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The Book of Curiosities


World Map from The Book of Curiosities

The next early work we will discuss is a remarkable Arabic manuscript dating from about the year 1200. Its full title in transliteration is Kitāb Gharāʾib al-funūn wa-mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn, and in English, The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes. It was purchased in 2002 from a London antiquarian by Oxford's Bodleian Library, where it is located today. Before the purchase and study of The Book, the value and importance of its scientific text and its numerous maps had not been recognized, in fact, the very existence of this unique work was unknown to modern scholars. The maps contained in it are both terrestrial and celestial, and include beautiful illustrations and astronomical diagrams, some of which are unparalleled in material known to be extant, including works in Arabic, Greek and Latin. The work is a wondrous artifact which has been the subject of ongoing serious academic research from the time of its purchase by the Bodleian to the present day.

Study of the manuscript suggests that The Book is an early thirteenth century copy of an anonymous work compiled in Egypt in the 11th century CE. Historical events referenced in the work enable verification of the era in which the original was created. Sources cited are Ptolemy and other early scholars, along with sailors, merchants, and captains of ships engaged in trade. The various maps included depict the views of a highly educated, erudite Islamic scholar of the early medieval period who has summarized and brought to life the work of early Muslim astronomers, academics and explorers. The manuscript is divided into two books, addressing both the celestial and terrestrial worlds, each book with many chapters. The Book has transformed modern understanding of early medieval Islamic cosmology and geography.

The Cosmos from the Book of Curiosities

Book One contains ten chapters which together create a detailed account of the heavens, with each chapter addressing different aspects of astronomy and astrology. The first chapter comments on the extent of the heavens and a summary of the reports of scholars regarding its size and structure. The second discusses signs of the zodiac, while the third focuses on both northern and southern constellations and their attributes. The fourth chapter discusses the occult influences of some thirty stars while the topic of the fifth is the forms of stars.  Chapters five through nine are similarly divided between physical and metaphysical ideation, and the final chapter focuses on wind and earthquakes. 

The Winds from the Book of Curiosities

Book Two contains twenty-five chapters. It is devoted to geography and natural and supra natural phenomena. Its first chapter focuses on measurement of the planet along with its division into seven different regions or climes. Following chapters are dedicated to myriad themes, including descriptions of lands beyond the equator and lands in northern climes. Cities in remote regions of the world are the topic of another. Other chapters are devoted to seas, lakes and rivers, along with cities located on their shores. 

Indus River from The Book of Curiosities 

The manuscript contains maps of many important rivers including the Tigris, Oxus, Euphrates, Indus and Nile. Large bodies of water mapped include the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas, and the Indian Ocean. 

The final chapters of Book Two describe fish, sea creatures and other marvelous aquatic animals, a species of deformed humanoids, wondrous waters and strange plants, in addition to various wild animals and fantastical birds either known by or reported to the author. The illustrations are remarkable. Marvelous watermelons and trees bearing human beings like fruit are depicted on legendary islands in the Indian Ocean, as well as images of some of the curiosities thought to exist at the edges of the known world.


Waq Waq Tree from the Book of Curiosities

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