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Exhibition examines the fertile interaction between Islam and the Classical world
Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing (ʿAja ʾib al-makhluqat wa ghara ʾib al-mawjudat). Folios 19 verso, 20 recto: Aquarius and Capricorn; Pisces and Cetus. Author: Zakariya ibn Muhammad Qazvini (1203–1283); Copyist: Unknown; Language: Ottoman Turkish. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. Folio: H. 33.9 cm; W. 20.2 cm. Iraq, 1659. From the collections of The National Library of Israel: Ms. Yah. Ar. 1113. © The National Library of Israel.

NEW YORK, NY.- With manuscripts culled from international collections and assembled together for the first time, Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past on view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World explores the ways in which Islamic scholars, scientists, doctors, philosophers, and writers absorbed and transformed the Classical Greek intellectual heritage for their own uses and, in so doing, shaped the intellectual contours of the Islamic world up to the dawn of modernity. Through nearly 70 manuscripts—most never seen in the United States—the exhibition portrays the rich cultural and intellectual dialogue between ancient Greece and the Islamic Golden Age.

Over the course of some 150 years, from roughly 750 CE to the end of the 10th century CE, a large portion of the extant classical Greek works of science, philosophy, medicine, magic, astrology, and popular literature were rendered into Persian and Arabic by generations of translators, commentators, and scholars. Seeking to learn from and make use of the knowledge these translations conveyed, subsequent generations expanded, reimagined, commented on, corrected, and otherwise transformed the original material for their own era.

Romance and Reason examines this fertile interaction between Islam and the classical world with a diversity of manuscripts that reveal the ongoing study, interrogation, and elaboration, over the course of centuries, of both the Greek originals and their Arabic translations. Together, these will open a window on to medieval Islamic intellectual history.

The exhibition has been organized in two sections, one devoted to the romance of Alexander the Great, the other to scientific, medical, mathematical, and astronomical manuscripts. The former displays about thirty illuminated copies, created over the course of five centuries, of two foundational Persian texts that contain accounts of the life of Alexander: the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, an epic poem written by Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010 CE, and the Khamsa by Nizami, also an epic poem, dating from the late 12th century CE. With often lavish illuminations, these show how, through the variety of ways in which he was represented—as warrior, king, as a seeker of philosophical truth, and more—the figure of Alexander became part of Islamic literature.

The section on scientific subjects includes original translations of Greek documents, such as the Treatise on Bones for Beginners, by Galen, accompanied by later commentaries and redactions; new books inspired by both earlier Greek sources and contemporaneous Islamic sources; original works, such as handbooks written by doctors for their colleagues, and more.

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