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212 posts categorized "Middle East"

14 November 2022

Alexander, Meet İskender: Turkic Manuscripts on Alexander the Great

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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31 October 2022

An Early Modern Khavarnamah from Bijapur

This week’s post is by guest writer Namrata B. Kanchan, PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation examines the courtly Dakhni literary and manuscript culture between 1500 CE and 1700 CE.

One of the most ambitious illustrated manuscript projects of the seventeenth-century ʻAdil Shahi court of Bijapur is the British Library manuscript IO Islamic 834, the Khavarnamah (Book of the East) written in the local vernacular of Dakhni in the nastaʻliq script. Originally composed in Persian by the poet Ibn Husam and completed in 1426 CE, this epic masnavi (narrative poetry), details the heroic exploits of the Shi‘a Imam ‘Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Like Firdausi’s epic Shahnamah (ca. 970-1010), various copies of the Persian Khavarnamah (usually called the Khavarannamah) were richly illustrated. In general, it was Shi‘a patrons who commissioned copies of this work across the Persianate world.

1. ‘Ali with Jamshed Shah
‘Ali with Jamshed Shah, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, ca. 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 75r).
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In Bijapur, Sultana Khadija (d. 1688), the wife of Sultan Muhammad ʻAdil Shah (r. 1626-1656) and the daughter of Golconda’s Qutb Shahi king Muhammad Qutb Shah (r. 1612-1626) commissioned the illustrated manuscript in the Deccan in the early half of the seventeenth century. She diverged, however, from the previous manuscript tradition by commissioning the poet Kamal Khan “Rustami” to compose the work in the regional vernacular language Dakhni, a regional form of Hindavi, instead of Persian.

The introductory page of the Dakhni masnavi  the Khavarnamah  Bijapur  1649 CE
The introductory page of the Dakhni masnavi, the Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 1v).
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Rustami emerges as an important poet with deep connections to the Bijapur court. In the Khavarnamah’s epilogue, the poet provides a brief biography in prose where he states that he had descended from a long line of  ʻAdil Shahi courtiers and his father, Ismaʻil Khattat Khan had also served the Bijapur rulers. After assuming the pen-name of Rustami, the poet composed several ghazals (odes) and qasidahs (panegyric) in Dakhni and Persian.

One reason for the choice of vernacular in this manuscript is that by the early seventeenth century, Dakhni had become a popular literary language especially in the narrative genre of the masnavi. Moreover, previous Dakhni poets, often multilingual ones like Rustami, attempted to elevate the status of this vernacular by translating or refashioning works from the translocal Indic and Persian literary spheres. The Dakhni Khavarnamah forms part of this effort. Thus, the translation of an illustrated Shi‘a epic, evinces an endeavour to showcase Dakhni as a serious literary language and Bijapur as a major Shi‘a domain.

‘Ali with Mir Siyaf
‘Ali with Mir Siyaf, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 379v).
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Apart from the choice of language, this original source manuscript is unique for several reasons. Sultana Khadija, also known as Bari Sahib (grande dame), is the first known female patron of a Dakhni work. Apart from the commission of the Khavarnamah, two seals connected with her appear on a Kalila va Dimnah manuscript (Acc. no. 71.187), housed currently at the National Museum, New Delhi (Akhtar, p. 44 and following plate). While one is unquestionably Sultana Khadija’s seal and carries her name, the second, reading Allah Muhammad ʻAli is identical to that in the British Library Khavarnamah and is possibly another of her seals, an expression of her religious belief.

4. Khadija's seal
Possibly Khadija’s seal in the British Library Khavarnamah, reconstructed from a damaged impression on folio 2r and the reversed mirror image preserved on the facing page. Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834). Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams
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A vital player in Adil Shahi politics, Sultana Khadija was economically independent and one source of her income was the revenue she received from a coastal province, which also included a Dutch-operated factory in Vengurla (Kruijtzer, p. 231). In 1656, she assumed the position of regent for her son when her husband died. As regent, she controlled court politics and had dealings with the Dutch on India’s east coast as well as the Portuguese on the west coast. Once her regency ended in 1661, she wrote to the Dutch to undertake a trip to Mecca for Hajj and found place aboard a ship travelling west. She also embarked on a trip to visit holy Shi‘a pilgrimage sites and allegedly died in Yemen in 1688 (Kruijtzer, pp. 231-2).

A distinctive feature of this monumental manuscript (543 folios measuring 14 x 11 inches) is that it is richly illustrated with images on practically every page with some illustrations occupying the whole page. Depicted in rich and vibrant hues that are characteristic of the Deccan, these images illustrate the various adventures and heroic deeds of Hazrat ‘Ali and his companions Malik and Abu al-Mihjan.

4. ʻAli with Malik and others
 ‘Ali with Malik, Abu al-Mihjan (spelt as Maʻjan in the manuscript), Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 8r).
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An interesting observation is that ‘Ali’s face is veiled consistently throughout this manuscript although most other copies of the Khavarnamah chose not to conceal his face (f. 75 r.). This is evident from a near contemporary copy of the manuscript in Persian at the British Library (BL Add. 19766).

The Prophet with ‘Ali, Husain and Hasan in Paradise
The Prophet with ‘Ali, Husain and Hasan in Paradise. ‘Uthman, ‘Umar and Abu Bakr in the foreground. From the Persian Khavarannamah by Ibn Husam, Punjab, 1686 (British Library, Add MS 19766, f. 362v).
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Furthermore, just as the text emerges in the local Dakhni form, some of the images also carry a local flavour that depict encounters with yogis and Hindu kings.

7. Jamshed Shah with a Hindu Yogi
Jamshed Shah with a Hindu Yogi, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 123r).
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The Bijapur Khavarnamah’s scale and illustration programme thus attest to the popularity of Dakhni literature in the seventeenth-century Deccan sultanate courts. Furthermore, the patronage of this manuscript perhaps could also be interpreted as an act of Shi‘a piety. It would be interesting to compare this manuscript to other copies of the Persian Ḳhavarnamah to see either similarities or points of divergence in the narrative structure and illustrative programme.

I would like to thank Ursula Sims-Williams for providing important insight into Khadija Sultana’s seals and for identifying the seal in the Khavarnamah with the one in the National Museum.

Namrata B. Kanchan,  University of Texas at Austin
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Further Reading

Primary Source
Rustamī Bījāpūrī, K̲h̲āvar nāmah / muṣannafah-yi Kamāl K̲h̲ān̲ Rustamī Bījāpūrī; murattabah-yi Shaik̲h̲ Cānd ibn Ḥusain Aḥmadnagrī. Karācī: Taraqqīyi Urdū Borḍ, 1968. Online edition at Rekhta Books

Secondary Sources
Akhtar, Nasim, and others “Kalila wa Dimna,” in Islamic art of India. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2002, p. 44 and following plate.
Kruijtzer, Gijs. “Baṛī Ṣāḥib bint Muḥammad Quṭb Shāh,” in Christian Muslim Relations: A Bibliographic History, eds. David Thomas and John Chesworth. Leiden: Brill, 2017, pp. 231-7.
Overton, Keelan (ed.). Iran and the Deccan: Persianate Art, Culture, and Talent in Circulation, 1400-1700. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020.
Overton, Keelan. “Book Culture, Royal Libraries, and Persianate Painting in Bijapur, Circa 1580­‒1630.” Muqarnas 33.1 (2016): pp. 91–154.

