gates. Many demons died from being trampled; only a thousand managed to enter the city. They shut the gates. Rustam returned with great renown. He went to a good pasture, stopped, took off the saddle and let his horse loose on the grass. He himself rested, ate a meal, was satisfied, spread a rug, lay down and began to sleep.

The demons stood in malevolent consultation. They said to one another: It was a great evil, a great shame on us, that we should have taken refuge in the city from a single horseman. Why should we not go out? Either let us all die and be annihilated or let us exact vengeance for our lords! The demons, who were left a meagre remnant of their former strength, began to prepare great heavy equipment with strong armour and with great ...

They opened the city gates. Many archers, many charioteers, many riding elephants, many riding monsters, many riding pigs, many riding foxes, many riding dogs, many riding on snakes and on lizards, many on foot, many who went flying like vultures and ..., many upside-down, the head downwards and the feet upwards: they all bellowed out a roar, they raised a mighty storm, rain, snow, hail, [lightning] and thunder, they opened their evil mouths and spouted fire, flame and smoke. They departed in search of the valiant Rustam.

Then the observant Rakhsh came and woke Rustam. Rustam arose from his sleep, quickly donned his leopard-skin garment, tied on his bow-case, mounted Rakhsh and hastened towards the demons. When Rustam saw from afar the army of the demons, he said to Rakhsh [beginning of the London fragment]: Come, sir, run away little [by little]; let us perform [a trick] so that the demons [pursue us] to the flat [plain ...]. Rakhsh agreed. Immediately Rustam turned back. When the demons saw, at once both the cavalry and the infantry quickly hurled themselves forward. They said to one another: Now the chief’s hope has been crushed; no longer is he prepared to do battle with us. By no means let him escape! Do not kill him either, but take him alive so that we may show him evil punishment and harsh torture! The demons encouraged one another greatly; they all howled and departed in pursuit of Rustam. Then Rustam turned round and attacked the demons like a fierce lion attacking a deer or a hyena attacking a flock or herd, like a falcon attacking a [hare or] a porcupine attacking a snake, and he began [to destroy] them ...

(translation N. Sims-Williams)

The murals of Panjikent
Additional archaeological evidence for an early Rustam cycle is to be found in wall-paintings discovered by the archaeologist B. Stavisky in 1956-7 in a two storeyed house in the south east of medieval Panjikent, Tajikistan.

Rustan frieze_Hermutage_2000
The Rustam frieze from Panjikent, Room 41/VI now on display in the State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg. Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams

Rustam frieze_Panjikent
Reconstruction of the Rustam frieze, made at the time of excavation by artists Gremyachinskaya and Nikitin, now in the Museum of History of Culture of Panjikent, Tajikistan. Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams

The friezes are attributed to the first half of the eighth century and depict a series of episodes in which Rustam and Rakhsh are engaged in battle with demons. While identifications with known episodes in the Shahnamah are difficult it is tempting to think that one of the scenes may correspond to that described in the Sogdian fragment discovered at Dunhuang.

Currently on display in the National Museum Delhi: Rustam, mounted on Rakhsh, fights an adversary. Wall-painting on dry loess plaster from Panjikent, Tajikistan, c. 740 AD (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, SA-16223). Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams

Further reading
Firdawsi, Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings; tr. Dick Davis. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
Nicholas Sims-Williams, “The Sogdian Fragments of the British Library,” Indo-Iranian Journal 18, 1976, pp. 43-82. Transcription and edition of Paris and BL fragments on pp. 54-61.
Nicholas and Ursula Sims-Williams, “Rustam and his zīn-i palang.” In: From Aṣl to Zāʼid: Essays in Honour of Éva M. Jeremiaś, ed. I. Szánto. Piliscsaba: Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2015, pp. 249-58.
Guitty Azarpay and others, Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Boris I. Marshak, and V. A. Livshits, Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002, especially pp. 25-54.
Boris I. Marshak, “Panjikant”, Encyclopaedia Iranica online.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


14 January 2016

A Dictionary Packed with Stories from Eighteenth-Century Delhi

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In a previous post (When Good Literary Taste Was Part of a Bureaucrat’s Job Description) I introduced readers to the high-ranking courtier, poet and writer Ānand Rām Mukhliṣ (1697?-1751). Here I focus on his idiosyncratic dictionary, the Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ (ʻMirror of Expressionsʼ) completed in 1158/1745, which provides us with a delightful hodgepodge of cultural and social information about eighteenth-century India

Untitled Or1813_f11v_1500
Decorative shamsah followed by the opening page of Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ (British Library Or.1813, f. 11)  noc

The biographical note on a certain Rājah Harīsingh from Sialkot, for example, which describes him as peerless in archery and entertaining (ʿilm-i majlis), is a little unusual in its detail but unremarkable for this book:

On dark nights he shot by torchlight at a target made from knot of horsehair. He had a servant named Gopī… [Gopī] would place a piece of candle on the tip of his finger, set a lentil on it, place a grain of rice on top, and stand facing the Rajah, and the Rajah bent his bow. First he knocked the rice then the lentil then the candle from his finger. Neither did the Rajah make a mistake nor did the unjust [sic] servant frown. Now I come to his knowledge of entertaining...
(Mukhliṣ 2013: 238, my translation).

Biography of Rājah Harīsingh from Sialkot inserted into an explanation of the phrase tīr-būtah ʻarchery rangeʼ (British Library Or.1813, f. 90r)  noc

The account continues by explaining that the Rajah had not studied Persian but could make conversation so impressively in the language that Iranians praised him. He also recited poetry in Hindi and Persian. He was a musician himself, and kept qawwāls (Sufi singers) and dancing girls in his retinue. This was a man who clearly knew how to throw a good party.

Historians delight in such specific descriptions of particular people in history, but it is of course unusual to find them in a text that purports to be a dictionary. In this case, the account of the Rajah fits into an entry on tīr-būtah (meaning an archery range). An elegantly written copy of this remarkable dictionary—or perhaps it is better to see it as a miscellany cast in the form of a dictionary—is available at the British Library in manuscript (Or.1813) and has recently been printed in a critical edition (Mukhliṣ 2013). Besides providing us with details about life in eighteenth-century Delhi, even a cursory reading of the text demonstrates the richness of Persian scholarship and literary society in late Mughal India.

The historical importance of Persian in India has all but faded from modern cultural memory, but it was undeniably the key medium of expression among north Indian elites during the Mughal period. Though Persian is written in the same script as Arabic and therefore often pigeonholed as an Islamic language, Persian was a secular language in pre-modern India in the sense that all communities had access to it (though there was a class divide—it was mostly an elite language) and many Hindus like Mukhliṣ made their living by mastering it. The parallels between the Persian of pre-colonial times and the English of today as languages of personal advancement in South Asia are striking. (For more on this, see my new book Delhi: Pages from a Forgotten History (Dudney 2015), which addresses the history of Persian in India in far more detail than I can here.)

