All Good Things Come in Threes: Khamsa of Nizami British Library, Or. 12208


Khamsa of Nizami British Library, Or. 12208 is not a very interesting sounding document. Indeed, to most Westerners, Khamsa of Nizami means nothing at all. But this illustrated manuscript, which now resides at the British Library in London, tells three extraordinary tales: the poems of Nizami, the profound (and unappreciated) bond between art and the written world in the early modern Islamic world, and the relationship between two great empires. Let’s start from the last. 

As a political unit, Persia had been through quite a few transformations since its imperial height in classical antiquity. From the late 1380s, it was a part of the vast Timurid Empire.

Timur was a descendant of Ghenghis Khan, a Turco-Mongol military leader who was to be the last of the Eurasian steppe’s great nomad conquerors, and would have a genetic hand in the leadership of the Ottoman, Mughal, and Safavid Empires. But by the turn of the 16th century, the Timurid Empire was in freefall, and Persia was split into more than a dozen different states, governed by local warlords and religious leaders. It was to be united by (future) Shah Ismail I, leader of the Zahediyeh Sufi order and a figure regarded as semi-divine by the Shi’a Qizilbash tribesmen, who became the founder of the Safavid dynasty. 

While Safavid Persia suffered many political and military upheavals, most notably with their Sunni ruled Ottoman neighbors, and was in a dire state by 1588, Shah Abbas I, who began his rule at 17 years old, was able to reverse course. Abbas gathered warring factions around him, and slowly rebuilt the imperial bureaucracy and the state’s structure, transferring control of the provinces from Qizilbash tribal chiefs to centrally appointed leaders who answered directly to Isfahan. Revenue, and power, was now firmly in the hands of the Shah, and he used it to recover territory lost to the Ottomans and Uzbecks, and help effect a revival of Persian literary and artistic culture. Persian miniatures and poetry had always been regarded as two of the greatest triumphs of that culture, far before Abbas arrived on the scene, but they both reached staggering heights during his rule, which stretched into 1629. The Isfahan School, which centered on the studios in his court, created such great artists as Muhammad Qasim and Reza Abbasi. The ghazal style reached a new peak, becoming “a poetry of subtle thoughts and ingenious poetic idea.”

From its beginnings in 1526, the Mughal Empire experienced what many historians consider to be a golden age under the rule of Akbar I (r. 1556-1605). A competent, successful general, he extended the reach of the Empire over almost the entire Indian subcontinent and pursued policies meant to unite his ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse population. While raised a Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi school, like his father and grandfather, Akbar created and practiced Dīn-i-Ilāhī, a syncretic religion which merged Hinduism, Islam, and, to a lesser degree, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. He extended a great measure of tolerance to all kinds of minorities and created a merit-based imperial system that encouraged service and loyalty to him and the Indo-Persian culture which he was attempting to create. As in Safavid Iran during this period, arts and literature were thriving. The three courts (Agra, Delhi, and Fatehpur Sikri) were epicenters of learning and exchange, with several dozen scribes, calligraphers, translators, artists, and scholars employed at his 24,000 volume library alone.

Persianate culture had a deep history within the lands of the Mughal Empire, its influence far outdating Babur’s conquest and its founding. Its prominence in Northern India, the lands that became the first Mughal stronghold, dated from the 9th century. While the historian Muzaffar Alam argues that “the phenomenal rise of the language [Persian] defies explanation” in the Mughal case, where the dynasty’s founder was a Turkish speaker, the fact that the pre-existing Muslim elite of the area, whom the Mughals were eager to garner support from, were Persian speaking and that the language was seen over the entire region as one of prestige and sophistication provide good reason for Babur’s successors to have embraced it.

This shared high culture allowed the elite of the Mughal and Safavid worlds to connect, on pilgrimages, in correspondence, and in trade, but religious limitations (the Safavids were strict Shi’as, who sought to eradicate Sunni practice in their land, and saw the Sunni Ottomans and Mughals as heretics) kept relations from ever getting too warm. But such intolerance, though it went through phases, often worked in the Mughal’s favor. Akbar was able to employ, or even tempt away with the offer of an imperial salary and position, talented numerous scholars and artists of every stripe who were persecuted by or otherwise dissatisfied with Safavid rule. Persian poetry and miniatures weren’t just flowering in Isfahan, but in Akbar’s courts, moveable and otherwise. 

