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.’
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
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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).