By CHRIS MURPHY
An internationally diverse group of scholars from Uzbekistan, Europe and the United States recently participated in a Library of Congress symposium about the life and work of Mir Ali Shir Navoi (1441-1501), a major literary figure among the Central Asian Turkic people, the ancestor of today's Uzbeks.
Writing under the pen name Navoi, Mir Ali Shir was the author of more than 30 books, written mostly in Chagatay, also known as Old Uzbek. He also wrote in Persian and Arabic. As a major patron of the arts, Navoi supported visual artists, calligraphers, authors and architects. One of the most important individuals supported by Mir Ali Shir was the Persian poet Abd al-Rahman Jami, his spiritual teacher, who introduced him into the Naqshbandi order of dervishes.
Navoi's literary output encompasses the broad fields of both prose and poetry. He composed in prose, among other works, a history of Muslim mystics and a comparison of Chagatay and Persian as literary languages. He produced three collections of lyric poetry in Chagatay and a fourth in Persian. Additionally he wrote a grouping of five long narrative poems that instruct all segments of Muslim society as to their obligations and responsibilities as believers and as human beings.
When not involved in artistic and literary pursuits, Mir Ali Shir served as an important government official at the court of Sultan Husayn Bayqara, the ruler of Herat, in today's Afghanistan. He also funded the construction of mosques, madrasahs (secondary schools), hospitals and soup kitchens for the poor.
Among the presenters at the symposium were Frederique Bressand, International Society of Timurids; Dilorom Abidjanova, University of World Economy at Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Andras Bodrogligeti, University of California at Los Angeles; Ilse Cirtautas, University of Washington; and Ibrahim Pourhadi of the Near East Section in the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division. Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division, made welcoming remarks on behalf of the Librarian of Congress. Ambassador Adulaziz Kamilov spoke on behalf of the Embassy of Uzbekistan. Priscilla Roberts, president of the Friends of Uzbekistan, made the concluding remarks.
A highlight of the symposium was Cirtautas's discussion of the image of historical figures from 14th and 15th century Central Asia and their importance in current Uzbek cultural and nationalist discourse. She noted that Timur (Tamerlane), the 14h century ruler of an empire centered on Samarkand, is often considered to be the founder of the Uzbek nation. Statues of Timur appear throughout Uzbekistan. Like Timur, Mir Ali Shir is one of the few figures from this era who is memorialized in statues throughout the region as the author who established the language that developed into today's Uzbek—a serious literary language.
The Library's own Ibrahim Pourhadi noted in his presentation that Navoi was particularly interested in developing the educational system in the Kingdom of Herat. He commented at length about Navoi's efforts as a senior government official to establish schools throughout the realm.
The symposium, which may be viewed on the Library's Web site at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4058, was sponsored jointly by the Embassy of Uzbekistan and the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division. The division holds Navoi's works in Uzbek, Persian and Arabic as well as scholarly works about Navoi and the significance of his works.
At the symposium, Uzbek author and translator, Shavkat Azimov and Dwayne Rodeheaver of AmRus Ventures, Inc., presented the Library with the first translation into English of Mir Ali Shir's book titled the "Lisan al-Tayr" ("The Language of the Birds"), an allegorical work explaining the mystic's path to union with the divine. On display at the symposium were examples from the African and Middle Eastern Division's collection, including recent works given to the Library by Ambassador Kamilov.
Among the items on display were rare manuscript pages from Central Asia and Afghanistan. Of particular importance was a page from the manuscript of the collected poems of Sultan Husayn Bayqara. This manuscript was completed in the 1490s when Mir Ali Shir was at the court of Sultan Husayn. Mir Ali Mashshadi, the calligrapher who created the work, was brought to Herat by Navoi and was supported with commissions from Navoi, Sultan Husayn and other wealthy individuals.
Chris Murphy is head of the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.