Section from a Qur'an Manuscript, `Umar Aqta', Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

Section from a Qur'an Manuscript

`Umar Aqta'
Object Name:
Section from a non-illustrated manuscript
late 14th–early 15th century (before 1405)
Attributed to present-day Uzbekistan, Samarqand
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
H. 28 3/4 in. (73.0 cm)
W. 42 in. (106.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1921
Accession Number:
Not on view
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."[1]
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.[2] 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.[3] 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).[4] 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 in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Ahmad ibn Mir Munshi al-Husaini. Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qadi Ahmad, Son of Mir- Munshi (circa A.H. 1015/A.D. 1606). Translated by V[ladimir] Minorsky. Smithsonian Institution Publication 4339. Freer Gallery of Art Occasional Papers, vol. 3, no. 2. Washington, D.C., 1959, p. 64.
2. Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. "Timur’s Qur’an: A Reappraisal." In Sifting Sands, Reading Signs: Studies in Honour of Professor Géza Fehérvári, edited by Patricia L. Baker and Barbara Brend, pp. 5–13. London, 2006 suggested that each page would have originally measured about seven by five feet (2.2 × 1.55 m) and that the complete manuscript would have included 1,500 folios, thus requiring 21 1/2 square feet (2,700 sq m) of high-quality paper. Soudavar and Beach 1992, p. 59 and n. 17, under no. 20a, b had estimated earlier that it included about 340 folios "weighing perhaps as much as half a ton" and measured roughly 84 5/8 by 55 1/8 by 13 3/4 inches (215 × 140 × 35 cm).
3. The largest portion is in the Shrine of the Imam Riza in Mashhad, Iran, with at least six complete folios. Additional complete pages are in the Iran Bastan Museum, Tehran; the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C.; the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London; the collection of the sultan of Brunei; and, as discussed below, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The most complete, though not exhaustive, list is in Blair and Bloom 2006 (see reference 2), pp. 5–6. A full study of the manuscript and an effort to reunite the dispersed fragments have not been attempted yet. Valuable additional information can be found in Lenz and Lowry 1989, pp. 38–39, 259, no. 6a; and James, David [Lewis]. After Timur: Qur’ans of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, edited by Julian Raby, vol. 3. London, 1992, pp. 18–23.
4. Blair and Bloom 2006,(see footnote 2) p. 10, stated that the folios of this Qur’an were copied only on one side, left unbound, and probably laid face-to-face in pairs. If so, the identical damage that occurred to the lower right corner of the first page and to the lower left corner of the second page suggests that these two folios were originally laid not face-to-face but back-to-back. It can also be postulated that the manuscript was originally copied on both sides and that its thick, heavy folios were split vertically to obtain separate one-sided pages; in that case, the Museum’s fragments would have originally belonged to the recto and verso of the same folio. This, together with the observation that the paper on the unwritten side is coarse and lacks any surface treatment such as sizing or polishing, strongly suggests that the double-sided folios were indeed split in half. I am grateful to Yana van Dyke, Associate Conservator, for her help in this matter
Inscription: Sura 28:79 to 28:80 (al-Qisas)
[ Hagop Kevorkian, New York, until 1921; his sale, Anderson Galleries, New York, January 26–29, 1921, no. 723, to MMA]
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, pp. 170, 175-176, ill. p. 175 (color).