Archeology and History of the Silk Road



Sunday, 31 October 2010

Kazakhstan- Hommes, bêtes et dieux de la steppe

Exposition in Musee Guimet, Paris

Kazakhstan- Hommes, bêtes et dieux de la steppe

Du 29 octobre 2010 au 31 janvier 2011

Situé entre la Russie et la Chine, le Kazakhstan est un territoire où se sont rencontrées des civilisations anciennes, celle de la Chine ancienne, celle de l’Asie centrale des oasis ou encore celle de l’Inde des Kouchans.

Malgré les convoitises des conquérants turcs, mongols ou russes, le peuple kazakh a su maintenir son mode de vie en lien avec ses inséparables compagnons de la steppe : le cheval auxiliaire des pasteurs cavaliers, le chameau des déplacements du campement, l’aigle ou le faucon du chasseur, les instruments de musique attributs du chamane, ou les ustensiles de la vie quotidienne, utilisés sous la yourte familiale.

Applique de vêtement en forme de daim Trésor de Zhalauly, région d’Almaty, sud-est du Kazakhstan VIIIe-VIIe siècle avant notre ère Or

L’exposition présentée au musée Guimet propose une approche croisant l’archéologie et l’ethnographie, invitant le visiteur à explorer plusieurs pistes, sur les traces de ces magnifiques cavaliers de l’Asie des steppes.

Le patrimoine archéologique exceptionnel du Kazakhstan a été découvert à la fin du XIXème siècle par des Européens dont certains seront mis à l’honneur dans cette exposition.
Ainsi quelques pièces et ouvrages de François-Joseph Castagné (1875-1958) conservés dans les collections muséales françaises seront présentés, ce dernier étant considéré comme le précurseur de l’archéologie et de l’ethnologie française en Asie centrale. Des photographies prises au cours de missions en Asie centrale ; celles du Russe Samuil Martynovich Dudin (1863-1929), membre de deux expéditions archéologiques à Turfan en 1909-1910 et Dunhuang en 1914-1915, seront également proposées.

(détail) Autel à encens avec figurines d’un homme et d’un cheval Région d’Almaty, sud-est du Kazakhstan Ve-IIIe siècle avant notre ère Bronze

Construite autour des rites du nomadisme, l’exposition « Kazakhstan Hommes, bêtes et dieux de la steppe » sera un spectacle haut en couleur autant qu’un parcours initiatique. Conçue comme une modulation visuellement dynamique, pour évoquer une société nomade circulant dans de grands espaces, se regroupant par de petites unités éphémères et mobiles.

Le visiteur découvrira côte à côte des témoignages de la richesse des pratiques funéraires kazakhs et du goût de l’orfèvrerie à travers des pièces au registre décoratif puisant leurs motifs dans la faune des steppes et des montagnes – cervidés, bouquetins, oiseaux, félins - et une évocation de paysages et d’hommes tournés vers un infini qui les fait entrer en contact avec l’esprit de la steppe.

Une visite dans l’univers des habitants de la steppe …

Deux chèvres des montagnes ailées. Éléments de décor d’un chaudron Almaty, sud-est du Kazakhstan Ve-IIIe siècle avant notre ère Bronze

The Travels of Ch'ang Ch'un to the West, 1220-1223

The Travels of Ch'ang Ch'un to the West, 1220-1223
recorded by his disciple
Li Chi Ch'ang
translated by E. Bretschneider (1888)

K'iu Ch'ang Ch'un was an eminent Taoist monk born in 1148 CE and thus elderly at the time of his trip. He was ordered by Chingis Khan to travel to his court, which at the time encamped in Central Asia. The route went through the Altai and Tienshan mountains, the southern parts of today's Kazakhstan, through Kyrgyzstan, to Samarkand and then down into NE Iran and Afghanistan. He was accompanied by his disciple Li Chi ch'ang who composed the narrative—a rather detailed diary of the journey. It was published with an introduction by Sun si in 1228 and included in the Tao tsang tsi yao. Bretschneider observes that this account "occupies a higher place than many reports of our European mediaeval tavellers." It is indeed a brilliant account of Central Asia at the time, providing insight into many areas including geography, the life of ordinary people, Mongol administration, travel conditions, and even a more endearing and benevolent portrait of emporer Chinghis himself.

The text has been excerpted from E. Bretschneider's Mediæval Researches from Eastern Asiatic Sources (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1888)

For the full text, click HERE

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Glass along the Silk Road from 200 BC to AD 1000

Glass along the Silk Road from 200 BC to AD 1000
Bettina Zorn, Alexandra Hilgner (Hrsg.)
RGZM-Tagungen Bd. 9, 249 S. davon 200 farbige Abb., ISBN 978-3-88467-148-1

The current state of research on glass along the Silk Road was the subject of an international conference within the scope of the »Sino-German Project on Cultural Heritage Preservation« of the RGZM and the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, hosted in December 2008 in Mainz.
Since Antiquity the routes of the so-called Silk Road formed an important network for commercial, cultural and technological exchange. Far-reaching and criss-crossing the Asian continent they connected eastern and south-eastern parts of Asia to the Mediterranean world via both maritime and overland routes. Named after the lucrative silk trade, which developed during Han Dynasty, one tends to think of the Silk Road as a one-way road starting in China and ending at the Mediterranean. However, goods, technologies and ideas were travelling in both directions, and glass is an excellent example for a trade-good that arrived in the East from the West. The key developments of glass, which had its origins in the Middle and Near East, mainly took place in the Mediterranean and in the Arab World during Antiquity and Islamic times. Although known in the Far East since at least the Han Dynasty and treated as equivalent to precious stones, glass never played a significant role in Far Eastern cultures. Therefore glass finds from Far Eastern sites provide evidence for far-reaching trade relationships and imply cross-fertilization with other cultures.
Thus the contributions to this conference dealt with a geographical area between Western Europe, the Balkans, the Near East, Central Asia, as well as Eastern and Southeastern Asia and covered a chronological range from 200 BC to AD 1000. The conference focused on the one hand on recent results of scientific analyses of glass and on the other hand on archaeological questions. The possibility of interdisciplinary research was one of the focal points of the conference and hence this volume, as well as questions on workshops, raw material, technology and trade.
The international conference was considered to provide the participants with an insight beyond their own immediate concerns. By means of presenting studies of regionally specific glass forms and techniques as well as current methods and discoveries, even when not directly connected to the Silk Road, a broader perspective is offered.

While you're rading about glass on the silk road, consider reading about the Origin and Evolution of Ancient Chinese Glass by Gan Fuxi.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Secrets of the Silk Road: The Exhibition II & III

At this moment runs the exhibition "Secrets of the Silk Road" at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
During the run of the exhibit a series of videos about this subject will be released.
This second video in the series takes you behind the scenes of this fascinating exhibition for a preview.

It's nothing new in this video but the photo on the background of the burial place is stunning!

Secrets of the Silk Road: The Exhibition from HMNS on Vimeo.

The third video in the series dives into the principle activity along the silk road: trade. Not just in goods - but also in ideas.

Secrets of the Silk Road: Trade from HMNS on Vimeo.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Epic of Ferdowsi Shahnameh

Exploring exquisite Persian manuscript art inspired by the world's longest poem: the Shahnameh, or 'Book of Kings'. With Professor Charles Melville, Director of the Cambridge Shahnama Project .

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Sat 11 September 2010 to Sun 9 January 2011
Mellon Gallery (13)

This autumn, a landmark exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum explores the monumental artistic legacy of one of the world's greatest literary epics: the 1000 year-old Persian 'Book of Kings', or Shahnameh.

Completed by the poet Ferdowsi in 1010 AD, this vast narrative poem telling the 'Iranian version' of the history of the world is an icon of Persian culture, inspiring some of the world's most exquisite manuscripts. To mark the passing of a millennium since its completion, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh now brings together nearly one hundred paintings from these lavishly illustrated manuscripts spanning 800 years, in the most comprehensive exhibition of Shahnameh art yet mounted in this country.

Presenting a spectacular range of richly illustrated manuscripts and of Persian miniature paintings - drawn from public and private collections in the UK including the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, the British Museum, the British Library, the V&A, the Royal Asiatic Society, the Bodleian Library and collections within Cambridge - Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh presents a captivating literary and artistic tradition that for many in the West has remained hidden.

A diverse programme of events will accompany the exhibition, from talks and lectures by international authorities on the Shahnameh and creative workshops for all ages, to concerts of Persian music, film and theatrical performances bringing these tales to life.

