‘Wonders and Rarities’: The Marvellous Book that Travelled the World and Mapped the Cosmos 
by Travis Zadeh.
Harvard, 445 pp., £33.95, October, 978 0 674 25845 7
Show More
Show More

On one page,​  a bee, meticulously painted, down to the individual hairs; on another page, a diagram of planetary motion, glittering with gold leaf; on another, the soft-legged men of Zanzibar, who live in trees and propel themselves forwards by dropping onto the shoulders of passing travellers. These disparate images confront readers of one of the most successful natural histories of all time, The Wonders of Creation and Rarities of Existence (‘Aja’ib al-makhluqat wa ghara’ib al-mawjudat) by the 13th-century Muslim scholar Zakariyya al-Qazwini.

Long considered in the Islamic world to be one of the most authoritative compendia of human knowledge, the book attracted the attention of European Christians in the 17th century. But the first European translations of the ‘Pliny of the Orient’, as Qazwini came to be called, appeared only in the 19th century. The response was decidedly sceptical: the French Orientalist Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy said the text was ‘puerile and fabulous’. To Europeans in the age of imperialism, Wonders and Rarities epitomised the superstition and ignorance of Muslim societies, despite – or perhaps because of – the book’s similarity to their own tradition of marvels. The fact that intellectual historians are now ready to engage with the work indicates the degree to which such misapprehensions have been overcome, at least in academic circles.

A page from a 17th-century edition of ‘Wonders and Rarities’.

Wonders and Rarities has been studied by art historians in particular, but Travis Zadeh sets it in the context of wider Islamic thought. There was an entire field of learning concerned with the wonders of nature, pursued both in other encyclopedias as well as in the treatises of philosophers such as Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna). Wonder, Zadeh writes, was central to Muslims’ engagement with the world from the Middle Ages up to the 19th century. Whereas Zadeh’s predecessors often focused on the celebrated centuries of Islamic intellectual history spanning 750 to 1250, believing what came after to have been derivative and dull, he is concerned with so-called ‘post-classical’ thought. He consults sources in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu, many in manuscript form, and traces them back to their Greek origins in the works of Apollonius, Aristotle, Galen and Pythagoras, to name but a few. Indeed, he faces the mammoth task of mastering the same range of disciplines as Qazwini himself, from alchemy to botany, philosophy, theology and zoology. These feats are themselves worthy of wonder.

Qazwini’s book emerged from the crucible of post-Mongol Eurasia. It is hard to overstate the havoc that mounted Mongol archers wrought on Eurasian societies, unseating leaders from Beijing to Baghdad and replacing them with the largest land empire in world history. Qazwini witnessed these upheavals first-hand, fleeing first the Mongol invasion of his hometown of Qazvin in Iran (1220), and then their conquest of Wasit in Iraq (1258). And yet, under the Ilkhanids, the successors to the Mongols in Iran and Iraq, Qazwini found not only employment as a judge and teacher, but also patronage for his great project, which he probably completed around 1262. Indeed, for all its chaos and destruction, this dynamic era laid the intellectual foundation for the post-Mongol polities of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. The spirit and the geography of Zadeh’s book are inspired by what Shahab Ahmed called the ‘Balkans to Bengal complex’, the incubator of a form of Islam that flourished alongside – and in many ways ran counter to – the legalistic tradition championed by jurists based in Arab lands. Qazwini’s world had Persia at its centre. It was a world where wine panegyrics facilitated spiritual contemplation, where sex magic coexisted with God’s power. Zadeh thus uses Qazwini to shift the focus of Islamic history away from the Arab Middle East, which has commanded so much attention in modern scholarship, to the Anatolian, Iranian, Central and South Asian regions that have historically housed the majority of Muslims.

Amid the Mongol chaos, Qazwini managed to create a work characterised by impeccable order. After a long introduction laying out the book’s philosophical and conceptual underpinnings, he describes the heavens, then proceeds downwards to the earthly realm – the minerals, elements, land, seas – and ends with living things: humans, jinn, animals and creatures with strange forms. Entries run from a few lines to a few pages and offer facts, entertaining tales and practical advice. The categories, which are subdivided alphabetically, meant that an educated reader searching for the bee could easily locate it. But the book is also intended to function as a whole. Leafing through it, one might begin to fathom the connections between all God’s creations.

