A zoo in my luggage



I bought this miniature in the bazaar of Isfahan, in the dim workshop of an old miniature painter, who paints his traditional gold-leaf Persian figures on the pages of hundred-year-old notebooks discarded from the local theology. “Do you know who’s in the picture?” he asked me, scanning my face. “Of course, Nūh, Noah.” “Are you a Muslim?” he asked with happy surprise. “No, masihi am, I’m a Messiah-believer. But every one of us knows Noah.” “Of course,” he said thoughtfully, “since we all come from him.”


Mahsa Vahdat: از دل سلامت میکنم Az del salâmat mikonam (I greet you from my heart). A poem by Jalal ad-din Rumi (1207-1273). From the album امید خفته Âmid khafte (Serene hope) (2017)

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The Quran and the Hadith – the collected sayings of Prophet Mohammad – mention in several places Noah, his ark, and the flood once covering the whole earth, which surely embraced the imagination of the inhabitants of the desert. Noah – Nūh ibn Lamech ibn Methuselah –, just as in the Book of Genesis, was a righteous man, to whom God first entrusted prophesy against idolatry, which had become widespread on earth. After trying to convert mankind for nine hundred and fifty years with great patience, but without the slightest success, he finally resorted to Plan B, and brought only his own family and two of every kind of animal on the Ark as propagation material from the former Paradise.


The Quran is better informed than the Book of Genesis – or, as the unbelievers would say, it likes to embroider its sources –, inasmuch it also knows about a fourth son of Noah in addition to Shem, Cham and Yafet. This fourth son, Yam, was secretly an unbeliever, and so at the last moment he leapt from the ark to await the passing of the flood on a high mountain. It did not work. What’s more, Noah’s wife – whom the Quran does not name, but the exegetes know from a certain source that she was called Umzrah bint Barakil – was also a secret unbeliever, so she also missed the ark. In the Islamic exegesis, they are the usual examples to point to, that on the day of judgment everyone will go into the fire of Jahannam for their own sins, and coming from a distinguished or righteous family will not save them.

Hafiz-i Abru, Majma al-tawarikh (“Collection of Histories”). Herat (Iran), ca. 1425

The representation of Noah’s ark became popular after 1500 in Persian Safavid and Ottoman miniature painting. In these pictures, the ark is a lightweight, single-mast dhaw, whose holding capacity would be tested even by a lucky catch of fish, let alone two of each righteous animal on earth. Islamic exegesis, which only accepts literal interpretation, has a hard job of explaining the unexplainable. But Allah is great, and if on the Day of Judgment the righteous will pass over the sirat, the spiderweb bridge, while under the guilty ones even the iron bridge will collapse, so with His will the complete gene pool of the world can fit well in a single-mast shell.

In the Mogul version of Persian manuscripts, the ark is a much more serious construction, a kind of floating entertainment palace, like the ones on which the ruler and his courtiers often went to cruise on the backwaters of the great Indian rivers.

And the medieval European representations of the ark often depict it as a high-rise ocean cruiser. In the spirit of the ancient encyclopedic tradition, the animals are sitting in its infinitely many windows, like they do later on the branches of the tree of evolution.


The Persian-Ottoman manuscript tradition does not aim at this completeness. In the little shell, only a handful of animals exemplify the complete fauna of the world, the most common and the most exotic ones. In addition to the horse and the camel, the elephant and the giraffe – this latter being a symbol of Allah’s greatness – evoke the great world, their long neck and muzzle dazzling in one rhythm with the zoomorphic ship’s head and tail. Such animals were seen by the common folk even in Isfahan and Istambul only as a gift of embassies from remote lands. Like the giraffe sent forward in 1414 by the Sultan of Bengal from the gifts of the embassy of Malindi – today Kenya – to Emperor Yongle, and portrayed in an iconic work of ancient Chinese painting.


It is particularly interesting that Noah’s face is covered with a veil, and he also hides his hands in his robe. This is how Mohammed is usually depicted from the late Middle Ages on. In fact, according to the Quran, idolatry is the degeneration of the honor given to outstanding people, whose image usually becomes worshipped. This is why exactly the most excellent ones should not be depicted. This teaching obviously reflects the Christian image cult of the period, and it is telling that while on Eastern Christian icons the face and hands appear uncovered, on the portraits of Mohammed exactly these two parts are covered, as if indicating that only his robe is painted on the picture.

The prohibition of depiction, the face covered with a veil is sometimes transmitted to other great people, and at the Shiites also to the Imams. In the salon of Boroujerdi House in Iranian Kashan, even the late 19th-century Nasreddin Shah is represented in this way. The owner may have thereby suggested to the still very conservative merchants of Kashan, that in spite of all his devotion to the Shah, he will not fall into the sin of his worshiping.

Perhaps this is why Noah is also veiled on many pictures of the Ark. But there is also another possibility. Namely, that the veil refers to Mohammed. For among the sayings attributed to him by the Shiites is: “Behold, my house is like the ark of Noah. Those who embarked it, were saved, but those who turned away from it, perished.” In the Shiite interpretation, the house of Mohammed – Ahl al-Bayt – includes his daughter Fatima and his son-in-law Ali, as well as their sons, Hassan and Hussein, the first imams. That is, all those who were persecuted, killed, and even cast out of their holy tombs by the Sunnis, and whose throne has since been occupied by Sunni usurpers. This is the reason for such Persian pictures of the ark, where the sails have the names of the members of the House, and above them, that of Allah.


The extremely popular legendary collection Qisas al-Anbiya (“Stories of the Prophets”) tells a Shiite story, in which the angel Jebrail (Gabriel) brought 129 thousand nails to Noah for the preparation of the ark. Noah diligently drove them all in, until only five very bright nails were left, each with an unknown name on it. He asks about them one after the other, and Gabriel explains one by one, that the nails symbolize the five great forthcoming figures of the Ahl al-Bayt, from Mohammed to Hussein. The nail of this latter is covered with blood, foretelling his bloody martyr death suffered by the hand of the Sunnis in the Battle of Kerbala.


It is no coincidence, then, that Noah and his ark become popular in Persian miniature painting just after 1501, when the new Safavid dynasty introduces Shia as the state religion, and support the cult of images that elevate it above its Sunni counterpart. And thereby – just as we have seen before, in the symbol of the butterfly and the candle – they create the Oriental counterpart of a European emblem. This is the symbol of the ship, which surely advances even in the greatest storm, since a righteous man is sitting at its rudder, and the Lord is its protector.

George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes, 1635, Emblem 1.13.

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