Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

221 posts categorized "Middle East"

26 February 2024

Restoring access to the British Library’s Asian and African Collections

Following the recent cyber-attack on the British Library, the Library has now implemented an interim service which will enable existing Registered Readers to access some of our printed books and serials and a significant portion of our manuscripts. This service will be expanded further in the coming weeks. 

We understand how frustrating this recent period has been for everyone wishing to access our Asian and African Collections and we would like to thank you for your patience. We are continuing to work to restore our services, and you can read more about these activities in our Chief Executive's post to the Knowledge Matters blog. 

The Using the Library page on our temporary website provides general information on current Library services, and advice for those without an existing Reader Pass. Please read on for information about the availability of specific Asian and African collections. 

 

Printed books and serials 

You can now search for printed items using a searchable online version of our main catalogue of books and other printed material. Online and advance ordering is unavailable, so Registered Readers will need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room and fill in the required details. Please write the shelfmark exactly as it appears in the online catalogue. 

Only a small portion of the printed books and serials in the Asian and African Collection will be available for consultation in the Reading Room. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee availability of any printed items. Materials stored in Boston Spa are current unavailable, and items stored in our St. Pancras location might be in use by another Reader or restricted for other reasons. If you wish to gain greater assurance on the availability of a particular item before you visit us, please contact our Reference Services Team by emailing [email protected].

 

Manuscripts and archival documents 

Although the Library’s online catalogue of archives and manuscripts is not currently available, the Reference Services Team can assist with queries about these collections, checking paper catalogues and other sources. Please speak to the team in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room or email [email protected] Some of our older printed catalogues have been digitised and made available online without charge. For quick access to the digitised catalogues of manuscript and archival material, or to online repositories of images, please make use of the links below:

Africa 

Catalogues 

 

East Asia 

Catalogues 

Digitised Content

Middle East and Central Asia 

Catalogues 

Digitised Content

South Asia        

Catalogues    

Digitised Content

South-East Asia

Catalogues

Digitised Content

Visual Arts (Print Room)

Catalogues

Digitised Content

Microfilms

 

 

 

Africa 

 

East Asia 

Chinese 

Japanese 

  • CiNii Books - National Institute of Informatics (NII), a bibliographic database service for material in Japanese academic libraries including 43,000+ British Library books and periodicals. Please use FA012954 in the Library ID field 

Korean 

 

Middle East and Central Asia 

  • FIHRIST (Largely Persian, but also includes some Kurdish, Pashto, and Turkic materials) 

 Arabic 

Armenian 

Coptic 

Hebrew  

Persian 

Syriac  

Turkish and Turkic  

 

South Asia 

Early printed books:

South Asian language manuscript catalogues:

Bengali and Assamese 

Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani

Marathi, Gujrati, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Pushtu and Sindhi 

Oriya 

Pali 

Sanskrit and Prakrit 

Sinhalese 

 Tibetan 

 

South-East Asia 

Burmese 

Indonesian

Thai 

  

Access to some archival and manuscript material is still restricted, but the majority of special collections held at St Pancras are now once again available. Our specialist archive and manuscripts catalogue is not online at the moment so you will need to come on-site to our Reading Rooms, where Reading Room staff will be able to help you search for what you need, and advise on its availability.

To place a request to see a manuscript or archival document, Registered Readers need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room and fill in the required details, including the shelfmark (manuscript number). The Library has created an instructional video on finding shelfmarks.  

 

Visual Arts 

The Print Room, located in the Asian and African Reading Room, is open by appointment only on Monday and Friday between 10.00 am-12.30 pm. Prints, drawings, photographs and related visual material in the Visual Arts collection can be consulted by appointment. Please contact the Visual Arts team via email (apac[email protected]) to check the availability of required items and to book an appointment. Please note that advanced booking is required. Restricted items including the Kodak Historical Collection, Fay Godwin Collection, William Henry Fox Talbot Collection are not currently available to Readers. 

 

Microfilms 

The Reference Services Team in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room has a list of microfilms of printed and manuscript materials. 

 

Digital resources 

A number of our early printed books are available on Google Books. 

We regret that our digitised manuscripts and electronic research resources are currently unavailable. Nevertheless, some of our digitised manuscripts are available on external platforms: 

East Asia 

Middle East 

  • Digital Edition of the Coptic Old Testament, including leaves of British Library Coptic papyri interwoven with images from other institutions  
  • Ktiv (Manuscript Database of the National Library of Israel), including all digitised Hebrew manuscripts from the British Library
  • Qatar Digital Library, including digitised Arabic manuscripts from the British Library

South Asia 

  • Jainpedia, including digitised Jain manuscripts from the British Library

South-East Asia 

  • South East Asia Digital Library, including a collection of digitised rare books from South East Asia held at the British Library 
  • National Library Board, Singapore, digitised Malay manuscripts and Qur'ans, papers of Sir Stamford Raffles, and the accounts by Colin Mackenzie on Java held at the British Library
  • Or 14844, Truyện Kiều (The tale of Kiều) by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), the most significant poem in Vietnamese literature 
  • Or 15227, an illuminated Qurʼan,19th century, from the east coast of the Malay Peninsula
  • Or 16126, Letter from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja (Daing Ibrahim), Ruler of Johor, to Napoleon III, Emperor of France, dated 1857
  • Mss Jav 89, Serat Damar Wulan with illustrations depicting Javanese society in the late 18th century
  • Or 14734, Sejarah Melayu (Malay annals), dated 1873
  • Or 13681, Burmese manuscript showing seven scenes of King Mindon's donations at various places during the first four years of his reign (1853-57) 
  • Or 14178, Burmese parabaik (folding book) from around 1870 with 16 painted scenes of the Ramayana story with captions in Burmese 
  • Or 13922, Thai massage treatise with illustrations, 19th century 
  • Or 16101, Buddhist Texts, including the Legend of Phra Malai, with Illustrations of The Ten Birth Tales, dated 1894 
  • Or 16797, Cat treatise from Thailand, with illustrations, 19th century 
  • Or 4736, Khmer alphabet, handwritten by Henri Mouhot, c.1860-1 

Visual Arts 

 

We thank you, once again, for your patience as we continue to work to restore our services. Please do check this blog and the temporary British Library website for further updates. 

 

 

18 September 2023

The Romantic Sufi: an early copy of the Divan of Kamal Khujandi copied by Jaʿfar Tabrizi

The British Library exceptionally holds four significant 15th-century manuscripts in the hand of the prominent Persian calligrapher, Jaʻfar Tabrizi (Baysunghuri), copied between 1420 and 1435.

Originally from Tabriz, Jaʻfar was trained by the canoniser of nastaʻliq script, Mir ʻAli b. Hasan Tabrizi or his son, to became one of the most influential figures in the development of the script. He was already a skillful scribe when around 1420 he was appointed as head of the celebrated atelier of the bibliophile Prince Baysunghur (1397–1433) in Herat.

The British Library manuscripts penned by Jaʻfar are the complete Khamsa of Nizami (Or. 12087), dated 1420; Tarikh of Hamza Isfahani (Or. 2773), dated 1431; Makhzan al-Asrar of Nizami (Or. 11919), dated 1435; and an undated Divan of Kamal Khujandi (Or. 15395). None of these four manuscripts have received the attention they deserve in the West nor in Iran, except for a few succinct mentions in scholarly publications[1].  This is a brief introduction to the little-studied Divan of Kamal Khujandi.