10 October 2022

‘Under The Mantle Of Plague’: A British Medical Mission To East Persia In 1897

On the morning of the 30 June 1897, in the Iranian province of Sistan, two men entered the camp of Lieutenant-Colonel George Washington Brazier-Creagh. They were kadkhodas, leaders from nearby villages, come to reassure the touring medical officer that they intended to ignore the Deputy Governor of Sistan’s orders not to provide his British party with supplies. Shortly afterwards, four Baluchi merchants arrived with similar assurances, their cooperation reciprocated warmly but with characteristic formality.

Brazier-Creagh
George Washington Brazier-Creagh, by Walter Stoneman (Negative, 1918, National Portrait Gallery x44582)
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Such pledges notwithstanding, Brazier-Creagh was angered by Mīr Ma‘ṣūm Khān’s attempts to hinder him and he wrote to the Deputy Governor a few days later, expressing his astonishment at being treated in such a way when it was the “combined orders of the Persian and Supreme [British Indian] Governments” that had brought them into the country “to protect it from plague” and demanding that the order be countermanded. Mīr Ma‘ṣūm’s reply, sent two days later, was brief and to the point. Explaining that he had no objection to supplying the British party if they had any further orders from their government, he thanked God “that there is no disease in the country” and advised that Brazier-Creagh now return to India, or his government “will object to…your remaining in the country and visiting towns.”

Report on the Mission to Seistan
Brazier-Creagh’s report on his mission to Sistan (IOR/L/PS/20/33, front)
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The Deputy Governor’s response speaks of the wider story underlying Brazier-Creagh’s presence in Sistan at that time. It is true that the Persian Government had requested that the British send a medical officer to investigate Russian claims of plague outbreaks in the region, and to take measures to contain the disease should the claims be true. However, Mīr Ma‘ṣūm will also have been aware that no cases of plague had been found in Sistan by the British party, and his orders not to supply them will have been driven by his suspicions about their continued presence in the province. While remaining cordial, he deftly leaves Brazier-Creagh the choice of either leaving the country or admitting to having ulterior reasons for being there.

In truth, the outbreak of plague in Mumbai in September 1896 provided a convenient excuse for both the Russians and the British to make political gains in east Persia. Described by Brazier-Creagh as a ‘complete blind’, the plague scare became the pretext for Russian agents and Cossacks to move into the province of Khorasan. Quarantine posts were established along the border with Afghanistan and the roads leading into Khorasan from Sistan. In addition, the Russians were successful in getting the Persian Government to close the border along the newly-revived trade route into Sistan from India, a move as much about damaging British prestige as it was about preventing the spread of disease.

Bombay plague camp
'Bombay plague observation camp: spraying detainee with disinfectant'. Photographed by Captain C. Moss, 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(139)
Public domain

The British, too, made good use of the opportunity to gather intelligence and establish themselves more firmly in Sistan. The province had long been viewed as being of great strategic importance, both for its economic potential and its proximity to their Indian empire. Concern over Russian advances on India’s north-western frontier had been growing for half a century. Development of the ancient trade route from Quetta to Sistan was aimed at increasing British influence in the region. The plan to extend the rail network in the same direction was to help facilitate this, but also to allow for the rapid mobilisation of military resources should they be required to defend the Empire.

In the introductory letter to his report on the mission to Sistan, Brazier-Creagh makes clear his awareness of ‘other duties more important and intricate, and that my primary duty would be equalled, if not surpassed, by political ones in watching British interests’. What is striking about the report is its hypocrisy and contradictions. Brazier-Creagh complains throughout of Russian intrigue and duplicity, while at the same time documenting his own underhand activities. To both the Russians and the Persians he doggedly maintains the fiction that he was not there ‘for political purpose.’ It truly gives a sense of the confrontation being the ‘Great Game’ it was to be popularly referred to as.

Map of parts of Sistan produced during the 1897 mission
Map of parts of Sistan produced by Brazier-Creagh from his survey work carried out there during his 1897 mission (IOR/L/PS/20/33, f 61)
Public domain

So it was that Brazier-Creagh refused to leave the country at the Deputy Governor’s request, claiming that he had been ordered to stay ‘and take all precautions it seems desirable to me to protect the country from the possibility of plague getting into and decimating the country.’ This refusal, and his attitude towards the Persian authorities in general, caused offence in the country and complaints would later be made to the Government of India. He remained in Sistan several weeks more, however, allowing him to travel ‘every acre of the country’ and to ‘compile very complete statistics on resources, revenues, and other subjects of special interest, both political and strategical, as well as a thorough survey.’ It is a stark example of matters of health and epidemiology being hijacked and manipulated for political ends. An entanglement that remains pertinent today.

Primary Sources

London, British Library, ‘REPORT ON THE MISSION TO SEISTAN, 1897’, IOR/L/PS/20/3
London, British Library, 'Report of Khan Bahadur Maula Bakhsh, Attaché to the Agent to the Governor General of India and Her Britannic Majesty's Consul-General for Khurasan and Sistan, on His Journey from Meshed to Quetta via Turbat-i-Haidari, Kain, Sistan, Kuh-i-Malik Siah and Nushki (7th April to 28th July 1898)', Mss Eur F111/363

Secondary Sources

Greaves, Rose L., “Sīstān in British Indian Frontier Policy.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies  49, no. 1 (1986): 90–102.
Kazemzadeh, Firuz, Russia and Britain in Persia: Imperial Ambitions in Qajar Iran. London, 2013.

 

John Hayhurst, Content Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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03 October 2022

Five Centuries of Copying, Illustrating and Reading Amir Khusraw’s Poetry

Today's post is by guest contributor and regular visitor to Asian and African Collections, Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University.

The British Library has one of the largest collections of manuscripts of the Persian works of Amir Khusraw of Delhi (d. 1325). There are around fifty manuscripts, listed in the Ethé, Rieu, and Ross and Brown catalogues, as well as a few in the Delhi Persian Collection, dating from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, including some early compilations of his collected poetry (kulliyat), selections of ghazals, and long narrative poems (masnavis). An eclectic range of codices from sumptuous royal copies to pedestrian books can be found here, many with seals and inscriptions by owners, and colophons by various calligraphers, and illustrations from different schools of painting. This rich collection highlights, on the one hand, the enormous corpus of the poet’s works in many different forms and literary genres, and on the other hand, the daunting problem of compiling standard and complete editions of his poems.

