A Nightingale sings, but not in Berkeley Square.

I have found a marvel of rare beauty which dates back to the 12th century, and was originally written by a Persian poet Farid ud Din Attar. The poem itself is a fascinating journey into Sufi literature, detailing the trials and tribulations of thirty birds, led by a hoopoe, allegorically representing a Sufi master leading his pupils to enlightenment. The culture of Persian art enjoyed word play, and this is exemplified when Attar uses the Simorgh to represent the birds quest. The Simorgh is a mysterious bird in Iranian mythology similar to the phoenix, and in Persian , si morgh has a further meaning ‘thirty birds’.

I have discoverd a marvel, a gem of a treasure amidst the plenty over at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This is a 15th century manuscript of the Persian poem by the 12th century poet Attar. A thing of beauty, and fascinating as a piece of Sufi literature that goes back so far. It is an epic poem , over 4000 verses,and retells the story of how the kingdom of birds sought a mysterious bird, the Simorgh The birds have initially congregated to elect a king, in order that they can live more harmoniously together, and at this point the hoopoe suggests the Simorgh is the candidate they are looking for. The Simorgh is a mysterious bird in Iranian culture, similar to the phoenix.  Here Attar uses the hoopoe as an allegory of the Sufi leader guiding his pupils to enlightenment.The readers of the time enjoyed word play, and Attar has cleverly used the Simorgh as his central image, as si morgh in persian is thirty birds. Many of the birds back down from the journey to the far away land of the mysterious bird, as they encounter various difficulties, and Attar uses these individual experiences in poetic form to captivate the reader.

There are seven valleys that the birds must encounter, Yearning, Love, Gnosis, Detachment, Unity of God, Bewilderment, Selflessness and oblivion to God.

Eventually only thirty birds survive the journey, and on reaching the destination, in the place of a mystical Simorgh, they find a reflection of themselves in a lake,the thirty birds are the Simorgh they sought. I love the idea that the Sufi doctrine teaches us, that God is not external or separate from the universe, rather it is the totality of the Universe.The thirty birds come to understand the Simorgh is nothing more than their transcendent reality, and they reach the station of Baga (Subsistence) which is atop of the Mountain of Qaf.

This idea of god within resonates deeply with me, and is intrinsic in many interpretations of Sufi thinking. What also fascinates me about this allegory is Attars choice of birds, and the idea of myriads of birds chattering away in their different birdsongs perfectly represents the infinite variety of ideas on any given thing.

It is not only Persian literature that draws on the bird world. Mythologies from across the world have birds taking centre stage in story telling, and have suggested a magical language exists within the kingdom of birds. In renaissance magic, in Kabbalah, and alchemy, the secret language of birds is considered to be the key to perfect knowledge.

So the mystery of the bird world continues to captivate us, and as the manuscripts from the version held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art show us, they have been inspiring visual artists for centuries. The harmony of colour in these manuscripts is breathtaking, as is the quality of craftsmanship. It is easy to forget how powerfully intellectual and rigorous our forebears were. I can’t help thinking that we need more time given to detail, and to the intellect in our daily lives.

I hope you enjoy these images, and if you do, why not go over to the website of the Metropolitan museum, it is absolutely fascinating.



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