5 July 2002



Bodleian Library purchases unique medieval atlas

News Releases
27 June 2002

The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford has purchased what may be the most important Islamic scientific manuscript to come on the market for the last 100 years. 'The Book of Strange Arts and Visual Delights' is a remarkable medieval Arabic manuscript which contains an important and hitherto unknown series of colourful maps, giving unique insight into medieval concepts of the world.

The purchase of the manuscript, which cost £400,000, was made possible thanks to generous grants and donations from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, the Friends of the Bodleian Library, a number of Oxford colleges, and individual firms and supporters.

The manuscript is made up of two books, the first on celestial matters and the second on terrestrial matters, and consists of 48 folios (96 pages). It includes two world maps (see picture), a map of Sicily and one of Cyprus, as well as astronomical diagrams, most of which are unparalleled in any other Greek, Latin, or Arabic material known to be preserved today. The author is unnamed and has not so far been identified. Internal evidence regarding the sources used by the author (largely of the 9th or 10th centuries), the dates mentioned in the text, and acknowledgement of the Fatimid imams, who ruled at Cairo from 969-1171, enables experts to suggest that the treatise was composed in the late 11th or early 12th century, and that this copy was probably made in the late 12th or early 13th century in Egypt or Syria.

Lesley Forbes, Keeper of Oriental Collections at the Bodleian Library, said: 'This is not only an Islamic scientific manuscript of the first importance for scholarship, but its acquisition by the Bodleian, most fittingly in the year of the Library's 400th anniversary, also provides a magnificent opportunity to increase public awareness of the Islamic contribution to our common heritage.

'Additionally the manuscript is of supreme importance for the Bodleian's collections. The Bodleian has one of the few important collections of medieval Islamic cartographic manuscripts in Europe, including two of the six other [later] known copies of the famous al-Idrisi map, which is also included in this medieval atlas.'

In addition to meeting the balance of the purchase price of the manuscript, the grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) will enable the manuscript to be conserved so that it can be displayed to the public and made available for study. In addition, the HLF grant will allow a web-site devoted to the manuscript and interpreting it to be created, and an outreach programme to be developed, so that this important scientific manuscript can be made available to the widest possible audience.

The manuscript, which is in a fragile state, will be on special temporary display from 1-8 July 2002 as part of the Bodleian 400th anniversary exhibition 'Wonderful things from 400 years of collecting: the Bodleian Library, 1602-2002', before being removed to enable essential conservation work to begin. It is expected that a working copy will be provided by the end of 2002.

Because of the fragile nature of the manuscript, there will be a single photo opportunity on Monday, 1 July 2002, 4.30pm at the Bodleian Library. Lesley Forbes, Keeper of Oriental Collections, and Dr Emilie Savage-Smith, Senior Research Associate at Oxford University's Oriental Institute, will be present and available for interview. Journalists wishing to attend please contact the Press Office on 01865 280528.