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The Persian Collection, The University of Manchester Library

 Sagittarius, Georgian manuscript, dated 1144; today in Tiflis, Oriental Institute; most likely translation of a Persian textSagittarius, Georgian manuscript, dated 1144; today in Tiflis, Oriental Institute; most likely translation of a Persian text

Isfahan, Maydan-e Shah, Shah Abbas, 1590-1602Isfahan, Maydan-e Shah, Shah Abbas, 1590-1602

Isfahan, Maydan-e Shah, Shah Abbas, 1590-1602


Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century 

Safavid astrolabe, Tabriz, 1117/1715-6Safavid astrolabe, Tabriz, 1117/1715-6

TITLE IMAGE with ARISTOTLE, PLATO, GALEN and AHIQAR named in Arabic and Syriac (from right to left). Author: IBN JAZLA (died in 1100 in Baghdad). Title: THE ALMANAC of BODILY PARTS  for the TREATMENT OF PEOPLE. MS Glasgow, University Library, Hunter 40. The Arabic text is written in Syriac letters (Karshuni) in the 13th century.TITLE IMAGE with ARISTOTLE, PLATO, GALEN and AHIQAR named in Arabic and Syriac (from right to left). Author: IBN JAZLA (died in 1100 in Baghdad). Title: THE ALMANAC of BODILY PARTS for the TREATMENT OF PEOPLE. MS Glasgow, University Library, Hunter 40. The Arabic text is written in Syriac letters (Karshuni) in the 13th century.

Return after Six Months

Posted 26/12/2015

For six months now I neglected this website. I simply had no time. When I returned from the successful panel on how different cultures in Asia visualized the heavens in Paris (see previous blog), the so-called refugee crisis in Germany caught me in its maelstrom. I jumped into the unknown waters of structuring a civil society group of people who want to support refugees in the small town south of Berlin where I live with my daughter, our three dogs and two cats. But things turned soon sour because of our very different personalities and views on how to do things. The social and political atmosphere in this small town is very conflictual. Political groups of different orientations have been fighting bitterly with each other for years. Their members do not talk to each other unless unavoidable. In a situation where about 1,700 refugees are planned to be brought to live with us in a huge registration center, this is not very helpful. I had the illusory vision to bring these different groups together in an umbrella network from the level of the town to the Bundestag, the central parliament of Germany. We founded October 14, 2015 such a network of political parties, religious communities and civil society organizations calling it Network Democracy and Humanity. We organize discussion evenings with politicians for the inhabitants of the town hoping to engage them in a peaceful exchange of conflicting views about the federal state's refugee policies and other themes like security, violence or the causes for the millions of women, men and children leaving their countries and moving thousands of kilometers towards Europe. We have done three such discussions, but cannot reach those people who oppose the refugees. In the group of volunteers for supporting refugees we organize lectures on the Middle East and East Africa and plan concerts and other cultural events. Again, we are not reaching the people who oppose the refugees. Next month the registration center for the refugees will open. It is run by the German Red Cross. I hope that the conflicts in the group of volunteers will decrease and the potential threats of violence against the center and its inhabitants will not materialize.


Another continuous mine field is the unwillingness of the heads of the Foundation of Science, Technology and Civilization (FSTC), Manchester und its subsidiary 1001 Inventions to correct their abominable misrepresentation of history of science, medicine and technology in Islamicate societies. After some small progress concerning parts of their texts in the exhibition 1001 Inventions, they stopped talking to our small group of historians of medicine, mathematic and science who agreed to cooperate with them in order to produce a reliable representation of this history. All our efforts to make them return to the table failed. Their contribution to UNESCO's Year of the Light with an exhibition and a conference on Ibn al-Haytham caused much disappointment due to their unwillingness to either organize a decent academic conference and trustworthy depiction of Ibn al-Haytham's life and achievements or to abstain from selling their views as academically reliable. Unfortunately, several senior members of the Commission for the History of Science and Technology in Islamic Societies of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science, Medicine and Technology sided with this distorted, faulty glorification of the past and refuse to uphold academic standards. Attacking Western self-representation in the history of science often as Eurocentric and false, they feel not qualms to glorify scholarly achievements in past Islamicate societies beyond measure. Other colleagues prefer to keep their silence and continue to work in their ivory towers. Given the big problem of today's world this is certainly a relatively minor issue. Nonetheless, we are happy to have found a publisher - ERGON. Unfortunately, we need to subsidize the publication with about 3,800 Euro. After the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science first agreed to pay the subvention, the Institute's directors now decided that such a payment contravenes the policy of Open Access. Hence, we need to raise the money by other means. I do not know yet how to do this. Maybe next year, I will come up with a promising idea.


My work load also has the immanent property to grow faster than I can cope. I finished proofreading (several times) and indexing a collective volume on knowledge transfer in the Mediterranean in Post-Antiquity. It was a gruesome work. I hope some readers at least will thank me for the amount of time and patience I invested into this book. The responsible editor of Ashgate was a pleasure to work with. But the transfer of the manuscript into the print copy went wrong. Many and many unexplainable mistakes found their way into the book. Tomorrow I need to check once more whether there are others hidden in the new file they sent my on Christmas Eve. 

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ICHSEA, Paris, July 6-10, 2015

Posted 5/7/2015

I am sitting at airport Tegel in Berlin already exhausted from the long travel from Zossen under difficult weather conditions. The passing of security was very unpleasant because by now the control gates mistake little metal buttons for a terrorist threat and the woman endowed with the power to search me for my weapons enjoyed humiliating me by touching my wet, naked body with her hands. I truly despise this constant violation of my privacy sphere. I never dress more or fancier than absolutely necessary. The only other option to avoid this unpleasantness is to shed all my cloth before I pass through the gate. What a despicable hypocrisy. German politics again tries to topple a Greek government and finances Ukrainian criminals and Neonazis, but I am treated as if I am a potential killer.


