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Maps of Paradise

Maps of Paradise
Alessandro Scafi
British Library   176pp   £20

An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe
Yossef Rapoport and Emilie
Savage-Smith (eds. and trans.)
Brill   970pp   £191

Maps of Paradise is a highly readable yet deeply learned journey into how ‘humankind has yearned for a timeless elsewhere’, searching for ‘perfect bliss, remote either in time or in space’. Utopia is just one element in this search. Alessandro Scafi’s main interest is how the Christian concept of Paradise is shown on medieval mappae-mundi through to the 16th-century mapping of new worlds and the Lutheran Reformation. He traces how the Median and Persian word for an enclosure, pari-daiza, metamorphosed through the Greek parádeisos into the more recognisable Judeo-Christian word for the destination of the righteous in the afterlife, before tracing ‘the inherent paradox of mapping the unmappable’, or representing heaven on earth. In the fifth century, St Augustine’s literal and figurative approach to Biblical interpretation enabled mapmakers to locate the Garden of Eden on their maps. The ‘paradox of depicting a paradise on, but not of, the earth’, found various ingenious solutions, including the Hereford Mappa Mundi (1300), which shows a walled Eden at the beginning of time separated from the earth by sea and Fra Mauro’s 1450 map that placed it in a vignette outside the map’s frame. He reminds us that it is only on maps concerned with time as much as space that paradise can be located as the origin of a ceaselessly unfolding theological drama. For Scafi the gradual disappearance of Paradise on 16th-century maps was down to the Lutheran view that it was the fault of the Flood, rather than the discovery of America. Calvin salvaged some belief in God’s creative genius on earth, pointing to Mesopotamia as the location of the original Eden. In subsequent centuries, Africa, Armenia and Palestine were all touted as paradise. Even the 19th century pursued the idea of paradise, using archaeology and evolution rather than theology, transforming the pursuit of Eden into a search for the elusive origins of mankind.

Scafi observes that the Islamic firdaws, or jannah (garden), ‘was believed to be in heaven, too distant from the geographical world to be mapped together with the versions of the earth’. As a result few Islamic maps or treatises allude to paradise. This is the case in the remarkable 11th-century Egyptian treatise on the cosmos, entitled The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes. Publication of this extraordinary manuscript is the result of a decade’s exhaustive research by Emilie Savage-Smith and Yossef Rapoport. The result is an epic piece of scholarship that will enable western scholars to reassess their understanding of medieval Islamic cosmology and mapmaking and its relation to the Christian tradition. The text’s maps are particularly exciting, ‘unparalleled in any Greek, Latin or Arabic material known to be preserved today’.

The text is divided into two parts (maqālahs), the heavens and astrological divination and the earth and its climate. The anonymous author quotes the Koran in explaining that he chose ‘to write a volume encompassing the principles of the raised-up roof [the sky] and the laid-down bed [the Earth]’, ‘that will reveal to you their intricate and difficult aspects’. Celestial knowledge mainly ‘eludes humans’ because ‘the Exalted Creator has unique knowledge of His mysteries’, but ‘revealed to Idrīs, may the Peace of God be upon him, the secret knowledge of the celestial bodies’. Idrīs, identified as the Greco-Egyptian deity Hermes Trismegistus, is just one example of how Islamic cosmology fashioned itself through careful comparison of Persian, Greek and Indian intellectual traditions, from the names of the stars and the planets to the overwhelming influence of Ptolemy’s Geography in the text’s second part. Its later chapters on marvellous creatures and ‘deformed humans’ reads like something out of Pliny, while the apocalyptic accounts of ‘discord, wars, killings, fire, epidemics’ at the conjunction of certain planets and comets is a magnification of Ptolemy’s astrological writings. But nowhere is heaven, hell, or even a monster to be found.

Jerry Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London and author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Penguin, 2012).

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