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Artist

Unknown Artist (Egyptian)

Title

Two Pages from ‘The Book of the Seven Climes’ by Abū al-Qāsim al-‘Irāqī

Creation Date

1250-1300

Century

mid-13th to early 14th century

Object Type

manuscript

Creation Place

Middle East, Egypt

Medium and Support

tempera on paper

Credit Line

Gift of Miss Elizabeth P. Martin

Copyright

Public Domain

Accession Number

1968.82

Object Description

2019 Essay written by Benjamin Hallum of the British Library (Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Cruator, British Library, and Wellcome Research Fellow, University of Warwick) wrote the following for the 2019 exhibition "Art Purposes":
Leaf from the Book of the Seven Climes by Abū al-Qāsim al-‘Irāqī (13th century)
1968.82

IMAGES: Recto and verso sides of item 1968.82

This single leaf is likely all that survives of the earliest known copy of an Arabic alchemical work called the Book of the Seven Climes with Allegorical Illustrations (
Kitāb al-aqālīm al-ṣab‘a dhāt al-ṣuwar al-tashābīh). Very little is known about its author, Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-‘Irāqī al-Sīmāwī, who is best remembered as an alchemist, but also wrote books on various forms of magic, including sīmīyā or ‘letter-magic’ from which he earned his sobriquet al-Sīmāwī: ‘the Letter-Magician’. Although al-Sīmāwī’s family origins were in Iraq as indicated by his name al-‘Irāqī, his own writings inform us that he worked in Mamluk Cairo in the latter half of the 7th/13th century where he conducted his research amongst the collections of the royal library and that he had some connection with the city of Khosrowshah, now in north-western Iran. The script, paintings and paper of the leaf held by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art all suggest a production date in late 7th/13th century. The leaf thus takes on special significance since it is the earliest known, albeit fragmentary, manuscript of the Book of the Seven Climes, and may well have been copied within the al-Sīmāwī’s lifetime. It is, at any rate, a marvellous example of early Mamluk painting and of the Islamicate allegorical alchemical illustrations that were so influential in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Al-Sīmāwī’s loved to use secret codes in his books to hide certain key magical or alchemical ingredients and procedures from unserious readers. In the Book of the Seven Climes, al-Sīmāwī’s Egyptian context is apparent in his choice of a code employing symbols reminiscent of Pharaonic Hieroglyphs. These can be seen above and below the upper illustration on the recto side of present leaf. Just as al-Sīmāwī’s codes hide the magician-alchemist's secrets, so the allegorical illustrations code the ingredients and processes of alchemy in such a way as to be inscrutable to the uninitiated. In the Book of the Seven Climes, al-Sīmāwī compiles a great number of such illustrations from earlier Arabic alchemical books and accompanies them with a riddling text that is every bit as mysterious as the images it contains. The few sources al-Sīmāwī’s alchemical images that still survive attest to the accuracy with which he copied them. The majority of al-Sīmāwī’s sources, however, are now lost, making the Book of the Seven Climes an extremely important work for the little-known history and early development of allegorical alchemical visual arts in the Islamicate world.

On the recto side of the present leaf, the upper image shows two royal figures with crowns on their heads, clothed in red and seated on yellow chairs in front of an urn held over a table or brazier on which there are red objects, perhaps charcoals. Each figure holds a flask in its hand, the one on the right containing a red substance. Above the figures are suspended nine flasks, five red and four white. In alchemical symbolism, red often refers to gold and the making of gold, while white often refers to silver and the making of silver. A note in the margin to the left of the illustration that reads ‘an allusion to the nine irrigations which they mention in their books’ may indicate the significance of the nine flasks in the image. Below this image is another image of a green bird pecking at the eye of a yellow serpent. The accompanying text explains that a substance is being submersed in vinegar and then solidified 14 times and the reader is invited to ‘regard the images and their description’.

The illustrations on the verso side are indeed supplied with literal descriptions within the text. From these we can tell that, in the upper image, the crowned man seated on a yellow chair is meant to be clothed in white, not in red, and that the alchemical vessel which rests on top of the furnace and is being held and pointed to by the crowned man is meant to contain a compound that is ‘green at the bottom and red at the top’. Furthermore, as the tree to the left of the furnace is not mentioned in the text, are we to imagine that this was an artistic embellishment of the illuminator, which should not be interpreted as part of the allegory? In the lower image, a man dressed in green sits on a yellow chair and watches as a queen dressed in red is pecked in the nose by a raven. As the queen dies, she reveals a red disk. Such allegories were able to be read and appreciated on a number of different levels, while their gruesome and outlandish nature made them at once forbidding to the casual reader and memorable to adepts.


Comparable copies of the Book of the Seven Climes:

Dublin, Chester Beatty Library, Ar 5433, f. 20v (16th century)

London, British Library, Add. MS 25724, ff. 10r and 31v (18th century)

Riyad, King Saud University, MS 3167z, ff. 7r and 28v (16th century?)
http://makhtota.ksu.edu.sa/makhtota/3418/1#.W9yVWNL7Q-U


Further reading:

Berlekamp, Persis, ‘Painting as Persuasion: A Visual Defence of Alchemy in an Islamic Manuscript of the Mongol Period’, Muqarnas 20 (2003), pp. 35-59

Hallum, Bink, ‘Essay Review: The Tome of Images: an Arabic Compilation of Texts by Zosimos of Panopolis and a Source of the Turba Philosophorum’, Ambix 56.1 (2009), pp. 76-88 (reprinted in: P.E. Pormann ed., Islamic Medical and Scientific Tradition [London: Routledge, 2011], vol. 3, pp. 329-44)

Hallum, Bink and Marcel Marée, ‘A Medieval Alchemical Book Reveals New Secrets’, British Museum Blog, 5 February 2016, https://blog.britishmuseum.org/a-medieval-alchemical-book-reveals-new-secrets/

Holmyard, Eric J., ‘Abuʾl-Qāsim al-ʿIrāqī’, Isis 8, 1926, pp. 403–26

al-‘Irāqī, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad, Kitāb al-‘ilm al-muktasab fī zirā‘at adh-dhahab: Book of Knowledge Acquired Concerning the Cultivation of Gold, ed. and trans. Eric J. Holmyard (Paris: Librarie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1923)

Saif, Liana, ‘The Cows and the Bees: Arabic Sources and Parallels for Pseudo-Plato’s Liber Vaccae (
Kitāb al-Nawāmīs)’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 79 (2016), pp. 1-47

Ullmann, Manfred, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1972), pp. 235–37 and 268

Additional Media

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