June 30, 2016

Moral Lessons Through Bird Stories

This calligraphic fragment includes verses providing two separate stories, in which the protagonists are birds. The first narrative describes two falcons in the desert talking about whether to join the king. The smart one refuses because he notes that freedom is better than service, even to a royal patron. The second story describes a hunter about to shoot a small bird. The latter prays to God to save it, at which time the hunter begins to tremble and his arrow misses the bird. Through God’s intercession, the prey is saved from an untimely death. These moralizing verses are written both vertically and horizontally in black shikastah-nastaʻliq script on a white piece of paper. The verses are divided by red lines. The text panel is pasted to a green piece of paper backed by cardboard and framed by a border heavily damaged by worm holes. In the lower-right corner of the text panel, the calligrapher Muhammad Valikhan Khattat, known as Chalaq (the Speedy One), has signed his work. He also notes that it was completed in 1260 AH (1844). From this information, one may hypothesize that this Muhammad Valikhan Khattat was a swift writer active in Iran during the mid-19th century.

Two Lovers Lost at Sea from Saʻdi's "Bustan"

This calligraphic fragment includes, in the main text panel, four verses from Saʻdi’s Bustan (The fruit garden), in which he succinctly describes the tragic story of two lovers who fall into a whirlpool in the sea. When a sailor attempts to save them, each lover asks him to save the other—as he turns to each one, it becomes too late and both die: “I read that, in a very large sea, / They fell together into a whirlpool. / When the sailor arrived to give a hand / So that they not die in that difficult situation...” The text is executed in black nastaʻliq script framed by cloud bands on a background covered in gold leaf and decorated by vine motifs in black ink. In the upper and lower corners, the spaces between the diagonal lines of text and the rectangular frame are filled by illuminated triangles (or thumb pieces). The main text panel is framed by several borders, including one that contains ten verses of poetry separated by red panels decorated by gold flower designs. The decoration is of mediocre quality and may have been added after the text panel, itself possibly executed in Iran during the 16th‒17th centuries.

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.

Arabic and Persian Excerpts

This calligraphic fragment includes a number of textual excerpts in Arabic and Persian. The top three lines include an invocation to God and a saying in Arabic about the necessity to trust in him. The next few horizontal lines include a saying in Persian about God’s will. The diagonal lines of text in the lower half of the fragment quote the famous Persian poet Shaykh Saʻdi Shirazi (died 1292, 691 AH) beginning with the note min kalam-i Saʻdi Shirazi (from the words of Saʻdi Shirazi). The text taken from Saʻdi is translated from Persian to Arabic in this fragment and gives advice to be aware of what one says. The text is written in black tahriri script. Some orthographic marks and vowels are picked out in red ink, and all lines of text are separated visually by red strokes. The ends of certain sections or phrases also are marked by pyramids consisting of three red dots. The paper is thin and brown, and is damaged at the bottom. In the lower-right corner, the calligrapher Fayaz ʻAli Vasiʻi states that raqamahu (he wrote) this fragment, and in the lower-left corner he has baraya khatir-i (dedicated) his piece to a certain Mamki Nahali. He has written vertically in the top-right margin that he wrote his piece on a ruz-i panjshamba (Thursday), although he does not specify the month or year. As Nahali is a language spoken in Madhya Pradesh, the name of the patron suggests a north-central Indian provenance for this calligraphy. The script—a fluid tahriri found in 18th and 19th-century calligraphies from India—also suggests an Indian provenance.

Excerpt from Saʻdi's "Gulistan"

This beautiful calligraphic fragment includes an excerpt from Gulistan (The rose garden), in which the author offers nasihat (advice) about each man's necessities. For example, a vazir (vizier or minister) needs a lashgar (army) and tarbiyat (education); a raʻiyat (farmer) must observe [nature]; kings need wise ministers; and brave men need silah (weapons) and asp (horses). The text is executed in black nastaʻliq script on a beige paper. The words are framed by cloud bands and placed on a gold background decorated with the painting of a tree and various flowers. The main text panel is framed by a border containing further verses in Persian on an illuminated background. The entire composition is then provided with a number of monochromatic frames and is pasted to a larger sheet of dark-blue paper decorated with gold flowers and backed by cardboard. The calligraphic specimen is neither dated nor signed. However, the decorative pattern and the style of the folio resemble folios inserted into albums produced during the 17th and 18th centuries in Mughal India.

Quatrain on Unity of Lovers

This calligraphic fragment includes a rubaʻi (iambic pentameter quatrain) on the primordial nature of a lover’s affection. Beginning with an invocation to Huwa al-ʻaziz (God, the Glorious), the verses read: “How good is that person in the bazaar of love / He died for your sadness and bought your sorrow with his heart / It is not today that the story of love in Salman’s heart (began) / God created me and my love of you in tandem.” The verses are executed in black nastaʻliq script on a beige paper framed by a pasted border decorated with interlacing leaf and vine motifs. In the bottom horizontal panel, the calligrapher Pir Muhammad b. Dust Muhammad states that katabahu (he wrote) the piece. In the lower-left corner of the text panel, he also specifies that he has naql min khatt (copied the handwriting) of the ustadh al-kamil (master teacher) Muhammad ʻAli Bukhari. Pir Muhammad b. Dust Muhammad’s statement suggests that he may have used a calligraphic specimen by his teacher as a model for his own, either adapting it or copying it directly. Unfortunately, as neither calligrapher appears to be recorded in historical sources, it is difficult to suggest a date of execution and a provenance for this piece.