1. Opening illumination of the Divan of Kamal Khujandi
Fig. 1. Opening illumination of the Divan of Kamal Khujandi, copied by Ja‘far Baysunghuri, undated (British Library, Or. 15395, f. 3r). Public domain

Kamal al-Din Masʻud Khujandi

Born in Khujand in Greater Iran (today’s Tajikistan) around 1320, Kamal al-Din Masʻud Khujandi was a renowned Persian poet, whose poems are remarkable for his delicate imagination, subtle similes, and his style in lyrical poems. He was contemporary with several significant Persian poets, who were famous for their innovative verses in the ghazal genre (lyric poetry) in the 14th century; namely, Khvaju Kirmani (1290–1349), ʻImad al-Din Faqih Kirmani (d. 1371), Salman Savaji (1309–1376) and above all Hafiz Shirazi (1315–1390). Prince Baysunghur commissioned poems of all those poets to be edited and copied for his library[2].

In his Tazkira al-Shu‘ara’ (Biographies of the Poets), Daulatshah Samarqandi describes Kamal’s poetry as mystical and passionate. He was indeed a mystical figure and unlike other poets of his time such as Khvaju Kirmani, who in pursuit of patrons praised every courtly and Sufi authority in his poems, Kamal exceptionally composed almost no panegyrical verses in his life[3]. Although the Jalayirid Sultan Husayn (r. 1374–82) patronised him by ordering a khanqah (Sufi lodge) be erected for him, the poet never joined the Sultan’s court and resided in his lodge in Tabriz until the end of his life.

The earliest copy of his poetry is dated 1398, which is preserved in the Astan Qods Library (MS. 4739)[4].  The British Library copy (Or. 15395) is unfortunately undated, but was certainly produced in the first half of the 15th century. Despite being an early copy, it has never been used in any of the numerous editions of Kamal’s Divan published since 1958. The reason for this manuscript remaining neglected is probably because it had been misidentified as the Divan of Kamal al-Din Isma‘il (1173–1237), who was also a distinguished poet, but lived over a century prior to Kamal Khujandi.

The British Library Manuscript

Prince Baysunghur’s copy of the Divan of Kamal Khujandi is bound in an early 19th-century binding of dark brown leather. It is decorated with a cusped oval centrepiece and two small pendants, stamped on leather of lighter colour, with the doublures of plain red leather. Its handmade, burnished paper is of light chickpea colour, medium thickness, flexible and soft. The text is arranged in two columns and 17 lines to a page, with rulings in gold and lapis blue, as found in majority of Baysunghuri manuscripts. The initial 13 folios have been repaired and remounted on thick handmade sheets, which is slightly darker and thicker than the original paper. The book title, written in a later hand on f. 1v and dated 1806, incorrectly states Divan-i Kamal Isma‘il al-shahir bih Khallaq al-Ma‘ani (The Divan of Kamal Isma‘il known as The Creator of Meaning). The second folio bears memoranda on birth dates of a 19th-century family.

The opening (f. 3r, fig. 1) presents an oval shamsa with pointed ends, beautifully illuminated with palmette and arabesque motifs in gold, dark red and black on a ground that was once lapis blue, but is washed out now. The central ground is black with washed out red arabesque vines, on which there is a cartouche and two large pendants in gold. The inscriptions on them are almost illegible, except for the traces on the upper pendant, which reads Divan-i Kamal.

2. Opening illumination of the Shahnama and Khamsa  copied by Muhammad b. Mutahhar
Fig. 2: Opening illumination of the Shahnama and Khamsa, copied by Muhammad b. Mutahhar, 833/1430 (Malek Library, MS 6031).  By permission of the Malek National Library and Museum

We know of more than 30 manuscripts produced for Baysunghur in Herat, among which only one other manuscript bears a pointed oval ex libris: a dual-text manuscript at the Malek Library (MS no. 6031), containing the Shahnama of Firdausi and the Khamsa of Nizami, dated 1430 (fig. 2)[5].  The illuminated heading (fig. 3) of our Divan is similarly damaged with damp, where the blue is washed out and only the black and gold have survived. The colophon is signed by Jaʿfar Tabrizi (f. 182v, fig. 4) with his sobriquet Baysunghuri: علی ید العبد الضعیف جعفر البایسنغری (In the hand of the slave, the weak, Jaʻfar al-Baysunghuri)

3. Illuminated heading  Or.15395  f. 3v
Fig. 3. The illuminated heading of the Divan of Kamal Khujandi, copied by Ja‘far Baysunghuri, undated (British Library, Or. 15395, f. 3v). Public domain

4. Colophon of the Divan of Kamal Khujandi  with the scribe's signature Ja‘far Baysunghuri  Or.15395  f. 182v
Fig. 4. Ja‘far Baysunghuri's signature in the colophon of the Divan of Kamal Khujandi, undated (British Library, Or. 15395, f. 182v). Public domain

There is not much known about the peregrination of this manuscript, but the two seal impressions on the opening (3r) and colophon page (182v) reveal that the manuscript belonged to Mahdi al-Musavi al-Safavi [Kashmiri] around 1884 (مهدی الموسوی الصفوی ۱۳۰۲). He was the author of several books of religious studies in Persian and Arabic and died in April 1892. After him, the manuscript was in the possession of Nasir al-Mulk in 1911 (هوالله ناصرالملک نایب‌ السلطنه ۱۳۲۹). Abu’l-Qasim Nasir al-Mulk Shirazi (1856–1927) was a member of Nasir al-Din Shah’s consultative council and the regent of Ahmad Shah Qajar. Nasir al-Mulk was the first Iranian to study at Oxford University (1879, Balliol College), where he perfected his Latin and Greek. He translated The Merchant of Venice and Othello into Persian for the first time. Still in Iran around 1911, the manuscript was purchased at Bonhams sale by the British Library in 1997. 

5. COlophon and seals
Fig. 5. Seals of Mahdi al-Musavi al-Safavi and Nasir al-Mulk (British Library, Or. 15395, f. 182v). Public domain

Dating the Manuscript

There is no information on the place and date of completion, but a comparison of the shamsa might help dating the BL copy. The aforementioned Malek Library manuscript (MS no. 6031) with the pointed oval ex libris was initiated soon after the Preface to the Baysunghur’s Shahnama was composed by the Timurid court historiographer Hafiz Abru in 1426. The preface starts with two couplets from the Divan of Kamal Khujandi.

On the other hand, the illuminated heading of the Divan of Kamal (f. 1v. fig. 3) closely resembles an illuminated heading in Baysunghur’s Divan of Khvaju Kirmani, copied in 1426 (Malek Library, MS. 5963), with the same colour palette: red, black, gold and (washed out) lapis blue, which was not a common colour palette in other codices in Prince’s corpus. Furthermore, the decoration of the central cartouche and two pendants within the pointed oval medallion of the Divan of Kamal suggests that it was done no later than 1426, as it was not a favoured design after that date when the atelier created a different emblematic ex libris for its use. Examples of similar central pieces in Baysunghuri manuscripts are found as early as 1420 in the Khamsa of Nizami (Or. 12087, fig.6) and as late as 1425 in a dual-text codex containing the Zafarnama of Shami and Zayl-i Zafarnama of Hafiz Abru (Suleymaniye Library, Nuruosmaniye 3267)[6].  It is almost certain that the British Library manuscript was produced sometime between 1420 and 1426. Following the scribe’s active years helps narrow this spectrum further down.