For Qazwini and his contemporaries, to contemplate the wonders of nature was to contemplate the majesty of God, so much so that cosmography was a mainstay of Islamic theology. But wonder was also an intellectual method. It acted as the initial stimulus for acquiring knowledge. In the words of Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, Qazwini’s near contemporary, ‘the more one contemplates and the more informed one is of the wonders, rarities and marvels behind the actions of all created things, the more one’s knowledge reaches perfection and wisdom increases.’ Feelings of wonder had to be cultivated, however: while everyone was born with a natural curiosity about the world, familiarity dulled their awe. Wonders and Rarities helped readers to rekindle the epistemic impulse.

Qazwini drew attention to the marvellous qualities of ordinary phenomena, offering a month-by-month account of the development of the baby in the womb and listing the unique characteristics of the olive tree (its ability to withstand drought, and to yield an oil that doesn’t smoke when burned). Echoing Plato, he articulated a hierarchy of human cognition in which the rational soul was the sovereign, reason the chief minister and the tongue the court interpreter. He described the extraordinary, explaining, for instance, the difference between talismans, which acted by association with celestial forces, and potions and amulets (niranjat), which acted through terrestrial forces. And he spun tales, which he himself admitted could not all be true, such as the one about the sailors who alighted on an island, only to find when they lit a fire that they had landed on the back of a giant sea turtle.

This is not to say that wonder displaced scepticism or rational thought. Zadeh’s book can be read as an extended reflection on negotiating the limits of human knowledge. Qazwini, like his contemporaries, was comfortable with these limits: ‘Everything that humans have ever comprehended,’ he explained, ‘is merely a drop in the sea and a grain in the desert of all existence.’ This attitude made it easier for him to present contradictory theses without trying to reconcile them – the diverging accounts of the Earth’s location among the heavenly spheres, say (Qazwini knew about heliocentric models of the heavens, but preferred geocentric ones). In other instances, he postulated which of several theories was most likely to be true, as in the case of predictive astrology (where he leaned towards Ptolemy’s work). His approach displays the humility about our place in the world and the tolerance of ambiguity that Thomas Bauer argues characterised pre-modern Islamic societies. At the same time, his effort to compile all possible models into a single volume was a way of containing that uncertainty.

In the centuries after Qazwini’s death, each new generation and each new dynasty produced new copies, new translations and new editions of Wonders and Rarities. Its enduring popularity stemmed in part from its flexibility: the encyclopedic format made it easy to add and subtract material, such that later readers, dissatisfied with its presentation of Egypt, added sections about the pyramids of Giza or the conjoined twins of Cairo. The case of India proves especially interesting. With its exotic creatures and unfamiliar deities, India was, for Qazwini, the site of rarities par excellence. As Muslims increasingly settled the subcontinent, Wonders and Rarities proved a helpful tool in assimilating local novelties: the book expanded to accommodate Indian philosophy, Mughal dynastic history and erotica. Ottoman editions included ever more accurate depictions of the Americas, with marvels once located in the Caspian Sea transposed onto this new frontier of wonder.

After many centuries of circulation and emendation, Wonders and Rarities declined in popularity. As Enlightenment Europeans began to disdain wonder as the vulgar sentiment of amateurs, Muslim intellectuals followed suit. The history of colonised people abandoning aspects of their own intellectual tradition under the pressure of European imperialism is well known. But by beginning and ending his narrative with 19th-century Orientalists, Zadeh exaggerates the gap between understandings of wonder in Western Christianity and the Muslim East. As Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park have shown, from the 12th century well into the 18th, wonder was foundational to Western European thought. Drawing, at least initially, on the same Aristotelian tradition, scholars variously viewed wonder as a vehicle for divine contemplation, a centrepiece of natural philosophy or a foundation for empirical investigation. Notwithstanding Zadeh’s discussion of the European penchant for Freemasonry (hardly the epitome of rationalism), his framing ends up reproducing the modern dichotomy of a ‘rational’ West and a marvelling East.

At times, the book’s transnationalism and intertextuality threaten to overwhelm its actual object. This may seem the right way to study Qazwini, whose work was so tightly interwoven with his time that it was often made invisible, incorporated into other works without attribution. But as an approach it sacrifices some of the texture of Wonders and Rarities: its physical texture, what it meant to see its images or to hold a book of all creation in one’s hands; but also its rhetorical and emotional texture, what Daston and Park call wonder’s ‘texture as felt experience’. Qazwini’s prose leans into the wondrous: ‘The anatomy of the body is one of the marvels that confounds educated minds from start to finish and that human understanding is unable to fully grasp.’ But how did this prose work its own magic on the reader? What about other aspects of wonder, such as horror and disgust? Did Qazwini try to obviate these potentially destabilising emotions? Amid the sweeping vistas of the Islamic world and the ambitious efforts at contextualisation, some of the character of Qazwini’s book – and some of the reader’s own wonder – is lost.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences