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Illustrating the history of Tamerlane

  • Charles Melville
Thursday 23 November 2017
WHAT's NEW?! Fall Lecture Series
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

A kingly image

Charles Melville: "The career of Timur (or Tamerlane, c. 1335–1405 ) was marked by brutal and protracted military campaigns that led to the subjection (if not the pacification) of vast swathes of territory from Central Anatolia and Northern Syria in the West to Central Asia and Northern India in the East, embracing the Caucasus and the Iranian Plateau in the process. These expeditions and the slaughter they perpetrated were visited almost without exception against fellow Muslim rulers and their hapless subjects. Nevertheless, Timur was glorified with elevated titles and regarded as a role model for rulership not only within the Timurid dynasty that he founded but also by neighbouring and later regimes, such as the Ottomans in Turkey, the Mughals in India (who traced their descent from Timur) and the Safavids in Persia (16th–17th c.).

            The creation of Timur’s kingly image was the work of his chroniclers and in particular the achievement of ‘Ali Yazdi, whose literary masterpiece, the Zafar-nama (‘Book of Victory’) was commissioned by Timur’s grandson, Ibrahim-Sultan, prince governor of Shiraz in southern Persia (r. 1415–1435). Yazdi’s work became a byword for rhetorical elegance and was reproduced in many tens of manuscripts; some of these, including the first known copy, dated 1436, were illustrated. My paper will present the corpus of illustrated manuscripts and the paintings they contain, and seek to identify the subjects most commonly depicted during the century that followed, in the context in which they were produced, with references also to other works documenting Timur’s career.

            Among these, especially, I will seek to distinguish royal or court commissions, such as those produced for Timur’s descendants, from provincial or commercial ones produced in the next century, and the effect this may have had on the choice of scenes to illustrate. It is also interesting to consider how stable was the written text over repeated copying, including the wording and placement of text headings, but the absence of a fixed iconographic cycle, and the large number of unique depictions of scenes. Among these, it is helpful to distinguish between ‘generic’ scenes of battle, single combats, hunting and the ruler’s court, and specific scenes of particular events, for which a knowledge of the text is necessary."

This lecture is co-organized by the Central Asia Initiative at Leiden University and LUCIS. 

Charles Melville will host a masterclass in conjunction with this lecture - read more

Charles Melville

About Charles Melville

Charles Melville is the Central Asia Visiting Professor in November 2017. Melville holds a BA Hons. in Oriental Studies (University of Cambridge), MA in Islamic History (London SOAS) and PhD. in Oriental Studies (University of Cambridge). He is Professor of Persian History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Pembroke College. He has published extensively on the history and culture of Iran in the Mongol to Safavid periods, and the illustration of Persian manuscripts and the Shahnama of Firdausi. Recent publications include “Rashīd al-Dīn and the Shāhnāmeh”, JRAS 26/1-2 (2016), 201-14; “The end of the Ilkhanate and after. Observations on the collapse of the Mongol World Empire”, in Bruno de Nicola & Charles Melville (eds), The Mongols’ Middle East: Continuity and Transformation in Ilkhanid Iran (Leiden, 2016), 309-35, and “The illustration of the Turko-Mongol era in the Berlin Diez albums”, in Julia Gonnella, Friedrike Weis & Christoph Rauch (eds), The Diez Albums. Contexts and contents (Leiden, 2016), 221-42.

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