6. Opening shamsa of the Khamsa of Nizami
Fig. 6. Opening shamsa of the Khamsa of Nizami, 823/1420 (British Library, Or. 12087, f. 1r). Public domain

Jaʿfar was occupied with the Khamsa of Nizami in 1420, the Khusrau u Shirin of Nizami in 1421 (St Petersburg Institute of Oriental Studies, B-132), the Divan of Hasan Dihlavi in 1422 (Majles Library, MS no. 4017), the undated Divan of Hafiz around 1425 (TIEM, MS no. 1923), the Sirr al-asrar in 1426 (Chester Beatty, Ar. 4183), the Gulistan of Saʿdi in 1427 (Chester Beatty, Per. 119). He then began the three-year great project of copying the famous Baysunghur’s Shahnama (Golestan Palace, MS. 716) in 1427, while also working on the Nuzhat al-Arvah (current location unknown). Given his responsibilities as the head of the library-atelier and the supervisor of artistic and architectural projects at the court, Jaʿfar might have copied it around 1423 and 1424, the years from which we have no manuscript penned by him. At any case, the British Library Divan of Kamal Khujandi is a valuable source not only for its artistic traits of calligraphy and illumination, but also as an early witness to the text.

Dr Shiva Mihan, Washington University in St. Louis
 CC BY-NO

 

Bibliographical Notes

[1] I have discussed the Khamsa, Tarikh-i Isfahani and Divan of Kamal Khujandi in my PhD dissertation (Cambridge University, 2018), along with some mentions of the posthumously-completed Makhzan al-Asrar. The Tarikh-i Iṣfahani, Or. 2773, has been discussed briefly by Tom Lentz, Painting at Herat under Baysunghur ibn Shah Rukh (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1985): 128. Alison Ohta has discussed its binding in her PhD thesis: Covering the Book: Bindings of the Mamluk period, 1250–1516 CE (S.O.A.S., University of London, 2012). It has also been mentioned briefly in Roxburgh, D.J. The Persian Album, 1400–1600: from dispersal to collection (New Haven, 2005): 336, n. 68; Thackston, W.M. Album Prefaces and Other Documents on the History of Calligraphers and Painters (Leiden, Boston, Cologne, 2001): 45, n. 22; and Lentz & Lowry Lentz, T.W. & G.D. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian art and culture in the fifteenth century (Los Angeles, 1989): 369.

[2] Baysunghur’s copies of the mentioned poets are: Kulliyyat of Khvaju Kirmani (Malek Library, MS no. 5963), Kulliyyat of ‘Imad al-Din Faqih Kirmani (Bodleian Library, Elliott 210), selected poems of Salman Savaji (Astan Qods, MS no. 10399) and Divan of Ḥafiẓ (TIEM, MS no. 1923).

[3] For Khujandi’s relationship with Ḥafiẓ, see Losensky, P.E. “Kamal Ḵojandi” (2010), Iranicaonline. Also see Daulatshah Samarqandi, Taẕkirat al-shuʻarāʾ, ed. E.G. Browne (Tehran, 1382/2004): 325–31. For more details of Khujandi’s life, see Lewisohn, L. “The life and times of Kamal Khujandi”, ed. M.E. Subtelny, Journal of Turkish Studies, 18 (1994): 163–77. On his accusation of stealing Hasan Dihlavi’s style and poems, ssee Ṣafā, Ẕ. Tārīkh-i adabīyyāt dar Īrān, 4 vols (Tehran, 1369/1990): 1134.

[4] Other early copies include MS. 339/1, Majles Library and MS. 266, Sepahsalar Library both dated 1418; MS. 9475, the Majles Library, dated 1421, and a copy in Tashkent Institute of Oriental Studies, dated 1422, Shiraz; Supplément Persan 742, BNF, dated 1424; and MS. 362, Golestan Palace Library, dated 1432. The British Library holds yet another early copy of the same work (Or. 8193), which is dated 1436.

[5] A study of the Malek manuscript is found in Mihan, S. “The Baysunghuri manuscript in the Malek Library”, Shahnama Studies III: The reception of the Shahnama, ed. C.P. Melville & G. Van den Berg (Leiden, Boston, 2018): 373–419.

[6] For the Khamsa of Niẓami (Or. 12087), see Brend, Barbara, Perspectives on Persian Painting: Illustrations to Amir Khusrau's Khamsah: 56–57, and De Blois, Francois, Persian Literature - A Bio-Bibliographical Survey: Poetry of the Pre-Mongol Period, (2004): 484–85.

 

24 July 2023

Babur the Naturalist

One of the library's most treasured manuscripts on display in our current exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound is a late 16th century copy of the Mughal emperor Babur's autobiographical memoirs, Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī, more often referred to as his Bāburnāmah (Book of Babur).

Or 3714  f.504v. Babur crossing the Jumna seated on an ornate dais on a boat accompanied by other boats carrying musicians and horses (Khem)
Babur crosses the Jumna threatened by an aquatic monster while entertained by musicians. Artist Khem. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f.504v)
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The emperor Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530) is most famous as the founder of the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent which he conquered and ruled from 1526. Driven from Central Asia while still a youth, he took Kabul in 1504 and made it the centre of his kingdom before moving east and defeating Ibrahim Lodi, Sultan of Delhi, at Panipat in 1526 and Rana Sanga of Mewar at Khanwa in 1527.

In between intense military activities, Babur somehow managed to find time to write his memoirs (Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī). In these Babur records his ruthless victories, but at the same time writes unpretentiously of his personal feelings, revealing himself to be a scholar, a poet and a keen naturalist. Histories were already an established literary genre by this time as were encyclopedias which recorded the wonders of the universe. However this autobiographical record of Babur’s is unique with observations based largely on his own experiences.

Originally written in Chaghatai Turki, his memoirs are arranged chronologically by year and were translated several times into Persian but most famously in 1589 at the request of his grandson Akbar (r. 1556–1605) by Akbar's chief minister ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan-i khanan. The British Library is fortunate in possessing one of four known imperial copies of ʻAbd al-Rahim’s translation which were all made at the end of the 16th century and were illustrated by the most famous artists of the time. Our copy is datable to the early 1590s on stylistic grounds and presently has 143 paintings out of an original 183. Since it was possible to display only one opening in our exhibition, I have taken this opportunity to write further about Babur's section on the animals, birds and plants of Hindustan.

Or 3714  f 378r elephants
Elephants. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f.378r)
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The elephant, Babur tells us, is native to the borders of the Kalpi country (present day Uttar Pradesh) and further east. It is a noble creature and understands what people say to it and obeys their commands. The bigger it is, the more valuable. Babur adds here that in some islands elephants are reputed to measure more than 10 gaz (‘yard’) high, but he has never seen them larger than 4 or 5. Elephants can carry immense loads, three or four can pull carts that would take four or five hundred men to pull. However, they eat a lot! One elephant eats as much as two strings of camels.

Or 3714  f 379r Rhinoceros
The Rhinoceros. Artist, Makar. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f.379r)
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The rhinoceros (karg) is also a large animal equivalent in size to three buffaloes, but the story that it can lift an elephant on its horn is false. It has one horn on its nose and its hide is very thick. It is ferocious and unlike the elephant cannot be tamed.

Or 3714  f 382v Monkeys
Monkeys. Artist, Shyam. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f. 382v)
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Babur mentions several different kinds of monkeys (maymūn  “called bāndar in Hindustani”): one which is yellow with a white face and short tail, which is exported and taught to do tricks, another, (langūr) is larger with white hair, a black face. and long tail. Another comes from the islands which is coloured not exactly blue nor yellow but strangely, he writes, has a permanently erect penis which never becomes limp.