The exhibition is presented with the support of Iran Heritage Foundation, and is also supported by the Bahari Foundation, Denis and Minouche Severis, Parsa Community Foundation, Princess Guity Qajar Fund, Monica and Ali Wambold, the ILEX Foundation and the Islamic Manuscript Association.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh Exhibition III

Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Sat 11 September 2010 to Sun 9 January 2011
Mellon Gallery (13)

III. The Shahnameh: a Literary Masterpiece

IV. Structure and Themes of the Shahnameh: Myth, Legend and History

The Shahnameh’s universal themes had struck a resonant chord in the hearts and minds of unfolding generations. Its stories of the rise and fall of great dynasties, the disputes between kings and heroes, and the conflicts between fathers and sons treat man’s struggles against nature, fate and his own conscience. They reflect both long-standing traditions and topical realities.

The Shahnameh is essentially a chronicle of kings, with the larger sections divided according to the coronations and deaths of individual monarchs. It covers the reign of fifty kings, from the first, Kiyumars, down to the ill-fated Yazdegerd, murdered as he fled from the advancing Arabs. Ferdowsi’s kings and heroes are constantly involved in battles, hunts and court receptions – the feasting and fighting, bazm u razm – which were key elements of the warrior code and the pastimes of the ruling elite. However, they also find time for sports, games and romance.

The court of Kiyumars

Ferdowsi, Shahnameh/Safavid: Qazvin or Mashhad, c.1580/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/Cambridge University Library, MS Add. 269, fol. 19r
Kiyumars, the first man in the Avesta, the sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism composed c.1000 BC, is also the first king in the Shahnameh, ruling over the world. During his reign humankind lived close to the wild animals, but also began to hunt and domesticate them. Kiyumars, whose story parallels the biblical account of Adam and Eve, is shown here enthroned on a lion skin. He is surrounded by courtiers in snow leopard hides and by servants bringing golden dishes, an anachronistic touch. The manuscript must have reached India by the late sixteenth century, as it bears the imprint of the seal of the Qotb Shahi ruler of Golconda in the Deccan, Mohammad Qoli b. Ebrahim (r. 1580–1611). It was presented to the East India Company in 1806.

The various roles of women in the Shahnameh are indicative of Ferdowsi’s views on social order. A good example is the story of Bahram Gur who cruelly punished his beloved, Azadeh, for her audacity. Azadeh was a fine musician, but socially inferior – she was a slave, while Bahram Gur was to become the Sasanian king Bahram V, celebrated in literature and art as one of the last epic heroes. The union of a prince and a slave girl was, according to the Shahnameh’s social outlook, as absurd as Azadeh’s name, meaning ‘free, noble’. On the other hand, Ferdowsi maintained that women of royal descent had equal rights with men when it came to matters of the heart. Tahmineh, the beautiful daughter of the king of Samangan, came to the hero Rostam, who was staying the night in her father’s castle, and offered herself as a mother for his child. Likewise, Manizheh, daughter of the ruler of Turan, Iran’s mortal enemy, ordered the Iranian knight Bizhan with whom she had fallen in love to be drugged and brought to her palace apartments, though their liaison eventually saw him imprisoned in a pit. In both cases the women achieved their goals, regardless of their partners’ wishes, and deserved no punishment in the poet’s view. As one of the last representatives of the old Iranian aristocracy, Ferdowsi was trapped between his traditional values and the new norms of a changing society, which combined the relative social egalitarianism of Islam with a more restrictive attitude towards women’s freedom of choice and action.

Tahmineh comes to Rostam

Ferdowsi, Shahnameh/Timurid: Herat, c.1444 /Patron: Mohammad Juki b. Shah Rokh/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/London, Royal Asiatic Society, Persian MS 239, fol. 56v
The scene of Tahmineh visiting Rostam at night with the request to bear his child is one of the most frequently illustrated episodes in the Shahnameh. Rostam’s enthusiasm and Tahmineh’s bashfulness make this is one of the most delightful versions. The exquisite rendering of a princely interior transports the viewer into the fifteenth century. Tahmineh is no longer attended by a woman but by a black eunuch, perhaps reflecting a change in contemporary custom. The depiction of the div shows influence from China or Central Asia.
This illustration belonged to a copy of the Shahnameh made for Mohammad Juki b. Shah Rokh, brother of Ebrahim Soltan. Mohammad Juki died before the manuscript was completed. In the early sixteenth century, it came into the possession of a later Timurid ruler, Babur, who took it to India when he founded the Mughal dynasty there.

The Shahnameh is commonly divided into three sections: myths, legends and history. The mythical part opens with the creation of the world. The borderline between the mythical and legendary sections is porous. The historical part begins with the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty upon the conquest of Iran by Alexander the Great c.330 BC and ends with the collapse of the Sasanian Empire in the wake of the Arab invasions of the early seventh century.

The mythological section of the Shahnameh, by far the shortest, is essentially a cosmogony. Ferdowsi treated the creation of the world in Zoroastrian terms and, unlike his contemporaries, made no attempt to integrate the Islamic version of the creation as recorded in the Qur’an. Much of the worldview of the Shahnameh reflects ancient sources of Indo-Iranian (Aryan) origin, preserved in the Avesta, the scriptures of Zoroastrianism that are at least partly contemporary with the prophet Zarathustra (fl. c.1000 BC). The Zamyad Yasht, for instance, tells the story of the divine grace or charisma (farr, khwarnah), possessed by the deity, prophets and great heroes of Iranian myth, which is the vital element of kingship in the Shahnameh. The supernatural is omnipresent in the mythical part, usually in the form of beasts, dragons or demons who threaten mankind’s attempts to establish an orderly society. The early battles of the poem record the first kings’ gradual subjugation of the demonic representatives of Ahriman, the evil principle of the universe.

Rostam slays the White Div

Ferdowsi, Shahnameh/Timurid: Herat, c.1444
Patron: Mohammad Juki b. Shah Rokh/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on pape/London, Royal Asiatic Society, Persian MS 239, fol. 44r
King Key Kavus was captured and blinded by divs in Mazandaran. Rostam set him free, but to cure his blindness he needed the White Div’s liver. The battle with the White Div in its lair — the cave shown in section here — was Rostam’s seventh and final Peril. Rostam’s enforced guide, Owlad, who is tied to a tree, looks exceedingly anxious. The hero, wearing his habitual tigers-skin coat, is removing the liver while the demon grasps his dismembered arm in anguish. The depiction of the div shows influence from China or Central Asia.

The reign of Jamshid, the fourth king, was notable for the introduction of crafts and the organization of society. He grouped mankind into four classes – priests, warriors, farmers, and manual labourers – a division that remained axiomatic in later theories of political organization and had its counterpart in the Indian caste system. To reflect his sun-like glory, Jamshid introduced the feast of the New Year, Nowruz, still celebrated in Iran at the time of the spring equinox. However, entranced by his own achievements, he forgot God and lost his divine charisma (farr), leading to his downfall and the subjugation of Iran by the tyrannical king Zahhak.

Zahhak’s Arab origins prefigure the long and troubled relationship between the Persians and the Arabs. His reign marks the transition to the legendary section, which contains the most famous stories. Some of them are Homeric in tone and themes. Others display similarities to the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana: the feats of the Shahnameh’s main hero, Rostam, find parallels in the exploits of Indra and Krishna; noble characters wrongly suspected of sexual misconduct have to prove their innocence by passing through fire; ethnic and tribal differences have their origins in fratricidal disputes.

A formative episode in the legendary portion of the Shahnameh is the murder of Iraj, son of king Faridun, who divided his realm amongst his three sons (not unlike King Lear’s planned division of Britain between his three daughters). The youngest brother, Iraj, received the choicest part, Iran, and his jealous brothers murdered him . This set off the cycle of wars that pitted the Iranians against the Turanians throughout the Shahnameh, a reflection of the long-term historical confrontation between the sedentary civilizations of the Iranian Plateau and the nomadic Turkic peoples of Inner Asia. The murder of Iraj had other resonances. He was an innocent victim, politically naïve and ready to renounce the trappings of power for a life of contemplation. As such, he is a precursor of the inward-looking and spiritually aware Siyavosh, a man of conscience who undertook an ordeal by fire to prove his innocence. The world of the spirit, though not a dominant feature in the Shahnameh, is always in the background and highlights the uneasy relationship between secular power, religion and ethics.

The stories in the legendary section are more complex than the poem’s opening narratives. One reason for this is the emergence of two centres of power, the Persian kings and the lords of Sistan: Sam, his son Zal, and Zal’s son Rostam. Although the lords of Sistan are the champions of the Persian kings, the gradually deteriorating relationship between these two ruling houses generates much of the tension in the legendary stories. Sam is unconditionally loyal to his kings. Zal is faithful too, but he warns his monarchs against bad advice and evil actions. Rostam is loyal to wise and just kings, but challenges the inept Kavus and the tyrannical Goshtasp.

Dissension between king and hero is a recurrent motif in the Shahnameh, and this is also a widespread theme in western epics, most famously in the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon at the opening of the Iliad. Indeed, the Persian ‘Book of Kings’ is not a relentless praise of individual rulers or the institution of monarchy. Of the fifty kings named by Ferdowsi, only five are given unalloyed approbation, while many more are shown as unwise or deeply flawed. Towards the end of the Shahnameh, a sage is asked: ‘Who is the most desperate of men?’ He replies: ‘A good man who serves a worthless king.’

