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Subhat al-Akhbar: Art and Genealogy in the Service of Ottoman Imperial Legitimacy

One of the most beautiful historical treasures of the 17th-century Ottoman empire is a work known as the Subḥat al-Akhbār. It is a work in Ottoman Turkish delineating the genealogy of the Ottoman Sultans, from Adam, the first human being and prophet, to Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648–1687). As Professor Shahzad Bashir has noted: “genealogy was a major component of political ideology among Islamic dynasties, and this text comes in a long line of similar works produced throughout the medieval period.” It is a particularly interesting historical document for two reasons: 1) it provides significant insight into Ottoman political legitimation and self-representation; and 2) it demonstrates the importance of figural representation in Ottoman art well into the late seventeenth century.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/IV_Mehmet.jpg(Ottoman sultan Mehmed IV)

Professor Shahzad Bashir provides an excellent summary of the work and its importance:

“The facsimile provides a way of introducing students to the multiple sources of political legitimacy used by medieval Muslim rulers. The manuscript’s artistic program allows one to see, even without the ability to read the text, that the Ottomans traced the legitimacy of their rule to a combination of divine sanction, Persian royal traditions, and the heritage of a spate of Muslim dynasties that had ruled the central Islamic lands before them. The manuscript’s series of pictorials begins with a portrait of Adam and Eve (fol. 4 verso), followed by numerous biblical (and other) prophets, Jesus, and Muhammad (fol. 8 verso). Portraits of prophets occupy the right and center of pages and are flanked, on the left, by legendary Persian kings and heroes celebrated as paragons of power and virtue in Islamic royal traditions.

After Muhammad, the subjects of portraits change to religio-political figures from early Islamic centuries and rulers belonging to major dynasties. In this category, the manuscript depicts the first four caliphs, the twelve Shi’i Imams, and rulers from Abbasid, Samanid, Ghaznavid, Saljuq, Mongol, and various Turkic dynasties. The absence here of the Umayyad and Timurid dynasties marks a significant ideological statement. The pictorial program eventually moves to the Ottoman dynasty in particular with the portrait of Usman Ghazi (fol. 13 recto, bottom), and then continues until Mehmed IV who is shown sitting on a throne with a Janissary soldier in the background (16 recto).

The open pages (7 verso – 8 recto) are part of the pre-Islamic section and contain a number of figures interesting for both ideological and iconographic reasons. On 7 verso, the prophetic figures (indicated by the flaming nimbus around their heads) include Moses (with a staff), Aaron, Shu’ayb/Jethro, Samuel, and Daniel (writing on a scroll). The two remaining pictures may relate to any of the numerous Persian figures mentioned on the page. The portraits on 8 verso include David, Solomon, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Alexander the Great, and Jesus. The choices for headgear mark a significant distinguishing feature since all are shown with turbans except Alexander (who has a crown), and Jesus. Jesus’ lack of headgear and simpler attire reflects his image as a mendicant devoted to God. Students can further unpack the representations on this as well as other pages to reveal traditional ideas about the various figures being depicted.”

(Quoted from https://apps.carleton.edu/campus/library/now/exhibits/facsimilies/rosary/)

The manuscript is located in the National Library of Austria in Vienna and the full reference is Rosenkranz der Weltgeschichte: Subhat al-Ahbar, vollstandige Wiedergabe im Originalformat von Codex vindobonensis A.F. 50 (Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek. Manuscript A.F. 50.). The work has also been published as a facsimile under the title Rosenkranz der Weltgeschichte: Subhat al-Ahbar (Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1981).

The following are some images and excerpts from the work:

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Subhat_al-Akbar_%28Rosenkranz_der_Weltgeschichte%29_-_3.jpg(Introduction)

Subhat al-Akbar (Rosenkranz der Weltgeschichte) - 7.jpg(Adam and Eve)

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Subhat_al-Akbar_%28Rosenkranz_der_Weltgeschichte%29_-_5.jpg(Idris/Enoch)

(Aaron/Harun and Moses/Musa)

(Top-left: Dhul-Qarnayn/Alexander; bottom-left: Isa/Jesus Christ; bottom-right: Yahya/John the Baptist)

Subhat al-Akbar (Rosenkranz der Weltgeschichte) - 6.jpg
(Noah and the Persian ruler Jamshid [on the left])

The Ottoman sultans:

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ec/Subhat_al-Akbar_%28Rosenkranz_der_Weltgeschichte%29_-_8b.jpg

(Orhan, Murad I, Bayezid I, and Mehmed I)

Subhat al-Akbar (Rosenkranz der Weltgeschichte) - 9.jpg

(Mehmed II and Bayezid II)

Perhaps the most significant image within the entire work is the following:

On the right: the Prophet Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphs–Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali–with their respective genealogical charts. The figure depicted at the top is ‘Abd al-Muttalib, the Prophet’s grandfather. The left side of the page shows a genealogical chart of the Sassanids.

On the left are the Family of the Prophet (the Ahl al-Bayt), with al-Hasan and al-Husayn at the top and the remainder of the 12 Imams (including the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi b. al-Hasan al-Askari) in the center. The figure in green at the bottom is the Imam Ali al-Rida, and seated on his right is Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi’i and Abu Hanifa is on his left. The figure at the bottom of the page is Abu Muslim al-Khorasani. The left side of this page shows the genealogical chart of the Sassanid kings while the right lists the Umayyad rulers. Here is this page in more detail:

These two pages are the clearest indication of a strongly pro-Alid Ottoman religious orientation and demonstrates their desire to position their legitimacy within the broader framework of Islamic history.


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