[Over a richly coloured Persian miniature painting of a prince surrounded by courtiers, the following text appears in a black box: State Library of Victoria. Love and devotion: Persian cultural crossroads: The 'arts of the book' and the diffusion of Persian culture – Professor Charles Melville.]
[The logos for the State Library of Victoria, the Bodleian Libraries at University of Oxford, Melbourne: UNESCO City of Literature, and the State Government of Victoria appear on the far left of the screen.]
[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: Well, the title of my talk is The 'arts of the book' and the diffusion of Persian culture. And basically I’m going to look at these three things in reverse order, that’s to say, first of all, Persian culture, then diffusion and then something about the arts of the book. I’ve got quite a lot to say, I’m afraid, in an hour, and I don’t want to lose you with too much detail. But essentially I want to talk about three things.
One is putting Persian culture in its context – that’s to say its historical context. And then some of the themes, try to identify some of the themes and motifs that go into some of the books that are on display, and are very relevant and significant, essentially, for what we’re talking about – Persian art. And then, finally, look at the books themselves. So what do we mean by Persian culture and why is it at a crossroads?
My aim in this lecture is to introduce Persian culture to those who may not be wholly familiar with it in such a way as to help contextualise the magnificent exhibition currently on show in the Library. There, and in the beautiful book produced to accompany the exhibition, you will find many exquisite examples of Persian art on display. My purpose is not to discuss these works individually or even as a whole, let alone tell the stories that they tell, but rather to identify some of the main themes and recurring patterns that can be found in these fine masterpieces of medieval book painting.
Of course, the main theme is love and devotion, but this subject is set in the context of Persian culture as a whole and with a view to identifying how influential Persian culture has been on the literary and artistic life of its neighbours. Indeed, the diffusion of Persian culture is not only something of regional significance in South-West Asia, but, thanks to the presence of Europeans in Ottoman Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and India, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, an appreciation of Persian art and literature became more generally widespread and was nourished by the opportunities provided by colonial and imperial ambitions in the region to purchase or otherwise acquire many manuscripts and other precious artefacts.
Unsurprisingly, the focus of this exhibition is on the 15th to 17th centuries, which in many ways was the peak in the production and diffusion of Persian manuscript art. However, it would be wrong to suppose that this cultural florescence was something unique to that period, either in terms of the sophistication of the work produced or in terms of its influence over a wider region. In fact, Iran has been the scene of a long and ancient civilisation. So before beginning to investigate some of the main recurring features to be found in the manuscripts on display here and elsewhere it might be appropriate to glance very quickly at some of the major phases of Persian history, because culture cannot be dissociated from the historical context in which it is produced, and which contributes, indeed, to the idea of Iran.
I do not want to enter here into a long and torturous debate still raging over the idea of Iran through history as some sort of magic thing that’s always been there, and whatever’s happened, there’s always been Iran, there have always been Iranians, and a very nationalistic attitude, which is, of course, a totally artificial construct imposing, really, Western concepts of nationalism on a historical past. To reduce the question to its essentials, we must start at least somewhere near the beginning – the career of Cyrus the Great and his establishment of the Achaemenid Empire in around 557 BC. He and his successor Darius the Great, who’s on the right – you can just about see it up here, with the subject people all gathered down below him, and all this is covered with inscriptions – at Bisitun. He and his successor Darius the Great …
[Text reading: Founders of the Achaemenid Empire 6th century B.C. Cyrus at Pasargadae and Darius at Bisitun, appears onscreen. Photos show an imposing tomb towering from a base of broad steps, and an elaborate relief carved into a rocky cliff face.]
Professor Melville: … presided over a territory and a multitude of subject peoples from the Aegean in the west to the borders of Central Asia and India in the east. This empire was destroyed by the invasion of Alexander the Great, who burnt Persepolis in 330 BC and whose men looted the tomb of Cyrus at Pasargadae. Despite this, Alexander was incorporated among the king lists of the Iranians and depicted as a king-god, or god-king, in the Persian tradition of early 14th-century manuscripts.
[A far shot of the lecture theatre shows the audience facing the stage. The screen behind Professor Charles Melville displays a map and a richly coloured miniature painting. The image is too small to see detail or to read the accompanying text.]
Professor Melville: So here we see Alexander the Great portrayed as though ... Well, in fact, he’s got a halo, which isn’t particularly Iranian, but ...
Professor Melville: Anyway, he’s obviously done a lot better than you would have expected for someone who’s destroyed their empire. There are several pictures, including one in the exhibition, that depict Alexander cradling the dying Darius in his lap and paving the way for his legitimate succession to the throne. Actually, of course, it’s all fake tears because he tried to organise Darius's men to murder him in the middle of the battle, which they did and then he had them executed.
