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46 posts categorized "Persian"

08 August 2019

Emanating light: Illumination in Islamic manuscripts

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Without the ability to travel time it may forever be impossible to restage the medieval and early-modern viewing conditions of Islamic manuscripts. Whereas in paintings books are often shown being enjoyed outdoors, architecture can offer insights into the experience of manuscripts indoors.

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Fig. 1: Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14). Public domain

Consider the wholly illuminated central prayer niche (miḥrāb) at the Jāmi‘ Masjid of Bijapur in Deccan India (mosque: 1576; miḥrāb: 1636) (fig. 2). The entire niche is covered with calligraphy and micro-architectural details that are a mise en abyme within the mosque. Hanging lamps and manuscripts that likely represent the Qur’ān fill smaller niches at the dado level flanking both sides of the central niche. The books bear gilt bindings and the lamps have delicate golden tassels that accentuate their light-giving quality. The simple juxtaposition of lamps and books reminds us that the viewers of these manuscripts did not encounter them under the harsh lighting of today’s modern libraries. In an assessment of illumination, the problem of light is inescapable.

Fig. 2: Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

Generally, manuscript illumination is a practice where reflective substances have been applied to the surfaces of books. These surfaces include the binding, support (paper, parchment), and the edges of the support. While illumination is most commonly associated with gold, other metals including silver and tin are also used to create lustre. I refer here to gold as shorthand, but the material was in fact a liquid gold or alloy that was malleable to various surfaces and showed a variety of hues. This material can be flattened, painted, scattered, and pricked to create different effects on the surface of a support (fig. 3).


Figs. 3a and 3b: Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain


Illumination occurs everywhere on the page: its edges, borders, line rulings (jadval), rosettes (shamsahs), frontispieces (sarlawḥs), headpieces (‘unvāns), headings, interlinear space, the writing itself, and even the edges (fig. 4). There is no authoritative handbook for these terms in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, etc., and this nomenclature has evolved with convention. For example, the term ‘unvān has caused some confusion. The word literally denotes ‘title,’ and therefore I have used it for headpiece. In the British Library’s Persian manuscript catalogue edited by Rieu, ‘unvān denotes anything from illuminated headpiece to frontispiece (single or double page) to heading. Beyond references to illuminators (mudhahhib), the practice of illumination (tadhhīb), other words formed with the Arabic root dh-h-b or the Persian word zar, the textual record offers remarkably little prescriptive terminology for illumination. Even less defined are the names for particular illuminated patterns. While some of these patterns have analogues in architectural ornament, they do not always seamlessly translate to book decoration. For this reason, one safe compromise is to use English words, yet this can often be dissatisfying.

Fig. 4: Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Regardless of the lack of an established technical vocabulary, illumination and light (nūr) are everywhere in Islamic art and architecture. This is best attested by the Qur’anic Light verse (24:35) that begins, "God is the light [nūr] of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His light is a niche [mishkāt] wherein is a lamp [miṣbāḥ]," which frequently graces miḥrābs. Widespread lamp imagery such as that found in Bijapur’s Jāmi‘ Masjid also alludes to it. When books like the Qur’an or poetry reflected light through their illumination, this took on a divine significance. Through technologies such as multi-spectral imaging it may be possible to recover how premodern manuscripts looked by candlelight and evaluate the effects of how different lighting changed the experience of these books. Collaborations between architectural historians and scientists have started to reveal how sites such as the Mosque of Córdoba looked when lit with early Islamic glass lamps (Kider, Fletcher, Yu, Holod, Chamlers, and Badler, 2009).

Fig. 5: Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699). Public domain

In painting, illumination has been applied to nearly all forms. Fire, the sun, skies, and halos are popular gold elements. In her several articles and books on images of the Prophet Muhammad, Christiane Gruber has demonstrated how this tradition evolved. On the double-page frontispiece of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī dated 1571 from Safavid Qazvin (Fig. 5), gold is deployed profusely in a scene showing the Prophet’s ascension (mi‘rāj). In the flowering cartouches in the borders, the swirling clouds, and the fire they cast upon the Prophet and his steed Burāq, this page is fully illuminated. The dramatic interplay of these gold swirls and lapis blue surface would have created a startling effect especially if this page were viewed in low light. In experiencing the open book, the light of Muhammad (nūr Muḥammad) would have certainly shone onto the viewer.

Figure 5: Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

The study of book illumination should be placed in an expanded visual context that also includes architecture. In an early fifteenth-century Deccan shrine/tomb initially studied by Helen Philon (2000), I later drew comparisons between its domed apex and specific Indian maṇḍalas or yantras that Philon previously compared to Islamic talismanic bowls as well. Yet, the entirety of the shrine is covered in gold illumination. One of the clearest comparisons between the apex and a manuscript would be an illuminated shamsah or starburst. The completely calligraphed golden dome when lit with lamps would reflect light onto visitors below.

Illumination in Islamic manuscripts thus is no simple matter. Here, I have tried to make its obvious connection to light both practically and spiritually. While the majority of my research for the British Library has involved developing a method to catalogue illumination in Persian manuscripts (ca. 100 manuscripts completed), I do sometimes imagine the buildings and spaces in which they once were read, enjoyed, and seen. For, illumination allowed books to emanate light.

With thanks to Umberto Bongianino, Eleanor Sims and Ursula Sims-Williams.

Use #BL_IslamicIllum to share your favourite examples of illumination at the library and follow @_nainsukh for more!

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD placement

Further reading:

Akimushkin, Oleg F. and Anatol A. Ivanov. 1979. “The Art of Illumination.” In The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th-16th Centuries, ed. Basil Gray, London: Serindia, 35-57.

Brend, Barbara. 2015. “The Management of Light in Persian Painting.” In God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth: Light in Islamic Art and Culture, eds. Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, New Haven: Yale University Press, 198-229.

Gruber, Christiane. 2019. The Praiseworthy One: the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic texts and images. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Waley, Muhammad Isa. 1997. “Illumination and its Function in Islamic Manuscripts.” In Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, eds. François Déroche and Francis Richard, Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 87-112.

Wright, Elaine. 2018. Lapis and gold: exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an. London: Chester Beatty Library in association with Ad Ilissvm.

25 July 2019

Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo, British Library astronomy manuscripts in new visual forms

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The Iranian-American artist Pantea Karimi’s recent solo exhibition Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo at the Mercury 20 Gallery in Oakland, California, USA, was inspired by a study of several of the British Library’s scientific manuscripts which she reviewed during an extended visit in 2018. In this guest blog she speaks about this process and her work.

Two ancient manuscripts in the British Library drew my special attention and formed the foundation for my exhibition: the 17th century Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo’s De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris (Add MS 22786) and the 11th century Persian astronomer Biruni’s Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm (Or. 8349). My multimedia works in the exhibition explore an ancient and enduring fascination with the moon in science, culture and language, while simultaneously celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Mission.

Pages from Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm by al-Bīrūnī. British Library, Or. 8349, (from left to right) ff. 93r, 72v and 31v
Pages from Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm by al-Bīrūnī. British Library, Or. 8349, (from left to right) ff. 93r, 72v and 31v Noc

Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris by Galileo. British Library, Add MS 22786, (left and right) details from p. 63-64, (centre) p. 46
Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris by Galileo. British Library, Add MS 22786, (left and right) details from p. 63-64, (centre) p. 46   Noc

My completed works are large scale digital illustrations combining the abstract lunar diagrams with images of the Moon taken on my cell phone from a hill in California, as well as archival images from the Apollo 11 Lunar Mission in 1969. They are printed on fabric, and titled Moongraph, 01, 02, and 03. Other similarly inspired diagrams and images of the surface of the Moon have been combined with verses of Persian poetry and printed on circular pieces of metal in various sizes. They are presented in an installation on a grey geometric background that references the Moon and its phases. I believe that illustrating abstract ideas, as was done in these early diagrams, indicates how they were used as an important tool to visualize early science and pass down these ideas to later generations.

