Familiar Omens


Falnama Fortunetelling Sign of Universal Search for Answers

Is a life event or big decision weighing on your mind? The Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery has just the book to help — assuming you don’t mind advice from the 16th century.

The colorful, detailed pages on display from three rare Falnama manuscripts may have been created in the 1500s and 1600s in Iran and Turkey, but they contain messages relevant today, according to Massumeh Farhad, the museum’s chief curator and curator of Islamic art, who oversees the exhibit “Falnama: The Book of Omens.”

“Even though these were made 400 years ago, in many ways, people then have some of the same fears and concerns that we have today,” she said. “The Falnama advises you about when to go on a trip, about whether you should start a new business, or move to a new house, or get married or get divorced or send a child to school.”

The vibrant opaque watercolors on polished paper depict planets, zodiac signs, Abrahamic saints and Islamic prophets in ways intended to help advice-seekers make decisions. A person in limbo would recite ablutions and prayers before opening the manuscript to a random page. Between the image and the accompanying text, that person could divine guidance in support of or opposition to their concern.

“Many of the subjects, like Joseph, for example, are supposed to inspire you, inspire the way that you function and act in the world,” Farhad explained. “Joseph is known for his patience, so all the auguries that deal with Joseph talk about patience.”

In “Joseph Enthroned,” from mid-1550s Iran, the accompanying augury is indeed positive: Joseph will bring good things and the seeker has been freed from sorrows. Other omens are more, well, ominous.

“The auguries for Adam and Eve talk about bad company: You should beware bad company because they were deceived by Satan,” Farhad said, referring to “Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise,” painted by Nakkas Hasan Pasha around 1614-1616.

The books offer a list of omens open to the reader’s interpretation. “It says, ‘If you’re referring to this for travel, it’s good. If you want to buy a house, this is a good time to buy a house,’” Farhad said. “With the bad [signs], it goes through the same laundry list, but everything you want to do you shouldn’t do.”

Some versions of Falnama were popular among soothsayers who peddled their fortunetelling in the streets and marketplaces of Isfahan, Iran, and Istanbul, Turkey. But four “monumental” Falnama volumes — notable for their scale, bold compositions and brilliant color palette — were created for more affluent, courtly circles, and the exhibition has three of them (a fourth was too delicate to be moved).

Among the folios on display are 20 of the 29 best-known Falnamas, created during the mid-16th-century reign of Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasb, and never-before-seen images from a copy compiled by Kalender Pasha, a vizier at the court of Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I in the early 1600s.

The paintings in the Falnamas stand out not only for their beauty, detail and use of high-quality paints made of crushed gold, silver and lapis, but also for their size. With some as large as 22 inches by 17 inches, they dwarf illustrations in traditional books from this period and region. Although the reason for their size is unknown, Farhad has a few theories.

“All of them emphasize the image,” she said, intimating the need for more space. “With the Falnamas, what is different is no matter where you open the text, you have an image on the right and text on the left.”

Additionally, the time that the Falnamas were created was an unpredictable, uneasy one in the Islamic world, she noted. In the Islamic calendar, what we know as the 16th century is the 10th century. “How everybody was anxious about the arrival of the year 2000, the same thing in the Islamic world, the year 1000 was expected with a little bit of trepidation,” she said. “Perhaps these pictorial books of omens were in response to the coming of the millennium.”

The larger images also made divination easier, Farhad surmises. “All you needed to do was be able to read, and sometimes you didn’t need to read because you just saw the image, which was sort of the key. You saw the sun, it’s a good omen. If you see an image with a flame, a nimbus, it’s good. If you saw a monster, it’s not so good.”

The exhibit, the first ever dedicated to these works, bridges time and religious gaps. “Especially with the ones that deal with Abrahamic traditions, I think it’s very important to show that many of these religions have common roots — I mean Judaism, Christianity, Islam. I think that’s important and it’s something that we don’t necessarily think about or always remember,” Farhad said. “Whenever we look at non-Western art, we think, ‘Oh, it’s so different and unfamiliar. How can I even understand it?’ But when you make an effort and really look at the impetus behind why some of these works were created, you realize they’re not so different from the impetus that led to the creation of works that are more familiar.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.