Siyer-i Nebi: The Life of the Prophet

Around the end of the 14th Century, a Mevlevi dervish who came to the palace of Sultan Berkuk, the Mameluke ruler in Cairo, undertook an important duty, At the wish of the Sultan, Mustafa son of Yusuf from Erzurum was to write the book Siyer-i Nebi, in which once again the life of the Muslim Prophet would be invoked and the subject would once again be made into an epic.

Mustafa son of Yusuf from Erzurum was blind, and for that reason he was known by the epithet Darir, which means "sightless".

In the presence of St. Ayse, Archangel Gabriel (peace be upon him)
brings the Word of God to the Prophet Muhammed.

Darir completed his book around 1388. Whatever there was known about the Prophet Mohammed was revealed in this work expressed in magnificent Turkish. Another monumental work of Islamic culture had -like the Iliad of the Greeks- appeared.

The author based his work on a book by an Arab poet named Vakidi. Nevertheless, he made use of the heavy accumulation of culture, even extending to pre-Islamic Arabic legends. The text which he wrote he enriched with verses and hadith from the Koran.

The work in its entirety is a story of true belief, which no one, not the person who put together the epic, nor the person who ordered it, nor the exalted personages who were the source of its explanation, was excluded from. As is the case in all written documents left by civilisztions throughout the world, the matter was far more a social action than the creation of a type of literature.

The Work is Illustrated

Indeed, the action continued; two hundred years after Darir completed his work, the Ottoman ruler Murad III (1574-1595) ordered his artists in the Palace to illustrate the epic.

The cultural level attained by the Ottoman Palace at that point was not at all unlike that in Berkuk's palace in Cairo two centuries earlier. For this reason, the artists of the Ottoman Palace made a contribution to the work of the blind Mevlevi dervish whose hand was guided by Berkuk at least as powerful as his own.

In the workshops of the Ottoman Palace, of which Lutfi Abdullah was in charge, the epic Siyer-i Nebi by Darir of Erzurum was now about to earn another degree of merit.

The work initiated by Murad III was completed during the reign of Mehmed III who followed him, and ended up to be six volumes. The text was illustrated from beginning to end in miniatures, and achieved a richness which was dazzling. According to the accounting records, 814 miniatures were made for which the artists were paid money.

The illustration of Siyer-i Nebi by Darir of Erzurum two hundred years after it was written was concluded on 16 January 1595. Most likely there was much talk about the work at that time and much written. Quite a few believers must have been unable to conceal their amazement when confronted by it. This point is unknown.

The heated renewed discussions about Siyer-i Nebi for some reason or other happen to occur in recent years.

This time however, they are taking place not in palace circles or among rulers and believers, and not even among art enthusiasts, but rather in the "art market".

The work written in 14th Century Cairo and illustrated in 16th Century Istanbul, has turned up recently in 20th Century Paris, where mention began to be made of Siyer-i Nebi in "antique markets", the fastest lane of the world of art.

For Sale in Paris

The auction hall of Drouot, located in Paris, the capital of France, had announced that it would be holding an important sale at 2:30 P.M. on 23 March 1984. Those who gathered on that day at the place indicated found themselves looking at four Turkish miniatures. These works had been removed from the book Siyer-i Nebi, a portion of which was in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Other sales followed the one in Drouot. Sotheby's in London and Ader Picard Tajan in Paris also joined the race. At the same time the fallout from the event also reached our country. Some newspapers made mention of the sales, thus gaining currency for the subject. This was the first time such a thing was being talked about in Turkey. Meanwhile, a book was published by Zeren Tanindi, one of the experts at Topkapi Palace. Also entitled Siyer-i Nebi, the book provided enlightenment indeed for Turkish art circles.

Thus Turkish art circles heard of Siyer-i Nebi, which was once again a subject of discussion, having for a long time remained during the six hundred years of its history out of the limelight, and acquired information about it.

This miniature, which was removed from Volume IV of Siyer-i Nebi, 
was sold for 120,000francs at Drouot in Paris on 18 March 1985. 
A year later it was put up for sale again on 14 April, but the work's price 
did not go over FF 200,000 and it went unsold. The owner been hoping for 
FF 300,000. The miniature shows the Prophet Mohammed after the 
Battle of Badr. 

In the end, what has been learned is this; of the six volumes of the work, Volumes I, II and VI are in the Topkapi Museum; Volume III is in the New York Public Library; Volume IV is in the Chester Beatty Library in London. Nearly twenty miniatures extracted from Volume IV are in private hands, and it is these miniatures which are being traded in and are changing hands on the antique market.

Latest Sales Not Good

One miniature removed from Volume IV of Siyer-i Nebi failed to find a buyer at the auction hall of Drouot in Paris on 14 April 1986. Experts do not look with favour on the fact that this miniature which had so recently changed hands should have been placed on the market again. This is one of the secrets of the antique market. Lucien Arcache, an expert on Islamic art had this miniature which depicts the Prophet Mohammed after the Battle of Badr.

This miniature, which had previously been sold for FF 120.000 on 18 March 1985, failed this time to find a buyer. The implication of this is that investments made for the short term do not always achieve the same merit in the salons.

We should add that the owner of the miniature, which reached a price of FF 200,000 at the sale, did not wish to sell it; he had been hoping for TL 300,000.

Source: Antika, The Turkish Journal Of Collectable Art , June 1986 Issue:15