‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī and the Aggressive Meccan Tour Guide

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An eighteenth century Safavid depiction of the Ka’ba, around which our story’s protagonist wanted to circumambulate; here Majnūn and his father behold the sacred precints. From a copy of the Khamsa of Niẓāmī Ganjavī (Walters W.609).

Probably for as long as there have been pilgrims and tourists (with the line between the two categories often indistinct) there have been people who sought to make a living off of pilgrims and tourists, through means both licit and less so. Tour guides in both the form of written (and often illustrated) manuals and in the form of individuals knowledgeable of a given site are both venerable features of travel from the medieval world to the present. And just as most travelers in the present, self included, have had both good and bad experiences with guides, a range of responses to guides and guidance, solicited or not, can be found in the historical record.

The story translated below, which comes from the autobiographical section of a work by the Safavid Shi’i scholar ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī (d. 1692), reflects the sometimes tense encounters pilgrims and tourists down to the present (well, pre-covid at least!) can have with self-appointed tour guides and their claims of expertise. The story takes place when a sixteen year old ‘Alī, whose family was from the important Shi’i center of learning Jabal ʿĀmil (located in what is now Lebanon), made the ḥajj for the first time, a few years after the death of his father. His story is largely self-explanatory (though see this helpful essay and images for background on the rituals and sites of the ḥajj if they are unfamiliar), and will no doubt resonate with any reader who has had a similar unpleasant experience negotiating unsolicited offers of guidance in a new place.

Ardabil Carpet

When I entered Mecca the Noble I preceded in front of the ḥajj caravan along with a couple of companions, riding mules from ‘Usfān [1]. When I reached Mecca the Noble I went to the Ḥaram in order to perform the ritual circumambulation (ṭawāf) of the ‘umrah (the ‘minor pilgrimage’). I was alone. First, I circled around al-Bayt al-Ḥarām so that I would recognize the designated locations which one needs to know during the circumambulation [2]. Then I wanted to start on the circumambulation, but a man from among those who there lead the people in the circumambulation came up to me and said, ‘I will take you on the circumambulation!’

But I replied to him, ‘I am a man from Syria and I arrived ahead of the Syrian ḥajj caravan, so I don’t have any dirhams with me right now to give to you—I’ve got nothing on me save what a pilgrim needs in his ritual state. Now, if you’re alright with it then instruct me for free, otherwise, leave me alone and I’ll perform the circumambulation by myself!’

Then he set to arguing with me and saying nasty things, until, while we were in the middle of it, a man approached and drew the man aside, saying to him, ‘Leave this one alone to circumambulate by himself! You want to instruct him in the circumambulation—but he and his father before him have themselves instructed a thousand people like you in the circumambulation!—’ or something to that effect— ‘so leave him alone so that he can perform the circumambulation.’ So he left me alone and I performed the circumambulation as I wished. Continue reading “‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī and the Aggressive Meccan Tour Guide”

Safavid Devotional Art in Steel, Script, and Scroll

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A Safavid pierced steel plaque, probably late 17th century, featuring a calligraphic rendering of part of a poem in praise of Muḥammad, Fāṭima, and the Twelve Imams, formerly part of a larger set distributed in a shrine or similar structure. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1987.14

Pierced metal plaques such as the one above must surely count among the most spectacular instances of Safavid art to modern eyes, with their stark contrasts, incredible fineness of detail, bold clean lines surrounding delicate ornament, and obvious evidence of extremely skilled craft. Plaques such as this one- see below for another, quite similar example- once formed part of the interior of Safavid shrines, either to one of the Twelve Imāms or to the far more frequent imāmzādehs, the descendents  of the Imāms, who were also more likely to be found in Safavid controlled territory (there were also cases of saints’ shrines of various sorts being ‘converted’ to an imāmzādeh after the rise of the Safavids). Others were found on the tombs of Safavid shahs and in the massive shrine complex of Ṣafī al-Dīn, the Safavid eponym, in Ardabil. In 1550 large number of such plaques were ordered and installed by Shah Tahmāsp I in the shrine of Imām Riḍā in Mashhad, with further production through the rest of the Safavid dynasty.

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The interior of the shrine of an Imām or an imāmzādeh, from a circa 1550 Safavid Fālnāmeh (‘book of divination’). Besides showing the internal architectural layout of a Safavid shrine, it provides a nice view of the activity that might go on there. (David Collection Inv. no. 28/1997)

So far as I know none remain in situ, a consequence of their likely original location- probably upon the grill-like structure surrounding the location of the tomb itself (see the 16th century illustration above for an idea of what such a space would have looked like). Such structures, as well as the built fabric of shrines in general, tend to be subject to great use, wear-and-tear, and continual renovation; as a result these plaques were dispersed and now reside in various museums and collections. Originally, however, they would have been visible to those making pious visitation (ziyāra) to the holy people whose tombs they adorned.

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Another Safavid pierced plaque, here extolling the last of the Twelve Imāms, also from the late 17th century. (Freer & Sackler F1997.21)

In terms of content, these plaques extoll and in some cases supplicate the prayers of the Twelve Imāms, as well as Muḥammad and Fāṭima, acting both to channel the intercessory power of these figures while linking the entombed person to the ‘People of the House.’ While devotion to the Twelve Imāms was not limited to Shi’i Muslims historically- contemporaneous Ottomans who would have regarded themselves as good Sunnis venerated the Twelve Imāms as well- such devotion was especially central to Shi’i Islam and to Safavid religious identity. These plaques signaled, to those who could read them (or have them read to them), that centrality, while also acting as inscribed requests for intercession, connecting the People of the House and their baraka to whatever shrine their names were place within. The sheer skill, time, and resources that were involved in producing such works were in themselves acts of devotion (along with the patronage of such work).

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Above and below: sections from a Safavid Qur’an scroll written in ghubār (‘dust’) script with extensive illumination (Chester Beatty Library Is 1623)

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Continue reading “Safavid Devotional Art in Steel, Script, and Scroll”