The composition of Mukhliṣ’s dictionary came at a time of great uncertainty for Delhi’s elite. Patronage for poets and indeed the whole political system was being renegotiated in the wake of Nādir Shāh’s conquest of Delhi in 1739. Nādir, ethnically a Turk, had conquered the whole of Iran and the region that became Afghanistan and turned next to India. It is undeniable that politics were by then quite different from how they were in the Empire’s glory days, but it is almost eerie to trace how literary culture not only carried on but arguably shone with greater brilliance in the aftermath of the worst bloodshed Mughal Delhi had ever seen.

Nadir Shah
Three-quarter length portrait of Nādir Shāh, Shah of Iran (r. 1736–1747), painted by an anonymous artist ca. 1740. Oil on canvas (British Library F44)  noc

Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ has a particular interest in administrative terminology as well as in words and expressions having to do with painting, clothing, handicrafts, animals, flowers, hot beverages (particularly coffee), games, and so on. It is different from other Persian dictionaries in that it contains a great number of  ʻproto-anthropologicalʼ observations as well as long digressions describing, for example, particular people that Mukhliṣ knew such as the poet and scholar Sirājuddīn ʿAlī Khān Ārzū (briefly defining the term ārzū as ʻhope and desireʼ in as many words serves an excuse to launch into several hundred words of praise for his friend and teacher) or objects like the Peacock Throne. Additionally, it ends each letter’s section with a series of adages (amsāl), some of which have Urdu equivalents provided.


In this passage the expression dar jang ḥalvā bakhsh nimīkunand  [During war they don't hand out sweets] is rendered in Hindi (written in a special calligraphic script) as laṛāʾī meṁ koʾī laḍḍū nahīṁ baṭte —Indian laddus have been substituted for halwa (British Library Or.1813, f. 141r)  noc

Despite these unusual features, Mirʾāt fits squarely into a remarkable tradition of Persian lexicography that began in Central Asia and continued in the Indian Subcontinent, with virtually no counterpart in Iran. In fact, there is a gap of nearly three centuries between Surūrī’s Majmaʿ al-furs (first ed. 1008/1599-1600, compiled in Isfahan) and the next major dictionary written in Iran, Riẓā Qulī Khān Hidāyat’s Farhang-i anjuman-ārā-yi nāṣirī (1288/1871, compiled in Tehran). (The fullest account of Persian lexicography in English remains Henry Blochmann’s 1868 article)

Like earlier dictionaries, Mirʾāt bridges different usages around the vast region where Persian was a language of high culture, a region that at its peak stretched from Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the west across Central and Southern Asia to the Chinese frontier in the east. Scholars debate the question of how different Indian Persian was from Iranian Persian—remarkably there has been little dispassionate analysis of this topic since the starting point is usually the misleading assumption that Indo-Persian, whatever it was, could not have been ʻauthenticʼ compared to Iranian usage. That is a discussion for another time but worth mentioning in the context of Mukhliṣ’s scholarship because he was so attuned to how different people used words and expressions.

There is an apocryphal story that Mukhliṣ chased after the Qizilbash soldiers of Nādir Shāh’s army to ask them about points of Persian usage. The logic is that they were native speakers, and he wanted to know how Persian was really spoken. One difficulty in this story is that these soldiers were not actually native speakers in our sense because in daily life they either spoke Turkish dialects (like Nādir Shāh himself) or local variants of Persian. The category of native speaker (usually translating the term ahl-i zabān) is a problem in this context because literary Persian was a learned language. Mirʾāt was part of this economy of teaching Persian. The entry in Encyclopaedia Iranica claims that Mukhliṣ’s dictionary was intended to “to improve the falling standard of Persian in India”—but its preface does not in fact say anything like that (and indeed though there is a reference to īrān-zamīn [the land of Iran] in the colophon, this was written in 1850, a full hundred years after Mukhliṣ, and therefore cannot be assumed to reflect his thinking). Even the editors of the 2013 critical edition claim that “It can be seen from a close reading of the text that after finishing the work, he got it authenticated from speakers of the language just arrived in India” (2013: 33, English introduction). While some of his material comes from such people, the implication is wrong: He was asking them not because he thought of them as ʻnative speakersʼ but because they knew administrative terminology current in the establishment of Nādir Shāh, who having just conquered Delhi had modified the administrative structure to suit his needs. To find positions under the new regime, Mukhliṣ and his colleagues needed to be savvy in the new terms and procedures. It was not that Indian elites were desperate for Iranian native speakers to sort out their degenerate Persian but rather that they sought insider knowledge about the new political dispensation.

Further reading
Anand Ram Mukhlis, Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ, edited by Chander Shekhar, Hamidreza Ghelichkani and Houman Yousefdahi. Delhi: National Mission for Manuscripts, 2013.
—,  Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Medieval India: Mirat-ul-Istilah, translated by Tasneem Ahmad. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 1993.  A complete English translation of the text, this is a useful tool but too ambiguous and inaccurate to be used without consulting the Persian text.
Ahmad, B, “Ānand Rām Mokles: Chronicler, Lexicographer, and Poet of the Later Mughal Period”, Encyclopædia Iranica vol. 2.1, p. 1 (1985).
Blochmann, Henry, “Contributions to Persian Lexicography”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal 37 (1): 1-72 (1868).
Dudney, Arthur Dale,  A Desire for Meaning: Ḳhān-i Ārzū's Philology and the Place of India in the Eighteenth-Century Persianate World. Columbia University Academic Commons, 2013.
—, Delhi: Pages from a Forgotten History. New Delhi: Hay House India, 2015.

Arthur Dudney, University of Cambridge

22 October 2015

Marking the Aftermath of the Massacre at Karbala: New manuscripts of the Mukhtarnamah

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Muḥarram is the first month of the Islamic lunar Hijrī calendar and considered, along with Ramaz̤ān (the ninth month) and others, to be one of the sacred months marked for pious observances. Culminating with the day of ʿāshūrāʾ (literally, the ‘tenth’ day – this year falling on Friday, 23 October 2015), the first ten days of Muḥarram hold particular significance. This period coincides with remembrances of the military confrontation between two rival factions claiming legitimacy over the political succession and moral leadership of the early Islamic community.

Muharram festival. Gouache on mica. Benares or Patna style, 1830-40 (British Library Add.Or.401)

Two important figures in the Arabian peninsula, 1) Imām Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, the grandson of the Prophet Muḥammad, and 2) ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr (d. 73/692), a distant relative, refused to submit to the authority of Yazīd ibn Muʿāviyah (d. 64/683), the newly succeeding Umayyad caliph ruling in Damascus. Angered by this, Yazīd dispatched southward a large force to eliminate all rebels. Invited to take power in Kufa in place of Yazīd’s appointed governor, Ḥusayn, his extended family, and a small military contingent departed Medina via Mecca, but were confronted en route at Karbala, then a desolate and arid desert location. On the tenth day of Muḥarram or ʿāshūrāʾ, Ḥusayn and his companions were massacred (10 Muḥarram 61/10 October 680), leaving only a few survivors.

