NEW YORK –Just as there was a robust conversation between Medieval Islam and the classical world in antiquity, lines on a map shouldn’t stop the free flow of ideas today, according to New York’s recently opened exhibition, “Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformation of the Classical Past.”
The exhibition makes its point through more show than tell and features a wide array of artifacts, including an ornately decorated 16th century Quran bearing the personal stamps of Ottoman sultans; a rare 14th century Hebrew translation from Arabic of Aristotelian philosophy; an anatomical drawing dating from the late 1600s of the female body showing a fetus in the womb.
These are just a few of the illuminated manuscripts and detailed illustrations on display as part of the new exhibition, which is show at New York’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World through May 19. It includes the largest ever display of treasures belonging to the National Library of Israel sent outside of the country.
Yet, there is more to this exhibit than the unprecedented 24 rare texts from the NLI, or the number of languages represented — Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew. It’s particularly noteworthy that these rare Muslim treasures, which belong to an Israeli cultural institution, are now being displayed in the United States.
And it’s precisely this cross-cultural exchange the exhibit seeks to illuminate.
“While it’s tricky to draw direct parallels between the past and the present, one of the takeaways from the exhibition is how fruitful intellectual exchange — in multiple directions and along multiple trajectories — is and can be,” said Samuel Thrope, a curator with the National Library of Israel.
One of the best examples on display is the Hebrew translation of Aristotle’s work “On the Soul,” Thrope said. It was translated from the original Greek first into Syriac, and then into Arabic in ninth century Baghdad. From there it was translated from Arabic into Hebrew, beginning in 14th century Spain and then completed in Italy in the wake of Jewish persecution on the Iberian Peninsula.
“Hebrew translations like this served as the basis for the translation of Aristotle’s work back into Latin. This one ancient Greek philosophical work, through its translations and the commentaries and further endeavors that it generated, illuminated centuries of human knowledge and discovery,” Thrope said.
“All this goes to show that intellectual exchange always pays unexpected dividends. We wanted to tell a story that covers the gamut of knowledge — from literature and fantasy to hard core mathematics and astronomy,” he said.
The decision to lend the manuscripts for the exhibition, which opened February 14 at Manhattan’s Institute for the Study of Ancient World, is part of the NLI’s larger mission to open access to its treasures for diverse audiences worldwide. It also helps raise the profile of the library, whose collection spans from the 11th century to the 18th century CE.
“It is a show that draws you in. It is aesthetically gorgeous. In this beautiful space you have all these cultures in conversation with each other. It models how fruitful the exchange was between cultures. But they [Islamic world] didn’t just borrow information. They were in dialogue with it. They commented on it and corrected it. They fed into their own understanding of it,” said Raquel Ukeles, curator of the National Library of Israel’s Islam and Middle East Collection.
“Not only does ‘Romance and Reason’ give us a chance to showcase some of the finest manuscripts from our Yahuda Collection to an international audience, it also allows us to build and strengthen relationships with leading cultural institutions in New York City and beyond,” she said.
Between 750 CE to the end of the 10th century, scholars, scientists and others in the Islamic world translated classical Greek works, including literature, philosophy, and medicine into Arabic. In this way they reimagined ancient Greek material to suit their societies.
To tell this story the curators divided “Romance and Reason” into two thematic installations. One centers on Islamic versions of the story of Alexander the Great, known as Iskandar, the other on scientific, medical and mathematical topics.
Among the 30 illuminated versions of the Persian accounts of the life of Alexander on display is the “Shahnamah,” or “Book of Kings.” Considered a literary masterpiece, it’s the world’s longest epic poem, written by a single poet — Abu al-Qasim Firdausi between 977 and 1010 CE. There is also an elaborately illustrated 19th century copy of Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s “Khamsa,” or “Book of Glory.”
Created over 500 years, the manuscripts portray the development of Iskandar’s character and identity. He is alternately shown as a warrior, a king, a seeker of truth and a prophet.
There are also several works highlighting how Muslim physicians, mathematicians, and scientists built and improved upon their classical predecessors’ discoveries, including a rare 14th century Hebrew translation from Arabic of Aristotelian philosophy. Begun in Spain, the manuscript was completed in Italy after the Iberian Peninsula’s anti-Jewish riots of 1391.
Visitors can see a 17th century work by Nasir al-Din Tusi, a Muslim polymath. It preserves lost geometrical theorems of the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes.
There are illustrations from the Greek physician Dioscorides Pedanius’s “De material medica,” as well as “The Canon of Medicine” by physician and philosopher Avicenna — regarded as a major medical textbook until the 1800s. It was as important to the Islamic world as Hippocrates was to the Greeks.
In 1511 Ibn al-Haytham diagrammed the eye. His detailed drawing was included in the “Revision of the Book of Optics for Those Possessing Sight and Insight,” also included in the exhibit.
“He was dissecting eyes and his detailed and graphic illustrations showed he understood the theory of how the eye worked,” Ukeles said.
Each of the items on display here shows how the Medieval Islamic world put its own stamp on classical Greek texts.
“One of the main points of the exhibition is that Muslim — and Christian and Jewish — thinkers were never passive recipients of classical Greek culture. In all its aspects, the Islamic engagement with the classical past was characterized by active transformation, lively argument with the works of ancient masters, and expansion of their ideas,” Thrope said.
An example of this is the way mathematical tools invented by the ancient Greeks and refined by Muslim mathematicians served both practical and religious ends, he said. Muslims must face Mecca when they pray, but finding the precise direction of the holy city involves complex calculations. One of the items in the exhibition, the 18th century “Commentary on the Compendium of Astronomy” by Qadizade al-Rumi, includes just such instructions and diagrams for calculating the direction of Mecca from any point on Earth.
“Romance and Reason” will incorporate items from other leading collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library & Museum, the National Library of Medicine, the Brooklyn Museum, Princeton University, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
“We hope that the exhibition helps people understand the way that knowledge and ideas are passed down, adapted, and transformed across cultures throughout history, that there is a rich dialogue across the centuries and across all kinds of borders–religion, language, and more,” said Dr. Alexander Jones, director of the ISAW.
The exhibition will run until May 13, 2018 and at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York.