Library maps out curious medieval world

June 11, 2004

An "extraordinarily important" series of medieval maps known as the Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes has gone on display for the first time at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, writes Chris Johnston.

The Arabic manuscripts were probably composed about 1050AD by a citizen of Tinnis in the Nile Delta and then copied in about 1200AD.

Jeremy Johns, a lecturer in Islamic archaeology at Oxford's Wolfson College, said the documents showed the achievements of Islamic civilisation in its classical age.

The maps were significant for the history of science, particularly astronomy and cartography, he said, and contained an unparalleled series of diagrams of the heavens and the earth.

One of the maps refers in Arabic to Inghiltirah or "Angle-terre", which researchers believe is the first known reference to the British Isles using that name. It is shown as a tiny, egg-shaped mass on the map.

The Bodleian acquired the Kitab Ghara'ib al-funun wa-mulah al-`uyun in Arabic in June 2002, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Arts Collections Fund, the Friends of the Bodleian, Aramco (Saudi Arabia), several Oxford colleges including Wolfson and private individuals.

The donations are also funding a two-year project to complete a preliminary study of the manuscript, including an edition of the Arabic text and English translation.

Most of the illustrated folios of the Book of Curiosities are displayed in the exhibition. Lesley Forbes, keeper of Oriental collections at the Bodleian, said this exhibition offered an opportunity to see medieval maps from Europe as well as the Middle East.

"Apocalypse and pilgrimage maps are shown alongside diagrammatic maps produced at the same time. For example, the Rectangular World Map in the Book of Curiosities is of a type previously completely unknown.

"Important new evidence for international trade and commerce in the 11th century is revealed, particularly of the activities of Islamic merchants in the Eastern Mediterranean," she said.

"Medieval Views of the Cosmos" runs at the Bodleian until October 7. A website ( http:///www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/bookofcuriosities ) for the exhibition will be launched soon.

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