© The Aga Khan Museum
© The Aga Khan Museum
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Recounting the history of all of Iran’s shahs (kings) up to the Arab conquest in 642 AD and the country’s adoption of Islam, Firdausi’s epic poem the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), completed in 1010, contains many descriptions of single combat. The backdrop to this folio AKM497 (folio 341 verso) from the 16th-century Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp is the long-waged war between Iran and Turan (Central Asia) that eventually reached a stalemate. To decide the winner of the war, the generals of the Iranian and Turanian armies decided to hold a series of eleven jousts to decide the winner of the war. In addition to themselves, the generals each chose ten champions, or “rooks,” to engage in these single combats. Following the selection of the rivals, the generals identified a battlefield placed between two hills, one for Iran and the other for Turan, where the flag of the victorious side would be raised. On the Iranian side, Fariburz, son of Shah Kay Kavus, was designated to fight Kalbad, brother of Piran, the Turanian general. Fariburz sped toward Kalbad, shooting arrows and then drawing his sword and cleaving his foe in two from neck to waist. This triumph proved prophetic; in each of the following jousts the Iranians were victorious.
The painting has been attributed to Shaykh Muhammad, a pupil of the painter Dust-i Divaneh and one of the youngest artists to work on Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh. The reasons for this attribution are stylistic: namely, the inclusion of a gnarled tree in the landscape and the treatment of rocks and outcrops as rodent-like forms. Rocks with the same pointed, snout-like details are found in one of the ten illustrations that Shaykh Muhammad is said to have completed between 1556 and 1567 for the Haft Awrang (a set of poems by the Timurid poet Jami). Interestingly, a similar technique was also adopted by Dust-i Divaneh, raising the question of whether Shaykh Muhammad absorbed the idea from his teacher before the elder artist left Iran for the Mughal empire.
In his preface to an album he compiled in 1544 for Shah Tahmasp’s brother, Bahram Mirza, Dust Muhammad refers to Shaykh Muhammad as a calligrapher “who in speed and power of pen is unequaled in the world.” Writing at the end of the 16th century, Qadi Ahmad also describes Shaykh Muhammad as “an excellent artist, gilder [illuminator]…, and scribe” who worked in Mashhad for Sultan Ibrahim Mirza, Tahmasp’s nephew. Since no works by Shaykh Muhammad bear dates earlier than 1552, “The First ‘Joust of the Rooks’” could have been produced in the 1540s. The heavy brownish paper of this page differs from that of the other folios in Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings), suggesting that, like “Haftvad and the Worm” (AKM164), it was likely added after the project’s completion.
The Shahnameh produced for Shah Tamasp is represented in the Aga Khan Museum Collection by ten paintings (AKM155, AKM156, AKM162, AKM163, AKM164, AKM165, AKM495, AKM496, AKM497, AKM903) out of a total of 258 illustrations in the original manuscript.
— Sheila R. Canby
 Qadi Ahmad noted that Shaykh Muhammad came from Sabzavar in Khurasan and was a pupil of Dust-i Divaneh, a painter not to be confused with Dust Muhammad the calligrapher. See Adle, 235–276.
 Unlike the rocks in Sultan Muhammad’s paintings (e. g., “Court of Kayumars” (AKM165) that are inhabited with humans and recognizable animals, these are more suggestive of living forms than explicitly representational. This detail as well as the gnarled tree in the landscape led S.C. Welch to attribute the painting to Shaykh Muhammad. See Welch 1979, no. 27.
 For a discussion of the Haft Awrang and Shaykh Muhammad’s contributions, see Simpson, 107 and 112, n. 21; also see Welch 1976, 108–9, 112–113, and 122–127.
 In his painting, “Emperor Humayun and Hindal Mirza” Dust-i Divaneh includes a large rock figure of an elephant (see Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Orientabteilung, Libr. Pict. A 117, folio 15r). Even if the elephant resembles a rock formation in a known picnic spot near Kabul, its incorporation in Dust-i Divaneh’s multifigure composition raises the question of whether Shaykh Muhammad absorbed the idea from his teacher before his departure, perhaps from works by Dust that are now lost. See Parodi, 7 and 10–13.
 See Thackston, 348.
 See Qadi Ahmad/Minorsky, 187–188.
 See Welch 1979, no. 27.
Adle, Chahryar. “Les Artistes Nommés Sust-Mohammad au XVIe Siècle,” Studia Iranica, vol. 22, 235–276. (1993), 235–276. DOI: 10.2143/SI.22.2.2014339
Ahmad, Qadi. Calligraphers and Painters, trans. V. Minorsky, 187–188. Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, 1959. ISBN: 9780934686068
Parodi, Laura E. and Bruce Wannell. “The Earliest Datable Mughal Painting: An Allegory of the celebrations for Akbar’s “Circumcision at the Sacred Spring of Khwaja She Yaran near Kabul (1546 AD)”, 7 and 10–13. http://www.asianart.com/articles/parodi, accessed December 2016.
Simpson, Marianna Shreve. “Shaykh-Muhammad,” in Sheila R. Canby, ed., Persian Masters: Five Centuries of Painting, 107 and 112, n. 21. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1990, 99–112. ISBN: 9788185026107
Thackston, W.M. selected and translated, A Century of Princes: Sources on Timurid History and Art, 348. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989. ISBN: 092267311X 9780922673117
Welch, Stuart Cary. Persian Painting: Five Royal Safavid Manuscripts of the Sixteenth Century, 108–9, 112–113, and 122–127. New York: G. Braziller, 1976. ISBN: 9780807608128
---. Wonders of the Age: Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting, 1501–1576, no. 27. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. ISBN: 9780916724382
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