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Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy: Noteworthy Items

Some fragments in the Library of Congress, i.e., single-folio items with calligraphic compositions, illumination, or paintings, are neither Qur’anic nor do they contain the names of known Persian or Turkish calligraphers.  For these reasons, as well as the fact that these fragments are often of exquisite beauty, they are discussed separately here.

Four distinct unillustrated text fragments that do not belong to the Persian poetic tradition are particularly notable.  The first fragment belongs to the tradition of historical writing in Persian (1-85-154.69).  It contains a 13th- or 14th-century copy of Balcami’s Persian version of Tabari’s Arabic-language historical encyclopedia entitled Ta’rikh al-Rusul wa-al-Muluk (History of Prophets and Kings).  The second fragment belongs to the Arabic exegetical (tafsir) tradition (1-88-154.9) and contains the text of al-Baydawi’s Anwar al-Tanzil wa Asrar al-Ta’wil (The Lights of Revelation and the Secrets of Interpretation).  The Persian exegete al-Baydawi (d. ca. 286) largely condensed and altered al-Zamakhshari’s Arabic-language Kashshaf can Haqa'iq al-Tanzil (“The Discoverer of Revealed Truths”), which was completed in 1134 C.E.  The third fragment contains a commentary on the Arabic grammar treatise of Sibaywahi (d. 793) preceded by two illuminated title panels (1-88-154.10).  The fourth and last calligraphic item provides a series of consecutive folios from a Mughal copy of the Farhang-i Jahangiri, a Persian lexicon probably executed in 1618-19 (1-87-154.61a et seq).  This Persian language dictionary was composed by Jamal al-Din Husayn, who was born Fakhr al-Din Hasan Inju Shirazi (d. 626), a Persian scholar active at the court of Akbar in Agra.

Besides these few fragments of historical, exegetical, and grammatical texts, the Islamic calligraphic items in the Library of Congress exist primarily in pages extracted from Safavid (1501-1722) and post-Safavid albums of calligraphies.  Scores of calligraphic sheets include poetical verses, quatrains, and lyric poems composed by the famous Persian poets Nizami (d.1218), Rumi (d. 1228), Sacdi (d. 1292), Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (d.1325), Hafiz (d.1388-89), and Jami (d. 1492).  A number of these fragments are signed and dated by known calligraphers.  Others remain anonymous—including many executed with utmost skill—and are mounted onto beautifully decorated album pages.  In both cases, some of these album pages contain intricately designed human figures, angels, and registers bearing inscriptions (1-2000-154).

A number of single-page items also were extracted from illustrated manuscripts rather than albums of calligraphies.  In particular, the much-loved stories from Nizami’s Khamsah (Quintet), copies of which were illuminated and illustrated in large quantities in Iran during the 16th century, form a large body of work.  The first and final pages of each of Nizami’s five books are particularly interesting as exemplars of textual and marginal illumination (1-84-154.1a et seq).  Other models of illumination on pages from manuscripts that were either not executed or left incomplete show the profuse use of lapis lazuli and gold (1-85-154.62, 1-85-154.87, and 1-85-154.75).  These items demonstrate that illumination often was applied to folios prior to the text’s transcription—providing clues to the multiple stages of producing a manuscript.

Much like the illumination items, no single painting in the Library of Congress bears an artist’s signature.  This is unfortunate since Persian paintings, manuscripts, and historical sources offer a plethora of information about painters active during Safavid rule,[i] the period most strongly represented in the collections.  It is probable that the unsigned paintings represent market-bound products rather than those made exclusively for a royal patron.  For these reasons, all paintings— except for one belonging to the Hamzahnamah (Tales of Hamzah) of ca. 1564-79 made for the Mughal Emperor Akbar (1-90-154.188 R)— are unexceptional both in their choice of subject and quality of execution.

Once again, Nizami’s Khamsah (Quintet) stands out as the most popular book for illustration.  A number of 16th-century Persian paintings in the Library of Congress represent episodes from several books in the Khamsah.  A painting from the third book narrating the tragic love story of Laylah and Majnun depicts the fainting lovers (1-86-154.123 R). Two other paintings represent episodes from the fourth book, the Haft Paykar (Seven Thrones), in which the great Persian king Bahram Gur hunts wild animals (1-87-154.117 R) or sits in the yellow pavilion (1-04-713.19.29 R). A painting from the Iskandarnamah (Book of Alexander the Great), the fifth book of Nizami’s Khamsah, portrays the feast of Iskandar and Nushaba, the Queen of the Caucasian city of Barda (1-86-154.122 R).

Two other Safavid paintings not included in Nizami’s Khamsah are in the collections.  One painting is extracted from a manuscript of Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (Book of Kings) and illustrates the demon (div) Akvan throwing the epic hero Rustam into the sea (1-88-154.118 R).  Expressive in its arrangement of forms and with a rocky landscape depicted on the right, the composition calls to mind paintings produced during the last quarter of the 16th century.[ii]  The last painting in the collections portrays a standing woman framed by a lyric poem (ghazal) of Hafiz (1-2002-154.6).  The composition is typical of 17th-century paintings from the Persian capital of Isfahan, which were included in albums or produced as single-sheet compositions for sale in the bazaar.  The change from manuscript illustration to single-page paintings demonstrates a transfer of patronage from a royal benefactor to a more varied social elite.[iii]

During the 18th and 19th centuries, new types of calligraphic compositions emerged in Iran and India.  These contain explicitly Shici invocations and poetic verses in Persian sending good wishes to a supporter for health and prosperity on the occasion of the Persian New Year (cid or noruz).

