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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

05/2015 manuscript  of the month

Birds flying high!

A book about the spiritual journey makes a journey of its very own

The spiritual journey to God by a flock of birds is the central subject of The Conference of the Birds (Manṭiq al-Ṭayr), a narrative poem written in Persian by Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār of Nishapur, in present-day Iran, around the year 1200. A transcript of this poetic tale is now part of a collection kept by the Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The colophon in this document tells us that the copy was completed in 1456 by the calligrapher ʿAtīq al-Kātib al-Tūnī. The manuscript was decorated with thirteen colour illustrations a short time later. This makes it one of the earliest manuscripts to illustrate the story of the birds, which raises the question of how the mystical search for God was translated into pictures. Clues such as notes, glosses and the style of the decoration suggest that the manuscript was worked on in a number of different locations. So how did a book about the spiritual journey come to embark on a journey all of its own?

Fig. 1: Ms. or. oct. 268, fol. 13r,
Prophet Muḥammad’s Ascension into
, painting and text c. 1456.
The light orange-coloured frame was
probably added in Istanbul during the
first half of the sixteenth century.
© Berlin State Library – Prussian
Cultural Heritage Foundation
> Enlarge

Fig. 3: Ms. or. oct. 268, fol. 3r. The
white inner folio was probably copied
from the original in Istanbul during
the first half of the sixteenth century
and embedded in the light orange-
coloured frame. The glosses in
Ottoman Turkish which appear under-
neath the Persian words were added
later. © Berlin State Library –
Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation
> Enlarge

In a hanging script known as nastaʿlīq, which was a common ductus for poetry in the Iranian region of the fifteenth century, ʿAtīq al-Kātib al-Tūnī penned the text of The Conference of the Birds using twelve lines per page. The fact that we are dealing with a poem is also evident from the rhyming couplets, which the calligrapher has divided into two columns, as was customary at the time. Unlike a newspaper article, which we would read column by column from top to bottom, for example, this text is read continuously from right to left. Relatively evenly dispersed throughout the manuscript, the scribe purposely left thirteen spaces free for illustrations to be added. The pictorial style and the content of the images suggest that they were produced in the west of the Iranian region – possibly in Shiraz, Tabriz or Baghdad.

Fig. 2: Ms. or. oct. 268, fol. 27r,
The Conference of the Birds, painting
and text c. 1456. The light orange-
coloured frame was probably added
in Istanbul during the first half of the
sixteenth century. © Berlin State
Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage
Foundation > Enlarge

The opening illustration in the manuscript depicts Prophet Muḥammad’s ascension into heavens on his mythical steed (fig. 1). A few earlier manuscripts of a different content are illustrated with the same motif, implying that the artist’s work was based on one or more existing models. By making a comparison with other similar illustrations and the corresponding texts, it is possible to establish exactly which part of the Prophet’s ascension is being portrayed: Muḥammad has just left earth to pass through the seven heavens and finally encounter God; he is being welcomed to the skies by angels bearing all kinds of gifts. In this copy of The Conference of the Birds, the painted illustration accompanies a long passage in praise of the Prophet, which was a traditional part of the introduction in Persian Islamic books. For the mystics of Islam, the ascension of the Prophet is a divine role model for their own spiritual journey: exactly like Muḥammad, Sufis seek direct contact with the Almighty. Since this is the very same goal to which the birds aspire in the allegorical tale of The Conference of the Birds, we can assume that this opening picture is intended to provide the beholder with a visual introduction to the theme of the mystical journey.

Another image in the manuscript is a reference to the frame narrative of The Conference of the Birds (fig. 2). Just like the mystical seeker, the birds are not capable of finding the path to God without the guidance of a Sufi sheik. The guiding bird in the poem is the hoopoe – seen perched on a stone at the top left of the picture, addressing its ‘novices’. Nature has endowed the hoopoe with a crown-like crest and a fine robe of brown and black-and-white-striped feathers, as if to accentuate his leadership qualities. When the birds of the world gather and determine that they lack a king, the hoopoe offers to guide them on the mystical path to the king of birds or God bird, Sīmurgh. After some hesitation, the chirping flock embarks on its journey. In response to the many questions and complaints of his fellow birds, the hoopoe recounts a great number of short, poetic anecdotes which are also illustrated in the manuscript. After crossing seven valleys representing the mystical stations and states that must be transcended in the search for spiritual truth, the thirty birds who have persevered right to the end finally arrive at the court of Sīmurgh. All they see there is their own reflection in Sīmurgh – which actually means ‘thirty birds’ in Persian. In other words, they find the king in themselves and themselves in the king.

