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Beautiful Violence

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The library of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, United States, contains a Persian manuscript known as the “Garrett Zafarnama.” This small volume—easily held in one hand (23.5 x 15.2 cm, 539 folios)—began life in the 1460s in a prince’s milieu, likely in Herat, Afghanistan. As we can tell from notes and stamps on the first folio, it then spent more than a century in the library of the Mughal kings of India, eventually making its way to Iran in the nineteenth century. From there it passed to European collectors and dealers, eventually being sold to the American philanthropist and collector Robert Garrett in Paris in 1925. It was bequeathed to Johns Hopkins as a part of the Garrett family estate in 1942.

Most of the manuscript consists of the text of the Zafarnama (Book of Victory), a celebratory chronicle of the exploits of Tamerlane (d. 1405), a grand conqueror whose armies waged a near constant, thirty-five-year war (1370–1405) across a vast region in Eurasia. Aspects of Tamerlane’s legacy are discussed in other parts of this book as well (“Genealogies” in chapter 2 and “Grave of a Living King” in chapter 7). This work’s author, Sharaf ad-Din Yazdi (d. 1454), was a famous man of letters of his times and was commissioned to compose the work by Tamerlane’s successors who wished to solidify their ancestor’s memory for the sake of their own political legitimacy. The Zafarnama was read and copied widely and came to be seen as the prime example of a style of writing about the political past that would be emulated in multiple languages for hundreds of years after its composition.

The Garrett Zafarnama is famous for its distinctive paintings. There are only six of these, each one placed across two pages at various places in the manuscript. Between their small size and exquisite design and execution, the paintings have a jewel-like quality, remarked upon by early modern kings and modern scholars and connoisseurs who have had the chance to see them physically. While unlikely to be the work of the great painter Kamal ad-Din Behzad (d. 1535) as suggested by some interpreters, they are among the finest examples of the art of Persian miniature.

The striking paintings of the Garrett Zafarnama are monuments to untold brutality: they constitute an aestheticization of unapologetic political domination wrought by Tamerlane and glorified by his descendants.

Painting and Power

The striking paintings of the Garrett Zafarnama, their luster intact for nearly five centuries, are monuments to untold brutality. In parallel with the text they are placed in, they constitute an aestheticization of unapologetic political domination wrought by Tamerlane and glorified by his descendants. Yazdi’s Zafarnama is not the kind of chronicle one might read to gather facts. Its informational content was collated from works on Tamerlane that had existed for decades by the time the work was commissioned.

Full of poetry, literary allusions, and extended metaphors, Yazdi’s text was famous for how it produced an elaborate image of a king destined for great deeds. The “knowledge” the work contained therefore had to do with the materialization of total hegemony through an exemplar endowed with talent and fortune. Rulers to come after Tamerlane coveted such an image for themselves. When they asked writers available to them to compose works imitating the Zafarnama, they wished to inhabit the language that Yazdi’s work had made synonymous with political prestige and insuperable authority.

My ability to share images of the paintings of the Garrett Zafarnama with you in this book is utterly contrary to the use for which they were intended. Fine manuscript paintings such as these were meant for the eyes of rulers and their close associates rather than people at large. This means that while the Zafarnama text may be seen as an exercise in proclaiming political legitimacy in society, the paintings did not share that function. Rather, their production was a resource-intensive act of consumption through which the elites sponsored performances of their dominance, intending themselves as the audience. This point is, I believe, true for much of the vast corpus of miniature painting we have available from premodern Islamic societies. This does not take away from the fine craftsmanship and aesthetic value that has made art historians and wealthy connoisseurs covet the paintings. Much like other objects of luxury, however, the paintings are effects of circumstances containing extreme inequity and the oppression of vast multitudes for the pleasures of a few.

As a record of a ruler’s career, the Garrett Zafarnama paintings are centrally concerned with representing past events and are therefore instances of time made visible. Our access to the imagination that gave rise to them is limited to what we can see today since we have no sources for the painters’ intentions. It is possible, nevertheless, to hypothesize regarding the paintings’ functions through close observation, undertaken with the knowledge of the manuscript’s purpose. I examine them as visualizations of events, concentrating on how the story told in images accomplishes functions different from the verbal narrative about the past.

Two-page manuscript illustration depicting a court scene with one man sitting on a throne under a tent on the right. Various figures are seen sitting, standing, and vending wares around the scene.

Tamerlane’s accession in Balkh on 12 Ramadan, 771/ April 9, 1370. Garrett Zafarnama, ff. 82b–83a.


