The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition

On Art and Aesthetics

The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World  by Al-Nuwayrī (1279-1333) translated and edited by Elias Muhanna (2016, Penguin Classics)

Sometime around the year 1314, tired of his daily duties in the financial administration of the Mamluk empire (1250 to 1517), a government bureaucrat in Cairo decided to retire and devote the remainder of his life to the compilation of a gigantic cross-disciplinary compendium of existing knowledge. This textual museum was composed by Shihab Al-Din Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab Al-Nuwayri (1279-1333) during a period of political stability and economic prosperity. Early fourteenth-century Cairo was the cultural and intellectual centre of the Islamic world (the glorious Baghdad had been besieged by Ilkhanate Mongal forces earlier in 1258) with a large variety of books being circulated among its scientists and litterateurs in its colleges and libraries. Such was the proliferation of lexicons, historical chronicles…

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