Shirin visits the sculptor Farhad on Mt Bisitun
Shirin visits the sculptor Farhad on Mt Bisitun. From the masnavi Layla Majnun, 16th century but heavily overpainted in the 18th or 19th century (BL Add. 7751, f. 71v)
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Amir Khusraw, a medieval Persian poet who was much admired and read in Persianate societies, is sometimes written out of the classical canon in our times. A master of every existing poetic form, the poet particularly distinguished himself in his mastery of courtly and devotional panegyric and love lyrics. His output was prolific in these forms, and according to Dawlatshah writing in the late fifteenth-century in his biographical dictionary, Tazkirat al-shu‘ara, bibliophiles at the Timurid court gave up attempting to collect all his verses. This continues to be the fate of modern-day scholars who work on the Amir Khusraw’s poetry.

There are a number of manuscripts of Amir Khusraw’s works dating from the second half of the fifteenth century to the very beginning of the seventeenth in the form of Kulliyat, i.e. his entire corpus of poems that was available at specific places and moments of time. Some of the manuscripts in this group, along with others described below, share several codicological features and many of the copies were produced in Herat. The writing in them is small, metres of individual poems are identified in some cases, and the margins contain poems in order to maximize every bit of space. One of these (IO Islamic 338), which was copied in Delhi ca. 1603, was once part of the library of Tipu Sultan — who incidentally had at least six other copies of works by Amir Khusraw in his collection.

The opening to Baqiya-i naqiya  Amir Khusraw’s fourth Divan
The opening to Baqiyah-i naqiyah, Amir Khusraw’s fourth Divan in this copy of his collected works (BL IO Islamic 338, f. 337v)
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The earliest Kulliyat manuscripts also included his narrative poems, since Amir Khusraw was also celebrated for his quintet (Khamsah) modelled on Nizami’s own set of verse romances of the same title. No slavish imitator of his predecessor, Amir Khusraw modified the plots of well-known romances such as Layla and Majnun, Khusraw and Shirin, and Hasht Bihisht. The aforementioned Dawlatshah also mentions that the Timurd prince Baysunghur (1397 – 1433) used to prefer the Khamsah of Amir Khusraw to Nizami’s. In comparing Khusraw’s Khamsah comprising 18,000 verses to Nizami’s comprising 28,000, Dawlatshah writes, “It is amazing how in some expressions [Khusraw] is long-winded and in some concise; the conciseness, rhetoric, and eloquence are charming.” While Baysunghur's brother, the amir Ulugh Beg, preferred Nizami's Khamsah, the two would argue and compare individual verses in the two works. Dawlatshah adds, “The special meanings and subtleties of Amir Khusraw’s exciting poetry kindles a fire in people’s minds and shakes the foundation of the fortitude of lovers.” In this Timurid milieu, an unillustrated Khamsah (Add. 24983) was copied in Herat by the master calligrapher Muhammad ‘Ali Samarqandi for the library of Sultan Husayn Bahadur Khan Bayqara (d. 1506), which subsequently belonged to the Mughal Imperial Library.

Dedication to Sultan Husayn Bayqara in the centre with a list of the contents round the edge.
Dedication to Sultan Husayn Bayqara in the centre with a list of the contents round the edge. By the time the manuscript was completed in 1511, the Sultan had been dead for six years (BL Add. 24983, f. 2r)
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One of the Kulliyat manuscripts, dated 923/1517 (Add. 21104) is furnished with seventeen illustrations, some of which were added or touched up later. B.W. Robinson tentatively suggested that due to the not so “easily recognizable style” of the paintings, it was one of a group of illustrated quintets probably originating in Transoxiana or Khurasan.[1]

Lovers in a garden  from Amir Khusraw’s Divan Ghurrat al-kamal copy
Lovers in a garden, from Amir Khusraw’s Divan Ghurrat al-kamal (BL Add.21104, f.251r)
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The earliest manuscript of Amir Khusraw’s Khamsah dated 1421 (Or.13802)[2] was actually copied in the margins of Nizami’s quintet, indicating that the texts were often read together. It bears the Gujarati inscription of a later Parsi owner and is only partially preserved.

Khusraw and Shirin enthroned copy
Khusraw and Shirin enthroned. (BL Or. 13802, f. 119v)
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Another such illustrated manuscript (IO Islamic 387) where both quintets appear together is thought to date from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and is in much better condition. In Amir Khusraw’s version of the Alexander romance, A’inah-ʼi Iskandari, Nizami’s philosopher-king is transformed into an intrepid explorer and scientist.

6. Iskandar crossing the sea in a ship of European type  from Aʼina-yi Iskandari copy
Iskandar crossing the sea in a ship of European type, from Aʼinah-ʼi Iskandari (BL IO Islamic 387, f.466r)
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This work also exists in a stand-alone copy (Add. 24,054) apparently dated 885/1479. Other poems from the quintet were also copied on their own without any paintings, such as two copies of Matla‘ al-anvar and four copies of Hasht Bihisht. Three of Amir Khusraw’s versified romances on contemporary themes, which are not part of his quintet, also had a readership. Along with an eighteenth-century copy of the Nuh Sipihr there are seven copies of the Qiran al-Sa‘dayn, one of which, dated 921/1515 at Herat (Add. 7753), was copied by the famous calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Khandan, while several others are eighteenth or nineteenth-century humbler manuscripts that were clearly read by non-elite readers.

The opening of Qiran al-saʻdayn copied by Muhammad Khandan at Herat in 1515
The opening of Amir Khusraw's Qiran al-saʻdayn, copied at Herat in 1515 by the famous calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Khandan (BL Add. 7753, f. 1v)
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Qiran al-saʻdayn. An unillustrated copy made in Ramnagar in the 18th century
Qiran al-saʻdayn
. An unillustrated copy made in Ramnagar in the 18th century (BL Egerton 1033)
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There are also three copies of the popular Indo-Persian romance, Khizr Khan va Duvalrani, also known as  ‘Ashiqah, one of which (Or.335) has some unusual illustrations, such as the rare depiction of the beheading of the prince at the end of the story.

Prince Khizr Khan murdered on order of the Delhi Sultan Qutb al-Din Mubarak
Prince Khizr Khan murdered on order of the Delhi Sultan Qutb al-Din Mubarak. From Khizr Khan va Duvalrani, dated 982/1574  (BL Or.335, f.142v)
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Attempts to collect and produce large copies of Amir Khusraw’s poetry ceased for the most part in the Safavid and Mughal periods when more copies of selections of his non-narrative poems were made, specifically of the five Divans that marked the different stages of his development as a poet. At this time the ghazal had become the privileged poetic form which only increased the popularity of Amir Khusraw’s love lyrics. Among the most popular of a dozen or so copies of poems from his Divans is the Ghurrat al-Kamal that includes a long partly autobiographical preface followed by copies of his Vasat-i Hayat. A particularly fine Timurid copy of his Divan (IO Islamic 512) also includes the poems of Hasan Sijzi and Jami in the margins.


10. The colophon of the Divan of Amir Khusraw in the centre  and poems of Jami in the margins
The colophon of the Divan of Amir Khusraw in the centre, and poems of Jami in the margins (BL IO Islamic 512, ff. 618v-619r)
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The wide range in this group of manuscripts is due to the fact that some were prepared for Mughal patrons such as Bayram Khan, others circulated among Ottoman Turkish readers. Another belonged to the library of a Qadiriya Sufi order in Bijapur, and at least one (IO Islamic 2470) was prepared for Robert Watherston, a British officer in India.

