An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe: The Book of Curiosities

Publication Year



Acquired by the Bodleian Library in 2002, the Book of Curiosities is now recognized as one of the most important discoveries in the history of cartography in recent decades. This eleventh-century Arabic treatise, composed in Egypt under the Fatimid caliphs, is a detailed account of the heavens and the Earth, illustrated by an unparalleled series of maps and astronomical diagrams. With topics ranging from comets to the island of Sicily, from lunar mansions to the sources of the Nile, it represents the extent of geographical, astronomical and astrological knowledge of the time. This authoritative edition and translation, accompanied by a colour facsimile reproduction, opens a unique window onto the worldview of medieval Islam.

An extensive glossary of star-names and seven indices, on birds, animals and other items have been added for easy reference.

Table of Contents


Facsimile of Oxford, Bodleian MS Arab. c. 90

Arabic edition
Book One
Book Two

Translation with Commentary
Book One
The first chapter on the extent of the celestial sphere, and a summary of the sayings of the scholars regarding its knowledge and structure.
The second chapter on the attributes of the signs of the zodiac and their merit.
The third chapter on the northern and southern constellations and their attributes.
The fourth chapter on thirty stars with occult influences.
The fifth chapter on the forms of the northern and southern stars.
The sixth chapter on the attributes of stars with tails [comets] and their curiosities.
The seventh chapter on the obscure stars having faint lances in the ninth sphere, which have immense favorable and malevolent influences.
The eighth chapter on the attributes of the planets, their influences, special characteristics, and dimensions, along with the manner of their pictorial representations and their various names.
The ninth chapter on the lunar mansions, their attributes and occult influences, together with an explanation of their heliacal risings and settings, their forms, and their ʿayyūqāt-stars (indicator stars).
The tenth chapter on the blowing of winds, earthquakes, and tremors.

Book Two
The first chapter of the second book on the measurement of the Earth and its division into seven climes, as related by Ptolemy and others.
The second chapter on the map of the Earth.
The third chapter on the seven climes and their conditions, the lands beyond the equator and the lands at the edge of the northern boundary.
The fifth chapter on the cities ( amṣār) of the remote regions.
The sixth chapter on the depiction of the seas, their islands and havens.
The seventh chapter on the cities and fortresses along its shores.
The tenth chapter on the Western Sea – i.e., the Syrian Sea – and its harbours and islands and anchorages.
The eleventh chapter on the Sea of Khazarān [the Caspian Sea].
The twelfth chapter presenting a brief description of the largest islands in these seas.
The thirteenth chapter on the peninsula of al-Mahdīyah.
The fourteenth chapter concerning the island of Tinnīs.
The fifteenth chapter on the islands of the infidels.
The sixteenth chapter on the depiction of inlets, i.e., bays, in particular the bays of Byzantium.
The seventeenth chapter on the description of the lakes.
The eighteenth chapter on the rivers, their forms, and the cities near them.
The nineteenth chapter on the description of the [other] rivers.
The twentieth chapter, on the marvellous aquatic creatures amongst the fishes and the sea animals ... and on marine creatures which are associated with the shape of the lunar mansions.
The twenty-first chapter on deformed humans.
The twenty-second chapter on wondrous waters.
The twenty-third chapter on strange plants.
The twenty-fourth chapter on strange wild animals.
The twenty-fifth chapter on wondrous birds.

Glossary of star-names
Index of animals and plants
Index of astronomical and astrological terms
Index of peoples and Tribes
Index of place names
Index of persons and treatises cited in the Book of Curiosities
General index


"This carefully edited and translated medieval work is a must-have item in any collection of research materials on the history of cartography."
Cyrus Alai in IMCoS Journal (International Map Collectors' Society) 139 (2014), 59-60.

" epic piece of scholarship that will enable western scholars to reassess their understanding of medieval Islamic cosmology and mapmaking and its relation to the Christian tradition."
Jerry Brotton in History Today 64.3 (2014), p. 59.

“… a major contribution to our knowledge of eleventh-century Egyptian cosmology, astronomy, astrology, geography and related subjects. […]
… an invaluable reference work and a solid basis for the future research to which it points.”
Petra G. Schmidl in Imago Mundi 67.2 (2015), 255-256

“The discovery, editing and translation of the Book of Curiosities opens numerous windows for scholars and researchers working in the fields of cartography, the history of Arabic thought, and travel narratives. The manuscript offers an insight into the Muslim cosmographic medieval worldview. Its comprehensive content and illustrative maps are no less fascinating than the Arabian Nights. Further close study of the manuscript will enrich our knowledge of many disciplines, such as astrology, astronomy, the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt, the mirabilia tradition, and maritime travel in the medieval Islamic world, to mention but a few.”
Sally Abed in al-Masāq. Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean 27.3 (2015), 277-278.

“…an exceptionally beautiful book […].
…an outstanding work of scholarship […].
Oliver Leaman in Philosophy East and West 65.3 (2015), 971-972.

"Brill’s unshakeable commitment to the highest standards of academic publishing has combined with the erudite scholarship of two first-rank researchers in order to produce one of the finest contributions to the field of Islamicate studies of the last years. Behind this gorgeous volume there lies over a decade of hard work since the acquisition of the manuscript of the Book of Curiosities (MS Arab c.90) by the
Bodleian Library in 2002.. A hitherto unexplored Arabic text of respectable age.., a sheer amount of scholarly information carefully selected and presented in the most profitable way for researchers, and a highly reader-friendly and enticing format—these are some of the assets that make of this book a great contribution to Mediaeval Arabic studies and a model to follow on more than one account."
Theo Loinaz in Suhayl, volume 14 (2015), 196 -198

"It is one of the most meticulously researched, well-prepared, and – frankly – beautiful books that I have encountered in years. With its picturesque diagrams, careful illustrations, and coloured facsimiles of various manuscripts, it is truly a marvel for the eyes. Given its size, it boasts both quality and quantity – a rare feat in today’s world in light of the pressure to churn out publications.”
Mohammad Mesbahi in Journal of Shi‘a Islamic Studies, Winter 2016, Vol. IX, No. 1

"...we should applaud the efforts of the editors/translators in making this interesting, idiosyncratic work accessible to scholars and other interested readers."
F. Jamil Ragep in Journal for the History of Astronomy, 2016.

"Der Wert dieser Publikation und das Verdienst der Verfasser liegt darin, ein zwar kurzes, aber bisher nicht bekanntes arabisches kosmographisches Werk durch Faksimile-Ausgabe, Text-Edition und Übersetzung mit einer Vielzahl von Kommentaren (in den Anmerkungen zur Übersetzung) vorzüglich aufbereitet zu haben. Die Verfasser haben eine mustergültige Edition und Übersetzung vorgelegt und eine detaillierte Ausarbeitung und Aufbereitung durchgeführt, die alle erdenklichen Aspekte berücksichtigt. Diese Publikation muss und wird nicht nur die Standard-Ausgabe zum anonymen [Werk] aus dem 11. Jahrhundert bleiben, ihr kommt auch eine Vorbildwirkung für die Bearbeitung vergleichbarer arabischer Handschriften zu.".
Herbert Eisenstein in Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, vol. 106/2016

Series Title
Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science. Texts and Studies
Leiden and Boston