Charles Melville on the 'arts of the book' & diffusion of Persian culture: part 2
In this lecture Professor Charles Melville focuses on illustrated and richly illuminated manuscripts that address the themes of love and devotion. Manuscript books on topics ranging from religion and science to history and poetry were one of the main vehicles for the expression of Persian high culture and its transmission to western and central Asia.
Professor Charles Melville is Professor of Persian History and Director of the Shahnama Project at the University of Cambridge.
This lecture was part of the 2012 Love and devotion Persian Cultural Crossroads conference.
Please note that the image of 'carpet page' illuminations which Professor Melville discusses at 14:55 is shown early in the video at 14:15. The image of library and ownership seals that Professor Melville refers to at 19:15 is shown early in the video at 17:26. We apologise for any confusion this may cause.
Charles Melville on the 'arts of the book' & diffusion of Persian culture: part 2 transcript
[Professor Charles Melville stands at a podium. Behind him to his left can be seen a detail from a Persian manuscript, showing a seated man, with a flaming aureole around his head, holding hands with a woman. The corner of a video screen is visible to his right.]
[Note to the reader: Many of the slides referred to by the speaker in this lecture are not shown in the video. All slides shown in the video contain footer text stating 'University of Cambridge, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern studies: looking eastwards.']
Professor Charles Melville: The Majalis al-‘Ushshaq ends with a section on Shah Sultan Husayn Bayqara, the last Timurid prince, who used to be considered the author of this work. His long reign is truly a golden age in which both Jami, the poet Jami, and Nava’i flourished. He was also the author of his own divan. There we have a beautiful illustrated copy, on the left, you see all the lovely birds in the margins. This portrait of him is supposed to be by the famous artist Bihzad, who was also in Herat during this period. It’s notable there are no copies of the Shahnama commissioned by Shah Sultan Husayn Bayqara. It was an era in which lyricism and mysticism prevailed and one that consolidated the view of the value of the great classical poets. Indeed, Jami was soon considered to be the last of these. Clearly these stories and the paintings associated with them correspond most fully to the theme of love and devotion and are closely associated with …
[An image is titled: The Arts of the book: Text and image from Iran to Turkey, India and Central Asia. Text below the image reads: The poet Jami (d. 1492) introduces the statesman and poet, Nava’i (Navoi, d. 1501) to the poet Nizami (d. 1209). The Persian miniature painting shows bearded men in colourful robes and white turbans sitting on yellow mats near flowering trees. stream runs past and up the hills behind them.
Professor Melville: … the diffusion of Persian culture. But first, we should take a step back and start with the world of kings and heroes … [non-lecture aside] … because this actually shows some sort of continuity. It’s the poets at the court of Sultan Husayn Bayqara, that’s to say Nava’i and Jami, introducing themselves to the famous poet Nizami.
As noted earlier, Iran is at a cultural crossroad not only due to political and imperial history of Iran’s own empires or incorporation into those of others and geographical position – for everyone has neighbours – but also as the homeland of Persian language and literature. New Persian, written in the Arabic script after the Muslim Arab invasions in the 10th century, was already reasserting itself as a literary and not simply a vernacular language. And one of the first monuments of this is the Shahnama of Firdausi, completed 1000 years ago in 1010, which articulated a deep love of country and proclaimed an Iranian moral chivalrous code. Love stories are generally rather brief interludes, which will be noted by other speakers in the conference. The word ‘ishq, or 'love', is mentioned only a handful of times, and this is in a poem of over 50,000 verses. I found four or five references to the word ‘love’. In the preface to the Shahnama, Firdausi praises the moon and refers to the rising of the new moon as appearing thin and pale, bent like the back of someone who is suffering the pains of love.
[Speaks in Persian]
The first time Firdausi mentions love in a romantic context is the love story of Zal and Rudaba. When Zal first saw Rudaba, the poet says, The heart of Zal at once went mad, wisdom disappeared and love became happy.
[Speaks in Persian]
That’s for the benefit of the Iranians in the audience.