Celebrating the exploits of Amīr Abū Isḥāq Mukhtār ibn Abū ʿUbaydah ibn Masʿūd al-Thaqafī (d. 67/687), an early rebel leader of the southern Iraqi city of Kufa, a previously unknown version of the Mukhtārnāmah has recently come to light. Read for its narrative of events connecting to ʿāshūrāʾ commemorations, the Mukhtārnāmah’s importance extends beyond pure biography to encompass political, religious, and ethical themes of perennial interest to Muslim communities across the world.

The Mukhtārnāmah records how, learning of the atrocities while in Kufa, Mukhtār joined the wave of revulsion reverberating through the region. He later came to challenge competing Umayyad and Zubayrid claims for the caliphate by ruling Kufa and other parts of Iraq as an independent emirate, while pursuing revenge against the named perpetrators of atrocities against Ḥusayn and his family. Although his rebellion did not last long, Mukhtār’s doomed stand against tyranny and reverence for the Prophet Muḥammad’s family were admired by contemporaries and preserved in various literary forms for later generations to honour as part of annual ʿāshūrāʾ commemorations.

BL IO Islamic 3716_f1v
Opening page from the recently discovered Mukhtārnāmah  dating from the early nineteenth century. Though decorated with an illuminated headpiece and interlinear gilding, the slightly awkward scribal quality of the nastaʿlīq hand continues throughout (British Library IO Islamic 3716, f. 1v)

The recently discovered manuscript of the Mukhtārnāmah (IO Islamic 3716) is an anonymous version in simple prose, completed by Aṣghar ʿAlī Bayg known as Sangī Bayg for Mirzā Khudā Bakhsh Bayg Khān, 19 Muḥarram 1228/22 January 1813. Though it lacks a preface or introduction, the narrative is arranged into several majālis or gatherings, which help contextualise the work’s recitation in ʿāshūrāʾ-related gatherings in mosques and imāmbārahs.

The British Library holds another older copy (Or.10948), also in prose, dated 1[0]96/1684-5, the text of which is similarly arranged into majālis. Crucially, its narrative differs from IO Islamic 3716 in style and occasionally in points of detail, as well as unsatisfactorily beginning without the first complete majlis (singular of majālis). The later Mukhtārnāmah (IO Islamic 3716) presents a more complete narrative and deserves to be studied closely.

BL Or 10948 ff1v2r_1500
Opening from the earlier Mukhtārnāmah , showing the original late-seventeenth-century illuminated text transcribed in naskh on the left (f. 2r), and a simpler near-contemporary replacement folio, also in naskh, on the right (f. 1v). Though both versions are in prose, the content of this version differs from the recently discovered Mukhtārnāmah (above) (British Library Or.10948, ff. 1v-2r)

Sâqib Bâburî, Asian and African Studies


18 August 2015

The travels of a manuscript: Rashid al-Din's Compendium of Chronicles (Add.7628)

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The Jāmiʿ al-tavārīkh or ‘Compendium of Chronicles’ is a monumental universal history composed by Rashīd al-Dīn (d. 1317) in Persian at the beginning of the 14th century. It was originally written for the Mongol Ilkhan of Iran Ghazan Khan (d. 1304) but was finally presented to his brother and successor Oljaytu Khan (d. 1317) possibly in 1307. The work acquired enormous popularity both in medieval and modern times especially for its unique description of the rise of Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Empire. There are copies of this work in all the major libraries in Europe and the Middle East, including several masterpieces of 14th century manuscript illustration.

Heading in the hand of Shah Rukh’s third son Baysunghur (1397-1433). Sultan Muhammad's seal is stamped in the margin (British Library Add.7628, f. 410v)

The British Library has a number of interesting copies of this work. One of the earliest is the recently digitised Add.16688, copied possibly in the late 14th or early 15th century, but incomplete. It has an interesting re-arrangement of the contents and, as has been suggested recently (Kamola, p. 233), contains some unique insights into the composition of the work. Another remarkable copy is IO Islamic 3524, a 16th century copy, but one which contains the entire two volumes of the chronicle [1].

However perhaps the most valuable copy held at the British library is Add.7628. Although now fully accessible online, it is difficult to appreciate its immense size and magnificence. Comprising 728 folios, and measuring 45.72 x 27.94 cm (18 x 11 in), it is written in several different hands in a clear early 15th century naskh script, thus immediately indicating its royal origin. In addition to many other important features, the manuscript includes a number of seals and signatures which provide some interesting insights into the origin and history of the manuscript. It is these on which I shall focus in this post.

Although the colophon lacks a specific date, some of the references to historical figures that appear in the text allow us to approximate a relative date of copy. One of these is a short note mentioning the Timurid Sultan Shah Rukh (d. 1447), who ruled in Khorasan, Afghanistan and Central Asia after the death of his father Timur. This describes how the work was originally copied for the Ilkhan Ghazan Khan (letters in gold) and describes Shah Rukh, the shadow of God on Earth (ظلا الله فی الارضین) etc, as the owner (f. 403v). The royal connection is even more evident on folio 410v, illustrated above, where the words Khaṭ-i Bāysunghur (‘Baysunghur’s handwriting’) are written in golden letters. This name can be easily identified with Shah Rukh son’s Ghiyas al-Din Baysunghur (d. 1433), the well-known patron of the arts who was also a calligrapher himself. Since Baysunghur died in 1433, the manuscript must have been copied before then. The manuscript also includes empty spaces left perhaps for illustrations which were, however, never incorporated.

The manuscript contains a number of interesting seals that help to partially reconstruct its history. It is not surprising that some of these seals belong to members of the Timurid royal family, who had this copy in their personal libraries. A seal that appears four times belonged to the above-mentioned Sultan Shah Rukh. In addition, a seal belonging to his grandson Sultan Muhammad (d. 1452), who ruled after his grandfather until he was executed by a rival family member (Manz, p. 270), sometimes appears next to that of his grandfather.

Top: seal of Shah Rukh (d. 1447):  
من کتب خزانة السلطان الاعظم شاه رخ بهادر ‘From the library of the greatest Sulṭān Shāh Rukh Bahādur’
Bottom: seal of his grandson Muhammad Sultan (d. 1451-2):
حسبی الله ولی الاحسان واناالعبد محمد سلطان ‘Sufficient for me is God, the Source of all Goodness, and I am [his] slave Muḥammad Sulṭān’
(British Library Add.7628, f.623r)

This suggests that the manuscript remained in Herat at least until the middle of the 15th century. However, the fate of the book is less certain when trying to reconstruct what happened to it in the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries. A seal of possible Aq Quyunlu origin appears on folio 414r mentioning a certain ʻAbd al-Wahhāb bin Luṭf Allāh Sangalākhī (?)[2]. If this is the case, then the manuscript could have been taken as booty during one of several Aq Quyunlu raids in the area of Herat during Uzun Hasan’s reign (r. 1453-71) or be part of a diplomatic gift between the Timurids and the Aq Quyunlu confederation before that date (Woods, pp.112-3). In either case, the manuscript might have travelled west from Khurasan around the middle of the 15th century.

