The illustration on this folio depicts a scene from a mystical poem, Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds), written by a twelfth-century Iranian, Farid al-Din 'Attar. The birds, which symbolize individual souls in search of the simurgh (a mystical bird representing ultimate spiritual unity), are assembled in an idyllic landscape to begin their pilgrimage under the leadership of a hoopoe (perched on a rock at center right). The careful, harmonious composition is consistent with that of the late fifteenth-century Timurid miniatures also in the manuscript, but three factors indicate that this image is later: the presence of the hunter, who has no place in the narrative; his firearm, a weapon that gained currency in Iran after the mid-sixteenth century; and the signature of the late sixteenth- to early seventeenth-century artist Habiballah
Farid al-din ‘Attar’s epic poem the Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds), composed about 1187, is a parable about the desire for union with God that is couched in the terminology of sufism. It describes a physical and spiritual journey through seven valleys by a group of birds that move from their initial quest (talab) to their final goal of annihilation of the self (fana) through unity with God. The stages of their journey are explained through the use of anecdotes.
This copy is notable for its high-quality illustrations produced in two distinct periods and places. The earlier phase, in which most of the text and four of the paintings were executed, is linked to the city of Herat (folios 63.210.28, .35, .44, .49). Its colophon (63.210.1), signed by Sultan ‘Ali al-Mashhadi, dates the work to the first day of the fifth month of the second year of the last ten years preceding 900—that is, to A.H. 892/April 25, 1487 A.D. The later phase occurred about 1600, when the manuscript was refurbished, probably for Iran’s ruler, Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587–1629). Elements from this phase include the binding, the illuminated opening folios signed at Isfahan by Zain al-‘Abidin al-Tabrizi, and four of its pictures, one of which is signed by Habiballah (folios 63.210.4, .11, .18, .22). In 1609 Shah ‘Abbas donated this manuscript to the ancestral tomb of the Safavid family at Ardabil.
Sultan ‘Ali al-Mashhadi is known to have worked for Herat’s contemporary ruler, Sultan Husain Baiqara (r. 1470–1506), and for one of its leading intellectuals, Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava’i, whose interest in the theme of this text is signaled by the fact that he composed an analogous poem in Turki titled Lisan al-tair (The Speech of the Birds).
All of the subjects to be illustrated in this copy of the Mantiq al-tair were determined at the time of its copying by Sultan ‘Ali al-Mashhadi in the late fifteenth century, but the manuscript’s first four scenes were not completed until about 1600 in Isfahan. Three of these are frequently depicted in other copies of ‘Attar’s text: the initial gathering of the birds at the onset of their quest (63.210.11) and two scenes from the story of a sufi, Shaikh San‘an, who loved a Christian maiden (63.210.18, .22). These pictures seem to have a clear connection to major themes in ‘Attar’s text, although Habiballah, the artist who signed the "Concourse of the Birds" on a small rock at the center of the picture, has added the superfluous figure of a man holding a rifle.
Two of the manuscript’s remaining four paintings, made toward the end of the fifteenth century in Timurid Herat, present more oblique references to ‘Attar’s text. Both "The Son Who Mourned His Father" (63.210.35) and "The Drowning Man" (63.210.44) have been interpreted as sufi allegories. The other two fifteenth-century paintings (63.210.28, .49) appear to be more illustrative than symbolic. Yumiko Kamada has suggested that these more subtle paintings reflect the appreciation of textual and pictorial intricacy in late fifteenth-century Herat.
Priscilla P. Soucek in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
Signature: In Persian: "Signed by Habib Allah".
Inscription: (In Persian): "Painted by order of Shah `Abbas" [added when manuscript was remounted]; (in Arabic, across tree at left): "charitable foundation" (waqf)
In Persian in nasta‘liq script:
Attar, Manṭiq al-Ṭayr منطق الطیر story مجمع مرغان (Conference of the Birds) at the beginning of the book.
(Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār, Manṭiq al-Ṭayr, ed. Sayyid Ṣādiq Guharīn, Bungāh Tarjama va Nashr-I Kitāb publication, Tehran, 1342/1959, p.39).
Shah Abbas I, Isfahan, Iran (ca. 1600–1609; presented to Ardebil Shrine); Ardebil Shrine, Iran (ca. 1609–sack of Ardebil, 1826); M. Farid Parbanta(until 1963; sale, Sotheby's, London,December 9, 1963, no. 111, to MMA)
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