Monday, November 27, 2017

A couple of phenomenal digitized manuscripts: From Marvel of Things to Turkish Fairy Tales

by Salman Hameed

I am more or less despairing on the broader negative turn of the Internet - in particular the addictiveness of social media sites like Facebook. More on that later. On the positive side, however, we can access and explore books in a way never before possible. In fact, there are books that we may never have encountered, unless we were doing research on that particular topic. With this spirit in mind, here are three books from The Public Domain Review that got my attention.

The first one is an illustrated version of a 13th century book by physician and astronomer, Zakariya al-Qazwini. Here is a brief description of the book Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing from the Public Domain Review site:
Images from an illustrated version of a 13th-century Arabic treatise by Zakariya al-Qazwini titled ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt (Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing). The text is probably the best known example of ‘ajā’ib or ‘jā’ib al-makhlūqāt literature, a genre of classical Islamic literature that was concerned with “mirabilia”: cosmographical and geographical topics that challenged understanding. Al-Qazwini’s treatise explored an eclectic mix of topics, from humans and their anatomy to strange mythical creatures; from plants and animals to constellations of stars and zodiacal signs. The treatise was extremely popular and was frequently illustrated over the centuries into both Persian and Turkish. The images featured here are from an exquisitely illustrated Persian translation, thought to hail from 17th-century Mughal India.
And here a couple of images from the manuscript (in the last one below, you can also read "Parinda" (bird) in Persian/Urdu next to a cat with wings):


 


Then there are the 16th century maps of Bosnian-born Ottoman Matrakçı Nasuh. Again from The Public Domain Review
In addition to his important writings in the fields of both mathematics and history, the Bosnian-born polymath and all-round genius Matrakçı Nasuh is best known for his exquisite miniatures depicting various landscapes and urban centres of 16th-century Persia. The images can be found spread across his four historic volumes, with perhaps the most important being Fetihname-i Karabuğdan — now at the library of Istanbul University — which addresses Suleiman the Magnificent’s Safavid War of 1532–1555. In the work Matrakçı Nasuh illustrates the cities encountered by the Ottoman army as they marched from Istanbul to Baghdad, then Tabriz, and the return journey through Halab and Eskisehir. 
The name Matrakçı was not, in fact, his name by birth but rather a nickname referring to his invention of a kind of military lawn game called matrak (a word which means “cudgel” or “mace”, the main weapon at the heart of the game). The name stuck, and later would come to label its very own genre in Ottoman miniature art, the “Matrakçı style”, describing works echoing his penchant for detail and precision of execution, perhaps nowhere better encapsulated than in the famous image of Istanbul from 1536. 

Here is this amazing 1536 map of Istanbul referred above: 

And to cap it off, here is a 1913 book of Forty-Four Turkish Fairy Tales


And a description from The Public Domain Review:
The most famous collectors of folk stories remain, at least in the West, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, but many others followed in their influential wake. Among them was Ignác Kúnos (1860-1945), who compiled this volume of Turkish fairytales in the same tradition. A Hungarian-born linguist, Kúnos also had an interest in the Turkish dialect and folk tradition, and collected several volumes of oral fairytales, not through reading and study, but by travelling around the Turkish country and listening to storytellers. 
In this elaborately produced volume, beautifully illustrated by Willy Pogany, Kúnos describes the stories as being closer to the fairytales of European tradition than those in Arabian Nights, seeking to dissuade his readers of any notion of Orientalism. However, the fact that these tales are thematically similar to their Western counterparts — containing stories of princesses and dragons, witches and white horses, heroes and villains — should not be surprising to any frequent reader of fairytales. They are so often, in some way, international. 
One striking element of these tales from Turkey is the frequent presence of the over-sized supernatural beings referred to as “Dews” (or on occasion simply “Arabs”!) — known elsewhere in Islamic folklore as “Devis” or “Jin” (Europeanized as “Genie”). With their towering form their closest cognate in the European tradition would be the figure of the giant, with some fairy-like elements thrown in for good measure. Like giants they are normally malevolent towards humans, but are sometimes friendly and helpful.
Good stuff!

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