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Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

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Bihzad: Art of the Book


Traces & Narratives

Reveal Source

Bihzad. Bustan of Saadi (Yusuf & Zulaykha). In Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century, by Thomas Lentz and Glenn Lowry. 1st ed. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Bihzad. Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) by Amir Khusraw Dihlavi; The Abduction by Sea. 1496. Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC.
Bihzad. Paintin (Nushirwan and the Two Owls). 16th C. © Trustees of the British Museum, London.
Codepinkhq. "The Calligraphy Class." Digital image. Codepinkhq's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Creative Commons:
Dupree, Nancy. A69-542. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
The Fox and the Drum; from Kalila and Dimna, Herat. 1429. Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul.
Page from a Dismembered Manuscript of the Koran, Khurasan or Transoxiania. 15th C. Fatema Farmanfarmaian Private Collection, London.
Qutbshah, Muhammad. A Divan (collected Poems) by Hafiz (d. 1390). 1523. Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC.
Tahmina Entering Rustam's Bedchamber; from the "Shahnama;" Made for Muhammad Juki, Herat. 1450. Royal Asiatic Society, London.

Producer: Alexis Menten


Reveal Transcript

Calligraphy is the most important art in Islam. In fact, for many Muslims, it is the only art.

And in many ways, it replaces images. If you walk into a cathedral in the West, over the doorway, you have Christ. If you walk into a Mosque in a place like Afghanistan, you have calligraphy. You have writing. Beautiful writing. And writing is endowed with as much art as Western sculptors endowed sculpture.

Calligraphy is also one of the art forms that is still practiced today. It is one of those very rare ones that people still use many of the same techniques. The reed pen, the very fine paper.

And it is one of these art forms that flourished in Afghanistan. In the 14th century, when the first books flourished in the Persianate world, the miniature was very small. It starts to grow in importance as painters become as important as calligraphers. And by the time of Bihzad, you can see we have almost reached full page paintings.

This is a painting by Bihzad, who was the most famous Persian painter of all time. He flourished in the 15th century in the city of Herat, which was the center of court culture and book production at the time. And he signed only one manuscript.

This page shows this scene of Yusuf and Zulaykha, the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife from the Bible, where she tempts him and he moves through seven rooms up to the top. He is about to yield to her at the last minute, the seventh room, when he realizes that God is his witness and he turns to flee. Bihzad has captured the epitome of the action just as Yusuf in green has turned and is about to flee out the door with Zulaykha pulling behind him.

What is amazing about Bihzad's compositions is the intricacy and yet the clarity at the same time, achieved mostly through a very balanced use of color that just makes your eye jump around the page.

If you look at the double page frontispiece from the wonderful manuscript of Bihzad, you have to start on the right where the door to the courtyard is, and you move through the courtyard, and the Sultan is sitting on the far left under the tent. It shows the sultan himself and his court, so you can actually see the sultan sitting under a tent with his courtiers before him, and the kinds of food that were brought to court, and the kinds of conversations that they had that they were part of court culture at the time.

You have to remember that these are paintings within books. So first, they prepared sheets of paper, which they lined, so you can see the rows of poetry at the bottom, and they left a very large space in the middle for Bihzad to complete his composition. He blocks it out and then he paints it in with these pigments that he has had to grind up himself. One of the reasons that Persian painting is so famous is for the clarity of the colors and the saturation of the colors. Bihzad was the master of mixing colors and combining tints. After he had finished blocking out the painting then presumably someone, or perhaps him, came and added the inscriptions which tell you what the title of the painting is and incorporate verses from yet another poem, right into the architecture.

We do not know whether the patron said, "This is a story that means a lot to me. I want it illustrated." Or the calligrapher thought, "I like this story. I am going to leave space for it." Or he was looking at an older book and it has the same illustration in there, just copying. We just do not know. But you can see by this time, that the painting has become even more important than the text. It is taking up almost the whole page. And this is the importance of Bihzad.

The paintings themselves are signed by Bihzad and it was made for Sultan Husayn Bayqara. We do not know what he did with it. Did he sit and read it in bed? Did he bring it up to his court and show, "Look, I am a great poet myself and a patron of Persian painting and Persian books." We just do not know. But we know that they spent a lot of time and investment in these works of art.

Books are often filled with stories. But it is the story of the book that explains how, in one respect, Afghanistan was the center of the world.