Or 3714  f 384v Parrots
Parrots. Artist, Kesu Gujarati. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f. 384v)
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Babur describes many kinds of parrots. Of one particular kind he recounts that he had formerly believed parrots could only repeat what they had been taught, but that recently one of his close attendants, Abu 'l-Qasim Jalayir, had told him that when he had covered his parrot’s cage, the parrot said “Uncover me. I can’t breathe.”

Or 3714. f 389v Adjutant crane
Adjutant stork. Artist, Dhanu. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or 3714, f. 389v)
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One of the birds that lives in water and on the banks of rivers, the adjutant stork (ding) had the wingspan of about the size of a man and no feathers on its head or neck. Its back and breast were white. Babur had been familiar with a tamed adjutant in Kabul which would catch meat when it was thrown at it. Once it swallowed a six layered shoe, and another time a whole chicken complete with wings and feathers.

Or 3714  f 392. The large bat
The great bat (chamgadar), is as large as an owl with a head like a puppy which hangs upside down on the branch of a tree at night. Artist, Shankar Gujarati. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f. 392v)
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And finally, of alligators and crocodiles:

Or 3714  f 393v. The alligator
An alligator (literally ‘water-lion’). Artist, Dhanu. Northern India, 1590–3 (Or 3714, f. 393v)
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Babur writes: “one of the aquatic creatures is the alligator (shir-i ābī ‘water-lion’) which lives in the ‘black’ waters and resembles a lizard.” In our manuscript, the artist Dhanu, who had possibly never seen an alligator or was at least unfamiliar with the Persian word for it, interprets the word literally and paints a lion attacking a bull, a familiar motif in Persian art. He was obviously puzzled, so to clarify that it was a water-lion, he added a ship in the top left corner. Babur also described dolphins, crocodiles and an especially large crocodile, the gharial, which seized three or four soldiers between Ghazipur and Benares.

Or 3714  f 394v gharial
The gharial. Artist, Sarwan. Northern India, 1590–3 (Or. 3714, f. 394r)
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Animals: Art, Science and Sound is open at the British Libray until August 28th, with reduced ticketa available on Mondays to Wednesdays. The exhibition is also accompanied by a catalogue by curators Malini Roy, Cam Sharp Jones, and Cheryl Tipp.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

Further reading

An online presentation of selected pages of the Vāqiʻāt-i BāburīTurning the Pages” Or.3714.
For a digital version of the whole manuscript see Or.3714.
Beveridge, Annette, trans. The Babur-nama in English (Memoirs of Babur); translated from the original Turki text. vols. 1 and 2. London: Luzac & Co, 1922.
Thackston, Wheeler M., trans. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor. New York: Oxford University Press in association with the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 1996. Reprinted: Random House Publishing Group, 2007.
J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, London: British Library, 2012:  pp. 39-45.
Smart, Ellen, “Paintings from the Baburnama: A Study of Sixteenth-Century Mughal Historical Manuscript Illustrations.” Ph.D. diss. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1977.

 

19 February 2023

Akbar and Alexander the Great

With the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The making of a Myth drawing to a close, I would like to highlight one of my special favourites: the Emperor Akbar’s personal copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Quintet) of which the fifth poem, the Iskandarnamah, is a two part account of the life of Alexander the Great or Iskandar as he is called in Persian.

Iskandar and the priestess. Or.2208 f.318rIskandar and the priestess. Or.2208 f.317v
The priestess pleads with Iskandar to spare the sanctuary idol from destruction. Artists La'l and Mukund. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, ff.317v-318r)
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Commissioned by Akbar (r.1556–1605) in Lahore between 1593 and 1595, this manuscript represents what was without doubt an intensely personal project and combines the work of the best artists at his court. With 37 highly original paintings, luxurious illumination, marginal decorations and binding, this Khamsah  was one of a small group of deluxe Persian manuscripts which also include Jami’s  Baharistan (Bodleian MS. Elliott 254) and the Khamsah  of Amir Khusraw (Walters Ms. W. 624), all produced around the same time in Lahore. In his monumental survey of 1912, the collector and art historian F.R. Martin wrote of it: “Without exception it is the most wonderful Indian manuscript in Europe.” Originally the manuscript contained 44 illustrations, but at some point 39 folios including five illustrated leaves, were extracted and are now in the Walters Art Museum Baltimore Walters Ms. W.613. Two of the original paintings are now lost and an additional portrait of the calligrapher ʻAbd al-Raḥīm ʻAnbarīn Qalam and the artist Dawlat were added at the end in 1610 by order of Jahangir.

With 16 of the 44 illustrations devoted to the Iskandarnamah, it is easy to see Akbar's special affinity with Alexander the Great. Nizami in the early 12th century was the first to qualify Iskandar (Iqbalnamah 29:4) with the adjective Sahib-qiran (Lord of the Conjunction)[1]. Several rulers styled themselves this way, most notably Akbar’s honoured ancestor Timur, founder of the Timurid dynasty in 1370[2]. Like Alexander, Akbar was a successful conqueror, but more particularly Nizami’s portrayal of Alexander as a philosopher-king would have appealed to Akbar who promoted himself as a just and tolerant ruler.

In the opening we used for the exhibition (see above) the double-page illustration has a special significance. Here we see Iskandar at a Buddhist sanctuary at Kandahar receiving an impassioned plea from the priestess who asks for the golden statue, with precious jewels as its eyes, to be left unharmed. Iskandar had ordered it to be dismantled but moved by her passion and beauty, he agreed to spare it. Placed right at at the end of the Khamsah, this painting has a special significance, as pointed out by Barbara Brend (Akbar's Khamsa, p. 61). Iskandar is compared by implication with the Mughal emperor Akbar who had taken Kandahar from the Safavids of Iran without bloodshed in April 1595, while this manuscript was still in the process of completion. Akbar’s interest in other religions apart from Islam, exemplified by the establishment of his own syncretic faith, the Din-i ilahi (Divine Faith) in 1582, parallels here Iskandar’s own role as a tolerant philosopher-king.

Sadly, in the exhibition we could only display one opening from each manuscript, so to give a flavour of the whole volume, I have described some further examples here.

