By: Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith (YR and ESS): This book started with a discovery. In September 2000, a specialist in Islamic manuscripts at Christie’s auction house in London called Emilie—who specializes in the history of Islamic science—and asked her if she could come into London from Oxford and look at a puzzling Arabic manuscript that was up for sale a couple of weeks later. It was entitled Kitāb Gharāʾib al-funūn wa-mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn, which loosely translates as “The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eye.” Christie’s didn’t know what to make of it, and wanted to seek Emilie’s advice about its importance.

Emilie was shown a rather scruffy manuscript, bound in ill-fitting covers, with a bird-dropping visible on the cover. But inside the covers was a medieval Arabic treatise on the skies and the Earth, accompanied by a series of strange images and maps unparalleled in any other medieval work. Above all, it had a map of the world with a scale of degrees of longitude at the top, in what seemed to be the earliest surviving example of mathematical plotting on any world map known to us.

The manuscript turned out to be one of the most important discoveries in the history of cartography in recent decades. With the support of Oxford colleagues, Emilie began a campaign to ensure the work would be available to the the public rather then be kept by private collector. In June of 2002, it was acquired by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, with the help of the National Lottery Fund. Yossi then joined as (then) a young research assistant. We first established that the treatise was written in the first half of the eleventh century, in Cairo, the newly-founded capital of the Fatimid Shi’a Empire. We then spent the following decade carefully preparing a critical edition and annotated translation of the maps and text, published by Brill in 2014.

Our critical edition made the treatise and its maps available for scholars, but it did not explain what they mean or why they are so important. We strongly felt that merely translating the text and presenting the images—beautiful and striking as they are—was not enough. The treatise had to be understood as a whole, because the maps of the sky and of the Earth, of the Indian Ocean and of the Nile, of Sicily, of Mahdia, and of southern Anatolia, all made sense only when read together in the context of the society and culture in which they were produced. Lost Maps of the Caliphs tells the story of this exceptional manuscript—how it was discovered and why it is so significant.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

YR and ESS: Because the treatise is so wide-ranging, we use it to reconsider the development of astronomy, astrology, geography, and cartography in the first four centuries of Islam. In the Lost Maps we outline the medieval Islamic understanding of the structure of the cosmos and celestial phenomena. The amalgamation of Hellenistic, Coptic, Hindu and other star lore was all channeled towards an astrological mind-set. The Earth together with the Heavens formed the universe of eleventh-century Cairo. To a medieval person, whose night skies were not blanked-out by city lights and pollution, the contents of the night sky—the ‘Raised-Up Roof’ as our author, following the Qur’an, called it—revealed the workings of the universe and, if properly understood, heralded events on Earth.

Our book is also a contribution to the history of global communication networks at the turn of the previous millennium. We use the geographical materials of the Book of Curiosities to depict the Fatimid Empire as a global maritime power, with tentacles of military and religious authority in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Indus Valley, and along the East African coast. The extent of Fatimid knowledge of Byzantine coasts demonstrates close ties between the Muslim and Christian empires. The material on East Asia sheds new light on Sino-Indian trade routes and is very surprising for a treatise written in Egypt. The treatise’s familiarity with the East African coasts contributes to recent debates on the Islamization of the Swahili coast.

Perhaps most importantly, we use the Book of Curiosities to re-consider the history of early Islamic map-making. The world map of the Book of Curiosities is a result of the dialogue of the Islamic world with Hellenistic, Late Antique geography. The extensive maritime material in the Book of Curiosities sheds new light on navigation in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean before the introduction of the compass in the thirteenth century, and presents an Islamic angle on debates concerning the origins of the European portolan chart.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

YR and ESS: Emilie has been working on Islamic scientific manuscripts for several decades, and published books on Islamic celestial globes, medieval Islamic magic and divination, and a catalogue of the medical manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. She also co-authored the volume on Medieval Islamic Medicine that won the 2008 Book Prize in Middle Eastern Studies of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society. It was Emilie’s vast experience with Islamic scientific manuscripts that enabled her to appreciate how special this treatise was. In Lost Maps of the Caliphs, Emilie also wrote the chapters that deal with astronomy and astrology, as well as providing a very personal chapter about her campaign to make this gem available for the public.

Yossi came to this project with training in the history of Arabic-speaking medieval Islamic societies, shortly after competing a PhD on the history of marriage and divorce in late medieval Egypt. But, like so many, he was always fascinated with maps, and the deciphering of the maps of the Book of Curiosities was as close as one gets to deciphering a fairy-tale treasure map. Through this project, he became an expert on Islamic maps, navigation, medieval trade routes between India and China, and Hellenistic collections of strange animals.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

YR and ESS: We hope that this book will be widely read as a window onto medieval Islamic views of the world, a perspective on Islamic science that is missing from current debates about the legacies of Islamic civilization. The Book of Curiosities is one of the greatest achievements of medieval map-making; it is also a remarkable part of the story of Islamic civilization. Too often, the achievements of Islamic science are divorced from the culture that produced them and are only brought to light as a trophy in a sterile competition with West. Islamic maps in particular get almost no attention in surveys of Islamic history, and even when they are shown they are rarely explained. Because we tend to view Islamic civilization through the prism of religion and faith, we find no use for these abstract diagrams that tell us nothing about God.

