Asian and African studies blog

219 posts categorized "Middle East"

29 December 2021

Situations of Delicacy and Embarrassment: Ill-considered Favours in 1830s Persia

If you have ever started a new job, you may have found it difficult to catch up with the incomplete affairs in which your predecessor had been involved. You may be able to empathise then with James Morison, who took over as Resident in the Persian Gulf in September 1835. On Morison’s first inspection of the Residency treasury, he was taken aback by the large amount of money and valuable objects contained therein. Furthermore, Morison was alarmed that many of the items apparently belonged to individuals with no political or official connection to the East India Company; as a public office, the Residency treasury should normally only have been used to hold public money and valuables. Moreover, Morison was conscious that Bushehr, where the Residency was based, was in an unsettled and vulnerable state. If violence erupted in the area, the treasury would be an enticing and obvious target for thieves taking advantage of any disruption. Such was Morison’s unease about the contents of the treasury that he wrote to the Government of Bombay on 6 November 1835, seeking advice.

'Entrance to Bushire Residency', c 1870, author unknown
Photograph captioned 'Entrance to Bushire Residency', c 1870, author unknown. Photo 355/1/34.  Public Domain

In his letter, Morison highlighted the most conspicuous items that he had discovered during his inspection: three packages, sealed with the mark of Rizā Qulī Mīrzā Nā'ib al-Īyālah, a member of the Persian [Iranian] ruling family and former Governor of Bushehr. As well as having a royal owner, these packages were notable for three reasons. Firstly, they were by far the most valuable articles in the treasury. Morison’s research lead him to believe that the packages were valued at 5-13,000 Persian tomans or 30-60,000 Bombay rupees – which translates to hundreds of thousands of pounds in today’s money. Secondly, the packages bore an inscription which stated that they should only be handed over either to Rizā Qulī, or someone who possessed a document signed by Lieutenant Samuel Hennell, Morison’s predecessor, permitting their release. This confirmed that the articles had been placed in the treasury with the knowledge of the previous Resident, although the question of this being a public or private transaction remained. Thirdly – and most worryingly – tumultuous events arising from the death of Fatḥ ‘Alī Shāh, Shāh of Persia, meant that the discovery of these articles within the Residency treasury could potentially be damaging to British-Persian relations.

diamonds, rubies and emeralds.
Extract of the list of contents of Rizā Qulī’s treasure, including weapons and jewellery set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. IOR/F/4/1596/64626, f. 534r. Crown copyright, used under terms of Open Government License

Rizā Qulī was the son of the late Ḥusayn ‘Alī Mīrzā Farmānfarmā, Prince Governor of Fars, who had died in captivity following his failed attempt to claim the throne of Persia from his nephew, Muḥammad. When Ḥusayn ‘Alī had been captured, Rizā Qulī and two of his brothers had fled Shiraz. As Morison emphasised in his letter to Bombay, there was currently an extensive search being carried out by Manūchihr Khān Gurjī, the new Governor of Fars, to obtain the missing treasure and property of the late Ḥusayn ‘Alī. If reports were true, Morison was sure that Manūchihr Khān would already be aware of the extent and location of the packages currently held in the treasury. The situation, Morison feared, might lead to much misunderstanding and could place himself and the Ambassador at Tehran in a situation ‘of some delicacy and embarrassment’.

Ḥusayn ‘Alī Mīrzā Farmānfarmā, attributed to Mihr ‘Alī in the early 19th century
Ḥusayn ‘Alī Mīrzā Farmānfarmā, attributed to Mihr ‘Alī in the early 19th century. Wikimedia Commons

In response to Morison’s letter, the Government of Bombay instructed him to send the packages on board one of the East India Company’s ships of war for safekeeping until a decision could be made. They wrote to Hennell, the Acting Resident when the articles had been deposited in the treasury and who had been in Bombay on sick leave since July 1835. He replied to the Government on 11 February 1836, admitting that he had reluctantly agreed to hold Rizā Qulī’s private property in the treasury towards the end of 1834. He had felt obliged to do so due to the ‘intimate footing’ between Rizā Qulī and the British authorities in the Gulf, as well as the former’s kind treatment of all Residency members. With Rizā Qulī now on the run, it was unclear if or when he would return to Bushehr, and so Hennell suggested that the packages be sent to Basra and held securely on board a ship of war there, until Rizā Qulī could send an agent to collect them.

As for the diplomatic sensitivities, Hennell clarified that an agent of Manūchihr Khān had already made enquiries about missing treasure in July 1835. Hennell had been transparent with the agent, who seemed satisfied by Hennell's responses and made no further enquiries. The Government of Bombay criticised Hennell’s poor judgement in accepting Rizā Qulī’s private property, but focused on returning the packages to the fugitive prince as quickly as possible.

Morison's problem was solved. However, the incident perhaps served as an appropriate introduction to the role of Resident and the balancing act he would be required to perform when dealing with ruling families in the Gulf. Whilst beneficial to cultivate relationships with powerful elites, this could lead to difficulties when their power diminished and other individuals emerged as frontrunners to the throne. The favourable treatment shown to the British by Rizā Qulī had resulted in Hennell feeling somewhat obliged to agree to Rizā Qulī’s request, and to consequently bend the rules with regard to appropriate use of the Residency’s treasury.

Curstaidh Reid, Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading

London, British Library, ‘Vol: 1. Affairs of the Persian Gulf’, IOR/F/4/1596/64625
London, British Library, ‘Vol: 2. Affairs of the Persian Gulf’, IOR/F/4/1596/64626
Gavin R G Hambly, ‘Farmanfarma, Hosayn Ali Mirza’, Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 1999
The Political Residency, Bushire’, Qatar Digital Library

22 November 2021

A Tale of Two Enigmas: A Magtymguly Pyragy Manuscript in the British Library Collections

Cream coloured paper with red lines outlining black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns
The opening of the Divan-i Makhtumquli, a late 18th-early 19th-century Turkmen manuscript. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 3v)
CC Public Domain Image

Of all the languages of state included within my curatorial bailiwick, Turkmen is undoubtedly the most neglected. It doesn’t help that the name is often applied to two divergent linguistic communities. For those interested in historical uses of the word, it often refers to Turkic or Turkophone communities between the Balkans and Central Asia practicing nomadic or semi-nomadic socio-economic organization. In this usage, it can sometimes be replaced by Turcoman or Turkoman, although the rule is far from hard and fast. Various dynasties that established polities in Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Iran are often described as Turkmen; think of the Aqqoyunlular, the Seljuks, and even the Qajars, to name a few. Today, the designation is still used by and for communities in some West Asian states. Many of these peoples still practice nomadic or semi-nomadic social and economic organization. In Turkey, a geographical determinant is often used to distinguish them from historic or Central Asian communities, especially with respect to those in Iraq. For those members of these groups resident in the Republic, other endonyms are now used for some communities previously referred to as Turkmen, such as the Yörük.