Late 15th or even early 16th century seal, most probably Aq Quyunlu:
 ﺍلمتوكل على الله اﺍلفقیر ﺍلر[ا]جي عبد اﺍلوﻫاﺏ بن لطف الله سنگلاخي؟
‘Confident in God, the needy one hoping [for God's help] ʻAbd al-Wahhāb bin Luṭf Allāh Sangalākhī (?)’
(British Library Add. 7628, f. 414r)

Another puzzling seal is one in kufic script which occurs on the first leaf of the manuscript. Kufic seals were sometimes used as personal seals, even without specifying any personal names [3], but in this case the seal is found next to an Ottoman seal containing the name of a certain Muṣṭafá Ṣidqī. The two seals could date from different periods but luckily for us, the same two seals are found together in another British Library manuscript (RSPA 59). This is an allegedly 14th century copy of the Javāmiʻ al-ḥikāyāt va lavāmiʻ al-rivāyāt, a work on ethics containing anecdotes and tales in Persian by Muḥammad ʻAwfī (fl. 1228). The identical seals appear on folio 7v, suggesting that the kufic seal actually belonged to the bibliophile Muṣṭafá Ṣidqī  (d. 1769/70) [4]. These two seals also occur together as a pair in British Library Or.13127, f. 1r and in a number of other manuscripts listed in the Chester Beatty Islamic Seals database (for example CBL Ar 3008 f1a).

British Library Add.7628, f. 3r

RSPA59_f7r copy_1500
British Library RSPA 59, f 7r
Small kufic seal: ما شا الله لاقوة ﺍلا بالله  'What God Wills. There is no Power except by God'
Larger oval Ottoman seal: من متملكات اﺍلفقیر اﺍلحاج مصطفى صدقي غفر له ۱۷۹  ‘[One] of properties of the needy al-Ḥājj Muṣṭafá Ṣidqī, may [God’s] mercy be upon him [1]179 (1765/66)

The Ottoman seals together with two ownership notes in Ottoman Turkish at the beginning of the manuscript on folio 3r suggest that the book travelled even further west in the 18th century. The first note mentions that the manuscript was bought by Ahmed Resmi, a Greek Ottoman diplomat, from a bookseller at the Imperial camp in Babadağı (present day Rumania) in AH 1185 (April 1771). It was subsequently acquired by a certain ʻĀrif, who signed the second note dated AH 1210 (1795/6). In 1818 Claudius James Rich purchased the manuscript in Baghdad (f. 1r). As was common among British colonial officials [5], Rich had his seal written in Arabic script, with his name in the central panel surrounded by an Arabic text in praise of the Prophet Muhammad taken from Saʻdī’s Gūlistān. Finally the manuscript was sold to the British Museum from Claudius Rich's estate in 1825.

Seal of Claudius James Rich (1786-1821), resident at Baghdad 1808-21, dated AH 1227 (1812/13). His name is in the centre, surrounded by a verse in Arabic quoted from Saʻdī’s Gulistān: 
بلغَ العلی بِکمالِه کشفَ الدُّجی بِجَمالِه        حَسنتْ جَمیعُ خِصالِه صلّوا علیه و آله  (British Library Add. 7628, f. 2r)

Despite the popularity of the Jāmiʿ al-tavārīkh and the amount of secondary literature that has been written about it, the study of individual manuscripts can reveal aspects of its history which are lost if we only consider published editions. In this case, by looking at the seals in Add.7628, we can trace the travels of this manuscript from the Timurid court in early 15th century Herat all the way to colonial Britain via the Ottoman Empire.


Further reading

Text editions:
Rashīd al-Dīn Ṭabīb, Jāmiʻ al-tavārīkh, ed. Bahman Karīmī, 2v. Tihrān: Iqbāl, 1959
Rashīd al-Dīn Ṭabīb, Jāmiʻ al-tavārīkh, eds. Muṣṭafá Mūsavī, and Muḥammad Rawshan, 4v. Tihrān: Nashr-i Alburz, 1994

Other works:
Stefan T. Kamola, “Rashīd al-Dīn and the making of history in Mongol Iran.” PhD. Diss., University of Washington, 2013
Beatrice Forbes Manz, Power, Politics and Religion in Timurid Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007
John Woods, The Aqquyunlu : clan, confederation, empire. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999

Bruno De Nicola, University of St. Andrews, European Research Council project: The Islamisation of Anatolia (ERC grant number 284076)

with thanks especially to Manijeh Bayani for her help with the inscriptions, and also to Daniel Lowe and Ursula Sims-Williams


[1] Other copies in the British Library Collection are IO Islamic 4710 (early 19th century) containing only the section on Ghazan Khan; Add.18878 (vol. 2 only, also 19th century, copied in India); IO Islamic 1784 (undated).
[2] Special thanks to Manijeh Bayani for this suggestion and the reading of the seal.
[3] Personal communication from Annabel Gallop.
[4] See François Déroche, Islamic codicology: an introduction to the study of manuscripts in Arabic script. London: al-Furqan, 2006, p. 341, fig. 133.
[5] See Daniel Lowe, “Performing Authority: the ‘Islamic’ Seals of British Colonial Officers.

08 August 2015

Cats in Persian manuscripts

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Since August 8th is International Cat Day, it seemed a good excuse to publish some of the more picturesque felines from the manuscripts we have been working with during the last three years of our project ‘Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts’.

Double-page opening to the tales of the two jackals Kalilah and Dimnah, by Naṣr Allāh ibn Muḥammad, dated AH 707/1307-8. Here the king is enthroned on the left, surrounded by courtiers with two lions beneath and, on the right, hunting cheetahs, a horse and a hawk (Or.13506, ff 2v-3r)

The most frequently illustrated is probably the lion who features alternately as the noble king of the animals and a ferocious wild creature. In the context of animal tales, which abound in Persian literature, the lion is often accompanied by the leopard.  The snow leopard, especially, was prized for its coat which, like the famous tiger skin of the warrior Rustam, appears in paintings, worn by heroes and kings. Cheetahs were used as hunting animals, sometimes shown accompanying their masters on horseback. Tigers are less common in Persian manuscripts - except as clothing - , and domestic cats hardly feature at all.

The earliest examples (illustrated immediately above and below) are from Naṣr Allāh's translation of the Arabic version, Kalīlah wa Dimnah, of the tales of Bidpai. This manuscript is dated AH 707/1307-8 and originates from Southern Iran.