My exposure to these manuscripts from the early pioneers of astronomy has allowed my artistic interpretation of the science of astronomy. However, it was Persian poetry and its playful use of metaphor that first sparked my imagination and interest in the moon. As a child I was an avid reader of science fiction, especially Jules Verne novels translated into Persian.

The exhibition in many ways revisits my childhood obsession with the moon: from my compositions and illustrations, to the use of medieval Persian poetry that presents the moon metaphorically and symbolically. Verses by poets Attar Nishapuri, Nezami Ganjavi, and poet-scientist Omar Khayyam are included.

Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris and Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm showcase the phases of the Moon. The abstract version of the diagrams is by Pantea Karimi, 2019
Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris and Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm showcase the phases of the Moon. The abstract version of the diagrams is by Pantea Karimi, 2019

Moongraph 01, 02, and 03, 2019, digital archival prints on fabric, 6 x 3.42 feet
Moongraph 01, 02, and 03, 2019, digital archival prints on fabric, 6 x 3.42 feet

Installation view at Mercury 20 Gallery, Oakland, CA, USA
Installation view at Mercury 20 Gallery, Oakland, CA, USA

TThe Infinite Moon, 2019, digital archival prints on metal, detail
The Infinite Moon, 2019, digital archival prints on metal, detail

From the Earth to the Moon, 2019, dome mirror, metal disks, cylindrical pipe, screws, the moon transparency and light. After the 1865 novel by Jules Verne.
From the Earth to the Moon, 2019, dome mirror, metal disks, cylindrical pipe, screws, the moon transparency and light. After the 1865 novel by Jules Verne.

Pantea Karimi’s work as a multi-disciplinary artist centers around visual representations and textual contents in medieval Persian and Arab and early modern European scientific manuscripts in five categories: mathematics, medicinal botany, anatomy, optics/astronomy and cartography. This recent research project has further broadened her interest in the long-term exchange of knowledge across these cultures. She specifically examines how illustrations in ancient scientific manuscripts played a role in communicating knowledge, and how the broader aesthetic considerations of science were closely linked to art. Her work collectively highlights the significance of visual elements in early science and invites the viewer to observe science and its history through the process of image-making. Karimi works with interactive installations, virtual reality, silkscreen and digital prints on various substrates. She moved from Iran to the UK to study and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2005.

Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo will be exhibited in the Fall of 2019 at the Euphrat Museum of Art in De Anza College in Cupertino, California, USA.

Pantea Karimi Ccownwork

Pantea Karimi wishes to thank the British Library and staff for the opportunity to view and study the scientific manuscripts in their care.

For more information visit:

18 July 2019

The first Iranian newspaper: Mirza Salih Shirazi’s Kaghaz-i akhbar

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Todays guest blogger is Borna Izadpanah, PhD Candidate, University of Reading. Borna is a typeface designer and researcher based in London. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading working on the history of typographic representation of the Persian language.

Fig 1_Mirza Salih  Fig 1_Mirza Salih
Left: the 1829 lithographed portrait of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī by Karl von Hampeln. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia; right: the 1868 statue by John Henry Foley of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī in the Asia group of the Albert Memorial, Kensington Garden. Photo by the author

In 1837, the first Iranian newspaper was published in Tehran by Mīrzā Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī, one of five students dispatched to England under the patronage of the crown prince ʻAbbās Mīrzā with the mission to acquire a knowledge of modern European sciences. Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ kept a journal of his time in England that lasted from 1815 to 1819, a manuscript of which is currently held at the British Library (BL Add. 24,034).

Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s journal reveals significant information regarding his interest in the ‘art of printing’, which led him to an apprenticeship under an English printer and typefounder (most likely Richard Watts). He also recorded an account of his encounter with newspapers in London. Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ translated the word newspaper into Kāghaz-i akhbār [literary news-paper]. Perhaps, for this reason, Kāghaz-i akhbār (and often Akhbār-i vaqāyiʿ [news of events]) is used in most sources to refer to his untitled newspaper.

Fig 3_Journal_2000
Folio 133r of the manuscript copy of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue containing information concerning his encounter with newspapers in London (BL Add. 24,034). Public domain

Before his return to Iran in 1819, Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ, with the help of Richard Watts, purchased a typographic press to be shipped to Iran. Later he established a lithographic press in Tabriz, with a press and equipment that were imported from Russia. A single copy of the first publication from the latter press, a lithographed Qurʼān (Ramaḍān 1249/1834), has only recently come to light and is now preserved at the Majlis Library in Tehran.

Fig 4_MS Seal_2000
Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s seal which reads al-Wathiq al-rajī Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ ‘confident and hopeful [of the forgiveness of the God] Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ' (National Archive FO 60/23). Courtesy of the National Archives, UK.

A few years later, Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ published a newspaper in Tehran under the royal decree of Muḥammad Shāh Qājār. Initially a lithographed Ṭalīʿa [pre-publication advice] of this newspaper appeared between 29 December 1836 and 8 January 1837. In 1945, the Persian journal Yādigār published the entire content of the Ṭalīʿa, the only known copy of which was reportedly in the possession of Ḥāj Muḥammad Āqā Nakhjavānī. According to this Ṭalīʿa, one of the main missions of this monthly newspaper was to educate and inform the residents of the mamālik-i maḥrūsa-i īrān [the guarded domain of Iran] about the news of the Eastern and Western nations. This newspaper was to be distributed to different parts of the country (See Yādigār, 1945).

In 1839, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society published an article entitled ‘Persian newspaper and translation’ in which the entire content of Kāghaz-i Akhbār from Muḥarram 1253 (7 April - 6 May 1837) was printed with movable type followed by an English translation. This article also provided a brief description of the newspaper and its editor: lithographed and printed at Tehran … under the editorship of Mirza Salih, one of the public secretaries of H. M. the Shah of Persia … two large folios, printed on one side only; it is closely written in a plain hand, and is surmounted by the Persian emblem of the Lion and Sun’ (JRAS, 1839, p. 355). Unfortunately no copy of this newspaper survives today in the archive of the Royal Asiatic Society in London.

Fig 5_JRAS_2000
The typeset reproduction of Kāghaz-i akhbār from Muḥarram 1253 (7 April - 6 May 1837), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1839). Public domain

Also, in 1839, Richard Wilbraham in his Travels in the Trans-Caucasian Provinces of Russia reported that ‘a lithographic press has been established of late year in Tehran … within the past year a newspaper has been printed in the capital’ (Wilbraham, 1839, p. 46).

Perhaps the first Persian source that mentioned an existing copy of the Kāghaz-i akhbār was an article entitled ‘Gāzit-i āntīka-yi īrān’ [antique Iranian gazette] in the Persian newspaper Akhtar, printed in Istanbul in 1876. According to this report, an ‘Iranian merchant’, had provided Akhtar with an imperfect copy (lacking the first page) of ‘an antique Iranian gazette’ from approximately 40 years earlier, which contained news of foreign nations including Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Spain, England, and France (See Akhtar, 1876, pp. 2–3).

Finally, in 1968, the leading Iranian newspaper Kayhn for the first time published a rather unclear ‘picture of the first and oldest Iranian newspaper’. According to Kayhn, the Iranian scholar Hamīd Mowlānā was granted permission to photograph this ‘unique copy’ of Kāghaz-i akhbār at the British Museum (Kayhn, 1968). In the following year, a clearer reproduction of the front page of a British Museum copy of Kāghaz-i akhbār (Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253/3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837) appeared in the first published edition of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue, as ‘the only extant copy of the newspaper’ (See Rāʼīn, 1969, p. 27). In fact, this was perhaps the first time that a reproduction of an issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār, which was previously only known through secondary sources, was published.

