Eat Your Heart Out, Homer

Book William Dalrymple in The New York Times:

THE ADVENTURES OF AMIR HAMZA Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction.

By Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami. Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.

In the summer of 2002, as Pentagon strategists were planning the invasion of Iraq, a short distance away, on the National Mall in Washington, the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery was showing one of the most interesting exhibitions of Islamic art seen in the United States for years. The show illustrated a story largely set in the Iraqi cities that would shortly become the targets of the Pentagon’s munitions.

On display was a single work of art: a painted manuscript of the “Hamzanama,” a spectacular illustrated book commissioned by the sympathetic and notably tolerant Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). To the delight of art historians, the Sackler brought together the long-dispersed pages of what is probably the most ambitious single artistic undertaking ever produced by the atelier of an Islamic court: no fewer than 1,400 huge illustrations were commissioned. More than anything else, it was the project that created the Mughal painting style, and in the illustrations one can see two artistic worlds — that of Hindu India and of Persianate Islamic Central Asia — fusing to create something new and distinctively Mughal. But the exhibition was of great literary importance, too. The “Hamzanama” was once the most popular oral epic of the Indo-Islamic world. “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is the “Iliad” and Odyssey” of medieval Persia, a rollicking, magic-filled heroic saga. Born as early as the ninth century, it grew through oral transmission to include material gathered from the wider culture-compost of the pre-Islamic Middle East. So popular was the story that it soon spread across the Muslim world, absorbing folk tales as it went; before long it was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Georgian, Malay and even Indonesian languages.

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