In two of the greatest narratives of the legendary section, the stories of Siyavosh and Esfandiyar, a young prince is faced with an impossible moral dilemma: the king, who is also his father, has ordered him to do something wrong. Whereas Siyavosh follows his conscience and goes over to the enemy, Esfandiyar obeys his father’s orders. Both are destroyed. The urgency of their moral dilemma makes for wonderfully moving and humane narratives that exemplify another problematic relationship at the core of the Shahnameh, that between father and son. Paradoxically, the greatest loyalty of all, that towards Iran itself, is similarly called into question. The two most unequivocally noble characters of the legendary section, Siyavosh and his son Key Khosrow, abandon Iran for ethical reasons. Their sense of the moral imperative in their lives transcends their ethnic and national loyalties.

The legendary section of the Shahnameh is dominated by Rostam, the most celebrated champion of Persian folklore whose exploits draw on narratives going back to ancient times. The arms most closely associated with him, the lariat and the club, are pre-metallic weapons. A complex figure, Rostam embodies the most anarchic and chthonic elements of the poem, representing the atavistic type of hero – the trickster. His patronymic, Dastan, means ‘trickery’. He is associated with an animal known for its slyness, the tiger, and instead of armour wears its talismanic skin, an ancient motif of Indian and Parthian origin. The feathers of a magical bird, the Simorgh, protect him at his birth and in his last combat. Rostam lives a long life, serving seven kings, and his character undergoes substantial changes. In the early stories he is a mythological hero, enjoying supernatural protection and emerging triumphant from all conflicts. But after his involvement with Tahmineh and the birth of their son Sohrab, Rostam leaves the world of the heroic, and becomes ensnared in the human. His adventures are now shadowed by anguish and a sense of impending tragedy. He inadvertently kills his son Sohrab; he is unable to save the doomed Siyavosh whom he loves as a son; he is presented with an impossible dilemma during his last major encounter with Esfandiyar].

The development of Rostam’s character is indicative of the general evolution of narrative in the Shahnameh. The early stories show emblematic figures acting within archetypal situations, for instance the tale of Faridun and his three sons. Gradually, the characters acquire psychological depth and plausibility, notably in the story of Siyavosh. In the final, historical section, we encounter figures, such as Bahram Chubineh, which are drawn with the detailed complexity found in nineteenth-century novels.

The historical section of the Shahnameh begins only with the last of the Achaemenids, Darius III, and the conquests of Eskandar (Alexander the Great), who is treated as a legitimate Persian sovereign. There is no reference to the founders of the Achaemenid dynasty, Cyrus the Great, Darius, or Xerxes. Their history was lost to the Persian memory, perhaps owing to the lack of records under the Parthians, a dynasty of nomadic Central Asian origin that ruled Iran for some 500 years (c.247 BC–224 AD) after Alexander’s Seleucid successors had faded. The legends of the Shahnameh originated in eastern, Parthian Iran, not in the imperial heartland that was the centre of Achaemenid rule. Consequently, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis, was known to Ferdowsi’s contemporaries as Takht-e Jamshid, ‘the throne of Jamshid’, while the royal tombs near it, with their monumental carvings, were referred to as Naqsh-e Rostam, ‘the image of Rostam’, and believed to represent the exploits of this legendary hero. The Parthians themselves receive scant attention in the Shahnameh, despite their long rule, although the memory of their warlords and leaders survives in the names of some Shahnameh’s protagonists, such as the Godarzian family of Godarz, Giv and Bizhan. The neglect of the Parthians cannot be simply due to an effort by their successors, the Sasanians, to write them out of history, for the Parthian nobility remained a potent force under the new regime.

The only genuinely historical section of the Shahnameh covers the reigns of the Sasanian dynasty (c. 224–642), founded by Ardeshir Papakan, who is glorified as a lawgiver and a model for subsequent rulers. Historical figures are often romanticized, their heroic acts of fighting, hunting and dragon slaying chiming with earlier sections of the epic. Nevertheless, with the focus of conflict switching from the East to the West, there are substantial accounts of the wars against Rome, such as the expeditions of Shapur II and Khosrow Anushirvan. Apart from the military encounters, Ferdowsi also mentions cultural exchanges, particularly with India, for instance the introduction of chess and the Persians’ invention of backgammon in response. This occurred in the reign of Khosrow Anushirvan the Just (531–579), fabled for his reforms and his political wisdom, nourished by the vizier and counsellor Bozorjmehr. The necessary combination of just monarch and wise advisor, exemplified by the idealized relationship between Alexander the Great and Aristotle, was an integral part of Persian political thought. The duty to consult, to seek and to offer advice was the best antidote to rashness and folly. But the precarious relations between Anushirvan and Bozorjmehr are also a paradigm for the dangers of serving a monarch and for the destructiveness of court intrigues.

The tone of this last section is different from the ethical, formulaic stories in the legendary part of the Shahnameh. The narratives are full of circumstantial detail. We leave the court and see villagers and townspeople from various social levels. The supernatural interferes only occasionally and magic is rarely mentioned. There are a number of light, amusing stories, while politics are often so venal as to suggest that the Persian Empire was destroyed as much by its own internal corruption as by the Arabs. If the sense of heroic fatalism is largely lost, much has been gained in vivid narrative, intimate pathos and psychological complexity.

The end of the poem, which recounts the fall of the Sasanians and the triumph of the Arabs, is an astonishing tour de force. The last Persian commander – coincidentally called Rostam – writes a long letter to his brother that prophesies the disasters that will befall Iran under Arab rule. Ferdowsi poignantly recalls the glory of the old civilization and its vanity, showing – without apparent condemnation or irony – the stark simplicity of the conquerors and the valour of the newly emerging culture. The Shahnameh is one of the very few indigenous narratives of the Persian people prior to the Arab invasion. Based on original Persian sources, such as the Sasanian ‘Book of Kings’ (Khwaday-namag), the Shahnameh’s account of the Arab conquest is an important witness to the Iranian view on this watershed in the history of the Middle East, often neglected as irreconcilable with the Islamic version of events. Ferdowsi’s epic poem serves as an authentic historical source on pre-Islamic Iran. Moreover, its variety, complexity and depth, the extraordinary ethical concentration of its narratives, the breadth of the human panorama, and the wisdom with which Ferdowsi discusses the timeless themes of power, love and loyalty, together make the Shahnameh one of the most compelling and memorable works of world literature.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh Exhibition II

Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Sat 11 September 2010 to Sun 9 January 2011
Mellon Gallery (13)

III. The Shahnameh: a Literary Masterpiece

The Shahnameh is the longest poem ever written by a single author, but length can hardly account for its enduring fame. Ferdowsi’s role in the formation of the Persian language and literary culture is similar to that of Goethe for the Germans, of Pushkin for the Russians, or of Shakespeare for the English-speaking world.

Bowl showing Bahram Gur hunting with Azadeh
Probably Kashan, late 12th or early 13th century/
Fritware with colours painted in and over the glaze, mina’i/Private Collection
The young prince Bahram Gur is shown hunting with Azadeh, the slave girl who was a fine musician and ‘his heart’s delight and desire.’ Azadeh challenged him to demonstrate his skill as a hunter and, firing successive shots from his bow, to turn a male gazelle into a female, a female one into a male, and then to pin together the foot and ear of a third one. Bahram shot two arrows into the female deer’s head and cut off the antlers of the male deer with a double-pointed arrow. He nicked the ear of a third gazelle and when she raised her foot to scratch it, he pinned foot and ear together, as can be seen here. Azadeh attributed his success to demonic powers, an accusation that questioned the prince’s skill, prowess, and farr — the royal charisma demonstrated by a successful hunt and indispensible for a legitimate Persian ruler. The angry Bahram Gur threw her from the camel and trampled her. The bowl shows two successive episodes, with Azadeh on and off the camel. The union of a prince and a slave girl was, according to the social outlook of the Shahnameh, as absurd as Azadeh’s name, meaning ‘free’ or ‘noble’.

Ferdowsi was neither the first to write the history of the Iranian kings nor the first to compose poetry in the New Persian language. A generation or two before him, Rudaki (d. 940), the great court poet of the Samanid Empire in Transoxiana, had already raised Persian verse to the prestigious levels of Arabic. The earliest accounts of Iranian history in prose or verse written in the Middle Persian language (Pahlavi) were from the period of the Sasanians (224–642), who ruled Iran until the Arab conquest. Ferdowsi would have known ‘The Book of Kings’ (Khwaday-namag), which was compiled at the time of the Sasanian king Khosrow II Parviz (591–628) and was used for the compendium of chronicles completed in 957 at the request of Abu Mansur Mohammad b. ‘Abd al-Razzaq, the governor of Ferdowsi’s native Tus. One of the first prose versions of the Shahnameh was compiled by Abu’l-Mo’ayyad al-Balkhi in the first half of the tenth century, while Ferdowsi’s immediate predecessor, the famous poet Abu Mansur Daqiqi (c.935– c.976), wrote the first versified version of the Shahnameh in New Persian. But it was Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh that re-told the story of the Persian kings in an unforgettable way, solidified the authority of the Persian language as a literary medium, and kept alive the knowledge of Iran’s ancient glory, political ethics and cultural identity.

Eskandar (Alexander the Great) visits the Ka‘ba

Ferdowsi, Shahnameh/Timurid: Shiraz, c.1435–1440/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 22-1948, fol. 18v
The story of Alexander the Great, called Eskandar in the Shahnameh, is an important chapter in the epic. On his way from India to North Africa he made a stop in Mecca, which may be seen as a rite of passage in his long journey towards self-discovery. Eskandar paid his respects to the Ka‘ba, the House of Abraham, which Ferdowsi describes, as ‘the place of worship before any others existed … where God causes you to worship and to remember him.’ Here, Eskandar watches as a pilgrim reaches for the door handle of the Ka‘ba; in later versions Eskandar himself is depicted as a pilgrim.

Since the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century, the Persian-speaking world was dominated by Arabic, which was of a different linguistic origin – Semitic as opposed to Indo-European. As an educated aristocrat and a Muslim, Ferdowsi would have known enough Arabic to read and understand the Qur’an. But his choice of vocabulary for the Shahnameh kept the number of Arabic words to an absolute minimum. The metre he chose, motaqareb, is close to the Persian syllabic system. Each verse is independent and the sense does not normally run on into the next verse. Ferdowsi’s style is deliberately archaic, devoid of the ornate language and technical sophistication of his famous contemporaries at Sultan Mahmud’s fashionable court. The vocabulary, the metre, the semantics of the verses, and the relative simplicity of Ferdowsi’s diction suited the epic genre and facilitated the memorization of lengthy passages. Ferdowsi’s claim to fame rests largely on his deliberate invigoration of Persian as a literary medium, thus preserving not only the history of the Iranian people, but also the language in which it was recorded.

Eskandar (Alexander the Great) enters the Land of Darkness

Rashid al-Din, Jami’ al-Tawarikh (‘Compendium of Histories’) /Il-Khanid: Tabriz, 1314/Opaque watercolour, ink, gold and silver on paper/Edinburgh University Library, MS. Or. 20, fol. 19r
Eskandar, or Alexander the Great, went into the Land of Darkness to seek the Water of Life, but failed to find it. Here, he sends his horse forward into the swirling darkness. His followers look anxious and even two of the horses stare at each other, uncertain of what they are about to encounter. The flame-like protuberances on Eskandar’s helmet probably allude to his identification with the qur’anic figure Dhu’l-Qarnayn (‘Lord, or Possessor, of Two Horns’).

As the classic example of a Persian epic, the Shahnameh was emulated by subsequent generations. The stories of Bahram Gur and Azadeh and of Alexander the Great were retold by the great Persian poet Nezami of Ganjeh (1141-1209). He, together with Jami (1414-1492) and Nava’i (1441–1501), transformed Alexander from an obsessive conqueror and usurper into a just and wise ruler, almost equal to a prophet. A series of poems imitating the Shahnameh in style, imagery and metre continued the narrative by filling in stories from the ‘Sistan cycle’ of the family of Rostam. The first of these was the Garshasp-nameh by Asadi Tusi ( c.1010–1070) . Such narratives were often incorporated into the copies of Ferdowsi’s original text. The idiom and inspiration of the Shahnameh was also appropriated to glorify the heroes of Islamic legend, such as Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali.

Garshasp battles with the sagsars
‘Ali b. Ahmad Asadi Tusi, Garshaspnameh/Safavid: Qazvin, November–December 1573/Scribe: ‘Emad al-Din al-Hoseyni/Painter: Sadeqi/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/London, British Library, MS Or. 12985, fol. 45v

The Garshaspnameh, ‘The Book of Garshasp’, composed in 1066, is one of the works that developed the earlier or later stories of Shahnameh characters. Garshasp, who lived in the time of Zahhak, was Rostam’s great-great uncle. He is here depicted visiting the island of Qalun, where the blue-bodied sagsars (‘dog-heads’), excellent horsemen skilled in warfare, devoured their defeated opponents. This courtly manuscript was produced in Qazvin, Iran’s capital in the second half of the sixteenth century. It contains the names of several painters. Here, between the (right-hand) first and second lower columns, we see the signature of Sadeqi, a warrior, courtier, man of letters and artist of Turkman descent.

The pure epic genre gradually went out of fashion by the end of the fifteenth century, giving way to versified romances. But the Shahnameh contained the embryo of various genres, including romantic, ethical and didactic literature. Figures such as Jamshid, the mythological Iranian king, became stock characters in later works, and his magic cup, the Jam-e Jam(shid ), which revealed the world’s mysteries to its owner, became a favourite Sufi symbol in classical poetry. The flavour for the epic а la Ferdowsi was revived under the Qajars (1797–1925) and the Bazgasht (‘Return’) movement that aimed to resurrect the great Persian classical tradition of the Golden Age. The Shahanshah-nameh (c.1810) of Fath-‘Ali Khan Saba was dedicated to Fath-‘Ali Shah Qajar (1771–1834). A George-nameh was written for George V’s visit to India in 1911. The king honoured the ancient traditions of Persian rulers in at least one way – in several weeks his passion for hunting decimated the tiger population of Nepal.

A fitting testimony to the enduring power of Ferdowsi’s verse and his gloomy vision of the decay of Iran’s glory is the poem by one of the most important twentieth-century Iranian poets, Akhavan-e Sales (1928–1990), also a native of Tus. In The End of the Shahnameh (1959) he associated the decline of his country with the loss of the values celebrated in Ferdowsi’s epic.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh Exhibition

Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Sat 11 September 2010 to Sun 9 January 2011
Mellon Gallery (13)

This autumn, a landmark exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum explores the monumental artistic legacy of one of the world’s greatest literary epics: the 1000 year-old Persian 'Book of Kings', or Shahnameh.

Completed by the poet Ferdowsi in 1010 AD, this vast narrative poem telling the 'Iranian version' of the history of the world is an icon of Persian culture, inspiring some of the world’s most exquisite manuscripts. To mark the passing of a millennium since its completion, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh now brings together nearly one hundred paintings from these lavishly illustrated manuscripts spanning 800 years, in the most comprehensive exhibition of Shahnameh art yet mounted in this country.

Presenting a spectacular range of richly illustrated manuscripts and of Persian miniature paintings - drawn from public and private collections in the UK including the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, the British Museum, the British Library, the V&A, the Royal Asiatic Society, the Bodleian Library and collections within Cambridge - Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh presents a captivating literary and artistic tradition that for many in the West has remained hidden.

I. The Shahnameh: a Persian Cultural Emblem and a Timeless Masterpiece

The most important creation of New Persian literature – the Shahnameh, or the ‘Book of Kings’ – has been defined as the national epic of the Iranian people, their ‘identity card’ (shenas-nameh) and an encyclopaedia of Iranian culture. It celebrates the survival of a civilization that originated some 7,000 years ago at a dynamic crossroads of cultures, the Iranian Plateau, extended at its peak from Anatolia and the Caucasus across Transoxiana to China, withstood countless invasions, absorbed diverse influences, and conquered its conquerors by virtue of its timeless values.

Twice as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey taken together, the Shahnameh blends Iran’s ancient myths and legends with accounts of major events in its past. Its 55,000 rhyming couplets chart the history of the Iranian world from its creation to the fall of the Persian Empire in the seventh century. The Arab conquest led to fundamental changes in economic, social, and cultural life, including the replacement of Zoroastrianism with Islam and of Middle Persian (Pahlavi) with Arabic as the dominant language. But the Shahnameh offered Iran’s new rulers a model of wise kingship, preserved the Persian language and identity, and spread their cultural influence well beyond Iran’s shrinking political borders. It was translated into Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and many of the world’s modern languages. A millennium after its completion, the Persian ‘Book of Kings’ remains one of the most popular texts of secular poetry in Southwest Asia. Its enduring appeal points to a core of meaning – the eternal strife between good and evil – that transcends specific time and place.

>This double-page image captures the splendour of the Persian court. On the right, Lohrasp, who has just succeeded Key Khosrow, is enthroned among courtiers and entertained by musicians beside the pool, while an attendant offers him pomegranates and another one, behind the throne, holds his sword. On the left, food is served, while petitioners wait outside. The fine blue and gold illumination framing the scene marks the beginning of the second part of the Shahnameh.

