The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition 
by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri, translated by Elias Muhanna.
Penguin, 352 pp., £11.99, October 2016, 978 0 14 310748 4
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‘I mounted​ the stallion of reading,’ Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri wrote, recalling the moment, around the year 1316, when he quit his job. He had been a financial clerk in the Mamluk Empire, employed by the Sultan al-Nasir to manage the royal properties and handle all species of paperwork. He knew how to balance the accounts and calculate profits, ‘and in this respect I was as brilliant as a fire on a hilltop.’ But he had grown tired of his occupation, and decided to leave it behind in favour of literary pursuits. ‘When the steed became obedient to me,’ al-Nuwayri related, ‘I chose to abstract from my reading a book that would keep me company.’ What began as an exercise in self-edification grew into a 9000-page, 33-volume compendium of everything that exists in the universe, as it appeared from al-Nuwayri’s perspective in 14th-century Cairo: Nihayat al-Arab fi Funun al-Adab, or The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition. ‘My own words in it are like the night clouds leading the rain clouds,’ he writes in his preface. ‘They merely interpret the book’s contents and frame them like eyebrows over the eyes.’

Al-Nuwayri was born in the town of Akhmim in Upper Egypt on 5 April 1279 – a Tuesday morning, as he tells us in one of the occasional autobiographical glimpses in the text. His family belonged to the scholarly and bureaucratic elite; he recounts all 41 of his patronymics. He was raised in the city of Qus, and at 23 moved to Damascus to take up a government post, managing the assets of the Mamluk sultan in the Syrian provinces. The Mamluks were an unusual ruling caste: they were largely Turkic Kipchak nomads who had been kidnapped from the Eurasian steppes and brought to Egypt to serve as soldier-slaves. (The Arabic word mamluk means ‘slave’.) In 1250 they revolted against their Ayyubid overlords and seized power, eventually consolidating their grasp on an empire that stretched across Egypt and parts of Nubia, the Levant and the Hijaz. While slaves turned sovereigns weren’t uncommon in medieval Islamic history, a state ruled entirely by former slaves was without precedent. The Mamluks won legitimacy by expelling the last of the Crusaders and halting the Mongol invasions started by Genghis Khan. In 1303, al-Nuwayri traded his reed pen for a shield and fought in the battle of Marj al-Suffar, which ended Mongol incursions into Syria. A few years later, he returned to Cairo and settled into an administrative job at the Nasiriyya College, an institution at the heart of the city’s intellectual life, with an excellent library.

Encompassing everything from the dimensions of the sky to the forgetfulness of the ostrich, from an account of Adam’s first sneeze to advice on how to manage the sultan’s buttery, al-Nuwayri’s Ultimate Ambition lassos centuries of learning – scientific, poetic, historical, Quranic – into something like an enormous encyclopedia. (‘I have sought to be succinct but not overly so.’) The text, fastidiously organised into five thematic books, divided into chapters, sub-chapters and sub-sub-chapters, was consulted as a reference book and copied by generations of scholars and students up until the early 20th century. Today its facts may appear to be fossils, but even a compendium of seemingly obsolete knowledge has much to reveal about the context in which it was produced. What is significant when taking stock of the entire universe? What does one see? In al-Nuwayri’s world, lightning is the crack of an angel’s whip. Raindrops, when they first form in the heavens, are the size of camels, and would destroy everything on earth were it not for the clouds, which act as sieves. Shooting stars are ballistic weapons – God uses them to pelt the devils who listen in on his conversations with angels:

A star caught a devil eavesdropping
And shot down, a flame burning in its wake
Like a horseman in the desert who has loosened his turban
Its ends fluttering behind him

In Book I, ‘On the Heavens and the Earth’, al-Nuwayri classifies the constellations and also the nations of men: their manners and traits, furs and finery, their diseases and the pests that plague them. He tells of the bananas of Yemen, the ulcers of Balkh, the ermine of Tughuzghuz, the inexplicable happiness of the people of Tibet. When a rat enters the village of Hisn Adi, it dies. No particle or speck is too small to be overlooked: ‘Al-naq‘ wa-l-‘aqub is the dust that swirls around the hooves of horses and camels. Al-‘ajaj is dust stirred up by the wind. Al-rahaj wa-’l-qastal is the dust of war; al-khayda‘a, the dust of a battle. Al-‘ithyar, the dust of feet.’ Man is a microcosm of this sublime universe, as Book II, ‘On the Human Being’, conveys. The human has 360 bones and 360 veins, one for each day of the year. His faculty of reason ‘is analogous to the moon’, al-Nuwayri informs us, ‘because it waxes and wanes, departing and returning’. His five senses are like planets and his thoughts are like the stars, which stay fixed in place. There are chapters on invectives and euphemisms, on the prohibition and pleasure of drinking wine, on erotic love of all kinds. There are buttocks like sand dunes. There are arguments for and against dyeing grey hair (grey hair will be a light for the Muslim on the day of Resurrection, the Prophet said). There is information that seems counterintuitive but is perhaps true, such as: ‘Sleeping on a bed of rose petals reduces sexual desire.’