Although several other important turning points and changes of dynasty can be identified in subsequent Persian history, particularly the Arab invasions that brought Islam to the region in the 7th century, and the Mongol invasions that opened a new era of Turkish domination in the 13th century, I want to jump to the Timurid Empire established by Tamerlane, who died in 1405, and continued by his successors for the duration of the 15th century.
As we can see from this map – it’s not a very good one, I’m afraid – Timur’s empire stretched over much the same area as that of the Achaemenids and of Alexander. I’ve marked with red dots some of the key cities whose names will come up repeatedly in the course of this. So Timur’s capital is at Samarqand, which, of course, is nowhere near Iran. Delhi, he led an expedition to Delhi. This is Herat, which was the capital of the Timurids, his successors. Shiraz, a great centre of manuscript production. Baghdad. Well, he set fire to Damascus and defeated the Ottoman sultan near Ankara. So you can see that he got around. His capital, as I say, was in Samarqand. By the beginning of the 16th century, we enter a period that historians often associate with the three great Islamic gunpowder empires, but it’s important that we also take into account the Uzbek dynasties of Central Asia, where that cunning green arrow is. They were the heirs of the Timurids in the east …
[A slide displays a map titled Map of the Persian cultural sphere c. 1600. Numerous places are labelled in red and black, and a long green arrow runs across Central Asia.]
Professor Melville: … and maintained capitals in Bukhara and Samarqand that enjoyed a lively cultural activity in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as close commercial and intellectual links with India and Iran. So, in summary, we can see, first, that Iran was associated with many imperial regimes of either local or alien origin for 2000 years before the coming of the Safavids and their Ottoman, Mughal and Uzbek contemporaries. Furthermore, these regimes encompassed not only Iran but great parts of Anatolia, Central Asia and northern India. Many of those regimes were not actually centred in modern-day Iran at all, but in capital cities located to the west and particularly to the east. In other words, there is a long history of the diffusion of Persian civilisation across this wide region. Not only were there several conquerors like the ones I’ve already mentioned – Alexander, Mahmud al-Ghazni, Timur, Babur, who founded the Mughal Empire, and later Nadir Shah, who invaded India – merchants, scholars, poets and artists followed in their wake and stimulated a two-way flow of migration and translation. Another element that must be taken into account is the physical geography of the Iranian plateau itself. The land is essentially mountainous and dry, with rainfall diminishing from the north-west to the south-east, so it starts quite wet up there and then ends up very dry down there.
[A relief map is titled The land of Iran. It shows mountain ranges coloured red running through a brown land.]
Professor Melville: There are very few rivers containing water all the year round. This makes rainfall and snow melt a precious commodity, and great pains were taken to store and channel water for productive use. Hence the great significance of gardens in Persian literature and the prevalence of symbolism surrounding natural forms – trees, streams, meadows and, above all, roses, and the well-known metaphor of the rose perfect in her beauty …
[Text reading: The Naranjistan (Place of oranges) in Shiraz. 19th-century governor’s house, appears on screen above a photo of a lush oasis at the base of a barren mountain range. A larger photo shows a tree-lined manicured garden featuring an ornate waterway that leads to a stately building.]
Professor Melville: … for whom the love-struck nightingale sings his hopeless romance. I’ve got here just an indication of the difference water makes as you’re going along a completely barren landscape, really, that just a stream creates a small oasis and permits cultivation. Many, if not all, the miniature paintings on display in this exhibition contain trees, flowers and gardens together with birds and other creatures, either in the main body of the painting or in the marginal decorations. Most action is also set against the background of a bare mountainside. As often as not, there is a stream running across the foreground fringed by colourful plants and stones and sporting some ducks or other wildfowl. Even the indoor scenes often have an opening onto a garden or a wall decorated with animals and plants, like the margins of the page.
In short, I might say that the strength and vitality of Persian culture is due partly to its long association with a succession of great imperial regimes which dominated not only the Iranian plateau but also neighbouring territories. From this perspective, Iran is at the centre or crossroads of a cultural ecumene embracing many different peoples. Secondly, many of its most common features reflect the physical characteristics of the region and the Persians’ deep engagement with nature.
I’d like now to turn to three other ingredients that I think have a long-term significance and that have provided the subject matter for most works of creative writing and the adornment of manuscripts in which these texts are transcribed and preserved. One is kingship and the exploits of successive shahs from the legendary to contemporary times. Much of this, indeed, can be described as creative rather than scientific writing, especially because one of the principle characteristics of these works is their didactic message to propound ethical values and mirrors of princely conduct. So this is the first history. There are many illustrations of rulers enthroned.
Secondly, religion has also provided a great source of inspiration as well as intellectual argument, whether it be Zoroastrianism in the pre-Islamic period, or one of the many different movements within Islam in later times. Unlike Jesus, the Muslim God is not primarily a God of love, but rather a God of mercy. And I do not intend to discuss orthodox Islam in this lecture, nor the magnificent efforts directed towards producing beautiful manuscripts of the Qur’an, the first book par excellence for Muslims and the first text to be lavishly and lovingly adorned, but, we should note, not illustrated. Islamic art is not like Christian art in this respect. It is the word that is celebrated and illuminated, as witnessed by the emphasis on calligraphy. There is no equivalent to Bible illustrations for the Qur’an. Some stories, like that of Yusuf, or Joseph, are transferred to Sufi texts as in the transformations of the story of Yusuf and Zulaykha, which is very much on display in the exhibition. And my wife, Firuza, is going to be giving a paper about this in the conference. Rather then, we may focus on Sufism or Islamic mysticism in which love is a key ingredient and which, indeed, has sometimes been seen as having attained such popularity precisely because it catered for the emotional and spiritual needs of those wishing to understand and reach their God in a more personal way.
Well, heroic deeds and the devotion of both high and low for Sufi teachers and men of God provide the subject matter for many illustrated works. As can be seen in the regular portrayal of princes visiting dervishes in the wilderness. Like this is a very common topos. Embracing the ever-popular coupling of two forms of authority – the temporal and the spiritual. We have shahs and shaykhs, or sultans and dervishes, a very common juxtaposition and confrontation of these two sources of authority. They’re both often called shahs. Many Sufi shaykhs are called shah, like Shah Nimatullah Wali and many others. It was poets and poetry, thirdly, who really attracted the genius of the Persian miniature painters and their patrons. We have the emperor Babur who started the Mughal Empire there, reading a nice poem in his book. Indeed, if some genuine continuity of Persian culture can be associated with Iran and Iranians over the last millennium, it is in the field of high literature and the use of literary Persian over a wide area in which despite the great output of authors of non-Iranian background, superiority has always been acknowledged to lie in the work produced in Iran, and particularly by the great classical poets, such as Firdausi, Nizami, Sa‘di, Hafiz, Jami and a handful of others. It is mainly the work of these poets that is repeatedly illustrated in the manuscripts displayed in the current exhibition.
The reverence for these three groups – that’s kings, saints and poets – can be shown by the fact that all three were honoured, or, in the case of kings, glorified themselves by the construction of tombs and shrines, the examples of which we can see in the next few slides. Many of these tombs are now located outside the borders of Iran, with the exception of those of the poets. One point to bear in mind is that in the course of the 17th century Sufi shaykhs tended to lose their aura and to be replaced in popular devotion by the Shi‘ite imams.
[Text reading: The tomb of the Samanids in Bukhara, 10th century, appears on the photo of an imposing stone tomb with a domed roof and an arched doorway. Around it are squares of lush grass, trees and a garden.]
Professor Melville: Well, I’ll just quickly run through this. This is the famous tomb of the Samanids in Bukhara. This is really where the Persian renaissance, literary renaissance, began. Then we have the tomb of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar, in Merv, which unfortunately has been restored rather horribly since I took this picture. This is the 12th century, this was the Turks entering into the area previously dominated by the Persians.
[Text reads: The tomb of the Mongol Khan, Sultan Oljeitu at Sultaniyya, c. 1316. Before and after restoration. The photo on the left shows an unrestored brick building with a domed roof and elegant arched windows. The right-hand photo shows the same building, its dome now covered with turquoise tiles and its walls a sandy brown.]
Professor Melville: A little bit later, we have the invasion of the Mongols. This is the tomb of Sultan Oljeitu in Sultaniyya. We have Timur’s tomb in Samarqand, Humayun’s tomb in India. This is more interesting, some of the others, because Humayun actually fled to Iran in the Safavid period and sought refuge with Shah Tahmasp, who helped him recover his territory at the outset of the Mughal period. And many artists and historians went with him back to India. And another dynasty of interest are the Qutbshahs, who were independent rulers down in the Deccan, in southern India or central India. Turning to the tomb of saints … I’m just trying to emphasise the point that these three categories of people have played such an important role in Persian history and culture. We have Ahmad-i Jam on the left – a tomb in the open air. And the tomb at Natanz of ‘Abd al-Samad, which is 14th century. The famous Sufi master Naqshband, who died in 1389 just outside Bukhara. Ahmad Yasavi in Turkestan, that’s to say in modern … could be Uzbekistan, I’m not quite sure if it’s Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Anyway, all of these are outside Iran. As you see this one, this shaykh and many of the others were supported or at least feted by the rulers. You see that Timur here ordered that the construction of this shrine in honour of this saint. So, again, we have the sort of intermarriage between the rulers and the Sufi masters – separate sources of authority. The famous shrine of ‘Abdullah al-Ansari in Herat …
[Text reads: The shrine of Shaikh Safi al-Din (d. 1334), ancestor of the Safavid dynasty, in Ardabil. The tomb of Shah Isma‘il I (1501-24) is behind it to the right. The shrine features a tall cylindrical tower topped with a dome and decorated with a colourful geometric pattern.]
Professor Melville: … which was patronised by, again, Timur’s successors – Shahrukh and his wife, Gawhar Shad. The tomb of Shaykh Safi al-Din, the ancestor of the Safavids in Ardabil. This here, there is the tomb of Isma‘il, who became the first Safavi ruler. And this is to show that, as I was saying, it’s not just the Sufis who have their shrines, but also the relatives of the Prophet and the descendants of the imams. This is the Shah-i Chiragh mausoleum in Shiraz. You see Shahi Chiragh – the King of Lights – they have the same title, ‘king’, as the rulers. And then the shrine of … well, supposed to be the shrine of ‘Ali at Mazar-i Sharif in Afghanistan. Of course that’s absolute nonsense. And Imam Khomeini, who isn’t really an imam, of course, but he was given this title, this horrific new complex on the road from Tehran down to Qum. Finally, just quickly, poets. We have the tomb of Firdausi in Tus and Sa‘di and Hafiz in Shiraz. You see the beautiful gardens and the flowers going with these tombs. And people visit these tombs as though they’re Sufi shaykhs. I mean, they come and pray on their tombs and they make prayers just as if they were religious figures.
From this rapid survey, we can conclude that the veneration for kings – and their associated activities of hunting, feasting and fighting – saints and poets are the main engines driving Persian cultural expression in art and literature. One of the most consistent and highly developed outlet and form for these expressions is the book, by which we understand both the literary text and the physical shape and design in which that text is disseminated and received.
Love and devotion on the part of or directed towards kings is rather different from that of shaykhs and poets, who seem increasingly to be inhabiting the same world, and, as noted, poets are close to Sufis and often are Sufis. But the relationship between monarchs and mystics is also strong, as I’ve said, and is celebrated in many confrontations, as is that between princes and poets due to their mutual dependence through patronage and the need for praise and propaganda. So, in other words, these three groups are all sort of tied together inescapably. One interesting text that forms a bridge connecting these three elements is Gazurgahi’s ... Gazur Gah is the shrine where ‘Abdullah al-Ansari is, outside Herat, so ‘Gazurgahi’ means that he came from that place. His Majalis al-‘Ushshaq, which means the ‘sessions of the lovers’ – which was formerly attributed to Sultan Husayn Bayqara, the last of the Timurid rulers – which narrates the loves of shahs, saints and poets. Its thesis in a nutshell is, 'How can one attain true love of the Creator and realise the full dimensions of love and devotion if one has not previously experienced earthly love?' The text contains 40 or more short chapters, each of which is devoted to a well-known figure, usually a Sufi saint or poet. These are not erotic tales, nor even particularly scurrilous, although they do almost invariably involve the hero falling in love with or being infatuated by the beauty of a young man. The narrative of the love affair is generally rather brief and punctuated by passages of poetry. I’m just going to run through two or three of these characters who I’ve already mentioned.
For instance, Jalal al-Din Rumi, the famous poet, one day entered the goldsmiths’ district and became intoxicated by the sound of their instruments working and began to dance – as he is on the left. A young man called Shaykh Salah al-Din came out of the shop and fell at Rumi’s feet – which is happening on the right. And Rumi at once fell in love with his beauty and continued to write poetry in his honour for 10 years. Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam – the one who had his tomb outside I showed you – in a state of drunkenness fell in love ... Literally drunkenness, so these are the barrels of wine you can see up here. He got through quite a lot, apparently. That’s before his repentance, of course. ..in a state of drunkenness fell in love with the son of the emir who was governor of Nishapur in such a way that he became hidden from his disciples. ‘Attar is said to have become infatuated with the son of the mayor of his native village, who continued to inspire his mystical verses. Well, Amir Khusrau of Delhi is supposed to have fallen into the trap of the beauty of Hasan, one of the attendants of the Sultan Firuz Shah – who’s on the right. Ibrahim Sultan – whose magnificent copy of the Shahnama is on display in the exhibition, and there’s a nice book about him written by Firuza and myself – is supposed to have fallen in love with the tutor of his son Isma‘il, even though he was quarrelsome and bad-tempered. His infatuation was such that he lost all control of state affairs until he had a dream one night in which he saw a black cloud approach with thunder and lightning and a voice telling him to flee from danger to the royal tent. This he did in fear and trembling. And when he woke in the morning, the infatuation was reversed.