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[Art/History/Culture] Kitab al-Bulhan - "The Book of Wonders" (14th Century)

We are proud to present our third article on ancient supernatural Arabic art, history, culture & mythology - All written, researched and translated by Palestinian resident creative Sireen El Araj.

Kitab al-Bulhan (Arabic: كتاب البلهان :‎, romanized: Kitāb al-Bulhān), or Book of Wonders, or Book of Surprises) is a 14th century Arabic manuscript that was compiled – and possibly illustrated by an obscure man known by the name of Abd al-Hasan Al-Isfahani. Although not much is known about the writer, his intricate manuscript is considered as a classic work in understanding the astrological and dark knowledge prevailing in those times in Iraq and other regions in the Middle East and North Africa. The codex were probably bound together in Baghdad during the reign of Jalayirid Sultan Ahmad (1382-1410), the period of the book’s publication, coincided with the period of witchcraft and sorcery in Europe, the increase in the number of alchemists, and the development of metaphysics.

This book includes texts on astronomy, astrology, geomancy and a section of full-page illustrated plates dedicated to each discourse topic, (e.g. a folktale, a sign of the zodiac, a prophet, etc.) Above all else, the book contains vital knowledge about jinn, Satanic and Demonic rituals, explained with the help of numerous detailed illustrations which depict many dark concepts. Some believe that the Book of wonders is a work of magic and sorcery, just as it is in the book "Shams al-Ma'arif " which is the most familiar among people, and this may be partially true. However, the value of the book historically lies in its representation of the rare part of popular Folklore and literature pertaining to the occult and parallel worlds at that time. Although many of its paintings are quite mythical, they are characterised by scarcity and strangeness that some historians see a special beauty in them. Such books are banned in many Islamic countries because they contains detailed texts for summoning the jinn, which is a strictly forbidden in the Islamic law.

The writer begins with (In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful) describing himself as the weakest of the servants of God and the most in need of his mercy and forgiveness, then he mentions his name (Abd al-Hasan bin Ahmad ibn Ali Ibn al-Hassan al-Isfahani al-Baghdadi) and then begins to praise God and says (I thank God who created entities and excelled The creatures raised the high heavens and the two earths...)


Here's a gallery of all the artwork included within 'The Book of Wonder', continue reading the article to learn about the history of this supernatural manuscript and gain a unique insight into the fascinating origin stories and different folkloric character types depicted in each of these paintings.


History Of The Manuscript

One of the first challenges that faces scholars when studying the manuscript is properly translating its title. The word kitab كتاب (book) is straightforward but bulhan is an unusual term stemming from the root (b-l-h بله) which According to Lisan Al-Arab means ' Ignoring evil and not doing good to it'. the word ablah, which comes from the same root (b-l-h) means ‘someone who has little knowledge of uncommon things’ When the manuscript was studied in depth for the first time by D. S. Rice in an article on the ‘Seasons and Labours of the Month’, he translated it as ‘The Book of Wellbeing’ stemming from the root (Blahn بلهن ) which means felicity. According to Stefano Carboni: "a more suitable translation of this title is ‘The Book of Surprises’, which would appropriately place this manuscript into the literary body of ʿajab عجب (wonder) literature exemplified by the text of Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazvini who wrote his celebrated work ʿAjaʾib al-makhluqat wa gharaʾib al-mawjudat عجائب المخلوقات وغرائب الموجودات (‘The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existing Things’) in the late-13th century".

The calligrapher, copiest and compiler, ʿAbd al-Hasan ibn Ahmad ibn ʿAli ibn al-Hasan al-Isfahani, whose family came from Isfahan in Iran was a native of Baghdad where he studied the Aristotelic ‘demonstrative’ (burhan) sciences. 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 or ‘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.


Manuscript Copies

In the late 16th century two Turkish copies were made from the original for the two daughters of the Ottoman sultan Murad III (r. 1574–95.), one for Aysha Sultan, (c. 1582), the other for Fatma Sultan. These manuscripts are complete and establish the original order of the treatises of the Kitab al-Bulhan. The codices are now held at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City and the Bibliotèque Nationale, Paris". A number of folios are missing in the Kitab al-bulhan and the codex is now bound in random order so that it looks like a jumble of incoherent different treatises. There exist, however, two Turkish copies of the Kitab al-bulhan made at the time the manuscript must have been created in Ottoman Turkey when its pages were still bound in their correct sequence. Consequently, they provide the models for a proper reconstruction of the original codex.


The Djinn Kings

The djinn/jinn are a race of invisible beings in Middle Eastern and Islamic folklore. They are Free-willed creatures just like human beings. Unlike humans however they are supernatural spirits born of smokeless fire long before the creation of humanity and are said to live in tribes and nations with their own rulers. They can present themselves through dreams and are said to be responsible for many illnesses and important life challenges.

The names of the jinn appeared in spiritual books, especially the book Shams al-Maarif, as well as the book “The Source of Fundamentals of Wisdom” these names were Inherited through the ages, and the stories of the jinn and demons have been transmitted through generations to reach us in a terrifying way, Al-Bunni wrote many stories and spiritual experiments in evoking the jinn and methods of dealing with them. At the same time he warned us against the consequences of negligence when reading such incantations because the world of jinn and demons is considered one of the hidden worlds that no one is allowed to dive into and uncover its secrets. Therefore, we find that the books dealing with the jinn or the books of summoning the jinn are often warned about, many spiritual scholars say that one shouldn't dive too deep into the world of jinn, because they believe that they will cause you harm because you invaded their world, and they will not be late.