II. Ferdowsi: the Poet and the Legend

Ferdowsi is widely regarded as the preserver of the Persian language and of pre-Islamic Iranian cultural identity. Of all the peoples conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century, the Persians are the only ones who can boast a major literature in the indigenous language that they were using before the conquest. When asked recently why the vast majority of Egyptians, the heirs to a great pre-Islamic civilization, speak Arabic rather than Coptic, a leading Egyptian historian replied: ‘Because we had no Ferdowsi.’
Hakim Abu’l-Qasem Ferdowsi (940–1025) was born in the family of wealthy land owners (the class known as dehqan) in Tus, in northeast Iran’s province of Khorasan (today’s Razavi Khorasan state). His life coincided with a period of intense interest in Persian traditions. After the collapse of the Sasanian Empire, Iran offered the Arab conquerors ancient models of kingship that they could adopt in order to legitimize and solidify their dominance over peoples of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. Iran also provided the Caliphate of the ‘Abbasid dynasty (750–1258), centred in its new metropolis, Baghdad, close to the former Persian capital at Ctesiphon, with an army of experienced administrative and military governors who managed its expanding territories and gradually established their regional autonomy. Throughout the ninth and tenth centuries much of Iran was controlled by local dynasties that claimed their right to rule by virtue of their Persian descent and eroded the authority of the ‘Abbasids. The Saffarids (861–1003) ruled over Sistan, the homeland of the great Persian hero Rostam in southeastern Iran (at that period including much of Helmand Province in southwest Afghanistan today). The Samanids (819–999), who controlled Khorasan and Transoxiana in northeast Iran, with their capital in Bokhara, revived the official use of the Persian language and sponsored some of the earliest literary works to be written in New Persian. They came from the same landowning class as Ferdowsi and claimed descent from Bahram Chubineh, the famous general in the Shahnameh who belonged to the noble Parthian family of the Mehrans].

Bahram Chubineh kills Saveh Shah/Ferdowsi, Shahnameh
Safavid: Astarabad or Esfahan, July 1643 /Scribe: Hajji Mohammad b. Nur al-Din Mohammad Dasht-e Bayazi /Patron: Mirza Mohammad Taher Beg/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS Or. 202, fol. 252r

In the Sasanian period, Hormozd of Iran was concerned by the threat posed by Saveh, the Turkish ruler of Herat. Through a prophecy, he was led to Bahram Chubineh, a lord willing and able to lead the army against Saveh. Bahram Chubineh routed the much larger Turkish force. Saveh took to flight, but Bahram shot him in the back. Here, Saveh is shown facing his opponent, rather than fleeing, but he has clearly met his fate. The rearing of the horses, slightly out of phase with the rocky horizon that rises and falls like waves behind them, emphasizes the vigorous action.

Their rivals in western Iran, the Buyids (945–1055), although of Arab origin, claimed descent from the Sasanian king Bahram V, the Shahnameh’s Bahram Gur]. Both the Samanids and the Buyids revived the old Sasanian title of ‘King of Kings’ (Shahanshah).

Bahram Gur slays lions and a dragon
Ferdowsi, Shahnameh/Safavid: Qazvin or Mashhad, 28 November 1580/Scribe: Qotb al-Din b. Hasan al-Tuni/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/Private collection
These are two of the twenty-four illustrations that survive from a manuscript dated 1580. The work of several artists, they combine stylistic elements from Mashhad (eastern Iran) and Qazvin (western Iran). In No. 68, Bahram Gur, who has recently ascended the throne of Iran, rides into a wood and confronts the lions there. The hunting of lions was the archetypical sport of Persian kings, and — perhaps unwittingly — the painter echoes a motif found on Sasanian silver dishes. In No. 69 we see Bahram Gur, on a majestic white steed, killing a fire-breathing dragon for the Shangal of Hind (India). The tree branches seem to flicker, echoing the dragon’s sinuous movement. The grotesque profiles in the rock, a feature appearing from the fourteenth century onwards, may represent spirits, or djinn, while amusing the artist and viewer.

During the Arab invasion of the seventh century and for some time afterwards, Ferdowsi’s native Tus was ruled by the Kanarang family of noble Parthian stock. A mid-tenth century descendant of this family entrusted scholars steeped in Pahlavi and in the Zoroastrian world-view with the collation of pre-Islamic Persian documents and the Sasanian ‘Book of Kings’ (Khwaday-namag), which resulted in a prototype prose version of the Shahnameh in New Persian completed in 957. The continuing vigour of the prestigious Persian administrative system and government models, the survival of the former Persian gentry, and the independent spirit of minor potentates on the peripheries of the Iranian Plateau, nurtured Persian traditions and consciousness. Known as the ‘Iranian intermezzo’, this period of revival of Persian identity fell between 945, when the Buyids took Baghdad and challenged the power of the ‘Abbasid Caliphs in their own capital, and the arrival from the mid-eleventh century onwards of a succession of Turkic and Inner Asian.
Whatever hopes Ferdowsi may have held of the revival of Persian fortunes under the Samanid family, they were frustrated by the collapse of their rule and the rise of the Ghaznavid dynasty (977–1186), upstarts of Turkic slave origin who had distinguished themselves in the Samanids’ military service in Khorasan. Having worked on the Shahnameh for thirty-five years, Ferdowsi dedicated the final version to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (997–1030), hoping to inspire him as a new champion of ancient Persian glory. Known for his patronage of poetry and the arts, Mahmud was the obvious, in fact the only contemporary monarch to whom Ferdowsi could offer his epic. However, the pro-Caliphate sultan, who was a militant Sunni and the grandson of a Turkic slave, could hardly have appreciated a poem marked by anti-Arab, anti-Turk, pro-royalist and pro-Shi‘i sentiments.
The Shahnameh offers evidence for Ferdowsi’s devotion to the Shi‘i branch of Islam, which maintains that Mohammad’s family, his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali, and the Imams descended from him are the rightful spiritual leaders. A copy of the Shahnameh made in Tabriz in 1536 shows the Prophet Mohammad and ‘Ali in the Ship of Shi‘ism, while references in the text to the Orthodox caliphs, Mohammad’s closest companions and leaders of his tribe, who are accepted by Sunni Muslims as the Prophet’s true successors, have been scratched out.

The ship of Shi‘ism

Ferdowsi, Shahnameh/Safavid: Tabriz, May–June 1536/Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper/London, British Library, MS Add. 15531, fol. 12r
The numerous ships in this image acknowledge the existence of various religions, but the Prophet Mohammad and his son-in-law ‘Ali are shown on the ship representing the shi‘i branch of Islam. Shi‘ism considers the Prophet’s family his true successors, while sunni Muslims favour the caliphs chosen among Mohammad’s companions. A shi‘i owner of this manuscript has scratched out references to the first four caliphs, treating the fourth, ‘Ali, who was a family member, more leniently. From the sixteenth century onwards Mohammad was normally shown veiled, as a mark of respect. Here, the family wear their turbans wound round a cap with a high central projection, which denoted shi‘i affiliation at the time. The flaming halos surrounding their heads originated in the Buddhist art of Central Asia and are found in manuscripts made for sunni patrons as well.

Ferdowsi did not discuss the origins of Islam in the Shahnameh. A mid-twelfth century source claimed that he had been denied burial in the Muslim cemetery for being a ‘heretic’. Indeed, Ferdowsi was buried in his family estate, where his mausoleum, built in 1925, now stands.
On the other hand, the Shahnameh includes a passage on the emergence of Zaratushtra and the adoption of Zoroastrianism by the Iranian king Goshtasp. Curiously, this is the only fragment that Ferdowsi borrowed from the first versified version of the Shahnameh in New Persian, written by Abu Mansur Daqiqi (c.935–c.976). Daqiqi enjoyed a reputation as a bohemian Zoroastrian and Ferdowsi was careful not to associate himself too closely with the account of Zoroastrianism, wherever his own personal sympathies may have lain.
The paradoxical situation of the Shahnameh’s dedication to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni gave rise to numerous legends. The most popular of them recounts how the old Ferdowsi arrived at the capital and managed to penetrate into the Sultan’s garden, where the three chief court poets were involved in erudite conversation [No. 1 No. 44] . Ferdowsi passed their test and was introduced to Mahmud himself. But the sultan rejected the epic, which, together with the jealousy of the court poets, may explain why the Shahnameh was nearly forgotten for two centuries after Ferdowsi’s death.

to be continued

Sunday, 17 October 2010

新シルクロード "Sleep for 4000 years with desert in Loulan,China "

The TV documentary "New Silk Road" is from 2005 and is a joint Japanes/Chinse production.
Unfortunately there are no English subtitles but the quality of the documentary is excellent and the music is simply beautiful.

