The Story of Bayad and Riyad

Qissat Bayad wa Riyad

The Andalusians were highly literate, and were well known for composing songs, poems, and stories, and for writing many books on manners, science, philosophy, and religion. But our knowledge of Andalusian manuscript illumination is unfortunately limited because large quantities of books suffered wholesale destruction in Spain on numerous occasions. For example, in 1499 Cardinal Xim´┐Żnez de Cisneros burned a veritable mountain of Arabic manuscripts in Granada on the assumption that anything written in Arabic had to be a Qur'an and therefore "a danger" to the Christian faith. But during wars among Muslim groups, many collections of books were destroyed as "collateral damage".

This wide destruction accounts for the absence today of manuscripts from western Dar al-Islam containing miniatures, compared to the relative abundance from Persia, Moghul India, and the Ottoman Empire. In fact, only three illustrated manuscripts are known to have survived from al-Andalus. One is a copy of the treatise on astronomy by Al-Sufi (died 986); the second is the 13th-century love story titled after its hero and heroine "Bayad and Riyad," and the third is a book of fables, "The Consolation of the Sovereign," illustrated by a Morisco (Muslim converted (probably forcibly) to Christianity) in the 16th century after the Reconquista.

There is only one surviving copy of the story of Bayad and Riyad (Qissat Bayad wa Riyad in Arabic), which is now in the Vatican Library (Ar. Ris. 368). And it is the only illustrated manuscript to have survived from high medieval al-Andalus. Thus it is crucial to the history both of literature and of visual arts in the Iberian Peninsula.

The manuscript, apparently missing the first few and last few pages, is written in Maghribi script. It is reputed to have been taken from the city of Tunis by the troops of Charles V. For these two reasons, some scholars have assumed it is a North African manuscript. More scholars, however, believe it to have been copied in al-Andalus sometime during the thirteenth century CE, probably the first half. Scholars continue to debate in what city this happened, possibly Sevilla, possibly another.

The story is a romance, focusing on the love of Bayad, a merchant's son and a foreigner from Damascus, for Riyad, a well educated slave girl in the court of an unnamed Hajib (vizier or minister) and his daughter, referred to simply as the Lady.

While composed entirely in Arabic, the story of Bayad and Riyad is an example of a form of hybrid literature, as is much of Spanish/Andalusian culture of the Middle Ages. It was clearly inspired by Arabic literature both contemporary and classical. However it also reflects themes similar to those popular in late twelfth- and thirteenth-century romance literature composed in European vernaculars, such as the several languages of Iberia as well as Provencal. Thus the manuscript displays some of the complexities of thirteenth-century Spanish/Andalusian culture. Scholars have yet to understand fully due, unfortunately, to the scant surviving examples of material culture other than architecture.

It is also an important source of information on Andalusian society itself. Most of the story is set in the palaces and gardens of a city in the 13th century. And within the story are frequent references to the culture of elegant society and the manners and habits of kings and nobles, so it could also have served as a book of manners. Additionally, throughout the book are love poems and songs, which suggests that it might have also functioned as a sort of songbook.

Some scholars think it belonged to a wealthy trader or some other member of the bourgeoisie. Illustrated manuscripts were expensive and this particular book must have been quite costly because it contains numerous images, many of which contain gold paint accents.

I am not certain how many illustrations are in the surviving manuscript. I have been able to locate seven of them.


Click on each thumbnail to see a larger picture

Bayad Listens
Here Bayad and the go-between converse.
Slave Girl Plays Oud

A slave girl, Shamul, sings and plays the oud in the garden of The Lady. The Old Woman (who is a narrator of the tale) and at least one man are in the audience.
Bayad Plays Oud

Bayad plays the oud to The Lady. Riyad is among the women.
Bayad by the water wheel

Bayad - a letter - the go-between
Is he handing it to her or receiving it from her?
Bayad faints

Bayad is overcome by his feelings
Bayad gets a letter

The go-between gives Bayad a letter from Riyad
The Lady

The Lady and her women. Is that Riyad face down in the front?

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