This magnificent Qur’an is a captivating example of the innovation of the imperial ateliers of fifteenth century Persia; it also embodies the physical evidence of the cultural and diplomatic relations between Ming China and Timurid Iran.
There are at least six recorded diplomatic missions exchanged between the Timurid and the Ming courts between 1397 and 1424, artistic evidence of which is captured in albums and single folio paintings in the Topkapi Museum, Istanbul (see Blair, 2000, pp.25-27 and Ipsiroglu, 1980, pp.96-112). Of particular interest are the details that are documented of the embassies after the death of Timur in 1405 which provide thorough accounts of diplomatic relations between the courts. The first Chinese embassy to Shahrukh (r.1405-1447) sent from Emperor Yongle (r.1402-1424) arrived in Herat in AH 815/1412 AD. The second embassy was in AH 820/1417 AD, with presents including Chinese paper, silks, brocades, falcons, velvets, porcelain vessels and three hundred horsemen (Bloom, 2001, pp. 70-72). The third recorded embassy arrived in Herat in AH 822/1419 AD (Thackston, 1989, p.279). We also have records of Persian representatives, such as Ghiyas al-Din Naqqash, the representative of Baysunghur, as well as artists who visited the Chinese courts and kept detailed travel diaries. These diaries provide us with in-depth details of the Ming court culture and artistic practices of the time (Yu, 2018, p.66).
The increased diplomatic exchanges between the Timurid and Ming courts led to a fashion for using Chinese papers in Timurid and Turkmen manuscripts, particularly coloured papers decorated with gold sprinkling and illustrations. Although coloured paper was used in the Islamic world for many centuries, Chinese paper had a particular appeal with its soft and luscious finish, vibrant colours and exotic designs. In fact, it is this highly polished surface which has led to the style being described loosely as ‘waxed paper’. This texture is achieved through the technique of permeating the paper with lead white, which creates a supple and silky feeling when handling and turning the folios. This effect is evident in the paper used for these folios, which is highly contrasted with the coarser fibres used in the Islamic lands. The exact formula and order in which the paper was permeated and dyed is still not fully known. However, it was not just the texture that made the paper desirable but also its range of colours, which were extensive and included numerous shades of blue, pink, lavender, yellow and green.
A late 14th century Chinese source associates the making of ‘waxed paper’ with the city of Shaohsing on the south-central coast of China (Schmitz, 1992, pp.67-9). It is possible that the small number of Chinese paper used in the 15th century extant manuscripts all originated from the same workshop. Schmitz suggests that at least one batch of paper was brought back from China by an emissary sent by Shah Rukh who returned in 1422. She assumes this to be Ghiyas al-Din Naqqash, whose travels are recorded in Hafiz I Abru’s Zubdat al-Tavarikh.
In our Qur’an, numerous pages are decorated on one side with either gold speckles or characteristically Chinese motifs such as naturalistic details of plants like peach blossoms, architecture, landscapes and on very rare occasions, birds. These designs resonate with the patterns seen on Ming silks and blue and white porcelain (see Krahl, 1986, pp.514-518). The orientation of the papers do not always follow the direction of the text, which one could argue to be an intentional decision made by the calligrapher who wished to place the Qur’anic text as the most important feature and the background decoration as only secondary, superficial beauty. A further feature which demonstrates the careful considerations placed upon the arrangement of some of the folios are the use of the background gold illustrations to fit the shape and place of the marginal surah headings.
This copy has a small number of later replacement folios at the beginning (7 ff.), in the middle (3 ff.) and at the end (19 ff.) which have been skilfully replaced and echo the design of the original 15th century paper. The closest comparable example to our Qur’an is the one in Türk ve Islam Eserleri Muzesi, thought to date from circa 1405-47 (see Roxburgh, 2005, no. 178, pp. 228 and 421). Both manuscripts share very similar styles of naskh, and extremely similar illustrated Chinese designs on polychrome papers, which makes it possible that they were produced in the same workshop.
Before the discovery of our Qur’an, only six literary manuscripts, a treatise on Sufism and four other Qur’ans created from Chinese paper had been identified. The Qur’ans include those in the Detroit Institute of Art (inv. no.30.323), Topkapi Museum, Türk ve Islam Eserleri Muzesi (inv.no. 41) and one sold at Sotheby's, 26 April 1995, lot 29 (for further details see Roxburgh, 2005, p.421, cat.178). A small number of Qur’an folios were also sold in these Rooms, 8 April 2008, lot 120 and 7 October 2008, lot 120.