Works from the Islamic world commissioned by women patrons are extremely hard to come by, says Christie’s Islamic Art specialist Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam. Those that do come to auction are usually from Mughal India or Iran. This richly illuminated prayer book, however, signed and dated to 1873, is from Ottoman Turkey.
‘From the five dedicatory inscriptions written in gold, we know that it was made for Şayeste Hanim, the 17th wife of Sultan Abdulmecid I, who reigned over the Ottoman Empire from 1839 to 1861, and her only daughter, Naile Sultan,’ explains Atighi Moghaddam.
Şayeste Hanim was born in Sukhumi, in what is today known as Georgia, in 1836, to Prince Tataş Bey Inalipa and his wife Sarey Hanim. Orphaned as a child, she was taken by her uncle to Istanbul, where she entered the imperial harem. In 1856 she gave birth to a daughter, Naile Sultan. Tragically, the princess would die long before her mother, aged just 25.
Şayeste Hanim outlived her husband by 51 years. ‘As one of the sultan’s longest-living wives, she would have commanded great respect at court, and had the financial means to commission magnificent works of art,’ the specialist explains.
The rich illuminations and impressive size of this prayer book, which measures 9⅜ x 6⅛ in (24.4 x 15.5 cm), indicate that it was probably made for personal use within the palace rather than for travel. ‘Its immaculate condition further suggests that it has been little handled,’ adds Atighi Moghaddam.
Of the 129 folios, 14 feature full-page illustrations, primarily executed in an unusual palette of pinks and purples. These include diagrams of Mecca and Medina, and numerous talismanic diagrams. The script, the specialist points out, is written in strong black naskh, an Islamic calligraphy commonly employed in Qur’ans and prayer books because of its compact scale and legibility.
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The scribe, Muhammad Wasfi a’n Zulfiyan, was a student of the celebrated Ottoman calligrapher Rashid Ayyubi Efendi, better known as Ayyubi. In addition to being a well-known calligrapher, Wasfi was a guard at Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans. ‘It would have been a great honour for him to have been selected by the queen to produce such a lavish personal prayer book,’ says Atighi Moghaddam.
‘To find a prayer book in such good condition commissioned by a female royal patron — with an unusual colour palette — is extraordinarily rare,’ she adds. ‘We expect a lot of interest from a wide cross-category audience.’