Iskandar and Nushabah  Or 12208  f.244b
Iskandar with Nushabah, queen of the women-only city of Barda, in today’s Azerbaijan. Iskandar had visited the queen in disguise, but she immediately exposed him as an imposter by presenting him with his own portrait which she had had painted earlier. Reprimanding him, she nevertheless forgave him and they feasted together before he went on his way.
Artist, Bhura. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f. 244v)
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Iskandar receives the envoy of Kaid of Hind  Or.12208  f.254r
Not wishing to engage in war, King Kayd of Hind offered Iskandar four gifts as tribute: his daughter in marriage, his all-knowing philosopher, his personal physician and his never-emptying goblet. This scene shows his envoy's reception at Iskandar's camp. Iskandar accepted Kayd's gifts and so bloodshed was avoided.
Artist, Dharamdas. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f. 254r)
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Mani paints a dead dog. Or.12208  f. 262v
The story of Mani the 3rd-century founder of Manichaeism who was also famous as an artist, is told as an interlude in a contest between the artists of Chin and Rum. Hearing that the prophet Mani was on his way to China, the Chinese, to discourage him, created a false reservoir out of crystal. When the thirsty Mani placed his earthenware drinking vessel on it, it broke. To prevent others from doing the same, Mani, pictured here with his tools, painted the decaying corpse of a dead dog on the surface. Through this action and his wisdom, Nizami tells us, Mani made many converts.
Artist, Sur Gujarati. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.262v)
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Khizr washes his horse in the Water of Life. Or.12208  f.281r
As Iskandar’s power and dominions increased, so too did his preoccupation with dying. Searching for immortality, his journey led him into the Land of Darkness in an unsuccessful search for the Water of Life. Nizami gives three different accounts of the search for the Water of Life, which he refers to as Zoroastrian, Byzantine, and Arab versions. Pictured here is the so-called Zoroastrian version in which Iskandar gave the prophet Khizr his grey horse – a gift from the ruler of Chin – and sent him into the Darkness with a special stone which would light up and reveal the fountain. Khizr located it, drank and washed himself and his horse, but when they had finished, the fountain disappeared.
Artist, Kanak Singh Chela. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.281r)
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Aflatun charms the wild animals to sleep with his music. Or.12208  f.298r
This illustration comes in the Iqbalnamah, the second of the two books of the Iskandarnamah, which describes Iskandar's prophetic mission. In this episode, after solitary reflection in a barrel (echoes of Diogenes), Aflatun (Plato) obtained full comprehension of the music of the spheres and created an instrument whereby he could make all animals sleep and then rouse them again to consciousness. The scene itself is reminiscent of hunting scenes in which Akbar surveys his catch, as for example on the doublure of the binding of this same volume.
Artist, Madhu. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.298r)
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Iskandar and the 7 philosophers
Here Alexander is depicted as a philosopher-king and questions the origin of the universe from his seven philosophers: Valens, Apollonius, Socrates, Porphyry, Hermes and Plato. Having listened to each in turn, he declared that, in view of their contradictory opinions, the only certainty could be that there was no creation without a creator. By resorting to enlightenment rather than reason, Iskandar was acknowledged as supremely wise and thereby achieved prophethood.
Artist, Nanha. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.305r)
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Iskandar rides through the desert of death. Or.12208  f. 312v
Despatched on a prophetic mission by the angel Srosh, Iskandar explored the Western regions and at the edge of the world encountered a shore where there were many coloured stones, blue, red, yellow and black, each weighing about five to ten pounds. If a person looked at one of these stones, he laughed so much that he died. Iskandar ordered the rocks to be covered with cloth and loaded onto 100 camels. Hastening along the shore he used them to build a fortress without doors and covered the exterior with clay to protect passers by. But whoever climbed over to see the interior, would be exposed to the bare rocks and die.
Artist, Bhem Gujarati. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.312v)
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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.

Ursula Sims-Wiliams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library
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Other illustrations in Akbar's Iskandarnamah

  • The invention of the mirror in the presence of Alexander the Great. Artists, Nanha and Shivdas (Walters Ms. W.613, f.16b and f.17a)
  • The death of Darius. Artist, Dharamdas (Walters Ms. W613, f.26b)
  • Alexander the Great enthroned at Persepolis. Artist, Bem Gujarati (Walters Ms. W613, f.34a)
  • The women of Qipchak are persuaded to veil themselves on seeing a veiled talisman. Artist, Mukund (Or.12208, f.266v)
  • The Russian champion who tore off an elephant's trunk. Artist, Farrukh Chela (Or.12208, f.273r)
  • Maria, the Copt trained in the art of alchemy consulted by other alchemists. Artist, Sanwala. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.294r)

Further reading

Barbara Brend, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Niẓāmī. London: British Library, 1995.
J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire. London: The British Library, 1912, pp. 48-55.
Haila Manteghi, Alexander the Great in the Persian Tradition: History, Myth and Legend in Medieval Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Related posts

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[1] Owen Cornwall, Alexander and the Persian Cosmopolis, 1000-1500, PhD thesis Columbia Unversity, 2016, pp. 91-9.
[2] Naindeep Singh Chann, “Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction: Origins of the Ṣāḥib-QirānIran and the Caucasus 13 (2009) 93-110

15 February 2023

Alexander the ‘Accursed’ and Zoroastrianism

In his epic the Shahnamah (Book of Kings), the poet Firdawsi (940–1019 or 1025) vividly describes how Alexander (Iskandar/Sikandar) came upon the Persian emperor Darius (Dara) as he fled north after the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. Cradling the mortally wounded Dara on his knees, Iskandar promised “Your word is my command, I’ll promise you whatever you want.” (Shahnamah, Dara 9.42). The dying king’s last wishes were for Iskandar to look after his children, his family and to marry his daughter Roshanak, that their son should safeguard the Zoroastrian religion and live by the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Zend-Avesta, while keeping the traditional feasts of Sadeh and Noruz and preserving the Zoroastrian fire-temples.

Iskandar comforts the dying Dara (IO Islamic 966)
Iskandar comforts the dying Dara. From Firdawsi’s Shahnamah. Iran, 1604 (IO Islamic 966, f. 335r)
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Although Alexander readily kept the first two promises, his need to consolidate power within Iran soon put an end to any good intentions he might have held with regard to the Zoroastrian religion. One of his first actions after ascending the throne was to destroy the fire-temples, thus attempting to eliminate all Zoroastrian opposition. In the few examples of Middle Persian literature which survive today, Alexander is demonised and referred to as gizistag ‘accursed.’

Among the most important of the Zoroastrian Middle Persian texts is the Bundahishn (Creation) which describes Alexander’s conquest in these terms:

He killed king Dārāy, destroyed all the family of the lords and the magi and the notables of Iran. He extinguished many fires. He took the religion of the Mazdaean dēn [religion] and the Zand [religious commentaries] and sent them to Rome and burned the Avesta and divided Iran among ninety provincial lords. (Bundahishn 33.19, tr. Thrope & Agostini, p. 173)

This account, written during the early Islamic period, reflects ninth-century traditions which were to some extent already anachronistic. In fact the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, were transmitted orally and were not written down before the fifth century AD at the earliest.

Letter of Tansar (Add MS 7633)
“Know that Iskandar burned our religious books written on 12,000 oxhides.” From the Letter of Tansar, in Ibn Isfandiyar’s History of Tabaristan. Iran, 1656 (Add MS 7633, f. 10r)
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Middle Persian accounts survive to some extent in the early Arabic and Persian histories and in translations and retranslations. One example is the thirteenth-century historian Ibn Isfandiyar’s Tarikh-i Tabaristan (History of Tabaristan) which preserves a translation of the Middle Persian Letter of Tansar, written in the sixth century but now lost in its original form. Allegedly written by Tansar, the Zoroastrian chief priest of Ardashir I (r.224–241), the hostile and negative view of Alexander is in fact an example of Sasanian propaganda dating from the sixth century, several centuries later. Although reported second or third-hand, it is nevertheless important as representing a specifically Zoroastrian point of view and one which was repeated by the early Islamic historians.

Although Alexander was reinvented in the Persian tradition as the rightful heir to the Achaemenid empire, the Zoroastrian perception of him remained hostile. Even in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah he is described by Ardashir, founder of the Sasanian dynasty (224–651) as “the evil-minded (badgumān) tyrant who killed our ancestors one by one” (Shahnamah, Ashkaniyan 10.15).

