November 1, 2012

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex

Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly called the Florentine Codex, the manuscript came into the possession of the Medici no later than 1588 and is now in the Medicea Laurenziana Library in Florence. Sahagún began conducting research into indigenous cultures in the 1540s, using a methodology that scholars consider to be a precursor to modern anthropological field technique. His motives were primarily religious: he believed that to convert the natives to Christianity and eradicate their devotion to false gods, it was necessary to understand those gods and the hold they had on the Aztec people. Sahagún was repelled by much of native culture, but he also came to admire many qualities of the Aztecs. As he wrote in the prologue to Book I of his work, the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations that presume to be quite politic.” Sahagún gained the assistance of two important indigenous groups: the elders of a number of towns in central Mexico (principales) and Nahua students and former students at the College of Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco, where Sahagún worked for much of his time in Mexico. The principales answered questionnaires prepared by Sahagún about their culture and religion, and their responses were recorded in their own pictorial form of writing. The Nahua students interpreted the images and expanded the answers, phonetically transcribing Nahuatl using Latin letters. Sahagún then reviewed the Nahuatl text and added his own Spanish translation. The whole process took almost 30 years and finally was completed in 1575–77, when Sahagún had a new and complete copy of the manuscript prepared. It then was taken to Spain by Fray Rodrigo de Sequera, commissary general of the Franciscans and a supporter of Sahagún’s work. The 12 books of the codex originally were bound in four volumes but later rebound into three. The work is arranged in two columns: on the right is the original Nahuatl text, on the left is Sahagún’s Spanish translation. The 2,468 magnificent illustrations, made by the students, are mostly in the left-hand column, where the text is shorter. The illustrations combine the syntactic and symbolic traits of the ancient Nahua tradition of painting-writing with the formal qualities of European Renaissance painting.

November 6, 2012

The Book of Medicinal and Nutritional Terms

This manuscript is a copy of Kitab Al-jami li-mufradat al-adwiya wa al-aghdhiya (The book of medicinal and nutritional terms), an alphabetical encyclopedia by the Andalusian author, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Bayṭār al-Mālaqī (circa 1197–1248), containing the names and properties of more than 1,000 plants and substances of medicinal value.  The author quotes many earlier scientists, including Dioscorides, Galen, and Avicenna. Ibn al-Bayṭār was born in Malaga, hence the reference al-Mālaqī in his name, and the text contains numerous references to Andalusia and to Andalusian place-names such as Ronda. The present manuscript copy consists of 91 pages of 25 lines each and is incomplete, containing only a small fraction of the original. It concludes somewhat abruptly near the end of the entries starting with the letter , at the item bīsh. The original text of Ibn al-Baytār has at this point: “Some physicians have said that al-bīsh grows in the lands of China … they eat it while it is green in the land of Halāhal near the Sind." The last page of the present manuscript has a spurious ending with a modified text as follows: "They eat it while it is green, for seven days in the mornings and nights for it is beneficial as we have said." The alteration presumably was made to disguise the incomplete nature of the manuscript. The short colophon reads: “Prayers and peace upon our master Muhammad and upon his family and his companions. This book was completed through the aid of the Lord and the goodliness of His succor. Amen." The name of Ibrahim Pasha (1789–1848), the eldest son of Muhammad Ali Pasha, renowned governor of Egypt, appears on the cover as a previous owner of this manuscript.

An Arabic Translation of the Astronomical Tables of Ulugh Beg

This manuscript contains a 15th–16th century translation from Persian into Arabic by Yaḥyā ibn Alī al-Rifā‘ī of the introduction of the celebrated zīj (astronomical tables or records of daily occurrences) by Ulugh Beg (1394–1449). In the introduction to his work, al-Rifā‘ī states that he undertook the project at the behest of Egyptian astronomer Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Abū al-Fatḥ al-Ṣūf ī al-Miṣrī (died circa 1494), who was involved in studying and revising Ulugh Beg's zīj for Cairo's geographical coordinates. The present manuscript copy of al-Rifā‘ī’s translation consists of 29 pages with 31 lines to a page. The title page bears the stamps of previous owners, including Uthmān al-Fanawī, a judge in Egypt, and Muḥammad ‘Alī Pāshā, the wālī (ruler) of Egypt during the period of 1811–48. The colophon indicates that the transcription was completed at the end of Muḥarram, 1134 AH (mid-November 1721) and gives the scribe's name as Yūsuf ibn Yūsuf al-Maḥallī al-Shāfi‘ī, known as al-Kalārjī. Appended to this work is another manuscript in the same binding, but by a different hand, which begins at page 43. The slightly garbled colophon for the second manuscript indicates that it is also an Arabic translation from the Persian of a portion of Ulugh Beg's zīj, but the translator in this case is Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad al-Faṣīḥī al-Niẓāmī, known as Qāḍī Ḥasan (Judge Ḥasan). The date for the translation appears to be the end of 1015 AH (1607), and this copy dates from 1126 AH (1714). The earlier statement suggests that the surviving portion of this manuscript relied on a translation other than Qāḍī Ḥasan's.