Fig 6_Kayhan_2000
The Kayhn report entitled ‘picture of the first and oldest Iranian newspaper’. The photograph shows Hamīd Mowlānā (left) presenting a facsimile of the Kāghaz-i akhbār to Alī-Qulī Ardalān (3 August 1968)

With regard to the ‘discovery’ of the Kāghaz-i akhbār at the British Museum there are some conflicting statements. Hamīd Mowlānā later claimed to have ‘discovered’ two copies of the Kāghaz-i akhbār at the British Museum in 1963 (Mowlānā, 1979, p. 15). However, in his PhD thesis –submitted in the same year– Mowlānā writes that ‘today, unfortunately no copy of Akhbar Vaghayeh is extant’ (Mowlānā, 1963, p. 200). Moreover, the only copy of Kāghaz-i akhbār that appears in Mowlānā’s studies, and seemingly all the subsequent studies of this newspaper, is the same issue from Jumādá al-Ūlá; no visual representation of the second issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār seem to have appeared in any publication to this day.

Fig 7_Kaghaz-i akhbar_Journal_2000
The reproduction of Kāghaz-i Akhbār from Jumādá al-Ūlá in the first published edition of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s travelogue, edited by Ismāʿīl Rāʾīn and published in 1969.

In recent years I have tried to trace the cited copies of the Kāghaz-i akhbār in order to study their printing quality and other aspects of their production which could not be deduced from the existing reproductions. According to my investigation, no archive or library catalogue bears any record of an extant copy of Kāghaz-i akhbār –apart from a microfilm at British Library (Or.Mic.4776) which proves that the British Museum at some point possessed two copies of this newspaper. However, I was unable to find a shelfmark or any reference concerning the current location of these two issues. Thus, this led to the assumption that these copies had been lost or even destroyed.

Ultimately, however, and thanks to Dr Goel Cohen who drew my attention to the studies of another Iranian scholar Alī Mushīrī, I was able to locate the copies of the newspaper, which had been moved from the British Museum to the British Library. This investigation led me to the shelfmark O.P. 3 (13), cited in two Persian articles by Alī Mushīrī (Mushīrī, 1963 & 1964) which are probably the earliest sources to introduce the British Museum copies although they did not actually include any visual representation of Kāghaz-i akhbār.

This post is notably perhaps the first report in which the both known copies of the Kāghaz-i akhbār are shown – particularly in their present condition. They were inserted into a large anonymous volume containing miscellaneous newspapers in Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Turkish, Sinhala, Japanese, etc. The two issues are from Rabīʿ al-Thānī 1253 (5 July 1837 - 2 August 1837) and Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253 (3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837). They are completely intact and have been layered by Japanese tissue paper that has stiffened the original paper. This, however, has also desaturated the black printing ink which only appears on one side of the paper.

O_P_3_The Rabīʻ al-Thānī 1253_2000
The Rabīʻ al-Thānī 1253 (5 July 1837 - 2 August 1837) issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P. 3 (13)). Public domain

O_P_3_The Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253_2000
The Jumādá al-Ūlá 1253 (3 August 1837 - 1 September 1837) issue of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P. 3 (13)). Public domain

The illustration of the emblem of Iran Shīr va khurshīd [Lion and Sun] with minor variations appears on both issues. The main headline, which is written in riqaʻ style, reads ‘news of the month of … of the year … that was printed in Dār al-khilāfa [the abode of the caliphate] of Tehran’. As what seems to be a general rule, the right-hand folio contains the ‘news of the Eastern nations’ and the left-hand folio contains the ‘news of the Western nations.’ The main text is written in an elegant nastaʻlīq hand, with the name of cities and countries highlighted in riqaʻ style. The approximate size of a single page is 42 in 27 centimetres.

Fig 10_Lion and Sun_2000
The emblem of Iran Shīr va khurshīd [Lion and Sun]. Left: Jumādá al-Ūlá issue and right: the Rabīʻ al-Thānī issue. Public domain

Some Persian sources have stated that these issues of Kāghaz-i akhbār were sent to the British Museum by an employee of the British legation in Tehran since they contained the news of the death of the King William IV and the coronation of the Queen Victoria (this is reflected in the Rabīʿ al-Thānī issue). Alī Mushīrī mentions a certain ‘Charles Sundt’ as the person responsible for sending the papers to England (Mushīrī, 1964, p. 609). I have not been able to find anyone fitting that description, but, it is possible that the person in question, whose name might have been misspelled in the Persian transliteration, is Charles Stuart, the secretary to the British Envoy to Persia, and the author of Journal of a residence in northern Persia and the adjacent provinces of Turkey .

Primary sources
Microfilm containing two issues of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL Or.Mic.4776)
The manuscript of Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ’s journal (BL Add. 24,034)
The anonymous volume containing two original copies of Kāghaz-i akhbār (BL O.P.3)

‘‘Aks-i avvalīn va qadīmītarīn rūznāma-yi īrān dar muʼassisa-yi ʻālī maṭbūʻāt’, in Kayhn (Tehran newspaper), 3 August 1968, p. 14.
‘Gāzit-i āntīka-yi īrān’, in Akhtar (Istanbul newspaper), 15 February 1876, pp. 2–3.
Hamīd Mowlānā, Journalism in Iran: a history and interpretation, PhD thesis, Northwestern University, Illinois, 1963.
Sayr-i irtibāṭāt-i ijtimāʻī dar īrān, Tehran, 1979.
Alī Mushīrī, ‘Avvalīn ruznāma dar īrānī’, in Khvāndanīhā, Vol 24, No 29, 1963, pp. 25&46.
— ‘Avvalīn ruznāma-yi īrānī’, in Sukhan, Vol 14, No 7, 1964, pp. 906–11.
‘Persian newspaper and translation’ in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland , Vol 5, No 2, 1839, pp. 355–371.
Ismāʿīl Rāʾīn, Safarnāma-yi Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ Shīrāzī, Rawzan, Tehran, 1969.
‘Tārīkh-i rūznāmanigārī dar īrān’, in Yādigār, Vol 1, No 7, 1945, pp. 6–17.
Richard Wilbraham, Travels in the Trans-Caucasian provinces of Russia, London, 1839.

With special thanks to Goel Cohen, Gerry Leonidas, Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, Fiona Ross, Graham Shaw and Michael Twyman.

Borna Izadpanah, PhD Candidate, University of Reading

08 July 2019

Rustam: The Hero with Red Hair

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Today's post comes from Dr Peyvand Firouzeh, Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Foundation & American Council of Learned Societies at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck- Institut. Peyvand has been a frequent visitor to our Reading Room during her research on the art and material culture of the Islamic world, especially early modern Iran and India. 

The Shahnama (Book of Kings), was completed ca. 1010 by the poet Ferdowsi in Persian. It is the most-popularly copied, illustrated, and circulated epic that has survived in Persianate societies. One of the most frequently depicted, key protagonists of the Shahnama is the hero Rustam, known for his remarkable physical strength and, as Ferdowsi put it, ‘elephant-bodied’ (pil-tan) stature.

In manuscript illustrations, Rustam is known for specific attributes that help distinguish him immediately from others: particularly, his tiger-skin surcoat and leopard headwear, and sometimes his ox-headed mace and leopard-skin saddle. But another feature of Rustam’s appearance has remained rather neglected: his red hair. This detail caught my eye while working on a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Shahnama, Or. 1403, at the British Library. A quick look through the manuscript proved that every depiction but one shows Rustam with red facial hair.

Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam overthrows Puladvand. 1438 (BL Or. 1403, f. 183v)

In my attempts to contextualise this feature of Rustam’s appearance, I could only find brief mentions in previous literature: observations that note Rustam’s red hair in a single manuscript (for example, Clinton and Simpson, 178), or associate it with a specific workshop (Goswamy, 25), or with certain periods – for instance the fifteenth-century (Robinson (1951), 83), or the Safavid period (Robinson (2005), 261). It has rarely been acknowledged as a widespread phenomenon (Swietochowski, 186).

Rustam’s red hair, however, crosses geographical and temporal boundaries. It is found in manuscripts attributed to Baghdad, Shiraz, Tabriz, Isfahan, Gilan, Mazandaran, and several workshops in India, starting from some of the earliest surviving illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama in the fourteenth century. Indeed, the red hair is just as old as other iconographic features like the tiger-skin coat and leopard-skin headwear, which are thought to have emerged, respectively, in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscript paintings (Robinson (2005), 253, 256, and 258).

Scene from the Shahnama: Garsivaz prostrating himself before Siyavush in the presence of Rustam. 14th century, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1940.12)

Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam Kills the Turanian Hero Alkus with his Lance. ca. 1450, India (The David Collection, Copenhagen, Inv. no. 3/1988). © Pernille Klemp

Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam leads an attack on the Turanians' allies. ca. 1590, Shiraz (BL IO Islamic 3540, f. 176r)

Of course, to understand the full extent of Rustam’s image as a redhead, a complete survey would be necessary. Based on the material surveyed so far, it seems that in the earliest surviving Shahnama manuscripts from the fourteenth century, the hero is predominantly depicted with red hair, though not completely consistently: this is the case in all of the four surviving Shahnamas made under the Inju dynasty (see H. 1479 , Dorn 329), one of the so-called Small Shahnamas, as well as several other Ilkhanid Shahnama paintings. The red hair features quite regularly in illustrated Shahnamas of the fifteenth century, while the ratio of the hero’s image with red hair to his total surviving depictions seems to drop increasingly from the Safavid period forward.

Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam slays Ashkbus and his horse. ca. 1350, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1944.56)

Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam rescues Bijan from the well, detail showing the red pigment. 1341, Inju, Shiraz (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1945.7)

Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam shoots Isfandiyar in the eyes with a double-pointed arrow, detail showing Rustam’s facial hair with a darker shade. 1486, Shiraz (BL Add. 18188, f. 292v)

With some exceptions, there is usually a good degree of consistency throughout a single manuscript, and some of the inconsistencies could be due to later repairs and repainting. In general, there are also common scenes that eliminate the facial hair to show Rustam in his youth, or depict white hair to indicate old age.

Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam slaying the white elephant, detail showing Rustam with red eyebrows and hair, but no facial hair, hinting at his young age. 14th century, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1929.35)

The emergence of red hair in paintings requires more in-depth study of medieval physiognomy. Christ, too, was commonly depicted with red hair, especially in the fourteenth century. Apart from the connection with blood and bloodshed, there also seems to have been a connection between physical strength and red hair, which Robinson and Swietochowski mention in passing (Robinson (2005), 261; Swietochowski, 186). That ideas about this connection were circulating in the medieval Islamic world can, for instance, be witnessed in descriptions of the Sufi writer Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam (d.1141), who is recorded to have red hair, wine-coloured beard, tall stature, and striking physical strength, which earned him the title Zhanda-pil (Moayyad and Lewis, 8), a term used commonly by Ferdowsi to describe things, animals, and people – including Rustam – that were awe-inspiring.

Unlike the tiger-skin coat (babr-i bayan), which is mentioned by Ferdowsi in the Shahnama, and similar to the leopard headwear, it has been noted in passing that there is no indication of Rustam’s red hair in the text of the Shahnama (Swietochowski, 186). This seems to be the case for most copies. However, in some versions of the epic, there are two lines that do note Rustam’s red hair, and raise interesting questions about the relationship between text and image. The lines occur in the section on the birth of Rustam where Rudaba, Rustam’s mother, had to have a caesarean to deliver the immense baby. The lines in question are among the first that describe Rustam at the moment of birth, bringing together metaphors of light, blood, and the colour red:

The hair on his head all red, his hair like blood,
he emerged like the shining Sun.
Both hands full of blood, he was born of his mother,
No one has ever known of a child like this.

همه موی سر سرخ و مویش چو خون
چو خورشید رخشنده آمد برون
دو دستش پر از خون ز مادر بزاد
ندارد کسی این چنین بچه یاد

Scene from the Shahnama: birth of Rustam. 1616, Mughal, India (BL  Add. 5600, f. 54r)

Interestingly, the authenticity of these two lines has been questioned. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh leaves them out (Khaleghi-Motlagh, vol.I, 267-8), while Dabir Siyaqi includes them in the main text (Dabir Siyaqi, 136), and Ashtiani and others record them in footnotes (Khalifeh, vol.I, 213). I have not yet come across any illustrated manuscripts – even those depicting Rustam with red hair – which include these lines. Yet, the existence of these verses attests that at some or multiple points there was a written – and perhaps oral – dimension to such iconography.

Explaining this disparity between text and image requires more in-depth research into the iconography and textual variations of the Shahnama. Whether the text predates or was inspired by the image remains unclear for the time being, but two preliminary points can be mentioned here.

First, it is possible that earlier texts, images, and oral traditions that have not survived led to the choice of this iconography for Rustam. There is both textual and visual evidence for the transmission of the legends of Rustam dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, before the completion of the Shahnama by Ferdowsi in the eleventh century (Eighth and ninth century versions of the Rustam cycle and Sims-Williams & Sims-Williams (2015), 252-254). Moreover, several depictions of Shahnama scenes on pre-1300 objects and architecture attest to the transmission of the hero’s visualisations prior to the earliest illustrated Shahnama manuscripts that have reached us.

But there is no reason to assume that images of the Shahnama were strictly dependant on texts, either of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama or related legends. Images of a hero like Rustam – like many other people and narratives in the Shahnama – were popular beyond the medium of the book and had a life of their own. Visual traditions of the Shahnama offer multiple examples of artists who took the liberty to depict extra-textual details. Another way to explain the text-image disparity in the case of Rustam is the possibility that his image as a redhead came first, and subsequently found its way into written traditions, either directly or by way of oral traditions. If so, this could be an interesting case where the pictorial, verbal and textual forms of the Shahnama converge on a single figure, and the former informs the latter.

My sincere thanks to Rachel Parikh and Charles Melville for their help with this blog post.


Further Reading
Clinton, Jerome W. and Marianna S. Simpson. “How Rustam Killed White Div: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry.” Iranian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2006): 171-197.

Ferdowsi, Abu’l-qasem. Shahnama, edited by Djalal Khaleqi-Motlaq. New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1987.
Shahnama, edited by Muhammad Dabir Siyaqi. Tehran: Qatreh, 2007.
Shahnama, edited by ‘Abbas Iqbah Ashtiani and Bahman Khalifeh. Tehran: Talayeh, 2007.

Goswamy, B. N. A Jainesque Sultanate Shahnama and the Context of pre-Mughal Painting . Zürich: Museum Rietberg, 1988.

Moayyad, Heshmat and Franklin Lewis, eds. and transl. The Colossal Elephant and His Spiritual Feats: Shaykh Ahmad-e Jam, The Life and Legend of a Popular Sufi Saint of 12th-Century Iran . Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2004.

