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Islamic culture is notable for its extraordinary reverence for the written word. In the ancient Near East there were few books in circulation and few people who knew how to read. Nevertheless, the truths revealed to the prophet Muhammad (who died in A.D. 632) were soon put in writing. In later Islamic history this esteem for books applied as much to secular works as to holy writings. Similar to scribes of the Western Middle Ages, Muslims from the Dastan-I Amir Hamzeh (The story of Hamzeh). This project was undertaken during the reign of the emperor Akbar, who personally supervised a studio of as many as 145 artist.
Zanbur the Spy is an illustration taken from the first major work of the Mogul school of Indian manuscript illumination. This fourteen-volume manuscript recounts the exploits of the prophet Muhammad’s uncle Hamzeh and another hero. The scenes range from the violent and horific to peaceful images, such as Zanbur the spy, who leads the maid Mahiyya into town on a donkey. Throughout the paintings, there is a seemingly endless variety of patterns and decorative designs. Muslim artist are renowned for their development of two-dimensional design, and it can also be seen in openwork windows, inlaid marble pavements, ceilings, and other objects dating from the same period that this manuscript was illuminated.
The Spy Zambur Brings Mahiya to Tawariq, Where They Meet Ustad Khatun: Page from the Hamzanama (Adventures of Hamza), ca. 1570; MughalIndiaInk, colors, and gold on cotton; H. 29 1/8 in. (74 cm), W. 22 1/2 in. (57.2 cm)Rogers Fund, 1923 (23.264.1)
The Hamzanama tells the fantastic story of Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet, who traveled the world spreading the teachings of Islam. The story was a popular subject for public recitation in coffeehouses, so exciting and full of fantastic elements were the tales. The young emperor Akbar commissioned an illustrated version of the manuscript consisting of 1,400 large illustrations, each over two feet tall, with text on the reverse to aid in recitation. It was the earliest and most ambitious product of the royal painting atelier, and its
paintings betray an early fusion of Persian and local Indian styles.
In this painting, Zambur, a spy, brings a maid named Mahiya to town on a donkey. The figures and animals, the trees along the arcaded street, and details such as the fruit borne in panniers by one donkey are carefully observed and rendered in a more naturalistic way than would be found in contemporary Iranian miniatures. Yet the extreme diagonal of the composition has
resulted in an awkward jumble of buildings, particularly on the left, where rooftops tip precipitously and a staircase leads nowhere.