Animals, Monsters and Far-Off Lands

What do mythological beasts and imaginary creatures have to do with the Mongol conquest?

عجائب المخلوقات وغرائب الموجودات، 1659، المكتبة الوطنية

Zakriyya al-Qazwini could not run fast enough.

Born in 1203 in the Iranian city of Qazvin, he spent his life either fleeing Chinggis Khan’s Mongol armies, which by 1283 had forged an empire stretching from China to Eastern Europe, or racing to find his place in the world the Mongol conquests had left behind.

Zakriyya al-Qazwini’s The Wonders of the Creatures and the Marvels of Creation, 1659

In 1220, Qazwini left his native town for Mosul and then Baghdad. Still, the conquerors caught up with him in the Iraqi town of Wasit, where they murdered 40,000 inhabitants. The Mongols spared intellectuals, artisans, and others they deemed useful, and thus Qazwini, a legal scholar and judge, was not killed. He continued his career under his new patrons, serving as judge and a teacher at the city’s al-Sharabiyya college.

However, the shock that the Mongol conquest delivered to Qazwini and Islamic civilization as a whole cannot be overstated. And so, when Qazwini came to write The Wonders of the Creatures and the Marvels of Creation, the book for which he is best known, he sought to reassure his readers that the order of the cosmos remained secure. The book is an encyclopedic summary of the created world, proceeding in order from the heavens above to the earth below. Illustrations of the constellations, angels, animals, plants, and other creatures, including mythical beasts and fantastic men, accompany the text.

Zakriyya al-Qazwini’s The Wonders of the Creatures and the Marvels of Creation, 1659

The manuscript seen here, copied in Baghdad in 1659, is a perfect example of Qazwini’s orderly world. As a Turkish translation, it also demonstrates how widely Qazwini’s book was read and copied over the centuries, making it one of the most ubiquitous Islamic illustrated books.

Dala’il al-Khayrat: Depicting Mecca Across the Islamic World

The hajj pilgrimage is a life-shaping experience for millions of Muslims around the world. It culminates with the arrival at the Holy Mosque in Mecca. These manuscripts from the collections of the National Library of Israel depict the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina in colorful illustrations, an artistic expression of faith that continues to evolve…

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, Ottoman Empire, 1795. From the Collections of the National Library of Israel.

Can a selfie be sacred? Every year, millions of Muslims from across the world travel to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage known as the hajj. These days, however, there is no need to make the journey to Saudi Arabia to be a part of the experience. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms are flooded with pilgrim posts; #hajjselfie is always trending during the ten days of the pilgrimage, which began this year on July 7.

While some claim today that hajj selfies are narcissistic and defy the pilgrimage’s spiritual purpose, others argue that such images are an important way to remember a pivotal experience and share it with others. And, in fact, picturing the holy places–if in paintings and drawings rather than selfies–has served to connect Muslims with the pilgrimage for hundreds of years.

Dala’il al-Khayrat (Signs of Benevolent Deeds) is a fifteenth century Arabic work containing a series of prayers and blessings for the Prophet Muhammad. Written by the Moroccan Sufi mystic Muhammad al-Jazuli, it is the most-reproduced Islamic devotional text after the Qur’an. Alongside the devotional content, Dala’il al-Khayrat manuscripts from North Africa to India also include illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina and the Holy Mosque in Mecca. But as the dozens of manuscripts in the National Library of Israel collections show, depictions of Mecca and ideas about its veneration have shifted across space and time; each Muslim community has pictured the sacred sites in light of its own culture.

The undated North African manuscript you can see here contains a two-page spread depicting Mecca on the right and Medina on the left. The image of Mecca shows the Holy Mosque with the dark cube of the Ka‘ba in the center. This is the most sacred site in Islam, and circumambulating the Ka‘ba, known as the House of God, is the central ritual of the hajj. The meeting-places of the four canonical Islamic schools of law, represented by rectangles with red triangular roofs, surround the Ka‘ba. The image’s calligraphic script, colors, and braided borders mark this image as distinctly North African.

Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, North Africa, seventeenth century. The white tape obscuring the Ka‘ba was added by a later owner. From the collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

The use of abstraction and labeling in this image makes it look more like a map than a painting. The details show us that the artist is interested in mapping spiritual rather than physical space. For example, the buildings and minarets that surround the Ka‘ba are all oriented towards it. This emphasizes the role of the Ka‘ba as the spiritual center of the universe. In addition, the space around the Ka‘ba is divided into four quarters, each labeled with a geographic location, creating a global spiritual geography with the Ka‘ba at its heart. Through this illumination, we see that North African traditions venerated Mecca by emphasizing its centrality in Muslim spiritual geography.

Across the Middle East, in late eighteenth century India, Mecca was imagined in a markedly different way. This manuscript of the Dala’il perhaps originates in Kashmir, a region whose artistic style was heavily influenced by North Indian Mughal manuscripts as well as Persian manuscripts. The illumination of Mecca in this copy reflects both of these traditions.

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, possibly Kashmir, nineteenth century. From the collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

In the image of the Sacred Mosque on the right, the Ka‘ba is again surrounded by the study-places of the four schools of Islamic law, here shown topped with domes. The decorations and color palette reflect both Persian and Mughal influence on local Kashmiri traditions. For example, the key-shaped multi-lobed arches that can be seen in some of  the small domed outbuildings are derived from North Indian Mughal architecture. The small, repeated floral patterns that form the background are also common in both Mughal and Persian manuscripts.

The elaborate decoration in this image highlights the importance of Mecca. Using decoration to indicate significance and holiness is a long-established tradition in Islamic manuscripts, beginning with the use of illumination in the Qur’an itself to highlight the importance of the text. Lavishing the image of Mecca with sumptuous decoration communicates the importance and holiness of this key site.

The last manuscript comes from Ottoman Turkey, the seat of the caliphate and the heart of the Islamic world when it was copied in 1795. The illustrations in this manuscript depict Mecca and Medina from a bird’s-eye view in a classic example of European-style perspective. The Ka‘ba and its outbuildings are shown as three-dimensional and the painting’s light shines from a single source. The colors are likewise naturalistic. The European influence on this illustration reflects the broader context of artistic exchange between the Ottoman Empire and its European neighbors. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire increased diplomatic relationships with Europe, creating new opportunities for artists to explore one another’s traditions. As part of this exchange, Ottoman artists became interested in the conventions of European illusionistic painting and began to incorporate techniques such as perspective, modeling, and shading into their work.

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, Ottoman Empire, 1795. From the Collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

While the North African image of Mecca emphasizes spiritual geography and the Kashmiri illustration uses decoration as a form of emphasis and veneration, in the Ottoman illumination the veneration of Mecca is linked to Ottoman political power in the region. The Ottoman sultans gained control of Mecca and Medina and became khādim al-haramayn al-sharifayn, the “servants of the two holy sanctuaries,” in the fifteenth century, and depictions of Mecca became more and more popular in the Ottoman Empire immediately thereafter. Visually, this image reflects Ottoman cartography, which also used bird’s-eye view perspective derived from European maps, suggesting that depictions of Mecca were linked to depictions of other kinds of political territory in the expanding empire. Ottoman illustrations of Mecca venerate the holy city by portraying it as a key political territory and highlighting the sacred duty of the Ottoman Empire to protect the holy cities and all pilgrims who travel to them.



Further Reading:

Abid, Hiba. “The Birth of a Successful Prayer Book: The Manuscript Tradition of the Dala’il al-Khayrat in North Africa.” Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 12 (2021): 265-294.

Beyazit, Deniz. “Defining Ottoman Realism in the Uppsala Mecca Painting.” Muqarnas 37 (2020): 209–245.

Roxburgh, David J. “Pilgrimage City.” In The City in the Islamic World, edited by Renata Holod et al, 753-774. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Witkam, Jan Just. “The battle of the images. Mecca vs. Medina in the iconography of the manuscripts of al-Jazūlī’s Dalā’il al-khayrāt.” In Theoretical approaches to the transmission and edition of Oriental manuscripts. Proceedings of a symposium held in Istanbul, March 28-30, 2001. Ed. Judith Peiffer, Manfred Kropp, 67-82. Beirut: Ergon Verlag Würzburg in Kommission, 2007.


This Iranian Trailblazer Revolutionized Global Medicine and Thought

The works of Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, served as core medical texts for some 500 years in Europe. His groundbreaking philosophical teachings also transcended borders...

