History's Pages, Limned In Blood and Stardust

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 25, 2005

In the news, Afghanistan looks like an arid and impoverished place whose bearded mountain warriors have mud-brick houses, AK-47s, daughters who can't read, poppies and not much else. In "In the Realm of Princes" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Afghanistan one visits doesn't look like that at all.

It isn't arid. Multicolored flowers sprout beneath its trees. And it isn't poor. Its sophisticated rulers dwell in columned halls that are floored with cool glazed tiles and hung with Chinese silks. And it isn't illiterate, it's the opposite of illiterate. Its 15th-century pages -- many from the courtly studios of Herat in northwestern Afghanistan -- are deeply bookish works of art.

"Sa'di and the Youth of Kashgar," a manuscript illustration in watercolor, ink and gold, and a window on Afghanistan's past splendor as well, is on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
They are luminous and small and obviously expensive. Thirty are on view. Their jagged depicted scenes have been faceted like diamonds, cut into sharp planes. And their pigments are translucent so that the light that bounces through them assumes its greens and reds as it might while shining through emeralds or rubies. Thirty doesn't sound like many, but these careful little pictures have been fashioned so minutely, with such sharply pointed brushes, and show so many tiny details (the embroidery on the umbrella, the feathers on the arrows, the mists between the mountains) that they take time to see.

Mica has been crushed, then mixed into the paint that depicts a flowing river. Every time you move your head the water twinkles with bright light as if glinting in sun.

The carvers of inscriptions, the polishers of paper, the painters and the scribes who labored in Afghanistan (and Iran and Uzbekistan) in the great courts of the Timurids were competitive professionals. So were the fleckers of gold paint, those specialists in flicking minute droplets of bright color from the hairs of a stiff brush. The Timurids they served, the sultans and the princes, were specialists themselves. They cultivated piety. They wrote long lyric verses, edited the classics, and spent fortunes on their books. They also went to war.

The Timurids are known as such because they owed their dynasty to Timur ( Timur-i-lang , "Timur the Lame"), the Turko-Mongol conqueror remembered in the West as Tamerlane, the Scourge of God.

His name still reeks of butchery. When Timur brought his armies against some noble city (Damascus or Aleppo, Babylon or Baghdad) he'd sometimes spare the women and the most accomplished artists, but he'd slaughter the men, and then build columns of their skulls.

Before his work was done, the empire he'd founded stretched from Moscow in the north to Delhi in the south, from Cairo in the west to the edge of China.

China was the next land he intended to invade when he died in 1405.

The man was used to violence. As were his descendants and the painters they employed. Arrows thud into flesh, punishers with heavy sticks beat miscreants on the soles of their feet, howling women mourn the dead. The violence in these visions reminds us where we are. In pictures of Afghanistan, these as well as others, it's almost always there.

Alexander the Great marched through Afghanistan. So did Genghis Khan. Wars keep getting fought in that much-invaded country. Imperial British soldiers, and Soviets, and Americans have battled there as well.

But empires are easier to get than to keep. Timur's lasted only 136 years -- but even as it dwindled its sophisticated sultans advanced the courtly arts. Herat's gardens were elaborate, its metalwork renowned, its food delicious. The Sackler's Massumeh Farhad, who arranged the exhibition, says that Herat in the 1400s was "the Paris of Asia."

Timurid calligraphers were masters of the tiny. Omar Aqta, one of them, wrote a complete Koran that fit into a signet ring. When Timur proved unimpressed, Aqta took the point, and went to work producing the largest Koran ever seen. It took a wheelbarrow to move it. Timur was delighted. A sheet from that vast book is in the Sackler's two-room show.

But all the other pages shown focus on the miniature. For instance: In 1490, in Herat, Sultan Husayn Mirza Bayqara, the last of the Timurid rulers, wrote a lyric poem that looks great on the page. That's because its letters are very, very small, and beautiful, and gold. They weren't just written -- rather, they were written first in shining ink of gold, then cut out one by one with the smallest imaginable razor, and pasted to the page.

Volumes of such opulence were meant to shame less worthy rulers. Also, being portable, they could do so at a distance. Many of the pages in the Sackler's exhibition survived in India's Mogul libraries. Accepting some as tribute, buying many more, India's Muslim emperors hoarded these bright books (which showed the grandeur of their forebears), and valued them as highly as they did their gemstones and their pearls.

The Timurids were famously devoted to Islam. They built enormous mosques, they enriched theologians. But they didn't ban dancing or outlaw music or declare war on sweet luxury. The Taliban they weren't. One sees that in their art.

Also on display, also from Herat, also grand in shifting light, is a solid agate wine cup carved in 1470 especially for the sultan. We see him in his harem, too, watching from the balcony as his women dance to please him on the tiled chartreuse floor.

Seen clearly in these pages from Herat, Shiraz and Samarkand is the yearning for distinction, for literature and learning and beauty for its own sake, that, like a river underground, runs deep through that old culture. It may surface yet again.

In the Realm of Princes: The Arts of the Book in 15th-Century Iran and Central Asia will remain on view at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW, through Aug. 7. For information call 202-633-1000. The Sackler is open daily 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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