By Homira Pashai
The National Library of Medicine holds an important collection of over 200 manuscripts dating back to the eleventh century in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish relating to health and medicine. Many of them contain colorful illustrations and calligraphy. Among the collection of over 30 Persian manuscripts, there are a few illustrated copies of Kitab-i ‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat (In English, Marvels of Creatures and Miracles of Things Existing or sometimes, The Wonders of Creation), written by Abu Yahya Zakariya ibn Muhammad ibn Mahmud al-Qazwini (ca. 1202–1283 C.E.), whose richness and beauty captivate viewers at first glance.
The Library owns four manuscript copies of al-Qazwini’s ‘Aja’ib in Persian translation, and one copy each in the original Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries. One of the most interesting and colorful copies is in Persian, dating from the late 1500s and consisting of 335 leaves with more than 150 illustrations, in opaque watercolors and ink, of constellations, mythical figures, and various plants, animals, places and a world map. The paintings have a uniform style in the Indian tradition that offers visual pleasure to trained and untrained eyes. The Persian script is ta’liq with elements of naskh written with black and red ink. The texts and illustrations are the product of careful and detailed planning and coordination between the scribes and the artists. The two other manuscripts of ‘Aja’ib also are written in Persian naskh and nasta’liq script. The illustrations of one of them attest to the maturation of the Mughal style of painting and refinement in draftsmanship, while the other one can be classified as a manuscript that was produced for a mass market. Although the illustrations of all the manuscripts follow the same genre, one of the copies is unique since the artist took the liberty to add illustrations of the literal and historical anecdotes.
The Wonders of Creation, was first compiled in Arabic in the middle 1200s in Wasit, now in Iraq, and is an important encyclopedic text of medieval Islam. It is divided into two sections focusing respectively on celestial phenomena including the planets, stars, angels, and the terrestrial world, including geography, ethnography, anatomy, zoology, mineralogy, botany, prosody, and musicology. The division of the sections is based on a hierarchical arrangement of the phenomena of nature in which ‘uluwiyyat, the celestial, comes first and sufliyyat , the terrestrial, follows after. Qazwini’s ‘Aja’ib is a constant dialogue between contemplation and exploration; as Qazwini noted by contemplating the creation through the instrument of ‘ulum (science) and purification of soul one can see the reality of the universe. Therefore, Qazwini’s encyclopedia of natural history was a mirror to represent the divine unity through the multiplicity of the creation.
Another element that makes the study of Qazwini’s ‘Aja’ib interesting is the time frame in which it was written. The Mongol invasion and destruction of Baghdad in 1258, was a chaotic era when many famous libraries were burned and scholars were slaughtered. Thus, the compilation of the information in a single manuscript was a singular attempt by one scholar who found himself responsible for collecting the heritage of the vast knowledge and culture of the time, before it was garbled and lost by the conquerors. Qazwini also tried to help the public who were disillusioned and questioned the existence of God at that chaotic time, to comprehend the perfect aspects of creation, which was pure and paradisal, by contemplating the created things.
Qazwini consulted Ptolemy, Aristotle, Dioscorides, Balinus, Pliny the Elder, Avicenna, al-Khwarizmi, al-Istakhri and many other sources in explaining scientific phenomena, and for the literal parts of the manuscript he used anecdotes from Nizami’s poetry, Ferdowsi’s mythology, and Alexander the Great’s history. Compiling all the information in one place and quoting a great number of authorities, attests to the point that the author tried to collect and save the cultural heritage and knowledge of his time during this era in which the Mongols sought to destroy it.
The Wonders of Creation was not only compiled to help readers obtain information about various branches of science but also it entertained the imagination of the readers and storytellers. It is still a great source to examine anthropological and sociological aspects of life in thirteenth-century Arabia and Persia including information on the subjects of traditional cosmology, cultural and religious beliefs, origin of imaginary creatures, generalization of proverbs, and popularization of linguistic terms. Qazwini’s narrations, scientific and fantastic, influenced Persians, Arabians, and Mongols respectively since it was written at the cross-cultural time.
Qazwini as a historian is a great storyteller who helps the reader to bond with the past by introducing astrology, astral medicine, geographical lore, khawass, (characteristic) genre, botanical remedies, ‘Aja’ib (wonders) genre, bestiary studies, historical studies, musicology, prosody, Sufism, literature, and Solomonic lure. Therefore, Qazwini offers a window to the day-to-day life during the Middle Ages.
The mythology and folk anecdotes of the ‘Aja’ib are still quoted and paraphrased in modern books. Especially in the past few decades with emphasis on presentation of sea monsters, dragons, water horses, giants, dwarves, elves, and other magical beings in popular culture, the importance of the ‘Aja’ib becomes more visible as one of the great sources for fiction producers. Qazwini’s boundless curiosity about science, history, geography, fantastic lands and creatures shaped the collective memory and imagination of generations of children and adults around the world.
Homira Pashai is a volunteer in volunteer in the NLM History of Medicine Division’s Volunteer Program. She holds a Masters Degree in Historical Research-Public History. Her acquaintance with manuscripts is an ongoing project beginning from childhood examining grandfather’s papers and continues to now. She interned at NLM in 2009 and updated descriptions of Persian and Islamic manuscripts in the Library’s catalog and at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.