“Medicine is not one of the difficult sciences, and therefore I excelled in it in a very short time” (A statue of Ibn Sina in Istanbul / Photo: باسم / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Abu Ali Hussein ibn Abdullah ibn Sina, (980-1037 C.E.) known in the Western world as Avicenna, is considered to be one of the most celebrated and influential philosophers and scientists of the Irano-Islamic world, authoring more than 450 books in various scientific and humanistic fields. Ibn Sina was educated in Bukhara, the capital of the Samanid Empire, a Persian dynasty in Central Asia. This was a period of reawakening of the Persian national sentiment, which had been glorified by Persian-speaking poets like Rudaki and Ferdowsi. Bukhara was, therefore, considered to be one of the artistic and intellectual centers of the East. Ibn Sina was influenced by the humanistic culture of his surroundings, and by the age of 10 he knew the Quran by heart and had mastered Arabic grammar.

While a teenager, he studied Aristotle and later the works of al-Farabi. He then turned to natural sciences and began studying books on medicine, recalling in his autobiography: “medicine is not one of the difficult sciences, and therefore I excelled in it in a very short time.” Ibn Sina developed a system of medical knowledge in his encyclopedic book Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb or The Canon of Medicine, which was divided into five sections: a general introduction, properties of therapeutic substances, localized diseases, systemic diseases and pharmacology. Translated into Latin by the late 12th century, the book was taught and discussed in European medical schools for some five centuries, greatly impacting medieval and early modern physicians and the medical field quite broadly.

A 16th century Latin edition of Avicenna’s Fourth Book on the Universal Nature of Medicine. From the Harry Friedenwald Collection at the National Library of Israel

In addition to Canon of Medicine, other medical works of  Ibn Sina were received by philosophers and scientists in the Western world. The Book of Healing (Kitāb al-shifā) was also considered to be one of the major works of medieval Muslim scholarship. If The Canon of Medicine was essentially devoted to prevention of disease and pharmacology, The Book of Healing, known in Latin as Liber Sufficientia, was written as an Aristotelian philosophical summa, consisting of four major parts dealings with logic, metaphysics, mathematics and natural philosophy.

A 14th century Hebrew translation of an Ibn Sina medical text, featuring an illustration of a physician tending to a patient. From the National Library of France, available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Following Aristotle, Ibn Sina saw the purpose or final cause as that for the sake of which something is done. As a matter of fact, Ibn Sina’s metaphysics of modality implies that all that actually exists is necessary because of its cause.  Though a Neoplatonist, Ibn Sina integrated Aristotelian concepts and ideas into his own corpus. He also ranked among the most influential metaphysicians in the history of Islamic philosophy. In his Treatise on the Soul (Kitab al-Nafs) translated in Latin under the title De Anima, Ibn Sina anticipated Descartes’ radical mind-body dualism. His philosophy was a something of a middle ground between Aristotle’s naturalism and ideas of monotheistic creationism, describing the Divine as the metaphysical “First Cause” of existence, rather than the physical “Unmoved Cause” of motion. For Ibn Sina, the essence of the human being was the soul; the body simply being a dress worn by the soul during its corporeal lifetime.

The mausoleum of Ibn Sina in Iran (Photo: AminiZaza / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ibn Sina insisted on the spiritual nature of human being. It followed that the human being, as a spiritual being, is in need of the intervention of a “Universal Active Intellect”. Indeed, when Ibn Sina discussed Aristotle’s theory of the soul, he also discussed the Greek philosopher’s theory of the imagination and underlined its role in the process of prophecy. Consequently, Ibn Sina held that some souls could attain the state of prophecy through a union with the Universal Active Intellect, as the source of the genesis of human knowledge. As such, Ibn Sina considered man, as a social and ethical being, to be the crown of divine creation, while also accepting that there is a series of heavenly beings between God and man.

He sought to incorporate Islamic themes into his philosophy, while believing that philosophers (rather than theologians) should have the final say on how to interpret the concept of “Being”. He clearly preferred the philosophical way of expressing the concept of “Truth” and considered Truth to be a fundamental philosophical principle that was not limited to theology but also had important ramifications in metaphysics and logic. In fact, when referring to God, Ibn Sina used the Arabic word Al-Haqq (Truth) – clearly demonstrating his mixture of Islamic theology and Neo-Platonism.