Hare and lion_Or13506_54 Or_13506_f041r
Left: The hare tricks the lion into attacking his own reflection in a well (Or.13506, f. 52v)
Right: The lion with its courtiers, leopard, wolf, gazelle and Dimnah the jackal (Or.13506, f. 41r)

Add.18579, a Mughal copy of Bidpai's tales, the Anvār-i Suḥaylī  by Ḥusayn Vāʻiz̤ Kāshifī, shows much more life-like felines. This copy was made especially for the emperor Jahangir between 1604 and 1611.

The lioness in conference with the leopard, the cheetah and other animals. Artist: Ustād Ḥusayn (Add.18579, f 146r)

A common theme at the beginning of manuscripts of Iranian origin is for King Solomon to be portrayed holding court, usually with Bilqis (Sheba) on a facing page, surrounded by animals, angels, divs (demons), and birds.

Solomon enthroned. Opening to a 16th century copy from Shiraz of Firdawsīʼs epic history of Iran the Shāhnāmah (IO Islamic 3540, f. 1v)

Here Guyumars, the first king of Iran and clad in the skin of a snow leopard, holds court in an idyllic age when all wild creatures were tamed (IO Islamic 3540, f. 17r)

An equally popular theme involving animal audiences is that of the lovelorn Majnun who, separated form his beloved Layla, wasted away in the desert with wild animals as his only friends.

Majnun in the wilderness, from Shah Tahmasp's imperial copy of the Khamsah by Niz̤āmī. Mid-16th century, painted by Mīrak (Or.2265, f. 166r)

In this copy of the same work, commissioned for the Mughal emperor Akbar and dated AH 1004/1595-6, Majnun affectionally strokes a tiger - you can almost see him purring. Beside him lies  a lion while pairs of cheetahs and leopards relax alongside animals who would normally be their prey. Artist: Sānvalah (Or.12208, f. 150v)

Another frequently illustrated 'lion' episode in Niz̤āmī's Khamsah occurs in the romance of Khusraw and Shirin.

In this scene the Sasanian king Khusraw Parviz and Shirin were feasting together when suddenly a lion approached the royal pavilion. Khusraw hit the lion with his fist and killed it instantly. From a Safavid manuscript dated AH 1076-7/1665-7 (Add.6613, f. 48v)

F031v_Khusraw kills a lion
This slightly unorthodox portrayal of the same scene - in which the lion looks more like a tame pet- comes from a recent acquisition originating from North or Western India from the Sultanate (i.e. pre-Mughal) period, dating from the end of the 15th century  (Or.16919, f. 31v)

Many other Persian manuscripts besides those already mentioned depict members of the cat family in incidental scenes of courtly life. An interesting example is this painting from the Sufi allegory Manṭiq al-ṭayr ‘Speech of the Birds’ by the poet Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār which shows a hunting cheetah carried on horseback.

The tale of two foxes from Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār's Manṭiq al-ṭayr. Late 15th or early 16th century from Herat (Add.7735, f. 84r)

Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s famous poem Manṭiq al-ṭayr (‘Speech of the Birds’), a Sufi allegory of the quest for God - See more at:

And finally an  example of the domestic cat:

Inside front cover from a Qajar binding depicting a woman with her attendant and pet cat. Late 18th century (Add. 7760)

Most of these manuscripts have been fully digitised. Follow the hyperlinks to explore them further.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

16 June 2015

The archaeology of a manuscript: the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani

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For an art historian, one of the most exciting things in working with manuscripts is having the opportunity to examine a masterpiece firsthand. High-quality digital reproduction tells us much, and it is to the credit of the BL that they have digitized so many of their masterpieces, including one that I have been working on: ms. Add. 18113, a copy of three poems by Khvaju Kirmani penned by Mir Ali b. Ilyas in 796/1396. (See Ursula Sims-William’s post of 1 August 2013 “An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani")

But examining the physical manuscript can tell us more. For that reason I was especially grateful that Ursula Sims-Williams, Curator of Iranian Collections, arranged for three of us—my husband Jonathan Bloom, a specialist in Islamic paper; Cheryl Porter, a conservator specializing in pigments; and me—to examine the manuscript firsthand in the conservation laboratory.

01 BL viewing
Fig. 1. Cheryl Porter, Sheila Blair and Ursula Sims-Williams examining the Khvaju Kirmani manuscript in the British Library. Photograph © Jonathan Bloom

More than 600 years old, the manuscript still holds many secrets. The mystery I wanted to investigate was how the paintings were combined with the text. I hoped to confirm some hypotheses I had broached in my recent book, Text and Image in Medieval Persian Art (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

All of the folios in the manuscript are composite, that is, they are assembled with two different sheets of paper: a thinner white paper in the center and a heavier buff paper for the frame. This is clear even when looking at the manuscript on-line (Add.18113). But looking at the folios through transmitted light shows that these pages were assembled in two different ways. The simplest method, used for all text folios, was simply to insert the rectangular block with the four columns of text into the frame like a window. Hence, I called them framed folios.

02 folio 49
Fig.2. Folio 49 seen through transmitted light: a framed folio with the colophon to
Humay and Humayun on the front side and a blank back. Photograph © Jonathan Bloom

This straightforward method was also used for to assemble one illustrated folio: folio 64, with the painting of ʿAli slaying the infidel on the back.

03 folio 64
Fig. 3. Folio 64 seen through transmitted light: a framed folio with text on the front and
ʿAli slays the infidel on the back. Photograph © Jonathan Bloom

The painting occupied the same space as the columns of text, so it was easy just to use the same method of inserting a rectangular block into the frame. 

But the other eight illustrations in the manuscript are different. They are much bigger, spreading well beyond the written surface on the other side. So it was impossible just to assemble them by inserting them like a window into a frame. How were they combined with the border? The reason it was important to know is that it has been suggested that the paintings, or at least some of them, had been made for a different manuscript and were pasted into the text. 

I disagree. I think that the text and the paintings are integral in this manuscript, and our recent investigations confirmed what I had originally suggested: that the paintings were executed directly onto the same white paper used for copying the text and that at a later date—when someone decided to reframe the manuscript within heavier buff borders—the illustrated folios were simply pasted onto (not inserted into) the borders. I called these laminated folios.

I had made this suggestion following my earlier examination of the manuscript in 2011 with BL conservator David Jacobs. Looking at the illustrated folios such as folio 45 with the painting of the Celebrations for the consummation of Humay’s marriage to Humayun under strong transmitted light showed three areas of different opacity: a lighter area in the center, the buff frame visible at the outermost edge, and a third even darker area between the two.

04 folio 45
Fig. 4. Folio 45 seen through transmitted light: a laminated folio with text on the front and Celebrations for the consummation of Humay’s marriage to Humayun on the back. Photograph © Jonathan Bloom

I suggested that the third area was darker because it was thicker, as it was a laminate of the original white paper and the buff frame.