There are Seven Djinn Kings associated with planets and the days of the week which have a strong relationship with magic. According to Al-Bunni, magic is associated with the planets, as some magicians and some jinn or demons worship the planets and draw close to them based on ancient rituals of worship, that are based on getting close to God through his close intermediaries by worshiping in the temples, which are the seven planets because they are the masterminds of this world. Since the jinns are creatures that have separate worlds, then there must be laws that govern these societies, the king who has power, and authority is supported by a group of ministers that are usually depicted within the frame of the painting and the talismanic symbols needed to exorcise him.

The books of the jinn divide the hidden worlds into three, the upper spiritual world of the jinn, the black underworld and the earth world, which in turn is divided between water, clouds and land. The depictions of the jinns may be fictional, but they combine the descriptions that the people of the region conveyed in their stories and their heritage. In the Kitab al-bulhan a couple of images are missing in this section on the jinns and we can refer to the Ottoman copies in order to reconstruct the full series of the seven ‘Kings of the Jinns'. The jinns of Sunday and Monday, the ‘Golden King’ and the ‘White King’ are missing in the Kitab al-bulhan but we used the Ottoman copy "The Book of Felicity" to trace their name and appearance.


Al-Mudhib (The Golden King)

Al-Mudhib (The Golden King)"المذهب" is the ruler of Sunday and the offspring of the sun goddess Shams, he is a master of alchemy and possesses all secrets of occult knowledge such as the transmutation of dirt into gold and the workings of the sun. This jinn is associated with the sandarus (Arabian sandarac) or whatever incense that is yellow and reddish in color, his corresponding element is Fire, his metal is gold and he is monitored by the angel Ruqiayil. He was named the "golden one" after his blonde horse who has a saddle and a bridle made of pure gold and written on it in his own native language are the glories of his Jinn ancestors.

Figure (2) - King Al-Mudhib (the golden king) - The Book of Felicity - 1582

He is of the Jinn tribe Banu Danair al-Jan Jamlith, a powerful and mighty family known for their wisdom, knowledge, and mastery of the occult craft. Al-Mudhib is one of the kings of the East and was present in the time of King Solomon so he is one of those entrusted with the treasures of the earth and rules over 360 tribes of jinns and has seven palaces that track the movements of the sun. He travels around them every hour to manage each kingdom. He's identifiable here by devouring the snakes. An infernal spirit flanked by two acolytes. Painted in light blue, his head is topped rounded with long ears, and flaming eyes. His head is surrounded by a halo of golden fire, his upper torso flames above his pink body and he is shown wearing large orange pants. On each side of the image there are two talismans which show his seal, one is shown as a six-pointed star-shaped talisman which represents the seal of Solomon and on each triangle of the star a written part of his name without the inclusion of “bin” and another shown as rectangular with his full nicknamed written in the centre.


Al-Abyad (The White King)

The White King (الملك الأبيض ) is the father of the Light, the lord of Monday, the Moon, the color White, the metal Silver and is monitored by the angel Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation in Islam. This jinn king came from the tribe of Marid - this is the oldest jinn tribe. They are the giant kings of the jinn, but still taking a humanoid shape. He is known to be the closest to Satan/iblis in his court. Al-Abyad constantly chased the prophets and tried to seduce them to sin, however, they were protected from him, this was the devil who lured the monk Barsisa into seducing and killing a woman under his charge.

Figure (3) - Al-Abyad (The White King), The Book of Felicity,1582

He was an enemy to the Prophet Muhammad and used to appear to him in the image of Gabriel so god had bestowed on the Prophet the necessary knowledge by which he would discern between Gabriel and this devil, who was other than the devil attaché (qarīn) that had submitted (to the Prophet and become a Muslim). Gabriel eventually pushed him away. By this, he was thrust away from Mecca and landed in the furthest parts of India and has been keeping a close eye on him ever since. He appears as an old, wrinkled Djinn as shown on the right with yellowish tanned skin. His shoulders are girdled with a blue stole and he wears orange shorts. He is shown with his knees bent while addresses two demons turned towards him, who listen carefully. The demon with the light pink complexion is seen kneeling, pointing a finger up to his mouth while the other demon, painted in bluish-green, stands behind him. In order to invoke him, one must fast off meat products for 40 days then perform a specific ritual in a special time during the month.


Al-Ahmar (The Red King)

The Red king "الملك الأحمر" of the red planet, Mars, the planet of war, is the lord of Tuesday, his metal is Copper or Red Mercury and he is monitored by the angel Samsama’il. He is one of the leaders of prince Morrah son of Iblis' army. He is a mighty king who has followers, armies, ministers and countless entourage by his side & is distinguished by extraordinary power in terms of physical strength as he has never lost a war in his life. King al-Ahmar has a very serious and nervous nature, as he rarely smiles. This fierce king is known for his thirst for blood so he joins most wars, always carrying his mighty sword and is known for using military tricks on his enemies. The Sabians of Harran gave to the spirit of Mars (Ārīs) the name Lord of the Blind and Mara-Samya, which means the blind (Samya) lord (Mara) in Aramaic, and they call him blind because of his extreme violence and because in his rage he strikes without regard. Interestingly the angel of this planet, Samael, is known as the "Blind One", whose duty is to seal the hearts of those who disbelieve.