There is, of course, another use of the word Turkmen, applied to a Central Asian people linked by language, culture, and history to the Turkmen of West Asia and the Balkans. Independent since 1991, Turkmenistan is at the centre of a linguistic community numbering some 11 million from northern Iran to Uzbekistan and from Afghanistan to Russia. This Turkmen language, also a member of the Oghuz branch of the Turkic family, was standardized in the 1920s and 30s by Soviet specialists, and was made the official language of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. Currently written in the Latin alphabet, the language boasts a well-documented, if understudied, literary corpus that extends back several centuries. This tradition is best exemplified by an 18th-century poet named Magtymguly Pyragy. He is the Turkmen equivalent of Alisher Navoiy or Shakespeare, both for the influence of his poetry on later Turkmen creatives, and for his position in state-driven literary historiography. While published and translated editions of Pyragy’s poetry are relatively common in Euro-Atlantic libraries (thanks, in part, to Turkmen state institutions’ drives to promote him), manuscripts are rare. We at the British Library, however, are exceedingly lucky to hold such a copy under the shelfmark Or 11414. And I was fortunate enough to have had it brought to my attention by Dr. Anton Ikhsanov, who completed his doctorate on Turkmen intellectual history at St. Petersburg State University.

Book cover with text in yellow on a black rectangle on a red background with traditional Turkmen designs in black and yellow, and a green spineBlack and white woodcut illustration reproduced in printing featuring a man in Turkmen traditional dress standing in the foreground and a seen of various other men at work in the background
(Left) The cover of a Soviet-era collection of Magtymguly Pyragy's poetry. (Magtymguly, Saĭlanan Goshghular (Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Neshriiaty, 1976. 14499.n.231)
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) A woodcut illustration of the poet. (Magtymguly, Saĭlanan Goshghular (Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Neshriiaty, 1976. 14499.n.231)
CC Public Domain Image

Magtymguly Pyragy was born around 1730 CE in Haji Qushan, Golestan province, contemporary Iran. He passed away in 1807 CE close to the current Iranian-Turkmenistani border, and was laid to rest in Aq Taqe-yi Qadim, Golestan Province, Iran. He received his education in Turkmen, Persian and Arabic at home and in the great centres of learning in the region, including Khiva and Bukhara, before traveling widely in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Iran, and West Asia. Pyragy’s peripatetic life and widespread impact exemplify the reach and diversity of Turkmen culture, and of the fluidity of boundaries among Oghuz-speaking peoples prior to the 20th century. It’s clear that this poet’s work was influential among speakers at the eastern fringe of the Oghuz linguistic space and beyond. But during the Soviet period, Magtymghuly Pyragy was elevated, along with a number of other pre-Revolutionary Turkic literati (including Navoiy, Abai, and Mirzǝ Fǝthǝli Axundzadǝ) to the rank of proto-Socialist visionaries. Their works were woven into the dominant (and state-sanctioned) socialist realist criticism, and libraries were written on the presence of anachronistic Marxist-Leninist dogma within their works.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script in the middle of the page with a red seal towards the bottomCream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script in the middle of the page
(Left) An incomplete (?) poem or prose text, possibly on prayer or repentance, preceding the main Divan
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) A series of religious invocations in Arabic in nestalik script.
CC Public Domain Image

In a way, this later trend is what makes Or 11414 so special. The manuscript is a relatively bare and simple one, with red pencil text boxes for some of the pages. The majority of the text is written in nestalik in black ink with a relatively thick-nibbed pen. It is arranged into two columns, and there are occasional dividers in red reading “va li-hi ayzan (وله أيضاً)”. At the start and end of the work, we notice texts written in a different hand and using a different pen. The first of these, on f 2r, is an odd addition that is difficult to read because of both smearing of the ink and the irregular handwriting. I’m unsure whether this is intended as another poem, or if this an account of an individual’s attempt at prayer and repentance. On f 140v, in contrast, there are religious invocations in beautifully ornate and elaborate nestalik, all of them in Arabic. In between these two poles, we find mostly the work of Magtymguly Pyragy, but also poems by other Turkmen poets, including Döwletýar Beg, Seýitnazar Seýdi, Gurbandurdy Zelili, Bende Murad, and Abdulnazar Şahbende.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns in the middle of the page
An unruled page of Magtumguly Pyragy's poetry. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 63r)
CC Public Domain Image

What makes this so important? We’re used to seeing manuscripts lauded and promoted because of their ornate illumination and illustrations. Sometimes, they’re publicized because of the high monetary value attributed to them through the commoditization of authors’ legacies and calligraphers’ pedigrees. But Or 11414’s worth lies in the fact that it most likely reflects the copying and circulation of Turkmen texts for the enjoyment and edification of as wide an audience as possible. It provides us with a rare view into the reading, writing, and copying cultures of Turkmen-speakers in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. And, more importantly, it creates a window onto their usage of the language and their estimation of Pyragy and his work before the heavy-handed intervention of Soviet authorities in the 1920s and 30s. The manuscript creates a counterpoint for the study and hypothesizing of a language and literary tradition that are both frequently overlooked by individuals and institutions outside of Central Asia.

There is, of course, another part to this story, one about provenance. How did this rare work make it into the British Library’s collections? A note in the back of the manuscript states that it was purchased from M. E. Denissoff on 10 February 1934. This likely refers to Elie Denissoff or Ilya Denisov, a Russian émigré who was the Secretary of the Russian Prime Minister in 1917. Denisov fled the Soviet Union to Paris and then Belgium, where he eventually engaged in scholarship on ecclesiastical history. Such biographical details would fit those of individuals who often sold manuscript material to the British Museum and similar institutions at the time. But it doesn’t explain how the volume came into Denisov’s possession in the first place. Thanks to Dr. Hugh Olmsted and his enlightening “Two Exiles: The Roots and Fortunes of Elie Denissoff, Rediscoverer of Mikhail Trivolis,” we have at least a glimpse into the possible origin of the manuscript.

Denisov was from an old Cossack family that had first come into the Imperial household’s good graces through its contributions to the Siege of Azov. When the October Revolution resulted in the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the Imperial system, Ilia escaped from St. Petersburg south to his family’s ancestral lands near Kuban. This provided only temporary respite, but it did ensure that he did not suffer the same fate as the rest of his family in St. Petersburg, who succumbed to war and persecution. He gradually made his way out of Russia via Baku into Persia. From Tehran, he requested temporary permission to re-enter Russian territory, and did so on the eastern shore of the Caspian, making his way to Ashgabat before crossing by sea again to Baku, and thence out to Istanbul, Bulgaria, and eventually France. Given this brief sketch, it is entirely possible that Denisov acquired the Divan-I Makhtumquli in Turkmenistan proper, and that the manuscript originated from Central Asia. What’s more, from a description of Denisov’s memoirs in Olmsted’s work, we know that the former visited the British Museum in the mid-1930s as part of his doctoral research on Maximus the Greek. The pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place, but only at the terminal end of the manuscript’s provenance.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns in the middle of the page and a red seal at the bottom
The final page of the Divan, likely with a final poem added in a different hand. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 140r)
CC Public Domain Image

There is one last clue that is proving to be far more difficult to decipher. In addition to the note about Denissoff at the end of the manuscript, an annotation reads “Tina Negan”chik” (Тина Неганъчикъ)”. It’s not clear to me whether this is intended to be a name, and, if so, what role this person might have played in the item’s history. The use of the hard sign at the end of the word might point to a pre-Revolutionary orthography, or perhaps to nasalized and glottalized consonants, as in common in the current orthography of Crimean Tatar. Whatever the case, the all-powerful tool of Google searching has produced nothing of note, and it does appear that we might yet have to wait a bit longer before we’re able to know to what this refers.