David Jacobs suggested that I might be able to confirm my suggestion by measuring the folios with a micrometer, and that is exactly what Ursula Sims-Williams arranged for us to do. We measured several different folios in several different places and found three different thicknesses on illustrated folios that had the paintings laminated to the frame.

The white paper in the center was the thinnest. Regular text folios averaged 0.12 mm, although individual measurements varied from 0.11 to 0.16 mm, undoubtedly due to variations in the handmade paper and the difficulties in measuring a folio that was still in a bound manuscript. 

The white paper in the illustrated folios was a little thicker because one side also had paint, not just inked text.  For example, we measured folio 23 with Humay and Humayun in combat in several places in the center of the painting where there was text on the other side: under the trees, beneath the horses, and between the horses.

05 folio 23 (1)
Fig. 5. Folio 23 seen through transmitted light, with
Humay and Humayun in combat on the front and text on the back. Photograph © Jonathan Bloom

The average thickness of the white paper was 0.145 mm, although the three measurements varied from 0.135 to 0.15 mm.  On average, then, the paint added 0.25 mm to the thickness of the paper.

The buff paper used for the frame was thicker. On both text and illustrated folios, it averaged 0.18 mm, with individual measurements ranging between 0.15 and 0.22 mm. 

But the thickest of all was the third zone where the white sheet with the illustration had been laminated onto the buff frame.  Again we measured folio 23 with Humay and Humayun in combat in three places: at the top, middle, and bottom. The average thickness in this third zone was 0.23 mm, with individual measurements ranging from 0.22 to 0.24 mm. The margin with the gold leaf was even thicker: 0.26 mm, with individual measurements ranging from 0.25 to 0.27 mm.

Measuring with a micrometer thus confirmed my hypothesis that the paintings were integral with the original manuscript and that the large ones on the original white paper had later been laminated onto a heavier buff frame. 

Such a hypothesis about the origin of the illustrations can also be confirmed by looking at the layout of the paintings on the laminated folios through transmitted light, for the composition is directly related to the columnar rulings set out for the text on the other side. This is especially true of the architectural scenes. For example, looking at folio 45 through transmitted light (fig. 4) shows that the architecture corresponds exactly to the text columns. Humayun’s palace with its curtained canopy occupies three columns; the doorway with the servant occupies the fourth; and Humay’s palace lies beyond the written area. The dimensions correspond horizontally as well. The valance above the curtain in Humayun’s palace marks the top of the written area on the front. The carpet below the enthroned princess marks the bottom of the written area. Paintings like this one must have been composed directly on the surface of the ruled folio, because the painter, in this case Junayd who signed his work in the stucco grille just above the valance, laid out his composition directly in accordance with the ruled text.

There is no question, therefore, that close first-hand examination of the manuscript shows that the text and paintings in this superb copy of Khvaju Kirmani’s poems dated 796/1396 are contemporary and that the illustrations were painted onto folios that had already had the text transcribed onto them. I thank the staff of the British Library for making it possible for me to confirm my hypothesis.

Sheila S. Blair, Norma Jean Calderwood University Professor of Islamic and Asian Art, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA



27 March 2015

Britain’s ‘Interest’ in Bahrain

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In 1783, the Al Khalifa family – originally from the Nejd region of what is now Saudi Arabia – captured the islands of Bahrain from Shaikh Nasr Al Madhkur, who had ruled them on behalf of the Qajar dynasty of Persia. In 1926, over one hundred and fifty years later, the status of Bahrain’s sovereignty remained a contentious issue. In December of that year, G. R. Warner, a British diplomat in London, wrote to a colleague in India stating that ‘on political grounds it is of great importance to avoid any action which would result in the re-awakening of the controversy as to the sovereignty of Bahrein’.

Although Bahrain was nominally independent at this time, it was a British-protected state and Britain had controlled its foreign relations since the nineteenth century. The cause of Warner’s concern was the fact that the Persian Government refused to recognise Bahrain’s independence and instead claimed it as a province of Persia. The manner in which British officials in the region responded to this tension provides a revealing insight into the character of Britain’s role in Bahrain at this time.

'Mohammerah' [‎20-b] (1/1), present-day Khorramshahr, photographed in May 1917 by the Rev. Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox (British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, Photo 496/6/40) in Qatar Digital Library

Avoiding Re-Awakening the Controversy
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Bahraini nationals resident in the city of Mohammerah (Khorramshahr) in Persia were subjected to harassment and intimidation by the local authorities. Many of these Bahrainis – the majority of whom were Baharna (the indigenous Shia Arab community of Bahrain) – were being forced to adopt Persian nationality. If they did not comply, the Baharna faced arrest, expulsion from the country and, in some cases, serious violence and even death. In response, the community appealed for help to the ruler of Bahrain, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and to the various British officials who served as Political Agent in Bahrain during this era. The British – wary of increasing tensions with Persia over Bahrain – were hesitant in their response to the Persian Government’s actions.

Image 1 IOR_R_15_1_321_0207
First page of a letter to the India Office from G. R. Warner at the Foreign Office, 31 December 1926 (IOR/R/15/1/321, f. 97)

‘Alleviating the lot of the Baharnah’
Despite their repeated petitions calling for assistance, the harassment of Bahraini nationals in Persia continued and Britain’s inability or unwillingness to offer more substantial help to citizens of a country ostensibly under its protection began to cause some consternation amongst the Baharna.

In 1923, the British had forced Bahrain’s ruler, Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, to abdicate and replaced him with his son, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Following this, the Political Agent in Bahrain, Clive Kirkpatrick Daly, enacted a series of wide-reaching reforms in the country. In this context, Cyril Charles Johnson Barrett, the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, made a frank observation in a letter to the British Legation in Tehran in August 1929:

[I]t strikes the residents of Bahrain as remarkable that while Britain’s protection of their island runs to dethroning their ruler, carrying out a series of reforms and arranging to establish flying boat and aeroplane bases for herself, it is not of the least value in alleviating the lot of the Baharnah in Persia.

Image 2 IOR_R_15_1_321_0538
Letter from Cyril Charles Johnson Barrett, the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, to the British Legation in Tehran, 21 August 1929 (IOR/R/15/1/216/321, f. 259)

Legal Fiction
In September 1929, Charles Geoffrey Prior, Britain’s Political Agent in Bahrain elaborated on this contradiction. In an extraordinarily frank passage in a letter to Barrett, his superior based in Bushire, Prior described the notion that Bahrain was an independent state as a ‘legal fiction’ and stated that he did not believe that ‘any Arab is deceived for a minute by a policy which, while manipulating the resources of Bahrain in our interests, declines to protect its subjects, to allow them to protect themselves or to ally themselves with other states who might do so’.