Figure (4) - Al-Ahmar (The Red King), Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

The Red King is ruler of the Qarins, the djinn counterpart and companion that each human is assigned. It is said King al ahmar is one of the kings who believed in god and did not rebel like satan and is one of the extremists in religion. The iconography of the Red King is one of the most interesting of this group especially when compared to two illustrations in the Kitab al-Mawalid in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The jinn is depicted in here as a frontal monstrous figure with multiple heads, the only common attribute being the sword in his hand. However, another illustration shows a second jinni called Tarish sitting on a lion and biting the body of a snake. Tarish is not present in the Kitab al-Bulhan nor in the Ottoman copies, but the image of the Red King seems to incorporate his attributes too. Here the talismanic symbols are evident both in the monotonous repetition of individual letters (in this case, the letter ‘ta’), and numbers, and in the so-called ‘spectacle symbols’ originally deriving from the Kabbalah or other mystical and magical traditions.


Barqan The ‘Black King’

Barqan برقان ("Two Lightnings, father of Wonders"), the sorcerer king is the king of Mercury, the lord of Wednesday, the color Blue, the metal Brass and was the lord of the City of Carnelian, and the Castle of Gold, and under his rule were five hill-strongholds, in each five hundred thousand Marids; and he and his tribe worshipped the Fire, not the Omnipotent Sire. Also known as The ‘Black King’, King Barqan is the youngest king of the djinn kings and is distinguished by his remarkable intelligence and cunning in wars, he is known by his extreme wisdom among all the other kings.

Figure (5) - Barqan The ‘Black King’, Kitab al-Bulhan (late 14th C.)

He is a very powerful king, both in physical and intellectual strength, always leading in wars and acting on things. As for his normal life, this king is very humble and has a constant, calm smile. He listens to whomever decide to speak to him, even children, he deals with the jinn, large and small, with great respect, this king is a teacher of magic. Some sorcerers are known to invoke him in order to ask for blessings and magic themselves, but it is not recommended. His talisman is elaborate and also his helpers are quite extraordinary. He is seen here in this panel teaching the evil jinn all about magic and how to use it against humans for malevolent purposes.



Shamhurish (Arabic شمهورش ", father of the New Born") is the king of Jupiter (the lord of Thursday, the color Purple, the metal Tin and is monitored by the angel Tzedeqel), He is one of the eldest kings of the jinn & governs matters of law, justice, abundance, and children. Shamhurish is a judge and has an incredible knowledge. He teaches the other kings wisdom, firmness and how to manage their kingdoms and he is the one appointed by all the kings of the jinn to hold the greatest trials where humans and jinn alike are held accountable. His court sessions are very intense that no jinn king would miss it, even Satan himself attends his sessions. Although he is a powerful and mighty king he is merciful & often allows humans to make amends.

Figure (6) Shamhurish, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

Shamhurish is venerated as a saint in some parts of Morocco by many ministers, pashas, and other traditional civil servants. There is a shrine in his honour predating Islamic settlement near the village of Aroumd, the largest village in the valleys beneath the Atlas mountains hollowed out of the ground beneath a massive boulder, which locals have painted white and crowned with green and white flags, surrounded by swarms of crows ”haunted by spirits". According to the Moroccan popular belief: Shamhurish the king of the jinn Kings lives in this place, this shrine considered by many as the “highest authority of the jinn in which disputes between humans and Jinn are resolved. You can tell a trial is happening when thunder and Lightning appear in the sky and many humans would report crowds of whispers and shadowy figures while facing the mighty jinn king. Upon the arrival of Islamic settlers, a Masjid was built next to it, and since then, Sidi Chamharouch subsequently converted, later becoming a Qadi (judge) and expert in Islamic law. We notice in the painting that Shamhūrash is holding a naked child as he is also known as Abū al-Waleed ('Father of the New Born'). This is probably the reason why he is represented with him in his hands, held upside down, although it is unclear whether Shamhurash’s influence over him is positive or negative. The talismanic symbols are complex and include also the hexagon, the ‘Seal [on the ring] of Solomon’ (khatam sulayman) formed by two triangles, one upright and the other upside down, symbolising the entire universe combining the upper and lower spheres. The title specifying he is nasrani (‘Christian’) this is probably before crossing paths with Prophet Muhammad, and converting to islam.



Zawba'ah زوبعة "which means Whirlwind" as he often appears as Whirlwinds ("Father of the Handsome"), the king Zawba'ah is the lord of Friday, Venus the color Green, the metal Iron and is monitored by the angel Anael. He is a very mighty king but cannot fight many wars due to his old age as he is one of the oldest Ruling kings after King Shamhorsh.

Figure (7) - Zawba'ah, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

Zawba'ah is a four-headed jinnni their names are [Mazer - Tikal - Kummum - Qaswara] his appearance is similar to "div" the monstrous creatures in Iranian, Armenian, Turkic and Albanian mythology. Div have human bodies and animal heads: their eyes are bulging, they have long ears or horns, and often spit flames. Their arms and wrists are encircled by broad bracelets. Zawba'ah was one of the nine jinns who listened to the prophet Muhammad recite the Qur'an and is considered to be a very religious king that likes to eavesdrop on the angels discussing fate. He is called Zawba'ah the white because he is one of the white jinns, he also wears bright white clothes (as if there is light coming through them) and wears a white crown with a big circle on it and when he smiles, he sees his face lit up and an intense light comes out from between his teeth. This jinni is presented here with a combination of monstrous horned heads and harmless facing equines which is quite extraordinary. The upper head is distinguished by its two cattle horns turned inwards. The devil is sitting cross-legged in a royal pose, supported by a group of ministers. Two talismans on the top of the image are used to invoke this spirits. Evoking Zawba’a and asking him to send a Djinn unto you in order to attract love or lust is not uncommon.



