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<i>The Adventures of Hamza,</i> an Islamic Epic, on Display at  the Brooklyn Museum - 2002-11-06

A collection of legends, filled with stories of spying, abductions, hair raising chases and narrow escapes, recounts in larger than life form, the exploits of the Prophet Muhammad's uncle, Hamza. Once one of the most popular epics in the Islamic world, the Hamzanama is now featured in an exhibition of 58 paintings at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

The Hamzanama is the much embellished, beloved Persian story of Hamza, a hero akin to Robin Hood or Indiana Jones. Based on the prophet Muhammad's uncle who lived at the end of the 6th and early 7th centuries, the tale of Hamza recounts the imaginative and entertaining adventures of the Islamic hero.

In 1557 the Mughal emperor Akbar, who ruled much of what is now northern India, commissioned Persian and Hindu artists to create a great series of paintings illustrating the popular story.

Curator John Seyller says the emperor wanted to document the oral tales of Hamza and present them in a way that would appeal to adventurous people.

"The story, which is written on the back of these paintings, as you can see there, tells of many adversaries, some supernatural, fairies, and dragons, and things like this - for example, here, demons are attacking some hero, or in this case, Ummar has been snatched up by a dragon," he explains.

In the exhibition entitled The Adventures of Hamza, the Brooklyn Museum presents 58 of only 200 paintings believed to be in existence from this set. Senior Paper Conservator at the museum, Toni Owen, has examined almost all of the remaining paintings, a majority of which reside at the Austrian Museum of Art in Vienna.

"We are looking at one of four folios that the Brooklyn Museum owns of the Hamzanama," she said. "The thing that is interesting about these folios for us, from a technical point of view, one is the fact that they are painted on fabric, actually, instead of paper, and the other unusual thing about the Hamzanama folios, of course, is their dimension."

Ms. Owen says Indian painting in the 16th century tended to be on paper and the sizes were much smaller than the illustrated manuscripts of this Hamzanama series. Another thing she notes is unusual for these folios is the quantity of paintings made.

"It is believed that the project to produce these was to produce 1,400 folios - 14 volumes of 100 folios each - so 1,400 of these paintings we believe at one time existed," explained Mrs. Owen.

John Seyller says the epic was probably recited to a group rather than read in private, and that the storyteller was free to give it a particular flavor, departing from the text if he wanted. Mr. Seyller says the text varies from manuscript to manuscript and from language to language, but Hamza and the heroes certainly held their audiences captive.

"The kinds of things that happen - shipwrecks, kidnappings, things like this - they are the same kinds of adventures, travails, whatever, that give heroes an opportunity to prove their medal, to display their valor, and their resourcefulness," said Mr. Seyller.

The Adventures of Hamza will travel to London and Zurich before the paintings return to their home institutions. While Hamza may be adventurous, museum officials say the paintings themselves are delicate and should not travel for too long.