In later literature however, Alexander was more generally regarded as an Islamic hero. This was largely due to his identification with Dhu’l-Qarnayn (‘two-horned’) whose story is told in Surah 18 of the Qurʼan.[1]

Azar Humayun in the form of a dragon defends the fire temple (IO Islamic 387)
The sorceress Azar Humayun, transformed into a dragon, defends her fire temple. From Nizami’s Sharafnamah (Book of Honour). Iran, 16th century (IO Islamic 387, f. 337v)
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In the twelfth-century poet Nizami’s Sharafnamah, the first book of his two-part Iskandarnamah (History of Alexander), Zoroastrianism is linked closely to treasure, magic and young maidens celebrating immodestly at the fire-temple. The bare facts are given: Iskandar ordered the fire-temples and the Zoroastrian books to be destroyed, but the story Nizami uses to illustrate them tells of a beautiful sorceress, Azar Humayun, who turned herself into a dragon to defend her temple. She was eventually defeated by the magic of Iskandar’s philosopher, the magician Balinas (Apollonius), and was restored to her original form. As a nod to propriety her life was spared and she was respectably married off to Balinas as a reward.

Alexander’s role as an Islamic hero was continued in later works such as the Aʼinah-ʼi Iskandari (Iskandar’s Mirror) by Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (1253–1325) and the Khiradnamah-ʼi Iskandari (Iskandar’s Wisdom) by ʻAbd al-Rahman Jami (1414–1492). In them the destruction of Zoroastrianism and the fire-temples is not denied but reinterpreted positively as a pious act to promote Islam.

Alexander discusses the merits of fire worship (Or 1132)
Alexander discusses the merits of fire and fire-worship with his wise men and resolves to destroy the fire-temples. From Amir Khusraw’s A’inah-ʼi Iskandari. Iran, 1497–98 (Or.11327, f. 174v)
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See these items on display in the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023. Visit our dedicated website to find out more.

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.


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

Josef Wiesehofer, “The ‘Accursed’ and the ‘Adventurer’: Alexander the Great in Iranian tradition.” In David Zuwiyya (ed), A Companion to Alexander Literature in the Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 2011, pp. 113-32.

Haila Manteghi, Alexander the Great in the Persian Tradition: History, Myth and Legend in Medieval Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2018.

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[1] See Kevin van Bladel, ‘The Alexander Legend in the Qur'an 18:83-102’. In Reynolds, Gabriel Said (ed.), The Quran in its Historical Context. London: Routledge, 2008, pp. 191-219.

 

13 February 2023

Alexander’s origins: a Persian Perspective

Stories about Alexander the Great’s descent from gods and heroes - the most famous of which being his mother Olympia’s relationship with Amon/Zeus - were disseminated as he travelled across the world. By promoting such mythical connections, Alexander and his successors gained political legitimacy. Greco-Roman gods and heroes were assimilated into the myths of newly conquered lands and so mitigated Alexander’s position as an outsider/foreigner allowing him to be accepted and understood by the indigenous people. This narrative strategy was further enhanced by the Greek Alexander Romance which first emerged towards the end of the third century AD and was subsequently translated into Syriac, Hebrew, Persian and Arabic.

Darab  king of Persia  captures 'Amuriyah (Or.4615  f.127r)
Darab, king of Persia, captures ʻAmuriyah. From the Dārābnāmah by Abu Tahir Tarsusi. Mughal 1580-85, artist, Mani (Or.4615, f.127r)
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Iranian stories about Alexander were influenced by the Alexander Romance, as well as a number of Pahlavi, Syriac and Arabic sources. In Firdawsi’s epic history, the Shāhnāmah (‘Book of Kings’), and many other Iranian sources such as the twelfth-century Darābnāmah (‘Story of Darab’) by Abu Tahir Muhammad Tarsusi, Alexander’s mother is the princess Nahid, daughter of Filqus (Philip) the king of Rum (Rome), who is married to Darab, king of Iran. According to the Shāhnāmah, Filqus gathered an army to attack Iran. The war lasted three days, and Filqus was defeated. Filqus sent a messenger with gifts to Darab to make peace and Darab, informed by his courtiers that Filqus had a beautiful daughter, requested her in marriage. All went well until one night, Darab smelt an unpleasant odour from Nahid’s mouth. Although physicians cured it, Darab rejected her and sent her back to Rum. Unknown to him, she was pregnant. Since Filqus did not want anyone to know his daughter’s story or that she was pregnant by Darab, when the baby was born, Filqus adopted him as his own son. Nahid called the baby Iskandar. When Iskandar subsequently conquered Darab’s son and successor, Dara (Darius III), it was his half-brother he defeated and being half Persian himself, he became the legitimate heir to the throne.

King Philip's envoy Filasun  brings gifts to king Darab of Persia (Or.4615  f.128r)
King Philip's envoy Filasun, brings gifts to king Darab of Persia. From the Dārābnāmah by Abu Tahir Tarsusi. Mughal 1580-85, artist Dargha (Or.4615, f.128r)
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A point of interest is Nahid’s name. Rather than being a Persianised Greek form such as Filqus for Philip, her name is the Persian form of Avestan (Old Iranian) Anahita (‘immaculate’), the ancient Iranian goddess of water to whom a special Zoroastrian hymn is dedicated. Firdawsi completed the Shāhnāmah in 1020 but drew on many pre-Islamic sources including oral narratives and the now lost Sasanian Khudāynāmah. The name Nahid therefore has special Zoroastrian connotations though it is strange that if her name refers to the immaculate Anahita why did she become ‘maculate’ and suffer from bad odour in this narration? A possible solution is that the Sasanian Khudāynāmahs described her negatively simply through her association with Alexander/Iskandar whom they regarded as gizistag/gujastag (‘accursed’) because as a grown man he reputedly burned their scriptures and destroyed their temples, and that her name was disassociated from its original meaning. In their view Nahid was merely the daughter of the Roman Emperor and the mother of the accursed Alexander.

Nahid  is introduced to Darab
Nahid, daughter of Filqus (Philip of Macedon), is presented to Darab. From the Dārābnāmah by Abu Tahir Tarsusi. Mughal 1580-85 (Or. 4615, f 129r)
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Also noteworthy is Nahid and Filqus’ association with the city ʻAmuriyah, identified with Armorium, a city in Phrygia in Asia Minor founded during Seleucid rule. It was ʻAmuriyah rather than Macedonia that was Filqus’ base and from which Iskandar summoned his mother before his marriage with Dara’s daughter Roshanak (Roxana). Situated on the edge of the Sasanian Empire, it was a centre of mixed Hellenistic and Iranian cultures.

Alexander/Iskandar was the last of the Kayanid dynasty, tracing his ancestry directly back to the legendary hero Isfandiyar and king Kai Kavus. With such a genealogy, his story inevitably includes elements of ancient Iranian mythology, but that is another story!

Alireza Sedighi, Asian and African Collections, British Library1
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The Darabnamah is currently on display until 19 February 2023 in the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Visit our dedicated website to find out more.

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.


Further Reading

Khāliqi Muṭlaq, Jalāl. “Az Khudāynāmah tā Shāhnāmah: justārī darbārah-i maʾākhiz̲-i mustaqīm va ghayr-i mustaqīm-i Shāhnāmah,” Nāmah-i Īrān-i Bāstān (2007).
Manteghi, Haila. Alexander the Great in the Persian tradition: history, myth and legend in medieval Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, (2018).
Zarrīnkūb, Rūzbih, “Khudāynāmah,” in Markaz-i Dāʾirat al-Maʿārif-i Buzurg-i Islamī, Latest update (2019).

 

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1 With thanks to my colleagues, Ursula Sims-Williams, William Monk and Pardaad Chamsaz for their comments on the first draft of this blog.

