Plato, describing the ideal state, dreamed that this utopia would be led by philosophers and poets and that power would belong to “noble fiction”… The life of Ali Shir Nava’i is a vivid illustration of Plato’s thesis about the use of this world order.
For several years, Nava’i was the right hand of Husayn Bayqarah, the ruler of Khorasan, who was also a poet and wrote under the pseudonym of Husayni. Nava’i stood too close to the throne and it is worth pondering what came out of this dramatic rapprochement.
His true name was Nizam-al-Din Mir Ali Shir. Nava’i is a pseudonym, which in Farsi means “melodic.” He also had another pen name, Fani. Unlike the former, it is translated as “perishable, mortal.” The righteous Time has established the one that was true, Nava’i.
He was born to a noble family in the blessed Herat, an influential cultural center of the Medieval East, the motherland of fine arts – music, calligraphy, Persian miniatures, ornament, court poetry and fancy architecture. His father was a high-ranking official from the Timurid elite (the descendants of Emir Timur) and he raised his son among Khorasan’s crown princes. It was there that the two boys, Ali Shir and Husayn, the future shah, became friends.
The talent of Nava’i blossomed early; at the age of 15 he already was recognized as a poet and was expected to become famous. But the sweet-voiced bard was since his young years concerned with the philosophy of existence, problems of life and death, and because of that he chose the most ascetic out of the philosophical trends of his era, the path of a dervish, a Sufi school of pauper prophets from the Naqshbandi order. And he lived at court sticking to the austere ethics of abstinence – he observed the vow of chastity and didn’t have a harem.
Ali Shir Nava’i spent his young years in the solitude of soul and thought, first in Herat, then in Mashhad and Samarqand. The purpose of his life was creation and his poetic legacy is huge – thousands of verses, dozens of big poems and poem collections. To this abundance, we should add several big philosophic treatises and linguistic works on the problems of poem composing, as well as historical treatises on the history of Iranian kings and the lives of oriental prophets
It seemed that his entire life would pass in the solitude of the paradise of his imagination, but in April 1472, Samarqand was seized by the army of Sultan Husayn, the one who had been the poet’s friend since childhood, and he asked Nava’i to stand by him at his throne. The victorious ruler appointed the poet keeper of the seal, gave him the title of emir and the position of vizier. In fact, he became the ruler’s right hand. Judging by the documents that have remained from those times, Ali Shir Nava’i coped with the state affairs fairly well and ruled Khorasan alongside Shah Husayn for almost 15 years, focusing on developing culture, supporting poetry and art, glorifying Herat, where he supervised the construction of madrasahs, mosques, libraries, baths and caravanserais. And, of course, support was offered to musicians, calligraphers, artists, translators, writers and historians…
It would seem that everything proved Plato’s thesis – power held by the “noble fiction” was for the good of a state. However, in 1487, the relation between the shah and the vizier broke off. The reason has not survived till our day. According to some vague rumors, Ali Shir was defamed by jealous court nobilities. Punishment at the oriental court was extremely cruel, but the sultan spared his friend and sent him to honorable exile, making him the ruler of the remote province of Astarabad. Ali Shir returned from there in a year, fully gave up power and received from the shah a firman on his discharge and permission to live in Herat without carrying out court functions.
The great poet and dervish spent the rest of his life in the solitude of sweetvoiced poetry and gloomy temporality of thought, focusing on his last poems and treatises, “Instructions of the Old Age”, “Collection of the Genteel”, “Lover of the Heart” and “The Language of Birds.”
A wise man’s spiritual life is complicated and huge. Nava’i made a true language revolution. Before him, Farsi – Persian – was considered the only language worth a poet. Nava’i, however, refuted this dogma and created sweetvoiced verses in his native Turkic, Chagatay (ancient Uzbek), which before him had never been thought of as suitable for poetry. Similarly, in the time of Mozart, the German language fought for the right to sing opera, where Italian dominated.
Here we need to take a break and look at the language landscape of that time.
Before Islam, the entire nomadic culture of Central Asia spoke in Turkic languages. It was the speech of cavalry, the folklore of night marches, its earliest written monument being The Penitential Prayer of the Manichaeans written in ancient Uyghur. Further development of literature was sporadic and chaotic. The arrival of Islam was marked not only by the victory of Timur, who became the leader of Ma Wara’un-Nahr, the union of Muslim states and peoples of Central Asia, but also by the complete triumph of Farsi, the Persian language that became the main language of the new empire and a model for all other tongues, whose “low” speech was deemed harsh, brutal and void of any poetic qualities.
