A world of wonders: Exploring a 13th-century Muslim guide to the cosmos

Yale’s Travis Zadeh discusses his new book, “Wonders and Rarities,” which examines a seminal 13th-century work of natural history and cosmology.
Travis Zadeh and his book “Wonders and Rarities.”

Travis Zadeh

For centuries, “The Wonders of Things Created and Rarities of Matters Existent,” a seminal work of natural history and cosmology by 13th-century Persian scholar and judge Zakariyya Qazwini, has taken its readers on a journey into the mysteries and complexities of the world.

Drawing on classic and contemporary sources, Qazwini examined both the mundane and marvelous, addressing subjects as diverse as shooting stars, beehives, horses, and dragons.

Today, manuscript copies of the work are housed in major research libraries across the globe. Yale possesses several, including some that are lavishly illuminated. Yet, over the years, Qazwini’s encyclopedic compendium became regarded as a bizarre, if beautiful and intriguing, artifact of medieval ignorance.

In a new book, “Wonders and Rarities: The Marvelous Book That Traveled the World and Mapped the Cosmos” (Harvard University Press), Yale’s Travis Zadeh, a scholar of Islamic intellectual and cultural history, seeks to restore Qazwini to his rightful place as an important thinker who helped people better understand the world. 

Zadeh, who was promoted this year to professor of religious studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke to Yale News about Qazwini’s importance in bringing clarity to the cosmic order. The interview has been edited and condensed.

A map of the world from a 17th-century copy of Qazwini’s work at the Beinecke Library.
A map of the world from a 17th-century copy of Qazwini’s work at the Beinecke Library. As with most Islamic maps, south is at the top of the map and the Indian Ocean is depicted as enclosed by the eastern coast of Africa. Mecca sits at the center as the surrounding world spreads out from there.

What do we know about Qazwini?

Travis Zadeh: Qazwini’s life in many ways is a story of escaping one Mongol invasion after another. He fled his hometown of Qazvin, which is in northwestern Iran by the Caspian Sea, when the Mongols sacked it. Some 40,000 people were killed but he escaped.

He studied with some of the leading thinkers of his day and then ultimately settled in a provincial city in Iraq outside of Baghdad. The Mongols conquered that city, too, but Qazwini returned to it and wrote this work of natural history that celebrates the wonders of creation. In many ways, it’s a response to a world that’s been upended.

He drew from his own experience, but also from the many books he’d read. Aristotle and Avicenna — a Muslim philosopher, physician, and astronomer — are crucial figures. Qazwini found inspiration in the natural world and a sense of stability and divine design. You can think about the book as a response to the problem of evil in the world and a celebration of beauty and order.

What kinds of wonders and rarities await Qazwini’s readers?

Zadeh: Art historians have paid a lot of attention to the lavish paintings of angels and the monsters that are found in various manuscript copies of Qazwini’s natural history. The book was designed to be read, but also to allow readers to contemplate the beauty of the images inside it.

Qazwini saw wonder all around him. As moderns, we tend to focus on these spectacular images of ghouls, angels, mermaids, dragons, and wonderous creatures of every form. But he put a lot of emphasis on wonder in ordinary things that we take for granted. For example, he ponders the beehive and marvels at how bees can create such complicated forms. Indeed, the bulk of the book concerns plants, minerals, and animals that you might see in daily life.

The book is suffused with materia medica and follows the notion that the natural world has medicinal qualities, or even hidden magical properties, that people can’t fully understand, such as the way a magnet can attract iron or the power of the sun to heat the Earth, but that have a measurable impact on the world. It is encyclopedic. While he writes of women who grow on trees and humans with heads protruding from their chests, he also considers horses and porcupines and many common animals.

How does Qazwini distinguish between “wonder” and “rarity?”

Zadeh: He defines these terms in the book’s opening. For him, the word “rarity” is doing something quite significant at the time of his writing. It engages with high-level philosophical discussions about the reality of miracles and magic, but also about the various things that occur, but without any frequency. Natural philosophers of the day used this category to include not only the miraculous but what we would call monsters, creatures that were seldom seen by people. His word for monsters is the same word for rarity — rare creatures with rare forms. It’s also the same word he’d used to describe shooting stars or comets.

Pages from an 18th-century Persian manuscript of “The Wonders of Things Created and Rarities of Matters Existent.”
Pages from an 18th-century Persian manuscript of “The Wonders of Things Created and Rarities of Matters Existent” that was copied in India and is housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library: From right to left: Ursa Minor with added marginalia, Libra and Scorpio, and people with elephant-sized ears used as quilts.

At the same time, “wonder” for him could be found in things that are common, like beehives and horses. He discusses the notion that as we grow older, we lose our childhood sense of amazement. What he’s trying to do in using the term “wonder” is cultivate wonder anew about the world. It has a kind of theological argument built into it. He doesn’t have a word for nature as a broad abstraction, as we do, but he has the word “creation” and the creation around us has a Creator who has imbued the world with beauty, and it’s up to us to uncover it. Over time, in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Urdu, the phrase “wonders and rarities” fuses together. It becomes a catchall for things that are strange and rare. 

What influence did the book have on Western readers?

Zadeh: One thing that’s cool about Qazwini’s work is that so much of it finds parallels throughout Eurasia. It draws on stories that you might encounter in the Greek historian Herodotus or the Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder. In that sense, it shares in a long tradition of learning that spans the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and even South Asia. And yet, the work didn’t circulate into the Latin West for centuries. But many of the Arabic sources that Qazwini draws on were known in Europe through Latin translations. For example, Avicenna was a major figure. The Canon, Avicenna’s encyclopedic medical work that Qazwini draws on extensively, was taught and studied in Paris and Padua well into the 17th century. Qazwini shares a whole vocabulary, sensibility, and body of learning with scholars in Europe and elsewhere.

Manuscripts of his work first appear in Europe during the height of the Renaissance and the so-called Age of Discovery. A renewed humanism develops in this period and Qazwini becomes a source for information, particularly about plants, animals, and the stars. He’s often celebrated as “the Pliny of the East.” Pliny’s encyclopedia was a cornerstone of natural history. There are a lot of parallels between the two, although Qazwini did not know Pliny’s work.

Moving forward, his collection becomes very important in the rise of Orientalism. There is this sense during the period of European colonialism that Qazwini’s vision of the world was medieval and backwards. It was ridiculed by Orientalists and colonial officials in the 18th and 19th centuries as primitive and retrograde, filled with superstition.

My book attempts to show how deeply connected his writing and worldview were to the leading scientific authorities of his day. It was far from naïve or merely a hodgepodge of superstitions. Despite the many strange stories it contains, the work takes on what we would call a scientific approach, attempting to explain the world and better understand its limits.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Zadeh: I hope they come away with a sense that learning in Qazwini’s age, and in the world in which he lived, was dynamic, not static, and that wonder was an important way of understanding one’s place in a just cosmic order. I tried to write it in a way that was entertaining and invites readers to contemplate other ways of thinking about cosmology and our place in the world.  I hope they come away from it with a deeper appreciation of the contributions of thinkers like Qazwini, writing in Arabic and Persian, to the history of humanity and curiosity.

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Allison Bensinger: allison.bensinger@yale.edu,