Prior suggested that if the British had intervened in any Indian state over the previous decade to the extent they had done so in Bahrain, it would have caused a ‘storm of protest’, observing that:

[W]e have deposed the Ruler, deported his relations, fixed the customs tariff to suit our interests, forced the state against its will to grant a customs rebate to our ally Bin Saud […] deprived the Ruler of jurisdiction over all foreigners, and decided what Europeans he may or may not employ.

Prior went on to state that ‘we have refused the state a free hand with their mineral resources, and have been guided in the matter almost entirely by our own interests’ and pointed out that the ruler of Bahrain was forbidden to correspond with the oil company working on his concession except through the intermediary of the Political Agent.

Image 3 IOR_R_15_1_322_0105
Second page of a letter from Charles Geoffrey Prior, the Political Agent in Bahrain, to Cyril Charles Johnson Barrett, the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, 27 September 1929 (IOR/R/15/1/322, f. 47)

Prior also made the astonishing admission that aside from a small contribution to charity, ‘which has political value’, the British Government had incurred no expenditure in Bahrain whatsoever.

Duty to Grant Protection
In this damning assessment of British policy in Bahrain, Prior asserted his belief that Britain should be fulfilling its obligations by doing more to assist the Baharna. Prior argued that ‘in no sense’ was Bahrain an independent state, and for the sake of Britain’s reputation for ‘fair dealing’ it should not default in its liabilities to its inhabitants. This argument was reiterated by Prior in a letter two years later in 1931.

In this letter, Prior outlined the extent of Britain’s involvement and explained how the British manipulated an oil company to suit their ‘Imperial interests’. He argued that since ‘we have interfered in the affairs of Bahrain to an extent unparalleled in British India [then] we should grant these people the same support and protection that we extend to inhabitants of British Indian States’.

Three years later however, the harassment of Bahrainis in Persia had not abated. In 1934, Charles Belgrave, Adviser to the Government of Bahrain, wrote that ‘the Persians destroy their [Bahraini] nationality papers, make them sign Persian papers yet the Baharna would rather die than become Persian subjects’.

Image 4 IOR_R_15_1_323_0250
Extract of letter from Charles Geoffrey Prior, the Political Agent in Bahrain, 10 December 1931 (IOR/R/15/1/323, f. 115)

Imperial Context
Prior’s remarkable candour when assessing the British Government’s activities in Bahrain starkly demonstrates the nature of its role in the country, a role that, according to his own account, was motivated by the logic of empire and – in his own words – Britain’s self-interest. The welfare of the country’s citizens was a concern of secondary importance, at best.

Curzon (2)
'His Excellency The Right Honourable George Nathaniel Baron Curzon, P. C., G. M. S. I., G. M. I. E. Viceroy and Governor-General of India.' Photographer: Bourne and Shepherd [‎10r] (1/1) (British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, Photo 430/78/3) in Qatar Digital Library

In 1898, George Curzon, then the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, infamously wrote:

Turkestan, Afghanistan, Transcaspia, Persia – to many these names breathe only a sense of utter remoteness or a memory of strange vicissitudes and or moribund romance. To me, I confess, they are pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the dominion of the world.

Regardless of Prior’s own personal misgivings, Bahrain was no exception to Curzon’s imperial worldview, it was merely another piece on the ‘chessboard’, a means to safeguard Britain’s position in India and further the interests of its global empire.

Primary sources:
London, British Library, ‘File 19/109 IV (C 28) Shaikh's Relations with other Foreign Powers’ IOR/R/15/1/321
London, British Library, ‘File 19/109 V (C 32) Bahrain Relations with other Foreign Powers’ IOR/R/15/1/322
London, British Library, ‘File 19/109 VI (C 45) Bahrain Relations with Foreign Powers’ IOR/R/15/1/323
London, British Library, ‘File 12/2 Treatment of Bahraini subjects in Persia’ IOR/R/15/2/486

Secondary sources:
George Nathaniel Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question (London, New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1892)

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


16 January 2015

Inscriptions in the Iskandar Sultan Miscellany (Add.27261)

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A previous posting on this remarkable manuscript, one of the British Library’s greatest treasures, introduced the volume and discussed a few of its pages. In this piece we discuss the inscriptions which it contains, beginning with the elaborate illuminated double-pages opening (folios 2v-3r) which contain the dedication of the manuscript to its patron.
Add27261 ff2v-3r
The opening of Timur’s grandson Iskandar Sultan’s pocket miscellany containing 23 works. Copied 813-4/1410-11 (Add.27261, ff. 2v-3r)

The opening of Timur’s grandson Iskandar Sultan’s pocket miscellany containing 23 works. Copied 813-4/1410-11 (BL Add.27261, ff 2v-3r) - See more at:

The text in the upper and lower panels is written in an especially ornate version of floriated Kufic script (compare, for example, the much clearer decorative title headings for two poems, Kitāb Jām-i Jam (f. 420v) and Sa‘ādat-nāma (f. 504v). The text appears to consist of supplicatory phrases. The present writer has begun, but not completed, the struggle to decipher them. Perhaps some readers of this blog can do better, in which case we should be glad to hear from them. In any case, the contents complement the prayer in Arabic for the manuscript’s patron, Iskandar Sultan, inscribed in thulth script in the lobed circular central panel on the right hand page (f. 2v):

O God, perpetuate the rule of the most mighty Sultan, the most just and noble emperor, sovereign of the sovereigns of the Arabs and non-Arabs…

The continuation, in the panel on the left hand page (3r), reads:

…the Shadow of God upon all regions of the Earth, the Champion of Water and Clay [i.e. Defender of the Interests of Mankind], the Reliant [upon God], the Supreme King, Glory of the Nation and Faith [of Islam] Iskandar, may God make his dominion eternal.

F3r F2v
Close up of (left) f. 3r and (right) f. 2v

Among the special ‘personal touches’ found elsewhere in the manuscript are the inscriptions half-concealed in the ornately illuminated margins of three pages: folios 343v, 344r, and 345r. All are in verse, and here they appear to be addressed to Iskandar Sultan, although that does not necessarily mean that they were originally composed for him; their authorship has yet to be established.

Folio 343v, which incidentally is featured (as are folios f. 2v and f. 3r) in the ‘Turning The Pages’ presentation of selected pages of this Miscellany, contains geometrical theorems from the first Book of Euclid’s Principles. Written in gold, half-hidden within the decorative cartouches ranged along the margins of this and the following page (f. 344r), are verses praising the manuscript's royal patron using imagery entirely appropriate to a bibliophile:

Add. 27261, f. 343v
Ay daftar-i iqbāl-rā naqsh-i ḥavāshī nām-i tū3
bar lawḥ-i taqdīr az qaẓā nukḥustīn ḥarf kām-i tu
Dawlat ba-kilk-i ma‘dalat āyāt-i fal u makramat
binvishta matn u ḥāshiya bar ṣaḥfa-’i ayyām-i tu.

