Medieval Islamic Views of the Cosmos
The Book of Curiosities
Bodleain Library
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This manuscript (and even the treatise it contained) was totally unknown to scholars prior to its being offered for sale at auction in London on 10 October 2000 (Christie’s, Islamic Art & Manuscripts, lot 41). At auction the manuscript was purchased by Sam Fogg, a well-known London dealer in rare books and manuscripts. Not long thereafter he offered it to the Bodleian Library at a price well under the true market value. In June of 2002, following an extensive fund-raising effort, the Bodleian Library celebrated the acquisition of this unique Arabic manuscript. The volume has now the shelfmark: Bodleian Library, Dept. of Oriental Collections, MS. Arab. c. 90.ي

The Binding

When acquired by the Bodleian Library, the volume was contained in an Ottoman binding of, possibly, eighteenth or nineteenth century date; the binding was too small for the manuscript and in extremely poor condition. The first folio of the manuscript has staining which indicates that an earlier binding included an envelope flap. At present, the volume is disbound with the binding removed and stored separately. The manuscript will ultimately be rebound and given a new binding meeting modern standards of preservation and conservation.


The conservation of the manuscript was carried out by Alison McKay and Sabina Pugh in the conservation laboratories of the Bodleian Library. Multiple layers of old repairs had accumulated on the leaves, causing particular stiffness in the spine area. Sympathetic new repairs replaced the old ones to improve the opening and reveal text and images, but some were left in place as they were considered to be part of the cultural history of the manuscript.

A preliminary analysis of the pigments was conducted by Dr Sandra Grantham, a consultant paper conservator, using optical microscopy in the conservation workshop of the Bodleian Library. A full analysis using Raman Spectroscopy was subsequently carried out by Dr Tracey Chaplin at the Christopher Ingold Laboratories, University College London. Six pigments were identified in the illustrations: cinnabar (red), orpiment (yellow), lazurite (blue), indigo, carbon-based black and basic lead carbonate (a ‘lead white’); four further pigments (a golden material, a green pigment, the purple pigment used to depict city walls, and the blue component of the dark green pigment mixture on certain folios) could not be identified. No evidence of modern inks or pigments was revealed. The results of the scientific analyses are completely consistent with the suggested origin and age of the manuscript.ي

The results of the Raman spectroscopic analysis have been published: Tracey D. Chaplin, Robin J. H. Clark, Alison McKay, and Sabina Pugh, 'Raman spectroscopic analysis of The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes', in the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy, vol.37, 2006. Further examination of the pigments was carried out by Sabina Pugh in the conservation workshop of the Bodleian Library, who used optical microscopy to try to determine which pigments belonged to the original paint layer, and which were over-painting or re-touching. The findings will be written up in an internal Bodleian Conservation Report.


With the manuscript disbound for conservation purposes, the exhibition of its numerous illustrations became possible. The circular world map in the manuscript was chosen by the National Art Collections Fund (one of the major contributors toward the acquisition of the manuscript) for display on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Saved! 100 years of the National Art Collections Fund’, held at the Hayward Gallery, London, 23 October 2003 – 18 January 2004. See the exhibition catalogue: Saved! 100 years of the National Art Collections Fund, ed. by Richard Verdi (London: Hayward Gallery, 2003) p. 278 item 225.ي

An exhibition of most of the maps and illustrations was held in the Bodleian Library’s Exhibition room from 14 June to 30 October, 2004. Titled ‘Medieval Views of the Cosmos: Mapping Earth and Sky at the time of the Book of Curiosities’, the exhibition included comparative materials from the Islamic and the Christian worlds illustrating roughly contemporary developments in mapping. Items on display were drawn primarily from the collections of the Bodleian Library, but there were also manuscripts from two Oxford colleges (St John’s and Corpus Christi), instruments from the Museum of the History of Science, and artefacts from the Ashmolean Museum. The exhibition was officially opened on 14 June 2004 by Dr Ahdaf Soueif (novelist and author of The Map of Love) and Mr Terry Jones (comedian, writer, and author of Who Murdered Chaucer?).ي

During the run of the exhibition, gallery talks were given every week by two members of the project team: Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith. The chief curator for the exhibition was Dr Emilie Savage-Smith, who was joined by the other members of the project team: Miss Lesley Forbes, Dr Jeremy Johns, and Dr Yossef Rapoport. The actual mounting of the exhibition was the responsibility of Dana Josephson, Principal Conservation Assistant for Exhibitions, Bodleian Library. The design of the wall panels was the responsibility of Sue Ayres.

To complement the exhibition, the Bodleian published an illustrated small book entitled Medieval Views of the Cosmos: Picturing the Universe in the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages, by Evelyn Edson and Emilie Savage-Smith [ISBN 1 85124 184 1]. Produced in lieu of a catalogue, the subject of this book is broader than that of the exhibition, but it still provided an opportunity to reproduce in high-quality photographs several of the maps from this manuscript along with diagrammatic explanations. The volume is available for sale at the Bodleian Library Shop or (in Europe) through the distributor Extenza Turpin Ltd, Stratton Business Park, Pegasus Drive, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, England SG18 8QS, or (in the U.S.A.) through the University of Chicago Press. An expanded German version was published in 2004 (E. Edson, E. Savage-Smith, and A-D. von den Brincken, Der mittelalterliche Kosmos: Karten der christlichen und islamischen Welt, Darmstadt: Primus Verlag) and a Korean translation in 2006.
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