Praise of the Patron, the Palace, and the City: Form and Function in Topical Persian Panegyrics

Praise of cities and edifices are an integral part of classical court panegyrics, yet what – or rather, who – is the ultimate object of praise in this genre? While Ghaznavid panegyrists famously relied on topical motifs to glorify the virtues of the king-builder, the inauguration of a public building, for instance, could become a chance to celebrate the harmony between the city, its inhabitants, and their natural environment. Persian architectural poetry is increasingly drawing the attention of scholars, from art historians to literary critics, yet these questions remain largely unaddressed: What does it mean to panegyrize a place, a structure, or a monumental artefact? Does praise of the building complement or distract us from praise of the patron-builder? Topical panegyrics – typically in qasida form, sometimes as mathnavi, occasionally as saqinama – complicate the notion of a singular addressee. The purpose of such poems lies particularly in the use of description and ekphrasis which, unlike in other panegyrics, number among their essential parts. By focusing on a selection of poets active in Iran and India between circa 1250 and 1650, the papers in this panel will address the relationship of form with function in topical Persian panegyrics composed in the pre-modern and early modern periods.


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Before emigrating to India at the age of forty in 1580, Ẓuhūrī Turshīzī (d. 1025/1616) honed his poetic skills in literary circles throughout Iran, from his native Khorasan to Yazd and Shiraz. He was fully cognizant of all the latest fashions in early Safavid poetry, including the new genre of the sāqi-nāma (cupbearer’s song). Adapting the thematic structure of the traditional panegyric qaṣīda, the sāqi-nāma depicts the speaker’s struggle against mortality and search for self-identity, ending with the declaration of a new doctrinal or political allegiance. But when Ẓuhūrī came to write his own sāqī-nāma, he drastically reshaped the genre. Earlier sāqī-nāmas seldom exceeded 300 verses in rhymed couplets, but Ẓuhūrī’s unfolds luxuriously over 4,600 lines. This expansion results in large part from an elaboration of the final panegyric portion of the poem. Ẓuhūrī praises the Niẓāmshāhī ruler Burhān II (r. 999-1003/1591-95) by way of lengthy descriptions of the ceremonies, attendants, accoutrements, and buildings of his court at Ahmednagar. This paper will investigate precisely how the palace and its residents, furnishings, and rituals manifest the virtues and power of the royal mamdūḥ. Is the palace complex a metonymic extension of the royal body; is it a material realization of abstract attributes of his character; or is it a self-standing metaphor for his rule, the projection of a social order which the king governs, but which simultaneously governs his values, behavior, and representation? These relationships between the king and his self-constructed environment give nuanced articulation to the nature of power and authority in the political and poetic realm of Ẓuhūrī’s sāqī-nāma.

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This paper will examine a significant corpus of post-Ilkhanid royal Persian qasidas (those of ‘Ubayd-i Zakani, d. 1371) to provide insight into the processes of poetic image-making engaged in by panegyrists at the Injuid and Muzaffarid courts of fourteenth-century Shiraz. Focusing on this substantial and hitherto under-discussed body of praise poems, this paper will explore how ‘Ubayd-i Zakani structured his poems to enable his audience not only to visualize ideal markers of kingly glory (farr), but to make those ideal elements of Iranian monarchy actual by presentifying them before their very eyes. Furthermore it will be shown that, as the poetic articulation of court ceremonial, the post-Ilkhanid Persian qasida worked in tandem with the physicality of the performance setting (the royal palace, pavilion, or pleasure garden) to project a bold regal image, one that was vital to Mongol successor city states such as those founded by the Injuids and the Muzaffarids as they vied with one another to claim the cosmic right to wield cultural and political authority in their turbulent century.

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There was much to praise in the city of Delhi that the medieval poet Amir Khusraw (d. 1325) lived in: the military exploits and magnanimity of the successive sultans he served, his Sufi master whose blessed presence illumined the city, the geography and culture of the city and Indic world, as well as the city's many imposing monuments that survive to this day. Amir Khusraw's earliest panegyrics to Delhi appeared in his masnavi, Qiran al-sa‘dain, and throughout his later writings he continued to employ topographical images to inscribe the city in the annals of Perso-Islamic history. Poems on places are interspersed as vignettes to enhance and break up the flow of the narrative of some of his masnavis. These verses had such a compelling connection to place that selections were quoted in various texts through the centuries after him, sometimes quoted in the context of other buildings. From their appearance in the Timurid period history, Rawzat al-jannat fi awsaf madinat-i Harat, where lines about Delhi are quoted in the context of Herat to Mughal prose works by authors such as Amin Ahmad Razi's Haft Iqlim and 'Abd al-Baqi Nihavandi's Ma'asir-i Rahimi, the reuse of Amir Khusraw’s verses by successive generations of Persian(ate) men of letters has been largely unnoticed. The endurance of his poetry and the places themselves over time ensured their mutual fame, without any reference to a past or future, only the present. This paper will explore how the poet's use of generic verses to describe buildings and places in the framework of a specific historical narrative allowed his poetry to be read as documentary evidence of his own times but also to be constantly reused by other authors in subsequent centuries.

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The emergence and consolidation of the Jalayerid rule over western Iran took shape during the socio-political transitions and the dynastic uncertainties that marked the aftermath of Abu Sa‘id’s death (1335). This nascent sultanate brought about a new, post- Mongolian ideal of kingship that sought to reassess the legitimacy of the Il-Khanid ideological apparatus, while laying emphasis on the renewal of its “Persian” identity. The choice of retaining Baghdad and Tabriz as capitals was a strategic decision meant to be followed by the annexation of Shiraz and Isfahan, which the Jalayerids had long coveted but always failed to conquer except for brief, episodic occupations.

By the second half of the fourteenth century the dynasty reached the apogee of its cultural and political hegemony with Soltān Ovays (r. 1356-74). As soon as the two capitals became the point of attraction of artists and literati from the entire Iranian world, most persophone poets decided to pay encomiastic homage to the Jalāyerid sultans, whose cultural patronage would often overshadow Injuid and Mozaffarid maecenatism.

It was during such geo-politically fortunate circumstances that Salmān Sāveji, the poet laureate of the new ruling dynasty and the preceptor of Ovays himself, reinvented the scheme of the classical qaside by contributing to the emergence of a new style in which the lyrical and the encomiastic are bound together by a language purified from the hyperbolic obscurities characterizing the poetry of his predecessors.

This paper will explore the ideological dynamics underlying the “Persianization” of post Il-Khanid heritage taken up by the Jalāyerids through the analysis of Salmān’s description of the royal capitals Baghdad and Tabriz and his immortalization of Soltān Ovays, whom he often described as the shadow of God on earth and exhorted to permanently occupy Fārs as well as Khorāsān.

By comparing Salmān’s qasides with the panegyrics composed by the Saljuk poets Amir Mo‘ezzi and Zahir Fāriyābi, this study will highlight the innovations in terms of structure and imagery introduced by the panegyrist of Sāve in the effort of celebrating Soltān Ovays as a king, a pupil, a friend, a beloved and a fellow-poet.