The Silk Road in World History

The Silk Road in World History
by Xinru Liu

The Silk Road was the contemporary name for a complex of ancient trade routes linking East Asia with Central Asia, South Asia, and the Mediterranean world. This network of exchange emerged along the borders between agricultural China and the steppe nomads during the Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), in consequence of the inter-dependence and the conflicts of these two distinctive societies. In their quest for horses, fragrances, spices, gems, glassware, and other exotics from the lands to their west, the Han Empire extended its dominion over the oases around the Takla Makan Desert and sent silk all the way to the Mediterranean, either through the land routes leading to the caravan city of Palmyra in Syria desert, or by way of northwest India, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, landing at Alexandria. The Silk Road survived the turmoil of the demise of the Han and Roman Empires, reached its golden age during the early middle age, when the Byzantine Empire and the Tang Empire became centers of silk culture and established the models for high culture of the Eurasian world. The coming of Islam extended silk culture to an even larger area and paved the way for an expanded market for textiles and other commodities. By the 11th century, however, the Silk Road was in decline because of intense competition from the sea routes of the Indian Ocean.

Using supply and demand as the framework for analyzing the formation and development of the Silk Road, the book examines the dynamics of the interactions of the nomadic pastoralists with sedentary agriculturalists, and the spread of new ideas, religions, and values into the world of commerce, thus illustrating the cultural forces underlying material transactions. This effort at tracing the interconnections of the diverse participants in the transcontinental Silk Road exchange will demonstrate that the world had been linked through economic and ideological forces long before the modern era.

About the author;
Xinru Liu teaches in the Department of History at The College of New Jersey and was formerly Senior Researcher at the Institute of World History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Discover the secrets of the Silk Road -- before everyone else does

The Silk Road is now even recommended by CNN !
Read the following item.

(CNN) -- One of the greatest trading routes of all time, the ancient Silk Road is again enticing travelers back to its path.
The 2,000-year-old network of routes that connected East Asia to the Mediterranean weaves its way across remote and enigmatic destinations which boast breathtaking beauty and historic gems.
There are some precarious spots along the way, but experts say that as long as travelers avoid these areas and exercise caution, the Silk Road is an appealing journey for those seeking the less-beaten track.
"Now is a fabulous time to be thinking about doing something like this," Tom Hall, travel editor of Lonely Planet, told CNN.
"In the past few years, the Trans-Siberian railway has become a very popular linear route and now people are starting to think about alternative ways to travel around."
The journey made famous by travelers like Marco Polo has a lot to offer intrepid travelers today, according to Paul Wilson, author of "The Silk Roads" travel guide.
Droves of tourists have been flocking to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, raising concerns about the over-development and restoration of those ancient cities.
In five years' time, these places are going to be far more popular than they are now. So go sooner rather than later.
But the Silk Road still has that feeling of authenticity, Wilson said. "The route is developing and in some places very quickly, but you can still witness a life which hasn't changed in centuries," he said.
"The cultures you encounter are as varied as the routes you can take -- desert nomads, mountain shepherds -- Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongols," Wilson, who has made the trek five times, including once by bike, said.
There are a multitude of experiences to be had -- from sleeping in a yurt with shepherds in Kyrgyzstan to lying on 16th century marbles as the Sultans did in Damascus's Turkish baths.
Many travelers are put off by the sheer length of the route and the endless options open for exploration. But, Wilson said, the key is to remember that you don't have to do it all at once.
"More and more travelers are doing it step by step," he said. "You might want to start with something that's a bit more familiar, like Turkey, and maybe just do that and Syria. And if you like it, then branch into Central Asia, etc."
Both Hall and Wilson told CNN that travelers should avoid destinations that could be perilous. That means steering clear of conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq as well as border regions. Travelers should also monitor travel warnings issued by their governments.
The U.S. Department of State has issued travel warnings for Iran and Uzbekistan and the UK government advises against travel to parts of Iran, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Some areas along the journey, such as China's Xinjiang region, have experienced unrest recently.
Possibly the most important aspect of any trip along the Silk Road is advanced planning, Andy Hayes, managing editor of website Sharing Travel Experiences, said.
"You definitely have to have a plan," Hayes told CNN. "It's not a place where you can just backpack around and hope for the best."
He added: "Do everything in advance, especially all your visas. The regulations can change quite often, so make sure you do your homework and always check while you're on the move."
Travelers will have to do a bit of leg work to make a trip like this work, but their efforts will be rewarded, Lonely Planet's Hall said.
He said: "If you go now, you are getting the opportunity to take a peep at something of a secret world. In five years' time, these places are going to be far more popular than they are now. So go sooner rather than later."

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Siberian Ice Maiden

First, if you haven't seen this Nova documentary on the Siberian Ice Maiden, do it now and view this documentary, it is a must for any anyone seriously interested in ancient civilizations, mummies and the empowerment of women.
It gives absolute credence to the existence of Amazons and warrior class women.

The discovery is from 1993.
Unfortunately there are no good images of the Ice Maiden, as her nearly perfection preservation and magnificent tattoos began to deteriorate as soon as she was discovered, and she is now pickled in Russia along with Stalin and Lenin.

The attached image is an artist interpretation by Jason Beam based on the descriptions from the Nova special.

Documentary "The Siberian Ice Maiden"

The Pazyryk burials are a number of Iron Age tombs found in the Pazyryk Valley of the Ukok plateau in the Altai Mountains, Siberia, south of the modern city of Novosibirsk, Russia. The tombs are of Scythian type, an ancient Indo-European people of horse-riding nomadic pastoralists that is known to have dominated the Pontic-Caspian steppe throughout Classical Antiquity.

Although some scholars sought to connect the Pazyryk nomads with modern-day ethnic groups of the Altay, Rudenko summed up the cultural context: "All that is known to us at the present time about the culture of the population of the High Altay, who have left behind them the large cairns, permits us to refer them to the Scythian period, and the Pazyryk group in particular to the fifth century BCE. This is supported by radiocarbon dating." The most famous undisturbed Pazyryk burial so far recovered is the "Ice Maiden" found by archaeologist Natalia Polosmak in 1993, a rare example of a single woman given a full ceremonial wooden chamber-tomb in the 5th century BCE, accompanied by six horses.

She had been buried over 2,400 years ago in a casket fashioned from the hollowed-out trunk of a larch tree. On the outside of the casket were stylised images of deer and snow leopards carved in leather. Six horses wearing elaborate harnesses had been sacrificed and lay on the logs which formed the roof of the burial chamber. The maiden's well-preserved body, carefully embalmed with peat and bark, was arranged to lie on her side as if asleep. She was young; her hair was still blonde; she had been 1.68 metres (5 ft 6 in) tall, (see LINK).

Even the animal style tattoos were preserved on her pale skin: creatures with horns that develop into flowered forms. Her coffin was made large enough to accommodate the high felt headdress she was wearing, which had 15 gilded wooden birds sewn to it. On a gold buckle retrieved from another tomb, a similar woman's headdress intertwined with branches of the tree of life are depicted. Her blouse was originally thought to be made of wild "tussah" silk but closer examination of the fibers indicate the material is not Chinese but was a wild silk which came from somewhere else, perhaps India. She was clad in a long crimson woolen skirt and white felt stockings.

Near her coffin was a vessel made of yak horn, and dishes containing gifts of coriander seeds: all of which suggest that the Pazyryk trade routes stretched across vast areas of Iran. As recently as January 2007, tombs are still discovered at various locations, such as the timber tomb of a blond chieftain warrior that was unearthed in the permafrost of the Altai mountains region close to the Mongolian border (LINK) The body of the presumed Pazyryk chieftain is tattooed; his sable coat is well-preserved, as are some other objects, including what looks like scissors. A local archaeologist, Aleksei Tishkin, complained that the current population of the region strongly disapproves of archaeological digs, prompting the scientists to move their activities across the border to Mongolia.

For more information, go to the site of Sheridon Rayment.

Friday, 8 October 2010

In The Footsteps of Ibn Battuta

IMAX Movie Journey To Mecca - In The Footsteps of Ibn Battuta

Journey to Mecca tells the story of Ibn Battuta, (played by Chems Eddine Zinoun) a young scholar, who leaves Tangier in 1325 on an epic and perilous journey, traveling alone from his home in Morocco to reach Mecca, some 3,000 miles to the east.

Ibn Battuta is besieged by countless obstacles as he makes his way across the North African desert to Mecca. Along the route he meets an unlikely stranger, the Highwayman (played by Hassam Ghancy) who becomes his paid protector and eventual friend. During his travels he is attacked by bandits, dehydrated by thirst, rescued by Bedouins, and forced to retrace his route by a war-locked Red Sea.

Ibn Battuta finally joins the legendary Damascus Caravan with thousands of pilgrims bound for Mecca for the final leg of what would become his 5,000 mile, 18 month long journey to Mecca.

