Medieval Islamic manuscripts make their debut in New York City

The exhibit showcases two thematic installations.

Illustrated manuscript of Iskandar, medieval Islam's reinterpretation of Alexander the Great (photo credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)
Illustrated manuscript of Iskandar, medieval Islam's reinterpretation of Alexander the Great
NEW YORK – An exhibit featuring 24 illustrated medieval Islamic manuscripts from the National Library of Israel opened to the public on Wednesday at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW).
The exhibit, titled “Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past,” showcases two thematic installations: one devoted to Islamic versions of the story of Alexander the Great, the other to scientific, medical and mathematic topics.
The collection from Jerusalem offers visitors a chance to glimpse an exceptional group of rare Islamic manuscripts that testify to the relationship between medieval Islam and the classical world.
“With this exhibition in the heart of New York, we are proud to celebrate Israel’s cultural richness and partner with ISAW in sharing our treasures with the American public,” National Library of Israel director Oren Weinberg said.
“The National Library of Israel is invested in opening access to its collections and resources through digital, educational and cultural initiatives, as well as collaborations with other leading institutions like this,” he said. “We are always striving to share our treasures with new and diverse audiences in Israel and across the globe.”
Manuscript from Islamic medieval period (National Library of Israel).Manuscript from Islamic medieval period (National Library of Israel).
The Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew manuscripts range from lavishly illustrated romances, to complex mathematical, astronomical and scientific treatises.
The volumes – many of which are comprised of Persian ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper – originated in Iran, Spain, India and the Ottoman Empire, playing a central role in the exhibition’s “visual record of how, over the course of centuries, scholars, scientists, doctors, artists and others in the Islamic world transformed Ancient Greek material for their own day,” Weinberg said.
“Notable National Library of Israel treasures include a rare 14th-century Hebrew translation from Arabic of Aristotelian philosophy, begun in Spain and completed in Italy after the Iberian Peninsula’s anti-Jewish riots of 1391; a 17th-century work by Muslim polymath Nasir al-Din Tusi that preserves lost geometrical theorems of the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes; and a richly illustrated copy of Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s Book of Glory from 19th-century India,” he said.
THE FIRST installation features some 30 versions of medieval Persian accounts of the life of Alexander known as Shahnamah, or Book of Kings, an epic poem written by Abu al-Qasim Firdausi between 977 CE and 1010 CE; and the Khamsa, or Quintet, by Nizami Ganjavi, from the late 12th century CE.
The exhibit describes the works as an “Iranized and Islamacized” reinterpretation of the Macedonian emperor’s life, who at just 33 conquered huge swaths of territory stretching from Greece to modern day Iran.
At the time, the Muslim world was divided into three kingdoms: the Safavids of Persia; the Ottomans in most of the Mediterranean; and the Mughals in India. Together, they portray the evolution of Iskandar’s character and identity, showing him as warrior, king, seeker of truth, prophet and more.
As visitors walk into the exhibit, they are greeted with a soliloquy of ancient wisdom from the Khamsa, a reminder of the ephemeral nature of existence and man’s struggle to grasp its meaning: “There is nothing in the world as terrible and fateful as the fact that one comes like the wind and departs as a breath... but one must act well, with valor and chivalry.
I see no other fate, whether you are a subject or a prince.”
The second section of “Romance and Reason” is devoted to medicine, mathematics, science, and philosophy.
The advances in these fields – including Nasir al-Din Tusi’s improvements to Greek astronomy, Avicenna’s corrections of Galen’s medical theories, and al-Kashi’s innovations in mathematics – depended on massive and unprecedented efforts sponsored by the Abbasid caliphs, between 750 CE and the end of the 10th century, to translate Greek works into Arabic.
“Translators and commentators rendered almost the entire surviving classical Greek collection into Arabic – texts which then served as the foundation for discovery and until the modern age,” a statement from the exhibit’s website said.
Established in 2006, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University describes itself as an “independent center for scholarly research and graduate education, intended to cultivate comparative and connective investigations of the ancient world.”
“ISAW encourages approaches that encompass cultures from the western Mediterranean to China, and that cross the traditional boundaries between academic disciplines, promoting methodologies open to the integration of every category of evidence and method of analysis,” it said.