The final page and colophon of a selection from Amir Khusraw’s divans commissioned by Robert Watherston in 1790
The final page and colophon of a selection from Amir Khusraw’s divans commissioned by Robert Watherston in 1790 (BL IO Islamic 2470, f.91r)
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In addition to his poetry, an example of Amir Khusraw’s prose exists in a single voluminous collection of epistolographic writings, I’jaz-i Khusravi. The manuscript dated 1697-8 (IO Islamic 4714) was calligraphed by Anup Rai and has the seal of one Qutbuddin Bahadur Jang.

In lieu of a complete bibliography or database of the manuscripts of Amir Khusraw, the British Library collection is an excellent sampling that provides a rich history of the copying and readership of the poet’s collected and individual works across five centuries. The manuscripts were produced and circulated in the Persianate world, the inscriptions and seals showing their sojourn in important centres of artistic production such as Herat, Shiraz, Istanbul, and Delhi, as well as provincial Indian towns such as Ramnagar in UP and Rohinkhed in Maharashtra. At times, the archives also reveal an exciting history of use of some of these manuscripts in the early twentieth century by renowned scholars such as M. Wahid Mirza, whose pioneering scholarship on Amir Khusraw which was originally his PhD thesis at the University of London is still the authoritative book on the subject. Based on the borrowing slip pasted into the back of IO Islamic 51, which dates from 866-7/1462, the manuscript was even checked out and sent to Aligarh in 1935!

Borrowing slip pasted into the back of the Kulliyat of Amir Khusraw
Borrowing slip pasted into the back of the Kulliyat of Amir Khusraw recording a distinguished list of external loans (BL IO Islamic 51)
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Several other libraries in the UK have smaller collections of Amir Khusraw manuscripts that are listed in FIHRIST.[3] Some of the poet’s verses are also found in numerous anthologies of poetry by multiple poets that were compiled during the same centuries. It is also noteworthy that there is no evidence of his Hindavi poems in this collection, which belies the situation in contemporary South Asia where he is celebrated for those verses that were probably transmitted in an oral tradition or are apocryphal. With respect to his Persian body of work, the philological problem is not of lines or entire poems being added by later poets, as in the case with Firdawsi’s Shahnamah or Hafiz’s Divan, but it is that Amir Khusraw just composed a great deal of poetry.

 

With thanks to Ursula Sims-Williams and Shiva Mihan for their insights and help with making sense of the treasure trove described in this blog

Sunil Sharma, Boston University
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Further reading

Mohammad Wahid Mirza, The Life and Times of Amir Khusrau (Calcutta, 1935). The thesis was submitted in 1929 (SOAS Library, Thesis 47; online at Proquest).
Barbara Brend,  Perspectives of Persian Painting: Illustrations to Amir Khusrau’s Khamsah. London, 2003.

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[1] B.W. Robinson, “An Amir Khusraw Khamsa of 1581”, Iran 35 (1997), 36.
[2] Norah Titley, “A Khamsah of Nizami Dated Herat 1421”, British Library Journal 4/2 (1978): 161-86.
[3] Other lists of manuscripts of Amir Khusraw’s poetic works are described in: Amir Hasan ‘Abidi, “Amir Khusraw ki nadir tasnifat Turki men”, Ajkal 33/4 (1974): 39-44; Chander Shekhar, “Maghribi mamalik ke kitabkhanon men Amir Khusraw ke nadir qalami nuskhe.” In 1947 ke ba‘d Farsi zaban o adab o Professor Nazir Ahmad, ed. Sayyid Raza Haidar (New Delhi, 2016), pp, 53-78; John Seyller, Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Walters Art Museum Khamsa of Amīr Khusraw of Delhi (Baltimore, 2001), pp. 143-58.

23 September 2022

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth

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

Alexander billboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


08 August 2022

Stories of the Prophets: an illustrated Persian manuscript by Nishapuri

Fig.1. Noah's ark
Fig. 1. Nuh (Noah) in the ark (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 19v)
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Tales of the prophets (Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʼ) form a popular literary genre based on stories adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. Since accounts of the prophets’ lives were often very sketchy in the Qurʼan itself, stories about them drew heavily on Jewish, Christian and above all on oral literature for details. Famous collections in Arabic, are Kitāb arāʾis al-majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ by the 10th to 11th century writer al‐Thaʻlabi (the British Library has one of the oldest copies of this manuscript, Or 1494 dated Jumada I, AH 513/1119) and al-Kisaʼi (active c. 1100). Another well-known collection from Central Asia was composed in Eastern Turkish Chagatai at the beginning of the 14th century by Nasir ibn Burhan Rabghuzi (see BL Add MS 7851 for a 15th century copy).

In Persian, one of the best-known and most illustrated collections was written by the 12th century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim Nishapuri. The British Library copy, Add. MS 18576, is one of fourteen known illustrated copies, all produced in Safavid Iran towards the end of the sixteenth century. It contains thirteen illustrations and was probably made up from two different manuscripts – copied in at least two different hands. Consisting of only 165 folios out of an original 229, it lacks the introductory frontispiece, a double spread illustration which typically might have depicted Solomon and Sheba on facing pages. Luckily the double-page finispiece (Fig. 2) is preserved at the end showing the presentation of the manuscript and a young prince reading while a banquet is being prepared.

Fig.2a. Finispiece Fig.2b. Finispiece
Fig. 2. Finispiece showing books being read and presented while a banquet is being prepared (British Library, Add MS 18576, ff. 164v-165r)
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Many of the stories are common to the Bible and the Qurʼan. The first to be illustrated is the expulsion of Adam and Hava (Eve) from Paradise (Fig. 3). In this version of the story, Iblis (Satan) colluded with a peacock and a serpent (here depicted as a dragon) to tempt Adam and Hava to eat the forbidden fruit. After they had eaten, they lost their clothes, all their possessions and they were driven out. Despite their banishment, they still kept their prophetic status, represented here by the fiery haloes around their heads.

The next illustration (Fig. 4) tells the story of Adams’s sons Qabil (Cain) and Habil (Abel). In both the Bible and the Qurʼan, Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy when God rejected his sacrifice in favour of his brother’s. Not knowing what to do with a dead body — as this was the first time someone had died — he wandered around with his brother strapped to his back until God sent two crows, one of which killed the other and then demonstrated how to bury it in the ground.

Fig.3. Adam is expelled from Paradise Fig.4. The story of Cain and Able
Fig. 3. Left. Adam is expelled from Paradise (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 11r)
Fig. 4. Right. A crow is sent to demonstrate to Qabil (Cain) how to bury his murdered brother Habil (Abel) (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 15v)
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Another familiar story, equally well-known in both biblical and Qur’anic traditions, features Nuh (Noah) in his ark (Fig. 1). His ship is a simple flat-bottomed ship, guided by paddles at front and back, while in the foreground a drowning figure calls for help from the rooftops. Note Noah’s halo signifying his prophetic status and the ship’s flag quoting sura 61, verse 13 of the Qurʼan:‘Help from Allah and a victory near at hand. And give good news to the faithful.’