Maimun Abu Nuh, (Arabic: ميمون أبانوخ "Prosperous, father of Rest") also Maymon Rex in western occult, is the king of Saturday, the day of Saturn, the color Black, the metal Gold, and is monitored by the angel Kasfa'il and lives in Babylon in Iraq because of its association with the the Babylonian civilisation. He is the only king of the jinn who has wings and is indeed described as “Maymun of the Clouds and is said to have a gold palace hidden up there. The name Maymun is a cognate to the Aramaic Mammon, a divinity associated with money. "Maymun", also means "monkey" in Arabic. He is popularly known as a jinni saint by the name of Sidi Mimun or Maimun and is considered to be a very faithful Muslim. He is the servant of minister Dikianos, one the closest ministers to Iblis and the one to harm humans by the plague, which may explain why Maymun's presence invokes a deep anxiety and sense of melancholy and sorrow.

Figure (8) - Maymun, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

King Maymun Abanuch is considered to be the strongest of all kings in terms of physical strength, he is stronger than any genie or goblin or any jinn on the face of the earth and is known for his unnatural ferocity in wars even though he is a very good and kind king. One of the most fascinating elements of Maymun is his gender. Maymun’s other form is Lalla Mimuna, a jinn queen. While some say it is his sister, others say it is him as a female jinn as he appears in two forms. The first (wearing a white dress and a white crown with with blue, red & white gemstones) the second (wearing a white dress with green similar to the cloak and the same crown as the previous.) Mimuna is a miracle-maker and often helps humans with marriages and finding love or even finding missing people and returning lost sailors to their families. She can perform exorcisms and control the wicked jinn of the night. She is said to be fiercely protective and fought alongside Moroccans against the French. She would appear as a beautiful woman luring colonists to their death in the desert. In retaliation, the French tore down her shrine. In the Book of wonders, Maymun is depicted between sets of lively oriental clouds. The jinni’s upper body is shown with the same muscular body, armbands, bracelets and collar as Zawba'ah. He has large open wings with gold and red feathers, red flames under his body and a monstrous head with a pointed beard, tusks, green eyes, goat ears and bovine horns. He holds in his hands, suspended in the air, the half-naked body of a sleeping man, to emphasise his demonic powers as a kidnapper of human beings. An Arab author of magical treatises, al-Buni, describes Maymun as “the winged one”, “the black one” and “the executioner”.


Other djinns ~ The sequence of the seven Kings of the week is complemented in the Kitab al-bulhan by additional jinns who can be related to illnesses or ways of disrupting one’s life.


We know the name of another of these jinns from the Ottoman copy since the original title is damaged in the Kitab al-bulhan: it is the ‘Evil Eye’. It is described as a sort of supernatural poison directed by the eyes. That takes away something good (health, wealth, luck) The eye has an invisible ray that strikes the envied, it can happen now or in the future, intentionally or unintentionally, the evil eye doesn't include humans only, but includes everything. It's one of the most common talismans today, available everywhere in the Middle East as a blue glass disk with the centre representing the eye and pupil, the blue color could perhaps stem from an ancient theory that blue eyed people could inflict the evil eye so the charm is reflective, it can also stem from the treatment of the evil eye as a sort of “hot” ray and so blue cools it down. Some say the source of the evil eye is the soul.

Figure (9) - The Evil Eye Demon, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

In this painting the hand gesture of the demon may indicates different meanings, in some cultures it may be given to ward off further bad luck or the "evil eye" in others, the gesture may take a different, offensive and insulting meaning as some see it as a curse. The goat-like form we see here and in most Christian and islamic artwork stems from pagan gods Bes and Pan who were responsible for war, despair and disease and come across the concept of jinn who present themselves through dreams and can be responsible for many illnesses and life challenges.



Huma (fever حمى) is the name of this jinn meaning the one who brings heat to the human body. He is responsible for the common fever. Huma is one of the most popular of the jinns responsible for human illnesses, so his talisman is encountered frequently. The jinn of fever is typically represented as a demon with three heads, perhaps an iconography whose roots lie in the Biblical Testamentum Salomonis (The Testament of Solomon), in which a three-headed demon is responsible for the birth of blind, deaf and epileptic babies.

Figure (10) - Huma, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

In the illustration two of the heads are identical, vaguely equine but with the usual tusks and smoke, one looking right and the other, left. The third central head looks more demonic and is placed above the other two facing forward in the centre. The frontal position of Huma is not unusual, but his open legs with bent knees and open arms, almost as if he wanted to capture the viewer, distinguish him from all other jinns. The presence of a tail ending in an animal’s head is also peculiar, but not at all uncommon in representations of demons and jinns, it is unique in this series of illustrations. Huma has not one but two tails. Two single-horned attendants (one of whom is wearing a hat) peak into the painting very close to Huma’s side heads.



Figure (11) - Tabiʿa, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

Tabiʿa " which means follower" تابعة. A type of jinn that follows humans, whose intention is to cause miscarriages and the death of children, she would sometimes appear if that human is cursed or as a result of a the evil eye and envy. When this jinn see people in this state of weakness, she follows them and turns their life upside down. She is related to the djinn Umm al Subyan, who causes sterility and sudden infant death syndrome. Her origins hark again back to the Kabbalah and the figure of Lilith, the demonic goddess who was purportedly destined by God to control and weaken human babies. She can also be related to the queen of witches in Christian demonology and so this image acquires an extraordinary significance linking Hebrew, Christian and Islamic traditions together.