John Work Garrett Library, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA


Beautiful Violence

The Birth of the World

Appropriately for a work dedicated to a conqueror’s career, the first painting in the Garrett Zafarnama depicts Tamerlane’s investiture as king in 1370 in the city of Balkh, now in Afghanistan. This is presented through a complex image of a scene in a spring landscape with thirty-two human figures in various postures. The text preceding the painting informs us that the event occurred in 1370 CE (771 AH) (Yazdi, Zafarnama, 1:403). While Tamerlane was thirty-four years old at this time, the occasion was the enactment of an event predestined from the moment he was born. The beginning of the Zafarnama makes the point that when he was born, “a world came forth into the world in a human form” (Yazdi, Zafarnama, 1:235). And throughout the text, Tamerlane is referred to by the epithet Sahib-i Qiran, the Lord of the Heavenly Conjunction, meaning his birth occurred under the shadow of a celestial alignment that predetermined his political ascendancy.

The enthronement painting is a case of a still image depicting motion through strategic positioning of bodies. At the most obvious level, the image’s central figure is Tamerlane, seated on the throne in a posture linked to established iconography of royal figures. But from a viewer’s perspective, a key element is also the figure just under the king who is wearing a blue robe and green turban, his back to us. This is the only human figure in the painting whose face is entirely obscured. Eyes of the viewer looking at the painting merge with the unseen eyes of this figure, both looking upon the past made visible by the painting.

The enthronement is treated as a single event but with internal duration. Yazdi’s narrative provides details of those who were present and how the ceremony unfolded. The painting is a conglomeration of these subevents, placed onto the pages such that they can both be absorbed in a blink of an eye and be seen in a sequence if one takes the time to disaggregate the image, dwelling on specific parts.

The painting’s left edge is an entry point onto the scene, a dark-skinned servant with an implement in hand and standing behind a horse, possibly signifying extensive preparatory work. A person entering through the door indicates the arrival of guests. Men of different ages, skin tones, and facial features are placed in groups with varying postures: standing and talking to each other, supplicating toward the king with a knee on the ground, distributing gifts on platters, holding hunting animals, and waiting upon the king. In a ceremonial setting, the activities shown would unfold in time, but in the painting, they have all become a part of a single image.

The painting has collapsed past, present, and future into a moment. It presents the enthronement as, simultaneously, an awaited fulfillment of destiny, the start of a regnal calendar, and a portent for the forthcoming career of endless victory. Dynastic heirs who sponsored the manuscript’s creation are prefigured in this painting even as they were yet to be born.

Time Unfolded with Swords and Arrows

In parallel with most of the content of Yazdi’s text, four of the six paintings of the Garrett Zafarnama contain depictions of war. Two of these have Tamerlane himself as the leader of the battle, while two others portray his son ‘Umar Shaykh (d. 1394) in this role. ‘Umar Shaykh was the great-grandfather of Husayn Bayqara (d. 1506), the prince who commissioned the manuscript. Of the vast number of stories that could be painted, the creators of this manuscript chose the ones that mattered most to the person paying for them.

The battle scene paintings contain carefully constructed mayhem consisting of human and animal bodies in motion. Placed in the years 1379 (Urgench), 1387 (at a crossing of Syr Darya), 1395 (fortress of Nargis in Georgia), and 1402 (Izmir), the paintings cover the temporal span of Tamerlane’s career. The passage of time is visible between the two paintings that have Tamerlane being shown visibly older between Georgia and Izmir. Moreover, the paintings depict starkly different landscapes in Central Asia (Urgench and Syr Darya), the Caucasus (Georgia), and Anatolia (Izmir). The varied backgrounds solidify the impression of Tamerlane being a world conqueror.

Of the enemies subjected to conquest, the two in Central Asia are Muslims and the remaining two are Christians. In the literary narrative, war against the Muslim foes is justified on the accusation of rebellion, while that against the Christians is a jihad directed at unbelievers. Although the campaigns’ textual descriptions are quite different in flavor because of the variant reasoning applied to Muslim versus non-Muslim enemies, the painted images portray all actors the same with respect to attire, facial features, and so on. In fact, when it comes to the common people, there is little to differentiate between soldiers on opposite sides. Especially noteworthy is that doorways to both the Muslim castle in Urgench and the Christian one in Izmir have customary Arabic text. The Izmir image is more extended, stating an appeal to God as the “Opener of Doors and Caretaker of Needs.” On the pictorial side, then, there is no way to differentiate between Muslim and non-Muslim.

The glorification of conquest encoded within the name of the Zafarnama is starkly on display in the violence depicted in the scenes of war. This includes invocation of cacophony through buglers placed on scenes’ edges, brutal death of men and animals (e.g., body cut in half in Urgench, bottom right), and scenes of pursuit with impending death. Especially gruesome is the painting related to Georgia, which an art historian describes as being “particularly beautiful” (Sims, “The Garrett Manuscript of the Zafar-Name,” 260). This is, in effect, a scene in which the townspeople of a recently conquered castle are being executed by archers, at point blank range, while trying to hide in caves.

These paintings are so finely made that initial observation may present only the bright colors and beautifully executed landscapes, buildings, and human figures. Once one pays attention to the motion implied in the way human bodies are shown reacting to each other, the severe terror and destruction on display is difficult to ignore. Both the Garrett Zafarnama’s text and the paintings speak to the brutalizing circumstances that came upon large populations in Eurasia during Tamerlane’s reign.

