Nizami’s Khamsa was written in the late 12th century in the Persian city of Ganja in Azerbaijan, north-east Iran. It contains five of his versified narratives and became a popular compendium, often emulated by later writers. The stories – considered classics of Persian literature – lend themselves to illustration, and many fine copies with beautiful paintings were made for the princely courts of Iran, Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey.
The State Library’s copy of Nizami’s Khamsa dates to 1509–10. It was made by the noted scribe al-Abd Ibrahim in the city of Astarabad, now known as Gurgan, in north-east Persia. The book retains its original, highly decorated binding and contains a number of accomplished paintings, considered to be of the high point of the Shiraz style. Its 15 full-page, hand-painted illustrations are by an unnamed artist (identified by scholars as ‘Artist B’), whose work is found in other fine manuscripts of the period in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the India Office Library in London, and the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.
This is the finest Persian manuscript in an Australian collection.
The book was once in the collection of Hagop Kervorkian, a renowned scholar and collector of Oriental art and artifacts. Kervorkian was an Armenian born under Ottoman rule in eastern Anatolia in 1872. He was educated at the prestigious English-language Robert College in Istanbul and migrated to America in the late 19th century. He originally worked as an archeologist at excavations in Iran at Sultanabad and Rayy. Having built a fine collection of Islamic art, strong in Persian material, he began trading these items in a gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan. He fostered a taste for Islamic and Persian art among collectors, including Pierpont Morgan and the Astors, and encouraged a scholarly interest in the field. He was generous in making gifts and bequests, with many of his finest works donated to major American collections. Kervorkian died in New York in 1962. His long association with New York University is commemorated in named lectures and professorships as well as the Hagop Kervorkian Center of Near Eastern Studies on Washington Square.
The Khamsa stories
The five stories in the Khamsa are poetic retellings of classic tales of love and duty.
Makhzan al-Asrar (The treasury of mysteries)
The first is the Makhzan al-Asrar (The treasury of mysteries). This is a collection of 20 allegorical discourses about how to live a virtuous life, with some directly addressing the role and duty of a king. The poem directs the reader towards an acknowledgement of life’s spiritual destiny. Its style is more philosophical than the other stories in the Khamsa.
Khusrau u Shirin
The second story is a fabled telling of a romance between the real Sasanian king Khusrau II (r 590–627 AD) and an Armenian princess, Shirin. The story also appears in the great Persian epic the Shahnama (Book of kings), and details the long and tortuous romance of the two lovers. The poem explores themes of constancy and faith, and in the character of Farhad (the rival to Shirin’s affections), purity of purpose. In the tale, Khusrau vanquishes Farhad and the lovers marry, but tragedy intervenes with Khusrau murdered by his son and Shirin then taking her life.
Layla u Majnun
The third story tells of the ill-starred lovers Layla and Majnun. In this story – which has its origins in an Arabic tale and has parallels with other literature, including Romeo and Juliet – the poet Qays falls hopelessly in love with Layla, but her father won’t allow them to marry. Driven to madness he becomes known as Majnun, meaning ‘possessed by spirits’, and when Layla is married to another he takes refuge in the desert amongst the beasts. Layla arranges to meet Majnun in the desert but their reunion is thwarted when Majnun faints at the mere sight of her. When Layla’s husband dies, the obsessed Majnun is in self-exile in the desert. In her grief Layla dies, and is buried in her bridal dress. Hearing the news, Majnun rushes to her grave where he dies instantly and is buried with Layla. Their tomb becomes a site of pilgrimage while in a dream sequence, they are united in paradise as king and queen.
Haft Paykar (Seven portraits)
The fourth story, Haft Paykar (Seven portraits), is a fabled telling of the life of another Sasanian king, Bahram V(r 420–438 AD). In this story Bahram Gur is raised by a king in a foreign land, and in the royal palace, he discovers a locked room containing images of seven beautiful princesses from seven different parts of the world. Returning to Persia to claim his throne after the death of his father, Bahram Gur triumphs over his enemies and sets about winning the seven princesses. He has seven pavilions built in the seven colours of the different regions for the princesses. As he visits them in succession over the days of the week, the princesses regale Bahram Gur with stories. Their storytelling distracts him from the affairs of state and soon his kingdom is destroyed by an evil minister. Bahram Gur takes revenge and restores order, during which he converts the pleasure domes to fire temples, in the Zoroastrian manner, to please God. The story ends with Bahram Gur going on a hunt and disappearing forever, involving a pun on the word gur which means ‘wild ass’ but also ‘tomb’.
Iskandarnama (The book of Alexander)
The final story tells of the legendary exploits of Alexander the Great, or Iskandar. It consists of two books. The Sharafnama gives an account of Alexander’s life from his birth and accession as king to his conquests and later life as a sage and prophet of monotheism. The second book is the Iqbalnama and relates the story of Alexander’s transformation into an ideal ruler blending the Greek philosophical ideals of Plato and the spiritual wisdom of Islamic mysticism.