When he arrives in Mecca, he is a man transformed. We then experience the Hajj as he did over 700 years ago, and, in recognition of its timelessness, we dissolve to the Hajj as it is still performed today, by millions of pilgrims, in some of the most extraordinary and moving IMAX® footage ever presented.

Ibn Battuta would not return home for almost 30 years, reaching over 40 countries and revisiting Mecca five more times to perform the Hajj. He would travel three times farther then Marco Polo. His legacy is one of the greatest travel journals ever recorded. A crater on the moon is named in his honour.

For more information about the IMAX movie, click HERE

Visit The World of Khubilai Khan Exhibition in 360° Panorama

New York too far away, no time (really ??) to visit the exhibition, than visit "Just a Photoframd World" to have a quick look at two exhibition halls of this special exhibition !!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Spirit of Xanadu, Morphing Across Borders

“Man Riding a Horse” (1296), a Yuan dynasty handscroll by Zhao Mengfu, in “The World of Khubilai Khan,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

ART REVIEW “The World of Khubilai Khan,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Source: New York Times, September 30, 2010

Art history is not a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be assembled. It’s more like a smashed sheet of reflective glass, continually reshattering, with splinters scattered here and there, many lost forever. With luck and work, scholars retrieve a few splinters, put them in a guessed-at order and turn on some lights. The result is an exhibition.

If the pieces are bright and the scholarship sharp, the show can be a subtle stunner, as is the case with “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty,”the latest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s line of benchmark Chinese exhibitions. This one encompasses some 300 objects, from filigreed hairpins to a couple of megaton sculptures, most of them hard-won loans from China.

In its overachieving fashion, the Met is simultaneously presenting a second, substantial show, “The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change,” drawn from its own deep holdings. Not content with serving up mere masterpiece displays, the museum has shaped both exhibitions around a specific subject: the Mongol occupation of China, from 1271 to 1368.

Although China was always ethnically mixed, it had never been subject to outside rule before the Mongol armies came pounding down from the north, driving the existing Song dynasty into exile. In 1271, the leader of the charge, Khubilai Khan, grandson of the dreaded Genghis Khan, declared himself emperor of China and head of a new dynasty called the Yuan, meaning “the beginning.”

Khubilai was an ambitiously sophisticated man. He was conversant with Chinese culture, at least up to a point. (He never learned to read the language.) Formally a Buddhist, he was interested in a range of religions. He liked to build big things, and did: a fabulous city in Inner Mongolia called Shangdu, known in the West as Xanadu, and, on the site of present-day Beijing, an imperial capital called Dadu that became an international showcase.

Still, to his dying day he was Mongol through and through, though one with cosmopolitan seasoning. He liked sleeping in the tents favored by his nomadic ancestors, particularly if they were erected within the palace gardens.

The Mongol invasion was, inevitably, traumatic, causing social and economic upheaval in every area, including art. The invaders were respectful of Chinese high art, with its fabled refinements, and undoubtedly hoped that association with it would make their governance more acceptable to their new subjects. At the same time, they retained elements of their own more flamboyant aesthetic, and it is the intertwining of these two strands, Chinese and Central Asian, that “The World of Khubilai Khan” explores in thematic sections devoted to daily life, religion, painting and sculpture, and decorative arts. (The show was organized by James C. Y. Watt, chairman of the Met’s Asian art department.)

You get a vivid hit of Mongol style right at the start, in a much-reproduced painted portrait of Chabi, Khubilai’s moon-faced favorite consort, who appears in a bold red cap topped by a funnel-shaped column from which emerge feathers and pearls. Such hats were called gugus. One visitor to the Yuan court mistook a cluster of women wearing them for a battalion of soldiers with lances.

The show’s first section, “Daily Life,” delivers even more flash (and a strictly aristocratic perspective) with its jumble of high-end objects: jade belt hooks, embroidered slippers, bronze vessels, porcelain jars and gold items. The Mongols loved gold everything: jewelry, dishware, saddle plating. Guests at imperial functions were expected to wear cloth-of-gold outfits, preferably sewn with gems. The massed effect, seen by torchlight or in full sunlight, must have been blinding, and utterly un-Chinese.

The Mongols were no less declamatory in their architecture: they borrowed Chinese structural designs, then piled on ornament. A glazed pottery dragon’s head in the show was created as a roof fixture for a stolid and still standing Yuan Taoist temple, the Yonglegong, in Shanxi Province. Technically, the sculpture was mainly an embellishment. But standing five feet high, painted flame orange and sea-green, and snarling like a ravenous Muppet, it must have commanded all eyes.

Moving from outsized to miniature, displayed in the same gallery is an exquisite porcelain headrest with a surprise tucked away in its hollow base: a tiny theater with gallery actors performing the roles of Taoist immortals having a birthday party. Given the Mongol flair for visual histrionics, it is no surprise to learn than the Yuan era was a golden age for theater, with Dadu a 14th-century Broadway and Off Broadway rolled into one. The city had hundreds of performance spaces, indoors and open air, offering a full menu of theatrical genres from fantasy epics to topical farces and song-and-dance vaudevilles, the forerunners of Chinese opera and kung fu films.

The variety of religions was also wide, wider than it would ever be in China again. Chan Buddhism — Zen, in Japan — was just of one of several popular sects when the Mongols arrived with their own Himalayan version of the faith. And the sections of the show devoted to religion are particularly fascinating for their demonstration of how spiritual and aesthetic currents intersect.

The face on a marvelous 14th-century wood carving of an arhat, or luohan, a companion of the historical Buddha, is classically Chinese, while the body bends and twists in ways associated with Indo-Himalayan sculpture. And a painting of two very-Chinese-looking arhats floating in a very-Chinese-looking landscape is inscribed in Tibetan on one side and Newari on the other, leaving its place of origin — Tibet, maybe? — up in the air.

Having taken a Tibetan Buddhist deity as his personal savior, Khubilai Khan was somewhat resistant to Taoism. As a result, little art related to that Chinese indigenous nature religion survives from the Yuan, though what does remain includes some intriguing hybrids.

In a scroll depicting the meeting of two Taoist immortals, one wears the conventional uniform of a scholar; the other is loosely robed, dark-skinned, with a unkempt beard, all of which signaled “barbarian” in Chinese art. And this immortal has one other really distinctive outsider feature: brilliant, laser-beam blue eyes, of a kind found on portraits of monks in Central Asia. There’s a very similar image in a mural at the Yonglegong temple, proof that even in the most Chinese of contexts, the Mongol spirit found a place.

But Yuan culture turns out to be a crazy-quilt of such meetings, and the exhibition, in accounting for them, begins to feel like a succession of random spiritual flickers, with a bit of Hindu-style sculpture followed by a flash of Islamic calligraphy, then a Christian cross or two. One astonishingly code-jammed hanging scroll depicts Jesus in the guise of a Manichean prophet sitting on a Buddhist lotus throne.

And then there’s a whole other kind if art, a radical style of painting that was the dynasty’s single greatest, if somewhat accidental, aesthetic innovation.

After assuming imperial power Khubilai discontinued the Chinese system of state examinations through which scholars had traditionally gained court and civil appointments. By ending the exams — which they, of course, could not have passed — the Mongols effectively disenfranchised an entire intellectual class.

That class included artists, some of whom responded by creating a kind of anti-establishment painting: private, self-expressive and semi-abstract, closely related to writing, and conceived on an intimate scale. For many, this was a form of protest art, one that would have tremendous influence in the centuries ahead. The second Met show, “The Yuan Revolution,” takes the full measure of this art.

Interestingly, the style was more or less invented by a descendant of the Song imperial family, the polymath painter and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), who scandalized his peers by accepting a government job from Khubilai.

Maybe Zhao thought he could use his position in court for the greater benefit of Chinese art. Maybe he just wanted a settled environment in which to produce his own work. Whatever, produce he did, turning out the naturalistic paintings of horses for which he was renowned, along with copies of revered images from the distant past and calligraphic landscapes that looked to future.

In the hands of certain contemporaries, like the scholar-painter Ni Zan (1306-74), they also looked at the present. In a personal boycott of the Mongol regime, with its prejudicial attitude toward many native-born Chinese scholars, Ni took to living a fugitive’s life on houseboat, always on the move, painting soundless little vistas of river and sky, with thin bare trees standing as symbols of his own rectitudinous isolation.

“The Yuan Revolution,” organized by the Met curator Maxwell K. Hearn, has four Ni paintings. And two more take pride of place in “The World of Khubilai Khan,” which concludes, as it began, with a gathering of fragments: namely, swatches of fabric — cloth of gold, satin damask, tapestry — cut or torn from long-vanished larger textiles and carrying mingled fragrances of China, India, Nepal, Tibet, Turkey and present-day Iran.

Really, the entire loan exhibition is composed of patches, odds and ends: funny old hats, bits of buildings, mixed-up paintings, ambiguous personalities. Its subject is a dynasty that neither fully transformed the culture that it conquered nor was fully transformed by it, and in the end comes across, despite high moments, as indistinct, an image with no center, like a reflection in shivered glass. How do you make a show that catches history as it really is, a process of perpetual breakage and dispersal? This show is one way to do it.