Fig. 4: Ms. or. oct. 268, fol. 1v, 2r, illuminated title pages, probably
produced in Istanbul during the first half of the sixteenth century.
© Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation
> Enlarge

A first stopover on the manuscript’s journey is likely to have been Istanbul, which was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. There are a number of glosses in Ottoman Turkish which would indicate that the manuscript was used there. The glosses are placed below the Persian words and provide a translation (fig. 3). The fact that the manuscript was restored in Istanbul is evident from the illuminated title pages (fig. 4), which mark the beginning of the literary work as a double-page composition. Very similar illuminations are found in manuscripts produced in Istanbul during the first half of the sixteenth century. Typical characteristics of this style are the colourful clusters of lines on the inner side of each folio, the black tendrils and blossoms behind the text cartouches and the interlacing panels of gold and blue, which serve as a background for the arabesques with typical lotus blossom motifs. Although both title pages were illuminated and produced at the same time, we can see on closer inspection that they are actually made up of different leafs. The light-coloured inner leaf featuring calligraphy and text cartouches is contained in a light orange-coloured frame. The transition between the two leafs and the points at which they are glued together is very skilfully concealed by the coloured lines. This dates the framing of all the other leafs in the manuscript to the first half of the sixteenth century – in other words, an early Ottoman restoration which probably involved rebinding all of the framed folios. The majority of the original folios of 1456 are surrounded by the Ottoman frame (fig. 1, 2). Like the title pages (fig. 4), other folios were copied before they were framed (as in fig. 3). Besides the lighter colour of the paper, the fact that the misṭara ruling lines – which served as a writing aid – are so distinctly visible is a clear indication that these particular folios are more recent.

Fig. 5: Ms. or. oct. 268, the flyleaf bears
a watermark from the Italian paper mill
Ingres Fabriano: ‘[I]NGRES MADE IN ITALY’.
Attached to the flyleaf, which was added
when the manuscript was rebound in the
late modern or modern era, there is a
blue slip of paper containing notes
written by Aloys Sprenger.
© Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural
Heritage Foundation > Enlarge

Onto a blue slip of paper, pasted into the manuscript, Tyrol-born Aloys Sprenger (1813–1893) noted the previous ownership of “Silvestre de Sacy” (fig. 5). Paris orientalist Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838) was well connected with dignitaries and ambassadors in Istanbul. Around 1800, the manuscript might have been purchased there and have set off on a journey to Europe. When in 1888 Wilhelm Pertsch catalogued the manuscript of The Conference of the Birds, it was yet part of the collection of the Royal Library in Berlin. And so the manuscript reached the end of its journey.


PERTSCH, Wilhelm (1888): Verzeichniss der persischen Handschriften von Wilhelm Pertsch. Berlin: A. Asher, 777, Nr. 753.

STCHOUKINE, Ivan (1971): Verzeichnis der orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland. Illuminierte islamische Handschriften. Wiesbaden: Steiner, 20–23, Nr. 3, Taf. 1, 2, 14.

STURKENBOOM, Ilse (2014): “Eine illustrierte Handschrift von Farīd ad-Dīn ʿAṭṭārs Vogelgesprächen Manṭiq aṭ-Ṭayr in der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz”. In: Lorenz Korn, Birgitt Hoffmann, Stefanie Stricker (Hg.):Aus Buchwerkstatt und Bibliothek. Manuskriptkulturen des Mittelalters in Orient und Okzident. Bamberg: University of Bamberg Press, 173–230.


Current owner: Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation
Shelf mark: Ms. or. oct. 268
Material: Paper, 198 folios, 12 lines per page in two columns, 13 colour illustrations, illuminated title pages, brown leather binding with flap
Dimension: ca. 16 x 9,5 cm (inner leaf), 25,0 x 15,6 cm (outer frame)
Provenance: 860/1456 CE, probably originated in Western Iran. Apparently in early-sixteenth-century Istanbul, the inners leafs were reframed, few inner leafs were newly produced and the illumination of the title pages was executed.
Digital representation:

Text by Ilse Sturkenboom