The dust-jacket of this handsome book reproduces a medieval manuscript miniature of mounted Arabs beating drums and blowing what are probably mizmars (woodwind instruments). According to the caption, this is a 'Celebration of Ramadan, from "The Meetings" illustrated by al-Hariri, 13th century'. Oh no it isn't. Al-Hariri, author of the Maqamat (literally 'Standings', but more usually translated as 'Sessions') died in 1122. The painting is actually by the 13th-century artist Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti. Turning to the back of the book, one finds an elegant painting of a seated Arab. According to the caption, this is a portrait of Saladin c.l180. Wrong again. There is no evidence that Saladin ever sat for his portrait. If he had done so, he would have been unique among medieval Muslim rulers. What we are actually looking at is the picture of a little mechanical man designed to sit on top of an elephant-shaped water-clock. It was copied in Egypt in 1354 from an early 13th-century treatise on automata written and illustrated in Diyarbakr, in what is today Turkey, by al-Jazari. The little mechanical man was supposed to pick up a ball every hour and drop it into a dragon's mouth. Saladin (who died in 1193) would hardly have been the right model for this rather menial job. (Incidentally, this 'portrait of Saladin' has done the rounds and features in quite a number of popular illustrated books. In Anthony Bridge's The Crusades the accompanying caption says: 'This is thought to be a portrait of Saladin by an Egyptian artist of the Fatimid school, perhaps because the man portrayed appears to be blind in one eye, as was Saladin.' Nice try, but there is no evidence at all that Saladin was blind in one eye.) To return to the Maqamat miniature, al-Hariri and al-Wasiti were major figures in their respective fields. If the dust-jacket of a book about Western culture featured one of Botticelli's illustrations to the Divine Comedy, but claimed that Dante drew it, there would be an outcry. Do publishers think that dead Arab painters don't really matter?
LRB 1 August 1996 | PDF Download