- An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe: The Book of Curiosities ed. by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith
An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe: The Book of Curiosities, edited and translated by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, is an exceptionally beautiful book with a central focus on the Book of Curiosities, as it has come to be known, an eleventh century treatise on the heavens and the earth. It gives us a good idea of the state of science, loosely defined, in its time in Fatimid Egypt. As the editors point out, the book author’s knowledge tends to start off being fairly solid around the Mediterranean coast and then becomes progressively more speculative with distance from that area. The manuscript has been reproduced as a color facsimile, which allows us to see almost at first hand not only the neat script but also the splendid maps, drawings, plans, and many other delightful designs. Included in the book are an Arabic copy of the text, an English translation, and very extensive notes; all in all this is an outstanding work of scholarship. People talk about the problems encountered by those working in the humanities, but this volume is an indication of the high level of accomplishment that can be achieved today. It is a most spectacular book, and I defy anyone to hold it in their hands and not be impressed by the product that lies before them. Hats off yet again to Brill for a magnificent product.
There is nothing in the book that is likely to be of direct relevance to the readers of this journal, apart from the topic itself. A list of strange and remarkable phenomena is very much an indication of a time when knowledge was limited, and gaps needed to be filled by guesswork and the observations made in the past by people who probably had little to go by in the way of evidence. (Jorge Luis Borges pokes fun at this sort of book in some of his short stories, where he produces incomprehensible lists and ways of grouping things together in what seems little more than a random collection.) Why produce such a miscellany of observations, many of which refer to remarks made by classical authors whose reliability seems to be zero? We get [End Page 971] the sorts of reflections on the natural world that we would expect if people were gathered around a fire and had nothing else to talk about except the weird and wonderful things that they have heard about but not seen. There is some material based on the known, but much of it delves into the strange and mysterious, in a manner that suggests both enjoyment and wonder.
The book has a number of intriguing characteristics. It provides us with a good indication of the state of knowledge at a particular time, but also of an attitude toward the unknown. The mysterious parts of the world are populated apparently by strange creatures that can only be described tentatively and at third hand, yet there is an interest in describing them. Why is this, since no useful information is provided and the sources of information are so precarious that nothing can be relied on? It is tempting to think that the author wanted to display his learning, his grasp of the classical sources, and his ability to speculate on everything in the world, whether known or vaguely contemplated.
On the other hand, while on a planetary level, without any apparent pattern or order of classification, we see this huge diversity of information of what lies within the world itself, on a cosmic level there exists an entire astrological theory of how the movements of the planets affect the events of the world, in terms of generation and corruption. We get a picture, then, of how everything is held together, and so in a...