Fig.5. Flag detail
Fig. 5. Detail from Noah’s ark

The story of Ibrahim’s sacrifice (Fig. 6) is one of the most frequently illustrated Qurʼanic stories. In the Bible, it is Abraham’s son Isaac who is saved from sacrifice by God offering a ram to take his place. In Islamic tradition it was Ismaʻil who was the intended victim. When Ibrahim tried to cut his son’s throat, the knife turned upside down in his hand, folded in two, and would not cut. When Ibrahim tried again, he heard a voice from Heaven telling him to look up and he saw the archangel Jibra’il descending with a ram in his arms to act as a substitute.

Equally popular is the story of Yusuf (Joseph) who features in thirteen different episodes in the Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’ (Fig. 7). Put on sale to the highest bidder at a slave-market in Egpyt, he was purchased by the Egyptian ʻAziz (Potiphar in the Bible), or in a more romantic version, by his wife Zulaykha. Here, however, we see an addition to the story in which an old woman, standing with a group of would-be buyers with their money-bags, offers in vain her only possession, a ball of yarn.

Fig.6. Ibrahim's sacrifice Fig.7. Yusuf at the slave market
Fig. 6. Jibra’il (Gabriel) brings a ram to Ibrahim (Abraham) about to sacrifice his son (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 33v)
Fig. 7. An old woman bids for Yusuf (Joseph) at the slave-market in Egypt (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 44r)
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Two further stories, both well-known in Qurʼanic and biblical traditions are the tales of Yunus (Jonah) and the big fish (Fig. 8) and of the misfortunes of Ayyub (Job, Fig. 9). Yunus repented and prayed to Allah from inside the fish, while Ayyub remained faithful despite losing everything and suffering dreadful diseases.

Fig.8. Jonah and the whale Fig.9. Job's afflictions
Fig. 8. Yunus (Jonah) coming out of the belly of the fish (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 87r)
Fig. 9. Ayyub (Job) recovering from his afflictions, brought clothing and food by Jibra’il and his wife (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 91r)
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Other illustrations in this manuscript:

  • The people of ʻAd are punished by a whirlwind (f. 22v)
  • Dawud (David) fighting Jalut (Goliath) and his people (f. 95r)
  • Zu’l-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great) builds a wall to keep out the people of Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog) (f. 118r)
  • Zakariya (Zacharias) is told about the future birth of Yahya (John the Baptist).[1] (f. 128v)
  • ʻAli, watched by the Prophet Muhammad, attacks the Jews at the fortress of Khaybar (f. 158r)

An additional striking feature of our manuscript is the beautifully preserved original Safavid binding (Fig. 10), typical of the period with its use of block-stamped gold and doublures with gilt fretwork over blue, red, green and black grounds.

Fig.10a. Outer binding Fig.10b. Doublure
Fig. 10. Left. Outer gilt block-stamped cover. Right. Doublure with filigree work over blue, red, green and black grounds (British Library, Add MS 18576)
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Unfortunately little is known of the former history of this beautiful copy. It was acquired from Sothebey’s on 13 March 1851, described, according to the sale catalogue[2]  as “The property of a gentleman leaving England,” one of a collection of books “connected with the fine arts.”

 

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
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Further reading

Digital version of Add. MS 18576

Milstein, Rachel, Karin Rührdanz and Barbara Schmitz, Stories of the Prophets: Illustrated Manuscripts of Qiṣas al-Anbiyā. Costa Mesa, Calif: Mazda Publishers, 1999

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[1] Or possibly ‘The destruction of Sodom’ (Milstein, p.197).
[2] British Library, Sothebys SC (1) 1851: sale 12-13 March 1851: Acquired for £3.16.- by the booksellers Thomas and William Boone.

04 July 2022

A Historical Narrative of the Kaʿba and the Hajj Season Reflecting on the Visual Materials Found in the IOR

The India Office Records (IOR) contain some fascinating visual materials, mainly photographs capturing the Kaʿba and the Hajj Season (pilgrimage) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These visual materials are provided with short descriptions without any further elaboration on the history of the places or people captured. Displaying a number of those photographs along with some external materials, this blog presents a historical narrative of the Kaʿba, its physical features, and the development of its religious status before becoming the site of Muslim pilgrimage.

The Kaʿba and the Great Mosque during the Hajj season in the 1880s
The Kaʿba and the Great Mosque during the Hajj season, 1888. Photographer: al-Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghaffar  (British Library, X463/1)
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The Kaʿba is the holiest site in Islam. It is known as al-Bayt al-Haram (the Sacred House), and the second qibla (direction). It is located at the centre of the Great Mosque in Mecca. Although other Kaʿbas existed in the pre-Islamic period, such as the Kaʿba of Petra and the Kaʿba of Najran, the Kaʿba of Mecca was the most popular, hence taking over the name without the need to specify its location (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 380).

The city of Mecca
The city of Mecca. Photographer: H. A. Mirza & Sons, c. 1907 (British Library, Photo 174/3
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Muslims in general believe that the Kaʿba was the first structure on earth. Behind its majestic cubic shape hides an interesting story of its construction. Its foundation is believed to go back to the Day of Creation, when Prophet Adam built it as a house of worship.

إنّ أولَ بيتٍ وُضعَ للنّاسِ للَّذي ببكَّة مباركاً وهدىً للعالمين
The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka [Mecca] full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings. (Qurʼan 3:96)

It was, however, during the time of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) that the Kaʿba acquired its current shape and characteristics. Following God’s instructions, Ibrahim and his son Ismaʿil (Ishmael) raised the walls of the building on the foundations that were already in place since Adam’s time. The first Kaʿba was without a roof and there are different traditions concerning the number of its doorways.

وإذْ يَرفَعُ ابراهيمُ القواعدَ منَ البيتِ واسماعيلُ ربَّنا تقبلْ منّا إنكَ أنتَ السميعُ العليمُ
And remember Abraham and Ismail raised the foundations of the House (with this prayer): “Our Lord! accept (this service) from us for thou art the All-Hearing and the All-Knowing” (Qurʼan 2:127)

The significance of Ibrahim’s Kaʿba is in establishing of most of the features present in today’s Kaʿba. These are, al-Hajar al-Aswad (the Black Stone), Maqam Ibrahim (the Station of Ibrahim), Hijr Ismaʿil (the Lap of Ismaʿil), Biʾr Zamzam (the Well of Zamzam), and al-Mataf (the circular space around the Kaʿba).

Situated in the eastern corner of the Kaʿba, al-Hajar al-Aswad is believed to have descended to Ibrahim from heaven. He then set the stone as the starting point of tawaf (circumambulation) around the Kaʿba. When pilgrims pass by the stone, they know they have completed one round. Maqam Ibrahim on the other hand, is named after the place that is believed to have “miraculously” preserved the marks of Ibrahim’s feet when standing at the spot to build the Kaʿba. Today, the Maqam is in a multilateral structure made of glass and brass bars.

Main physical features of the Kaʿba
A photograph showing the main features of the Kaʿba (British Library, 1781.b.6/2)
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Hijr Ismaʿil refers to the place where Ibrahim left his wife and son in Mecca. The Hijr is situated on the north-western side of the Kaʿba, and is marked by a wall surrounding it. Biʾr Zamzam, on the other hand, is believed to have sprung in the place where Ismaʿil stood, thirsty, while his mother engaged in finding water for him. Although it was subject to periods of dryness, the well continues to provide pilgrims with water until today. Al-Mataf refers to the courtyard around the Kaʿba and starts from a fixed point: al-Hajar al-Aswad.

Kaʿba during the Hajj season
Kaʿba during the Hajj season. Photographer: H. A. Mirza & Sons, c. 1907 (British Library, 174/5)
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Announcing the Kaʿba as the House of One God, Ibrahim is considered the founder of tawhid (monotheism) in Mecca, and the one who set up the pilgrimage ritual. It is believed that, pilgrimage performed by Muslims today is very similar to the one practiced during Ibrahim’s time. The Kaʿba continued its status as a place of monotheistic religion under its new guardians, the Yemenite tribe of Jurhum. The Jurhum claimed ‘they were related to Ismaʿil by intermarriage, hence their right to the guardianship’ (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 100 and 222). They were powerful in the region and greatly contributed to the prosperity of Mecca. Pilgrims brought expensive gifts to present to the Kaʿba, which eventually became full of treasure.

Pilgrims camping near Mecca in the 1880s
Pilgrims camping near Mecca in the 1880s. Photographer: al-Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghaffar, 1886-9 (British Library, X463/8)
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The major change to the Kaʿba occurred when the head of the Khuzaʿa tribe, ʿAmr bin Luhayy al-Khuzaʿi, took over the guardianship from the Jurhum. During his trading expeditions, al-Khuzaʿi came across numerous idols (assnam); worshipped by the locals. He brought some of those with him to Mecca and placed them inside and around the Kaʿba. Al-Khuzaʻi was thus the first to introduce paganism to the region (Ibn al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Assnam, 8-9). Eventually, each of the region’s tribes began to install its own idol in the courtyard of the Kaʿba, which housed over three hundred of them (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 366). The most popular of these were Hubal, Manat, Allat, and al-ʿUzza.

Relief_of_the_Arabian_goddess_Al-Lat _Manat_and_al-Uzza_from_Hatra._Iraq_Museum
Manat, Allat and al-ʿUzza, from the 5th temple at Hatra, Ninawa Governorate, Iraq. Parthian period, 1st to 3rd century CE. Iraq Museum, Baghdad
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Another exterior addition to the Kaʿba under the Khuzaʿa was the tradition of hanging poems on its walls. These were chosen during literary ceremonies usually performed during the pilgrimage seasons. One of these poems was the muʿallaqa of Zuhair bin Abi Sulma, which has a reference to the Quraysh and the Jurhum tribes performing pilgrimage:

فأقسمتُ بالبيتِ الذي طافَ حولَهُ         رجالٌ بنوهُ من قريشٍ وجرهم
And I swore by the House, men of Quraysh and Jurhum built it and performed circumambulation around it

Later on, a new tradition was instituted, namely, the covering of the Kaʿba called Kiswa (also Kuswa). There are different accounts about the first person who put the Kiswa on the Kaʿba, the majority of which agree on the name of the King of Himyar, Tubbaʿ al-Himyari. During his pilgrimage, al-Himyari brought the first Kiswa made of the finest of cloths from Yemen as a gift to the Kaʿba. This influenced many tribes to follow his example up until the time of Qussay bin Kilab of the Quraysh tribe.

Kiswa fragment
Kiswa fragment. Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888 (British Library, 1781.b.6/32)
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When Qussay bin Kilab, the Prophet Muhammad’s fourth grandfather, came to power he announced himself the new guardian of the Kaʿba, and established the Quraysh power in Mecca. Qussay rebuilt the Kaʿba with stronger walls and for the first time in its history, the Kaʿba was roofed. He allowed the Kiswa to be placed over the Kaʿba only by the head of a tribe, and each year by a different tribe. The covering of the Kaʿba with a Kiswa continues to be a significant custom today.

Drawing of a 19th century ceremonial mahmal carrying the Kiswa to Mecca
Drawing of a 19th century ceremonial mahmal carrying the Kiswa to Mecca, 1888  (British Library, 1781.b.6/5)
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Qussay was also the holder of the key to the Kaʿba, which was transferred to his descendants until it reached its final destination in the hands of a Meccan family called, the Banu Shayba who are still the key holders today.

Sons of Banu Shayba
Sons of Banu Shayba. Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888  (British Library, 1781.b.6/22)
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A few years before the advent of Islam, between 600 and 607 CE, Quraysh decided to rebuild the Kaʿba, adding more facilities to the building. According to the Sira (Prophet’s biography), when the Quraysh tribes rebuilt the Kaʿba, there was a debate on who would replace the Black Stone back on its wall. Muhammad bin ʿAbd Allah (later Prophet Muhammad) was chosen to do so. He placed the stone in the middle of a robe and asked for one man of each tribe to hold onto the robe while he placed the stone to the wall. This way all the tribes participated in placing it into the wall (Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham, 33-35).

Muhammad and the black stone. Eul.Or.MS.20.f45r
Muhammad helping in placing the Black Stone. From Jamiʻ al-tawarikh by Rashid al-Din.Iran, c.1314 (Edinburgh University Library Or.MS.20, f. 45r)
©The University of Edinburgh

During the ascent of Islam, Prophet Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca and captured the Kaʿba in the eighth year of the Hijra (629-30 CE). The Prophet’s first mission was to revive the function Ibrahim built the Kaʿba for. He himself broke the idols inside and around it (Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham, 234-235 and Kitab al-Assnam, 31). As the Kaʿba was recently built, the Prophet decided to keep the old building, announcing the Kaʿba as the House of the One God, where Muslims are to perform their annual pilgrimage. One of the Prophet’s companions, Bilal bin Rabah, was the first to raise the adhan (the call for prayer) from the roof of the Kaʿba.

From that day on, the Kaʿba continues to be Islam’s holiest place of worship. Today, over two million Muslim worshippers from all over the world, gather around the Kaʿba to perform their annual ritual of Hajj during the month of Dhul-Hijja of the Islamic Hijri calendar.

Zanzibar pilgrimsPilgrimsPilgrims
PilgrimsPilgrimsZanzibar pilgrims
Pilgrims from Morocco, Malaysia, Java, Sumbawa, Baghdad, and Zanzibar. From ‘Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka.’ Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888 (British Library, 1781.b.6)
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To mark the conclusion of the ritual, pilgrims sacrifice animals in the name of God and start their celebration of ʿEid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice), which this year falls on Saturday July 9th.