What could be more foundational to any culture than the manner in which it conceived of the sky and the Earth? We hope to show that the discovery of the Book of Curiosities is also a timely rediscovery of those aspects of Islamic history which are too often neglected in academic and non-academic visions of Islam. It is a rediscovery of the sea as an integral part of a civilization that supposedly originated in the desert, of an outward looking scientific enquiry that was built on the foundation of the classical Greek legacy, and of the power of the image in a culture that is too often reduced to texts.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

YR and ESS: It is about time to put the Book of Curiosities behind—it is nearly twenty years since we started working on it. Emilie came back to the history of Islamic medicine and is now completing a mutli-volume translation of a thirteenth-century Syrian biographical dictionary of doctors, to be published by Brill, with selections in the Oxford World Classics series published by Oxford University Press.

Yossi has been working over the past few years on the history of the medieval Islamic countryside. He recently published a monograph, Rural Economy and Tribal Society in Islamic Egypt, which is a detailed micro-study of the economy and society of the villages of the Egyptian province of the Fayyum as described in a unique thirteenth-century tax register. This book, too, has a lot of maps, mostly modern GIS ones but also a copy of one that was originally made in the tenth century.


Excerpt from the Book:

Who, then, was the author of the Book of Curiosities? His apparent access to naval military records suggests a direct connection to the Fatimid state. His personal acquaintance with an Ismaʿili missionary who had been to Nubia, and his unique information on itineraries in the world of the Indian Ocean, all suggest he was close to the Ismaʿili missionary network. The map of Palermo with its suburbs, the diagram of Tinnīs, and in particular the map of Mahdia, which is drawn from the perspective of someone looking at the city from a vantage point just outside of its walls, suggest that he had visited these port cities in person. In some ways, he is a successor to the geographer Ibn Ḥawqal and a predecessor of the poet Nāser-e Khosraw—both Ismaʿili missionaries, travelers and keen observers of human societies. Unlike them, however, his interest in trade is minimal, and he is more likely to have been a military man than a merchant. Nor was he a scholar of the caliber of his Egyptian contemporaries, the physician Ibn Riḍwān or Ibn Haytham, the founder of the science of optics. His grasp of mathematical concepts appears to have been quite poor, and he generally avoided technical discussions.

Rather than a scholar our author was, primarily, a mapmaker. It is the maps that make the Book of Curiosities such a distinct work of medieval scholarship and such an appealing manuscript for modern audiences. The author has unprecedented confidence in the ability of maps and diagrams to convey information. Unlike any other geographical treatise before this, the maps are stand-alone artifacts, unsupported by any accompanying text. This is true for some of the maps of the sky, but especially for the rectangular map of the world, the maps of the three great seas, and the maps of the rivers. Even when the maps are related to a text, such as those of the islands of Sicily and Cyprus, or the city of Mahdia, the information they contain goes well beyond that of the preceding prose sections. We do not have the original treatise, only a later copy, so we do not know how lavish it might have been when first penned. But the second part of the title literally translates as “that which is pleasant to the eyes” (mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn), indicating that this treatise was about the images as much as it was about the text.

Maps are at the center of this Book of Curiosities, and this anonymous mapmaker offers us his reflections on the craft of cartography. His chapter on mapmaking techniques introduces the maps of seas and islands, the most original maps in the treatise. He opens with a formulation of the purpose of his maps: “Although it is impossible for created beings to know the extent of God’s creation, the knowledgeable and qualified among them are entrusted with witnessing or imparting a small part of it.” The maps that will follow will convey knowledge, albeit imperfect, of God’s creation. He then continues to explain why his maps are intentionally “not accurate representations” of reality: the contours of coastlines change over time, the mapmaking instruments are not fine enough to reproduce reality on a small scale, and labels need to be legible. Here is a mapmaker explaining his choices and reflecting on the purposes and functionality of his maps. The results of his labor are unique medieval versions of “graphic representations that facilitate spatial understanding,” to use the definition of “map” by the leading modern historian of cartography. There is no parallel for this passage in any other medieval treatise known to us.

