Manuscript M – Problematic aspects

  Acq. No. 77.1.7 in the Reza Abbasi Museum in Tehran [hereafter referred to as ms. M] was acquired by the Queens Office in 1977 from the New York collector Mehdi Mahboubian. The volume was housed initially in the Negarestan Museum in Tehran, and subsequently transferred to the Reza Abbasi Museum after the Revolution. It is a bound volume with 353 folios of single column text, 15 lines per page. There is no colophon or title page. The volume contains 21 paintings in good Moʿin Moṣavver style including one painting that has an inscription and the date 1010/1601. This date is inconsistent with the painting style and might rather be interpreted as 1100/1689.

  The text is a History of Shah Esmāʿil with a preamble devoted to his progenitors, the general assumption being that it is a copy of the tāriḵ-e ʿālām-ārā-ye šāh esmāʿil -- the so-called Ross anonymous. The appearance of various anachronisms in the text – such as  reference to Bandar ʿAbbas and the year 1087/1676-77 – provides a possible terminus post quem for its completion (Morton, Pembroke_1990, p.188). The factual information was derived largely from the earlier histories of Ḵ ̌āndamir and liberally sprinkled with fictitious events to heighten the drama. The result is akin to a Hollywood script rather than a document that can be relied upon for its historical accuracy. The tāriḵ-e ʿālām-ārā-ye šāh esmāʿil exists in numerous recensions, each somewhat different from the others. One such recensions was published by Muntaẓer-Ṣāḥeb in 1970 (Muntaẓer-Ṣāḥeb_1970). In comparing the text of the Tehran volume, or at least what occurs on the folios available to us, with the text published by Muntaẓer-Ṣāḥeb one finds that the events all coincide, in detail, and in the proper sequence – but the words are all different! It is not apparent what to attribute the existence of these various recensions, but the resolution of this issue lies beyond the capabilities of this writer, and requires the linguistic and historical abilities of someone like the late A.H. Morton to resolve; perhaps someone in the future with the requisite talents and inclination will emerge.

  To our knowledge there is no reference to ms. M in the literature prior to the Mahboubian Collection catalog (Mahboubian_1972, Manuscripts, No.923). It is not known how, when, and from whom Mahboubian acquired it. When I met with Mahboubian in 1975 I inquired if the volume was complete; he responded that he did not know for sure, but was told that some paintings had been extracted prior to his acquiring the volume. Some months later in 1975, I was at the Malek Library in Tehran and met with the director, Mrs. Ezzat Soudovar. She graciously showed me her personal collection that curiously included a single leaf with a painting in Moʿin style (SE_140) that was remarkably similar to the Mahboubian illustrations. She also expressed knowledge of the whereabouts of one or two other such detached paintings. Time has proven her to be correct: altogether seven loose pages with paintings (and perhaps still counting) are now known (SE_67, SE_75, SE_140, SE_179, SE_187, SE_228, SE_230). All are illustrations to a History of Shah Esmāʿil, and all stylistically indistinguishable from the pages in the Reza Abbasi Museum volume - painting style, calligraphy style, single column text 15 lines per page -- even the ubiquitous red marginal inscriptions describing the event.

  One might next ask if the detached pages are of comparable size to the Tehran volume. The Mahboubian Catalog gives the dimensions, seemingly rounded, for page size of the volume as 14 x 8.5 inches [35.6 x 21.6 cm]. Christies sale catalog lists SE_67 as having a page size of 31.8 x 22.2 cm., all five of the leaves in a private collection reportedly have a common page size of 31.8 x 21.6 cm., while Harvard records the page size of SE_179 as 36 x 22.5 cm. Thus we have reported page sizes that vary between 21.6 and 22.5 cm. in width, and 31.8 to 36.0 cm. in height – a difference of .8 cm in width and 4.2 cm in height. These variances in page size might be due to some extent by catalogers fractionally rounding up or down, but pages have also on occasion been trimmed - particularly if a volume has been rebound or page edges damaged – and that may be the case here.