Day of ʿArafa followed by animal sacrific and ʿEid celebration
Day of ʿArafa followed by animal sacrific and ʿEid celebration (British Library, Photo 174/6)
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Primary Sources
Album of 'Views of Mecca and Medina' by H. A. Mirza & Sons, Photographers ‎ (c. 1907). Photo 174
‘Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka’, by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje ‎ (1888). 1781.b.6
‘Bilder aus Mekka’, by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1889). X463
Ibn Hisham, Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham: al-Sira al-Nabawiyya. Ed. Muhammad ʿAfif al-Zuʻbi. Beirut: Dar al-Nafaʼis, 1987.
Ibn al-Kalbi. Kitab al-Assnam. Ed. Ahmad Zaki Pasha. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya, 1995.
The Holy Quran translated by A. Yusuf Ali

Secondary Sources
Ahmed Hebbo. Tarikh al-ʿArab qabla al-Islam. Hims: Manshurat Jamiʿat al-Baʿth, 1991.

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist Arabic Language and Gulf History/ British Library Qatar Foundation Project
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09 May 2022

From Georgian Slave to Safavid Master: Some Possible Additions to the Corpus of Siyavush Beg Gurji

Today's guest blog is jointly written by Jaimee Comstock-Skipp (Leiden University PhD candidate) and Asim Saeed (Independent Researcher)

Siyavush Beg Gurji (c.1536–1616), a brilliant but elusive maestro from the Safavid era, has intrigued scholars for half a decade. Initiated by Anthony Welch in findings published nearly 50 years ago, some pages from a dispersed manuscript located in private German and Danish collections help widen our understanding of this individual, and the state of the arts in Iran at the turn of the sixteenth to the seventeenth century.

Fig 1 Garshasp and Zahhak. Or 12985  f74v Fig 2 Ardavan before Ardashir  IO Islamic 966  f.  360v
Fig. 1. Garshasp seated before Zahhak while the div, Minharas, is held prisoner (Or.12985, f. 74v). Public Domain
Fig. 2. Ardavan before Ardashir (IO Islamic 966, f. 360v). Public Domain

Born in Georgia, Siyavush Beg was brought to the first Safavid capital Tabriz where he trained to become a page. Upon the relocation of the Safavid court to Qazvin in 1548, Siyavush transferred there and continued his studies of calligraphy, illustration, painting, and poetry. He worked in the royal workshops to produce manuscripts for the shah and other courtiers and enjoyed royal support from subsequent Safavid monarchs up until 1590. He contributed three paintings to a copy of the Garshaspnamah of Asadi, which was an expansion of and complement to Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (dated 1573, fig. 1). Following these, Siyavush painted sumptuous illustrations for Shah Isma’il II's (r. 1576–1577) royal copy of the same work (dated 1576–77; dispersed), and afterward fulfilled non-courtly commissions.

During the lull in royal patronage of manuscript production in the late-1570s through the 1580s, Siyavush and his colleagues produced manuscripts for connoisseurs not related to the rulers. As a case in point, they worked on a copy of Khvandamir’s Habib al-Siyar (Friend of Biographies) that was produced in 1579 for Mirza Abu Talib ibn Mirza ʻAla al-Dawlat, a Tajik high official at the court in Qazvin (former Homberg collection, since dispersed). Elsewhere, a Khamsah of Nizami copied in 1549 for the Safavid financial secretary Ali Khan Beg Turkman (Morgan Library ms. M.836) has illustrations attributable to Siyavush c. 1579. Although not definitively associated with his hand, loose folios in his style are elsewhere scattered in collections (Pierpont Morgan Library ms. M.386.7r) and have appeared at auction (Christie’s, 10 October 2013, lot 29). It is believed that Siyavush Beg formally retired in the 1590s and headed to Shiraz where he is believed to have added to some projects prior to his death in around 1616.

In sum, up until now Siyavush Gurji’s official output has totalled fewer than thirty illustrations over a period of seven decades. However, it is hard to believe a richly gifted artist, passionately engaged with painting under four different Safavid monarchs (Tahmasp I, Isma’il II, Muhammad Khudabanda, and ʻAbbas I), and spending almost his entire life under royal aegis could produce work for only three manuscripts. To him we might also now credit illustrations in a second Khamsah of Nizami (Topkapi Palace Library ms. R.881, circa 1590–1610); and illustrations in two copies of Qazi Ahmad’s Gulistan-i Hunar, a treatise on calligraphers and painters (one in the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, and the other formerly in the collection of Clara C. Edwards). Furthermore, a group of Shahnamah manuscripts also reflect his artistic practices and stylistic details. Although they are unsigned, their illustrations repeating compositions and figures fit comfortably in his corpus, and suggest either his own participation or perhaps that of a colleague working closely alongside him.

These Shahnamah copies sharing common circumstances of production include the following:

  • British Library IO Islamic 966, with colophon dated 1604, page size 370 x 235 mm, figs. 2, 5, 9, 11
  • Kuwait’s al-Sabah Collection, Inv. No. LNS 233, no colophon, page size 350 x 235 mm
  • Yahuda Collection of the Israel Museum (ms. 120) dated 1617
  • Newly discovered illustrations, held in private collections, from a single dispersed Shahnamah manuscript (here labelled MS Exhibit 369 B) whose illustrations, compositions, and dimensions (averaging 355 x 240 mm) closely relate to the other Shahnamah works, as well as the above-mentioned Garshaspnamah  (Fig. 1, Or. 12985, page size 348 x 235 mm)

All these works have been attributed by scholars to be of Safavid origin and contain specific elements from the workshops of Qazvin on the cusp of artistic innovations originating in Isfahan. Although lacking an artist’s signature, they are apparently prepared in the late sixteenth century, and several folios across them have identical figures and compositional layouts.

Fig 3. Siyavashs fire ordeal. Exhibit 369 B Fig 4. Siyavash fire ordeal. LNS 233  f.42 r Fig 5 Siyavash fire ordeal  IO Islamic 966  f97r
The fire ordeal of Siyavush.
Fig. 3.  Exhibit 369 B, f. 114v © the owner
Fig. 4. LNS 233, f. 42r © The al- Sabah Collection, Dar al- Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait
Fig. 5. IO Islamic 966, f. 97r, Public Domain

Figs. 3–5 depict the famous fire ordeal of the character Siyavush, where he is asked to ride through the blazing fire in order to prove his innocence against accusations levied by his step mother. Siyavush rides through the flames with his head turned back in all three images. The galloping black horse with a yak tail hanging from the neck, the decorated saddle and the whip in rider's hand, the astonished solider with his raised hands are obvious similarities. One wonders if some pouncing or stencilling techniques were applied. The common painter of these is posited to be one individual who follows a composition from Shah Tahmasp's famous Shahnamah as a model (now held in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran). However, they are simpler versions, and could have been carried out by Siyavush Beg or his colleague.

Fig 6 Tus and Giv witht the maiden lady. Exhibit 369 B Fig 7. LNS 233  f.97r
Tus and Giv and the maiden lady.
Fig. 6. Exhibit 369 B, f. 109r © the owner
Fig. 7. LNS 233 MS, f. 97r © The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait.

