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Michael Barry: “The Canticle of the Birds” – Part 1

Part 1 of two part video. Professor Michael Barry discusses the Canticle of the Birds at Stanford University on February 5, 2019.

The Iranian mystic `Attâr’s magnificent early 13th-century Persian-language Sufi epic in verse, the Manteq-ot-Tayr or “Canticle of the Birds”, tells of the quest of all the world’s birds, symbolizing human souls, to find the mythical Sun-Bird (Sîmorgh) to be their ruler.

In 1487, Sultan Husayn Mîrzâ of Herât (in what is now Afghanistan) commissioned the world’s most beautiful manuscript of the poem illustrated by the finest artists in his kingdom including the renowned Master Behzâd. Still more paintings were added in 1609 in Esfahân, by command of Shâh `Abbâs, for presentation of the manuscript to the royal Safavid family shrine in Ardabîl. Today the priceless manuscript—a showcase of glorious Persian painting—is preserved in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lecture with slides explores the deep symbolic links between the text and its images, uncovering the precise allegorical code of classical “Persian miniatures.”

Dr. Michael Barry, fluent in Persian and a scholar of Arabic, was born in New York City in 1948 but raised in France and writes in both English and French, winning many literary prizes in both. He holds higher degrees from Princeton, Cambridge, McGill, and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Dr. Barry is recognized as a leading authority on Islamic art and also on Afghanistan—a country where his work over five decades has ranged from anthropological research to coordinating humanitarian assistance and where he is now Distinguished Professor at the American University in Kabul. He previously taught for thirteen years at his alma mater, Princeton, while also advising layouts for the new Islamic galleries at the New York Metropolitan Museum and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

His published work on `Attâr’s poem received the Prize for Art History from the Académie Française in 2013 and, in 2014, the World Book Award on Persian Civilization from the National Academy of Iran. Afghanistan’s authorities just awarded Dr. Barry their 2018 Avicenna Prize “for promoting inter-cultural dialogue and peace.”

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