Two-page manuscript illustration showing a construction scene with various figures carrying tiles, pieces of wood, digging, etc. An elephant is visible in the bottom left bringing construction material to the site, alongside a horse pulling a large cart.

Construction of the Great Mosque of Samarqand, 801/1399. Garrett Zafarnama, ff. 359b–360a.


John Work Garrett Library, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA


Beautiful Violence

A Memorial Edifice

Perhaps the Garrett Zafarnama’s most celebrated painting is the one depicting the construction of a great mosque in 1399 in Samarkand. This city was Tamerlane’s capital, on which he lavished much wealth despite spending little time there due to his constant campaigning. In the text, the building under construction is referred to simply as a Friday mosque (masjid-i jami’), although it later became known as the Bibi Khanum mosque after one of Tamerlane’s wives, the Mongol princess Saray-Mulk Khanum (d. ca. 1408). The building began to fall apart soon after its construction due to its unsustainable large size and was in complete ruins by the twentieth century. Significant portions of it have been restored since Uzbekistan became an independent country in 1991.

In contrast with the war scenes, this painting is peaceful on the surface. However, this changes once we consider the circumstances that led up to the order to construct the mosque and attend to the social relations depicted in the painting itself. The mosque was, in effect, a trophy of war from Tamerlane’s invasion of North India in 1398–1399. The textual description of this campaign in the Zafarnama mentions, among other things, a total sack of Delhi, heaps of dead bodies, and enslavement of hundreds of men, women, and children per soldier that included ripping their possessions off their bodies. These are processes described identically for cities captured during campaigns in Central Asia, Iran, and so on. Yazdi states that Tamerlane’s decision to construct a grand mosque in Samarqand required that all Indian stonecutters be enslaved and driven to Central Asia to undertake the work (1:940).

In the painting, India is present prominently in the form of the elephant and the large number of human figures with darker skin. A man in an orange shirt in front of a doorway on the top left is poised to strike two workers looking up at him. This vignette indexes the workers’ severely abject status. The victory that stands behind the mosque’s construction is reflected also in the Quranic inscription that begins on the doorway shown in the top left corner and, counterintuitively, continues across the top of the facade on the right-hand side page before disappearing unfinished. The text here is Quran 48:1–3: “Indeed, We have granted you a clear victory so that God may forgive you for your past and future shortcomings, complete His favor upon you, guide you along the Straight Path; and so that God will aid you with a mighty victory. It is he who sent down serenity upon believers’ hearts.” The painting thus contains a specific reference to the building being constructed as a monument to divinely ordained and granted victories for its sponsor. The promise of serenity in the Quranic verse clearly applied to only some of the human figures shown.

Islam in Painted Violence

The presence of the Quranic citation in the painting of Samarkand raises the question of how we should imagine the relationship between Islam and the violence that pervades Yazdi’s Zafarnama. The language used to describe and justify Tamerlane’s conquest certainly brims with Islamic references and may provide fodder for those inclined to see Islam as being inherently violent. On the opposite side, some may see the presence of the Quran and other references as a case of cynical appropriation of religion by a political authority. In this case, it might be argued that Tamerlane was Muslim in name only and we should see Islam in the paintings of the Garrett Zafarnama as a mere token.

From the perspective I have adopted for this book, both these options are inadequate. The paintings should be seen as evidence for a competition between variant, equally notable performances of Islam that implicate both Muslims and non-Muslims. How we see these images depends on whose time, and eyes, we are inclined to use as the vantage point.

One possibility is the class of people who ordered the manuscript’s creation, paid for it, and have owned it over time. This category includes princes and kings in Central Asia, India, and Iran and modern dealers and connoisseurs in Europe and the United States who have sold and bought the manuscript. For them, the paintings are objects of luxury that show highly consequential deeds being done in the world. Taken at face value, the paintings’ obvious message might align perfectly well with this class’s sense of an appropriate moral order rooted in the temporal progress of Islamic history. Violence in this instance is a part of politics, inescapable even if regrettable.

On the contrary, it is also conceivable to see the past depicted here from the eyes of the victims shown in the paintings. On this score, the paintings provide something that is hard to find in the accompanying narrative of the Zafarnama. The text refers to victims, named and nameless, without providing words that would voice exception to Tamerlane’s acts. Allowing speech to those on the receiving end of the violence would breach the written narrative’s singular focus on the legitimacy of Tamerlane and his descendants.

However, the pain of the victimized bodies we can see in the paintings is palpable and impossible to miss when attending to their postures, expressions, and blood. Muslim as well as non-Muslim, and situated in the same historical time as Tamerlane, these bodies are windows onto pasts excluded from the stories of victory told in chronicles of conquest. Seeing the world through these bodies’ eyes may give us access to Islamic pasts and futures different from the ones celebrated in works such as Yazdi’s Zafarnama. The paintings then may be seen equally to celebrate the victory and note its cost paid in human lives and labor.

Related Sections in Other Chapters