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A Boundless Compendium of the Ancient Knowledge of the East


The publication of but one volume, again, reminds us of the great wealth of the East.

When we think of a collection of the stories of the East, perhaps our first idea is The Thousand and One Nights, a territory which, according to Borges, condenses many of our imaginary impressions of an eastern reality: the exotic, the magical, the distant and inexplicable…

But the East is far more vast. And as if the immense continent of The Thousand and One Nights were not enough, recently news emerged of a large compendium of knowledge undertaken by one Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri, an Egyptian who’d undertaken the ambitious task of gathering everything known during his own time, between 1279 and 1333. Everything. From the various names given to dust according to its qualities, to ways of describing a boy’s cheeks.

History, poetry, scientific description, anecdote and science combine all of the above into an encyclopedia that precedes all encyclopedias and which consists of nearly 10,000 pages, divided into 33 volumes.

“[My goal is] “securing the essential and banishing the incidental, adorning it with the necklace of my own sayings, and the pearls of my predecessors,” al-Nuwayri wrote in the preface to the work.

A work of this type, not seen since the Mamluk Sultanate, has been be published recently by Penguin Classics, and entitled The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition.

Beyond this fortunate news in publishing, our own horizons win some new degree of latitude when we learn of the fantastic East that lives on in these books. It’s much richer than we had imagined, and awaits there, those of us who go after it.

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