Book Review: What the World Looked Like to a Mapmaker in Medieval Cairo

What makes these maps and the accompanying information so important – and indeed poignant – is that by the time this copy was made in 1200, the Fatimid empire had been destroyed by Saladin on his way to defeating the Crusaders. Sicily had already been taken over by Roger II, and soon enough Mahdia and Tinnis would fall into oblivion – the latter is completely lost. The distinctive Shia Ismaili caliphate of which the Book of Curiosities is a product now gave way to the Sunni Ayyubids, whose focus naturally tended more towards Damascus and Jerusalem.

In September 2000, Christie’s called up the Oxford historian of Islamic science Emilie Savage-Smith. The auctioneer wanted to show her an unusual manuscript. The covers were scruffy, badly fitting and disfigured by bird droppings. But inside were 48 sheets containing 14 unique maps and an unknown treatise. After much detective work Savage-Smith and her co-author Yossef Rapoport, who teaches at Queen Mary University of London, concluded that it was a copy made around 1200 of the Book of Curiosities, which is originally dated to between 1020 and 1050. Most likely written by a smart man at the Egyptian Fatimid court, it is one of the most important Arabic manuscript discoveries in the last century – amply worth the £400,000 the Bodleian Library paid for it in 2002.


The authors have taken their time but in Lost Maps of the Caliphs they offer a comprehensive and fascinating appraisal of the manuscript, putting it in the context of other Arab and world maps.

Read more at the source

Book is available for purchase here:


Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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