Conference of the Birds

Guest blog by Joumana Medlej

The hoopoe symbolises the spiritual guide nudging the other birds to set out.

The “Conference of the Birds” is a 12th-century Sufi poem by Attar of Nishapur, that is a timeless parable of the mystical quest for the Truth. It features the hoopoe, a spiritual guide figure, leading the birds on a perilous search for their King, the mythical Simorgh. Each bird in turn makes an excuse for not setting out, until at last they are all ready to take part.

I have a deep love of birds, and painted this series out of a desire to create some illumination-inspired work, with traditional pigments and materials, and gold accents. Each bird is perched on a rendition of its Arabic name in the “Eastern Kufic” style, which was perfected in Persia, birth place of the poem. The text accompanying each bird is my own, trying to distil the essence of that particular passage in a form short enough to fit inside the halo.

The materials used were all historical and mostly hand-prepared: oakgall ink, egg tempera with mineral pigments(such as madder and lapis lazuli), and gold leaf.

The nightingale symbolizes deluded love (being enamored with the rose which neither cares nor lasts).

The goldfinch symbolizes false humility, claiming to be too small and weak to survive the road.

The falcon symbolizes ambition, and is content to be shackled in order to be on the king’s arm.

The duck symbolizes frivolous attachments, being more fixated on water itself than on the purpose of ablution.

The parrot symbolizes false immortality, and would rather stay safe in her cage and live forever.

The heron symbolizes misguided longing.

The osprey symbolizes pride and doesn’t feel he needs to bother looking for the Simorgh.

In the poem, the owl symbolizes the love of wealth.

The partridge symbolizes avarice as she lives for jewels and precious stones.

In the poem, the peacock symbolizes the hope for an illusory heaven.

Finally, the ringdove and an unnamed hesitant bird are separate. I combined them to symbolize indecision.

Joumana Medlej is a London-based French-Lebanese artist specialised in the calligraphy and art technology of the medieval Islamic period. She developed her own visual language out of the little-understood Kufi styles. You can see her work on and find prints of her Conference of the Birds series here. In her previous life as a co-author and illustrator of children’s books, she dedicated a volume to the Birds of Lebanon.

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