Robinson, B. W. “The National Hero in Persian Painting.” Journal of the Iran Society, Vol.1, No. 3 (1951): 80-85.
—  “The Vicissitudes of Rustam.” In The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand, edited by Bernard O’ Kane, 253-268. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas and Ursula. “Rustam and his zīn-i palang.” In: From Aṣl to Zāʼid: Essays in Honour of Éva M. Jeremiaś, edited by I. Szánto, 249-58. Piliscsaba: Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2015.

Catalogue entry (p.186) by Marie Lukens Swietochowski in: Ettinghausen, Richard. Islamische Kunst: Meisterwerke aus dem Metropolitan Museum of Art New York . Berlin [u.a.]: Rembrandt-Verlag [u.a.], 1982.


Peyvand Firouzeh, Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Foundation & American Council of Learned Societies at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck- Institut.

24 June 2019

Naskhi-divani: a little-recognized sultanate script

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Today's guest blog is by Vivek Gupta, a historian of Islamic and South Asian art who is completing his PhD thesis “Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600),” at SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology. Vivek is currently based at the British Library for a research placement on illumination in Persian Manuscripts.

The art of the book in sultanate India, particularly of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, is notable for its eclecticism. Because of the sultanates’ evolving political terrain, the search for a coherent narrative of manuscript patronage and production is a challenge. In comparison to painting, one relatively overlooked feature of sultanate books is calligraphy. Here, we examine a script found in sultanate manuscripts that scholars have started to call naskhī-dīvānī.

Fig 1_1500
Fig. 1. Qur’ān, Sūrat al-Falaq, India, ca. 1450-1500, 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add. 5551, f. 189r). Public domain

Appearing in the late fourteenth century, two styles of writing seldom seen outside of India are bihārī and naskhī-dīvānī. Bihārī is characterized by thick horizontal strokes specifically in terminating letters and thin verticals; diacritical markers are horizontal, rather than at a slant. In the Indian Qur’an manuscript (ca. 1450-1500) shown in Fig. 1, bihārī is in black. Bihārī evidently associates the script with the northeastern Indian region of Bihar[1], but the name remains a mystery, especially as it appears far beyond Bihar in places such as Bengal and the Deccan; by early-modern times it also reached Ethiopia. The British Museum’s catalogue, published in 1879, describes the script in the example here as “large and angular Naskhi” and dates it to the fourteenth century[2]. The name for this script is also unresolved in the catalogue of Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna. The first volume of 1918 describes the script of a bihārī Qur’an as thuluth-i kūfī. The third volume of 1965 calls the script baḥr, which means ‘sea,’ while the fourth volume of 1995 designates it as khaṭṭ-i bihār (bihārī calligraphy)[3].

Even less understood than bihārī is naskhī-dīvānī. Naskhī-dīvānī, as the name implies, is a combination of a standard naskh and a dīvānī script often used for chancellery documents. In her pioneering research coining naskhī-dīvānī as a calligraphic style, Éloïse Brac de la Perrière describes it as such:

The bar of the kāf often terminates with a small hook, as with the alif that features a lower tail curving left of its vertical line. Some letters like the kāf are almost angular, however the ḥā’ and khā’ in the initial position and the final ligature of the yā’ with letters preceding it have a rounded appearance with a loop; the dāl is large and open[4]

As seen here in red, naskhī-dīvānī is often used in interlinear Persian translations of Qur’ans in bihārī script. It often appears in marginal glosses of such Qur’ans as well. Since it is frequently diminutive or paratextual to the bihārī script, it has a special affinity with bihārī. In many cases, the scribes responsible for both the bihārī text and naskhī-dīvānī paratext would have been the same individual.

One manuscript copied in a naskh script closely resembling a naskhī-dīvānī is an anthology of Persian poetry (Or.4110) assembled during the reign of the Sharqi Sultan Mubarak Shah of Jaunpur (r. 1399-1402). The manuscript is datable to the beginning of the fifteenth century. In these diagrams for reading poetry the script possesses the angularity of the naskhī-dīvānī and distinctive terminating letters (fig. 2). In the spiraling diagrams shown on the right we see a thick black stroke akin to the bihārī script. The orange and red floral decoration and blue roundels also are typical of bihārī Qur’āns. The craftsmen responsible for this manuscript thus were certainly familiar with the calligraphy and decorative programme of a bihārī manuscript.

Fig 2b Fig 2b
Fig. 2. Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century, folio: 37 x 26 cm (BL Or. 4110, ff. 153v-154r). Public domain

Beyond Arabic and Persian manuscripts, naskhī-dīvānī was also the leading script for the earliest Hindavi vernacular premākhyān, or story of love, the Chāndāyan (1379) of Mullāh Dā’ūd. This was a story told in a highly Sanskritized idiom that borrowed from Persian poetics. Although there has been no critical analysis of the paleography of the Chāndāyan manuscripts to date, it is clear that the script of the majority of these manuscripts is a naskhī-dīvānī adapted for the vernacular (fig. 3). Further, the layout of these texts borrows directly from Persian poetry collections (dīvāns). That these manuscripts were produced in a number of regions (Gujarat, Malwa, Delhi-Agra) over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries attests to the spread of this script. Here, it is worth questioning whether or not the scribes of these vernacular manuscripts were the scribes of bihārī Qur’ans. If this were the case, this offers evidence of a multilingual literate culture in which trained scribes could produce manuscripts in varying scripts.

Fig 3b Fig 3b
Fig. 3. “The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester

In addition to manuscripts of deluxe quality, naskhī-dīvānī appears in unillustrated and unilluminated books from the sultanate world. For example, a copy of the Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī, the fourteenth-century Persian translation of Varāhamihira’s sixth-century Sanskrit encyclopedia the Bṛhatsaṁhitā, is inscribed in naskhī-dīvānī (fig. 4)[5]. We know the manuscript passed through the Deccan sultanate of Golkonda because it bears a seal of Muhammad Qutb Shah (r.1612-26), so it must date from before the end of his reign.

IO Islamic 1262_f1v
Fig.4. Preface, Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Shams-i Tahānisārī, 29.3 x 16.2 cm (BL IO Islamic 1262, f.1v). Public domain

With the substantial and intriguing evidence of naskhī-dīvānī in Qur’ans, Hindavi poetry, and secular works, this script was widespread in a number of languages and genres. This opens up possible lines of inquiry about the scribes’ level of literacy in these languages. For the moment such questions remain unanswered although while it is clear that there are very few cohesive threads in the manuscript culture of sultanate India, naskhī-dīvānī may well prove to be a primary one.

Further reading:
Brac de la Perrière, Éloïse. “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî: remarques sur deux calligraphies de l’Inde des sultanats.” In Ecriture, calligraphie et peinture, Studia Islamica, eds. A.L. Udovitch et H. Touati, Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003, pp. 81-93.
— “Manuscripts in Bihari Calligraphy: Preliminary Remarks on a Little-Known Corpus.” Muqarnas 33 (2016): 63-90.
—, and Burési, Monique, eds. Le Coran de Gwalior: Polysémie d’un manuscrit à peintures. Paris: Éditions de Boccard, 2016.
Mirza, Sana. “The visual resonances of a Harari Qur’ān: An 18th century Ethiopian manuscript and its Indian connections.” Afriques 08 (2017): 1-25.
Siddiq, Mohammad Yusuf. “An Epigraphical Journey to an Eastern Land.” Muqarnas 7 (1990): 83-108.