Sometimes, big gifts come in small boxes. While Or 11414 doesn’t look like the type of manuscript that would leave us plenty of avenues for further study, that’s exactly what it has done. And at a time when increasing demands are made for the massaging and manipulation of cultural heritage to satisfy the demands of the social media machine, it bears remembering that there is value beyond being the perfect Instagram post. It just takes a bit of time and quietude to find it.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Further Reading:

Clement, V. (2018). Learning to Become Turkmen: Literacy, Language, and Power, 1914-2014, Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press. (YC.2019.a.1438)

Edgar, A. L. (2004), Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Princeton: Princeton University Press. (YC.2006.a.7110)

Frank, A. (2020), ‘Turkmen Literacy and Turkmen Identity before the Soviets: the Ravnaq al-Islām in Its Literary and Social Context,’ JESHO, 63 (3) : 286-315. (P.P.3779.hdd.)

Ikhsanov, A. (2016), 'Turkmenistan: Literatura', Bolshaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopediia, 32, Moskva: Nauchnoe Izdatel'stvo Bolshaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopedia, 548-549.

Ikhsanov, A. (2020), 'A Community of Linguists Does Not Create a Language, but a Society Does: Dichotomies in Central Asian History,' Bulletin of the International Institute for Central Asian Studies, 29, 124-136. 

Taylor, P. M. (2017), ‘Turkic poetic heritage as symbol and spectacle of identity: observations on Turkmenistan’s Year of Makhtymguly celebrations,’ Nationalities Papers, 45 (2) : 321-336. (ELD Digital Store Document Supply 6033.449000)

13 September 2021

Epic Iran: Manuscripts from the Islamic era

Epic Iran display

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian
CCBY

Further reading 

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

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

30 August 2021

Epic Iran: Some Zoroastrian Treasures

Epic Iran  general view

The British Library has an unrivalled collection of Zoroastrian manuscripts and therefore welcomed the opportunity to display three of its Zoroastrian treasures in the current exhibition Epic Iran organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. The exhibition is open until 12 September 2021 by ticketed admission only. Tickets must be purchased in advance and are released on Tuesdays at 12.00. 

The exhibition covers approximately five millennia of Iranian history and is the first of its kind since the Royal Academy's International Exhibition of Persian Art of 1931. Arranged in nine sections it explores and brings together the whole range of Iranian material cultures from the earliest known writing to the 1979 Revolution and beyond. Out of around 300 exhibits, the British Library contributed fifteen manuscripts which will be the subject of two blogs. In this first post I will focus on the three Zoroastrian items.

Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Iranians, owes its name to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) whose hymns (Gathas) are thought to have been composed 1500-1000 BCE. It teaches the importance of good thoughts, words, and actions, in a dualistic cosmos where the forces of the All-knowing Lord, Ahura Mazda, are constantly opposed by those of the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu. Originating in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism spread east to China and south to Iran where it became the main religion from the sixth century BCE until the mid-seventh century CE. After the arrival of Islam, Zoroastrian refugees from Iran established settlements in Gujarat, India, where they were called Parsis (‘Persians’). Zoroastrian diaspora communities have since become established worldwide.

Zoroastrianism is essentially an oral religion. The oldest scriptures, referred to as the Avesta or Zend, are in an Old Iranian language, Avestan. They were not written down, however, until around the sixth century CE during the Sasanian period, many centuries after their composition. Even after that, the main liturgical texts were transmitted orally. This is partly the reason that, apart from the Ashem vohu fragment mentioned below, there are no manuscripts surviving from before the end of the thirteenth century.

The earliest extant Zoroastrian text, the Ashem Vohu prayer

The Ashem Vohu  Or.8212:84
The Ashem vohu prayer transcribed in Sogdian script, dating from around the ninth century CE (British Library, Or.8212/84). Public domain

This fragment dates from around the ninth century CE and comes, not from India or Iran, the lands associated today with the Zoroastrianism, but from Dunhuang in Central China, where it was discovered in the Mogao caves by Aurel Stein in 1907. It contains a short text in Sogdian (a middle-Iranian language) about the prophet Zarathushtra followed by a phonetic transcription into the Sogdian script of one of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, composed originally in Avestan. Remarkably, the language of the prayer is neither recognisable as Sogdian nor Avestan, but is likely to represent a much older Iranian dialect, perhaps an archaic form of Avestan. The prayer must have been preserved orally in this ancient form, which remained unaffected by the codification of the Avesta in the Sasanian period, when the sacred texts were first written down (N. Sims-Williams, The everlasting flame, p.94).

Zoroastrianism was carried eastwards to China from the early centuries of the first millennium CE by Sogdian traders, whose homeland was the area of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan. This document provides written evidence for its continuation there up to the ninth century and, more importantly, it is the only example of its kind, dating from about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text.

An illustrated law book

Videvdad sadeh  RSPA 230
The opening to chapter nine of the Videvdad Sadah (British Library, RSPA 230, ff. 151r-152v). Public domain

The Videvdad Sadah is a liturgical presentation in Avestan of the most important of Zoroastrian legal works, the Videvdad (‘Law repudiating the demons’). The text, described as sadah (‘clean’), i.e. unaccompanied by any commentary, is recited in a ritual context. This opening shows the beginning of chapter nine which concerns the nine-night purification ritual (barashnum nuh shab) for someone who has been defiled by contact with a dead body.

Most of our Zoroastrian manuscripts originate from India, copied by and for the Parsi community which traditionally emigrated from Iran from about the eighth century onwards. This beautifully written and decorated copy, however, was made in Yazd, Iran in 1647 by a Zoroastrian Mihrban Anushirvan Bahram Shah who copied it for a Zoroastrian of Kirman called Marzban Sandal Khusraw. Whereas Zoroastrian manuscripts are generally unillustrated except for small devices such as verse dividers and occasional diagrams, this one, exceptionally, contains seven coloured illustrations six of trees and one diagram. The heading here has been decorated very much in the style of contemporary illuminated Islamic manuscripts.

This copy was most likely brought to India from Iran by the Iranian poet and writer, Siyavakhsh Urmazdyar, himself a descendant of the original patron, in the mid-nineteenth century before being acquired by Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner (fl.1817-1895), a successful Bombay businessman who presented it the Royal Society, London in May 1864. Transferred to the India Office Library in 1876, it was incorporated into the British Library collection in 1982.