Other illustrations from ms. Exhibit 369 B, the British Library, and Kuwait collection have much in common. They share similar compositions, colour tones, heavily outlined backgrounds in which purple and pink towering masses of rocks at times overflow into the margins. Tadpole clouds populate golden and blue skies, dark green grounds are spotted with radiant flowers, above which short flame-like trees emerge (figs. 6-7). Old maple trees with bulky trunks brim with autumnal leaves (figs. 8-9).

Fig 8 Dying Rustam. Exhibit 369 B Fig 9 Death of Rustam  IO Islamic 966_f323v
The death of Rustam.
Fig. 8. Exhibit 369 B, f. 386v © the owner
Fig. 9. IO Islamic 966, f. 323v, Public Domain

In another famous episode of the Shahnamah, Tahmina is seen visiting Rustam's chamber in figs. 10 and 11 which again bear striking similarities. Upon close observation, the version in the private collection reveals some extraordinary features. A superbly sketched simurgh (the mythical bird of the Shahnamah) on Rustam's blanket (fig. 12) displays the artist’s genius and outstanding drawing skills (perhaps Siyavush’s), as he effectively connects the past with the present through a simple yet powerful image. In this folio as in the British Library’s copy, two towering cypress trees breach the upper margins above the richly decorated interiors with pink and lavender wall paintings. They both have elaborately detailed grounds covered in animal and foliate motifs. Cypress trees play an effective role in the images both visually and symbolically, for they are associated with the stature of heroes in classical poetry. The tree is also a symbol of immortality, eternity, grandeur, strength, and manliness. Tahmina's tryst with Rustam following her depicted arrival leads to the birth of their son Suhrab, one of the most known characters of the Shahnamah.

Fig 10. Daughter of the king of Samangan  Exhibit 369 B Fig 11. Rustam and Tahmina. IO Islamic 966_f79v
Tahmina visits Rustam.
Fig. 10. Exhibit 369 B, f. 93v © the owner
Fig. 11. IO Islamic 966, f. 79v, Public Domain

Fig 12. Close up of Simurgh
Fig. 11. Close up of Rustam's covering

There are many other parallels across these Shahnamah manuscripts that have been noted elsewhere, but it is worth exploring how their common illustrations came about. Regarding the style of Siyavush-like paintings in the British Library IO Islamic 966, Basil Robinson credits the unnamed artist as a “young Isfahani.” Isfahan became the site of the new Safavid capital in 1598 and an innovative artistic style popularized by Siyavush’s younger colleague, the artist Reza Abbasi, emerged there early on after the power shifted from Qazvin. The scholar Barbara Schmitz has since modified Robinson’s “young Isfahani” attribution to an “old Qazvini” artist working alone in a style that had by the early 1600s gone out of fashion. Whether or not it was Siyavush, this same individual executed the majority of the miniatures in this copy dated 1604. Robinson has also attributed three miniatures of the British Library’s Garshaspnamah to this same “young Isfahani” which Norah M. Titley has contested to be the work of Siyavush Beg. Aditionally, the scholars Adel T. Adamova and Manijeh Bayani have convincingly proposed Siyavush Beg as the possible illustrator of the Shahnamah copies in the British Library and Kuwait (see Ademova and Bayani, cat. 32, 459 - 486). They suggest that Siyavush set to work to illustrate the Kuwait version sometime prior to 1600, almost twenty years after he contributed to Shah Isma’il II’s Shahnamah. He would have next begun working on the British Library manuscript dated 1604. They stylistically justify their argument by noting how the artist followed conventions originating in the Qazvin school of painting. The hitherto never-before referenced paintings of MS Exhibit 369 B carry striking similarities to both the London and Kuwait manuscripts, and we can insert this new Shahnamah material and others into the trajectory delineated above.

Sometime between 1579 and 1604, the “young Isfahani”/ “old Qazvini” Siyavush Beg may have busied himself with yet another magnificent Shahnamah, that of MS Exhibit 369 B. Perhaps up until his final days, he might have contributed to the Shahnamah copy in the Israel Museum that was completed a year after his death. Though not much can be said with absolute certainty about the production of manuscript Exhibit 369 B, on stylistic grounds the illustrations appear to have been produced by Siyavush Beg or a painter working alongside him during the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Their sumptuousness vouches for an expensive production affordable to a prince or an aristocrat who could employ elite artists and cover the expenses of their studio.

Our conclusions are based on stylistic comparisons and the upsurge of sub-royal patrons who were commissioning richly illustrated manuscripts in parallel or in competition with princely ateliers during the second half of the sixteenth century. Economics impact arts, and one reason for the increase in such sub-royal productions was the lack of reliable royal patronage during the reign of the feeble and almost blind Safavid Shah Muhammad Khudabanda (r.1578–1587). Another possible owner of the manuscript in question could be that of the artist producing it himself; having made other copies to sell, perhaps he enjoyed his own compositions so much that he directly duplicated them.

Within these four manuscripts, the same figures frequent compositions, clad in rich garments with delicately sketched hands and rendered movements, bulky turbans and fur collars. Animals populate compositions, especially the meticulously drawn horses and foxes with fluffy tails. There are soldiers in helmets, kings in crowns, archers, and musicians. Stylistically, the most decisive element that links all of the paintings is the near perfect sense of weight and balance by the painter. Also common is the unbroken brush movement and the use of colour that is thoroughly typical of the Qazvin palette, and the painter’s penchant for transgressing the text frame and extending images into the margins. Although he did not physically sign these works with letters comprising his name, Siyavush’s hand and influence can be identified in these illustrations and bear his hallmarks.

With special thanks to Katja Preuss for her generous contributions & guidance, the Cambridge Shahnama Project and some wonderful friends.

Asim Saeed (Independent Researcher) and Jaimee K. Comstock-Skipp (Leiden University PhD candidate)
 ccownwork copy

Contact Asim: artmusekhi@gmail.com

Contact Jaimee: Academia.edu

Further reading:

Adamova, Adel T., and Manijeh Bayani, Persian Painting: the Arts of the Book and Portraiture. Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah: The Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2015.
Babaie, Sussan, et al., Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.
Qazi Ahmad,  Golestān-e honar, tr. Vladimir Minorsky as Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qāḍī Aḥmad, Son of Mīr-Munshī, Washington, D.C., 1959.

Robinson, B.W. “Shah Ismail II's Copy of the Shahnama.” Iran 14 (1976): 1-8.
———— “Shah Ismail II's Copy of the Shahnama: Additional Material.” Iran 43 (2005): 291-299.
Schmitz, Barbara. Islamic and Indian Manuscripts and paintings in The Pierpont Morgan Library. New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997.
Titley, Norah. “A Manuscript of the Garshāspnāmeh.” The British Museum Quarterly 31:1/2 (Autumn 1966): 27-32
————Persian Miniature Painting and its Influence on the Arts of Turkey and India. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.
Welch, Anthony. Artists for the Shah: Late Sixteenth Century Painting at the Imperial Court of Iran. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

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