O you whose name has been marked down
   in the margins of Success’s book!
Your will is, by the decree of Fate,
   the first letter on Destiny’s Tablet.
With the pen of Justice, Good Fortune
   wrote the signs of virtue and greatness
upon the page of these, your times,
   in both the text space and the margins.

The inscription contained within four cartouches in the margin of folio 344r is much easier to read:

Add. 27261, f. 344r
Screenshot 2015-01-15 17.48.43
Screenshot 2015-01-15 17.49.34
Nigīn-i sa‘ādat
/ ba-nām-i tū bād
Screenshot 2015-01-15 17.50.33
Screenshot 2015-01-15 17.51.26
Hama kār-i dawlat / ba-kām-i tū bād

May Fortune’s signet ring
    be [inscribed] with your name;
and all matters of state
    accord with your desire.

As if the preceding eulogies were not enough, they are followed by a still more flattering single bayt or couplet on f. 345r, together with the name ‘Alī in gold on blue, calligraphed in square Kufic.

Add. 27261, f. 345r
Screenshot 2015-01-15 18.35.45 

Screenshot 2015-01-15 18.37.34Screenshot 2015-01-15 18.37.56
Screenshot 2015-01-15 18.35.11
Ay az bihisht / tu juzvī / va
z ramat āyatī / aqq-rā ba-rūzgār-i / tū bā mā ‘ināyatī

You who are a part of Heaven, a portent of [Divine] Mercy;
in this your era, God [has shown His] favour and concern for us.

Let us now turn our attention to the various colophons in Add. 27261. The first of these occurs on f. 112v, at the end of Ilāhī-nāma (‘Book of the Divine), a didactic poem by the great mystical poet Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār (d. ca. 1220). In it, one of the two calligraphers who worked on this Miscellany, Muḥammad al-Ḥalvā’ī, states that he finished copying the text in Jumādā l-avval (sic: normally in the feminine form Jumādā l-ūlā) 813, which month began on September 9th 1410. Here, as in another of his colophons (see below), which are in Arabic as convention dictates, this scribe employs phrases which show him to have been an admirer of the mystical Path and its people, and perhaps a Sufi himself.
Colophon in the margin at the end of ʻAṭṭār's Ilāhī-nāma (‘Book of the Divine), dated 813/1410. Add.27261, f. 112v
: noc

[This copy of] “The Book of the Divine”, by the Sultan of the Knowers and Lovers [of God], Protector of the Protégés of the Ancients and Moderns, the Unique One of the World and the Faith (Farīd al-Dunyā wa l-Dīn) Muḥammad known as ‘the Perfumer’ (‘Aṭṭār) – may God cool his resting-place, illumine his dwelling-place (mathwā), and make the Pool of Paradise his drinking-place (ma’rā) – was completed on Saturday 27th of Jumādā l-awwal 813. Praise is due to God alone, and God’s salutations and innumerable greetings be upon the Best of His Creation Muḥammad and his goodly, pure Family, one and all. By the hand of the weak and feeble servant, wholly reliant upon [God] the Eternally Self-Sufficient Sovereign: Muḥammad known as al-Ḥalvā’ī (‘The Sweetmeat Man’), may God improve his condition and put his mind at rest.

By contrast, the colophon written by al-Ḥalvā’ī on f. 294r at the end of Niẓāmī’s Khamsa (‘Five Poems’) is exiguous and looks as though it may have been composed and executed in haste. No acknowledgement to the Creator, salutations to the Prophet, or honorifics for the author; the scribe’s name is there, but has just been squeezed in at the end of a line:

End of the book known as the Khamsa of Niẓāmī. Written by Muḥammad, and [may Divine] forgiveness [be his], in Jumādā l-ūlā of the year 814’ (equivalent to late August-September 1411.

Another inscription of interest, which occurs on f. 302r, appears in the form of a flattering addition to what is announced as Niẓām al-tavārīkh, an abridgement and continuation of this short history of Persia from earliest times down to 674/1275 by ‘Abd Allāh al-Bayẓāvī. Immediately after a brief notice of the Mongol Īlkhān Abū Sa‘īd (d. 736/1335) we find this:

And [today, God’s] creatures are in the shade (sāya, repeated again on the next line) of the justice and the shadow of the compassion of the Just King…Jalāl al-Dunyā va l-Dīn Iskandar Bahādur, may God perpetuate his rule…’ (the remainder of the text resembling that of the prayer on f. 340r translated below).

The colophon (f. 340r) which concludes a selection of ghazals or lyric verses by several different poets, is almost as long as that on f. 112v and yet contains no date; in this respect the volume exhibits no standard style. In it we read:

The ghazals have been completed, with the help and goodly aid to success of God, Transcendent and Exalted is He. Salutations and peace be upon Muḥammad, the Best of His Creation, and his Pure Family. Written by the poor servant Muḥammad, scribe to the Majestic Sovereign Iskandar (al-kātib al-Jalālī al-Khāqānī al-Iskandarī), may God perpetuate his (i.e. the sovereign’s, not – as the syntax suggests – the scribe’s) kingship and establish his justice and beneficence throughout the universe, by the Prophet and his goodly descendants.

Colophon concluding a collection of ghazals. Add.27261, f 340r

After this point in the manuscript there are no further lengthy colophons. Whereas the opening of the more famous Manṭiq al-ṭayr and Ilāhī-nāma, found earlier in the volume, are marked only by episode headings, the poems Jām-i Jam and (part of) Sa‘ādat-nāma both have ornamental title headings. Neither of the latter, however, has any kind of inscription at the end. And although there remain some artistic pyrotechnics to come, as regards the textual content the Miscellany rather peters out. The last colophon (f. 542v) consists of two lines of text directly below the end of the treatise on astronomy with which the Miscellany concludes. Instead of being configured in the conventional keystone form, these two lines are written exactly as if they were part of the text. The first line announces the conclusion of of Rawat al-munajjimīn (‘Astronomers’ Garden’), while the second reads:

Katabahu turāb al-fuqarā’ va l-sālikāin Nāir al-Kātib, asana Llāh ‘avāqibahu, fī salkh Jumādā l-sānī 814

Written by [one who is] dust [at the feet] of the dervishes and the [spiritual] wayfarers, Nāṣir the Scribe – may God grant him a goodly life Hereafter – at the end of Jumādā l-sānī 814 (equivalent to early October 1411).

Colophon at the end of Rawat al-munajjimīn (‘Astronomers’ Garden’), dated 814/1411. Add.27261, f. 542v

Lastly, there are two very different inscriptions which were added by later owners of the manuscript at the end of it. These have been described and discussed in the ‘Turning The Pages’ presentation of the Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan, together with a selection of 74 other pages.

A detailed catalogue description with links to the individual works and paintings can be read or downloaded here.

Muhammad Isa Waley, Asian and African Studies