In the preface to Book III, ‘On the Mute Beasts’, al-Nuwayri writes: ‘I have gathered in this book – may God strengthen you – all kinds of animals, from the winged to the fang-baring, the skittish to the flying … the braying and neighing, the burdened and milked.’ There are instructions on what to do if you are chased by an enraged Abyssinian rhino (climb a tree and urinate on its ear). There are notes on the class-consciousness of the beaver and the neuroses of the chameleon, which panics each night when it can no longer see the sun. Al-Nuwayri captures the natural world in all its harmony and bile: ‘The enmity between the wolf and the sheep is so great that if some bowstrings are plucked together – one made from the intestines of a wolf, and several others from the intestines of a sheep – they will not make any sound.’ If the hare sees the sea, it dies. In Book IV, on plants, there are recipes for enemas and aphrodisiacs, notes on resins, mannas and saps. Some chapter titles sound like riddles: ‘On Those Whose Fruit Has neither Peel nor Stone’. A poet sings of the delicate nightgown worn by the onion: ‘Its ruddy peel reflects your bloodshot eyes.’ There is an exquisite ode to the pistachio, by Abu Ishaq al-Sabi:

While snacking on young moist pistachios
Just beginning to show signs of dryness
I describe them as a philosopher might
With pleasant and charming words
An emerald wrapped in silk
Enclosed in an ivory vessel.

What is missing from the encyclopedia is a chapter on the heroism of translators. Elias Muhanna, now a professor at Brown, first encountered Ultimate Ambition as a student, when he was assigned to translate a hundred pages from an especially forbidding chapter on legal contracts, which included the language to use when agreeing to rent out your son. He set aside a year to read the whole thing from start to finish, at the rate of forty pages per day. Later, in his dissertation, he tallied and mapped the distribution of its 2.3 million words in graphs colour-coded by topic, to convey its contours and scope. Penguin has brought out his translation, the first ever to appear in English, in an abridged edition (there is an appendix outlining what hasn’t been included). The scale of the task is measured, to take one example, by Muhanna’s treatment of the fifth book, which at 21 volumes makes up the largest part of the text. It is a chronicle of the world, from Adam and Eve to an obituary for al-Nuwayri’s own father. Muhanna has chosen to translate only the beginning and end of the history. As soon as Adam tastes the fruit, his sumptuous clothes fly off his body, each item crying out to him, ‘May your loss be great!’ A few pages later we are in contemporary Egypt, where the Mamluks have revolted and wrested control, capturing ports and citadels to create an empire that would soon employ al-Nuwayri as a scribe.

Medieval Arab readers used to inscribe their manuscripts with spiralling marginalia, and Muhanna’s footnotes allow us to glimpse his own way of engaging with the text. What is it about ‘the pelican plumage of Herat’ that makes it worthy of inclusion? It leads him to a French-Arabic dictionary entry from 1881 on the elasticity of avian gullets. Muhanna’s Ultimate Ambition is a palimpsest of two readers – separated by seven hundred years – as they sift the accumulated learning not just of the medieval Islamic tradition but of the known world in its entirety. ‘It is said that the female tiger is impregnated by the wind,’ al-Nuwayri writes, ‘and for this reason it is said that it resembles the wind in speed when it runs, and nothing can hunt it.’ Muhanna directs us to the authoritative 1936 article by the forgotten historian Conway Zirkle, ‘Animals Impregnated by the Wind’. These include the mare, the hen, ‘women’ and the vulture – early Christian theologians such as Origen and St Ambrose cited the vulture’s ability to conceive alone as proof of the feasibility of Mary’s virgin birth.

Al-Nuwayri’s creation has been compared by reviewers of Muhanna’s edition to a cabinet of curiosities, or a ‘cavernous attic full of unimaginably strange artefacts’. To picture it in this way is to miss its meticulous sense of order, underpinned by a particular logic. Al-Nuwayri organised his world history not by date but by dynasty, to avoid what he called ‘the horse of digression’ that leads so many historians astray. Throughout, his chapters stay rigorously on topic; cross-references act as bridges across the immense text. More important, to approach al-Nuwayri’s text as a Wunderkammer consigns it to the undusted realms of the arcane. It says that the book is irrelevant to us now. (Irrelevant unless, as some have suggested, it points to a heterodox, medieval Muslim sensibility that can be usefully contrasted with the version promulgated by Islamic State.) But even the most obsolete or outlandish fact – like the wind-impregnated vulture – had its supporting role in maintaining systems of knowledge that we may recognise, and find compelling, today.

Al-Nuwayri’s encyclopedia wasn’t the only one of its time; omnivorous compilers flourished in the Mamluk Empire. Others included al-’Umari’s The Routes of Insight into the Civilised Realms and al-Qalqashandi’s Dawn for the Night-Blind, though in size Ultimate Ambition towered over them all. Why try to capture the universe in a book? One hypothesis is that in the wake of the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, when the libraries were gutted and the Tigris was said to have run black with the ink of drowned books, the learned authorities were terrified at the ease with which centuries of knowledge could disappear. A similar desire to guard against destruction by copying, collating and classifying pressed heavily on the encyclopedists of the Renaissance, such as Johann Heinrich Alsted. With his Encyclopaedia of 1630, he aimed to restore the intellectual perfection mankind had lost in the Fall. Diderot claimed of his own Encyclopédie that it could be a repository from which to reconstruct all of human erudition, should another apocalyptic loss of learning occur.

