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Institute for the Study of the Ancient World



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Library exhibition on "Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past"

By Gabriel McKee

In celebration of ISAW’s latest exhibit “Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past,” the ISAW Library is proud to announce a miniature exhibition of books relating to the exhibit. Curated by Gabriel Mckee and located on the second floor of ISAW, this library exhibition shows publications related to Persian and Arabic manuscripts from the library’s collection.

Highlights of this bibliographical exhibition include illustrations from Persian manuscripts of legends about Alexander the Great, notably the Alexander Romance of Nizami and the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, of Ferdowsi. These colorful images show how the historical Alexander became Iskandar, the legendary hero of these poetic narratives. Illustrations on display include images of Iskandar building a (mythical) wall against the the armies of Gog and Magog in the Caucasus meeting with the Emperor of China. The historical Alexander is represented by some of the earliest images made of him in Persian territory: Hellenistic coins bearing his profile minted at Susa. The continued presence of Iskandar in modern-day Iran is also represented in a photograph of a contemporary storyteller recounting a tale from the Shahnameh.

The second case of the exhibition showcases Islamic science and medicine. On display here are illustrations and tables from astronomical manuscripts, which draw on the work of Classical authors like Ptolemy, as well as a richly-illustrated dedicatory page from a Persian manuscript translating the works of Galen. This last shows the link between science, art, and commerce: the princely figure illustrated was likely the patron-scholar who funded the creation of the manuscript.

The ISAW Library is excited to provide this bibliographical supplement to "Romance and Reason." If you are visiting the ISAW Library, please take a moment to visit this exhibit on the second floor.  

We are grateful to all those who have helped to make this display possible, especially Freddy Oliva at Bobst Library, Rachel Herschman and the entire ISAW Exhibition Department, and ISAW Library Clerk Gina Modero.

Library exhibition on "Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past"

The constellation Gemini, from a 15th-century manuscript of al-Sufi’s Kitab Suwar al-Kawakib. From Sam Fogg Rare Books and Manuscripts, Islamic Manuscripts (Catalogue 22), London: Sam Fogg, 2000.