Calligraphers composed panels as a tribute (pishkas) or New Year’s present (noruzi or pishkas-i noruzi) both to honor a patron and request his or her support.[iv]  Half a dozen panels in the Library of Congress bear witness to this calligraphic pishkas tradition, which remains insufficiently studied.  Two panels are signed and dated.  The first panel, which includes praises of cAli, was written in 1796-97 by Muhammad Bakhsh (1-84-154.51).  The second panel, which calls its owner a “Generous Mineral” (kan-i karam), was completed in 1810 by Mir Muhammad Salih (1-04-713.19.3).  Two other items are undated— but signed— by Agha Muhammad cAli (1-85-154.99) and Agha’i (1-04-713.19.48).  An anonymous and undated fragment also displays its Shici milieu, since it includes prayers for the Prophet Muhammad and his family (1-04-713.19.49).  A final fragment bearing good wishes on the occasion of cid appears to have been composed ca. 1900 in Afghanistan for the royal consort Pari Beygum Sahib (1-88-154.57).

At the same time that Shici pishkas-i noruzi calligraphic panels gained popularity in Iran and India, other calligraphic compositions also demonstrate unmistakable Shici themes.  For instance, a panel written in multiple scripts and ink colors by one Farid al-Din proclaims that “there is no victory except cAli [and] there is no sword except Dhu al-Fiqar” (1-84-154.18).  Another text composed by Hafiz Nur Allah compares his patron’s skill in battle to cAli’s own wartime prowess using an analogy of cAli’s nickname Haydar (lion) and his sword Dhu al-Fiqar (1-85-154.96). 

Other 19th- and 20th-century documents of obvious Shici character include a note about the construction of a takiyah, a building used for the yearly commemoration services and mourning ceremonies of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn at the Battle of Karbalah in 680 (1-85-154.85).  Finally, at least two Shici calligraphic panels were used as amulets or talismans.  One panel depicts a mosque dome with two flanking minarets (1-92-154.195); the other illustrates prominent figures of the ahl al-bayt (“Shi’i talismanic piece”).

There are other significant pieces in the collections of the Library of Congress dating from the Qajar period (1785-1925), which do not necessarily carry a Shici message.  One document consists of a royal decree (firman) dated 1839 granting James Lyman Merrick the right to establish a school in the city of Tabriz, located in Azarbaijan (Firman) Province in northwestern Persia.  This firman provides new information about the activities of the American Presbyterian missionary James Merrick (d. 1866), best known by scholars of Islamic history for his English translation of Majlisi’s (d. 1699) biography of the Prophet Muhammad.[v]  Another Qajar document contains on its recto a marriage decree (caqd-namah) dated 1804-05 and, on its verso, a sales contract (mubayacat-namah) dated 1813 (1-90-154.189).  Both the marriage decree and sales contract appear related to one another, thus highlighting the economic ties between families living in Isfahan at the turn of the 19th century. 

The most striking, and as yet unstudied, calligraphic novelty of the mid- to late 19th century is so-called “fingernail writing” (khatt-i nakhani).  This technique uses either a nail or a metal stylus to impress letters onto a monochromatic sheet of paper.  Although possibly tied to new technologies such as lithography and the printing press, examples of fingernail calligraphy often utilize the time-honored nastacliq script (1-85-154.63).  As a script without pen or ink, executed in such a manner that the script is barely legible, khatt-i nakhani provides a telling foil for the gradual disappearance of calligraphic practices in the modern era.

19th century calligraphic panel praising 'Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon 19th century calligraphic panel praising 'Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
Frontispiece to al-Baydawi's study of Arabic grammar
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Frontispiece to al-Baydawi's study of Arabic grammar.
The Div Akvan throws Rustam into the sea
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon The Div Akvan throws Rustam into the sea.
The battle of Mazandaran, from the Hamzahnamah
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon The battle of Mazandaran, from the Hamzahnamah.
Bahram Gur in the yellow pavilion
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Bahram Gur in the yellow pavilion.
Shi'i talisman made during the 19th century in Iran
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Shi'i talisman made during the 19th century in Iran.

[i] The most prominent authors of treatises on calligraphers and painters during the Safavid period include the author Qadi Ahmad and the album compiler Dust Muhammad.  See Qadi Ahmad, Calligraphers and Painters, a Treatise by Qadi Ahmad, son of Mir Munshi, circa A.H. 1015/A.D. 1606, Freer Gallery of Art Occasional Papers 3/2, trans. Vladimir Minorsky (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1959); and Wheeler Thackston, Album Prefaces and Other Documents on the History of Calligraphers and Painters, Studies and Sources in Islamic Art and Architecture, Supplements to Muqarnas 10 (Leiden, Boston, and Cologne: E. J. Brill, 2001), 4-17.

[ii] The composition's style is typical of paintings produced between the rule of Shah Tahmasp (1524-76) in Qazvin and Shah cAbbas I (1587-1629) in Isfahan.  See Anthony Welch, Artists for the Shah: Late Sixteenth-Century Painting at the Imperial Court of Iran (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976).

[iii] On this subject, see in particular Sheila Canby, Persian Painting (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993), Chapter 5; and Massumeh Farhad, "Safavid Single Page Painting, 1629-1666," Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1987.

[iv] During the Safavid and Qajar periods, an official (pishkas-i nivis) registered the number and value of noruz presents and other ad hoc gifts to the Shah (see Ann Lambton, "Pishkas: Present or Tribute?," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 57/1 [1994]: 145-58).

[v] Muhammad Baqir b. Muhammad Taqi Majlisi, The Life and Religion of Mohammed as Contained in the Sheeah Traditions of the Hayât-ul-Kuloob, trans. James Merrick (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1850).

Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy >> Noteworthy Items