21 January 2020
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“Illustration of History in Islamic Manuscripts”, by Professor Charles Melville

Professor Melville while delivering his lecture

As part of its seasonal lecture series, and in order to mark the 30th Anniversary of the establishment of the Foundation, the Centre for the Study of Islamic Manuscripts at Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation organised a public lecture on Wednesday 29 November 2018. The lecture was titled “Illustration of History in Islamic Manuscripts”, and was hosted at the lecture theatre in Al-Furqān’s London headquarters. The lecturer was Professor Charles Melville, Emeritus Professor of Persian History, Cambridge University.

Mr Sali Shahsivari, Managing Director of the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, opened the evening by welcome and thanking the guests initially, before inviting Mr Sharaf Yamani, Member of the Board of Directors of al-Furqan, to deliver some opening comments to mark the occasion.

Mr Sharaf Yamani opening the event

Mr Yamani began by extending a warm welcome from the Chairman of the Foundation, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani. He then drew attention to the Exhibition that was prepared and opened in the margins of the lecture event, and thanked the Foundation’s staff for curating the exhibition. Mr Yamani noted that the evening marked 30 years since the establishment of the Foundation. Its founder recognised the need to establish an organisation that protects and preserves the rich Islamic heritage in its written form, in order to allow future generations to continue expanding their knowledge of the field and to challenge false narratives regarding Islamic heritage and history. Moving on to the evening’s events and Professor Melville’s talk in particular, Mr Yamani highlighted that the Islamic written heritage is one of the vastest in existence, and one of the richest manuscript cultures. On a same footing, “one’s eyes cannot ignore the majestic ornamental designs that decorate many illuminated Qur’anic pages, nor can we avoid admiring the detailed drawings and illustrations that were used to fill pages of more secular artistic manuscripts later on.” Did the marvel of the message inspire these illustrations? Or, to the contrary, were these drawings used to embellish the texts themselves as artistic elements? How did this form of art start? What role did the Ancient Greek, Roman or other traditions play in shaping their earlier forms? Where did the craftsmen draw their inspiration from? Who were they? How successful were they? Such questions, Mr Yamani said, were ones that Professor Melville would indulge the audience.

Mr Sali Shahsivari with some opening words

Before Professor Melville took to the floor, Mr Shahsivari reminded the audience that, since the evening’s events coincide with the 30th Anniversary of the establishment of Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, it was a matter of both luck and good choice that the theme of the lecture and exhibition were a perfect match, especially as Al-Furqan was established initially with the aim to survey, preserve and study manuscripts; then, later on, it became an umbrella foundation, consisting of three centres, namely the Centre for the Study of Islamic Manuscripts, the Centre for Studies on Makkah and Madinah and the Centre for the Study of the Philosophy of Islamic Law.

Mr Shahsivari then gave some words of introduction regarding the guest speaker, Professor Charles Melville.

Professor Melville began his lecture by informing the audience that he will only be looking at manuscripts of chronicles. All the examples he drew on were from chronical works. Why is history illustrated in the first place? Was it to make the message clearer? Were they for audiences unable to read? This is one of the key points that historians continue to try to provide satisfactory answers. There is also the question of choice as to what becomes illustrated: why this particular event, and not some other? The intervention of the artist, patron and manuscript author here become fundamental. All such drawings are an exercise of interpretation, Professor Melville said.

In between displaying illustrations and drawings from manuscripts, found in Persian chronicles in the main, Professor Melville continued throughout the lecture to pose questions to engage the audience and to provoke their thinking about what it is they were seeing. He offered some guidance and brief details on the nature of the manuscripts discussed and what they have been interpreted to mean, but he opened the door for others to reconsider such interpretations, perceptions and perspectives. This remained the vein of the talk throughout the evening, inviting the audience to think and think again about what it was they were seeing and to momentarily wear a craftsman’s lens, a patron’s lens and occasionally the author’s lens.

The audience during the Q&A session

At the end of Professor Melville’s talk, Dr Celeste Gianni, Curator of the Exhibition explained the link between the manuscripts on display and the lecture, after which Mr Shahsivari welcomed the audience’s questions, which proved fruitful with interesting questions on imaging techniques, the veracity and authenticity of such images, and the financial cost of drawing such images, among others.

The evening ended with Mr Shahsivari thanking all the attendees and all those involved in commemorating the 30th Anniversary: Chairman Sheikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani, the Board of Directors of Al-Furqan, all its partners and associates, and all the members of staff.

About Professor Charles Melville

Read Arabic & Persian at Cambridge (1972), took an M.A. in Islamic History at London SOAS (1973), and was awarded a PhD on “The historical seismicity of Iran from the 7th to the 17th centuries” (Cambridge 1978). He returned to Cambridge in 1984 as University Lecturer in Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies and Fellow of Pembroke College. He became Professor of Persian History in 2008, now Professor Emeritus. He is currently President of the British Institute of Persian Studies (British Academy) and director of the Cambridge Shahnama Project, President of the Islamic Manuscript Association and Vice Chairman of the Iranian Heritage Foundation’s academic committee. Professor Melville’s main research interests are in the history and culture of Iran in the Mongol to Safavid periods, and the illustration of Persian manuscripts. Recent publications include Persian Historiography (2012); “The horrors of war and the arts of peace: Images of battle in Persian manuscripts”, in Kurt Franz & Wolfgang Holzwarth, Nomad Military Power in Iran and Adjacent Areas in the Islamic Period (2015); and The Mongols’ Middle East (2016, with Bruno De Nicola).

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