Figure (12) - Kabus,Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

‘Kabus’ كابوس, which means the ‘Nightmare', is an incubus jinni, who puts one’s life in disarray while the subject is asleep and causes sleep paralysis and night-time emissions. Described as a winged shadow, this terrifying jinn attacks humans while they sleep by pressing on their chests, suffocating their breath and making them go into a state of hallucinations and fantasies that are completely untrue like hearing strange sounds accompanied by frightening hallucinations. This demon in the interior setting of a bedroom, Kabus, visits a hapless sleeping man as a menacing dark figure. Two attendants help him ruin the man's peaceful sleep. The ‘spectacle’ talismanic signs are evident in this painting they are not composed of letters or numbers but rounded signs of Hebrew origin.



Iblīs or Shayṭān "the devil "also known as the 'father of bitterness', a symbol of the greatest evil, was always present in the collective imagination, legends and ancient fairy tales. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has a devil. When God created the jinn and made them inhabit the earth and reproduce on it, they tampered with the earth and sought corruption in it. The angels noticed this and God ordered them to descend to earth and kill some of the jinn and captured others. iblis was among what was captured from the jinn, and was the head of them, he was taken to heaven by the angels as a prisoner and was raised by them; he went on to become one of their chiefs. After that, God created Adam, from clay and commanded the angels to prostrate to Adam, iblis was filled with envy and hatred and completely abstained from prostrating. So he was cast out of heaven to the earth, due to his fall from God's grace, he is compared to Satan in Christian traditions but unlike the Christian devil, Iblis is not a deity of evil opposing God, but more akin to a tribal chief or king. He’s also associated with snakes and peacocks as two creatures he fooled and tempted in the Garden. He was known before his exile as "the peacock of the angels", the one who flaunts in the presence of the angels because unlike angels who were forced to obey, jinn had free will but iblis left his will, and took the will of God and carried it out, he did what he was commanded and was favored by God and dwells in heaven. That was up until the creation of Adam.

Figure (13) - Iblis ,Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

Iblis, after descending to earth, did not remain alone. Rather, he - in some way - had offspring and sons who helped him wander the world in misleading and tempting humans into wickedness. Some theories say that iblis had a penis on the inner side of his right thigh and a vulva on the inner side of his left, and that to produce offspring all he needed to do is to close his thighs, and did this all day long, which explained why there were so many shayatin in the world. This comes very close to the explanations of self-reproduction of deities in the ancient Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian cultures. Other theories think that iblis has a wife named Shaitana. He had seven hairs on his chin and was blind in his right eye. His eye was put out by the prophet Idris (or Enoch), who was a tailor. Shaitan once came to him with an egg in his hand and told him that God had shaped the world like an egg. Idris was enraged by this blasphemous talk and answered, ‘No, God made the world like the eye of this needle, look here.’ When Shaitan looked at the needle the prophet thrust it into his eye. He is depicted here as a black-faced creature, a feature which would later symbolise any Satanic figure or heretic, and with a black body, to symbolise his corrupted nature sitting frontally in an enthroned position, as appropriate for the ruler of all jinns and devils.


Sindibad and the old man of the sea

One of the most famous tales in The Thousand and One Nights is in the long section on the adventurous travels of the sailor Sindibad, from his fifth voyage. One of the most accomplished paintings in the Kitab al-bulhan and the first to be published in 1928, the illustration relates to the story of Sindibad (called simply ‘the Arab’ in the title) and the Old Man of the Sea (opposite). Sindibad arrives on a deserted island here he was cast up after a shipwreck and sees a strange creature, half-old man half-fish. He takes pity on him because he can’t walk and appears to be starving, so he takes the odd creature on his shoulders not knowing that he would cling tightly to him without letting him go, start to order him around and hit him hard on his head. Sindibad does not know how to get rid of him until he notices vine trees with ripe fruit.

Figure (14) - Sindibad and the old man of the sea, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

The illustration shows the sailor crushing grapes in order to turn them into wine that he will give the Old Man of the Sea as an elixir that will restore his youth to get him drunk. The creature will weaken his grip on Sindibad’s shoulders and fall on the ground, after which the sailor will kill him with a stone. This fictional creature could perhaps stem from the myth of "Tantal' in the Sumerian mythology of Iraq. Tantal is a mythical creature that can transform to any form human, animal or a hybrid between both, he comes out at night and Arabs in the past were afraid of it as he can become fierce and mischievous and cut off roads for fishermen and travellers between villages and control large areas of land denying any human access to it.


The Valley of Sri Lanka and its Gems

Another one of Sinbad the Sailor’s tales in the Thousand and One Nights includes a story about the riches of the island and how to get hold of the precious stones. A valley in Sirindib (Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka Sirindib, or Ceylon, or modern Sri Lanka was famous among Arab travel writers, not only because the prophet Adam left footprints on one of its mountains but also for its fabled diamonds and precious gems). This valley is full of precious stones, diamonds and rubies that are easy to spot from the top of the surrounding mountains because they are scattered everywhere.

Figure (15) - The Valley of Sri Lanka and its Gems

The valley is guarded by terrible creatures, represented here clearly as poisonous snakes that make it impossible to collect the stones. Sinbad says the local people thought up a great stratagem: they take a few sheep, kill them and cut them up; the chunks of raw meat are thrown down into the valley so that the stones that lie on the ground become caught in the meat; predatory birds are attracted to the meat, they carry the chunks to the mountains in order to attend to their meal, the merchants scare them away and so they can get to the stones. This improbable but exhilarating tale was cleverly précised by the painter of the Kitab al-bulhan in a miniature that includes all elements of the story except for the local people and Sindibad: a valley defined by rocky formations at its sides, animated snakes, birds flying around with meat in their beaks and colourful pebbles on the ground.