The Bundahishn (‘Primal Creation’) 

The book of creation  Mss Avestan 22  ff 82-83
Chapter 27 of the Bundahishn,‘On the nature of the plants’ (British Library, Mss Avestan 22, ff. 82v-83r). Public domain

The Bundahishn, or ‘Primal Creation,’ is perhaps the most important Zoroastrian work on cosmogony and cosmography. Composed in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) during the early Islamic period, it is conventionally dated to the ninth century. It presents the Zoroastrian world view beginning with a detailed account of the perfect creation of the All-knowing Lord, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd in Middle Persian), which was attacked by the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), and contaminated with disease and death. The cosmic drama culminates in the resurrection of the dead and the defeat and removal of Evil from Ohrmazd’s world and its perfection at the end of time. The cosmographic parts of the text include descriptions of the world’s lands, rivers, lakes, mountains, plants animals, and human races.

The text of the Bundahishn is preserved in two distinct versions, an Indian and a more complete Iranian one. This manuscript gives the text of the Indian Bundahishn and is written in Pazand, a phonetic Avestan script. Copied in India in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, it was acquired by East India Company surgeon Samuel Guise (1751-1811) while working at the East India factory at Surat and was purchased by the East India Company Library after his death.

A published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture.

Readers who can visit the British Library can also see a small display of Zoroastrian manuscripts in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library


Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian

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Further Reading

Domenico Agostini and Samuel Thrope (tr), The Bundahišn: the Zoroastrian Book of Creation, New York, 2020
Almut Hintze, ‘An introduction to Zoroastrianism,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
Jenny Rose, ‘Zoroastrianism from the early modern period,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
Ursula Sims-Williams, ‘Zoroastrianism in late antiquity,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
–––––, ‘Zoroastrian Manuscripts in the British Library, London’, in A. Cantera (ed.) The Transmission of the Avesta (Wiesbaden, 2012): 173-94
–––––, ‘Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library
Sarah Stewart with Firoza Punthakey Mistree, Ursula Sims-Williams, The everlasting flame: Zoroastrianism in history and imagination, London; New York, 2013

23 August 2021

Catch-up: Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing

Two-page spread of a magazine featuring various black and white line drawings, two on left-hand side, with bottom left hand showing a cityscape, and one on the right hand side featuring an abstract image of a personCover of a magazine with Arabic-script text on it, with a light blue rectangle going down the right-hand side and a dark blue rectangle across the middle of the page and the title in Arabic calligraphy in white against the dark blue field
(Left) Art work by Sudanese artist Ibrahim El Salahi (b. 1930) in issue 13 of Ḥiwār (1964), edited by Palestinian poet Tawfiq Sayigh (1923-1971). (British Library, 14599.e.69)
(Right) Front cover of issue 7 (1963) of Ḥiwār magazine. (British Library, 14599.e.69)
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Between April and June 2021, the British Library and Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, hosted Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing: an online series of talks exploring publishing practices in Arabic as a site for unfolding intellectual networks, artistic practices and political imaginaries from the 1960s until the present.

The series was co-curated and convened by Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections at the British Library.

Recordings from all four events in the series are now available to watch on the British Library’s YouTube channel and we have collated them below for your convenience.

We regarded the series as a space for collective learning. As such we invite anyone with an interest in the subjects and themes raised —both in Arabic and different linguistic and regional fields— to be in touch so we can explore potential activities and interventions that build upon this series. You can do this by emailing Hana and Daniel.

Kayfa ta: On Shapeshifting Texts and Other Publishing Tactics
Ala Younis and Maha Maamoun appeared in conversation with Hala Auji

 

Archives of Design and Designing the Archive
Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès and Moe Elhosseiny

 

Visualising the archive: Arabic publishing during the Cold War
Zeina Maasri and Fehras Publishing Practices

This session was organised in partnership with Delfina Foundation as part of their Collecting as Practice programme, and Middle East History Group, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. Fehras Publishing Practices current exhibition is Borrowed Faces: Future Recall is on at Mosaic Rooms, London, until 26 September 2021.

 

Fragmented Archives and Histories of Solidarity
Refqa Abu-Remaileh and Kristine Khouri

 

Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge
Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections, British Library
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19 August 2021

Motherhood: A Form of Emancipation in the Turkish Minority Press in Bulgaria (1878-1944)

Black and white photograph of six women in traditional Bulgarian dress with four standing in back row and two seated in front row
A portrait of urban women in traditional dress from the Bulgarian Ethnographic Institute and Museum. (EAP103/1/2/7)

The fight for women’s rights, almost worldwide, is still unfinished business; sad but true.

Delving into the history of feminist activism and women’s rights with the Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights exhibition at the British Library was absolutely inspiring. All the more amazing, as a budding researcher interested in the emancipatory activities of women belonging to ethnic minority groups in the late Ottoman and early republican periods, was giving an ear to Turkish women’s voice from the ‘margin.’ For the first time, it provided me with a surprising perspective, through digitised periodicals from Bulgaria (EAP696). What problems did the Turkish women of Bulgaria have? From which ideas were their writings pertaining to the woman question influenced? Or were they limited by which socio-cultural dynamics? Well, then, let’s have a brief look at how women’s rights were defended in the publications of the Turkish minority group in Bulgaria between 1878-1944.

Newspaper page featuring text primarily in Arabic script with some in Latin script above a colour chart
A page from the Turkish-language newspaper Birlik, published in Bulgaria, showing the transition from Arabic to Latin scripts. (EAP696/1/16)

As is known, with the Berlin Treaty (made after the 1877-78 Ottoman-Russian War), the Principality of Bulgaria became autonomous, a Christian governor was appointed to Eastern Rumelia, and Macedonia was left to the Ottoman Empire on the condition of reform. Muslim Turks, who had constituted the overwhelming majority of the country’s population for centuries, became a minority for the first time. From this perspective, as a Turkish minority group in Bulgaria, little wonder that they constantly announced their national existence was in danger, mainly with the fear of losing their national identity as the overall discourse in the publications. That’s why their writings particularly emphasise the necessity of education, with the idea that their community should have had a national working system, too. The prevailing discussion is on the ideal of arranging a national way of life that responds to the contemporary needs of their community in Bulgaria.

Regarding women’s and girls’ education, their writings closely followed developments in Europe and Russia. But, they saw the Republic of Turkey as the most significant model in terms of reforms, which the Bulgarian Turks highly appreciated. While the countries of the world attached great importance to the upbringing and education of girls, disallowing sending Turkish girls to school by ignoring their education is presented as one of the biggest stumbling blocks. It was important to ensure that girls attend school, notably the rüşdiyye (Ottoman junior high school) which was opened in Istanbul for the first time in 1858. The school would affect their education and also their way of thinking and appearance.

Page of text in Latin script with a large black-ink masthead above a colour chart
The first page of the Turkish-language newspaper İstikbal's 5th issue, published in Vidin, Bulgaria on 25 January 1932. (EAP696/1/20)

Neriman Hikmet, Ulviye Ahmet, Emine Sıtkı and Mediha Muzaffer are the only four women who wrote in the publications. Actually, I got to know Ulviye Ahmet for the first time thanks to this project. But I think she deserves to be much better known today. As the prodigiously prolific one in matters on women’s issues, in one of her writings in the journal Istikbal (Future) dated 31 March 1932, she informs the reader that women who didn’t have political rights gathered under the flag of “feminism”. Feminists were establishing organisations and fighting for their political rights. However, the woman, who worked with men in every field as his companion, was not yet promoted to the position she deserved in the political world. I think it is quite essential that she directly uses the word “feminism” here. Although the word was typically associated with being like a “witch” as a locus for the cultural negotiation of genders, the women’s struggle united under the ideal of feminism seems to have inspired Turkish women in Bulgaria, too. On the other hand, their “sisters” in Turkey, like Halide Nusret Zorlutuna, advocated strongly nationalist ideas that rejected Western imperialism by emphasising the differences between Turkish and European women regarding women’s morality. Turkish women sometimes openly blamed those who, according to them, imitated European counterparts who were bad mothers, for instance. So, while the term feminism was somehow regarded as foreign, individualistic, and contrary to traditional family norms, Ulviye Ahmet’s text occupies a noteworthy place.