On the whole, one has to conclude that lbn Sina was predominantly an astute metaphysician whose works were read and discussed not only by medieval Islamic philosophers such as Averroes and al-Ghazali, but also accommodated and disputed by Christian philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Undoubtedly, Ibn Sina was a modern thinker who lived in the Middle Ages, and though his obvious brilliance was fully appreciated by the contemporary Islamic world, his full impact only came to the fore after his works were translated into Latin and discovered by European scholars. His passionate defense of philosophy, and his writings on the human body and soul, found many readers who saw in him a great humanist.

Galenus, Avicenna and Hippocrates pictured in a 16th-century medical book (Public domain)

As a result, Ibn Sina can be considered a truly universal thinker, whose thought travelled beyond the Iranian and Islamic mental geographies. Like his teacher Aristotle, Ibn Sina believed that philosophy aims at the universal. And, in fact, he was the first philosopher in the Islamic world who tried to establish a dialogue between different disciplines of thought without being afraid of commenting on Quranic issues and incorporating them into his philosophy. This certainly did not endear him to everyone and many among Ibn Sina’s contemporaries criticized his reliance on non-Muslim philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

Yet today Ibn Sina’s legacy offers a chance to accomplish a goal that he had hoped to achieve in his lifetime: bridging the gap between the Islamic world and the founders of the fundamentals of Western philosophy. The world needs intercultural and interdisciplinary thinkers like Ibn Sina now, more than ever.

The Manuscripts of St. Catherine’s Monastery: Now on the National Library of Israel Website

One of the world's greatest collections of manuscripts is now available to view in the online catalog of the National Library of Israel

St. Catherine's Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

A meeting in the desert.

The young scholar waited somewhat anxiously, for his counterpart to arrive. A negotiation was to be expected, and he was not entirely optimistic regarding his chances of success. In the meantime, at least, he was free to examine his fairly impressive surroundings.

It was the late 1960s, and Malachi Beit-Arié was head of the Jewish National and University Library’s Manuscripts Department. He had been sent to the Sinai Peninsula to negotiate with the local Greek Orthodox Archbishop. The Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel) was seeking approval to microfilm the vast collection of manuscripts preserved at St. Catherine’s Monastery, where Malachi now waited in the midst of the Sinai Desert.  The monastery’s texts had survived for many centuries in this isolated location, but Beit-Arié’s aforementioned pessimism was rooted in the more recent history of the region.

After all, the Sinai Peninsula had just fallen under Israeli military occupation a year or so earlier during the Six-Day War. The monks of St. Catherine’s had grown accustomed to living under Egyptian rule and regarded the IDF soldiers who now roamed the surrounding desert peaks and valleys with suspicion. There was no guarantee they would agree to the Israeli library’s request.

Beit-Arié wandered through the monastery’s ancient grounds for some two days before Archbishop Porphyrios III of the Church of Mount Sinai and Raithu finally arrived from Cairo. Malachi was quickly summoned, and the two set out in the priest’s automobile for a nearby desert oasis. It turned out that Beit-Arié needn’t have been so concerned. The negotiations were held in good spirit, during that same drive. The Archbishop, Malachie soon learned, had studied Hebrew, and was surprisingly sympathetic to the idea of cooperation with Israeli academics, quickly agreeing to the Library’s proposal.

The two then boarded a flight to Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov airport, where Beit-Arié soon found himself loaded onto the Archbishop’s private limousine. During the drive to Jerusalem, the priest conveyed his price for the exchange: a full set of the Talmud in English. This was quickly procured, and the contract was duly signed.


St. Catherine’s Monastery contains the world’s oldest continually functioning library, hidden behind immense walls which tower over all who approach its secluded location.

The monks of St. Catherine’s take their vows seriously. Life in such an isolated place is not for those lacking in faith, of one kind or another. The monastery was built in the southern Sinai Peninsula, surrounded by dramatic mountainous desert landscapes. It sits at the foot of what is considered by Christian tradition to be Mt. Horeb, the place where Moses was given the Ten Commandments. The monastery even holds and nurtures what some believe to be the actual Burning Bush.

