Persian Royal Order Granted to James L. Merrick

This Persian firman (royal decree) grants the Reverend James Lyman Merrick the right to establish a school in the city of Tabriz in northwestern Persia (Iran). The decree was issued by Shahzadah (Prince) Malik Qasim Mirza (died 1859), one of the members of the Qajar royal family and the governor-general of Urumiya and Azerbaijan in 1829‒49. The firman includes a note in English in the upper-right corner, which reads: "A Firman or Order, of Muhammad Shah, the present King of Persia, authorizing Rev. J.L. Merrick to open a school in Tabriz in 18(3)9." At the top center appears the royal seal of Muhammad Shah (reigned 1834‒48), below an invocation to God in gold ink. Below the seal impression, a bismillah (in the name of God) in gold ink initiates the main text of the decree, which gives the Reverend Mr. Merrick permission to open a school to teach taʻlim-i aftal wa javanan (children and youngsters) various ʻulum (sciences), such as geography and ʻilm-i hisab (accounting). The last line of the decree states that it was tahrir (written) on 21 Rabiʻ al-awwal, 1255 AH (June 5, 1839). James Lyman Merrick (1803‒66) was an American Presbyterian missionary in Iran from 1834 to 1845. He had studied at the Princeton and Columbia theological seminaries. In 1834 he was ordained at Charleston, South Carolina, and was immediately sent on a mission to Persia. He stayed in the cities of Tabriz, Shiraz and Urumiya until 1845. After his return to the United States, he was in charge of a Congregationalist church in South Amherst, Massachusetts from 1849 to 1864 and taught “oriental” literature at Amherst College from 1852 to 1857. He wrote a number of books on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, which were translated into Persian at the end of the 19th century. In a letter to the Missionary Herald published in 1838, Merrick noted the opening of his school and stated that Prince Malik Qasim Mirza wanted him to spend the winter with him as his tutor. However, he was uncertain whether he would stay in Iran as the school was not in a “flourishing condition.” He did not elaborate further on the subject. This note and the firman provide valuable evidence of some of the earliest American missionary efforts in Iran around the middle of the 19th century.

Invocation of ʻAli

This calligraphic fragment includes a duʻaʼ (invocation) to ʻAli, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, in the central text panel. Written in black nastaʻliq script on a beige paper decorated with arabesque motifs painted in gold, the Shiʻi duʻaʼ reads: “Call upon ʻAli who causes marvels to appear / You will find him to help (you) in adversity / All anguish and sorrow will vanish / Through your guardianship, oh ʻAli, oh ʻAli, oh ʻAli.” In the lower-right corner of this main text panel appears the calligrapher’s signature: “katabahu (written by) al-mudhnib (the poor) Ahmad al-Husayni.” The triangular area that contains the signature is rather suspicious: the paper does not match the main text panel and this section appears to have been cut out and pasted onto the fragment. It is possible that the otherwise-unknown calligrapher Ahmad al-Husayni may have removed the original calligrapher’s signature and replaced it with his own. The main text panel is framed by a pink border decorated with gold vine motifs and a large blue frame decorated with gold leaves and panels of Persian verses. Each rectangular panel of text has been individually cut out and pasted into the appropriate panels in the blue border. The whole composition is contained on a larger sheet of pink paper painted with gold flowers and backed with cardboard. Although the original, main text panel executed in large nastaʻliq script may have been executed during the Safavid period (16th century), the surrounding border and the calligrapher’s signature may have been added later, in the 18th‒19th centuries. Such procedures of alteration show how some calligraphies experienced a “second life” when combined into albums or passed down through the hands of another calligrapher.

Section of Mirkhwand's "Rawzat al-Safa'"

This fragment includes a section of the Rawzat al-Safaʼ (The garden of purity), a Persian historical encyclopedia composed by the prolific Timurid author Mirkhwand (Muhammad ibn Khavandshah Mir Khvand, 1433‒98). This particular excerpt begins with an invocation to Huwa al-ʻaziz (God, the Glorious) and then relates a particular episode in the life of the seventh Shiʻi imam Musai al-Kazim ibn Jaʻfar (circa 745‒99). The imam is described as going one day to a mountainous place where he sees a group of Christians looking for a rahib (monk) in a dayr (monastery) from which he had not exited for an entire year. Although the remaining portion of the story is lost, the last word va (and) and the number 12 in the lower-left corner hint that the text may have continued on a subsequent page. The text is executed in black taʻliq typical of the 18th and 19th centuries, while the theme of its text suggests an Indian Shiʻi milieu. Written diagonally on a cream-colored paper, the text panel is framed by a dark-green border outlined in red and backed by cardboard for strength.


This calligraphic fragment belongs to a series of 22 inshaʼ (literary compositions or letters) written by calligraphers named Mir Kalan, Khan Zaman (son of Khan Khanan), Qaʼim Khan, Lutfallah Khan, and Mahabat Khan. Judging from the script (Indian nastaʻliq), a seal impression bearing the date 1113 AH (1701−2), and a letter mentioning the city of Janpur in India, it appears that these writings were executed in India during the 18th century. Furthermore, if one were to identify the calligrapher Mir Kalan as the renowned painter active during the mid-18th century in Lucknow, then this identification would add further support to identifying this calligraphic series in the Library of Congress’ collection as a corpus of materials produced by several writers active in 18th-century India. The calligraphies are typically written in a hasty nastaʻliq on white paper, framed in blue, and pasted to a pink or salmon cardboard. They stand out for being in rather poor condition, in many cases badly damaged by worm holes and/or water stains. Some bear squiggle-like marks in the margins, while others include seal impressions that were cut out and pasted onto the cardboards. In most cases, an attribution to a calligrapher is written at the top, preceded by the expression raqamahu (written by) or khatt-i (the handwriting of). The recto of this particular calligraphic fragment is attributed to Khan Zaman on the top horizontal, although the attribution note is quite damaged. In the lower-right margin appears a squiggle motif and some hasty inscriptions. The main text, written in black ink on white paper, is addressed to the writer’s baradar-i mahraban-i man (dear brother or friend). The writer states that he is well, that he received the latter’s letter, and that he hopes to see him soon. The note at the top of the verso of this calligraphic fragment attributes the khatt (writing) to Khan Zaman. The main text, written in black ink on a white paper, consists of the writer’s letter to his dear friend or brother. He states that he is happy to have received his letter and that he now writes back with ishtiyaq (great joy). He also hopes for further continued contact.

Quatrain by Rumi

This calligraphic piece includes a rubaʻi (iambic pentameter quatrain) composed by the Persian poet Rumi (1207−73). Written diagonally in black nastaʻliq script on a white-and-blue marbled paper, the text is also decorated by four illuminated triangles (or thumb pieces) in the spaces left empty by the intersection of the diagonal lines and the rectangular frame. The text panel is framed by two borders in pink and beige painted with interlacing gold vines and is pasted onto a larger piece of paper decorated with blue flower motifs. The verses read: “(Oh) wine-bringer, because of (my) grief for you, (my) mind and spirit left / Give (me) wine so that (my) pride may disappear. / My patience and ability are spent in this way, / I too would vanish, if only I could.” The poet describes the saqi (wine-bringer) as the object of his “intoxicated” love. His abilities disappear “in this way” (i.e., in loving her), and he wishes that he—much like his abilities conquered by the effects of inebriation—also would fade away. The text is signed by the “poor” (al-faqir) Mir ʻAli, much as it is in a similar fragment in the Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Mir ʻAli Heravi (died 1543) was a calligrapher in nastaʻliq script active in the city of Herat (present-day Afghanistan) during the 16th century until he was taken to Bukhara (present-day Uzbekistan) in 1528−29 by the Shaybanid ruler ʻUbaydallah Khan Uzbek. Other calligraphic fragments written by, or attributed to, Mir ʻAli also are held in the collections of the Library of Congress.

"ʻAqd-namah" Marriage Decree

This superb document consists of a legally-binding ʻaqd-namah (marriage contract) written in Persia (Iran) in 1219 AH (1804−5). Like other Persian marriage contracts of the 19th century, the document is quite imposing (at almost a meter in height) and its gold work indicative of the couple's wealth. At the top appears a sarloh or sar lawh (illuminated gold heading) containing a number of prayers to God written in red ink on a gold background. On the right of the illuminated sarloh and in the right margin decorated by flower-and-leaf motifs painted in gold appears another invocation to God as the Ayat al-nur (Light of the Heavens and the Earth, an invocation from Qurʼan 24:35). Between the illuminated prayers and the main text panel appear a number of seal impressions of the various marriage witnesses and the identification of the document as a nikah (marriage certificate). In the main text panel, various prayers to God are offered before introducing the bride and the groom, their various genealogies, their places of residence (Isfahan), and the marriage settlement provided by the mahiryah (groom). In this particular marriage contract, the groom offers his bride 100 dinars, a bakery, and other shops he owns. These “collateral” gifts seem related to the mubayaʻat-namah (sales contract) dated Muharram 28, 1228 AH (January 31, 1813) on the backside of this marriage contract. In this sales contract, several individuals enter into an agreement about the renting of several shops in the grand bazaar of Isfahan. The location of the shops, their goods (e.g., a bakery), and rental fees are specified. In the upper-right corner is the witness’s signature, his seal impression, and the date of Shawwal 2, 1236 (July 3, 1821). This appears somewhat strange, as the witness’s signature postdates the contract by seven years. One might speculate that the difference in dates may be due to a lengthy process of negotiation or an a posteriori addendum to the contract. The sales contract is written in taʻliq script tending towards shikastah. The text is unadorned, which is quite unlike the marriage contract. It appears that both documents are related to one another and provide detailed evidence of the various business and personal activities of a well-to-do merchant active in Isfahan during the first decade of the 19th century. Marriage contracts produced during the 18th and 19th centuries in Persia (Iran) belong to a class of Islamic legally-binding documents, such as vaqf-namahs (deeds of endowments) and vakalat-namahs (powers of attorney), a number of which survive in Iranian collections.

Quatrain of Kamal al-Din Ismaʻil

This calligraphic fragment includes a rubaʻi (iambic pentameter quatrain) written by the famous ʻirfani (mystical) poet Shaykh Kamal al-Din Ismaʻil al-Isfahani (circa 1172−1237). The author’s name appears in the upper-right illuminated corner (or thumb piece) of the text panel. The four lines of verses are written diagonally in black nastaʻliq, framed by cloud bands, and placed on a gold background. The verses read: “Look at that strand of hair and the face of that famous idol / It [the hair] is knotted up without a battle or adversary / Look at those eyebrows, which like wrestlers / Go head to head and arch their backs.” These verses describe the loved one’s hair and eyes. The woman’s hair is perfectly disheveled and her curved eyebrows meet in the center of her forehead, in the shape of wrestlers hunched over and ready for combat. The calligrapher has signed his work diagonally below the last verse, with the expression katabahu al-ʻabd al-mudhnib ʻImad al-Hasani (written by the humble servant, ʻImad al-Hasani). In the triangular panel below his signature and above the third line of poetry, ʻImad al-Hasani asks for God’s mercy and forgiveness for his sins. Mir ʻImad (1552−1615) spent time in Herat and Qazvin and finally settled in Isfahan (then capital of Safavid Persia), where, as a result of his implication in court intrigues, he was murdered in 1615. He was a master of nastaʻliq script, whose works were admired and copied by his contemporaries, and later collected by the Mughals. Many works in international collections are signed by him, including other calligraphies bearing his name in the collections of the Library of Congress, although whether all these pieces are by his hand remains uncertain.

Verses on Tragic Love from Nizami's "Khamsah"

This calligraphic fragment includes three bayts (verses) of poetry that use the tragic love story of Laylah and Majnun, from the third book of Nizami’s epic Khamsah (Quintet), to describe the magic and pain of love. With an initial invocation to God in the upper-right corner, Huwa al-muʻizz (He is the Glorified), the verses then read: “The holy angels that fastened these veils of the green firmament / That placed the cradle of the lovers’ joy outside of this curtain / Those magicians that blow life into bodies by sorcery / They shut the mouths of magic in the presence of the garnet [lip] of the enchanter / New bride of Laylah’s beauty in the empty place of coquetry / They placed [on her] the necklace from the tears of Majnun.” The verses are executed in black nastaʻliq script, written in diagonal and horizontal lines on a beige paper decorated with bird-and-flower motifs painted in gold. The right and left vertical sides of the text panel are framed by a green border bearing gold flecks. The calligraphic specimen is pasted onto a larger sheet of light-yellow paper decorated by interlacing pink arabesques and animals. Between the diagonal and lower horizontal lines on the text panel appears a triangle (or thumb piece) inscribed by the calligrapher Shah Muhammad al-Mashhadi, who notes that mashaqahu (he wrote) the verses and requests forgiveness from God for his sins. Between the first and the second bayt of poetry written diagonally, Shah Muhammad al-Mashhadi also specifies that he wrote the work during the months of the year 968 AH (1560−61). Shah Muhammad al-Mashhadi was a calligrapher originally from the holy city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran who migrated to India. His work as a calligrapher in the nastaʻliq script recalls the style of his more famous contemporary, Mir ʻImad al-Hasani.

Two Textual Excerpts

This calligraphic fragment includes two separate and unrelated texts written diagonally in black Indian nastaʻliq script on beige paper. The lines of the texts are separated visually by strokes in red ink. The first text at the top provides a section from the Indian historical work entitled the Tarikh-i Bikramajit (History of Bikramajit). It appears that this text belongs to a series of works dealing with local histories, in this case of the Indian state of Sangri and its ruler Bikramajit (ruled 1800−1803 and 1815−16). The calligrapher, a certain Jamal-i Nuri, has signed and dated his work in the last two diagonal lines. He states that he executed the text on the 20th day of Rajab during the third regnal year in the dar al-sultanah (capital city) of Lahore. Whose regnal year is not specified, but one may hypothesize that the calligrapher may have written the work during the third year of Bikramajit’s rule, that is, in 1803. The second text in the lower part of the fragment includes a section of Bustan (The fruit garden) by Shaykh Saʻdi, which discusses events during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. This section relates the story of a certain Hakim Taʼi, a generous man who belonged to a tribe that did not accept Islam, and his daughter’s pleading for the Prophet’s mercy upon the killing of her tribesmen. This fragment is written in a fluid nastaʻliq typical of texts written in India during the late 18th century. The nature of the historical text in the upper portion of the fragment and its date also support placing this fragment within a corpus of works produced in 18th century India.

Jami's "Nafahat al-Uns"

This calligraphic fragment includes a section from a hagiographical work by Jami (died 1492) entitled Nafahat al-Uns (Lives of the saints), in which the lives of a number of Sufi saints are described. In this particular folio and its verso, Jami describes an event in the life of the Sufi shaykh Sirri ibn al-Maghlas al-Saqati (died 867). He was the teacher and maternal uncle of the famous mystic Junayd of Baghdad (Abu al-Qasim Junayd ibn Muhammad, died circa 910) and composed many sayings on tawhid (mystical unity), love of God, and other spiritual matters. The biography is continued on the verso of this folio. The Persian verses are written in black nastaʻliq script in two columns on a beige paper. Verses are divided by a plain central gutter marked off by two gold vertical lines. An illuminated chapter heading towards the bottom of the text panel includes the section title about al-Saqati written in white ink on a gold background. The text panel is framed and pasted onto a larger sheet of paper decorated with flower-and-leaf motifs on a blue ground achieved through the use of a pounce. This kind of marginal decoration is found in a number of 16th-century manuscripts produced under Shaybanid patronage in Bukhara (present-day Uzbekistan) from about 1500‒1550. Other manuscripts, such as a 1568 copy of Athar-i Muzaffar (A history of the Prophet) in the Topkapi Palace Library, also make use of pounced motifs as marginal decoration. For these reasons, it is possible to suggest that this manuscript was produced in Central Asia during the 16th century.