Instead of struggling with the depressing unpleasantness of modern European society, I need to focus on our panel tomorrow at the International Congress for the History of Science in East Asia (ICHSEA) in Paris. We wish to win the participants of the panel to consider collaborating with us in a new research project called Visualization of the Heavens. In this project we wish to learn which parts of the heavens were considered worthy or necessary of depicting through visual means, which forms were chosen for creating the imagery, how these images overlapped with other traditions across Asia and perhaps also Africa and Europe, which skills people had to acquire before producing the images in their concrete settings and what the images meant to those who commanded them. We want to study the relations between images and words, changes in both areas, and the mobility of visual forms across areas of intellectual activity as well as rituals used by different communities to regulate their lives and deaths. We are interested in the materials used for creating visual representations of the heavens and the knowledge acquired for producing and interpreting the objects.


 Already the process of searching for images from East, South and West Asia enriched my knowledge about the range and domains of use in different regions of Asia. For many centuries, scholars in Islamicate societies were not interested in visualizing those parts of the heavens which in their knowledge system belonged to the sub-lunar world such as clouds, rain, thunder or lightening. The only sublunar phenomenon that was regularly portrayed through a colored image was the rain bow. The situation seems to be profoundly different in Tang, Song and Ming China. There, clouds were a continuously visualized and systematized according to forms, sizes and prognostic meanings. The second surprise was the depiction of a steelyard on a Buddhist image of the zodiac produced in Japan in the year 972. Beside the fascinating use of Mesopotamian and Hellenistic images in Buddhist astrological pictures

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Der Hofgelehrte Adam Olearius: Neugier als Methode?

Posted 3/7/2015

Posted 2/7/2015

June 24-27, 2015 a conference of German, Swiss, Polish, Estonian and Persian researchers took place at Castle Gottorf in Schleswig. The organizers, Dr. Kirsten Baumann and Dr. Uta Kuhl, wanted to learn about Adam Olearius and the different facets of his life work from academic and amateur students of his texts, instruments and images. It was a broad kaleidoscope of themes, historiographical approaches, and evaluations.


For me, the most interesting aspects concerned the great-format paintings of the Black Fraternity at Reval (today Tallinn) of local merchants and scholars, but also of the rulers of Russia and Safavid Iran, which Olearius apparently copied as portraits and used in his book, as well as the analysis of Olearius's preface to the German translation of Sa'adi's Gulistan (Der Persianische Rosenthal), which he had produced together with the former secretary Haq Virdi of the embassy of Sha Safi (r. 1629-1642). The fascination to me of the paintings collected by the Black Fraternity in Reval went beyond the fact that Olearius had incorporated their small-scale copies in his travel account without saying so. It consisted in their seeming similarity with great-format paintings of allegedly Safavid women and men produced only a short time later for European travelers or residents in Isfahan, the Safavid capital. These Safavid oil paintings have been often discussed. But no art historian has so far compared them to the paintings in the collection of the Black Fraternity in Reval and discussed whether they might have been related. The other fascinating aspect of the paintings of the Black Fraternity is the remarkable similarity of the presentation of the Romanov prince with a Tatar ruler and the oriental-style decoration of his precious coat. The Estonian colleague who works on these paintings was not aware about any Ottoman, Timurid, Safavid or Crimean Tatar miniatures in early-seventeenth-century Reval. But it would be worthwhile to trace the commercial and diplomatic relationships between the mostly German merchant community of Reval and the Ottoman and Safavid Empires as well as other Islamicate societies of their time.


A Swiss colleague of German Studies presented Olearius's preface to the Persianische Rosenthal. She highlighted Olearius's explicit acceptance that translating is always more than rendering one language into another one. Olearius emphasized that a good translation presupposed a good knowledge of the culture from where the text came that was to be translated. He reported that translating Sa'adi's Gulistan was very difficult, because he did not know Persianate literary culture nor Islamic religious concepts and values. His companion and partner Haq Virdi was a reluctant facilitator, because he did not wish to make his homeland and its culture the laughing stock of Lutheran Christians in the Dukedom Holstein. That is why he refrained from sharing many of his experiences, insights, and words. The Swiss colleague proposed to consider Olearius's reflections as a form of translation theory.


The talk about Olearius's presentation of the Greenlanders in his travel account by a historian working at a vocational school center contradicted Olearius's generous attitude towards Haq Virdi. While he treated Haq Virdi as a partner and valuable resource of knowledge, he used the three kidnapped Innuit women as a resource for confirming his beliefs about their low status as 'savages' in his hierarchy of human cultures. The competence of his Danish translator did not suffice to identify reliably a play toy, which was an object of Gottorf's 'Kunst- und Wunderkammer' (The Chamber of the Arts and Miracles). Olearius believed it was an idol and 'understood' the translation of the women's report confirming that their religious rituals included a dance in circles around the puppet.


Other talks and conversations that broadened my knowledge of early-modern German court cultures concerned the ballets orchestrated in Schleswig. Olearius apparently was responsible for their intellectual and artful design, the choice of their motifs, the roles each member of the court had to play and the sequence of the movements. The Duchess may also have been prominently involved in this pastime which was an element of disciplining women and men, teaching them their place at court and in society and subordinating them to the new rules of military training of the body.


Altogether, the conference was an interesting learning experience for me, although the historiographical differences between me and numerous participants could not have been greater.


Sonja Brentjes 

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