Hamsa i Jami (‘Five Poems by Jami’). Persian, transcribed by Abdullah ul Hardy, 1531. R.13.8
Abdul-Rahman Jami (1414-1492), known simply as Jami, was one of Iran’s most prolific and best known poets of the 15th century. His works feature scholarship, theology and religious allegory in the Sufi tradition, a form of Islamic mysticism that valued an internal, personal, often ecstatic relationship to God. The five poems collected in this beautifully illuminated 16th century manuscript are among Jami’s most famous. The poems are:
- Tuhfah al Ahrar (‘Gift of the Noble’)
- Subhah ul Asrar (‘Rosary of the Pious’)
- Layli u Majnun (‘Layli and Majnun’)
- Yusuf u Zulaiha (‘Joseph and Zulaika’)
- Hird-nama i Iskandari (‘The Wisdom of Alexander’)
The paintings above depict two scenes from the popular romance and spiritual allegory Layli u Majnun (‘Layli and Majnun’), about two ill-fated lovers from different clans. In the image on the right, Majnun approaches Layli’s encampment hoping to catch sight of her. When he realises he can never marry his beloved, Majnun forsakes society and wanders the wilderness composing love poetry, as depicted in the scene on the left.
Jami’s Yusuf u Zulaiha is the most famous version of that poem. It expands on a story that is told in the Quran, the Torah and the Bible. Yusuf is the patriarch Joseph and Zulaikha is Potiphar’s wife, who is not named in the Bible. The story tells of Zulaikha’s passionate but unrequited love for Yusuf and has been adapted into many different forms in many different languages. Both this and the previous romance by Jami are allegories for the soul’s longing for God, a focal point of Sufism.
The final poem in the collection, ‘The Wisdom of Alexander’, is a versified collection of sayings attributed to Greek sages at the court of Alexander the Great and an account of his doings up until his death. Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BC) is presented as a legendary figure in Persian literature; he is a model leader and a hero that vanquished Zoroastrianism, paving the way for the expansion of Islam in the region. In Jami’s poem, Alexander’s military exploits are overshadowed by his love and patronage of philosophy, making him a link between Islamic scholars and the Ancient Greek philosophers they studied. Though this poem is part of the Haft Awrang (‘Seven Thrones’) collection of seven of Jami’s most famous poems, it is not usually found in collections of five works. Normally the last poem would be one of the other two from the Haft Awrang: Silsilah ul Dahab (‘The Chain of Gold’) or Salaman u Absal (‘The Loves of Salaman and Absal’).
The manuscript is beautifully written in the nasta’liq font, which developed in Iran in the 8th-9th century. Calligraphy was an art form deployed most spectacularly for sacred texts and commentaries, poetry and so forth, turning the written word into an object of beauty. Even the binding of this manuscript is intricately painted, showing the care that went into Islamic religious books. The manuscript is read from right to left, so the inside cover shown below is the back cover.
Non-Western manuscripts are catalogued separately from the James Catalogue manuscripts in the following volumes:
- A descriptive catalogue of the Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge by E.H. Palmer, Cambridge, Deighton Bell and Co, 1870.
- A catalogue of Sanskrit manuscripts in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge by T. Aufrecht, Cambridge, Deighton Bell and Co, 1859.
- Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Hebrew character collected and bequeathed to Trinity College Library by the late William Aldis Wright Vice-master of Trinity College by Herbert Loewe, Cambridge University Press, 1926.
Note: The spelling of the poem titles is taken from Palmer et al., which does not always fit with current conventions for transliteration. However, diacritical marks have been left off for compatibility.