Behold Fantastical Illustrations from the 13th Century Arabic Manuscript Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing

Reli­gion, his­to­ry, med­i­cine, poet­ry, ethnog­ra­phy, zool­o­gy, cos­mol­o­gy, polit­i­cal philosophy—in many a medieval text, these cat­e­gories all seem to melt togeth­er. Or rather, they don’t exist sep­a­rate­ly in the way we think of them, as labels on a library shelf and cours­es in a cat­a­logue. The same log­i­cal rules do not apply—the appeal to author­i­ty, for exam­ple is not a fal­la­cy so much as a pri­ma­ry method­ol­o­gy. If knowl­edge came from the right prophet, schol­ar, or sage, it could be trust­ed, a mode of think­ing that gave rise to mon­sters, phan­toms, and out­landish beings of all kinds.

It’s easy to call these meth­ods prim­i­tive, but so-called medieval ways of think­ing are still very much with us, and thinkers hun­dreds and thou­sands of years ago have had sur­pris­ing­ly sci­en­tif­ic approach­es, despite lim­it­ed resources and tech­nolo­gies.

We find both the fan­tas­ti­cal and the sci­en­tif­ic woven togeth­er in medieval man­u­scripts, illu­mi­nat­ing and com­ment­ing on each oth­er. And we find exact­ly that in the works of Abu Yahya Zakariya’ ibn Muham­mad al-Qazwi­ni, Per­sian writer, physi­cian, astronomer, geo­g­ra­ph­er, and author of a 13th cen­tu­ry trea­tise called ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt, or Mar­vels of Things Cre­at­ed and Mirac­u­lous Aspects of Things Exist­ing.

This work is “the most well-known exam­ple,” writes the Nation­al Library of Med­i­cine, “of a genre of clas­si­cal Islam­ic lit­er­a­ture that was con­cerned with ‘mirabil­ia’ or won­ders of cre­ation.” Draw­ing on 50 dif­fer­ent authors, includ­ing sev­er­al ancient Islam­ic geo­g­ra­phers and his­to­ri­ans, Qazwi­ni weaves myth, leg­end, and sci­ence, tying them togeth­er with sto­ries and poet­ry. The Qur’an and hadith are sig­nif­i­cant sources—for a sec­tion on “angelol­o­gy,” for exam­ple. When the cos­mog­ra­phy comes down to earth, mov­ing down through the ranks of humans, beasts, plants, and min­er­als, all sorts of weird, folk­loric ter­res­tri­al crea­tures show up.

The phoenix (or Simurgh), for exam­ple, and the Homa, or par­adise bird—which lands on someone’s head and instant­ly makes them king—sit com­fort­ably next to eagles, vul­tures, and ostrich­es, all of which are con­strued as mar­velous or mirac­u­lous in some way.

The trea­tise cov­ered all the won­ders of the world, and the vari­ety of the sub­ject mat­ter (humans and their anato­my, plants, ani­mals, strange crea­tures at the edges of the inhab­it­ed world, con­stel­la­tions of stars, zodi­a­cal signs, angels, and demons) pro­vid­ed great scope for the artist.

First writ­ten in Ara­bic in the late 1200s and ded­i­cat­ed to the gov­er­nor of Bagh­dad, the man­u­script was “immense­ly pop­u­lar” in the Islam­ic world. It was trans­lat­ed into Per­sian and Turk­ish and copied out in rich­ly illus­trat­ed edi­tions for cen­turies. The images here come from a Per­sian trans­la­tion, “thought to hail from 17th-cen­tu­ry Mughal India,” writes The Pub­lic Domain Review, and the art vivid­ly dis­plays the “eclec­tic mix of top­ics” in al-Qazwini’s book. These were sub­jects that “chal­lenged understanding”—often because they con­cerned things that do not exist, and often because they described nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non that could not yet be explained.

“From humans and their anato­my to strange myth­i­cal crea­tures; from plants and ani­mals to con­stel­la­tions of stars and zodi­a­cal signs,” The Pub­lic Domain Review explains, the trea­tise pur­port­ed to sur­vey all the “known” world. Al-Qazwi­ni embell­ished his explo­rations for enter­tain­ment pur­pos­es, but he also cre­at­ed exten­sive tax­onomies and described prac­ti­cal sci­ence like the use of “a type of pitch or tar that we today know as asphalt,” San Francisco’s Asian Art Muse­um notes in their cat­a­logue descrip­tion of anoth­er illus­trat­ed man­u­script, in Ara­bic, from 1650. For al-Qazwi­ni and his read­ers, as for oth­er 13th-cen­tu­ry schol­ars, writ­ers, and read­ers around the world, the bound­aries between faith, fact, and fic­tion were per­me­able, and imag­i­na­tion some­times seems to have been the ulti­mate author­i­ty.

via The Pub­lic Domain Review 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

700 Years of Per­sian Man­u­scripts Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

The Com­plex Geom­e­try of Islam­ic Art & Design: A Short Intro­duc­tion

Learn Islam­ic & Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy with 107 Episodes of the His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps Pod­cast

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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