52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 50: the Book of Wonders
We have always referred to this manuscript (St Andrews ms32(o)) as the ‘book of wonders’ and indeed wondered what it was all about as it is lavishly and confusingly illustrated, packed with mysterious monsters and people doing strange things, but as it is written in Persian we could never be certain what it was all about. Now I have had the help of an Iranian student, Fatemeh Salimi, to try to make sense of it. While an Islamic art historian could tell a lot more about the images that I can, the illustrations are so fabulous that they are worth reproducing here even if I haven’t got their interpretation quite right.
The manuscript is actually incomplete parts of 2 works, bound together, the first being an abbreviated section of Haiyat al-Haiyawan حَياة الْحَيوان الكُبرى or Lives of the Animals, by Muhammad Ibn Musa Kamal Ad-din Al-Damiri (1341-1405). It is a compilation of works by many authors on the 931 animals mentioned in the Qur’an, including folklore, proverbs, lawfulness of hunting and eating, medical uses and meaning of names, the interpretation of dreams about each animal, and often a quirky miniature painting of one or many of the creatures in question. Some are recognisable, such as the foxes, cats, dogs, rabbits and goats; advice on pigeon keeping (doocot); the circle of elephants depicts the attack on Mecca by Abraha, king of Yemen, around 570, who brought his war elephants intending to destroy the Kaaba. The hoopoe, or huh-hud in Persian, introduced King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba and represents virtue. The snake wrapped around the world was evicted from paradise and can never be trusted.
Others are clearly imaginary or exist only in Muslim tradition, such as al-burāq, the famous mount with human face, horse’s mane, peacock tail and camel’s feet on which Muhammad ascended to heaven; the simurgh, a mythical bird with the head of a dog and lion’s claws; and the jinns with wings or with elephant, cat and rabbit heads.
The second part of the manuscript consists of extravagantly illustrated extracts from the ‘Wonders of the Seven Seas’ section of ‘Aja’ib al-makhluqat wa-ghara’ib al-mawjudat (Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing) by Abu Yahya Zakariya ibn Muhammad ibn Mahmud-al-Qazwini (ca. 1203-1283 CE), known as al-Qazwini. This cosmography was originally written in Arabic but often translated into Persian and Turkish and numerous manuscripts survive. The complete work deals with the heavenly sphere, combining astrology with astomony; then the earthly sphere and the 4 elements that make it up. Here we have only the section on wonders of the seas and seashores, showing the diverse and exotic inhabitants of many islands throughout the China and Indian seas. Island may also refer to a geographical region or feature rather than actually meaning island. Many of the seas and islands feature mythical giant birds, dragons, and curious hybrid creatures, fish with heads of owls or hedgehogs, a fish-rabbit and various animals with human heads. The animal-headed creatures are probably jinns or demons who lived in remote places such as islands, mountains and sea shores. There are kings, palaces, shrines, ships and beautiful women in the king’s harem on some islands, or available to buy on others. Other islands feature merchants, artisans, and bearded natives. One real named island is Cyprus – others may be real or imaginary.
Both works are compendia of what was known at the time, drawn from Greek, Roman and Islamic scholarship, with little original research by the compilers, but were very popular and helped to transmit the received wisdom of the times to later Islamic and Western academics.
Although the manuscript is in Persian, it was created and illustrated in India, probably in the 18th century – it bears no date or names of the copyist or artist. The style of illustrations and design of the 2 manuscripts are very similar and so probably came from the same artist’s workshop – perhaps the artist died or was not paid for any more work and the manuscripts were sold off as unfinished and incomplete. The texts may have been selected to bring to a Western audience, accounting for their partial nature, but not for their unfinished state. Whatever the reason for the volume being created, its wonderful drawings and paintings repay detailed study.
See another version of the Wonders of Creation by al-Qazwini here: