November 12, 2014

The Perfect Pearl of Wonders and the Precious Pearl of Extraordinary Things

Kharīdat al-ʻAjā’ib wa Farīdat al-Gharā’ib (The perfect pearl of wonders and the precious pearl of extraordinary things) by Sirāj al-Dīn Abū Ḥafṣ ʿUmar Ibn al-Wardī (died 1457) is a compilation of texts on geography, natural history, and other subjects. The geographical texts constitute the bulk of the work. They list and describe different places, with emphasis on the Middle East and North Africa, although sections on China and Europe also are included. The geographical information presented varies greatly in quality, even for those regions that are central to the work. The author states, for example, that “Abyssinia and its lands face the land of Ḥijāz, there being a sea between them. The majority of [its people] are Christian, and it is an extensive land, stretching from the east of Nubia to its south. And they [i.e., the Abyssinians] are those who conquered Yemen before Islam, in the days of the Khosroes [i.e., the Sassanian rulers of Persia].” The account of Arḍ al-Furs (Persia) is considerably less detailed. It states that Persia consists of five provinces: “the first is Arjān, which is the smallest of the five, and which is called the province of Shāhpūr, the second Iṣṭakhr, and that which is attached to it, … and the third is the province of Shāhpūr the Second, the fourth Shadhrawān, with its base at Shiraz, and the fifth is the province of Susa.” The section on geography is followed by a considerably shorter section on natural history, in which the author presents the properties of rocks, gems, plants, fruits, seeds, and animals. Short anecdotal accounts relating to various other subjects follow, quoted from and generally attributed to works by other authors. The book concludes with a qaṣīdah (an elegiac ode) on the Day of Judgment. The manuscript contains two maps, of the Kaaʿba in Mecca and a circular map of the world. Near the center of the world map—fringed by the semi-circles of the legendary mountain range of qāf —are Mecca and Medina. Notable cities shown on the map include Constantinople (marked by a red crescent) and Baghdad (indicated by concentric circles, presumably alluding to the circular walls of Caliph al-Manṣūr). The same inaccuracies that occur in the text also are found in the world map, as for example in the placing of Ghazni on the shores of the Aral Sea. What appears to have been the colophon has been truncated, but the date of Jumādā al-ākhira 27, 1041 A.H. (January 1632) remains visible.

The Radiances of Revelation and the Mysteries of Exegesis

Kitāb Anwār al-Tanzīl wa Asrār al-Ta’wīl (The radiances of revelation and the mysteries of exegesis) is the best-known work of the 13th century savant, ʻAbdallāh ibn ʻUmar al-Bayḍāwī (died circa 1286). As the title indicates, the subject of the work is Qurʼanic exegesis. After an introduction in which al-Bayḍāwī praises the science of al-tafsīr (exegesis) as the principal religious science and the basis for sharia (Islamic law), the text of the Qurʼan follows, with each ayah (verse) appearing in red ink accompanied by an explanatory passage in black ink. In the present illuminated copy, the main text opens with a richly colored panel of arabesque scrolls, cartouches, and a medallion containing the basmala (the invocation of God’s name), the opening words of the Qurʼan. The design of this panel, as well as that of an illuminated band containing the name of the first sura (chapter) on the same page, reflect the Islamic tradition of sumptuously illuminated Qurʼanic manuscripts. Subsequent chapters also are set off by their titles, each appearing in a band containing the name of the sura, the place in which it was revealed (generally Mecca or Medina), as well as the number of verses contained within it. The subsequent chapter headings are also striking, but generally simpler than the first, and consist of gold letters on an unpainted background. In at least one place the interpretive text spills over into the area reserved for the subsequent chapter title. Also noteworthy is how the names of the suras occasionally differ from the titles usually given to them, offering an interesting glimpse of the canonical variation present in these titles. The title for sura 45, al-Jāthīyah (The kneeling), for example, appears under a variant title, al-Sharīʻa (The clear path). The text, generally of 33 lines to a page, appears within blue and gold borders on the pages, some of which have sustained heavy insect damage. The manuscript was completed on Jumādā al-’ūlā 18, 970 A.H. (January 13, 1563). It is signed by Aḥmad ibn ʻAlī ibn ʻAbdallāh al-Bānūbī al-Azharī, indicating Banub in the Nile delta as the nisba (provenance) of the scribe. al-Bayḍāwī was a native of Bayḍā, Fars (present-day Iran) who wrote on many topics, including fiqh (jurisprudence), history, grammar, and theology. Although most of his vast scholarly output was composed in Arabic, he wrote his historical work Niẓām al-Tavārīkh (The order of history) in his native Persian. Numerous commentaries have been written on the Kitāb Anwār al-Tanzīl wa Asrār al-Ta’wīl. The work was for many centuries part of the standard curriculum in religious schools and was one of the first such tafsir works to be translated into English.