This quotation from her other text written on 10 April 1932 from the same journal is again radical: “Perhaps there will be obstacles for us to embark on a social and national life with great love and affection. There will be those saying that a woman cannot gain a place in society, cannot show national resistance, she is a house bird, men’s pastime. But never forget to hope; who knows how their delusions will turn out? Don’t we have the strength to withstand all this?” Since society expects a lot of work from women, Ulviye Ahmet underlines they should try to be helpful to and shape society in every way. In that sense, she invites intellectual women to write about women’s progress. The regular letters sent with the title of “To Our Sisters in Turkey” make it obvious that they had a targeted addressee in Turkey, as well. She defends women’s rights to raise Turkish girls, would-be mothers of the nation in the future. They were the mothers of future generations of their poor nation oppressed under the harsh conditions of that time. Yes, “the mothers of the nation…” While I was reading the text, I was anticipating the inevitable topic – Motherhood.

At the end of the 19th century, Ottoman women’s strike for their rights was espoused as a pre-requirement for civilisation. They were principally responsible as mothers and wives and their status needed to be improved for the welfare of the Ottoman men and creating the enlightened generations. To raise responsible citizens of the Ottoman Empire, first, mothers should have been educated and enlightened, at least to some extent. That is, one of the projects built in the hope of reversing the inexorable dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was the modernisation of women. Then, in the Republican period and during the Kemalist regime in Turkey, Turkish women’s primary role as mothers and the process of women stepping into social life were again central themes of state-sanctioned modernisation projects and nation-building processes.

Black and white photo of girls in a school sitting at pew-like desks and facing the front of the class. Many of the girls have their hair in pigtails and some are looking towards the camera. At the right background of the image are large windows
Girls at a school in Bulgaria in the early 20th century, from the archival collection of photographs taken by Rositza Angelova. (EAP618/3/1)

In line with the concern of reviving their national identity, the woman question was expectedly shaped around the same discourse among Turks in Bulgaria, too. Their following arguments for why girls should be educated may sound rather unbearable, at least they do to me, but it would also be good to bear in mind in some way that it was almost all they could do as a Turkish Muslim community at the turn of the century. According to the general attitude in the articles, written anonymously, the one born as a girl would “definitely” be a mother thereafter; they would be engaged in managing a house. The family life of an educated woman and an uneducated one couldn’t be the same. An educated woman would treat her husband in a much more pleasant way than an illiterate one. Women who have to know household management and the family economy well should have a bright mind. A woman needed to be educated to bring up her children properly by paying particular attention to their moral education. Therefore, mothers of the future should be raised as resilient women, capable mothers, and nurturers for the nation’s happiness - the most indispensable need of that time. The woman should never be humiliated because she is the mother of humanity; the future is in her bosom.

Black and white photo of two women standing and two seated, all in traditional Turkish dress and head coverings, in front of three children. The woman on the far right is holding a spindle and is pulling raw wool from it
Rural Turkish women in Bulgaria prepare wool in an archival photograph from the Bulgarian Ethnographic Institute and Museum. (EAP103/1/2/7)

Ulviye Ahmet dwelled on the point that if women want to serve their nation as true mothers, they must be intensely concerned about schools, societies, and foundations, which constitute the cornerstone of their national existence. She reminds them that their sisters in Turkey had an enormous organisation called the Turkish Women’s Union (Türk Kadınlar Birliği). To establish cultural and social communities to assist their male friends, she thought that they must undertake a particular mission. “If we want Bulgarian Turkish women to be true mothers for generations, let’s work for our nation’s progress and rise. And let’s establish societies for the enlightenment of women,” she said.

There is no doubt that motherhood is a fascinating state, even just biologically. But to idealise motherhood nostalgically and evaluate the woman over a ‘blessing’ or ‘merit’ attributed to her by birth move the writings away from a feminist line in a sense we understand today. Women’s maternal role was an indispensable tool for the patriotic socialisation of the new generation and the Turkish community’s enlightenment and modernisation. To be a mother of the social existence, to represent her husband and children, to be the symbol of femininity and community is somehow to be imposed upon her to maintain traditionally constructed roles and the given ‘appropriate’ and ‘moral’ female identities imposed as ‘ideal’ by patriarchal society.

A black and white photograph of three women in traditional dress and head coverings, with the one in the middle looking at the camera and those on the left and right bent over. The middle woman is carrying a basket while the other two are engaged in picking items from bushes. They are against a background of rolling hills in a rural setting
Women at work harvesting in rural Bulgaria in the early 20th century, in an archival photograph from the Bulgarian Ethnographic Institute and Museum. (EAP103/1/2/1)

It seems that only motherhood was at hand as the pre-requirement for the development of the Turkish community in Bulgaria, as no significant rights or values had been entitled to women until then. All articles about the woman question were always contextualised in a nationalist framework, too. And there is always a consciously moderate feminist discourse. Even so, they had no choice but to implement this way of writing, didn’t they? Women’s demands for their rights were always justified and legitimised through the ideal of serving the nation and their given roles as mothers and wives providing the nation with patriotic sons. Isn’t this conceptualisation as the creator of the Turkish nation already reasonably expected for a Muslim community worried about losing its national identity, or any other community in the nation-building process? Was there any other way for them to do it at that time?

What about now? In every corner of the world, a life where women are unburdened by and relinquish all the roles assigned them by ‘others.’ One where they have got rid of the social pressure that forces them to assume and maintain these roles; a life where they have no need to struggle to exercise their human rights and can freely underpin them when needed; a life where girls don’t emulate a passivised ‘princess’ against active ‘witches’ from childhood, ride their own horses, and gallop wherever they want instead of waiting for the Prince Charming: is such a life still too far away?

Seda İzmirli-Karamanlı, EAP PhD Placement Holder

The images in this blog are for research purposes only. We ask that you not share them without express permission of the rights holder.
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Bibliography :

Burçak, B. (1997). ‘The status of the elite Muslim women in İstanbul under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909).’ (Masters dissertation, Bilkent University).

Dayıoğlu, Ali (2005), Toplama Kampından Meclis’e, Bulgaristan’da Türk ve Müslüman Azınlığı , İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları.

Ergin, O. (1977). Türk Maarif Tarihi [History of Turkish Education]. İstanbul: Eser Matbaası.

Haskins, E. V., & Zappen, J. P. (2010). Totalitarian visual “monologue”: Reading Soviet posters with Bakhtin . Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 40(4), 326-359.