Firdausi also notes the destructive side of love when after the tragedy of the death of Siyavush, Rustam upbraids Shah Kay Kavus by saying, Through your love for Sudaba and her evil nature, the royal crown has been snatched from your head.
It’s hardly necessary to emphasise the importance of the Shahnama both for the development of later Persian literature and in the evolution of a tradition of manuscript illustration. In Iran itself, the Shahnama continued to be one of the most illustrated texts and, not unnaturally, regularly commissioned by royal patrons such as Ibrahim Sultan, already mentioned – the grandson of Timur and prince-governor of Shiraz. His artists established an iconography for the depiction of many scenes that was followed in the remainder of the 15th century. As Shi‘ism took a hold, we also find that ‘Ali and the imams are substituted for Rustam as the hero of epic exploits, also written in verse.
The Shahnama as a royal poem was also adopted as a model in Ottoman Turkey, especially during the 16th century, where the post of official Shahnama writer was established to document the exploits of the Ottoman sultans in Persian in emulation of Firdausi. This borrowing embraced both imagery for scenes that had nothing to do with the Shahnama narrative. Here we have a picture that you would expect to be Rudaba famously letting her hair down so that Zal could climb up, which is what you find on the right-hand side. I’ll just draw your attention to the fact this is the Shah Tahmasp Shahnama, the famous and most beautiful of all, which I’m going to mention again later. There you see Rudaba letting down her hair for Zal to climb up. But here, this is a story of an Ottoman siege of a castle and the girl in the castle fell in love with the soldier and helped him climb up, so in other words, the story is totally different but the iconography of the scene is the same. And straightforward copying of the Shahnama in Turkish translations also happens. So here we have the famous love story again of Bizhan and Manizha. This is a copy made in Turkey, in Turkish. This is of the story. And here is an example in Central Asia. I’ve just picked these two examples to show you this isn’t in Iran, this is a copy made in Central Asia and a copy made in Turkey, but using the iconography, more or less, and the same stories.
In Central Asia too, though to a lesser extent, the Shahnama enjoyed some popularity, particularly at the turn of the 17th century, when there was an active atelier in the city of Samarqand. This manuscript, for instance, was written in Khiva but not illustrated for another 50 years. This is the story of Faridun’s three sons being sent off to marry the three daughters of the ruler of Yemen. And I think they were going to do a lot better than some of the other princes, actually, because they’re quite pretty, the Yemeni girls. On the whole, there was more interest in illustrating historical chronicles, as in Ottoman Turkey.
In India, the Shahnama was also very well received, although here ... This is also Zal and Rudaba, of course … though here, apart from copies brought from Iran, there was also a prose epitome made of the poem with substantial excerpts in poetry. This is the reverse, this is the girl coming down to greet Ardashir, in fact another love story, a story of devotion which is rather seldom treated. Essentially, he’d been captured and she sort of helped him escape, and then, of course, like all the other women in the Shahnama, you never hear about her again after she’s done the job for the man. [Non-lecture aside]
This is just to show another Indian copy of the Shahnama. This is Bahram Gur, who is a famous hunter but also a famous womaniser, and here you see he’s taking his pick of four daughters. But the bit I really like is this chap going by with a goat, which shows there’s some sort of sense of humour involved in the Indian artist here.
Yes, so this is the other one I was mentioning, commissioned in 1653 by the governor of Kabul, who was too busy to read the whole poem, so this was sort of a prose epitome. This again is the story of Bizhan and Manizha. The Indian work is rather distinctive and often disparaged by Persian art historians, feeding the notion of Iranian superiority. Although, the significant point for us is the persistence of the attachment to the epic and the widespread desire for illustrated copies well into the 19th century, and particularly in Kashmir, a phenomenon still awaiting adequate investigation. As in Iran, other epics, notably the Hamzanama, enjoyed a parallel or possibly greater popularity – the secular epic turned to serve the purpose of glorifying religious characters.
