This fragment of a page comes from one of the largest copies of the Qur'an ever produced. Each line of script, written in the muhaqqaq style, is over three feet long, and each page was originally over seven feet tall. This page probably comes from a gigantic Qur'an that the calligrapher 'Umar Aqta' wrote for the ruler Timur (Tamerlane, d. 1405). Apparently Timur was unimpressed after 'Umar Aqta' wrote a Qur'an so small that it could fit under a signet ring, so the calligrapher wrote another Qur'an so large it had to be brought to Timur on a cart.
In his treatise on calligraphers and painters of the past, the late sixteenth-century writer Qadi Ahmad mentions the left-handed master ‘Umar Aqta‘ saying that "for the Lord of the Time, Amir Timur Gurkan, he wrote a copy [of the Qur’an] in ghubar writing; it was so small in volume that it could be fitted under the socket of a signet ring. He presented it to the Lord of the Time, but as he had written the divine word in such microscopic characters, [Timur] did not approve of it. . . . ‘Umar Aqta‘ wrote another copy, extremely large, each of its lines being a cubit [dhira‘] in length, and even longer. Having finished, decorated and bound [the manuscript] he tied it on a barrow and took it to the palace of the Lord of the Time. . . . The sultan came out to meet him . . . and rewarded the calligrapher with great honors."
The Qur’an described in this anecdote was copied for Timur (Tamerlane, d. 1405), the founder and ruler of the Timurid dynasty (ca. 1370–1507). According to Qadi Ahmad, it was made after Timur rejected a miniature copy and was so large and heavy that it had to be transported on a cart. A stone book stand in the courtyard of the Mosque of Bibi Khanum in Samarqand is believed to have been added by Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg (d. 1449) a few years later in order to accommodate the manuscript and enable the reader to turn its pages during the Friday prayer. Qadi Ahmad’s anecdote is likely to be at least partly fanciful, since a production of such magnitude must have been undertaken upon a direct royal commission rather than the calligrapher’s initiative. There is little doubt, however, that the manuscript he refers to survives in extremely fragmentary condition in many institutions around the world. Already broken up and dispersed during Qadi Ahmad’s time, less than two centuries after its production, its folios were cut horizontally in three parts so that the original seven lines on each page were divided into two sections of two lines and a central one of three.
The Museum has acquired six such fragments over the years, in 1918 (three sections, A–C, acc. nos. 18.17.1–.3), 1921 (two sections, D–E, acc. nos. 21.26.12, .13), and 1972 (one section, acc. no. 1972.279). Research by the present author in the early 1990s revealed that, surprisingly, the five fragments from 1918 and 1921 form a continuous portion of Sura 28 of the Qur’anic text (from the end of verse 79 to the beginning of verse 84): the last five lines of one page (three lines of E and two lines of C) are followed by the complete seven lines of the next one (two lines of A, three lines of D, and two lines of B). Appropriately reconstructed and prepared for display by the Museum’s paper conservators, they now find pride of place side by side in the new galleries of Islamic Art.
In their re-created format, these pages afford viewers the opportunity to enjoy and admire an exceptional example of muhaqqaq cursive calligraphy as well as to appreciate the masterful strokes that ‘Umar Aqta‘ achieved with an oversize reed pen (its tip alone was one centimeter wide) on enormous sheets of polished paper. No other patron, papermaker, or calligrapher has ever been reported to have accomplished such a colossal undertaking.
Stefano Carboni (author) in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
Samuel T. Peters, New York (until 1918; gifted to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Making the Invisible Visible," April 2, 2013–August 4, 2013, no catalogue.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 117A-E, 170, 175-176, ill. p. 175 (color).