Justin Marozzi

Here be dragons, dog-headed men and women growing on trees

Zakariyya Qazwimi’s book celebrating the oddities of existence, published c. 1262, enchanted readers across continents for many centuries

An illustration from Qazwini’s Wonders and Rarities. [Alamy]

I have to confess that this book sat on my desk for several months. The words ‘Harvard University Press’ cast a strange and unsettling spell which prevented me from even opening it. Let’s be honest: academic presses are not always synonymous with rollicking reads, nor indeed are academics. They can ask an awful lot of the general reader – that would be most of us. Given how short life is, there is no good reason why reading should be more of a pain than a pleasure.

Thankfully, the spell finally wore off, which was fortunate, because this book about a book, like the book it describes, is a rare and marvellous thing. It tells the story of Wonders and Rarities, the 13th-century natural history, cosmography and compendium of marvels written by Zakariyya Qazwini, a Persian naturalist and judge.

‘The path is tortuous and only for the brave of heart,’ Travis Zadeh, a professor of religious studies at Yale, warns in his introduction, and here I admit my morale faltered. The reader must navigate ‘an almost impossible voyage past the Scylla of pure reason and the Charybdis of benighted superstition’. Stay with him, though. The best journeys require some effort and application. There is a material difference between the rewards and experiences of an all-inclusive week in Magaluf and a couple of months hiking in the Hindu Kush. And Zadeh promises dragons.

Qazwini gives us mischievous jinns, dog-headed men, women who grow on trees and ravenous dragons

His writing quickly reveals him as a likeable and expert guide to this challenging terrain. He quotes approvingly from Qazwini’s own introduction, in which the Persian relates how, worn out from his travels and separated from his family and homeland, he decided to settle down in Iraq and immerse himself in books on the recommendation of an unnamed poet who declared: ‘The best companion of all times is a book.

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