The Wall Of Gog And Magog

The painting shows one of Alexander’s the great grandest legendary accomplishments, that is, the construction of a huge iron wall that would keep the wild populations of Gog and Magog out of the civilised world. The story features in the Koran in connection with the figure of Alexander (sura 18, verses 94-97, where the peoples are referred to as Yuj and Majuj) but it represents one of the most ancient myths of the dispersion of populations and languages to the farthest corners of the world. In Genesis, Magog was one of Japheth’s sons (Gen. 10: 2-5). In St. John’s Apocalypse, the peoples of Gog and Magog will be seduced by Satan and wage war against humanity (Rev. 20: 7-8).

Figure (16) - The great wall of Gog and Magog, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

The lively illustration follows the story in the Koran and Curiously, the viewpoint of the artist is as if he were looking at the scene from inside the lands of Gog and Magog. The story says that one day Alexander passed a group of people that asked him to make them a barrier to protect them from the harm of a mighty and barbaric tribe, that is known to corrupt and do great mischief on earth. Alexander agreed to help them and constructed a great wall, made of iron blocks covered with molten bronze making it so smooth it was impossible to climb, is depicted as a mauve brick barrier with a stepped upper section. It's enormity is emphasised by the diminutive size of the inhabitants of the lands of Gog and Magog in the foreground, four of whom are riding a large snake while seven others are frantically trying to climb the wall or wear away its surface by licking it with their scratchy tongues. Their wild behaviour explains why they have to be kept locked away. On the opposite side of the wall, the civilised world is represented in the upper part of the painting as a rocky, hilly landscape with a large central tree and a gold sky. On each side of the wall two horsemen are playing musical instruments, a long trumpet on the left and a drum on the right. Their large size underlines once again the difference between the civilised and the wild worlds. According to the story, the reason why loud music was played outside Alexander’s wall was that, once his army had left, the wild people of Gog and Magog were led to believe that a large number of people were outside, guarding the barrier waiting to kill them if they try to climb the wall.


The Waq Waq Tree

In literature, Waq-waq is an island that it is ruled by fierce tribes, surrounded by hostile ocean, on which the Waq-waq tree grew woman-like fruits. The details differed, but that was the main theme. In art, the tree always grew heads, but mostly of animals, sometimes together with humans. The island is ruled by a queen who sits on her throne completely naked and unburdened, with a crown on her head, surrounded by four thousand maidens, all young virgins, the island is so rich in gold that the women wear gold-woven tunics and their animals also wear gold collars.

Figure (17) - The Waq Waq tree,Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

Children grow on a tree, so men are not needed to reproduce. Female figures grow from the tree as if they mature like fruit until they are ripened and they drop to the ground emitting a cry that sounds like 'Waq Waq'. The fruit is too beautiful to be described by words, but without life, bone, or spirit. Shawkat Toorawa has written a great deal about medieval Arab geographers trying to trace the location of the Waq-Waq island. The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta mentioned that its name is taken from the Chinese language, as the Chinese used to call the area that is known today as Japan by the name “Waco Waco.” As for Al-Idrisi, who drew a map of the ancient world, he placed the site of it at Southeast Africa, at a region called Svala, on the island of Madagascar. According to the tales of A Thousand and One Nights,: “You cannot reach the Waq waq Island even if the jinn that wander around the wandering stars help you, because between you and them there are seven valleys, seven seas, and seven vast mountains.”


A Man Killing a Snake

The title of this illustration is descriptive, mentioning that a man who had helped a snake subsequently killed it. We are not informed, however, about the name of the man or, consequently, the source of the story: being a fairly common deed in Arab and Persian epic and non-epic literature, it is difficult to pinpoint. Like Saint George slaying the dragon in Eastern Christian iconography but also like the epic hero Esfandyar in the Persian Shahnameh (Book of Kings). The man is depicted piercing the throat of the dragon-headed snake with an impossibly slender spear. The reptile is also trampled under the feet of the camel on which the man rides high.

Figure (18) - A man killing a snake, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

The mount has a full caparison including a bell tied around the base of its neck. The scene shows a stream in the foreground and a high rocky landscape with a large tree behind the main characters. The face of the man killing the snake is inexpressive; he wears a turban that is also wrapped around his chin, an atypical Ottoman headgear probably intended to represent a tribal nomadic character setting the scene in an earlier period. The illustration is comparable to many others in the contemporary manuscript Qisas al-anbiya’ (The Tales of the Prophets and a source for the story may perhaps be found in similar texts.


The Lighthouse of Alexandria

Figure (19) - The Lighthouse of Alexandria, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

The illustration shows schematically the city of Iskandariyya (Alexandria) and one of man-made wonders the famous lighthouse with its mirror on top. It lasted for a long time as one of the celebrated seven wonders of the Ancient World alongside with the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the present Great Pyramid of Giza. Eventually, it collapsed in the medieval period due to a number of natural disaster and last of it remains castoff in the construction of the Citadel of Qaitbay one the same location. The illustration correctly places the tall building in the water. The women on the uppermost balcony of the lighthouse is staring enthusiastically at the mirror at the top that reflected sun rays to guide the ships that had headed for the port city of Alexandria since antiquity. The mirror may also have functioned as a giant lens able to ignite the wood of an enemy vessel when pointed at it and set it on fire.


The Mountain of the Birds

In a painting reminiscent of a famous image of the congregation of all species of birds in search of God in the mystical poem entitled Mantiq al-tayr (The Conference of the Birds) by Farid al-Din cAttar. The Birds symbolise the souls of people searching for the simurgh (the mythical bird that represents the ideal spiritual unity) as they come together in a wonderful landscape to set off on their journey under the leadership of the hoopoe. Many different kinds of birds fly around a tall rock or stand on it. Easily identifiable are a pair of hoopoes, of parrots and of partridges, a crane, a peacock, a falcon and seven others of more generic appearance giving a total of sixteen.

