“An eleventh-century Egyptian Guide to the Universe” – Book of Curiosities

The Voynich-like glyphs occasionally noticed in other sources include those in a copy of the ‘Book of Marvels’, the Kitab al Bulhan.


Another work of that type, though written throughout in Arabic script, is now known for convenience’ sake as the ‘Book of Curiosities’.

It is believed to have been written between 1120-1180 AD, in Egypt, and since its acquisition by the Bodleian in 2000, it has aroused what may fairly called awe in addition to mere curiosity.

For a first introduction to it, and an explanation of why it is so important to our understanding of Islamic learning, I’d recommend you begin this this article, if you can get access though JSTOR, or in hardcopy.

Jeremy Johns and Emilie Savage-Smith, ‘The Book of Curiosities: A Newly Discovered Series of Islamic Maps’, Imago Mundi, Vol. 55 (2003), pp. 7-24,

In a YouTube video, one of the ‘Treasures of the Bodleian’ series, Savage-Smith shows two of the maps:

In my opinion, none of its maps are closely similar to that comprising folio 86v of MS Beinecke 408, but in the rectangular world map two unusual items have their counterpart in the Voynich map. These are (i) use of dots to mark an itinerary – a practice known otherwise only from Chinese maps before Fra Mauro adopted it in Venice and (ii) omission of Jerusalem from the worldmap. (see page 11 in the article mentioned above).

For those working on the text of MS Beinecke 408, and particularly the labels of folio 86v, The Book of Curiosities is likely to prove useful. As Savage-Smith says in that video, on one of its numerous maps, 395 city names are given.  A few errors in it are worth noting, too, such as that which sets on the position of Trebizond the name ‘Tabaristan’.

All the inscriptions and text in the Book of Curiosities are naturally in Arabic, but so much scholarly excitement greeted its discovery that I daresay you will find something about it in most major languages.

Savage-Smith also makes a point which I consider vital.  The maps do not mark coast-lines accurately but  on the contrary it appears that, as she says, “the main aim was to map areas of sea…”








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