Botanists of the Islamic world inherited a vast body of knowledge from Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Persian and Indian sources. Their interest in the plant world was extensive - for both agricultural and medical reasons. An Arabic translation of the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides of Anazarba (fl. first century AD) was done by Mihran ibn Mansur ibn Mihran (fl. twelfth century), entitled Fi hayula al-tibb. He translated it from the Syriac translation of Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-'Ibadi (ca.809-873). A Persian translation with a new title, Kitab al-hasha'ish, was also completed on the order of Shah 'Abbas I (1588-1629) and though the original imperial copy is now lost, a version dated AH 1054/1645 AD is now in the Chester Beatty Library with a Shah 'Abbas preface. A number of later copies of the work – in both Arabic and Persian - seem to have been based upon this Persian translation. Judging by the number of impressive and lavishly illustrated copies that survive, it was clearly valued as a work of great importance, right up until the 19th century from when a copy produced for Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar is known (now in the New York Public Library, Spencer, Pers.ms.39; Barbara Schmitz, Islamic Manuscripts in the New York Public Library, New York and Oxford, 1992, no.I.2, p.13).
Different copies of the Arabic translation of Dioscorides' text vary in their faithfulness to the original. The Spencer manuscript in the NYPL contains 677 illustrations of plants and 284 of animals making it a precise rendition of a 12th century copy preserved in the library of the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad believed to have been made for Najm al-Din Alpin during his reign of the city of Mayyafariqin (Schmitz, op.cit., p.13). Seyyed Hossein Nasr mentions that in the Indian subcontinent, the profusion of vegetation offered a new opportunity for Muslim botanists to add a fresh chapter to the history of Islamic botany (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Science. An Illustrated Study, London, 1976, p.59). Our text, however, appears to remain faithful to the original translation. Whilst the plant illustrations in many ways still closely follow the Arab traditions, an Indian hand can be detected at times more clearly than others - for instance in the depiction of the striding elephant (illustrated here) which the artist executes with a familiarity that could be akin with one of the Mughal masters.
A copy of the 'Aja'ib al-Makhluqat from the library of Bari Sahib, daughter of the Deccani Sultan Muhammad Qutb Shah? (r.1612-26) ?, is in the National Museum in Delhi (58.48). Copied in Golconda or Bijapur in around 1625, it shares a number of similar features with our manuscript. The painting style, described by Navina Haidar as "vigorous and cheerful, somewhat removed from the refined courtly idiom", relates closely to ours (Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar, Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700. Opulence and Fantasy, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2015, p.228). See for example the depiction of a tree illustrated in the Deccan catalogue which like ours is both simplified yet playful and with a level of identifiable detail (Haidar, op.cit., fig.c, p.228). The script too resembles that of our manuscript with its strong, rounded letters ?and headings picked out in a bright red. A similar attribution for the two manuscripts seems likely. A Deccani version of the Persian translation of the De Materia Medica was exhibited by Terence McInerney in 1982 (Terence McInerney, Indian Painting 1525-1825, exhibition catalogue, 1982, no.17, pp.47-48). Dated AH 1004/1595 AD it was attributed to the Sultanate of Bijapur by Simon Digby largely on the basis of the pictorial style, which again finds close similarities to ours. The existence of the McInerney manuscript indicates that Dioscorides’ important text was known and valued at the Deccani court and further supports the attribution of our copy to this artistic centre.
The chapters of our manuscript include:
1. al-Maqalah al-ula min kitab al-hasha’ish. Divided into: Aromatics, Gums of Trees and Fruits of Trees. Copied by Hunayn bin Ishaq and corrected by al-Husayn bin Ibrahim al-Tabari.
2. al-Maqalah al-thaniyah min kitab diyusquridis fi al-hasha’ish. Divided into: Living Creatures, Cereals, Pot Herbs and Herbs with a Sharp Quality. Copied by Hunayn bin Ishaq and corrected by al-Husayn bin Ibrahim al-Tabari.
3. al-Maqalah al-thalithah min kitab al-hasha’ish li- diyusquridis. On roots.
4. al-Maqalah al-rabi’a min kitab al-hasha’ish li-diyusquridis. On herbs and roots. Copied by Hunayn bin Ishaq and corrected by al-Husayn bin Ibrahim bin al-Husayn al-Tabari.
5. al-Maqalah al-khamisah min kitab al-hasha’ish li-diyusquridis. Corrected by al-Husayn bin Ibrahim ibn al-Husayn ibn Rashid al-Tabari al-Na’ili, and dated AH 804/1401-02 AD (on later replacement folio)
For other copies and folios of works by Dioscorides on botany in both Arabic and Persian see:
1. Fi hayula al-tibb (De materia medica) by Pedanios Dioscorides of Anazarb, translated from the Syriac translation of Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-‘Ibadi (ca. AH 193-259/809-873 AD) by Mihran ibn Mansur ibn Mihran (fl. sixth/twelfth century), copied and illustrated AH 1307/1889-1890 AD, probably in Teheran or Mashhad by Mirza Baqir for Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (r.1848-1896) is in the New York Public Library, see Barbra Schmitz, Islamic Manuscripts in the New York Public Library, New York, 1992, pp.13-42, Spencer, Pers. Ms. 39.
2. A copy of Kitab al-hasha’ish, commissioned by Shah Abbas I (r.1588-1629), translated by Ghiyas al-Din Muhammad Rizavi, was lost, but a copy of the text with Shah Abbas’ preface survives in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, dated AH 1054/1645 AD (Pers. ms. 273), see A. Arberry, Chester Beatty Library – A Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts and Miniatures, Dublin, 1962, vol. III, pp. 44-45.
3. A twelfth-century copy of the Kitab fi hayula al-tibb is preserved in the library of the Shrine of Imam Riza in Mashhad, it is believed to have been made for Najm al-Din Alpi during his rule of the city of Mayyafariqin, AH 547-572/1152-1176 AD. According to Barbara Schmitz, the New York Public Library manuscript is a faithful copy with the same number of illustrations of plants (677) and animals (284), and both have the same kind of textual layout, script and number of pages. For three illustrated folios from the Mashhad manuscripts see E. Grube, “Materialien zum Dioskurides Arabicus,”I in R. Ettinghausen (ed.), Aus der Welt der Islamischen Kunst: Festschrift fur Ernst Kuhnel, Berlin, 1959, pp.187-188, figs.12-14. The Mashhad manuscript was exhibited in London in 1931, see Binyon, Wilkinson and Gray, Persian Miniature Painting Including a Critical and Descriptive Catalogue of Miniatures Exhibited at Burlington House January-March 1931, London, 1933, reprint New York, 1972, p.25, 2 figs. and in New York in 1949, see F.E. Day, “Mesopotamian Manuscripts of Dioscorides”, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 8 May 1950, pp.274-280.
4. A fragmentary copy of Kitab al-hasha’ish dated AH 1054/1645 AD is in a private collection, London.
5. Another copy is in the Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul (A.2147), published by Terence McInerney as Sultanate and dated AH 1004/1595 AD. David James, however, who has studied the fragmentary manuscript in some detail, suggests that the dates should rather read as AH 1054/1645 AD, see F.E. Karatay, Topkapi Sarayi Muzesi Kutuphanesi Farsca Yazmalar Katalogu, Istanbul, 1961, pp.102-103, no.270, Terence McInerney, Indian Painting 1525-1825, exhibition catalogue, London, 1982, pp.47-48.
6. Two folios from a manuscript of Kitab al-hasha’ish copied by ‘Abdallah ibn al-Fadl, Baghdad, 1244 AD (18/1988 & 19/1988) are in the David Collection, Copenhagen, see K. von Folsach, Islamic Collection-The David Collection, Copenhagen, 1990, p.42.
7. A copy of Dioscorides’, Kitab khawas al-ashjar (De Materia Medica), dated AH 621/1224 AD, Baghdad or North Jazira, Suleymaniye Library, MS.3703, Istanbul. Thirty leaves from this manuscript have found their way to collections in the West, including Copenhagen and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
8. A detached folio with an illustration of a purple betony, from a manuscript of Dioscorides, KItab khawass al-ashjar, dated AH 621/1224 AD, Baghdad or North Jazira, is in Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1960.193)
9. A manuscript of Dioscorides’ Kitab al-hasha’ish, The Book of Herbs, Persian translation by Ghiyas al-Din Muhammad Razvi from the Arabic translation by Ishaq ibn Hunayn of the Greek text of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, from the Syriac translation. Copied by an unknown scribe on Jumada II AH 1068/March 1658 AD, illustrated with 490 coloured drawings, probably in Isfahan, now in the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg (D-143), see Y. Petrosyan et al., Pages of Perfection - Islamic Paintings and Calligraphy from the Russian Academy of Sciences, Lugano, 1995, pp.256-265.