A view from inside the walls, St. Catherine’s Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great built St. Catherine’s, completing construction in the year 565 AD. Over a millennium and a half, the monastery’s library has accumulated one of the world’s most famous collections of early codices and manuscripts. It consists of some 3,400 manuscripts, among them a wide variety of Christian religious texts. These include early bibles, religious poetry and church music, writings by the various Church Fathers and different works of monastic literature. Also included are Greek classics, correspondence, writings on grammar, arithmetic exercises, rhetorical works, historiographical texts and other forms of secular literature.

Psalms and Cantica, 1504, Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

While the vast majority of manuscripts were written in Greek (the monastery is part of the Greek Orthodox Church), there are also texts in Arabic, Syriac, Georgian and even languages that are no longer in use, such as Christian Palestinian Aramaic and Caucasian Albanian. The monastery’s oldest manuscripts date to the third century AD. All these works have been preserved thanks in large part to the aforementioned isolation, the impressive fortifications (Justinian’s walls are 36 feet / 11 meters high) as well as the dry desert climate.

Lately, however, there has been reason for concern. Though history has left St. Catherine’s largely untouched, the past few years have seen new unrest come to the Sinai Peninsula, with ISIS terrorists fighting an insurgency against the Egyptian military in the region’s northern areas. In 2017, an ISIS attack on a checkpoint near the monastery left one policeman dead and three others injured.


Skulls of long-dead monks from St. Catherine’s past, 1975, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

This is one of the reasons behind a recent push to document and digitize the historic treasures of St. Catherine’s Monastery, guaranteeing the survival of the priceless information and cultural heritage contained within. The National Library of Israel is part of this multinational effort.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, a territory it would control for well over a decade. Shortly after the war, Dr. Batya Bayer, at the time the director of the Music Department at the National Library of Israel, took note of the manuscript collection at St. Catherine’s. Bayer was interested in the study of early musical instruments and realized that the monastery’s manuscripts contained valuable information in this respect. She soon formulated an official proposal to microfilm approximately half of the texts preserved at St. Catherine’s. “The team should be as small as possible,” she wrote in her proposal, “preferably one microfilm machine and one photographer, to be augmented whenever conditions permit.”

Lives of the Saints, Canons to St. Catherine, by Ioannikios, 17th century, Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

By this point, around half of the monastery collection had already been microfilmed by a team from the Library of Congress in 1950. Following Beit-Arié’s successful negotiation, an Israeli team set out in 1968 to complete the earlier project and microfilm the rest of the monastery’s collection– meaning manuscripts which were written from the 12th century onwards.

The dramatic landscape surrounding the monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Israel Weiser, a former employee of the National Library of Israel who worked on the project and who has since passed away, recalled that the team worked for four hours a day, five days a week (excluding Saturdays and Sundays) for around three months, only to be replaced by another team. Beit-Arié noted that this process continued for some two years.  According to Weiser, the many hours of free time were spent in relative boredom in the isolated desert outpost (“They were eating rocks!” said Weiser). The project was a difficult one and those taking part had to make do without a regular supply of electricity. IDF generators were brought in to facilitate the work, and these were later left to the monastery’s monks.


Footage of the manuscript collection at St. Catherine’s Monastery, filmed in the early 1970s:


While researching this article, we discovered that another former employee of the Jewish National and University Library, cinematographer and photographer Jacques Soussana, had filmed rare color footage at the monastery in the early 1970s (see the Youtube clip above to view an excerpt of this footage). Jacques Soussana unfortunately passed away in 2019, but his widow Betty was kind enough to donate the 16 millimeter films he shot in Sinai to the National Library of Israel. They have since been digitized with the help of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive and the Jerusalem Cinematheque. These films include footage of the famous manuscript collection, as well as scenes of monastic life in the desert. You can view this footage in the clip seen above.

Horologion, 1375 Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

Over the past two years, the microfilm material collected by the National Library of Israel team in the late 1960s has been scanned and uploaded to the Library’s catalog, where the general public can now freely view some 1,700 manuscripts in digital form. This was necessary because the microfilm material itself had begun to disintegrate, representing a real threat to the survival of the information contained within. There is also a separate project underway, being led by the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) in collaboration with the UCLA library, to produce new high quality color photographs of St. Catherine’s manuscripts.

These initiatives will ensure that future generations will be able to access these cultural treasures that were once the reserved privilege of those who trekked across the barren desert sands.


Read more about the manuscripts of St. Catherine’s Monastery, and browse through thousands of digitized manuscripts on the National Library of Israel website, here.