Kitab al-Bulhan

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The Kitāb al-Bulhān (كتاب البلهان‎), meaning the Book of Wonders or Book of Surprises, is an Arabic manuscript dating mainly from the late 14th century CE and probably bound together in Baghdad during the reign of Jalayirid Sultan Ahmad (1382-1410 CE).

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Overview

The manuscript is made up of astrological, astronomical and geomantic texts compiled by Abd al-Hasan al-Isfahani, as well as a dedicated section of full-page illustrations, with each plate titled with “A discourse on….”, followed by the subject of the discourse (a folktale, a sign of the zodiac, a prophet, etc.).

It seems the Kitab al-Bulhan was commissioned by, or the idea of, Shaykh al-Diya Husayn al-Irbili’ (originally of Irbil near Mosul in northern Iraq), who sold it to Haydar ibn al-Hajji ʿAbd al-Karim ibn Muhammad in Dec 1409 - Jan 1410. The original codex comprised a series of treatises, which came apart, and when sections were reassembled and some lost, it became jumbled and incoherent. The work includes extracts copied from the Kitab al-mawalid (‘Book of Nativities’) of the astronomer and neo-Platonist Abu Maʿshar al-Balkhi (787-886 CE) of Balkh (modern-day Mazar-i Sharif) in northern Afghanistan.

List of Illustrated Folios

circa 1400 CE

Folio 2b: Signs of the zodiac: Aries, or al-Hamal

circa 1400 CE

Folio 5b: Signs of the zodiac: Gemini, or al-Gawāz

circa 1400 CE

Folio 7b: Signs of the zodiac: Cancer, or al-Saratān

circa 1400 CE

Folio 9b: Signs of the zodiac: Leo, or al-Asad

circa 1400 CE

Folio 11b: Signs of the zodiac: Virgo, or al-Sunbula (the ear of corn)

circa 1400 CE

Folio 13b: Sign of the zodiac: Libra, or al-Mīzān

circa 1400 CE

Folio 15b: Signs of the zodiac: Scorpio, or al-‘Aqrab

circa 1400 CE

Folio 15b: Signs of the zodiac: Sagittarius, or al-Qaws

circa 1400 CE

Folio 19b: Signs of the zodiac: Capricorn, or al-Gadī

circa 1400 CE

Folio 21b: Signs of the zodiac: Aquarius, or al-Dālī

circa 1400 CE

Folio 22b: Signs of the zodiac: Pisces, or al-Hūt

circa 1400 CE

Folio 25b: Astrology: The Children of the Planets (1)

circa 1400 CE

Folio 26a: Astrology: The Children of the Planets (2)

circa 1400 CE

Folio 29a
A representation of the ancient temple (barabi).

circa 1400 CE

Maymūn, the demon king of Saturday. Demon portrait.

circa 1400 CE

Folio 32v: Shamhurash, the demon king of Thursday
The jinn of Thursday is a king named ‘Shamhurash’, the title specifying that he is nasrani (‘Christian’), who is also known from some sources as Abu al-Walid or ‘Father of the Child’ (opposite). This is probably the reason why he is represented with a naked child in his hands, held upside down, although it is unclear whether Shamhurash’s influence over him is positive or negative.

circa 1400 CE

Folio 33b:

circa 1400 CE

The lighthouse of Alexandria.

circa 1400 CE

Folio 38a: The great wall of Gog and Magog

circa 1400 CE

Folio 28b:
Demons: a demon. Demon portrait.

circa 1400 CE

Folio 34r: The sage, Abu Maʾshar al-Balhi, Conducting an Astronomical Experiment
One of the most significant full-page illustrations represents the author, identified by the title in the cartouche at the top of the page (see p. 23): Abu Maʿ shar – the astronomer, astrologer and philosopher – sits bare-chested atop a column holding an astrolabe in his right hand; he is flanked by an attendant looking at him in a gesture of surprise (his finger raised to the mouth), captivated by the experiment the master is attempting; books and the astronomer’s clothes complete the painting on the right side.

circa 1400 CE

Folio 37b:

circa 1400 CE

Folio 39a: The Imposing Castle

circa 1400 CE

Folio 39b: A Sultan and his Attendant on Horseback

circa 1400 CE

Folio 42v: Mountain of Fire and the Salamander Birds
The ‘Mountain of Fire and the Salamander Birds’ is a story related to the Phoenix who dies in the fire immolating itself and is later reborn from its ashes. According to some Arab geographers, this tale does not relate to a single bird but to a large number of them called ‘salamander birds’ (the salamander being also often quoted as a reptile that is able to survive in the fire in medieval texts). This is the way it was illustrated by the painter of this section of the Kitab al-bulhan: a burning rock formation surrounded by flames amongst which several small birds are perched.

References

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