Islamic art and design have a great influence on our work. During our travels to historic sites around Afghanistan and the wider Islamic world we have often come across artefacts from the bygone eras whose beauty and integrity have touched us deeply. One such object was the black sarcophagus of Gharib Mirza, the young son of Sultan Hussein Baiqera. The original, featured here in black and white, can be viewed at the Shrine of Khawja Abdullah Ansari in Herat, Afghanistan. It is thought to have been carved by the renowned Timurid master stonecarver, Ustad Shamsoddin, perhaps with collaboration with Ustad Kamaluddin Behzad, and Ustad Mirak. Haft Qalam is considered one of most exquisite examples of late Timurid stone carving. There are different stories surrounding the origin of its nickname, Haft Qalam; one version says that Ustad Shamsuddin - a celebrated Timurid master stone carver- toiled away for seven years to carve this piece as a gift to Sultan Hussain Baiqera, but the sultan's young son passed away before his father, so it ended up being the son's grave. Another version posits that it refers to the seven layers of design it consists of. Yet another version intimates its "flawless" beauty. In Persian, traditionally the term is used to refer to the seven items of traditional makeup brides or fine ladies would use to adorn themselves to perfection.
The Study Panel -
My study panel is carved in Walnut wood and measures ca. 40cm x 100cm. I was so touched by the beauty of the original piece that I was keen to copy it as closely as possible, be it in another material. As you can see in the image below, the complexity of this multi-layered Timurid masterwork was so overwhelming that for the first - and perhaps the last- time in my life I felt I had to literally copy the design to be able to transfer it onto wood. One of the legends has it that it has acquired its nick name, "Haft Qalam" (Persian: seven pens/items) because the carving consists of seven layers. It certainly looks very intricate. There are three main overall layers of different designs superimposed over each other: the topmost later is a linear pattern which frames the larger floral design elements of the middle layer. The third and deepest layer is a much finer floral pattern which fills in what would have been the background. The three main design layers are each carved again with finer floral motives, which together with the background make it seven in total. Hence lending the carving a depth it otherwise would not have. The beauty of this design is that even the floral motives are quite geometric giving it an overall harmony. When conducting the study one of the first things I noticed, was that the raw material dictated the details and the crispness of the carving. Carving the same design in timber would never yield the same delicate feel and crispness as you can see in the carved stone.
In order to carve this design, I also had to adapt my woodcarving tools by making them much finer. Still it was a challenge, even though timber is much easier and more forgiving than stone. All throughout, I kept wondering how Ustad Shamsuddin had carved so finely and deeply in stone without chipping or breaking it. The fact that it is rumoured to have taken him seven years to carve this masterpiece is a little consolation. I conducted this study in 2010, and the best result I could reach was what you see in the image below. A very poor copy, which still has left many questions in my head unresolved. I hope to return to this subject again when time allows and another opportunity arises.