Though in the Islamic world of the Middle Ages it was a common practice for dignitaries and princes to have their birth chart calculated, the horoscope of Timurid Prince Mirza Iskandar (1384-1415) is the only individual birth chart from that era we know to exist today.
The double-page miniature depicting the chart is part of a manuscript containing 86 folios, devided into three parts, presenting detailed astrological calculations and predictions for the life of the prince. The book got to the West at the end of the 18th century from Iran through a clerk of the East India Company and was bought in 1932 at a Sotheby’s auction by Sir Henry Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London. The manuscript came to light in 1980 when categorizing the Persian collection of the institute.
Prince Iskandar was a grandson of Timur (also known as Tamerlane, first ruler of the Timurid dynasty, who claimed to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan), and reigned for 5 years (1409-14) over the province of Fars, Iran. Like most Timurid rulers, he was a committed patron of science and art, especially the arts of the book, commissioning manuscripts that were copied, compiled, and illustrated in the ’kitabkhana’, the royal bookmaking workshop of the Timurids. These workshops functioned as collaborative design studios, supporting astronomers, poets, artists and craftsmen. Besides the illustrated and illuminated manuscripts and albums with lavishly detailed miniature painting and calligraphy they were also producing concepts for architectural details, carpets and decoration.
Iskandar was particularly interested in astrological and astronomical illuminated works. The circumstances of preparing his horoscope were rather unusual, because it wasn’t cast on the prince’s birthday (25 April 1384), but at the beginning of his reign, by astrologer Imad al-Munajjim. The manuscript was created in 1411 in his kitabkhana, and is considered as a beautiful example of the hand-made book production of the 15th century.
The miniature’s central part shows a circular depiction of heaven, divided into 12 houses, with one of the Zodiac signs in each house according to the moment of the prince’s birth.
The background of the painting is a deep blue pigment, prepared from Lapis lazuli, a natural gemstone, richly decorated with golden stars and dots. Around the chartwheel in the corners four angels carry nativity gifts: crowns and golden dishes, symbols for wealth and power. There are seven human figures placed in the houses representing the 6 planets and the Moon, the empty houses and the central circle of the painting are filled with lavishly gilded and illuminated arabesques.
The seven figures representing the celestials:
al-Shams and al-Quamar (Sun and Moon)
Both relatively asexual figures are wearing crowns, similarly ornamented tunics, sitting in identical position and holding a golden halo in front of their faces. The only differences are the color of the garment and the size of the figures: the Sun is significantly bigger than the Moon.
Male figure in blue tunics and white turban, sitting and pointing to a bookstand beside him. He’s traditionally depicted writing on his lap.
Female figure, a courtesan playing a lute, wearing a pink dress and a crown.
A warrior, standing with a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other.
Planet of wisdom and science, a male figure holding an astrolabe, an important instrument used in astronomical measurments.
A half-dressed man with a crown on his head, with three hands, holding two other crowns and a rat.
There are minor deviations in the details, but the figures representing the planets show the characteristics of the original Islamic iconographic tradition that was established around the end of the 12th century, mainly based on the cult of the planets in early ages, with influence of Greco-Roman, Iranian and Central-Asian stylistic elements.
The arrangement of the planets in the houses, on the other hand, shows an interestingly biased deviation from the calculations, that can probably be explained with the relation of the artists and the commissioner…
Each Zodiac sign is depicted occupying one whole house, thus leaving the painter with the dilemma of where should a planet be positioned when it’s calculated house and sign doesn’t coincide with this arrangement.
In our case, according to the calculations the Sun should be in the 4th house, Mercury and Jupiter in the 5th, the Moon and Saturn in the 6th and Mars in the 10th house. But with shifting the Sun, Mercury, Jupiter and Mars half sign, Taurus, the prince’s sun-sign can be highlighted in the 5th house with the Sun, symbol of kings and princes, power and dignity in it, Mars, planet of war and victories gets a more favorable position in the 11th, and with Venus, protector of art already in a good position in the third house, the ‘less’ important planets can share the 6th house.
This way the horoscope shows a lot more ‘kingly’ arrangement, suiting the expectations of a prince with high ambitions for territorial conquests and more political power, and appropriate for a patron of arts and science.
Anna Caiozzo: The Horoscope of Iskandar Sultan as a Cosmological Vision in the Islamic World
in: Horoscopes and Public Spheres: Essays on the History of Astrology, edited by Günther Oestmann, H. Darrel Rutkin, Kocku von Stuckrad, 2005 Walter de Gruyter GmbH&Co Berlin
images are credited to Wellcome Library, London
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/