With thanks to Emily Shovelton and Eleanor Sims

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology

[1] Brac de la Perrière, “Manuscripts in Bihari Calligraphy,” p. 64.
[2] Rieu, Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 1, p. 7.
[3] These catalogues were published from 1918-1995 and are collectively called Miftāḥ al-Kanūz al-Khafiyah.
[4] Brac de la Perrière, “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî,” 89. “La barre du kâf se termine souvent par un petit crochet, de même que l’alif est doté d’une queue inférieure placée à gauche du trait vertical de la lettre. Certaines lettres, comme le kâf sont presque anguleuses; a contrario, leâet le khâà l’intiale et la ligature du yâ final avec les lettres précédentes ont l’aspect arrondi d’une boucle; les dâl sont grands et ouverts.” I thank Hugo Partouche for checking my French translation.
[5] See Orthmann, "Tarjuma-yi kitāb-i Bārāhī (occult sciences),” for a description of this text.

20 June 2019

Islamic Painted Page: Growing a Database

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Today's post is by Stephen Serpell announcing the launch of the new version of his online database Islamic Painted Page, now hosted with the University of Hamburg. In a world where individual institutions still maintain their idiosyncratic approaches to locating and displaying digitised images, this resource is a major breakthrough.

Since its launch in 2013, Islamic Painted Page (IPP) has grown into a major online database of Islamicate arts of the book, with over 42,000 references to paintings, illuminations and bindings from over 270 collections around the globe – of which the British Library is one of the most important.


IPP is found at and it does two things. First, it enables users to locate and compare works worldwide using a single database, displaying images wherever possible; and second, it signposts users onward to more authoritative sources, with hotlinks direct to the specific image pages of collection websites where available, and page-specific references for printed publications.

The website enables users to search by picture description, collection, accession number, date, place of origin, manuscript title or author, or publication – or any combination of these. So it is possible, for example, to find with a single search 77 different interpretations of the famous scene where Khusrau sees Shirin bathing, with IPP itself showing images of 36 of them.

4 out of 77: Five British Library versions of “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing” (BL Add. 6613, f.42r, IO Islamic 138, f.75r, Or. 2265, f.53v, Or. 2933, f.19v)

Or one could look into the development of non-figurative illumination and page decoration during the reign of Sultan Ḥusayn Bāyqarā in Herat, 1469-1506 (70 different results); or search under an accession number to locate reproductions of works not currently published online, such as the paintings from the Topkapi Royal Turkman Khamsah H762; or search by a particular classical author, for example to study the star charts in different manuscripts of the Ṣuwar al-kawākib of al-Ṣūfī. And one can even search the contents of a publication, perhaps to check if it contains relevant illustrations, or to cross-check for metadata that was left out of the printed text (IPP is good for filling in missing details).

IPP aims to help users find not just images of works, but also articles and commentaries about them; so its search results list all the publication references it holds on each item, with the collection website location topmost if one exists. This means that well-known works return multiple “hits” in a search; for example the Miʻraj painting in the British Library’s celebrated Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (Or. 2265, f.195r) is one of the most-published of all Islamicate miniatures and comes up with 25 references. However very few works achieve such fame, and in fact the database currently holds about 42,500 references for its total of about 30,000 separate items - so on average, each item only appears in 1.4 publications.

Multiply published: “The Miʻraj of the Prophet” from the Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (BL Or. 2265 f.195r). Public Domain

This illustrates a further use of the database; its very large size means that it could be used as a starting point for statistical analysis, for example to chart the production of particular illustrated works against place of production or by date, or how the popularity of certain scenes has varied over time.


Finding needles in haystacks: Islamic Painted Page, main search page

The database originated simply from one individual’s frustration over the difficulties of studying Islamicate miniature paintings and illuminations, since they are dispersed all over the planet and references to them are scattered throughout a daunting corpus of literature; and even though many are now published online, it can still be very laborious to find relevant links. This led to a personal database that soon grew to point where it seemed likely to be useful to others, if only it could be placed online. A grant from the Iran Heritage Foundation made the website possible in 2013 with an initial 12,300 entries. Subsequent support from the Islamic Manuscript Association in 2015 improved the website’s utility for manuscript studies, including proper attention to transliteration. By this time the database had already grown to 20,600 references and had built in item-specific links to VIAF, WORLDCAT and FIHRIST so that users can just click to find fuller, authoritative information on authors and works, print publications, and - for UK items - manuscript details. Needless to say, a private sideline had by then become a mega-hobby.

However the most exciting subsequent step has been adding actual images of the paintings, illuminations and bindings wherever possible. Copyright prevents the database from reproducing illustrations in printed works, but IPP also covers works published online; and in many cases this has enabled IPP to show images that have been published as Creative Commons or Public Domain, or where a collection has given special permission.

Example search results (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)

Flyout details for one result (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)

It was a particular pleasure in 2018 to receive permission to incorporate images for the British Library, since it houses one of the world’s most important collections of Islamicate manuscripts and has been digitizing many of its finest holdings. Together with coverage of 19 other collections, IPP is now able to display thumbnails and larger images for about 50% of its references so far; and it is the inclusion of images that transforms the usefulness of the site for most researchers. It should be stressed that every thumbnail and every flyout image in IPP acknowledges the collection source and provides a folio-specific weblink to the relevant collection webpage, together with a recommendation to proceed to the collection website for authoritative images and other details.

Along the way, IPP has had to confront some difficult issues. Users need to be able to search efficiently, especially if they are trying to find a painting of a particular scene; but this requires consistent descriptions, whereas different authorities give different titles to the same scene (eg Khusrau sees Shirin bathing; Khosrow spies Shirin bathing; Shirin bathes observed by Khusrau….). To help manage this, IPP uses just one consistent description for each scene, but also holds the corresponding alternative descriptions. This ensures that users who cannot find what they want among the “consistent descriptions” can still search among the “alternative descriptions” if necessary.

The price for this simple-sounding device is that IPP not only has to check for consistent titling across the entire database for every new entry, but also has to maintain entire sub-databases of descriptions listing every scene encountered in each of about 30 of the most popular painting cycles, such as those illustrating the Khamsah of Niẓāmī (where artists have represented over 300 different scenes), the Haft Awrang of Jāmī and the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (which extends to over 1,000 scenes and where the work of the Cambridge Shāhnāmah project must be fully acknowledged). Hobbyists, beware!

RAS239-7r RAS239-16v RAS239-32v RAS239-44r
Four scenes from the Shāhnāmah painting cycle (Royal Asiatic Society MS 239, ff. 7r, 16v, 32v, 44r)

Different authorities also ascribe different dates and places of origin to the same items. IPP respects this but it does result in inconsistent metadata between the relevant IPP references. And even authorities can make mistakes, or fail to provide essential details, and publications can suffer misprints; IPP has filled in a lot of missing accession numbers and corrected a lot of wrong ones.

IPP includes thousands of references to non-figurative illuminated pages and bindings, as well as covering figurative pictures; and an important upgrade is in hand to improve the detail of its 2,500 references to decorated Qurʼan pages.

Non-figurative examples – bindings, illuminations, decoration (BL Add. 16561, Add. 18579, IO Islamic 843 f.34v, Or. 12988 f.2r)

IPP is an academic resource and its future clearly needs to lie with an academic institution, not with an individual. For that reason, about a year ago IPP began a relationship with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures that aims to enrich the database’s features and extend the coverage of works published online as well as in print. One of the first fruits of this collaboration has been the re-launch of the IPP website hosted and supported by the University of Hamburg, with a new look and a number of improvements to the user interface.

Meanwhile the database continues to grow and it is planned to include more images, enlarge its coverage of collections and secondary sources from the Muslim world, and extend its geographical scope. In this way, it is hoped that IPP can act as a multi-disciplinary resource and assist not only art historians and manuscript scholars, but also contribute to digital humanities and wider cultural studies.

The author would like to thank Dr. Barbara Brend, Professor Charles Melville and Dr. Teresa Fitzherbert, as well as his own wife Elizabeth, without whose support, encouragement and patience Islamic Painted Page would never have come into being.

