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A Pink Qur'an

Bifolium from the Pink Qur'an, from Spain, 13th century, ink, gold, silver, and opaque watercolor on paper, 31.8 x 50.2 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). A conversation between Dr. Ariel Fein and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(classical piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at two pages from a Qur'an, which is just mind blowingly beautiful. Specifically, it's referred to as a bifolium from a pink Qur'an. And what that means is, it is one sheet of paper with four sides. A Qur'an is the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, and it is the most sacred text in Islam. - [Ariel] The Qur'an is divided into 114 surahs, or chapters. There are only five lines of text per page. That means that this Qur'an in its entirety, would've been a multi-volume work. - [Steven] So these pages came from a book, where is the rest of the book? - [Ariel] In the 19th century, it became common for art dealers to dismantle manuscripts so that they could sell them for a higher price. - [Steven] We think the Qur'an was disassembled so pieces could be sold separately, so that these objects could be framed and put on the collector's wall, and so disassociated from its cultural history. - [Ariel] What's so special about this bifolium is its beautiful pink color. We see this dyed paper. It was common for luxury manuscripts to be produced in dyed papers. We see yellow paper dyed in saffron. We see chocolate colored papers, and here this gorgeous pink Qur'an. - [Steven] It really does glow in the gallery, and it draws your eye onto this magnificent calligraphy. - [Ariel] This Qur'an is an example of a maghribi Qur'an, so it's a Qur'an that was produced in the regions of the Maghreb, the Islamic west. This includes the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. So modern day regions such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya. - [Steven] But this was made in what is now Spain. We think either in the city of Valencia or the city of Granada. - [Ariel] Since the eighth century, Muslims had lived and ruled over the majority of the Iberian Peninsula. Over the course of the 11th and 12th centuries, Christian Kingdoms in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, gradually waged war on these Muslim territories. By the 13th century, when this Qur'an was produced, the Kingdom of Granada wasn't pulled out of Muslim rule on the Peninsula. - [Steven] And art historians find this significant because it's an expression of the continued flowering of Islamic art. Even in this moment of transition. - [Ariel] The Arabic script that we see here is unique to the regions of the Maghreb. It's a beautiful freehand script, that's written in a dark brown ink. - [Steven] The freehand nature is highly skilled. I'm looking at those long sweeping tails and although each individual tail seems spontaneous, they are all almost precisely alike. So there is a tremendous degree of control, but it feels uncontained. And that's in part true because it's in contrast to a series of diacritical marks that are each outlined. And so on the one hand, you have these smaller diacritical marks that feel precise and then you have this much freer open, warmer script. - [Ariel] Diacritical marks are these small markings surrounding the Arabic letters that help the reader pronounce the Arabic text. This maghribi script is in contrast to the scripts that we see in Qur'ans produced in the Mashriq, in the Islamic lands of the east, where Arabic script was far more regulated and the proportions of the letters were far more exact. Here, the scribe has more freedom to develop their own calligraphic style within the bounds of this maghribi calligraphy. In addition to the Arabic letters, the page is adorned with medallions marking the breaks between each of the verses. - [Steven] They're gilded, there's a beautiful framing device, and then there's an Arabic character within. - [Ariel] The Arabic letters correspond to numbers which help the reader know which verse they are on. In addition, in the top left corner, we see this ornamented teardrop shaped medallion and this is called such a sajjada mark. It indicates for the reciter when they are supposed to bow when they are reading the Qur'an. This beautiful calligraphy and rich gold gilding, as well as this pink dyed paper, suggests that this originally belonged to a royal or noble patron. - [Steven] Paper in Europe was a brand new thing. - [Ariel] Paper is often thought to have been invented in China in the second century. And it was a strictly controlled secret, and so it took centuries before paper spread to the Islamic world. - [Steven] And it did so, we think, by way of Samarkand, in central Asia, where paper makers were captured and this technology became more widely known. - [Ariel] It moved from Iraq and Iran and Egypt, all the way to Spain and North Africa, where paper mills were established. Including perhaps one of the first paper mills in Spain in the town called Xàtiva. It was renowned for having produced the most magnificent paper, prized for its glossy surface. - [Steven] And because of the quality of this paper, we believe that this was the mill that produced this paper. So these pages are not only an expression of extraordinary calligraphy, but also this millennial long track of paper technology from China into Europe. (classical piano music)