Here is where Khamsa of Nizami British Library, Or. 12208’s story begins. In the 40th year of Akbar’s reign, ‘Abd al-Raḥīm ‘Ambarīn Qalam was commissioned to create a copy of Nizami’s Khamsa for the Shahenshah, in Lahore. ‘Abd al-Raḥīm was a native of Herat, a city now in Northwestern Afghanistan, but then one of the major metropolitan centers of the Safavid Empire. As a young man, he journeyed to India, and entered the service of ʿAbd-al-Raḥīm Ḵān Ḵānān. ʿAbd-al-Raḥīm was raised in Akbar’s court, and accompanied the Shahenshah on countless campaigns, so trusted a companion he was made governor of Gujarat in 1576. A particular master of the nastaʿlīq calligraphic hand (an elaborate and highly fluid style developed in Persia in the 14th and 15th centuries, popular for Persian, Turkish, and Urdu writing), he was presented by his patron at Akbar’s court after a decade, where he instantly received an appointment. Jahangir, the son of Akbar, gave him the title Ambarin Qalam: Amber Pen. 

Little is known about who specifically commissioned the work, although the fact that its commission fell on a significant anniversary in Akbar’s reign suggests that it would either have been a present to the ruler from one of his closest courtiers, or something commissioned by the bibliophilic Shahenshah himself to satisfy his lust for beautiful texts and poetry. The signatures on the work, which spans more than 675 pages, and analysis by experts, shows that all of the calligraphy was done by ʿAbd-al-Raḥīm from the 12 Oct 1593 to the 14 December 1595. Multiple artists, working in close conjunction with the calligrapher and poet, decorated every page with intricate marginal illustrations, and provided 37 single paintings with representations of significant scenes and characters within the Khamsa. 

After the reign of Jahangir, the manuscript’s history is unknown. It only reappeared in 1909, when the British art collector, and scion of the Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce family, C.W. Dyson Perrins, bought it from a source he never disclosed. He willed it to the British Museum, and, when the British Library inherited the Museum’s libraries in 1973, became  Khamsa of Nizami British Library, Or. 12208.

What, though, is actually in the Khamsa? It’s name translates to ‘Quintet’, and its other title, Panj Ganj, to ‘Five Treasures.’ It encompasses five long narrative poems by Nizami Ganjavi, a Persian Sunni poet of the 12th century. He is one of the most beloved poets in  Persian, and poetry obsessed Persian literary culture, widely thought to be the ultimate master of the romantic epic in the language, hailed for bringing a more realistic and colloquial style to the genre. Makhzan-ol-Asrâr or ‘The Treasury of Mysteries’ is a series of twenty stories on ethical and religious topics, like the need to avoid vanity and how to properly prepare for the afterlife. The second story, Khosrow o Shirin or ‘Khosrow and Shirin’ is a tragic, and largely fictionalized, retelling of the love story of Shirin, an Armemian princess, and Sasanian King II. Another love story, Leyli o Majnun or ‘Leyla and Majnun’, called by Lord Byron the “Romeo and Juliet of the East” constitutes the third part. Of 7th century Arabic origin, it concerns Bedoin poet Najdi and Layla bint Mahdi. Eskandar-Nâmeh or ‘The Book of Alexander’, the penultimate portion of the Khamsa, contains two portions, the first about Alexander the Great’s education and early military endeavours, the second about his transition from warrior to poet-philosopher. The final poem, Haft Peykar or ‘The Seven Beauties’, concerns 7 tales, told by the 7 new brides of Bahram V, a Sasanian king. 

The introduction to Leyli o Majnun alone shows that the years spent crafting the beautiful illustrations and calligraphy of Akbar’s Khamsa were well met by the words and wisdom contained within: 

“Whatever befalls us has its meaning; though it is often hard to grasp.

 In the Book of Life every page has two sides. 

On the upper one, we inscribe our plans, dreams and hopes;

 the reverse is filled by providence, 

whose verdicts rarely match our desire.”

