Illuminated Frontipiece of a Manuscript of the Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds), Sultan 'Ali al-Mashhadi (active late 15th–early 16th century), Ink, opaque watercolor, silver, and gold on paper

Illuminated Frontipiece of a Manuscript of the Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds)

Sultan 'Ali al-Mashhadi (active late 15th–early 16th century)
Zain al-'Abidin al-Tabrizi
Farid al-Din `Attar (ca. 1142–1220)
Object Name:
Illustrated manuscript
text: dated A.H. 892/ A.D. 1487; illumination: ca. 1600
Made in present-day Afghanistan, Herat. Made in Iran, Isfahan
Ink, opaque watercolor, silver, and gold on paper
7.75 in. high 4.50 in. wide (19.7 cm high 11.4 cm wide)
Credit Line:
Fletcher Fund, 1963
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 455
Here we see the text block of the Mantiq al‑Tair, along with its elegant binding. While the colophon of the main text is dated to 1487, the manuscript was completed after coming into the possession of the Safavid ruler Shah 'Abbas I (r. 1587–1629). During his reign, four paintings were added, along with illuminated folios, marbled‑paper margins, and an elaborate gilded binding.
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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]
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.
Signature: Signed and dated in colophon: Sultan Ali of Mashhad, A.H. 892 (1487 A.D.)

Inscription: In Persian in nastaʻliq script
Attar, Manṭiq al-Ṭayr منطق الطیر story گفتار بو علي طوسي دربارۀ اهل جنت و اهل دوزخ (The story of Bū ‘Alī Ṭūsī regarding people of paradise and people of hell) and story حکایت مردي که از نبي اجازۀ نماز بر مصلایي گرفت (the story of a man who got permission from the Prophet to pray in a special place of prayer).

In the published Manṭiq al-Ṭayr, the second story came first then the first story.

(Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār, Munṭiq al-Ṭayr, ed. Sayyid Ṣādiq Guharīn, Bungāh Tarjama va Nashr-i Kitāb publication, Tehran, 1342/1959, p.178).


Marking: Seal (affixed throughout the manuscript): Shah Abbas
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. "Balcony Calligraphy Exhibition," June 1, 2009–October 26, 2009, 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. 127A, pp. 188-190, ill. p. 189 (color).

Landau, Amy S. "Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts." In Pearls on a String. Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2015. p. 126-127, ill. fig. 4.7 (color).