Sunday, February 14

Book Review: The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes

Sorry about this, but this book review is a tad late compared to the time the book was published. It is estimated that the book is a copy of an original work compiled and copied by unknown authors somewhere in the 11th century in Egypt. This copy is roughly dated to approximately 12th or 13th century and refers to work done by a variety of astronomers, historians, scholars, travellers, cartographers and scribes from the 9th to the 11th century. It is currently available in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, UK and its reference shelf mark number is Bodleian Library, Dept. of Oriental Collections, MS. Arab. c. 90.

The original book contained 5 separate books, only two of which have been copied in the current book. The first book relates to astronomy and has 10 chapters. The second book relates to the earth and has 25 chapters. Totalling 96 pages, it measures 324 x 245 mm. Unfortunately, there have been some losses of chapters in the second book. The paper used is brownish and black ink has been used to write the text and red ink for the headings. There are also other versions and copies of the original book in various other places such as in Cairo, Milan, Mosul, Algiers and another copy in the Bodleian Library.

Here is the full table of contents. As can be seen, book 1 talks about the celestial sphere, zodiacal signs, constellations, stars with occult influences, comets, stars with bad and good influences, planets and their influences / properties, lunar aspects etc.

Here’s a screen shot of the celestial sphere. The sections on the outermost circle relate to constellation signs like Aries, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, etc. Left is the eastern horizon and the right side is the western horizon (remember the centre for the writer is Cairo). Then the next circle inside relates to the major stars, constellations, and bodies such as Ursa Major, Cepheus, Lupus, Orion, etc. Then comes what looks to me like a monthly cycle around zodiacal signs and then the central circle talks about the earth’s seven climes which are aligned to the zodiacal signs. I have absolutely no idea about this detail, but it looks quite impressive.

This page shows details of comets and their properties.

Book 2 talks about the depiction of the earth and time zones, lands beyond the equator, the Arabian Peninsula, cities, seas, islands and other geographical entities, the cities and forts along the Indian ocean, the eastern Mediterranean sea and the cities/forts along the sea shore, the Caspian Sea, various other islands, lakes, rivers, fishes and animals of the seas, and then wondrous waters, plants and animals.

This is how the ancients looked at the world. This is the world map.

You have to put aside your current cartographic perspective to read this map. In the old days, a particular spot which was well known then, would become the centre of the map. So for example, Jerusalem was, for many many centuries, the centre of the map and everything else would be drawn with reference to that single location. Also, cartographically speaking, you will not measure distances and locations by latitude or longitude but by the distance travelled from the centre. As with everything, accuracy of places and diagrams was maximum closer to the centre. This map is actually somewhat oriented with geographical south in the top. In the centre you have the Nile Delta and the River Nile flowing up into the Mountain of the Moon and the Sudan. On the far right is Morocco. The bit in the bottom right quadrant is Europe with Constantinople, Spain, France, and Italy marked out. On the bottom left quadrant is Asia and Central Asia. See the two round fingers in the top left quadrant? They are supposed to be the Arabian Gulf with Mecca and the second finger is a mix of India and Iran. The round spot between the 2 fingers is Sri Lanka. The little edge on the far left is China. The blue lines indicate rivers. Deserts are marked and so are mountains. Pretty fascinating.

The text also has lots of maps of the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Caspian, Scicily, Madina, Tinnis, Cyprus, Aegean Bays, etc., and then maps of rivers. Some of the explanations of marvelous sea creatures are very fascinating such as:

فهولا المشوهه خلقهم من تلك الامم فمنهم امة سكان بحر / برهاندين [؟] في بحر الهند ي15سُود الوُجُوه كخلق عادية واقدامهم من خلف أعقابهم مقدار الذراع شمط الشعور مرد الوجوه / طوالها ياكلون من وقع ياليهم من الرجال ويستبقون النسا ي

English translation:
Of these nations, the deformed peoples are the following: Creatures in the Sea of Barhāndīn [?]
7 in the Indian Ocean. They have black faces, like normal humans, but their feet are turned backwards and are a cubit long. Their hair is grey, and their faces long and beardless. They eat any man who falls in their hands, and they share their women.

The map of Indian ocean was brilliant

It talks about two cities in India, Thaneswar, Dipalpur and then 3 additional unnamed cities. All these cities are separated by various rivers which rise in various mountains. They even mention Manila in here, showing how far the Arab sea farers fared in their voyages. It was difficult for me to conceptualise and mentally visualise these maps. It's so foreign to me, the current cartographic framework so settled in my mind, with the globe and Mercator projections that this kind of 2 dimensional, directionally challenged mapping was just so strange.

Interestingly they also talk about the infidel Turks. I am guessing they are referring to the Turks and Mongols. I think the Mongols heard that the Muslims in Fatimid Cairo were calling them Infidels and in 1258, the Mongols invaded the Arab lands pretty much destroying the Arab civilisation. Many draw the decline of Muslim civilisation from that event.

Here’s a circular map now:

South is at the top, West to the right and East to the left. Remember this is following on from ancient Egyptian times. The Nile River is one of the very few rivers in the world which flow to the north, for some strange reason, most rivers flow east / west or to south, very few flow to the north. So when the Egyptians would look at the river which provided them with their water, life and sustenance, they would look south. So for them the south direction was most important. Hence “Upper” Egypt. All Egyptian maps, till recently, were all oriented South on top. Sort of made me have a cricked neck, but it is a fascinating exercise to think how we are so accustomed to think north is top, and when something like this happens, you get all confused. It's like seeing the water circle the other way around when going down the toilet when you are in the south. You look at it but dont know what’s wrong.

The website is seriously flaky in term of performance, although it is well laid out. It took me 2 days to complete this review and this was after trying to connect over 20 times. I was not very happy with it but still, one day I will go to Oxford and see if I can sniff at it. There is something about old books and their smell which appeals to me. All in all, this document which is now free and freely accessible to everybody in the world with a net connection (when the site is up of course), is one of the world’s treasures. I strongly suggest you go take a peek at the book here.

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