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]
1. For an overview of publications about this manuscript through 2010, see Kamada, Yumiko. "A Taste for Intricacy: An Illustrated Manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Orient: Reports of the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan 45 (2010), pp. 129–75.
2. I bid., pp. 136–40, and Kia, Chad. "Is the Bearded Man Drowning?: Picturing the Figurative in a Late-Fifteenth-Century Painting from Herat." Muqarnas 23 (2006), p. 97.
3. Kamada 2010 (footnote 1), pp. 144–49.
Inscription: In Persian in nasta‘liq script
Attar, Manṭiq al-Ṭayr منطق الطیر story حکایت ابلهی که در آب افتاد و ریش بزرگش و بال او بود (story of an ignorant man who fell in the water and was saved by his beard).
(Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār, Manṭiq al-Ṭayr, ed. Sayyid Ṣādiq Gawharīn, Bungāh Tarjama va Nashr-i Kitāb , ehran, 1342/1959, p.166).
Marking: Upper left; seal of Shah Abbas upper right; word "waqf" upper left.
Shah Abbas I, Isfahan, Iran (ca. 1600–1608; presented to Ardebil Shrine); Ardebil Shrine, Iran (ca. 1608–sack of Ardebil, 1826); M. Farid Parbanta(until 1963; sale, Sotheby's, London,December 9, 1963, no. 111, to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Princely Patrons: Three Royal Manuscripts of the Timurid Dynasty," March 4, 1995–June 4, 1995, no catalogue.
Grube, Ernst J. "The Early School of Herat and its Impact on Islamic Painting of the Later 15th, the 16th and 17th Centuries." In The Classical Style in Islamic Painting. Venice: Edizioni Oriens, 1968. ill. pl. 35 (b/w).
Swietochowski, Marie. "The historical background and illustrative character of the Metropolitan Museum's Mantiq al-Tayr of 1483." In Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, edited by Richard Ettinghausen. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972. p. 59, ill. fig. 23 (b/w).
Bahari, Ebadollah, and Annemarie Schimmel. Bihzad, Master of Persian Painting. London, New York: I.B.Tauris Publishers, 1996. pp. 89-90, fig. 43 (color).
Canby, Sheila R. "The Drawings and Paintings of Riza-Yi Abbasi of Isfahan." In The Rebellious Reformer:
. London: Azimuth Editions, 1996. p. 235, ill. fig. 28 (b/w).
Grabar, Oleg. Mostly Miniatures: An introduction to Persian painting. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. p. 112, ill. fig. 59 (color).
Barry, Mike, and Stuart Cary Welch. "et l'Enigme de Behzad de Herat (1465–1535)." In L'Art Figuratif en Islam Medieval. Paris: Flammarion, 2004. pp. 344-345, ill. p. 345 (color).
Kia, Chad. "Is the Bearded Man Drowning? Picturing the Figurative in a Late-Fifteenth-Century Painting from Herat." Muqarnas vol. 23 (2006). pp. 85-105, ill. fig.1 (color), folio 44r.
Lewisohn, Leonard, and Christopher Shackle, ed. "the art of spiritual flight." In Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition. London; New York: The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2006. p. 164, ill. pl. 9 (color).
Kamada, Yumiko. "An Illustrated Manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Orient vol. XLV (2010). pp. 137-140, 167, 173, ill. fig. 3.
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. 127C, pp. 188-190, ill. p. 189 (color).