Yet, as Muhanna points out, the problem of al-Nuwayri’s age probably wasn’t the prospect of knowledge being lost, but how to contend with there being so much of it. ‘Among the things that are harmful to the human quest for knowledge … are the great number of works available,’ the 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun warned. After the fall of Baghdad, the cultural elite flocked to the once marginal Cairo. In the Nasiriyya College, where al-Nuwayri lived, there was an unending flow of scholars and new books: lexicons and ghazals, Quranic commentaries, tomes on logic and jurisprudence. The solution to the problem of information overload, as Muhanna has written, ‘seemed to be the production of even more books – abridgements, epitomes, commentaries and compendia – to help the novice wend his way through the great forest.’* By gathering the most important, useful or interesting information in one place, al-Nuwayri hoped that his compilation – yet another book – would serve as a resource for everything a learned person should know. It was a means to reach an ideal that structured Mamluk cultural life: adab, a refined, literary erudition, a well-roundedness similar to the Greek enkyklios paideia.

It is unsurprising that encyclopedias tend to be put together in imperial contexts, from Pliny’s Natural History to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. They require a confidence that one is in a position to know everything about the world; a spirit of aggregation; a sense of endlessly expanding boundaries – and they take inventory. After several hundred years of political upheaval in Egypt and the Levant, by the 14th century the Mamluks had ushered in an age of self-assurance. ‘Among the consequences of this new order was the emergence of an increasingly universal vision,’ Muhanna writes, manifest in the encyclopedic literature of the period. Ultimate Ambition surveys the whole world but finds a way to affirm Egyptian supremacy within it. Al-Nuwayri enumerates Egypt’s virtues; its climate and self-sufficiency, its acacia trees and balsam oil, its mongoose, skink and electric ray. He extols the prophets and sages ‘who came from Egypt’, among them Jesus, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Empedocles and Alexander the Great. ‘In Egypt many of the sciences were born that made the world civilised and prosperous, such as Greek medicine,’ he writes. He folds the great Greek philosophers into Egypt’s own intellectual genealogy, just as European Renaissance thinkers would later recruit them to fashion a history of ‘Western science’. In the alternative universalism of Ultimate Ambition, the West appears irrelevant at best. Britain is a distant island where it always rains.

Especially striking today are the contributions al-Nuwayri makes to the medieval genre of political self-help. He includes instructions and reflections on good statecraft, on sovereignty and justice, on what a ruler should know and how he should behave. The intention, as Neguin Yavari has written of this sort of text, is to show ‘how and why it is that good political acumen rather than ideological commitment is the pivot of stable rule’. Al-Nuwayri cites an unnamed Persian sage: ‘The most judicious ruler is he whose earnestness outweighs his jest, whose reason controls his passion, whose actions speak louder than his words, whose contentment never blinds him to his good fortune, nor does his anger prevent him from acting strategically.’ On the subject of whether autocracy is ever acceptable, the text voices contradictory opinions. ‘Making an error on the basis of advice is more praiseworthy than achieving something successfully through autocracy,’ al-Nuwayri writes. But he also quotes the Abbasid governor ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Salih: ‘Everyone I’ve ever asked for advice became overweening and haughty towards me, making me feel servile. He became mighty as a result, and I became meek. Therefore, act autocratically!’

The sovereign may dream of autocracy, but in Ultimate Ambition a lot more space is devoted to the figure of the secretary. Even the prophets themselves had been accountants, al-Nuwayri points out, in an 850-page manual on what we might call ‘admin’. He includes advice on bookkeeping (when the prophet Muhammad employed someone from the tribe of Asad to collect alms, he was able to do the accounts himself and work out that the man was skimming money off the top), penmanship and spelling, and guidelines on how to prepare every sort of legal document, from sales returns to records of the emancipation of slaves. There is a note on how a secretary must never write down the number of troops in the sultan’s army, because someone may see it and pass it to enemies or insurgents. If ‘the commander in chief might ask him about it,’ al-Nuwayri instructs, ‘he should write it down using a secret password.’

In an empire propped up by paperwork and steeped in the rituals of officialdom, the scribal bureaucracy was a check on the sovereign’s power. But it was a tiring business, and in the admin chapter we glimpse why al-Nuwayri may have become disillusioned with his job.

Do not befriend kings until you have trained yourself to obey them in matters that are reprehensible to you … to embellish their opinions; to suppress your frustration towards their hateful acts … to distance yourself from those whom they dislike even if they are dear to you … to not burden them with your troubles while burdening yourself with each one of their troubles … If you are loyal when they entrust you, cautious when they befriend you, faithful when they place their confidence in you, humble when they forsake you, obliging when they enrage you, then you will teach them while appearing to learn from them … all the while thanking them while not letting them thank you.

Otherwise, al-Nuwayri advises, ‘get as far away from them as possible.’

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