If the hare sees the sea
Anna Della Subin
- 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, ISBN 978 0 14 310748 4
‘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.’
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[*] ‘Why Was the 14th Century a Century of Arabic Encyclopedism?’ in Encyclopedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance, edited by Jason König and Greg Woolf (2013).