24 December 2022

A beloved in every port: Iskandar's encounters with women

The story and character of the Persianate Alexander the Great, known as Iskandar or Sikandar, underwent a great deal of transformation in poetic and prose texts over a millennium. What is most striking in the various works written for different audiences is the increasingly imaginative itinerary of the hero’s travels, especially with respect to his relationships with the women he encounters in each place.

The earliest known verse treatment of Alexander is Firdawsi’s Persian epic, the Shahnamah (Books of Kings), completed ca. 1010 CE, in which Iskandar is represented in the line of ancient Iranian kings. Although not a translation of the Greek romance, the main women of Iskandar’s life are the same with the addition of a few more.

Queen Qaydafah confronts Iskandar with his own ortrait
Queen Qaydafah confronts Iskandar with his own portrait. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah, copied at Shiraz, 967/1560 (IO Islamic 133, f.349v)
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The story of Qaydafah, ruler of Andalusia, is similar to Candace, ruler of Meroe, in the Greek romance. She at first refuses to submit to the conqueror, and when Iskandar appears before her disguised as his own messenger, she recognizes him because she had seen his portrait beforehand. In the end, she makes a pact with him. Qaydafah is not an Amazon and nor does she live in a city solely inhabited by women. The Amazon story is a brief interlude and comes a bit later when Iskandar is honoured by the women of Harum, a city inhabited solely by women.

Iskandar and the women of Harum
Iskandar's message is delivered to the women of Harum. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah, Rajaur, Northern India, 1131/1719 (Add. MS 18804, f.122r)
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It is in the India section, in a version which is unique to Firdawsi, that we learn about a physician who treats Iskandar’s over-sexed temperament that has led him to become weak and suffer from insomnia. When Iskandar started sleeping alone, he regained his health. This picture of him as a Lothario is in sharp contrast to the scholarly Iskandar of the later Persian poets.

The authors of the later courtly romances were doubtless familiar with Firdawsi’s work but took more artistic liberties in developing Iskandar’s character. Nizami’s Iskandarnamah  (1202 CE) is a mixture of epic and romance, and in this work Nushabah, an avatar of Qaydafah and Candace, is a composite character who is an Amazon queen. Nushabah’s name itself means water of life and is linked to Iskandar’s quest for immortality. The setting of this episode is changed from Andalusia to Barda‘, which falls in the poet’s native land, and which was the winter capital connected to two royal women, Mahin Banu and her niece Shirin, characters in Nizami’s earlier romance, Khusraw and Shirin.

Nizami describes Barda‘ as a virtual paradise on earth, which he links to Harum, the land of the Amazons in Firdawsi’s text. Iskandar hears about the hedonistic lifestyle of these women: the entire land appears as an idol temple (sanamkhanah) replete with beautiful and chaste women. Iskandar camps near the city from where Nushabah sends him gifts daily. This only piques his curiosity and he wants to discover the secret behind such a mythical woman and place. In the guise of a messenger sent by himself he enters her splendid court, but being a king cannot play the part appropriately. Nushabah has no difficulty recognizing him, not just by his behavior but also from a portrait her artist has made of Iskandar for a rogues’ gallery of the rulers of her time.

Nushabah shows Iskandar his own portrait
Queen Nushabah is not deceived by Alexander’s disguise. From Nizami's Iskandarnamah; artist Mirza ʻAli. Tabriz, Iran, mid-16th century (Or. 2265, f.48v)
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Iskandar persists in claiming to be a messenger and vehemently denies being the king. Nushabah shows him the portrait declaring: “I am a lioness, if you are a lion. / What is female and male among fighting lions?” This is a reminder to him of her position and ability, as well as a warning to disregard her sex since he is only conscious of her as a beautiful woman. Although Nushabah’s behavior threatens Iskandar’s masculinity, he is open to learning from her. She orders a feast for him, and her attendants arrange a repast that has precious gems instead of food on the plates. When Iskandar expresses perplexity at this, Nushabah laughs and asks him why he cannot eat what he spends his whole life pursuing! Iskandar experiences a major revelation and praises her, “A thousand blessings upon a wise woman / Who in a manly way becomes my guide.” She visits him with her magnificent entourage the next day and they spend the day and night in feasting—on real food. Such a sensual setting does not lead to any lovemaking and Nushabah remains one woman Iskandar does not conquer: “Iskandar son of Filqus was aroused, / But did not succumb to those beauties. // One, because he was abstentious, / Secondly, because one cannot hunt in a sanctuary.”

Later in the story, Nushabah makes another appearance. Kidnapped by the Rus, Iskandar vows to rescue her. On his way, Iskandar passes the Qipchaq Turkish tribes; his army is tired and has been away from women, but when they see beautiful unveiled Qipchaq women, they do not dare make any move out of fear of their king. He complains to the tribal elders about the unveiled state of their women: “A woman who shows her face to a stranger / Does not regard her pride and her husband’s dignity.” They respond that it is their custom and “Anyone who hides their eyes in a veil / Looks neither at the moon nor at the sun.”

The talisman and the Qipchak women
A black stone sculpture acts as a talisman which causes the women of Qipchaq to veil themselves. Nizami's Iskandarnamah; artist Mukund, Lahore 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.266v)
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Iskandar consults one of his wise counsellors and by a trick they manage to institute the custom of veiling among the Qipchaq women! As Farzaneh Milani explains, “Perhaps the veil, because of its symbolic potency, becomes a vessel in which to place both the anxieties and the exhilarations of love and creativity.”[1] Iskandar then launches into a major expedition against the Rus and finally rescues Nushabah and restores her kingdom to her. However, in a surprising move, he weds her to Davali, king of Abkhaz, and sends them off with his blessings. Thus, the Amazon queen is transformed into a respectably married woman.

In Amir Khusraw’s A’inah-yi Iskandari (1299 CE), Kanifu is first introduced disguised as a male warrior fighting on the Chinese side against Iskandar’s troops. When Iskandar engages in single combat with her, Kanifu is captured and her identity as a beautiful woman is revealed to him. Not only is Kanifu not an Amazon, there are no Amazons in Amir Khusraw's work. In fact, Kanifu is the only woman Iskandar has a dalliance with in this work—the marriage with Rawshanak is also not included by Amir Khusraw. Although Kanifu is ready to be his slave and they feast in his tent, their love is not consummated until later. It is when he returns from China that he takes her back as part of his booty.

Iskandar with Kanifu
Iskandar with Kanifu. From Ayinah-yi Iskandari (Iskandar's mirror) by Amir Khusraw, late 19th century (Add. Ms. 7751, f.167r)
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Tarsusi’s twelfth century Darabnamah is an epic in prose that includes some exploits of Iskandar, including his relationship with Burandukht (Rawshanak). Another work is the anonymous prose Iskandarnamah dating from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries that survives in a single manuscript in a private collection,[2] whose author picks up on the image of a concupiscent Iskandar. With seemingly inexhaustible sexual drive he boasts that “God has given me such prowess that in one night I have entered ninety chambers.”[3]  There are many episodes in which women, including his old aunt, plot to thwart or kill him, and the poet expounds on their wily and inherent evil nature. In the end, most either perish or are forced to marry the conqueror. Iskandar travels easily from Kashmir, where he marries the infidel king’s daughter, Mahafarin, to Ceylon, then onto Mecca, Yemen, Egypt, Andalusia, and China. In this text he is a holy warrior and love involves religious conversion. The second half of the work veers into the genre of dastan with even more fantastic adventures with mythical creatures and descriptions of marvels. A major part of the narrative is taken up by Iskandar’s clash with and subsequent marriage with Araqit, queen of the peris.

