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