Edinburgh University gives visitors rare chance to see the 700-year-old The World History of Rashid Al-Din
“Most people from Edinburgh hate the festival,” admits Yuka Kadoi, as we tour her quietly impressive contribution to the world’s biggest arts event. “It’s too noisy.”
The Edinburgh Fringe certainly does dominate Scotland’s capital in August, with many of the 3,000 performances taking place at buildings borrowed from the University of Edinburgh. This year, the university library is hosting a momentous event of its own, however, celebrating a significant anniversary for its most priceless asset.
The World History of Rashid Al-Din was compiled 700 years ago, in 1314, “when Iran was under the Mongols,” explains Kadoi, the exhibition’s curator. Al-Din “became a very important politician. He was asked to write about the history of the world, but was commissioned by the Mongol kings, so, of course, this was propaganda, not the pure history. They wanted to legitimise their conquest of the Islamic world.”
Arguably the world’s first major history book, Al-Din’s tome may not have been entirely inclusive, but now offers a fascinating insight into a vast and varied empire. The pages highlighted here are also astonishingly well-preserved, given what subsequently occurred. Three years after its completion, Al-Din was executed. “Because he was so powerful, he made many enemies,” explains Kadoi. The accused was convicted of plotting to poison the king, Oljeitu, “but of course this was a fake story. It’s quite sad. He was such a powerful man. He established a kind of academy of sciences, near Tabriz, the capital; a scientific centre, a manuscript workshop. But it’s all gone”.
All of his work was disposed of? “Yes, it’s a miracle that this [book] is still here, I’m sure many manuscripts were destroyed.”
Al-Din’s masterwork had been reproduced in several languages to spread the message throughout the Mongol territories, but few survive. A Persian version is now stored at Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace Library, while the remaining Arabic manuscript was divided in two before arriving in Britain. One half is now in private hands, while Edinburgh’s section is usually locked away. This is a rare public outing.
The exhibition is subtitled A Masterpiece of Islamic Painting, and focuses on the book’s more visually appealing pages. Hundreds of anonymous illustrators and calligraphers worked on the project, and the paintings are “really of the highest quality,” says Kadoi. The depicted characters range from Abraham and Moses to numerous grand sultans, shahs and warrior kings, conquering new territories on horseback or, occasionally, on elephants.
Particularly interesting are the varied influences, as these artworks frequently reveal a debt to those conquered realms. Kadoi highlights a dramatic two-picture page that could almost be a medieval comic book, featuring a painting of the Sunni and Sufi armies, separated by a strikingly stylised rock that suggests both Byzantine and Chinese influences. Gifted artists from China and Central Asia “would often be captured and brought to work” by the Mongols, she explains. “It’s fantastic in a manuscript to see how the culture was mixed.” Kadoi has a long history with Al-Din’s book, having written a thesis on it while studying for her master’s degree in Edinburgh. She moved on to Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art (“I was there one year, before the opening, so it was really quite tense”), then Chicago, before returning to Scotland and her current position as a research fellow at the university’s Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre.
While the Fringe is clearly not to everyone’s taste, Kadoi actively chose to launch this anniversary event in August in collaboration with the festival, despite intense competition from more commercial events. “It’s a chance to introduce this manuscript to people from all over the world,” she says.
The World History of Rashid Al-Din, 1314: A Masterpiece of Islamic Painting runs until October 31. Free entry. Visit www.edfringe.com
Updated: August 20, 2014 04:00 AM