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Introduction

The story of antiquity reads as an endless cycle of expansion, conflict, and conquest as different groups and leaders sought to expand their power, enhance their resources, and understand the universe. Despite the divisions that existed between people and nations, the exchange of images and ideas was boundless. Beginning in the eighth century CE, images from Classical antiquity were incorporated into the Islamic world and contributed to the shaping of their universe.

Beginning just after the nascent Abbasid dynasty’s victory over the reigning Umayyad caliphate in 750 CE, many Classical Greek sources—on medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, and philosophy, as well as parables and popular literature—were rendered into Arabic; the “high” literary genres of poetry, drama, and history were the only exceptions. Through their sophisticated translations, Arabic translators developed a literary and technical vocabulary that continues to serve Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other Islamic languages today.

Translation activity ended in the tenth century not because of a shift in attitudes toward the Classical past, but because of the success of these intellectual efforts: translation became obsolete because scholars in the Islamic world had already established a self-perpetuating intellectual culture that was free to challenge as well as to elaborate the ancient sources. Stories and ideas from antiquity were not passively received, but instead were actively developed and transformed to suit the needs and innovations of a new society.

Organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in partnership with the National Library of Israel, Romance and Reason explores Islamic representations and adaptations of Classical figures and thought. From the story of Alexander the Great—known as Iskandar in the Islamic tradition—to the insights of Greek exact sciences, this exhibition presents the transformations of the Classical past through the display of illuminated Islamic manuscripts. Representing both heroic and historic figures, Romance and Reason includes works created in Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Turkey from the eleventh century through the eighteenth.

The first gallery presents manuscripts representing the Islamic Alexander Romance: Persian and Turkish versions of the legendary account of the life and exploits of Alexander the Great. Muslim fascination with the fourth-century-BCE Macedonian conqueror emerged from a cryptic reference in the Qur’an and early Islamic exegesis, as well as widely circulating tales about Alexander’s exploits in Greek, Syriac, Hebrew, Persian, and other cultures and traditions.

The second gallery focuses on medicine and the exact sciences. Physicians, mathematicians, astronomers, astrologers, and philosophers in the Islamic world, basing their work on translations of Galen, Euclid, Ptolemy, and other ancient thinkers, elaborated on their Classical predecessors, building and refining the scientific works of the past.

Bringing together manuscripts from the National Library of Israel’s special collections with manuscripts from a range of American lending institutions, Romance and Reason illustrates how thinkers and artists in the Islamic world conveyed, conceived, and reimagined the Greek Classical heritage in words and pictures.