Metinsoy, E. İ. M. (2013). “The Limits of Feminism in Muslim-Turkish Women Writers of the Armistice Period (1918–1923).” In A Social History Of Late Ottoman Women (pp. 83-108). Brill.

Somel, S. A. (2012). Abdülhamit devri eğitim tarihçiliğine bir bakış: 1980 sonrasında taşra maarifi ve gayrı müslim mekteplerinin historiografik bir analizi .

Tekeli, Ş. (1982). Kadınlar ve siyasal-toplumsal hayat (Vol. 6). Birikim Yayınları.

Tuncer, Hüner (2011), Osmanlı’nın Rumeli’yi Kaybı (1878-1914), İstanbul: Kaynak Yayınları.

16 August 2021

Real Sultans of the Ottoman Empire

Painting of a middle-aged man with a dark beard in a white turban, topped with gold band, and wearing a red, gold, and green robe, holding the hilt of his sword, inside of a grey oval frame
Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 4v).
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What did people do before Hello! brought the latest royal gossip into the comfort of their homes? How did the average pleb manage before the gods of reality television took a handful of sanitized suburban clay, fashioned the Real Housewives series, and blew the life-giving breath of audience-tested PR into it? Illustrated manuscripts, obvs. In any case, most regular people were probably too busy with the relentless crush of survival to while away hours each day watching someone else live their best life. But for those who weren’t, Or 9505 would have been a treat.

Known as the Hadikatü’l-müluk or Garden of Kings, this late 19th-century work is a richly illustrated guide to the Ottoman dynasty. The original work dates from the early 18th century and was composed by Osmanzade Ahmet Tayip, who died in 1724 CE. The version held by the British Library, however, was expanded by Seyit Abdusamet, who sought to include Sultan Abdülmecit (reigned 1839-61). The text is beautifully copied, with an elaborate unvan, and 32 full-page portraits of 31 Emperors, from Sultan Osman I (reigned 1280-99 CE; f 3v) up to Sultan Abdülmecit (f 71v). The Padişahlar are each found inside an oval frame, with the exception of the final, then-reigning monarch, whose mounted personage is permitted to occupy the entirety of the page. This treasure of Ottoman portraiture was acquired by the British Museum in 1924, when it was purchased from the Cairo-based Maurice Nahman, the source of many of the Museum’s (and then Library’s) West Asian manuscripts.

Full-page painting of a man mounted upon a cantering black horse with white legs, atop of an ornate saddle, wearing a black cape and red fez topped with a lavish standard. The man is bearded and looking at the viewer
Abdülmecit atop his steed. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 72r).
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The content of the Hadikatü’l-müluk is far from novel or unique. While national histories of the Ottoman Empire began in earnest towards the end of the 19th century, biography and dynastic history had long been common. Among the best known are Aşıkpaşazade’s Tevarih-i Âl-i Osman or Menakıb-i Âl-i Osman, a 15th-century account of the quasi-mythical origins of the Ottoman dynasty. A similar work, occasionally known as the Tarih-i Âl-i Osman, but whose author might have been Muhyiddin Mehmet İbn-i Ali el-Cemali, can be found at Add MS 5969 (with an extract at Add MS 7870). Over time, other works appeared as well, including the Tacu’t-tevarih (Or 856 , Or 3210, Or 7285, Or 7286, Or 7287, Or 7908, Or 8764, Add MS 18811, Add MS 19628), a 16th-century work by Hoca Sadettin Efendi; the Tarih-i Peçevi (Or 7353, Add MS 18071, Add MS 24961), a two-volume history of the Empire by Ottoman Bosniak scholar İbrahim Peçevi; and the Tarih-i Raşit (Or 9470, Or 9670, Or 9720, Add MS 23585), an 18th-century text by Mehmet Raşit that brings this narrative closer to the present. To this we can add a whole host of works that speak to histories of regions, people, and events crucial to the continued stability of the Ottoman regime. Koca Mehmet Ragıp Paşa’s Fethiye-yi Belgrad ( Or 6248, Or 7182, Or 7198, Or 9472, Or 10952, Or 12185) and the Tarih-i Sefer-i Kandia (Or 1137, Or 11154), which recounts the Ottoman capture of Crete in 1667-69, are just two well-represented texts of this genre found in the British Library’s collections. Historiography was a lively and crucial component of Ottoman statecraft, and a core tool of imprinting the dynasty’s legacy on the palimpsest of time.

A page of Arabic-script text inside a gold frame topped with a header with floral illumination in red, blue, green and gold inks
The opening page of the Hadikatü'l-müluk, featuring an elaborate unvan. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 1v).
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Or 9505 clearly borrows from this tradition, but it also departs from it in a few very special ways. The Library holds another copy of the original text by Osmanzade (Or 7302), which is devoid of frills. It’s clear that Or 9505 is a luxury copy intended for a patron of considerable means, if not a member of the Imperial household. The highly ornate poetry at the start of the text, replete with complicated Persian and Arabic phrases, is laid out among gold text frames and separators. The unvan, or header, found on f 1v is a further indication of the pomp and ceremony with which this text was copied. It bears the name of the work inside a golden egg, surrounded by lush foliage and floral illumination in vivid pinks, blues, greens, and gold. A Baroque unvan is hardly something new or unique in an Ottoman manuscript. But this particular example does depart, in some ways, from what we usually see. For one, the floral components are not attached to the pink and yellow frame, but rather floating in empty space. And rather than containing the usual geometric or architectonic elements – so often reminiscent of towers, minarets, or palaces – this layout seems to be mimicking a crest, not unlike what we might see in European heraldry.

Painting of a middle-aged man with dark beard in yellow kaftan with red belt and dark blue vest, wearing a large white turban. The man is raising his right hand
Murat I, who reigned 1362-89 CE. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 10v).
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But it’s not the formatting, or the illumination, that is the real showstopper of this volume. Clearly, the most attractive aspect of Or 9505 is its 32 images of the Sultans of the Ottoman dynasty. These are unmistakably bold and provocative portraits. That might not seem particularly shocking, but these images do stand out from the broader tradition of Ottoman manuscript painting reflected in the British Library’s collections. The Library houses a number of items bearing portraits of both real personalities and fictional characters. What marks Or 9505 apart is the way that the subject of the portrait dominates the image itself. Whether an illustrated copy of Navoiy’s Gharaib al-sighar (Or 13061); an 18th-century Hamse-yi Atayi complete with raunchy scenes (Or 13882); or an early 17th-century Hadikatü’s-suada (Or 12009), people were included in narrative paintings, depicted as part of a scene, surrounded by flora, fauna, and buildings. In her overview of albums created by Vassal Kalender, Dr. Günsel Renda has identified this as a particularly salient aspect of 18th century products, influenced by both Iranian and Chinese preferences and techniques, as well as some European ones. But the same can also be seen in Turkic manuscripts from outside of the Ottoman Empire and from earlier periods, including a late 16th-century Divan-i Xǝtai (Or 11388) or the exquisite 16th-century Nusratnāmah (Or 3222). Rulers, specifically, and people, in general, were often portrayed in a social or historical context.