Despite the evidence of the continuing popularity of the Shahnama in Ottoman Turkey, Uzbek, Central Asia and Mughal North India, it seems clear that the most popular texts for the illustration remained the works of the classical poets such as Sa‘di, Hafiz, Amir Khusrau and Jami. In the Ottoman Empire, indeed – unlike Central Asia and, more particularly, India – no Persian copies of the Shahnama itself were made except for a number of examples apparently copied in Baghdad of a version that ended with the story of Alexander, a rather appropriate point for the heirs of the Byzantine Empire.
The popularity of poets other than Firdausi and the preference for romantic and lyrical verse is shown by the large number of manuscripts and illustrated copies made of the work of the Persian classical poets. Here I’m just going to run through just a few brief examples. We see Sa‘di’s Bustan, made in Central Asia. And I’ve just picked ones from outside Iran. So we have the Persian poet Sa‘di, a manuscript decorated in Central Asia with a frontispiece showing pairs of lovers, that has nothing to do with the text, actually, there’s just pictures at the front. And also Central Asian copies of the works of the poet Hafiz. This is poor old Hafiz himself, looking a bit sort of overcome. This is an illustrated copy I owe to Firuza from Wadham College in Oxford. And this is the front page, probably from the 19th century. Again, a Central Asian copy of the Divan of Hafiz which starts with the first part in Arabic, actually, interestingly enough, with the famous first line of Oh, cup bearer, pick up the cup and take it round, for love at first seemed easy but difficulties have appeared, which is obviously something almost all of us can associate with very readily. So this sets the tone for the whole sort of … basically, the difficulty of attaining the beloved. I mean, for those of you who don’t know, Sufism is all about – this is the whole point – is you’re trying to reach the object of your affection or your desire or your love, and of course it’s very, very difficult. And this can be what you might call a carnal desire, of course it’s then sublimated into the desire for the union with the curat– with the Creator. Nearly said 'union with the curator'. People might wonder how I got the job here.
Professor Melville: Anyway ... In the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, there are many examples of the work of the Indian poet Amir Khusrau illustrated in Central Asia. And also Nizami – that’s an Iranian poet – ever-popular Khamsa produced in India or modern-day Afghanistan. Well, of course these paintings aren’t really quite up ... Anyway, the one on the left is rather sort of typically awful in a way. But, you know, again, the fact is these are not necessarily the most beautiful copies, but what is important is that they were made at all.
Another author whose works were widely appreciated is the poet and statesman Nava’i, whose divan of poetry – 'divan' means a collection of poetry, it means a register, initially – written in Chaghatay Turkish, emulated Persian models and was popular across the Persian-speaking world. So here we have a nice Turkish manuscript of the divan of the Turkish poet Nava’i, but Nava’i happened to be writing in Herat, you know, quite a long way from Ottoman Turkey. I hope these few examples, which of course do little more than scratch the surface of the range and depth of the diffusion of Persian book culture across the region over several centuries, are sufficient to make the point.
So having looked briefly at the most popular texts and their diffusion across the Persian world, I would like to conclude by looking briefly at the actual books in which these texts were disseminated. What I’d particularly like to draw attention to in the brief time available is the unity of the design of the books themselves. In looking at the bindings and the inside covers as well as the illuminations and adornments of the text, we see many similarities and recurring motifs. This is ... Stefano Carboni will recognise this. Actually, several of these things were in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This is a picture of the outer covers of a manuscript made in Isfahan around 1600, showing the protective flap. This is a distinctive characteristic of Persian book binding…
[Text reading: ‘Carpet page’ illuminations, appears above three leaves of aged paper richly decorated with intricate designs, mostly in gold and deep blue.]
