Camphor in Medieval Persian Poetry
This post contains writing in the Perso-Arabic script, which Medium formatting doesn’t handle well (at least in combination with other scripts), so do bear that in mind if you see any text appearing oddly. I am, of course, not an expert in Persian literature, so do let me know if you notice any errors as well.
Camphor is, as I’ve said several times on this blog, a white oil crystalline solid that forms inside the trunks of certain trees, most prominently several species in the genus Dryobalanops. These tall forest trees live in isolated groves in Sumatra, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula, and they have been harvested for their camphor for at least a dozen centuries. Camphor could be extracted from other trees, including Cinnamomum camphora, a species that grows in China and Taiwan — but the harvesting of this sort of camphor only appears to have started in recent centuries, long after the trade in Southeast Asian camphor got going, and it is notable that words for ‘camphor’ in many languages, including English, have their origins in the Malay word kapur (originally meaning ‘chalk, lime; camphor’).
Camphor is mentioned by a version of this name, kāfūrā (كَافُور), in the Qur’an (76:5). The Arabic name was derived from the Malay by way of Middle Persian kāpūr, a word evidenced in the Greater Bundahišn, a mid-first-millennium CE Zoroastrian compendium. The same word appears in Greek (καφουρά) and Latin (camphora) in the early Middle Ages, and in Indian texts from an earlier period (mostly in the form karpūra, a back-formation from a Middle Indo-Aryan kappūra, itself derived from the Malay). The substance travelled at least as much as the word, and camphor was put to a surprisingly wide range of uses across medieval Afro-Eurasia. As we have seen before on this blog, for instance, camphor was added to gunpowder in late-medieval Central Europe.
Camphor in Persian
In this post we’re going to look at references to camphor in medieval Persian literature, specifically in the New or Classical Persian poetry of the Islamic period. Cloves and other spices from the Indo-Malaysian archipelago seldom seem to feature in medieval Persian poetry; I know of only one or two incidences. Camphor, however, appears with some regularity. This is because it was conventionally used to describe the silver hair of old age, and could be put to other uses when pressed, as you’ll see below. The word for ‘camphor’ in New/Classical Persian, by the way, is kāfūr (کافور), not kāpūr as one might expect from the Middle Persian form; this is due to the influence of Arabic on Persian after the coming of Islam.
Incidentally, one of the oldest descriptions of Sumatran camphor production was written by a Persian, albeit in Arabic — the account in Ibn Khurradādhbih’s Book of Routes and Kingdoms (c.870), a transcription and translation of which you can find in an earlier post on this blog. Not only might medieval Persian poets have been familiar with the substance, then, but they could theoretically have known something of its origins and production as well.
The Treasury of Mysteries
Anyway, the focus of this post is going to be a couplet from Makhzan al-asrār (‘The treasury of mysteries’) by the great Persian poet Niẓāmī Ganjavī (1141–1209), who is often referred to simply as Niẓāmī (or Nezami, depending on the system of Romanisation one uses). Makhzan al-asrār (مخزن الاسرار) was written in around 1170 and is included as the first part of Niẓāmī’s Khamsa (خمسه), or ‘quintet’, comprising five narrative poems told in beautiful couplets. (The other four are Khusraw u Shīrīn, Laylā u Majnūn, Haft Paykar, and Iskandarnāmah.)
Niẓāmī was from Ganja, a city situated to the west of the Caspian Sea in what was then the Seljuk empire (Figure 1). Ganja is now in Azerbaijan, and over the last few decades — in fact since the Soviet period — Azeri nationalists have claimed, against all the evidence, that Niẓāmī was a great Azeri poet. He never thought of himself as such. Niẓāmī did not write in Azeri, nor in any other Turkic language, but in Persian. His father was Persian and his mother Kurdish. (These are all easily verifiable facts, but nationalists are not often known to deal in those.)
I will be using two manuscripts of Makhzan al-asrār in this post, and I’ll discuss those briefly below. I’ve also used Ḥasan Vaḥīd Dastgirdī’s 1934 edition for comparison; the lines I’m interested in can be found in the 28th section of Makhzan al-asrār, which can be found on page ۹۸ of Vaḥīd Dastgirdī’s text. This corresponds to couplet 1166 in Gholām Hosein Dārāb’s 1945 English translation of the work (p.171), the introduction to which can give you more information about the poet and his works than I have space for here.
The two manuscripts I’ve used as sources for the text below are both from the sixteenth century and thus date to several centuries after Niẓāmī’s death. One, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Elliott 192, was apparently copied in 1501 and features some lovely miniatures. The other, London, British Library, Or 12208, is a Mughal manuscript of Niẓāmī’s Khamsa copied and illustrated in India between 1593 and 1595. I chose these manuscripts because they have been digitised and because the nasta’līq calligraphy in both is lovely to look at. (I’m not a Persian specialist, and this isn’t an academic article, so that’s reason enough for me.) The illustrations in the two manuscripts are an added bonus (Figures 2 and 3):
Timurid miniatures like the one above are lovely, but the illustrations in British Library, Or 12208 — one of the few manuscripts to have its own Wikipedia page, incidentally — are something else. Or 12208 is not a medieval manuscript, at least according to my view of what ‘the Middle Ages’ means, but I recommend looking through the digitised version if you have the time. The calligraphy is fantastic but the illustrations are on another level. To wit (Figure 3):
A Couplet on Camphor
The pair of lines I want to look at here are unremarkable examples of Niẓāmī’s poetry, and are perhaps best read in the context of the larger work of which they form a part, but both mention camphor and thus are of interest to me on their own. Here they are in the two digitised manuscripts (Figures 4 and 5):
There’s a slight difference between the text as it appears in these manuscripts and as it appears in Vaḥīd Dastgirdī’s edition (and thus also in online sources on Niẓāmī’s oeuvre). I’ll discuss that below. The edited text looks like this:
آتش طبع تو چو کافور خورد
مشک ترا طبع چو کافور کرد
⟨ātish ṭabʻ to cho kāfūr khord
moshk to-rā ṭabʻ cho kāfūr kard⟩
In Dārāb’s translation this couplet is rendered thusly:
‘When camphor subdued the fire of thy nature,
It changed the nature of thy musk into that of camphor.’
