The Book of Curiosities Project

In June 2002, the Bodleian Library acquired a unique manuscript of a hitherto unknown Arabic cosmographical treatise, the Kitab Ghara’ib al-funun wa-mulah al-‘uyun, loosely translated as The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes. The manuscript is a copy, probably made in Egypt in the late 12th or early 13th century, of an anonymous work compiled in Egypt between 1020 and 1050. It is extraordinarily important for the history of science, especially for astronomy and cartography, and contains an unparalleled series of diagrams of the heavens and maps of the earth.

The acquisition of the Book of Curiosities was made possible by donations from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Arts Collections Fund, the Friends of the Bodleian Library, ARAMCO (Saudi Arabia), and several Oxford colleges as well as some individual donors. These donations also provided funds for the conservation, pigment analysis, and digitisation of the manuscript; the exhibition of the manuscript for the general public; the preparation of a school teacher’s pack based on portions of the manuscript; and the creation of website dedicated to its full publication. The project (now partially funded as well by the AHRC) to fully edit, translate, and analyse the manuscript is being conducted by Prof. Emilie Savage-Smith and Dr. Yossef Rapoport, with the collaboration of Prof. Jeremy Johns. The newly established Khalili Research Centre for the Art & Material Culture of the Middle East has provided a home for the execution of the project.

This map of the inhabited world is unlike any other recorded ancient or medieval map. At the top of the map, which is labelled South, there is a carefully executed graphic scale. The ‘Mountain of the Moon’—considered by medieval Arabic writers to be the source of the Nile—is represented at the centre of the scale. In the lower right part of the map is Europe, with the right half dominated by an extremely large Iberian peninsula. In the upper left of the map, the Indian Ocean is shown together with Arabia (the larger of the two peninsulas) and Persia/India. The two highly stylized and complicated river systems between and below the two peninsulas represent the Euphrates and the Tigris. In the lower left of the map, we find the gate constructed by Alexander the Great to enclose Gog and Magog.