Professor Melville: … the flap comes over and obviously protects the text inside. This one has a stamped and gilded decoration, but others already from the 16th century have painted lacquer bindings. So this is a copy of this ... in Paris of the famous Majalis al-‘Ushshaq I was talking about before. The inside covers often contain a beautiful delicate filigree pattern as you see up here. This is cut out and so the paper comes through. Amazing delicate work. A particular feature that echoes other elements of the book and also artwork in other media, look, for example, at the so-called carpet pages that frequently adorn the opening passages of a manuscript, ranging, in this case, in these examples, from the 15th to the 19th century. That’s the 15th-century one. That’s the 19th-century one. And this is a 16th-century one.
It’s not for nothing that they are called carpet pages, when one considers the design of Persian carpets, such as these examples from the early 16th century, notably the famous Ardabil Carpet in the Victoria and Albert Museum – on the right-hand side – from the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din, which I showed a picture of earlier. The central sunburst medallion that is found on both outer and inner covers is also reminiscent of other features of Persian art, for instance in the jewellery – this is also in the Metropolitan Museum – and indeed in the decoration of architecture. If you’ve been to Iran, you look up inside a dome, you often see it exactly the same, a great sunburst with the rays coming out. The image on the right side shows a shamsa – ‘shamsa’ is ‘sun’ in Arabic – at the beginning of an album made for the Mughal Sultan Shah Jahan, in around 1645. These very decorative elements often contain the names of the sponsors or patrons or dedicatees of the manuscripts in which they occur.
Here, for example, are two more royal dedicatees. One, the same Ibrahim Sultan, grandson of Timur, who I’ve already mentioned once or twice. And the other in the name of Shah Isma‘il II, Safavid ruler, who reigned only a year and a half, from 1576 to ’77. In the bottom left-hand corner of Ibrahim Sultan’s one, here, there’s a library note, which shows that the librarian was checking that the manuscript was still held in the royal library. Ibrahim Sultan’s older brother, Baysungur Mirza, also commissioned a manuscript of the Shahnama, which was completed in 1430. The illumination of this manuscript is exceptionally fine, as seen in the opening pages where there appears a design incorporating the names of God.
[Text reads: Library and ownership seals of the 18th century. A photo below shows an aged document covered with circular red and black ink stamp marks of various shades and sizes. Beside it is a photo of a document covered with black markings and script.]
Professor Melville: This is here. That could be a carpet. And also in the elaborate and unusual series of illuminated headings in the preface. I mean, this is really a remarkably beautiful manuscript. And, really, the illuminations and the decoration of the text, really, is quite exceptional. These shamsas, or illuminated rosettes, where they contain the name of a patron, are clearly the best indications of the original ownership of the manuscript. Nevertheless, many of these works, and especially the more precious ones, changed hands quite frequently. One of the best indications of this is the seals or inscriptions that are often found on the flyleaves or at the beginning or end of the text.
One superb example of this is in the Shahnama manuscript made for another grandson of Timur, Muhammad Juki ... [non-lecture aside] subject of a recent wonderful book by Barbara Brend, which I saw is in the bookshop in the Library. The seals here reveal the presence of the manuscript in the royal library through the reign of several of the Mughal rulers, and its subsequent journey through the hands of different private individuals, usually librarians. Many other manuscripts contain such seals, particularly copies originating from India which was the main source of supply for the later European collections.
Two more examples are shown here from the Free Museum in Philadelphia, one a late 16th-century manuscript, with 18th-century seals and inscriptions, some of which have been erased – on the right-hand side – and an 18th-century manuscript from the royal library of Muhammad Shah, the Mughal ruler, with seals ranging from 1727 to 1872. That’s the one on the left-hand side.
This is really just to show how these books are really treasured and passed around, and then, of course, looked after by a various succession of owners. These precious books could change hands in many ways, of course. For instance, as the spoils of war in which artists and artisans could also be taken captive and transferred to another court. Reflecting their value as sought-after and expensive items, manuscripts could also be presented as gifts. One of the most famous of such transactions was the diplomatic gifts sent by Shah Tahmasp to congratulate the new Ottoman Sultan Selim II on his accession to the throne in 1566. So what we see here is that manuscript I mentioned briefly, the beautiful Shah Tahmasp Shahnama, being presented as the first present. You see the ambassador is bowing down appropriately low, and the gifts are all waiting. And you see the front row of gifts are books – these are the most precious gifts of all. Those would be Qur’ans as well as the Shahnama and other precious books. Yeah, so among these precious gifts was the spectacular copy of the Shahnama completed in around 1540, which by general consent is the most beautiful and sophisticated of all Shahnama manuscripts. The Persian texts were very much in demand at the Ottoman court, and subsequent diplomatic missions from Iran invariably brought precious books as gifts, as in 1582 in the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III. That’s what’s happening on the right. And there again you can see that these are probably jewelled bindings around the text.
Manuscript books were also frequently given as pious donations to religious establishments. One prominent example of this is the benefaction made by the Safavid ruler Shah ‘Abbas. He presented many Qur’ans and works on the Islamic sciences written in Arabic to the shrine of Imam Reza at Mashhad. And he donated works in Persian, mainly historical texts and poetry, to the ancestral shrine of Shaykh Safi at Ardabil, which I showed you earlier. These volumes are inscribed with the text of ‘Abbas’s benefaction … which also contains a curse on those who remove the books from the library.
Professor Melville: This is the thing written up there, on the margin of this text. And this is the close-up of it. But the interesting thing is he’s given the book so people go and read it – you can read it in the library, but if you take it away, then you’re responsible for the blood of the Imam Husayn. In fact, 166 manuscripts were taken by the Russian general Pavel Petrovich Suchtelen, the son of a famous bibliophile, in the final stages of the second Perso-Russian war in 1828, although he is said to have paid a generous price in gold roubles, which he left in a bag on the tomb of Shaykh Safi. These are now held in the National Library in Russia, in St Petersburg. A further set of manuscripts found their way to St Petersburg shortly afterwards when the Persian ruler Fath ‘Ali Shah sent the young Prince Khusrau Mirza to the Russian capital on a peace mission following the murder in Tehran of the Russian envoy Griboedov in 1829. Among the manuscripts sent on this occasion was the divan of poetry of the Shah himself. That’s the illustrated or illuminated copy of Fath ‘Ali Shah’s own divan of poetry. Fath ‘Ali Shah also commissioned illustrated copies of a work called the Shahanshahnama – the Book of the King of Kings – by the court poet Saba, extolling the deeds of the ruler in a verse epic emulating the work of Firdausi in its style, metreand metaphor. These copies were presented to several of the ruling monarchs of Europe. The Queen’s got one in England and I think the French have got one and the Hapsburg emperor also, I think, has got one.
It is with such transactions and the acquisition of manuscripts by purchase or as gifts by Europeans such as Sir Gore Ouseley – who has many of the manuscripts in the exhibition – in the course of their diplomatic missions in India and Iran that the next phase of the diffusion of Persian culture began, and indeed opened up a fascinating new chapter in the reception and perception of the works of Persian literature in the West. But that’s another story. Thank you for your attention.
[A long camera shot shows the audience applauding Professor Charles Melville. Behind him, the screen displays a statue. The writing on the screen is illegible.]
[The logos for the State Library of Victoria and the State Government of Victoria appear in white on a black screen.]
Love & devotion in the UK
The Bodleian Libraries is showing its own presentation of the Love and devotion exhibition at the Exhibition Room, Bodleian Library, in Oxford, England, between 29 November 2012 and 28 April 2013.
Learn more about how you can visit this exhibition on the Bodleian Libraries website.
Love and devotion: Persian Cultural Crossroads
This two-day conference held in April 2012 featured distinguished international guests and Australian specialists exploring cultural convergences in literature, the arts and architecture, history and philosophy within Persia's cultural sphere and Europe, from the 11th century to the present day.
For information on keynote speakers & topics discussed, visit our conference page
Visit the exhibition
The Love and devotion exhibition took place from 9 March to 1 July 2012. In-depth information about the exhibits and themes can be found on this website.
State Library of Victoria, 328 Swanston Street,
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Tel +61 3 8664 7000