Stephen Serpell, Islamic Painted Page
Research Associate, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC), University of Hamburg

23 December 2018

Christmas at Lahore, 1597

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Based at the Portuguese settlement at Goa, the Jesuits would be the earliest Europeans to visit the Mughal court at Fatehpur Sikri in the late sixteenth century. Receiving an invitation from the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1608), they made three visits to the court from 1580-95. The agenda of the three missions was to indoctrinate the Mughals to Christianity. During the third mission to the court at Lahore, Father Jerome Xavier (1549–1617) collaborated with the Mughal court writer Abd al- Sattar ibn Qasim Lahori (fl. 1590–1615) to prepare a Persian text based on the Old and New Testaments known as the Mirʼāt al-Quds (‘Mirror of Holiness’). This text was made at the request of the Emperor Akbar and was completed at Agra in 1602. Father Xavier presented a copy of the text to both Emperor Akbar and his son Prince Salim (the future Emperor Jahangir). Although the proselytization was not very successful, there was a clear impact on local artists. With both Akbar and Salim establishing rivaling artistic studios at Agra and Allahabad respectively, they would commission their artists to produce illustrations to accompany their individual copies of the Mirʼāt al-Quds.

In terms of the illustrated version of the Mirʼāt al-Quds, Jéronimo Nadal’s Evangelicae Historiae Imagines (1593) has been identified as the primary source of Biblical imagery that was either directly copied or adapted for their scenes on the life of Christ (Carvalho 2012, pp. 49-62). What remains of Akbar’s copy, as confirmed by the presence of his seal that signifies imperial ownership and patronage, is in the Lahore Museum (Stronge 2002, p. 105). (Carvalho debates and does not corroborate this information.) The remnants includes only ten rather damaged folios with illustrations. According to the art historian Susan Stronge, Prince Salim desired a far superior illustrated version and ordered his artists to execute double the number of pictures for his volume (Stronge 2002, p. 105). The surviving part of Salim’s commission consists of 160 pages of text and 24 illustrations; this manuscript is held in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Adoration of the Magi from Mirʼāt al-Quds, Allahabad, India, c. 1602-04
The Adoration of the Magi from Mirʼāt al-Quds, Allahabad, India, c. 1602-04. Cleveland Museum of Art, CCO.

The British Library’s collection includes an un-illustrated manuscript of the Mirʼāt al-Quds, that was copied and dated 8 Ramazan 1027 (29 August 1618) which falls into Jahangir’s reign (r. 1605-27).

Jerome Xavier’s Mirʼāt al-Quds, copied on 8 Ramazan 1027 (29 Aug 1618). Xavier’s translation was made at the request of the Emperor Akbar and was completed at Agra in 1602 with assistance from Mawlavi ʻAbd al-Sattār ibn Qāsim of Lahore, British Library, Harley 5455
Jerome Xavier’s Mirʼāt al-Quds, copied on 8 Ramazan 1027 (29 Aug 1618). Xavier’s translation was made at the request of the Emperor Akbar and was completed at Agra in 1602 with assistance from Mawlavi ʻAbd al-Sattār ibn Qāsim of Lahore, British Library, Harley 5455  noc

As Father Jerome Xavier arrived in Lahore in 1595 and remained at court until 1615, his letters document his perceptions of life at the Mughal court and in particular, how the Mughals celebrated Christmas at Lahore in 1597. Father Xavier, reporting from Lahore to the Provincial in Goa in 1598, Xavier wrote (Maclagan, pp. 72-3):

At Christmas [1597] our brother Bendict de Goes prepared a manger and cradle as exquisite as those of Goa itself, which heathens and Muhammadans, as well as Christians, thronged to see. In the evening masses were said with great ceremony, and a pastoral dialogue on the subject of the Nativity was enacted by some youths in the Persian tongue, with some Hindūstānī proverbs interspersed (adjunctis aliquot Industani sententiis).… At the conclusion of the sacred office, the gates were opened to all…. Such was the crowd of spectators in those days that the cradle was kept open till the 8th day after Epiphany the fame of the spectacle spread through the town and brought even outsiders to see the sight.

In another letter, Xavier describes some of the decorations they used at the Christmas crib (Bailey, p. 32, quoting from British Library Add. 9854, f. 164b):

…a [mechanical] ape which squirted water from its eyes and mouth, and above it a bird which sang mysteriously...and a globe of the world supported on the backs of two elephants...and above this a large portrait of the King [Jahangir] which he sent us when he was a prince. . .and next to this figure was placed a large mirror at the front of the crib. . .[At the gates] were the Angel, i.e. Gabriel, with many angels, who were accompanied by placards proclaiming ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ or ‘Nolite Timere’ in Persian. Around the Holy Infant in the crib were some sayings of the Prophets who pretold the coming of God into the World.

Although there are no paintings of the Christmas celebrations at the Mughal court that have been documented, nor are there any individual illustrations or detached folios to the Mirʼāt al-Quds in the British Library's collection, there are a number of drawings that document the experimentation with Christian iconography by Mughal artists. This genre of painting would become popular by the early seventeenth century during Jahangir’s reign. Artists were appropriating imagery from European engravings as well as received information from the Jesuit priests on how to convert the cross-hatching of engravings into wash in preparing their nim-qalam drawings (Losty and Roy 2012, 119). Below is an example of an engraving of the Virgin and Child that was pasted into a Mughal album page and compiled into an album for Prince Dara Shikoh and another showing a nim-qalam drawing of the Virgin and Child with Anna the prophetess.

Engraving of the Virgin and Child by a Dutch or Italian artist, 16th or 17th century in a Mughal album page, c. 1630. British Library, Add Or 3129
Engraving of the Virgin and Child by a Dutch or Italian artist, 16th or 17th century in a Mughal album page, c. 1630. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.42v  noc

Virgin and Child with Anna the prophetess, Mughal school, c. 1605-10. British Library, Johnson Album 14,4.
Virgin and Child with Anna the prophetess, Mughal school, c. 1605-10. British Library, Johnson Album 14,4.  noc

Further reading:

Gauvin Alexander Bailey, “The Lahore Mirʼāt al-Quds and the Impact of Jesuit Theater on Mughal Painting,” South Asian Studies 13 (1997), pp. 95-108

Pedro de Moura Carvalho and Wheeler M. Thackston, Mirʼāt al-quds (Mirror of Holiness): a Life of Christ for Emperor Akbar: a Commentary on Father Jerome Xavier's Text and the Miniatures of Cleveland Museum of Art, Acc. no. 2005.145; edited and translated by W. M. Thackston. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012

J.P. Losty., 'Further Deccani and Mughal drawings of Christian subjects', Asian and African Studies Blog, 16 November 2015.

J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012

E. D. Maclagan,  “The Jesuit Missions to the Emperor Akbar”, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 65, part 1 (1896), pp. 38-113

S. Stronge, Paintings for the Mughal Emperor, Victoria and Albert Museum Publications, London, 2002.


By Malini Roy and Ursula Sims-Williams

05 November 2018

The Judeo-Persian manuscript collection in the British Library

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The newly launched Judeo-Persian collection guide is an important and valuable addition to the British Library’s repertoire of Middle Eastern on-line resources, that have been made accessible to increasing numbers of researchers and users worldwide. Additionally, as part of our on-going Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, we have already digitised 34 Judeo-Persian manuscripts and will continue to do more in the months ahead.

Judeo-Persian introduction to the commentary on Proverbs, 11th-2th century (BL Or 2459, f.64v)

Introduction and brief historical note
Although quantitatively modest, the diversity and richness of its content, and the indisputable rarity and significance of some the items found in it, make the Judeo-Persian manuscript collection stand out. It moreover attests to the close, centuries-old cultural and historical ties that have existed between local Jewish and Persian communities.