Figure (20) - The Mountain of the Birds Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

Atop the rock is a small, domed, brick building around which several of the birds are circling. The story of the Mountain of the Birds is told by several Arab and Persian geographers, including al-Qazwini, al-Qalqashandi, al-Mahalli and the author of the Kitab sukkardan. They all agree that it is situated in Upper Egypt near the shores of the river Nile. One particular day of the year a large number of birds, described in the texts as being white with black neck and wings, congregate around this mountain and one of them inserts its beak in the narrow opening of the dome and remains there for an entire year, following which it dies and its place is taken by another bird. The only explanation for this phenomenon is that they are attracted by a magic spell. The image shows one of the birds approaching the narrow opening in the domed building, just moments away from inserting its beak into it. Here it shows a crane already stuck into the dome.


The Temple of Abu Sir

Figure (21) - Inside the interior of the temple of Abu Sir in Akhmim (Panopolis) in Upper Egypt, one of Hermetic temples Abu Maʿ shar wrote an entire treatise about , the Kitab al-uluf (‘The Book of the Thousands’) was a book he wrote dedicated to the occult sciences of Hermes Trismegistus.


The Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus

Figure (22) - The Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

Another wondrous building, well known to Muslims all over the world, was the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, illustrated opposite the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The mosque was one of the first major architectural efforts of the first dynasty of the Islamic era, that of the Umayyads (ca. 650-751), who moved the capital to the ancient city of Damascus and built their Friday mosque upon the temple of Hadad (the storm and rain god in the Canaanite and ancient Mesopotamian religions.) He was worshiped in Damascus for three thousand years, the excavations did not reveal the precise features of this temple, but it was described as the greatest and largest temples was visited by people from all over the region. The mosque is famous especially for the impressive mosaics around its courtyard that were probably the work of Byzantine artists hired by the young dynasty because of their superior skills, as had been the case slightly earlier of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. A 15th-century anonymous Arab author described it as “one of the four most famous buildings in the world. It's walls are painted, its columns are covered in gems, gold & precious stones of wonderful colors…”.


The Baths of Tiberias

The thermal baths of Tiberias on the shores of the lake by the same name in historical Palestine was well known to Arab geographers. Like the Mosque of the Umayyads one of the most famous structures in the region, where the water was always so warm that there was no need to keep the fire going. One of them, Shams al-Din Qalqashandi, mentions that “there are also the famous thermal baths of Tiberias, springs from which water so hot pours out that it is possible to boil an egg in it; they are frequented by those who are in poor health and get better by immersing themselves in it. Ibn al-Athir [an Arab historian] reports that the water is so hot that there is no need to light a fire in order to heat it.”

Figure (23) - The Baths of Tiberias, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

Palestinian myths believe that there are evil spirits in who looks like monkeys that heat the waters of Tiberias before it runs to the ground, This belief could perhaps stem from an ancient culture such as ancient Mesopotamia, who believed that the soul rests at the bottom of the sea, and saw water as the source of eternal immortality. They believed that the plant of immortality that the snake stole from Gilgamesh settles at the bottom of the sea, the painter of the Kitab al-bulhan represented a lively hammam scene with bathers and attendants. A charming detail is given by the half-naked jinn guarding the small fire in the basement of the building. As mentioned by Ibn al-Athir above, the water was naturally very hot, so the painter suggests that the water remains hot because there are jinns who look after the fire and keep it warm all the time. And showed this eternal underground fire as being kept alive by these underground creatures. The interior of the bath shows two floors: various hammam-related activities take place on the upper floor whereas the lower section represents the fire. He was underground with two busy jinns in conversation while they take care of The Baths of Tiberias.


The ship of the "Magus"

Figure (24) - The ship of the "Magus"

The ship of the "Magus", a member of an ancient Persian clan specialising in cultic activities. The English words magic, mage & magician come from the word magus referring to these zoroastrian priests who were inventors of both astrology and magic, however, it's disputed whether the magi were from the beginning followers of Zoroaster and his 1st propagandists.


The Traveller and the City of Copper

Figure (20) - The Traveller and the City of Copper, Kitab al-Bulhan, (late 14th C.)

The city of copper is a city said to be located in Morocco, and the jinn had built it for king Solomon, near the Atlantic Ocean. The illustration depicts a story of two travellers (Prince Musa and the shaykh ʿ Abd al-Samad) which is included in the tales related to the ‘Jinns Imprisoned in the Jars since the Times of Solomon’ in The Thousand and One Nights. King Solomon used to imprison the jinns who rebelled against him in vessels of copper and stop them with molten lead and seal them with his signet then throwing these jars into the sea. Here the traveller is one instead of two but the story must be the same: the City of Copper has neither gates nor other entrances and anyone who tries to climb its metal walls would fall in & die; however, Abd al-Samad becomes the hero of the story and manages to get safely into the city helped by his prayers and avoid falling under the spell of the ten maidens in the city, who caused men to throw themselves to their deaths.


The Monastery of the Raven

Another well-known building was the Monastery of the Raven, which is reported in many travellers’ accounts as located in Spain or in Portugal. The extraordinary story about it is that a talking raven, depicted atop the dome in the illustration, knows the name of every person who enters the monastery and announces it loudly and clearly on their arrival.