  As Eleanor Sims has so rightly pointed out (private conversation, 29 April 2011), the "written surface" size - the measurement inside the frame filled by text on a page without illustrations – is a more accurate gauge than the page size in determining whether individual pages derive from the same manuscript. Pages can be trimmed; written surface measurements cannot be readily altered. But written surface measurements are hard to come by. The Mahboubian Catalog does not list the written surface size, but it does list the size of each individual painting. Many of the illustrations are irregular in shape and spill into the margins uncontained by the frame, so they are of no value in this context. However, twelve paintings are contained within the limits of the frame (folios 11, 17, 42v, 48v, 51, 165, 199v, 241v, 273v, 280, 332v, 339v), and Mahboubian cites them as either 5 1/8 inches or 5 3/16 inches wide [13.07 – 13.17 cm.]; this measurement can be taken as synonymous with the text block width. Knowing the width, one can then scale the height from the photos of the paintings. This varies slightly from folio to folio, but measures approximately 22.5 cm. Thus, we can say with some degree of certainty that the text block size of the pages in the Tehran volume is 22.5+/- x 13.1 cm.

  Christies sale catalog lists the painting in SE_67 as being 13.0 cm. wide; this is synonymous with the text block width. The text block height can be accordingly scaled to 22.3 cm. We know the page dimensions of Harvard’s painting SE_179, so the text block size can be scaled to 22.6 x 13.0 cm., while the text blocks of the five leaves in the private collection scale at 22.3 x 13.2 cm.

  The following chart puts these dimensions into better perspective:

location:                       page size:            written surface:

Tehran folios                 35.6 x 21.6 cm      22.5 x 13.1 cm.

Christies SE_67              31.8 x 22.2 cm       22.3 x 13.0 cm.

Harvard SE_179             36.0 x 22.5 cm       22.6 x 13.0 cm. (scaled)

Private Collection (5)     31.8 x 21.6 cm       22.3 x 13.2 cm. (scaled)

  The nearly identical dimensions shared by the bound folios in Tehran and the seven loose folios – together with the stylistic similarities mentioned earlier – suggests strongly that the loose pages have either been extracted from the Tehran volume, or alternatively from a duplicate or sequential second volume. A second volume that was a duplicate of the Tehran volume is unlikely in that we now have seven detached paintings; it is likely that if they were from a duplicate one of the subjects would have also been repeated. That is not the case. The possibility of the detached folios being from a sequential volume can also be safely eliminated because the dates of the events depicted in the detached paintings are dispersed in between the events on the Tehran pages as determined by their appearance in Muntaẓer-Ṣāḥeb.

  Thus we are left with an unresolved situation where the evidence supporting the conclusion that the loose pages were indeed extracted from the Tehran volume is more persuasive than the opposite conclusion. Yet the evidence is not totally conclusive. One needs to examine the Tehran volume (or a facsimile thereof) page by page to see if the text from one page to the next follows, and if there are any breaks in continuity that would provide evidence of missing pages. And should there be gaps in the text determine if the loose pages textually fit into any such gaps as we have here suggested.

  Simultaneously another small curiosity in the bound text might also be resolved: two folios listed in the Mahboubian Catalog are out of sequence – folio 87 illustrates an event dating from 913/1507-08, while folio 94v illustrates an event from 908/1503. This could just be the result of inaccurate cataloging, or misplacement of the two folios when the volume was rebound (assuming that it was rebound).

  But even with the resolution of the above issues, some even larger questions remain to be answered. In the 1680’s Moʿin and his atelier painted the illustrations for not one History of Shah Esmāʿil, but three (ms.L, ms.M, ms.N). What exactly is the relationship between the three manuscripts? Why in the 1680’s was there suddenly such an interest in the life of Shah Esmāʿil?  And finally, who were the patrons of these volumes? For most of these questions we presently have no answers, the discussion of which, for now, remains a whole other discourse.

Robert Eng
April 19. 2012