These links can be traced back to pre-antiquity, more precisely to the period of the Babylonian captivity when, in 597 and 586 BCE, the entire Jewish population in the Kingdom of Judea was exiled by King Nabuchadnezzar II. In 539 BCE Babylon fell to the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great whose famous declaration, recounted in the Bible, and alluded to in the famous Cyrus Cylinder, allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland, rebuild their national life, and most importantly, the Jerusalem Temple which Nabuchadnezzar had sacked and raised to the ground.

Those exiles who decided to remain on Babylonian-Persian territory, formed the core of the permanent Jewish settlements, which little by little spread from the Babylonian centres, to the inner cities and regions of Persia. The tolerance showed by Persian rulers towards their Jewish subjects, especially during the early medieval period, enabled them to prosper and thrive. Biblical luminaries such as Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah for instance, emerged from the newly established colonies, and managed to play leading roles at the royal Persian court.

The history of Persian Jewry is an extensive and fascinating topic, which is far beyond the scope of this short blog. For a clear and concise historical account of the Jewish communities that lived in Persia, from antiquity to the modern era, I recommend Elias J. Bickerman and Walter Joseph Fischel's article "Persia" in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., 2007, vol.15, pp.782-792.

The Manuscripts
The star item in our Judeo-Persian manuscript collection is undoubtedly the eighth-century trade letter found in 1901 in a Buddhist monastery at Dandan-Uiliq, present-day Xinjiang, China (Or 8212/166). Information recently received from a reliable researcher, who has studied in-depth a number of our Judeo-Persian manuscripts, has revealed that the biblical commentaries in Or 2459 and Or 2460, are in fact datable to the 11th to 12th century, i.e. some 400 years earlier than George Margoliouth let us believe (G. Margoliouth’s Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts in the British Museum, 1965, vol.1, pp.184-185). This discovery makes them the second earliest Judeo-Persian manuscripts in our keep.

The blog Important Judeo-Persian bibles in the British Library posted in 2014, provided descriptions of the rarest handwritten and printed Judeo-Persian biblical works the Library holds. These included the Pentateuch dated 6th March 1319 CE (Or 5446), regarded as the earliest dated Torah text in Judeo-Persian, and the beautifully crafted copy of Torat Adonai (God’s Law) issued in 1546 at Constantinople, by Eliezer ben Gershom Soncino. In this edition, the Judeo-Persian tafsir (translation) was printed alongside the original Hebrew text, the Aramaic translation, and the Judeo-Arabic rendition of the eminent rabbinic authority and scholar Sa’adia Gaon (882-942 CE). The Torat Adonai, moreover, was the first printed Persian text of any kind, and the first Judeo-Persian translation of the Pentateuch to become known in the Western world.

The number and quality of our illustrated Judeo-Persian manuscripts are comparatively few and unrefined, yet pleasing nevertheless. Apart from the better-known Or 13704, which was the subject of a special blog posted last year, A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama (Book of Conquest), there are two other specimens which exhibit stylistic traits common to both Persian and Judeo-Persian manuscript painting. Lack of a colophon (the inscription at the end of a manuscript providing details about its production), is an additional common characteristic defining the manuscripts discussed here. Consequently, data about the original commission, and most importantly the identities of the artists responsible for the illustrations, remain shrouded in mystery.

Or 4730 is an incomplete 18th-century paper manuscript of Nizami’s Persian medieval epic Haft Paykar (The Seven Beauties). The text has been copied in a neat Persian Hebrew semi-cursive script as can be seen here:

Or_4730_f049v Or_4730_f049v
Left (f.49v): a royal feast showing Bahram Gur in the upper register, offering a cup to the lady seated on his right. Below, musicians are seen playing on a lyre, flute and tambourine, while a female performer executes a balancing act with bottles; right (f.44v): an example of the neat Persian Hebrew script used throughout (BL Or 4730)

Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209) is acknowledged as the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature, with the Haft Paykar perhaps regarded as his masterpiece. A polymath with a phenomenal intellect, Nizami was not only versed in Arabic and Persian literature, but was also intimately familiar with diverse fields of knowledge, ranging from astronomy, astrology, botany, mathematics, to medicine, Islamic law, history, philosophy and many other. In the Haft Paykar Nizami succeeded in illustrating masterfully the harmony of the universe, and the affinity between the sacred and the temporal. Nizami’s erudition and scholarship are perfectly reflected in his intensely lyrical and sensory poetical output, earning him the well-deserved appellation of Hakim (Sage).

Or_4730_f073r Or_4730_f128r
Left (f.73r): squatting on a decorated bench alongside one of the Seven Beauties, is Bahram Gur feasting in the Golden Pavilion; right (f.128r): Bahram Gur feasting in the White Pavilion. Two female musicians are seen playing the lyre and the tambourine (BL Or 4730)

Completed in 1197, Haft Paykar was a romanticized biography of Bahram Gur (the Sassanian ruler Bahram V, ruled 420-438 CE). The Seven Beauties were princesses who became Bahram’s wives, and who received their own distinctly colored and themed pavilions in his palace. The princesses would entertain the king with compelling and captivating stories, whenever he visited them. In the story, Bahram’s royal prowess was tested, and he had to learn lessons on fairness, justice and responsibility. The 13 illustrations in our manuscript depict scenes closely related to the central narrative. Though crudely drafted, they are nonetheless likeable, owing chiefly to their colors, as attested by the examples included above.

Or_10194_f028v Or_10194_f028v Or_10194_f028v
Left (f.8v): a girl holding a bouquet of flowers; centre (f.28v): a warrior in Qajar attire carrying a sword and a bludgeon(?); right (f.46v): an old, bearded dervish carrying an axe and begging bowl (BL Or 10194)

Written on thick paper between 1785 and 1825, the album Or 10194 is a poetical anthology by various poets. The poor calligraphy is mitigated by the five full-page vividly coloured paintings executed in opaque watercolors. These are effectively portraits of various characters, executed in traditional Qajar style.

The largest portion of our Judeo-Persian holdings, however, are unadorned textual manuscripts. Among them the following are worthy of attention:

  • Or 8659, contains a theological-apologetic section of Sefer ha-mitsvot (Book of Commandments). It largely consists of a religious discussion of various aspects of the commandment of circumcision. Despite its brevity (ten leaves only), the manuscript is significant as a very early specimen of Karaite apologetic literature written in Judeo-Persian.
  • Or 10576, is an important fragmentary example of a Sidur (Daily Prayer book) according to the Persian rite.
  • Or 4743, the only known complete manuscript of Daniyal Nameh (the story of biblical Daniel).
  • Or 2451, a Pentateuch copied at Qum, 1483-1484, that includes Josiah ben Mevorakh al-ʿAqūlī's calendar of the cycles with rules for fixing the Jewish festivals (ff. 363v-375v).
  • Or 10482, a miscellaneous compilation comprising ‘Amukot Shemu’el (Samuel’s depths), definitions of difficult words in the Book of Samuel, arranged in order of the biblical verses (ff.99r-114v). An early work of great lexical importance.

In this blog I have endeavored to discuss significant collection items written in Judeo-Persian, pinpointing at the same time some commonalities and differences between them and Persian manuscripts. Place of production, artistic and thematic elements, along with language and history, constitute principal areas of intersection, that offer ample scope for discovery, interpretation and research.

Watch out for my follow-up blog, when I will be focussing on the Judeo-Persian printed book collection the Library owns.

For a complete list of our Judeo-Persian manuscripts with brief metadata, and hyperlinks to those that are already online see our list of Digitised Judeo-Persian manuscripts.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies