The Magic of Pen. Selected Miniatures from Khamsa of Nizami Ganjavi

dedicated to the 880th birthday of the great Azerbaijani poet and thinker Nizami Ganjavi

It has always been a great honor to study and put thoughts on Nizami’s works in writing; an extremely difficult and responsible exercise.

It is an established fact that back in the Middle Ages, poetry was an important aesthetic source for the oral lore as well as the art of painting and book; it is also closely related to the development of miniature. For this very reason, it was not only their text but also their highly artistic design that attracted attention to handwritten copies of many an Oriental classical work. There were a few works in the world’s classical literature that have contributed their topics and plots to the diversity and development of art, opening broader opportunities for the rise of miniature art. In the Muslim Orient, only three works have both managed to cover a long historical period in terms of book art, artistic design, and miniature painting, and gain popularity across the vast region. These are Shah-name, Khamsa, and Kalila and Dimna.

       As Medieval European artists drew their plots from the Torah, their counterparts in the Muslim Orient dwelt on Nizami’s Khamsa. Drawings with plots from Nizami’s works would decorate books, carpets, palace walls and residentials, weapons, and tableware. The world’s top museums preserve miniatures and ornamental art items created on the motives from Khamsa by the most illustrious artists of Baghdad, Tabriz, Herat, Qazvin, Shamakhi, Bukhara, Nakhchivan, Delhi, Cairo, etc. Over 900 brightly decorated manuscripts of Nizami’s Khamsa are kept in libraries and museums all over the world.

       During the Middle Ages in Azerbaijan, just as in several other kingdoms of the Islamic East, there was a growth in culture, science, and interest in Classical art and poetry – which manifested itself in the swiftly-developing genre of the hand-writing book. This genre became one of the prominent outlets for artistic creativity. İn view of the fact that Islam treats both of the word and books as sacred, greater and greater attention was paid not only to the calligraphy of the writing, but also to the artistic appearance of books overall. The content and significance of written works were augmented by their presentation- pages, bindings, title pages and covers.

      A whole generationof miniature painters repaid their grateful thanks to Nizami for his deep understanding of their work, and created thousands of miniatures to illustrate his poems. Even today, taking into account all of the invasions, uprising, conflagrations and lootings that have lain waste to the Orient for eight centuries – and the resulting loss of manuscripts – there remain more than six thousand documented miniatures, which illustrate Nizami’s poetry. During the great poet’s jubilee year, it is particularly interesting to survey his works through the prism of the miniatures which illustrate it.

A large number of Khamsa-based miniatures have recently been analyzed from the artistic and cultural standpoint. Important actions were taken in Europe, Russia, Central Asia, and Azerbaijan. Yet in 1950s, Azerbaijani fine art experts such as Adil Gaziyev and Karim Karimov commenced in-depth studies of Khamsa miniatures. Luxury editions with maximum quality pictures came off the press.

But it was only few geniuses such as Goethe who could apperceive the entire magnitude of Nizami’s grandeur. The great composer Puccini wrote his opera Turandot based on the tales of Red Dome from The Seven Beauties; besides, a number of other masterpieces were created the same way. In fact, the Oriental world influenced the Western culture rather through artistic works.

We have to highlight the considerable number of scientific works and albums with drawings from Khamsa manuscripts. Studying numerous illustrated copies of the poet’s works in libraries and museums around the world, one can but conclude that only a tiny portion of this enormous legacy has been presented to the readers. A question arises in this respect:

What can be offered to an experienced reader after all kinds of scientific researches, academic publications, albums, and other works? The answer is evident – a new approach, new manuscript copies, examples of painting, and, last but not least, a broader and more comprehensive presentation.

     The book is an in-depth historical study of Islamic miniature painting based on the example of manuscripts of Nizami’s Khamsa.

      The work covers illustrations from museums and libraries from three continents, as well as virtually all capital cities of Europe, Asia, and North America.

       It is the first time in Azerbaijan when special attention is paid to the Topkapı Palace Library’s collection in Istanbul, in particular to manuscripts of Nizami’s Khamsa, which contains 69 illustrated copies.      

     The work covers virtually all miniature schools that existed in the period under review: Tabriz, Herat, Shiraz, Qazvin, Isfahan, Mughal, Ottoman, Qajar, etc.

      The chapter “Illustrations to Nizami’s Khamsa from St. Petersburg collections” greatly enriches the book. The well-known National Library of Russia specialists O.M.Yastrebova and O.V.Vasilyeva have professionally provided an exhaustive overview of illustrated Khamsa‘s and saturated it with interesting illustrative material.

       The author has successfully reconstructed several copies of Khamsa: three of Tabriz (1405–10, 1481, and 1539–43) and one of Herat origin (1494–95). Information on each manuscript has been quite thoroughly hand-picked. Standing out among them is the manuscript created for the Safavid Shah Tahmasp I in 1543 in Tabriz at the workshop of the palace library established by Shah Isma’il I based on Uzun Hassan Aq Qoyunlu’s library. This very manuscript was decorated by top-class artists of Azerbaijani calligraphy and miniature school: Shah Mahmoud Nishapouri, ustad Sultan Muhammad, Aqa Mirak, Mir Musawwir, Mir Sayyid Ali, and Muzaffar Ali. It belongs to the British Library collection and is considered a masterpiece of the world’s book art.

      Of an absolute artistic value is the manuscript of Nizami’s Khamsa (1636) kept in the collection of ANAS Institute of Manuscripts in Baku. This item also serves as a valuable historical and cultural artifact.

     The chapter “Azerbaijani Miniature Today” gives an insight into such personalities as the founder and front-runner E.Aslanov, his colleague S.Gurbanov, and a generation of young yet renowned artists such as N.Sultanova, P.Askarova etc.

We believe a publication that we proudly introduce to our readers will provide a better insight into Nizami and his place in the medieval book and miniature art. It is this publication where we, for the first time, have translated into the English language and presented to an international audience the abridged version of studies on the topic of Nizami Ganjavi’s life and works conducted by the outstanding Azerbaijani Orientalist Rustam Aliyev.

The illustrated copies of Khamsa under review are a clear display of miniatures to the works of the great poet and thinker Nizami, which encompass all Oriental art schools and cultural centers from Asia Minor through to India. One can therefore study the historical development of the Oriental miniature art in the period between the 14th and 18th centuries AD and explore stylistic differences and similarities characteristics thereof through the ‘looking glass’ of paintings in the manuscripts of Nizami Ganjavi’s Khamsa.

This book features restoration of three exquisite manuscripts of Khamsa belonging to the Tabriz miniature school; extensive analysis of two manuscripts of Khamsa belonging to the Herat miniature school; first-time presentation of a large number of heretofore unpublished miniatures to the manuscripts of Khamsa in the Topkapı Palace Museum Library in Istanbul.

 Significant researches are needed to study these manuscripts in depth. All the manuscripts, except for four or five copies, are new to both readers and specialists.

This book sets an objective to prove once again the magnificence and uniqueness of several manuscripts of Khamsa, which are pieces of great historical, cultural, and artistic value. We therefore decided to display beautifully decorated pages of text, frontispieces, headings, endings, and seals from the manuscripts; the vast majority of manuscripts (including their book covers) have been provided fully or slightly abridged.

This edition also provides a broad interpretation and explanation of top-class miniature schools throughout the history of the Oriental culture, unique art pieces created by them, characteristics and levels of artistry, as well as correlations and interactions between different schools and styles.

In writing this book, we drew from vast national and foreign academic literature sources, catalogues, monographs, and studies; another source we built upon was the results of researches by world-renowned art critics.

Serving as a new significant contribution to studies of Nizami and his works, this publication represents an irrefutable proof of the vast and inexhaustible heritage of the great Poet.

We want to believe that with Allah’s help this publication will expand our knowledge and understanding of the poet and his abundant legacy. For it is still today that his intellectual, spiritual, and artistic treasury is one of the most spectacular monuments of Azerbaijani, Oriental, and the world’s culture. This inexhaustible and ample legacy still inspires thinkers, philosophers, writers, and artists.