The story of Khusraw and Shīrīn

This Persian romantic poem tells the story of the love of King Khusraw for Princess Shīrīn; she is a thoughtful, spiritual character whereas he is led by physical urges. They go through long periods of separation and heartache before finally being united. This copy contains eleven full-page paintings illustrating episodes from various parts of the story; shown here, the two lovers are out hunting together. Behind them is a servant riding a grey donkey.

To find out more about the art that decorates this poem, click ‘Extended captions’.

Niẓāmī Ganjavī (1140–1202 or 3)
Khusraw va Shīrīn     خسرو  وشيرين      
Persia, sixteenth or seventeenth century
MS Add.207, fo. 55v

When literature becomes visual art

I am always touched when examining a Persian manuscript: fingering it, opening it, sniffing its characteristic smell of paint, paper and leather, listening to the paper crackling as the pages turn, enjoying the gold softly glowing in the illuminations on the pages. Think of the hours spent in the workshops by paper makers, ink and pigment makers, calligraphers, illuminators, binders and finally also painters. This labour of love is added to the hours spent by the core artist, the poet, as once upon a time he fashioned the text which is copied in the manuscript. What emotion to hold such an artefact in one’s hands, much loved, much studied, often bearing the traces of numerous thumbs which have discoloured the edge of the pages. This particular manuscript is a lovely thing! It is in delicate condition, perhaps because it is so attractive and has often been leafed through. This is not the most lavish copy of the Niẓāmī story of king Khusraw and Shīrīn ever made, but it is beautiful, in an elegant Persian handwriting, on good-quality paper, with excellent pigments and pure gold illumination and it counts eleven interesting paintings. These were made in the mid-Safavid period; our clue is the style of the turban of the servant with the curly locks astride the grey donkey. The paintings do not automatically date the text: some manuscripts were only illustrated at later dates, by new owners perhaps. Our manuscript has no colophon: we don’t know when or where it was made, who was the calligrapher, and who the patron.

Cambridge University Library holds several lovely copies of the works of the Persian poet Niẓāmī, the famous poet of Ganja (a town in present-day Azerbaijan). He composed his poetry in the twelfth-century. Persian, his poetical tongue, was the literary and cultivated language throughout the vast Saljuq Empire. Though not attached to a specific court, Niẓāmī dedicated his poetry to the rulers of several provincial centres around Ganja. His five long poems (masnavis) are usually collected within one manuscript and form a Quintet (Khamsa). Niẓāmī’s poetry resonated throughout the Persian cultural area and inspired several later Persian authors, but also influenced the neighbouring Ottoman, Uzbek and Mughal civilisations.

Cambridge University Library MS Add.207 is a copy of one of the masnavis, the story of Khusraw and Shīrīn, perhaps the most loved and less enigmatic of Niẓāmī’s challenging poems. The poet, who could also be described as a philosopher, analyses here the effects, whether positive or destructive, of different kinds of love on different characters. He leans heavily on philosophical studies on the topic, composed in Arabic or Persian, but he also had access to Christian and pre-Islamic Iranian works. Khusraw is a rascal, not a model prince, and causes the king deep headaches. His physical passion for princess Shīrīn is also partly calculation as she is heiress to Armenia. He falls in love with her instantly when he spots her bathing naked in a river. Shīrīn, on the contrary is at core a spiritual lover. She dominates her passion. She falls in love instantly with a painted portrait of Khusraw and with his idealised description. The clash between these two personalities and these two conceptions of love are at the core of the poem. The heroes will love and hurt each other through the long pages of the romance: Khusraw is striving for physical fulfilment, Shīrīn is coyly refusing her favours until they marry. As Khusraw will learn how to transcend his physical urges, he will also mature into a rightful king.

The painting in this image shows both lovers early on during their romance, when they share an exhilarating hunting party. This will be followed by an equally exhilarating intellectual debate. The heroes match each other perfectly both in physical and in intellectual games, a sure sign that they are made for one another. Nevertheless, there will be long periods of separation and heartache before they can finally be united.

Christine van Ruymbeke
Soudavar Senior Lecturer in Persian
Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

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