Bodleian Oriental Manuscripts on display at the European Parliament

5 November 2008

NEw_York_Conservation_226_smallSeven manuscripts from the Bodleian Oriental Collection are featured in an exhibition at the European Parliament in Brussels this week. The display is part of a series of events which mark the first Arab Week organized by the European legislative forum.

The Arab Week (3-7 November 2008) is an initiative which celebrates the close relationship between Europe and its Arab neighbours in the framework of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue.

The exhibition was opened by Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament. Also present was Amr Mussa, Secretary General of the League of Arab States and Sheikh Khalid al-Attiyah, the Deputy Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament. Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director, Bodleian Library, showed them around together with Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne.

The Bodleian manuscripts on show are:

  • Drawings of two machines for raising water from a well, from The Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Isma‘il ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari. He died in 1206 and his book is one of the earliest manuals of engineering. The manuscript was copied in 1486.
  • A scene from one of the Assemblies (Maqamat) of the eminent writer al-Hariri of Basra, who died in 1122. The witty tales that make up the Assemblies have for centuries been considered one of the treasures of Arabic literature. The manuscript was copied in 1337.
  • The Book of Algebra by al-Khwarazmi. The diagrams show geometrical solutions to two quadratic equations. Al-Khwarazmi, who lived in the ninth century, is the father of algebra (Arabic al-jabr) and was also responsible for introducing the Indian numerals to the Islamic world. His works reached Europe through twelfth-century Latin translations. The manuscript is dated 1342.
  • Illustration of a Squirting Cucumber, in an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’s Materia medica, one of the many Greek scientific and philosophical works associated with the name of Hunayn ibn Ishaq that were translated into Arabic in ninth-century Baghdad. The manuscript was copied in AD 1240 in the Nizamiyah Madrasah, probably in Baghdad.
  • Kitab al-Ifadah wa-al-i‘tibar of ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, a versatile physician and scholar who was born in Baghdad and died there in 1231. The manuscript is in the author’s own handwriting and is dated Cairo, 1204.
  • The Constitution of Humans, a medical work in fifty chapters on human life from conception to death, composed by Sa‘id ibn Hibat Allah. He was an eleventh-century Nestorian Christian physician both at the caliph’s court and at the famous ‘Adudi hospital in Baghdad. The manuscript was copied in Baghdad in 1166.
  • Two maps of Iraq from The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences, an anonymous work which was composed about 1030. The work is in two parts: the first on the heavens, and the second on the earth. These unique maps, unknown in any surviving Arabic, Greek or Latin sources, show (1) Iraq at the centre of the known world, and (2) the River Tigris. The manuscript dates from around 1200.

The Bodleian Library’s Oriental Collection comprises material from the Middle East and Asia, including books, manuscripts and even paintings in languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Sanskrit and Armenian. There are particular strengths in fields of Arabic science, mathematics and medicine.

The Library has a long history of acquiring oriental manuscripts. When it opened in 1602, the Library’s initial collection comprised a considerable number of oriental manuscripts.

Picture: Baronness Nicholson of Winterbourne, MEP showing the Bodleian manuscripts to the President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pottering, the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Amr Moussa, and the Deputy Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Sheikh Khalid al-Attiyah

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