An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe: The Book of Curiosities.

Author:Walker, Paul E.
Position:Book review

An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe: The Book of Curiosities. Edited and translated by YOSSEF RAPOPORT and EMILIE SAVAGE-SMITH. Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science, vol. 87. Leiden: BRILL, 2014. Pp. xii + 698, illus. $289, [euro]223.

In 2002 the Bodleian Library, Oxford, acquired a new Arabic manuscript of quite unusual importance, a major find well worth its substantially high price of [pounds sterling]400,000. This relatively short work consists of only forty-eight folios, some of which, however, contain unique maps and illustrations from a fairly early period. The treatise itself, which does not mention an author and is therefore so far anonymous, carries the title Kitab Gharaib al-funun wa-mulah al-uyun, which the editors translate as "The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes." Subsequent study of this text went on to establish and then confirm over and over again how significant it was for, first of all, the history of cartography, with its detailed maps such as the one of the Mediterranean, but others as well, all but otherwise unknown. As an example in the genre of books of geography and of curiosities, it also stands out with its own special significance. Finally, it can claim a remarkable place among the historical remnants of the Fatimids and their empire as somehow a product of the rich intellectual tradition they created in Egypt at the time of its composition.

The treatise contains two parts (sing, maqal). The first, comprising ten chapters (fusul), deals with the heavens; the second treats the earth in twenty-five chapters. There is a tremendous quantity of information packed into the few pages devoted to each chapter, often as notations on a chart or a map, but also in sections of exposition associated with a given item. Exactly what is covered, however, is itself here and there a curiosity. The first section includes material about the form of the universe, zodiacal constellations, stars, and occult influences, comets, obscure stars, planets (including their association with ominous and propitious events), and the blowing of winds. The second section covers such matters as the form of the earth, its size, and inhabited and uninhabited areas. Here we find several of the most interesting maps, including one of the whole earth, and lists and discussions of such topics as cities of the remote regions (chapter five); various seas, cities, and fortresses around the shores of the Indian...

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