“The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty” runs through Jan. 2 and “The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change” runs through Jan. 9, both at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710,

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Welcome to Xanadu!

“Man Riding a Horse” (1296), a Yuan dynasty handscroll by Zhao Mengfu, in “The World of Khubilai Khan,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Welcome to Xanadu!
Chinese art of the Yuan Dynasty at the Metropolitan.
By Christopher Benfey
published in SLATE Magazine

Unidentified artist, Khubilai Khan as the First Yuan Emperor, Shizu, China, Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Album leaf; ink and color on silk. Lent by National Palace Museum. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nomadic Mongols, under their ruthless warlord Ghengis Khan, swept into China during the early 13th century. One might have expected them to impose a bland cultural uniformity on their mind-boggling empire, which stretched from Mongolia and Central Asia to the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Russia. But, according to the Venetian trader Marco Polo, the Mongol rulers were surprisingly tolerant of the diverse cultural and religious practices of their polyglot populace. When Ghengis's grandson Khubilai subdued the long-resisting Southern Song region, he united all of China under one rule, inaugurating the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). The arts flourished amid the diverse cultural pressures of this brief regime, the subject of a lavish exhibition at the Met titled "The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty." Based on his own reading of Polo, spiked by a large dose of opium, Coleridge imagined Khubilai's "flashing eyes, his floating hair," but this official portrait, a sketch for the gold-flecked tapestries that the Mongols preferred to paintings, suggests the attentive eyes of a wily and self-composed administrator.

Post With Dragons on a Floral Ground, Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Stone. Lent by Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Museum. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One strand of Yuan culture consisted of what the Mongols brought with them: their taste in fine horses, flashy clothing (preferably woven with actual threads of gold), and falconry. For a nomadic people, their architectural preferences were strikingly monumental. Khubilai transformed his walled city of Shangdu (the wondrous "Xanadu" of Coleridge's poem) into a summer palace and hunting retreat for such purely Mongol delights as hunting swans with falcons. More serious business was conducted in Dadu to the south (now Beijing). All that remains of the actual Xanadu, where Mongols were free to be Mongols, are some wall fragments and this wonderful stone post, which, according to archeologists, marked a front corner of the imperial audience hall. Never exhibited outside China until now, the post, almost 7 feet tall, is decorated on two sides with feisty dragons, mirror images of one another, meant to radiate imperial authority. If you weren't personally invited by the Khan to hunt swans and deer, these dragons seem to say, better stay away from Xanadu.

Roof-Ridge Ornament, glazed pottery, from Chunyangdian, Yonglegong, Shanxi Province. Lent by Shanxi Provincial Museum. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The dragon, so closely associated with all things Chinese, actually originated, like the Mongols, in Central Asia. The imposing buildings that the Mongols favored were often topped with a sloped roof decorated at each end with huge, upright ornaments like this one, known generically as "owl's tail" or "dragon's snout." This amazing ceramic dragon, over six feet tall and glazed in luminous green and red, gives a sense of the lavish scale and imaginative energy of Mongol architecture. It comes from the temple complex of Yonglegong in Shanxi Province, devoted to the indigenous religion of Daoism, one of the many religious strands woven into the fabric of Yuan culture. One can imagine that such a roof ornament would scare away not only birds but any evil spirits that might be congregating in the area.

Gong Kai (1222-after 1304), Noble Horse, hand scroll, ink on paper. Lent by Osaka Municipal Museum of Art. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Not everyone kowtowed to the dragons of imperial authority, however. Resentment of Mongol rule was particularly keen in the south, where disenfranchised Song officials like the painter Gong Kai expressed their anger in images such as this starving horse. The Mongols would have recognized that this noble steed, with his 15 visible ribs (as opposed to the 10 of ordinary horses), was of imperial prowess. But, according to a long, self-pitying inscription by the artist, the imperial stables of the Song dynasty had lain empty since the Mongol invasion:

Who today laments over the bones of this noble steed?
In the setting sun, along the sandy shore, he casts a shadow like a mountain.

The painting is a stylistic protest as well, emphasizing the bold brushstrokes (often referred to as "bones") of the Song tradition of amateur "literati" painters and asserting a purely Chinese aesthetic tradition as the "true" identity of Chinese art. In that sense, the painting is as much a refuge for a pure strain of Chinese art as Xanadu was a refuge for purely Mongol pleasures.

Khubilai Khan's Consort, Chabi, album leaf, ink and color on silk. Lent by National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Despite such complaints from dispossessed aristocrats, the Mongols, so ruthless in war, were surprisingly tolerant in religious and aesthetic matters. Practitioners of shamanistic rituals, they were open to the various strands of Buddhism, such as the austere Chan (later "Zen") favored by the educated classes in China, along with Daoism, Nestorian Christianity, and Islam. Khubilai's "consort" (as girlfriends of emperors get to be called) Chabi is credited with his conversion to the Esoteric Buddhism of Tibet. In her official portrait, she is pictured wearing the fashionable gugu headdress and an elaborate collar incorporating a strip of the "cloth of gold" fabric, actual gold threads woven into a motif of falcons, so treasured by the Mongols. Interestingly, exquisite "cloth of gold"—woven by Central Asian craftsmen (including Muslim weavers from Samarkand) relocated by the thousands to China by the Mongols—eventually made its way to Italy, where it appears, amazingly, on the clothing of angels as depicted by Sienese masters.

Rug With Prunus Branch, 13th century, pile carpet. Lent by Naginataboko Preservation Association. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The many religions practiced during the Yuan dynasty made for some jarring combinations, like angels seated in yoga postures and crosses placed above lotus blossoms. A particularly beautiful example of such cultural "hybridity," with competing aesthetic tendencies resolved into a unified work of art, is this dazzling carpet that turned up, no one knows exactly how or why, in Japan. The borders are Islamic in origin. The central motif of the plum branch is purely Chinese, however, and is a staple of Chinese—and later Japanese—painting. The absence of blossoms (perhaps too difficult to render convincingly with relatively heavy threads) gives the branch a wintry melancholy. The jagged branch is echoed on the left and right margins in the mazelike pattern known as the meander, or Greek key. The carpet may have traveled with Yuan armies in their failed attempt to invade Japan, in 1274, when a "divine wind" (the legendary kamikaze) destroyed their ships as they approached Japanese harbors.

Beggar-Singer With Hound, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. Lent by Museum for East Asian Art, Cologne. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cultural and religious mixing led to new forms of popular entertainment during the Yuan period, especially theater, where diversity could be expressed by a simple change of clothing. This painting of a beggar singing for her supper, accompanied by a dog, is actually an actor rehearsing a woman's role for a play. The patchwork dress and the lute are signs of the actor's profession, while the white dog is often represented in Yuan art as the companion of Daoist immortals. The texts of some Yuan plays survived, providing inspiration for plays by such East-West fusionists as Voltaire and Brecht, in his Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Jar With the Story of Guiguzi, porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration. Lent by private collection. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Scenes from popular plays were often reproduced on porcelain, especially the popular "blue-and-white," which was one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Yuan period. This vibrant jar, a bit larger than a foot in diameter, depicts the wizard Guiguzi driving his cart pulled by a tiger and a leopard. Perhaps the height of the Western taste for blue-and-white occurred in the 19th century, when the painter Whistler, in another example of cross-cultural hybridity, amassed an extraordinary collection of Chinese porcelain, which in turn inspired his paintings.

Bottle, porcelain with splashed copper decoration (Jun ware). Lent by Hebei Cultural Relics Conservation Center. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

An overarching theme of the Met exhibition is a view of Chinese art (in the formulation of Met curator James C.Y. Watt) as "a continual integration of cultural influences across borders into the mainstream of Chinese culture." I would put it slightly differently. What I love about the art of the Yuan dynasty is the way in which diverse cultural pressures suddenly produce, like diamonds out of coal, miraculous objects of aesthetic intensity. As much as I like blue-and-white porcelain, the pot that moved me most at the Met was this bottle splashed with an abstract swath of copper underglaze, using a method that reached back hundreds of years. The resulting masterpiece captures and unifies, to my eye, many of the diverging energies of the Yuan period. The purplish-red splash looks like the fierce dragons of the Xanadu pillar and the Yonglegong roof ornament while also echoing the Zen austerity of the bare plum branch. The bottle itself has something of the quiet, balanced composure of Khubilai, as he appears in his official portrait. "Yuan" means "beginning," and pots like this—along with so many of the other wondrous objects on show at the Met, true "miracles of rare device," to borrow Coleridge's phrase—radiate a supreme confidence that the Yuan dynasty, with all its cultural cross-currents fused into momentary unity, was the beginning of something big.