Whoa, what’s this from out of the blue?! Why it’s the Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World. An enormous title is quite befitting for a quite enormous encyclopedia, which was pieced together by the retired administrator Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri in the fourteenth century.
It was made available in English for the first time in 2016 after hundreds of years being handed around in the Middle East as, like, an old version of Wikipedia. It has been revered for a long time – its author thumped in decades of work piecing together a knowledge capsule of the way of the world, eventually writing over two million words before his death in 1333. The result is a fascinating account of how everything was perceived back in t’olden days.
The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition
Elias Muhanna had the almighty task of sifting through the entire volume looking for gems to add to this 300 page volume. Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri separated the work into many volumes and didn’t intend anyone to sit there reading it as if it were a traditional book – as with any encyclopedia, readers over the centuries simply dipped in and out as necessary.
The result is Muhanna created the book to offer the same option for modern readers. It’s not intended to be read traditionally, you simply dive on in and have a look around (such as with the Atlas Obscura book from 2016) and all the (often) weird goings on. Naturally, the author’s understanding of the world in the 1300s is a bit out of joint with what humans know now, but it’s also surprising how much they got right.
This being us, of course, we were more drawn to sections such as “Recipe for a Pungent Cake That Eliminates Armpit Odor”. This is a genius recipe which involves sandalwood, bastard cinnamon, musk sukk, spikenard, alum, myrrh, red roses, zinc oxide, litharge, and camphor. There are all sorts of other bizarre goings on as well, including detailed descriptions of animals, along with musings on general anatomy and other such confusing things.
Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri wasn’t the only writer to take on such a concept, with the likes of Pliny’s Natural History offering Westerners access to contemporary knowledge. These days, even though it’s not exactly a reputable source, many people turn to Wikipedia for their kicks. It’s the age of information and we can quite easily gain access to modern understanding of physics, medicine, or whatever else to come across as smart alecks.
We do love Wikipedia, but it’s important to remember to check your sources and not rely on it as fact (even if it did recently ban the Daily Mail as a source). It does, as with Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri’s work, clearly indicate the human fascination with the encyclopedia. From Encarta back in the 1990s, to the Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, and now with Wikipedia dominating the internet, we do love ourselves a bit of knowledge.
What makes this endlessly fascinating tome extra special, however, is its age. For nearly 1,000 years this thing has been passed around and handed from one generation to the next. Now, for the first time, a minute portion of it has been translated into the English. There are going on two million other words we still don’t have access to, but this selection is enough to display what makes humanity tick: learning, understanding, and evolving.