Image: Gianni Dagli Orti.
This week, we’re publishing four short excerpts from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia of … well, everything, or everything known to Arab civilization circa 1314. Compiled with dogged dedication by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī, the book runs to more than nine thousand pages; an abridged version is now available for the first time in English. Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head. Its translator, Elias Muhanna, believes the compendium affords “a view into the kaleidoscopic and multifarious intellectual tradition of the classical Islamic world”; the New York Review of Books calls it “a bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.” Today’s extract:
On Qualities of Places with Respect to Different Things such as Knowledge, Work, Gems, Clothes, Furs, Carpets, Steeds, Poisonous Animals, Sweets, Fruits, Aromatics, Physical Features and Manners, Diseases, and Meteorological Phenomena
As for intellectual and professional qualities, one talks about the sages of Greece, the doctors of Jundaysābūr, the jewelers of Harrān, the weavers of Yemen, and the scribes of al-Sawād (in Iraq).
With jewels, one talks of the turquoise of Nishapur, the rubies of Sarandīb (Sri Lanka), the pearls of Oman, the emeralds of Egypt, the carnelian of Yemen, the onyx of Zafār, the garnets of Balkh, and the coral of Ifrīqiya.
As for clothing, one hears of the striped garments of Yemen, the embroidery of San‘ā’, the thin singlets of Syria, the colored linen garments of Egypt, the brocade of the Byzantines, the silk of Sūs and China, the wraps of Fārs and Isfahan, the embroidered silk of Baghdad, the turbans of al-Ubulla, the silken cloth of Rayy and Marw, the trouser cords of Armenia, the kerchiefs of al-Dāmaghān, and the stockings of Qazwīn.
As for furs, there are the squirrel pelts of Khirkhīz, the sable of Bulgaria, the fox fur of al-Kharaz, the mink of Kāshghar, the pelican plumage of Herat, and the ermine of Tughuzghuz.
As for steeds, one speaks of the fine horses of the desert, the noble camels of the Hijāz, the work horses of Takhāristān, the
donkeys of Egypt, and the mules of Bardha‘a.
With regard to poisonous animals, one speaks of the vipers of
Sijistān, the snakes of Isfahan, the serpents of Egypt, the scorpions
of Shahrazūr, the yellow scorpions of Ahwāz, the fleas of Armenia,
the rats of Arzan, the ants of Mayyāfāriqīn, the flies of Tall Fāfān.
As for sweet delicacies, one speaks of the sugar of Ahwāz, the honey of Isfahan, the sugarcane syrup of Makrān, and the
molasses of Arrajān.
As for fruits, one speaks of the fresh dates of Iraq, the dry
dates of Kirmān, the jujube of Jurjān, the pears of Bust, the
quince of Nishapur, the apples of Syria, the apricots of Tūs, the
pears of Nahāwand, the citrons of Tabaristān, the oranges of
Basra, the figs of Hulwān, the grapes of Baghdad, the apricots
of Herat, the bananas of Yemen, the walnuts of India, the melons of Khwārazm, and the beans of Kufa.
As for aromatic plants, one speaks of the narcissus of Jurjān,
the roses of Jūr, the water lilies of al-Sīrawān, the gillyflowers of
Baghdad, the saffron of Qom, and the sweet basil of Samarqand.
As for physical features and manners, one speaks of the ruddiness of the Byzantines, the black skin of the Zanj, the coarse
ness of the Turks, the churlishness of the Gīl, the foulness of
the Chinese, and the shortness of the people of Gog.
As for illnesses, one speaks of the plagues of Syria, the spleen dis
ease of Bahrain, the boils of al-Jazīra, the fever of Khaybar, the
madness of Homs, the sweats of Yemen, the pestilence of Egypt, the
pleurisy of Iraq, the carbuncles of Persia, and the ulcers of Balkh.
As for meteorological phenomena, one speaks of the rain of
Armenia, the summer rains of Oman, the thunderbolts of Tihāma,
and the earthquakes of Dabīl.
Al-Jāhiz wrote in his Book of Cities: “Craftsmanship is found in
Basra, eloquence in Kufa, effeminacy in Baghdad, boastfulness
in Samarqand, error in Rayy, churlishness in Nishapur, beauty in
Herat, chivalry in Balkh, miserliness in Merv, and wonders in
From The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri; edited and translated by Elias Muhanna, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Translation, abridgement, introduction, and notes copyright © 2016 by Elias Muhanna.
Translated from the Arabic by Elias Muhanna.
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