A painting of a middle-aged man in a green tunic with a white turban and black tassel upon his head sitting atop a black horse. The man is bearded and the horse is covered in a richly decorated saddle. The image is set within a page that features gold-wash illuminations in floral patterns
Sultan Ahmet I (?) on his black steed. (Ottoman poetry and painting album, late 16th century. Or 2709 f 4v). 
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A different point of comparison might be with Or 2709, a late 16th-century album of poetry and painting. This murakka might originate from Tabriz, Iran, which would have been under Ottoman control at roughly the same time. Regardless of the vagaries of war and conquest, it’s clear that Safavid centers of artistic production also influenced creatives in Istanbul greatly. What’s more, it contains what is clearly a portrait of a Sultan, identifiable from the black aigrette (sorguç) on his white turban, mounted on his black steed, not terribly dissimilar from Abdülmecit’s pose in Or 9505. The work doesn’t reflect the European-style portraits of the 15th and 16th centuries (such as Titian’s famed portrait of Kanunî Süleyman or Gentile Bellini’s painting of Sultan Mehmet II in the National Gallery). It’s probably a much better precursor to the Safavid- and Chinese-influenced Ottoman portraiture and costume books produced throughout the 17th and 18th centuries; books about which Dr. Serpil Bağcı has provided an excellent overview. What does seem to mark this portrait off from those of Or 9505, though, is the interactions between the object and the viewer. The one in Or 2709 is set further back, and, while sullen, the Padişah isn’t all that imposing. He seems to lack the piercing gaze – a challenge to the impertinent stare of the viewer – that we see in the portraits in Or 9505.

Painting of a younger man in a blue kaftan under a red vest with ermine trim and a white turban with a black tassel. The man in holding a bow in his left hand
Sultan Osman II, with bow in hand. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 40v).
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We can, of course, pursue another track of inquiry regarding the Hadikatü’l-müluk. There is a long tradition of European influence on Ottoman painting, especially portraiture. Nearly 50 years ago, the late Dr. Esin Atıl provided us with a wonderful overview of the links between Italian Renaissance and Ottoman portraiture, detailing artistic exchange in the court of Sultan Mehmet II. These transfers of knowledge continued into the reign of Kanunî Süleyman, as Dr. Gülru Necipoğlu has explored, but eventually tapered off, re-emerging periodically thereafter, and with force during the 19th century. The period of Sultan Abdülmecit II’s reign is perhaps the best known for its adoption of Western European visual technologies for the purpose of statecraft, although Dr. Mary Roberts has also demonstrated the profoundly important usage of them during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz as well.

An elderly man with a white beard in a green kaftan and gold belt under a yellow vest with an ermine trim. the man is wearing a white turban with a black tassel and is holding his right hand up
Selim II, Sultan from 1566 to 1574. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 30v).
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Coming back to Or 9505, while we do know the name of the author of the original Hadikatü’l-müluk, and that of the individual who expanded it, we don’t know who painted these exquisite works. What we do know is that they were operating during the Tanzimat, a time of great social and political change in the Ottoman Empire. Among the characteristics of the Tanzimat was Ottoman intellectuals’ importation and adoption, if not assimilation, of Western European tastes and habits. Might this particular manuscript be a product of that desire for aesthetic Europeanisation? Even if this is true, these portraits still bear clear affinities with the Ottoman tradition of manuscript painting. They provide us with a solid and fascinating counterpoint to the realism of European Orientalist painting, and later Ottoman manifestations of the Western European traditions.

A middle-aged man in a blue robe under a green cape with his hand on the hilt of his sword. He is wearing a striped black and white turban with a red cloth tied around it, topped with a gold and feathered standard, and large gold triangles on either side of his head
Sultan Murat IV, who reigned 1623-40. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 42v).
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These diversions into art history take me beyond my accumulated knowledge, or indeed my faculties of perception. For those of us not schooled in the disciplines of Ottoman painting and aesthetics, though, Or 9505 does hit upon a final truth we know all too well from the Age of Instagram. Portraiture can be a powerful stimulant to our sense of self. Whether a filtered selfie or a delicate painting, pictures reflect more than just how we look. They embody how we wish to be seen, remembered, and experienced. And for their viewers, they can elicit a wide range of emotions: envy, lust, admiration, and even schadenfreude. So come take a stroll through the Hadikatü’l-müluk, and forget your mundane worries for an hour or so – commercial breaks not included.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Works Cited :

Akın-Kıvanç, Esra, “Mustafa Âli’s Epic Deeds of Artists and New Approaches to Written Sources of Ottoman Art,” Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, 2:2 (November 2015), pp. 225-258.

Atıl, Esin, “Ottoman Miniature Painting Under Sultan Mehmed II,” Ars Orientalis, 9, Freer Gallery of Art Fiftieth Anniversary Volume (1973), pp. 103-120.

Bağcı, Serpil, “Presenting Vaṣṣāl Kalender’s Works: The Prefaces of Three Ottoman Albums,” Muqarnas, 30 (2013), pp. 255-313.

Necipoğlu, Gülru, “Süleyman the Magnificent and the Representation of Power in the Context of Ottoman-Hapsburg-Papal Rivalry,” The Art Bulletin, 71:3 (September 1989), pp. 401-427.

Renda, Günsel, “An Illustrated 18th-Century Ottoman Hamse in the Walters Art Gallery,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 39 (1981), pp. 15-32.

Roberts, Mary, “Ottoman Statecraft and ‘The Pencil of Nature’: Photograph, Painting, and Drawing at the Court of Sultan Abdülaziz,” Ars Orientalis, 43 (2013), pp. 10-30.

Titley, Norah M., Miniatures from Turkish Manuscripts: A Catalogue and Subject Index of Paintings in the British Library and British Museum (London: The British Library, 1981). (Open Access PDP 17)

19 July 2021

The Term 'Shater' and its Use in the India Office Records

1 Entry of Shah of Persia  Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar  into Tehran preceded by a long row of shaters
Entry of the Shah of Persia, Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar, into Tehran preceded by a long row of shaters. Morier, A Second Journey..., after p. 386. Public domain

As part of cataloguing the India Office Records (IOR), we occasionally come across unfamiliar terms that make us question their origin and how they relate to the way they are used in the records. The case under consideration here is the term shater (pl. shaters), used in the IOR to refer to foot messengers. Shaters were employed to travel long distances, usually within Persia [Iran], in short periods of time to deliver letters to and from local governors, merchants, or the East India Company’s representatives. This post traces the possible roots of the term shater, and its development throughout history to bear the meaning of a foot messenger.

2 Two shotters carrying letters to Isfahan Nov 1708
Two shotters [shaters] carrying letters to Isfahan, Nov 1708 (IOR/G/29/2, f. 2r). Public domain

Arabic language dictionaries indicate that the term shater (Ar. shāṭir pl. shuṭṭar) has its origins in the root sh-ta-ra, which primarily means to distance oneself from family or tribe; someone who is shrewd at finding ways to do things, or overcoming obstacles. These meanings relate directly to a group known in Pre-Islamic Arabic literature as al-Sa‘alik [Brigands]. Members of this group were exiled by their tribes, and sometimes they chose to distance themselves. As they grew up alone, they developed their own life-style, and adopted certain characteristics that distinguished them from others. They were said to be ‘sharp, brave and as agile as horses’ (Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, pp. 375-378). An Arabic proverb indicates how agile a person is by comparing him to one of the Sa‘alik, who was also a famed poet, called al-Shanfara. The proverb says:

أعدى من الشنفرى
Swifter than al-Shanfara
(Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, p. 375)

Some Sa‘alik were also known to be crafty thieves and sometimes noble robbers who stole from the wealthy to feed the poor:

وعيّابةٌ للجودِ لم تدرِ أنني       بإنهابِ مالِ الباخلينَ موكَّلُ
And the critics of munificence are unaware that I am in charge of ripping misers off what they possess
(In the words of a thief, in Al-Najjar’s Hikayat al-Shuttar, p. 116)

The Sa‘alik’s lifestyle helped them to become familiar with trade routes, and some of them began to earn their living by protecting trade caravans instead of raiding them. Merchants recruited some of the Sa‘alik to walk ahead and protect them from possible attacks.

Several groups that were similar in nature to the Sa‘alik emerged in the early ‘Abbasid period (750-1258) under various names and characteristics. Among them were the shuttar. These were often associated with another group known as al-‘Ayyarin, vagabonds who appeared to drift aimlessly from one place to another. Besides sharing the Sa‘alik’s characteristics, the shuttar were well-organised, and worked collectively under an elected leader. They possessed a revolutionary spirit, leading popular resistance against corruption and social norms. Although some considered the shuttar to be anarchists (fawdawiyyin), the group was actually a socialist movement engaging in class struggle (al-Najjar’s Hikayat al-Shuttar, pp. 135 and 396). The shuttar were even condemned as ‘trouble makers’ by the authorities of medieval Baghdad (Hikayat al-Shuttar, pp. 126-127).

Nonetheless, the group became particularly popular during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), who won them over to use their strength to put down disorder in his capital. Reportedly, a large group of shuttar played a crucial role in the fitna ('dispute') of 811-812 CE, between al-Rashid’s two sons al-Amin (r. 809-813) and al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833). The shuttar’s rebellious nature enabled them to impose new laws where existing ones were unpopular, something which earned many of them public admiration and they eventually became more accepted by the authorities.

By the mid-ninth century, the role of a shater had evolved from being a trouble-maker to someone who worked closely with the authorities. Governors arranged festivals, where they enjoyed watching the shuttar engage in ritual combat where the winner would be offered a silk kaftan and join the governor’s special guards. Henceforth, the shuttar were recruited as soldiers with a distinctive uniform. Under their own leadership, they marched ahead of the royal army. Some shuttar, however, continued to work as paid guards of trade caravans in much the same way as the Sa‘alik of the pre-Islamic period.

Because of their nomadic lifestyle, the shuttar became familiar with landscapes, languages and dialects, which perhaps helped them to be recruited as foot messengers. This was particularly true of the Persian Court shaters, who in addition to their role as the Shah’s special guards, also worked as foot messengers. One of the foremost Arabic lexicons that defines the term shater as foot messenger is the Taj al-‘Arus by al-Zabidi (d. 1790/1). In addition to the usual meanings of the term shater, al-Zabidi equates the term with a courier who delivers mail over long distances in a short period of time.

It is most likely that al-Zabidi was influenced by how the term shater was used in Persia at the time. Derived from the same Arabic root, in Persian the term shater means someone who is shrewd, fast, and fearless. In Safavid Iran (1501-1736), and probably before, the shater was said to act as a ‘bridge’, who ran before the horses of kings and other great men, opening the way for them to pass through the people. This continued to be the case in the Qajar period (1785-1925). Shaters were also appointed to the post of foot messengers during a special ceremony set for the occasion. References to shaters holding official positions as foot messengers in Safavid and Qajar Iran appear regularly in the IOR. One of the records gives a description of shaters, wearing special garments, during a special election ceremony as swift runners, who preceded the Shah of Persia’s retinue. 

Shaters’ outfit and their election ceremony
Shaters
’ outfit and their election ceremony (IOR/L/PS/20/C43/1, pp. 332-3). Public domain

While some Arabic dictionaries from the 18th century onwards described the term shater as a foot messenger, this was not how it was used by Arabic speakers. Instead, the term kept its initial meaning and developed an additional complimentary one. Today, describing someone as shater is considered a compliment. When translated into Persian, the term was first used with reference to a special guard who preceded the Shah’s army. However, the characteristics of a shater led to the development of a new position as part of an already well-established Persian postal system. Although the office of a shater seems very similar in nature to that of a chapar (horse-mounted messenger), the former would have differed by travelling on foot for most of his journey. Whether shaters had to occasionally use horses during their journey or not, a detailed study of the Persian postal system could answer this, something which is beyond the parameters of the present article.

5 Shotter delivering letters at the Gombroon Factory  Nov 1726
'Shotter' delivering letters at the Gombroon Factory, Nov 1726 (IOR/G/29/3, f. 4v). Public domain

6 Shater’s payment for delivering letters from Isfahan to Gombroon Factory  Nov 1732
The shater’s payment for delivering letters from Isfahan to Gombroon Factory, Nov 1732 (IOR/G/29/16, f. 131r). Public domain

It would be difficult to establish exactly when the term shater was first used to refer to a foot messenger, yet it can be assumed that this was the case at least since the early Safavid period. Although it originates from Arabic, the term shater with its new meaning became a particularity of Iranian culture. Similar to the Sa‘alik, and ‘Abbasid Baghdad’s shuttar, the Persian shaters were swift runners; brave; familiar with the landscapes and the languages of the people they met on their journeys; and above all, they were trusted by the ruling power who appointed them as foot messengers.

Primary Sources
James Morier, A second journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the years 1810 and 1816... (London: Longman, Hurst, etc, 1818)
Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-ʿArab. (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿaref, 1981)
IOR/G/29/2 ‘Diary and Consultations of Mr Eaton Dodsworth…’
IOR/G/29/3 ‘Diary and Consultation Book of Thomas Waters…’
IOR/G/29/16 ‘Letters and Enclosures etc., Received from Gombroon’
IOR/L/PS/20/C43/1 ‘Persia and the Persian Question by the Hon. George Nathaniel Curzon, M.P.
IOR/R/15/5/397 John Richardson, A Dictionary, Persian, Arabic, and English; with a Dissertation on the Languages, Literature, and Manners of Eastern Nations
al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-A‘sha fi Kitabat al-Insha, vol 2 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Amiriyya, 1913)
al-Zabidi, Taj al-‘Arus min Jawahir al-Qamus, vol 3 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Wahbiyya, undated)

Secondary Sources
Muhammad Rajab al-Najjar, Hikayat al-Shuttar wa al-‘Ayyarin (Cairo: al-Hay’a al-ʿAmma li-Qusur al-Thaqafa, 2002)
Shawqi Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi: al-‘Asr al-Jahili (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿaref, 1960).

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist-Arabic Languages/ Britih Library Qatar Foundation Project
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