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  1. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher

    I went visiting my cousin the other day, he showed me a couple books. He works maintenance for the Cathedral, and one day the father in charge says “Okay, I can’t find anyone who has a key to that storeroom. Force the door.” Among other wonders in this room they found an old German Bible. The book is about six inches thick, bound sturdily with leather, with crosses carved inset into the front and back covers. The text is illustrated, the language is in German, and the text is printed in an old Gothic font. My cousin speaks German so they let him keep it. 

    He also lent me a short book about theology. It’s a paperback entitled “Sin Revisited”, which it illustrates with a lit-up Vegas sign on the cover. 

    There’s nothing particularly wrong about a paperback binding and a quick photoshop job for cover art. On the other hand it’s hardly in the same category as this old Bible with the carved covers. That Bible, in turn, was produced in an era of movable type, and though it’s lovingly crafted and obviously meant to last the ages, it still doesn’t have the level of illustration that old #12208 has. The ease of copying the words seems to affect the artistry of the presentation.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go and read this text file off of my Kindle.

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  2. Ekosj Member

    Child #1 … the Art Historian mortgage banker … has an especial fondness for medieval Islamic art.  Child #2 is a the visual artist and footwear designer Your wonderful post transports me to the Islamic Art section of the Metropolitan Museum.   We were fortunate to live close to NYC that we could get to the Met often.  Between both of them lecturing on the why’s and how’s these beautiful works were created you’d think I’d be an expert by now.  Unfortunately, their student is sort of a dunderhead.     But I do love the calligraphy.

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  3. John H. Member
    John H.

    I was going to say that if a custom or preference defies explanation, the explanation may well be “prestige.” But I drink Lone Star beer, and the explanation for that has to be anything but. How about “I like it”?

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  4. Zafar Member

    Delightful, Kirkian Wanderer.  While your head’s in this space you may enjoy the book ‘Gulbadan’ by Rumer Godden.

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  5. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    Child #1 … the Art Historian mortgage banker … has an especial fondness for medieval Islamic art. Child #2 is a the visual artist and footwear designer Your wonderful post transports me to the Islamic Art section of the Metropolitan Museum. We were fortunate to live close to NYC that we could get to the Met often. Between both of them lecturing on the why’s and how’s these beautiful works were created you’d think I’d be an expert by now. Unfortunately, their student is sort of a dunderhead. But I do love the calligraphy.

    That’s great, and it’s wonderful that you brought your kids to the Met so often. I grew up in rural MA, so it was a big thing for us to get to go to the MFA in Boston. (I was obsessed with ancient Egypt as a little girl, and I would beg just to go see that section). 

    The calligraphy is fascinating, although as someone studying Arabic it’s a little groan inducing to see, because it’s not always very easy to read. Still incredibly beautiful, though. 

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  6. KirkianWanderer Coolidge

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Delightful, Kirkian Wanderer. While your head’s in this space you may enjoy the book ‘Gulbadan’ by Rumer Godden.

    Thanks! And thank you for the suggestion, I will absolutely check that out. I did a year long course on The Islamic Empire (Mughals, Safavids, and Ottomans) between 1400-1800 last year, and enjoyed it so, so much. All of those civilizations are fascinating, but the Mughals were probably my favorite. My Pakistani roommates were over the moon when I told them about that course, and all of the different things we were studying in it; they learned a lot about the Mughals as kids (both from school and just stories floating around in the cultural ether) and wanted to pass along all of the neat things they knew, because they felt that most people in the West really didn’t know much about it. They weren’t able to come back in person this year because of covid, and I would stab someone to get my hands on that nihari again.

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  7. Zafar Member

    Courtesy wiki

    Nihari comes from the Arabic nahaar (نهار‎), meaning “morning”. It was originally eaten by Nawabs in the Mughal Empire as a breakfast item after their Islamic morning prayer of Fajr.[1]

    So courtesy the Mughals (allegedly).

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  8. Arahant Member

    A book of ages past that sings well still
    With art to illustrate the poet’s will.

    We read, inspect, and turn the pages so
    Like gentle winds that dance upon a rill.

    A leaf that floats to turn itself around
    And show another work with beauty filled.

    We take the pen or tap the keys to speak
    the words of praise for what was done by quill.

    And I, the Man who Wins, will dance a turn
    Upon the tales that make for us this hill.

    • #8