March 16, 2016 3 min read
An interesting pre-exhibition note by the curator on bringing the exhibition “The Everlasting Flame Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination” to Delhi.
“A curator’s view: some key items from the British Library by Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library. @TheBritishLibrary @SOAS
With a special interest in ancient Iranian languages and culture, I was truly excited when approached with the possibility of bringing the SOAS 2013 exhibition “The Everlasting Flame Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination” to Delhi. I had first met Sarah Stewart, the lead curator, almost 30 years ago when we were students together at SOAS and I had just started working at the British Library! Since then, we often discussed the dream of mounting an exhibition.
The more familiar I became with the Zoroastrian material in the British Library, the more impressed I was with the incredibly wide range of materials we had in our collections. We are fortunate in having the oldest European collection of Zoroastrian sacred texts which were collected in the 17th century for the orientalist Thomas Hyde (1636–1703). A hundred years later Samuel Guise (1751-1811), a surgeon for the East India Company at Surat purchased manuscripts from Dastur Darab’s widow. Then in the late 19th century a Parsi businessman Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner collected more Zoroastrian manuscripts, mostly from Iran. These included a wonderful illustrated Avestan Videvdad Sadeh, the longest of all the Zoroastrian liturgies, copied in Yazd, Iran, in 1647 (RSPA 230)
Equally impressive, though, are other items in the British Library’s collection which come from outside present day Iran and India, emphasising the universal appeal of Zoroastrianism and its importance for those both inside and outside the community. My favourite is the 9th century transcription of the holy Ashem Vohu prayer in Sogdian (Middle Iranian) script which was discovered by Aurel Stein in 1917 at Dunhuang in China and is four centuries older than any surviving Zoroastrian text (Or.8212/84).
Other items on display include a Syriac account of Christian martyrs in the Sasanian empire dating from the 5th or 6th century (Add.14654), and a 15th century description of Zoroaster, founder of the seven liberal arts, as portrayed in the French world chronicle, Le Trésor des histoires. Medieval Christian interpretations of Zoroastrianism, based on classical literature, often focussed on the figure Zoroaster who came to be regarded as a master of magic, a philosopher, and an astrologer, especially after the Renaissance, with its increased awareness of Greek and Hellenistic literature. Depicted here at his desk, Zoroaster is described as the founder of necromancy and the seven liberal arts. This copy dates from c.1475–80 (Cotton Augustus V, f. 25v).
This is the first time the British Library is lending original items to an exhibition in India, and also the first time, apart from the SOAS exhibition of 2013, that most of the items have been on display. New items especially selected for Delhi include a copy of the Shahnameh which was illustrated by leading Mughal artists around 1616 in the workshop of ‘Abd al-Rahim Khankhanan and a copy of the Dasatir-i asmani by the charismatic 16th century theologian and philosopher Azar Kayvani whose neo-Zoroastrian interpretations sought to reconcile the pre-Islamic past with Islamic philosophy.
With altogether over 300 exhibits, the exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see such important material from such wide-ranging cultures brought together in a Zoroastrian context.”
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