The Book of Curiosities is a profoundly Fatimid treatise. Like a tirāz armband, it wears its allegiance to the Fatimid caliphs on its sleeve. This is apparent from the opening dedication, from the blessings heaped on the Fatimid imams, and from the curses flung at the rebels who sought to overthrow them. The treatise also reflects some immediate political ambitions of the Fatimid state, especially in the Mediterranean. It depicts visually and in text the defenses of the strategic Fatimid holdings in Tinnīs, Mahdia, and Sicily. There are historical references to the early Islamic conquests of Cyprus, Crete, and Bari, with the inference that they may be ripe targets for Fatimid re-conquest. The mapping of anchorages, ports, and bays deep in Byzantine territory, some of them as far north as the Dardanelles, also reflect a military context. It is likely that much of the material here was actually drawn from the records of the Fatimid navy. And beyond the immediate political objectives, the maritime focus of the Book of Curiosities is also distinctly Fatimid. The unusual categories for organizing the geographical material, from seas to islands, and then to lakes and rivers, reflect the unique maritime orientation of the Fatimids, who, alone among the great medieval Muslim empires, preferred networks of ports, rivers, and islands over horses and land routes.

The treatise can be viewed as part of a westward shift in the geographical tradition and in the center of gravity in the Islamic world in general. Most ninth-century works, such as those by Ibn Khurradādhbih and the Relation of China and India, focused on Asia and the Indian Ocean. By the middle of tenth century, however, the gaze shifts to the Mediterranean, North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Al-Masʿūdī spent much of his later life in Egypt and Syria, and Ibn Ḥawqal provided an unprecedented account of the Maghreb. The eleventh-century Book of Curiosities focuses on the eastern Mediterranean. Later works of the Andalusian author Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī (d. 1094) and, of course, the Sicilian based al-Idrīsī (fl. 1154) have their focal point even farther to the west. The heavy reliance of the Book of Curiosities on the work of Ibn Ḥawqal is also suggestive, because the latter was, most likely, also a missionary. The focus on islands in the Book of Curiosities may have had special resonance against the backdrop of the Ismaʿili nomenclature of regional “islands.”

The Ismaʿili context of the Book of Curiosities invites comparisons with the influential Epistles of the Brethren of Piety, an encyclopedic corpus of science and Neoplatonic philosophy, composed in Iraq sometime before the middle of the tenth century. The Epistles are not cited in the Book of Curiosities, nor is there evidence for their circulation in Fatimid Egypt, despite their affinity with Ismaʿili teachings. Yet the Epistles seem to approach the subject matter of the sky and the Earth in a similar manner. Following the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, geography is seen in the Epistles as an appendix to the study of the stars. But the Epistles also have a higher purpose: the reader is invoked to contemplate the design of the creator, “to ponder wonders (ʿajāʾib) of his creation and reflect on the curiosities (gharāʾib) of what he fashioned.” This desire to observe God’s work explains some of the interest in marvels and wonders exhibited by the Book of Curiosities, as its title suggests.

Like the Epistles of the Brethren of Piety, the Book of Curiosities draws heavily and without compunction on the heritage of Greek science. Ptolemy, Hippocrates, and Galen provide our author with much of the material on the general structure of the heavens and the Earth, and on the way the former influence the latter. Muslim scholars like al-Masʿūdī correct and add information, especially when one zooms in on the Earth’s size and layout, but the general framework inherited from the Greeks is not questioned. And while God is omnipresent, the Qur’an is cited sparingly, only to invite reflection on creation or to buttress moral points about God’s punishment meted out to the unbelievers. There is only one Tradition from the Prophet in the entire treatise, on the intrinsic purity of water. Such reliance on a Hellenistic heritage was not uncommon in eleventh-century Cairo. Mubashshir ibn Fātik, a wealthy and influential scholar, left us a remarkable collection of ethical sayings from the Greek sages, with special focus on the Late Antique and legendary Hermes.

The author of the Book of Curiosities does not limit himself to Greek authorities, but is also acquainted with Persian, Indian, and Coptic knowledge. He cites an account of the birth of astrology in India, and Persian authorities on the ominous bābānīyah stars. He is also keen to show command of multiple languages. For example, the names of each planet are given in Persian, Classical Greek, “Indian,” and Byzantine Greek; the names of each day of the week are given in Persian, Byzantine Greek, “Indian,” Hebrew, and Coptic. The use of Coptic is of special significance. There is here a deep influence of Egyptian Coptic traditions, an influence which has been overlooked in modern scholarship on Islamic science. Coptic lore was already reworked by al-Masʿūdī, and the Coptic calendar seems to have been used very early when predicting the risings of the lunar mansions. There is even more Coptic material in the Book of Curiosities, including accounts of the moray eel and the foundation of Tinnīs. Most importantly, the explanations related by Copts regarding the flooding of the Nile—that the Nile floods are a result of the summer melting of the snow on equatorial mountains—are as close to the present understanding of the Nile system as was ever achieved by medieval Islamic scholarship.


Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, Lost Maps of the Caliphs: Drawing the World in Eleventh-Century Cairo (University of Chicago Press, 2018).