A later prose romance dates from the nineteenth century but is thought to have its origins in the Safavid period. The seven-volume work, Iskandarnamah-yi haft-jildi, is attributed to Manuchihr Khan Hakim and exists in several Qajar era illustrated lithographed editions, although the text varies in them quite a bit.[4] The narrative and geography are even more imaginative, freely mixing ancient Persian and Islamic characters along with historical and epic events involving demons and fairies. In the many places he and his companions visit, they encounter beautiful women and romantic dalliance usually ends with the hero being drugged or captured by inimical forces. This work belongs fully to the dastan  genre, but with its context updated. In one reconstructed modern text, Iskandar roams from Europe to India, even arriving in Calcutta![5]

Iskandar visits the city of the pharoahs
Iskandar visits the city of the Pharoahs,  from Manuchihr Khan Hakim's seven-volume Iskandarnamah. Tehran, 1284/1867 (14783.h.4)
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In the range of texts comprising verse and prose Iskandarnamahs, whether he is an over-sexed young man or a philosopher-scientist with only a passing interest in women, the Persianate Iskandar was not portrayed in a same-sex relationship, which is somewhat surprising since homoeroticism was a commonplace feature of classical Persian literature.

Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University
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The British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Visit our dedicated website to find out more.

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.

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[1] Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers  (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), p. 7.
[2] Persian text edited by Iraj Afshar, Iskandarnāmah (Tihran: Bungāh-i Tarjumah va Nashr-i Kitāb, 1343/1964), and partially translated into English by Minoo S. Southgate, Iskandarnamah: a Persian medieval Alexander-romance (New York: Columbia UP, 1978) and Evangelos Venetis, The Persian Alexander: the first complete English translation of the Iskandarnāma (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018).
[3] Minoo S. Southgate, “Portrait of Alexander in Persian Alexander-Romances of the Islamic era”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 97 (1977), p. 282.
[4] Yuriko Yamanaka, “The Eskandarname of Manuchehr Khan Hakim: A 19th Century Persian Popular Romance on Alexander,” Cahiers de Studia Iranica, 26 (2002), pp. 181-9.
[5] Iskandarnamah, az Farang ta Hindustan, ed. A.R. Zakavati Qaraguzlu (Tehran: Sukhan, 1388/2009).

19 December 2022

A Baniya Letter from Surat

Today's blog post looks at a mischaracterized letter shedding light on the relationships between South Asian merchants and European powers in the 17th century.

Text in Arabic script written in black ink on a sheet of dark beige paper with repeated patterns of small and large green plants with three fronds
A full view of the petition included in Thomas Hyde's letters. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
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The letter forms a part of the papers of the celebrated Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), Professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford, and eastern interpreter at the court. Hyde misstates in his covering note that it is “A Persian Petition to the King of Cambaia”. It is in reality a petition (‘arzdasht) written by three baniya merchants of Surat to the rulers of England in January 1655.

A text in black ink in Latin script written on the top two-thirds of a blue sheet of paper
The contents of Royal MS 16 B, indicating the fifth item as "A Persian Petition to the King of Cambaia". (Royal MS 16.B.XXI)
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The petition is headed Allah-o-Akbar, which is somewhat unusual. It is written on behalf of Cauth, Tulsidas and Benidas, humble merchants of Surat, to the Padshah and other high authorities at the Foot of the Caliphate (pa-yi khilafat) in England. They state that the Padshah must be aware that for some years now, the humble petitioners have been living under the protection of the Company, as this is a fact well-known to everyone. The Padshah of Hindustan (as they term the Mughal emperor) too knows that they are the servants of the English (naukaran-i angrez).

There is a short section referring to some past disputes between the Dutch and the English, in which some people had been killed. There were negotiations, in which it was demanded that several brokers (dallals) be handed over. After much argument, it was agreed that some guarantees (qauls) should be produced by the two brokers, and that normal trading affairs (sauda) should be resumed. In the context of this agreement, the Dutch commander had given over a written document, which was to be transmitted to the Padshah in England.

Text in Arabic script written in black ink on a sheet of dark beige paper with repeated patterns of small and large green plants with three fronds
A detail of the text of the petition. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
CC Public Domain Image

This brings us to the main question addressed in the petition. An English ship (jahaz-i angrez) had been seized by the Dutch, and they had taken an amount of Rs 115,549 in cash and goods (naqd-o-jins) from it, some of which belonged to Surat merchants including the petitioners. But the Dutch and their commander in Surat were refusing to answer for their role in this. It was pointed out to them that the custom in Hindustan was that looted goods were returned to traders who were third parties in the conflict. But the Dutch were refusing to listen to reason. The Dutch commander had even told the Surat petitioners who had suffered losses that since they were clients of the English, they should weep and wail with their masters in England.

The petitioners had then taken the matter to the local authorities (mutasaddis) of Surat. But they too had refused to intervene in the matter and said that the matter should be taken to the English Padshah. On account of all this, the present ‘arzdasht is being sent, in the hope that the matter will be properly resolved. It is known that the English Padshah is just, and those unfortunate people who appeal to him will find favor.

The document ends with wishes for peace.

A text in both Latin and Gujarati scripts written in black ink on a dark beige piece of paper. The pattern of alternating green large and small plants found on the reverse of the sheet is partially visible.
Detail from the reverse of the petition. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
CC Public Domain Image

On the reverse, we find three Gujarati signatures with their rough English equivalents:

Thus: Coth Thakur [Gujarati] – Chout Tauker

Thus: Tulsidas Parekh [Gujarati] – Tulcidas Parrack

Thus: Venidas Visangji [Gujarati] – Benidas Bissuingee

Signed by them on Swally Marine

January 26th, 1655.

image from collections.rmg.co.uk
A portrait of a heavily-armed East India vessel painted by Isaac Sailmaker around 1685. (Royal Museums Greenwich BHC1676)
CC-BY-NC-ND provided graciously by the Royal Museums Greenwich.

This document refers to fallout of the Anglo-Dutch conflict in the Persian Gulf in the first half of 1653, in the course of which the Dutch seized several English ships off Bandar ‘Abbas (or Kamaran). References can be found to this episode in both the English and Dutch factory records. The Surat-based ship in question that was seized was the Supply, which the Dutch renamed Cabo de Jask. Unlike the Blessing from Coromandel, the Supply did not offer resistance and negotiated its surrender. Its goods, like those of the other seized ships, were rapidly sold by the Dutch on the Persian Gulf markets and amounted according to the Dutch records to 140,336 florins. The earlier episode of violence referred to may be one of several involving the Dutch at Surat in the late 1640s. The Dutch commander who dismissed the pleas of the Surat merchants was Gerard Pelgrom. All three merchants are known to us from references in the English factory records, which also contain at least one other letter (in English, with a Gujarati signature) written by Tulsidas to the Company. In the published edition of the factory records, the name of the third merchant is usually rendered as Chot or Chota, when it is clearly written as “Cauth” (in Persian) and “Coth” (in Gujarati). Finally, it may be noted that the Surat merchants were possibly unaware that there was no longer a king (or Padshah) in England at the time of the Commonwealth and Cromwell's regime.
 
Dr. Muzaffar Alam (University of Chicago) and Dr. Sanjay Subrahmanyam (UCLA)
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