Miraj Nameh of the Timurids

On the ascension of the Prophet and how a Medieval artifact ended up in France

During his ascent into heaven, angels offered Muhammad three cups: one with milk, one with wine, and one with honey. Muhammad drank only the milk—and the angel Jibreel approved of his choice, saying that thanks to him the followers of Muhammad would be able to enter paradise.
Miniature from Miraj Nameh manuscript, 1436

Turc 190 / Bibliothèque nationale de France

During the night of the 27th day of the month of Rajab, the angel Jibreel woke up the prophet Muhammad and sent him on a night journey (Isra) to Jerusalem, followed by the ascent (Mi’raj) to heaven, where the prophet met other prophets, angels, and Allah, and then visited hell. This story has inspired Islamic writers and artists for centuries and was perhaps most vividly captured in 1436–1437, when the youngest son of Timur (Tamerlane), Shah Rukh, who became the ruler of the Timurid EmpireTimurid EmpireDuring its heyday it included today’s Iran, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, most of Central Asia, as well as parts of modern Pakistan and Syria. after a short, internecine war and the death of his father, ordered The Book of the Ascension (Miraj Nameh). The illustrated manuscript was made in Herat (a city on the territory of today’s Afghanistan) and by the end of the 15th–early 16th century ended up in Istanbul in the library of the Topkapi Palace. In 1672, at the modest price of twenty five piastres, it was purchased by Antoine GallandAntoine GallandChristiane Gruber, The Timurid Book of Ascension (Miʿrājnama): A Study of Text and Image in a Pan-Asian Context, Valencia, Spain, 2008., who would later become famous as a translator of One Thousand and One Nights.

At the time of the purchase, Galland was in the service of the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Charles-Marie-François Olier, marquis de Nointel and, among other things, was responsible for searching for and acquiring books, coins, and antiques. During his trips, Galland spent more than ten years in the Ottoman Empire and the Levant, received the official title of Antiquarian King, and took part in the compilation of the Oriental Library—a monumental encyclopedia of the East, which he completed after the death of its main author Barthélemy d'Herbelot. Galland translated from Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi, kept diaries, and towards the end of his life was appointed the Chair of Arabic ​​at College de France. 

The acquisition of Miraj Nameh was an ordinary episode in his biography and we can trace the further fate of this amazing artifact: in 1675, Ambassador Nointel presented the manuscript to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finance and de facto head of the Louis XIV government, who was a collector of an extensive library that in 1732 became part of the Royal Library—the predecessor of the National Library of France, where the manuscript has been kept to this day.

According to the inventory of the 17th century, sixty of the sixty four miniatures have survived up to today. It is noteworthy that the manuscript is written in Chagatai (Chagatai Turki or Old Uzbek) using the Uyghur script. Due to these circumstances, it was not possible to decipher the text until the 19th century, when Jean-Pierre Abel-Remusat—a French sinologist and curator of Orientalist manuscripts of the Royal Library—managed to translate a few fragments. Half a century later, Abel Pavet de Courteille, another orientalist specializing in the study of Turkish languages, transcribed the whole text into Arabic script and published it with French translation in 1882. Today researchers recognize Timurid Miraj Nameh as unique evidence of the Timurid Empire’s flourishing book culture.

Shah Rukh, Tamerlane’s son who had ordered the manuscript, moved the capital from Samarkand to Herat, where workshops were created that brought together calligraphers and artistscalligraphers and artistsZuhra Rakhimova. The Early Herat Miniature of the First Half of the 15th Century. San`at Magazine, 2010-4. from different regions. This has meant that  the illustrations not only reveal continuity with the book heritage of the area, but also feature artistic borrowings from the Chinese and Central Asian Buddhist culture of miniatures. They can be noted in the depictions of the faces, as well as in angels’ hairstyles and poses: the angel of fire and snow, sitting in the lotus position, multi-headed angels, and scenes from hell are worth special attention. This still does not negate the fact that The Book of the Ascension, similar to others of this kind, was a tool used to spread Sunni influenceSunni influenceChristiane Gruber and Frederick Colby, eds., The Prophet’s Ascension: Cross-Cultural Encounters with the Islamic Mi’raj Tales, Bloomington, Ind., 2010. both within the region and in relations with the Chinese Ming empire.

Out of sixty miniatures, two-thirds depict a flight to Jerusalem on a winged human-headed creature called buraq and the ascent into the heaven, when Muhammad meets other prophets, numerous angels, and appears in front of the throne of Allah. This is followed by only three miniatures that depict the paradise promised to the righteous, where Muhammad sees houris in the gardens, and, finally, a series of miniatures with the torments of hell that await those who would not be allowed into paradise. The complete book can be viewed on the website of the Bibliotèque nationale de France

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Vladimir Lyashchenko
Video essayist and film critic, teacher at the Moscow Film School. Graduated from the Department of Philosophy of Moscow State University.