Samarqand became the first center of the new empire, and Herat -- the native town of Ali Shir Nava’i – the second. Having perfectly mastered Farsi, Ali Shir created a lot of wonderful works in Persian, such as the poem collection Treasury of Thought in the genre of gazal. The poet included four periods of life in it, childhood, youth, manhood and old age: “Wonders of Childhood,” “Rarities of Youth,” “Wonders of Manhood” and “Instructions of Old Age.” He celebrated the ordinary feelings of love, loyalty and friendship with a Sufi pressure, turning poetry into mystic ecstasy of a spiritual confession.
Still, the crown of his poetry were masterpieces written in Chagatay. It is the Hamsa, or The Quintet, a collection of five epic poems. It includes the moral didactic poem Wonders of Good People, the heroic action dastans Layli and Majnun, Farhad and Shirin, Seven Planets and The Wall of Iskander.
Moreover, Ali Shir Nava’i chose an unusual way to prove that Chagatay was melodic and suitable for poetry: he re-wrote Nezami’s great poems in it! This fact later made some philologists to doubt the value of The Quintet, and some researches even decided that Nava’i was just a Nezami translator.
But they were wrong. On the contrary, accepting his great predecessor’s challenge, Ali Shir Nava’i chose the most intricate way to prove his point – he wrote a new text above the original, where the beauty of Farsi was molded in Turkic. The poet dipped his hands in the Golestan waterfall and drank the ambrosia. Repeating the plot outline of the original, he introduced his own accents, reinterpreting the story or giving another meaning to events and characters. The best example of such a change is the poem Farhad and Shirin. In Nezami’s work, the events center around Shah Khosrau, but Nava’i makes Farhad, an ideal epic athlete, the embodiment of Allah’s righteous force, his poem’s main character.
Nava’i finished his Quintet with the poem The Wall of Iskander, in which with the bitterness of a prophet he described the ideal image of a ruler (as if taking up from Plato!) who follows the rules of justice, thus setting off the injustice of the existing mundane authorities.
As a result, the poet won: Turkic was recognized as equal to Farsi for the richness of its vocabulary and flexibility. But even the winner, the poet, which stood so close to the throne, was unable to found a just kingdom. Pondering on the life of the court poet, thinking of the linguistic problems of his work, one cannot but wonder what worried Europe or, for example, Russia in that distant 15th century?
Well, the answer is not far away… In 1441, when Nava’i was born, in Europe began the era of Guttenberg, the dawn of book printing; at the same time, Italian Fra Angelico painted the fresco Deposition of Christ, philosopher Nicholas of Cusa completed the treatise De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance), in which he proved the supremacy of dark intuition over rational cognition, and Brunnelleschi built his masterpiece, Palazzo Pitti, in Florence. And Russia… alas, it was sinking in the mire of feuds, with Princes of Galicia fighting those of Muscovy, Vasily Kosoy against Vasily II. The only memorable historic event was the return to Moscow of Metropolitan Isidor, who was invited to the Florentine convocation and brought to the Grand Prince its decision on uniting the Catholic and Orthodox churches under the Pope. Moscow rejected the decision and banished the metropolitan.
Given this, the exquisite intellectual tasks of developing Turkic, the issues of verse composing Nava’i raised in his treatise Scales of Meters would seem a cloud of golden dreams to Moscow.
But by the end of his life in 1501, at the beginning of the new, 16th, century, Russia already had something to boast and could offer the humankind an equally exquisite fruit. It was monk Dionisius, a genius icon painter, who at the same time painted the Our Lady’s Church in the Ferapont Monastery (now protected by UN ESCO) on the other end of the world. The great artist used the language of painting to express his ingenious opinion of the fate of Christ and Virgin Mary: he celebrated only joy and happiness, discarding the suffering!
Dionisius’s sunny note was close to the Ali Shir’s perception of the world. Himself an ascetic and dervish, he praised the joys of life in his verses:
The chalice, reflecting the sun, showed me the right path.
And I heard a voice speaking, “Your friend is reflected in wine.”
In the chalice of my heart, there is the image of my friend, but also the rust of sadness,
Pour generously moisture in the chalice, and I will be cured.
If there is such a chalice, it is worth a hundred worlds.
These lines by Nava’i surprisingly fit the general movement of human spirit in the Middle Ages. Thinker Nicholas of Cusa reflected on the supremacy of simple truths above fruitless philosophizing, a Russian icon painter celebrates the happiness of Christ and paints the sunny world of Palestine in a winter cathedral on the verge of a snowy desert, and an oriental poet and Sufi dervish praises “wine of wisdom.”
After Nava’i’s death, his fame grew only stronger; 500 years later, a city was named after him in Uzbekistan. There are monuments to him in Moscow, Navoi, Tashkent and Tokyo, and new ones will soon be built in Baku and Washington. His name was given to a crater on Mercury, the planet that is closest to the sun. It was not for nothing that he wrote, “The sun poured fire in my cup… It must want something from me…”