The Introductory Epistle on Sinusoidal Operations

This manuscript is a copy of al-Risāla al-Fatḥīya fī al-a‘māl al-jaybīya (The introductory epistle on sinusoidal operations) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Abu ‘Abd Allāh, Badr al-Dīn (1423–1506), known as Sibṭ al-Māridīnī or the grandson of al-Māridīnī, in honor of his mother’s father, a famous astronomer. The manuscript consists of 16 pages of 14 lines each, and includes an introduction and 20 bābs (chapters or articles). They range in length from a few lines to a page, and cover such topics as determination of the cardinal directions and the qibla (direction of Mecca) using the sine quadrant. Sibt al-Māridīnī appears to have been born in Damascus but lived much of his life in Cairo, where he served as muwaqqit (timekeeper) at Al-Azhar Mosque. Like his grandfather, he was a prolific author and wrote on many topics, including fiqh (jurisprudence) and astronomy. Manuscript copies of many of his works have survived, and copies of this one exist in various European and Middle Eastern collections. The holdings of the National Library of Egypt, the Dār al-Kutub, alone include ten copies of this work, suggesting that it may have been one of the author's most popular writings. The cover of this manuscript shows the seal impression of the Egyptian Kurdish scholar and humanist Aḥmad Taymūr (1871–1930), indicating that it was bequeathed to the Dār al-Kutub by him. The cover also has an article in the same hand as the main text on the etymology of the word al-jayb (the sine function) and a short note at the top left on the magnitude of the sine function for several different angles. In his introduction, the author provides an alternate title for his work: Risāla fī al-‘amal bi al-rub‘ al-mujayyab (Epistle on the operation of the sine quadrant).

The Book of Times

This is a manuscript copy of Kitāb al-Azmān (The book of times; also known as Kitāb al-Azmina) by Yuḥannā Ibn Māsawayh (died circa 857), the famous physician of the Abbasid era. The work belongs to the tradition of Islamic hemerology—the study of the calendar, especially with a view to discerning the auspiciousness of carrying out various actions at a given date or time. In his introduction, the author states: "The people of knowledge and philosophy and the physicians of Persia, India, and Rūm [Asia Minor], have said that the year is divisible into four sections: spring, summer, fall, [and] winter. They then designated for each of these sections that which pertains to it as far as zodiacal signs, and these are three, and [they designated for each as well] the stations of the moon (al-anwāʾ), and these are seven. And they expressed for each of their constituent parts the actions that are opportune in being carried out." What follows is a section on each season, listing the number of days, the zodiacal signs, the stations of the moon, and the Galenic humor associated with each season, along with the appropriate pairing of the qualities of hotness, dryness, coldness, and moistness. In the section on winter we read, for example, that it resembles "water, for it is cold and wet, and in this season coughing is evoked as well as pleurisy." A longer section follows, listing al-shuhūr al-rūmīya (the Roman months) in their Levantine forms, giving more detail about the significance and the customary practices of each day. The entry for Tishrīn al-awwal (October), for instance, states that on its first day the east wind commences to blow and that people descend from the roofs, and that the tenth day of the month is the day on which Abraham set off with his son to sacrifice him. Ibn Māsawayh states that one should minimize sexual intercourse in this month and avoid the eating of watermelons and cucumbers and cream and the flesh of cows as well as grains other than rice. He also proscribes the drinking of cold water in this month. The colophon for the current manuscript does not include a date but it lists the scribe's name as Ṣāliḥ Salīm ibn Salīm ibn Sa‘īd al-Shāmī al-Dimashqī. This copy is inscribed on the cover with the words Maktabat Taymūr (the library of Taymūr). A partially legible seal impression contains the name Taymūr and the date 1912, indicating that this manuscript was bequeathed to the Dār al-Kutub (National Library of Egypt) by the Egyptian Kurdish scholar and humanist Ahmad Taymūr (1871–1930.).

The Book of Proof of the Secrets of the Science of Weights and Measures (Part 3)

This manuscript consists of a section of Kitāb al-burhān fī asrār ‘ilm al-mīzān (Book of proof of the secrets of the science of the weights and measures) by the Persian alchemist Aydamur ibn ´Alī ibn Aydamur al-Gildakī (also seen as al-Jaldakī, died circa 1342). His name indicates that he was born in Jaldak, in present-day Afghanistan. Over the course of 17 years, al-Gildakī  traveled to Iraq, Asia Minor, West Africa, Egypt, Yemen, Hejaz, and Syria. These journeys are recounted in another of his works, Kitāb nihāyat al-ṭalab fī sharḥ kitāb al-muktasab (The limits of pursuit in regard to the explanation of the book of acquired [knowledge]). Al-Gildakī' is considered one of the last outstanding Islamic alchemists. The first part of his Book of Proof largely concerns the relationship between the Creator and the world of creation, as well as the relationships between the higher and lower planes of existence in their various manifestations. The second part is on ‘Alī (the Prophet’s son-in-law and a central figure to the esoteric traditions of Islam) and the Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana. The third part is a commentary on Nihāyat al-ṭalab wa aqṣā ghāyāt al-arab (The utmost pursuit and the remotest scheme) by the Persian-born Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (circa 737–circa 815). The work also contains information on the relationship of metals to their corresponding planets and other chemical data. The present manuscript consists of the third part of al-Gildakī's work. The first several pages of text are missing, however. The colophon tells us of “the completion of the writing of this third part of the book by ... Aḥmad ibn Aḥmad ibn Ibrāhīm Jarībāt al-Shāfi‘ī al-Kātib al-Azharī from the copy of the Shaykh ... Muḥammad ibn Abū al-Khayr al-Mālikī al-Miqātī al-Sharīf." The colophon also indicates that the scribe concluded the manuscript on the 29th day of Muḥarram, 998 AH (December 8, 1589 AD). The first surviving page bears the stamp of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (awqāf), as item number 828 from the Zakiya library, thus identifying the manuscript as a bequest from the Egyptian statesman Ahmad Zaki Pasha (1867–1934).