I mentioned above, however, that the manuscripts differ from the edition. Specifically, in the second line in both manuscripts we find to (تو) ‘you, your (inf.)’ rather than cho (چو) ‘when; like’ after ṭabʻ (طبع), presumably making ‘your nature’ the subject of the verb (and not an absent ‘it’ — Persian being a pro-drop language). I assume cho is Niẓāmī’s original, but if we go with the wording in the two manuscripts instead, the translation would be something like this:
‘When camphor consumed your nature’s fire,
Your nature made your musk into camphor.’
That is to say: you have become old, and your dark, fragrant hair has turned white, matching the mellowing of your disposition. The meaning of the first line is probably related to the idea, common in the medieval world, that camphor was an exceptionally cold substance — an idea that we have come across before on this blog in a Greek context.
Vis and Ramin
As I said above, this link between camphor and silver hair was a conventional notion in medieval Persian poetry. Persian poets frequently depended on these sorts of stock images; Dick Davis gives a partial list of these in an appendix (p.517–519) to his wonderful 2008 translation of Vis and Ramin (ويس و رامين), a long narrative poem in couplets by Fakhr-al-Dīn Gorgānī (فخرالدين گرگانی, fl. c.1050), which was incidentally my first exposure to medieval Persian literature. (I found my old copy in my parents’ garage over the Christmas break, hence this sudden interest in Persian things.)
Vis and Ramin was a strong influence on Niẓāmī’s poetry, but you can find all the same images deployed by other medieval Persian poets, presumably drawing on a common inventory dating back, perhaps, to Sasanian times: Breasts are often ‘jasmine’; drops of blood are ‘pomegranate seeds’. Pearls typically stand for tears or teeth; roses represent flushed cheeks; and cypress trees are supposed to call to mind the ‘slender elegance’ of the human body. (These stock metaphors could apply to men and women indiscriminately, which, combined with the absence of gendered pronouns, lends a fascinating gender ambiguity to Persian love poetry.)
Camphor usually represented white hair, and was frequently paired with musk, which represented the hair of a young lover. But camphor could on occasion be put to other poetical purposes. I’m going to illustrate that here with a few examples from Davis’s brilliant rendition of Gorgānī’s Vis and Ramin (apologies: I couldn’t find a single digitised manuscript of the Persian text), like this distich:
‘Western and Chinese slaves, whose skin was white
Like camphor, and whose hair was black as night; […]’ (p.71).
In another couplet camphor appears again as a descriptor of white skin — Vis’s in this case, (cw: domestic violence) as she is beaten by her husband, King Mobad:
‘And soon his violent blows began to mar
The camphor of her flesh with cinnabar’ (p.233).
(Cinnabar, of course, being proverbially red.)
And in another pair ‘camphor’ describes the colour of a horse’s coat:
‘Ramin’s eyes rained down tears all night, all night
As if white camphor fell, his horse turned white’ (p.405)
Camphor hair does appear as a metonym of old age, however, towards the end of the story (when both Ramin and Vis age, unsurprisingly). ‘Jasmine-breasted Vis’ says, for instance, that:
‘My brightness has not dimmed; my musky hair
Has not turned camphor white yet with despair’ (p.428).
Sometimes camphor features in poetry as merely an expensive perfume like all the rest, with no apparent further implications. Here’s an example from a different (and somewhat later) writer, the fourteenth-century poetess Jahān Malik Khātūn (جهان ملك خاتون) (also translated by Davis — 2012:158):
‘And spring is here, the New Year’s here,
And brings to me
A fragrance that’s like pungent musk
‘What camphor, musk, and ambergris
Are mingled there
So that the scent resembles now
My lover’s hair.’
In any case, references to camphor appear to have been par for the course among medieval poets writing in Persian. There may be a pre-Islamic origin for the use of camphor in these tropes, but the fact that the word appears in the Qur’an may have had an impact as well (bearing in mind, too, that the New Persian word for ‘camphor’ had been influenced by the Arabic one).
As so often on this blog, my point here is simply that commodities from the Indo-Malaysian archipelago were meaningful to people and communities across Afro-Eurasia in the Middle Ages, and that the archipelago was an integral part of the medieval world. Camphor is after all a crystalline substance extracted from trees growing deep in Sumatran forests. That substances like these were part of the conventional stock of poetic images across Persian-speaking Eurasia is yet more evidence of the interconnectedness of the medieval world.
Dārāb, Gholām Hosein. 1945. Makhzanol asrār. The treasury of mysteries of Nezāmi of Ganjeh. London: Arthur Probsthain.
Davis, Dick (trans). 2012. Faces of love. Hafez and the poets of Shiraz. New York: Penguin Books.
Gorgani, Fakhraddin. 2008. Vis and Ramin. Dick Davis (trans). London: Penguin Books.
Vaḥīd Dastgirdī, Ḥasan. 1934. Makhzan al-asrār. Tehran: Maṭbaʻah-i Armughān.