Book of Taxation

Kitāb al-Kharāj (Book of taxation) is a classic text on fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), written by Abū Yusūf Yaʿqūb Ibrāhīm al-Anṣārī al-Kūfī (died 798; 182 A.H.) at the request of the Abbasid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (763 or 766-809). Abū Yusūf was the most famous student of Abū Ḥanīfa and along with his illustrious teacher is considered one of the founders of the Ḥanafī school of law. In the introduction to the book, Abū Yusūf describes how the caliph asked him to write a work treating the collection of al-kharāj (the tax collected from non-Muslims), al-ʿushūr (a tithe payable by Muslims), al-ṣadaqāt (alms), and related matters requiring attention and action. Hārūn al-Rashīd’s expressed intent was to use the work to address the oppressed condition of his subjects and to improve their economic well-being. The work includes such chapter headings as “A description of the land [subject to] tithing and al-kharaj, and of Arabs and non-Arabs and idolaters and the people of the book [i.e., Christians and Jews] and others.” The work also contains a considerable amount of historical and geographical information on the early centuries of Islam. This can be seen, for example, in the account of the conquest of Byzantine and Sassanian lands contained in the chapter faṣl fī arḍ al-shām wa al-jazīra (Chapter on the land of Syria and Mesopotamia). This manuscript copy of Kitāb al-Kharāj was completed in Damascus, near the end of Rajab, 1144 A.H. (January 1732). The table of contents, which appears to have been scattered and reattached to the book with its folios out of sequence, was apparently written about a century later, on the Dhū al-Ḥijjah, 16, 1245 A.H. (June 1830), in Sarajevo (present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina). This work has been reprinted in multiple editions in modern times and has been translated from the original Arabic into English, Russian, and French.

Collection of Poetry by Kalīm

Abū Ṭālib Kalīm Hamadānī (or Kāshānī, died 1651; 1061 A.H.) was one of the foremost Persian poets of the 17th century. He was born in Hamadan (present-day Iran) but appears to have lived in Kashan (also in Iran) for a sizeable portion of his life—hence the appellation Kāshānī. He received his education in Kashan and in Shiraz before moving to India to serve the Mughal ruler Jahangir (reigned 1605–27). Abū Ṭālib was thus among a large number of Persian poets and literati who left Persia in search of patronage in the Indian subcontinent beginning in the 16th century. Under Jahangir’s successor, Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–58), Abū Ṭālib achieved the rank of poet laureate. Later in life he is said to have accompanied Shah Jahan to Kashmir, which became his home until his death. Abū Ṭālib’s fame rests principally on his ghazalīyāt (a metrical form expressing the pain of loss and the beauty of love). Of the 10,000 verses that appear in his divan (or collected poems), about half were written in the ghazal form. He is especially renowned for the novelty of his themes, for which he came to be known as khallāq al-maʻānī (creator of meaning). Other characteristics of his poems are the originality of his khayāl bandī (rhetorical conceits) and the aptness of his mithālīya (illustrations). Abū Ṭālib was also the author of Shāh Jahān Nāma (The book of Shah Jahan), a work which, following the style of the epic Shāhnāma (The book of kings), praises Timur and the Timurid rulers up to Shah Jahan. In the present illuminated copy of Abū Ṭālib’s divan, the maqtaʻ (final verse) of many of the poems, which generally includes the takhalluṣ (pen name of the poet), is set off in its own frame. The year 1103 A.H. (1691–92) is written in the colophon.

Map of Russian America or Alaska Territory

Imperial Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. Acquisition of the territory was negotiated for the United States by Secretary of State William H. Seward for the bargain price of about two U.S. cents per acre (five cents per hectare). Even though most commentary was highly critical of “Seward’s Folly,” some Americans gradually began to travel to and settle in the new territory. At first they possessed little knowledge of its geography. There thus was a great need for maps and nautical charts to assist Americans in navigating the waterways and trails of this forbidding region. This map, compiled by a draftsman named J.F. Lewis, was based upon Russian charts and surveys mostly commissioned by the Russian Navy. It represented one of the earliest attempts in North America to create an English-language map of Alaska. The main map has no scale, but five inset maps at lower right show local harbors and the scale of each is in nautical miles. The map shows key mountain ranges and bodies of water. Few towns appear, as the Russians had established only a handful of permanent settlements along the Pacific coast. In the succeeding years, the U.S. government slowly built upon maps such as this and began to produce more extensive topographical maps and nautical charts. The detail and precision of these maps and charts went beyond Russian surveys and helped establish a modern base of geographical knowledge about Alaska.

The Route of the Alaska Excursion Steamers

In the years after the Alaska Purchase in 1867, Americans had only a dim appreciation of the value and splendors of their new northern territory. This attitude changed slowly, and it was not fully overcome until the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 radically altered perceptions of the region’s value. Even earlier, however, certain developments started to shift American views of Alaska. In particular, John Muir’s accounts of his travels to Alaska, beginning in the 1870s, gave Americans an initial feeling for the rare majesty of the Alaskan wilderness. Aside from Muir’s paeans to nature, the area was ripe for large-scale tourism because of the recent completion of several transcontinental railroads and improving port infrastructure for passenger ship service. From the 1880s onwards, seasonal cruises began to tap a growing market for visitors eager to see the rugged Pacific coast between Seattle or Vancouver and Alaska. In time, this stretch of sea and islands became known as the “Inside Passage.” The route wound through the spectacular fjords of the region and became world-famous for wildlife and scenery. Newsworthy events, such as the Harriman Alaskan Expedition of 1899 financed by railroad magnate E.H. Harriman, further highlighted the region and its potential for tourism. This map, published in 1891, shows the excursion steamship routes from Seattle, which took the inland waterway east of Vancouver Island and on to Alaska, as well as the interconnecting railroad routes from Chicago on the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Lines.