As many of you know, I have been researching the survival of Hellenistic and Late Antique myths and legends in medieval Islamic literature, particularly how this literature preserved and extrapolated on Late Antique Christian myths about antediluvian times. To that end, I’ve been working on reading King Alfonso X of Castile’s sections in his General Estoria about Hermes Trismegistus and the Giants that survived the Great Flood (2.34-39). It’s a bizarre and very interesting story that seems to incorporate Arabic material alongside narratives paralleling those of Late Antiquity—Pseudo-Eupolemus and Pseudo-Sibyl among them—but I am having a bit of difficulty with the material because (a) it has never been translated into English, nor to the best of my knowledge any other modern language (except for a few paragraphs in modern Spanish) and (b) I have not mastered medieval Castilian. I can read it clearly enough to get the sense, but the exact wording escapes me in places. I am plugging my way through translating it, but I am somewhat annoyed that in almost 800 years nobody seems to have thought that maybe it would be helpful to make this material available in more modern languages.
It doesn’t help that the one of the only modern writers to have discussed the material, albeit only in summary, Charles F. Fraker, came right out and said that the passage was “difficult” to understand. Nor does it help that Alfonso (actually, the writers working for him) were extremely long-winded and repetitive, wasting a lot of space before getting to the point. Nevertheless, there are strange gems in there, such as references to the giants conquering Atlantis, which Alfonso suggests was also the Garden of Eden. That’s a claim I hadn’t expected to find.
But on a related note, I saw a compelling essay yesterday at Aeon that investigated a set of unusual fakes, miniatures in the style of medieval or early modern Islamic art depicting Muslim scientists at work. Many of the fakes are full of anachronisms—one showed a telescope and globe before they were used in the Islamic world, and when such items were not depicted in Islamic art. They were the product of Istanbul’s tourist trade, according to Nir Shafir, an expert on the Ottoman Empire:
From Istanbul’s tourist shops, these works have ventured far afield. They have found their way into conference posters, education websites, and museum and library collections. The problem goes beyond gullible tourists and the occasional academic being duped: many of those who study and publicly present the history of Islamic science have committed themselves to a similar sort of fakery. There now exist entire museums filled with reimagined objects, fashioned in the past 20 years but intended to represent the venerable scientific traditions of the Islamic world.
What is fascinating about this isn’t just that Westerners are happy to be taken in and to feel righteous about celebrating a perceived Islamic scientific greatness, but that the path from fakery to canonization in textbooks and in the media follows the same line that virtually every other fringe claim takes. Consider, for example, how Shafir describes this path and compare it to the muddy road that ancient astronaut hoaxes and lost civilization claims take from YouTube to the History Channel:
Stock photo services in particular play a key role in disseminating these images, making them readily available to use in presentations and articles in blogs and magazines. From there, the pictures move on to the main platforms of our vernacularised visual culture: Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Google. In this digital environment, even experts on the Islamic world can mistake these images for the authentic and antique.
Incurious stock photo services play the role of the History Channel here, gobbling up dubious content in pursuit of cash, and then legitimizing that content for the broader media world and its audience.
But Shafir uses this problem to make a broader point, that the West’s progressives have an impulse to find ways to liken Islamic culture to the West. But this impulse tends to be self-reflective and sometimes ethnocentric:
However, there is a dark side to this progressive impulse. It is an offshoot of a creeping, and paternalistic, tendency to reject the real pieces of Islamic heritage for its reimagined counterparts. Something is lost when we reduce the Islamic history of science to a few recognisably modern objects, and go so far as to summon up images from thin air. We lose sight of important traditions of learning that were not visually depicted, whether artisanal or scholastic. We also leave out those domains later deemed irrational or unmodern, such as alchemy and astrology.
In my own experiences, I have found it enlightening to read the work of the medieval Islamic historians like al-Mas‘udi, al-Maqrizi, and the anonymous author of the Akhbar al-zaman. It’s hard to read their works, full of curiosity and humanism and the spirit of inquiry, and to come away thinking that they are anything but equal members in the human project of understanding. It’s a shame, really, that so much of the ancient and medieval material from so many different cultures—and this includes Alfonso’s work and many European titles besides—is locked away because of the lack of translation.
Shafir’s article is fascinating and thought-provoking, and I recommend you give it a read.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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