Wonder of Wonders

Posted by sepoy on November 15, 2004 · 4 mins read

This week will officially be the end of me. Don't even ask.

Reading Bahr al-Fava'id [Sea of Virtues] - a 12th century mirror for princes. The history of such texts - written for the education and training of kings and princes - is quite fascinating. Think, for example of Machiavelli's Prince. We can trace this genre to Vedic India. The Arabic Kalila wa Dimna - the earliest example of this genre from Islamicate civilizations - came via the Sassanians from Sanskrit. The motifs of birds or animals expositing the intricacies of rule, at least, is quite Vedic.

This much later text is quite useful in my own research because it acts as a possible template for me [or maybe not, the jury is out on this one]. It was compiled in Syria during the reign of Nur aldin Zangi (d. 1146). Below is a selection from J. Meisami's excellent translation that you might find amusing:

On the Wonders of Cities

  • A stranger who comes to the city of Tibet will become happy and joyful for no reason.
  • If one stays in Mosul for a year his strength will increase.
  • If one stays in Ahvaz his wits will become deficient.
  • One who goes to the region of Sistan will become aggressive and warlike
  • If one settles in Bahrain, his spleen will enlarge and become swollen (watch out Chan'ad!).
  • If one settles in Marv his line will come to an end.
  • If one settles in Basra, there is danger that at the time of intimacy with women he will begin to tremble and his member will become flaccid (might be because of the bombs falling outside).
  • There is a city in India: any stranger who goes there becomes unable to copulate, either with women or with men (hmmm. I am guessing a South Indian city here).
  • A miser who settles in Baghdad will become generous.
  • A generous man who settles in Isfahan will become a miser.
  • Anyone who enters Harran will be overcome by lust

On the Wonders of Sea

  • In the sea of Basra there is a fish that, when caught, lives for a day and then dies.
  • In the outer region of Rum (Mediterranean)there is an island in the sea. In that sea there are trees; when they bloom, whoever smells them, falls asleep.
  • In the sea of Qaysur there is a fish that turns to stone when taken out of water.
  • In the Indian Ocean some cows come out to sea to graze; fire comes out of their mouths, and anyone who passes by is consumed.
  • In the Indian Ocean there are three islands close to one another. Year after year, snow comes from one, rain from another, and wind from the third.
  • Story: Khidr b. Amil said, "Let me down into the Sea of Ceylon so that I may see its depth." They lowered him for a day and night; then they pulled him up, and asked, "What did you see?" He said, "An angel appeared to me and siad, 'O sinful, heedless man, where are you going?' I answered, 'I want to see the bottom of the sea.' - 'How can you see it? A man who was thrown into it at that spot has not yet reached the bottom in three hundred years', I asked her, 'Tell me about its ebb and flow' - 'The fish upon whose back the earth rests breathes; from thence comes its ebb and flow' ".


Wouter | November 16, 2004

Interesting explanation of the ebb and flow! By the way, this is just nit-picking, but in fact Machiavelli's work is not called "the Prince", but "Il principe", which means "ruler" or "lord". A common mistranslation. :)