The whacky Dr Khalili


Alexander at the Waq-waq tree, 14 cm x 5.8 cm,
painting on paper from an unidentified historical work,
Shiraz, Iran, ca. 1440, Khalili Family Trust.

In the book three of The Adventures of Amir Hamza (a.ka. Hamzanama), Hamza encounters the Waqwaq tree:

Amir and his companions proceeded on their way and passed by the mountain range, plucking and sharing the fruit from the trees around it. As he stood under a mountain, looking for some place to spend the night, Amir heard a voice call out to him, "Peace be with you!" Amir heard these words without seeing who uttered them, and looking around he could not find anyone and saw no trace of the one who addressed him. Suddenly, his eyes caught sight of a tree that stood before him. He saw that the fruits of that tree were shaped liked human heads and that it was from that tree that the greeting had come, for God's will had arranged it thus. Amir marvelled to the limits of marveling at the work of God and returned the greeting, answering in the manner of the followers of the True Faith. Then the voice called out, "O Sahibqiran1, my name is Waq and once upon a time Sikander2 himself rested in my shade for the night. Just as I hosted him once, I will host you for this day and it will be a pleasure for me to arrange a feast for you. Pray stay here for the length of the night and enjoy the sights and sounds of this place."

After this conversation, a fruit fell into Amir's lap, which Amir carved and shared with Zehra Misri and the boys. He found the fruit tastier than any other fruit he had eaten in the past and it fully sated him. Amir then lay down under the tree. The whole night the tree and Amir conversed together and the tree regaled Amir with his sweet speech. [...]

[...] Amir asked the tree, "O tree, tell me when I will die." The tree answered, "When Ashqar's3 hooves lose all their shoes, you should recognize that it is time for you to leave the world. Know then that your cup of life has become full up and that twilight is nigh. But a long time lies between now and that day!" In that manner Waq the tree and Amir Hamza conversed together the whole night.

The Waq-waq tree, sometimes said to grow on Waq-waq Island, is an ancient motif in Arabic and Iranian art and literature. It appears in many texts as well as in miniature paintings, tapestries, vases, and carved wooden boxes; many can be seen in a publication from the Louvre museum called L'Etrange et le Merveilleux en terres d'Islam. In Arabic, Waq-waq has become a common saying: "He's from Waqwaq land" stands for "He's mighty weird".

Reports someone on a forum:

There is 6-page entry on Waqwaq in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, mainly a debate amongst oriental scholars as to whether Waqwaq referred to a real island, say, Madagascar or Japan, or whether it was purely imaginary: 'Waqwaq referred to a country just beyond one's reach in the general direction of the east' or 'some island a little off the usual path of Arab traders'. In Arabian Nights, Hasan al-Basri is told by his guide, 'You could not gain access to the Islands of Waqwaq even if the Flying Jinn and the wandering stars assisted you, since between you and those islands are seven valleys, seven seas and seven mountains of vast magnitude'.

There are many groups of stories relating to the Waqwaq tree, for example it appears in a Chinese text, the T'ung-tien of Tu Huan, written between AD 766 and 801 and based on an earlier Arabic text in the K.al-Bad' wa 'l-ta'rikh of al-Mutahhar al-Makdisi. In the story given by Tu Huan the tree bears a crown of small children instead of fruit with human faces. In some versions the fruit of the Waqwaq tree ripens into shapely human females hanging by their hair; eventually these fruit fall to the ground, crying 'Waqwaq'; this gives the tree its name. The women can never leave the shadow of the tree. The talking Waqwaq tree with human heads also appears in the Alexander Romance as 'the transformed oracular Tree of the Sun and Moon which is reputed to have told Alexander of his approaching death'.


The Khalili Family Trust has a rather stingy slide-show (why oh why do they all do this?) of their many truly marvelous pieces here. Their (pricey) books, which apparently cover the whole collection may be much more worth looking at. There is currently a show of Khalili's enamel collection at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg; but it's website has pictures which are only marginally larger, like this:

Two vases, Circa 1910, Attributed by Kawade Shibataro, Nagoya
Copper, silver wire cloisonne enamel with some silver foil, silver mounts

No wonder the modern world dwells in the darkness of ugliness, "edgy design" and conceptual art: it pretty much never gets the chance to see anything pretty; as soon as something pretty surfaces, it is snatched by a collector and locked up.

It's a conspiracy.

1 Sahibqiran - A title of Hamza's meaning "Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction."
2 Alexander the Great.
3 Ashqar - Hamza's enchanted horse.


Andrew W. said...

Hey, conceptual art can be pretty! But yes, isn't it part of the trouble with beauty that as soon as we discover something beautiful we want to hide it from everyone else?

Sir G said...

Of course it can be! (There is no law against it). So - why isn't it? :)

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