The Abandoned Well

"The abandoned Well" is a well in Aden, Yemen, whose people are (Companions of the Rass). The people of Aden used to drink from the water of this well and it was their only source of water. Men who were entrusted with watering the people and their livestock day and night from it. When the rest of the people of Thamud worshiped the idols, God sent to them a prophet called “Hanzalah bin Safwan” who went to Mecca from his tribal home of Aden on the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula but had a vision telling him to return home because his tribe had begun to worship idols. He did so and preached to them but was killed and thrown into the well, God in revenge dried up a well that was vital for their sustenance and the people perished from thirst.

Figure (26) - The Abandoned Well

The evil acts of Hanzala’s tribe are emphasised by what seems to be the illustration of their punishment, depicting a man unaware that the bucket being raised from the well contains a human head instead of water. The bottom of the well, visible through a cross-section in the ground, is guarded by a jinn holding a sword, although his role in the story is unclear. The scene is set in a landscape with sparse pebbles in the foreground and the usual trees and hills in the background, but it is dominated by a large, elaborate yurt made of white felt with another man asleep inside. The heads of two camels appear from behind a hill and the forequarters of a horse and a donkey are depicted to the right of the tent, emphasising the remote location of the well.


Mountain of Fire and the Salamander Birds

Figure (27) - Mountain of Fire and the Salamander Birds

This 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.


Astronomy and Astrology

As expected from a text that includes Abu Maʿ shar’s writings, the Kitab al-bulhan contains a series of illustrations related to astronomy and astrology. The ‘Book of Nativities’ requires at least one illustration for each of the twelve Signs of the Zodiac but we can see also full-page miniatures depicting the Rainbow and the Stars, others with the 28 Stations of the Moon, the Apogee (exaltation) and Perigee (dejection) of the Seven Planets and the Lunar Node, the Climates and the Seasons.

Figure (28) - The Phases of the Moon

In the ‘Book of Nativities’ (Kitab al-mawalid) each Sign of the Zodiac is represented in conjunction with its Planet by means of a full-page illustration (for example, Saturn is the master of Aquarius therefore the planet is shown as a dark-skinned man pulling water from a well) and three small vignettes at the bottom depict the planets that influence the three decades of the month related to the sign (in the case of Aquarius these are Venus, Mercury and the Moon). An interesting double page shows an illustrated chart that links the 7 Planets to different activities and professions; for example, Saturn (the ‘dark Planet’) is related to jobs that have to do with dirtying one’s hands, such as blacksmith or leather tanner; the ‘Planet’ Sun looks over rulers and money-makers having to do with power and gold.

Figure (29) - The Rainbow and the Planets

In the illustrations that deal with the seven Climates of Earth, each climate is linked to a Planet. Once again, for example, Saturn is responsible for those regions of the world where dark-skinned peoples are found. Four more miniatures are related to the Seasons and are among the best illustrations in the Kitab al-bulhan as already noted by Rice in his 1954 ‘Seasons and Labours of the Month’ article. We do not know if these full-page illustrations can be linked to Abu Maʿ shar’s writings: it seems unlikely because most of them have a narrative content, although some have talismanic significance and they might indeed be related to the famous astrologer.


The Different Professions Associated with the Seven Planets

This double-page spread includes a total of fifty-six vignettes; each vignette is accompanied by a title written vertically inside a cartouche to the right of the illustration. To read the page correctly one must start in the upper right corner, which represents Saturn, the most distant planet from Earth according to Arab astronomers, and continue horizontally across the double-page showing the seven different professions associated with this planet. The second row, read right to left, refers to the planet Jupiter and its seven professions. The third row belongs to Mars, followed by the Sun, Venus, Mercury and finally the Moon in the correct descending order. The iconography of the seven planets is already familiar from the section on the twelve signs of the zodiac included in Abu Macshar’s Treatise of Nativities.

Figure (30) - The Different Professions Associated with the Seven Planets

Saturn is depicted here as a black man with a pick; this planet is associated with unhealthy, dangerous, tiresome and generally lowly and unpleasant jobs, such as those of the stone mason or the tanner. Jupiter sitting dignified and cross-legged leaning on a cushion, is the wise planet that oversees professions concerning lawmaking and religious matters (the judge, the preacher, the monk) and money making (merchant, market inspector), although his association with boot makers and candlemakers is unclear.

Mars with an axe and wearing a military helmet, is the warrior planet and is always involved in some kind of bloody or heroic activity (executioner, lion-tamer) or fire-related professions (cook, glazier, torchbearer). The Sun, the ruler of course, is therefore associated with authority (the sultan, the bey) and everything that shines, from gold to silver, from money to reflective shields and silk threads. Sun and the Moon are not personified in these vignettes, having been naturalistically illustrated as a solar disk rising from a hilly and simple landscape with no indication of the lunar planet.

Venus, as a female dancer holding handkerchiefs in her hands. This female planet is always a musician or dancer. Interestingly, the painter represented only the planet and the dancer as female figures: the musicians are all males. Mercury presides over several “clean” jobs, beginning with the important activities of the scribe and the miniaturist, continuing with the tailor, the weaver and the pharmacist and ending with an interesting association with the messenger, perhaps an indirect reference to the Greek origin of Mercury/Apollo as the messenger of the gods. Finally, the Moon, the image of which is strangely missing in the hilly landscape perhaps because the new moon is intended to be represented, is mostly closely associated with outdoor activities (linen bleacher, shepherd), travel (camel driver), water (fisherman, sailor) and agriculture (sower), whilst the cotton carder is the only indoor profession but probably also related to agriculture.


The Sage

Figure (31) - The sage, Abu Maʾshar al-Balhi, conducting an astronomical experiment

In this painting depicting The Sage, 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. The Kitab al-bulhan was rebound in random order at some unknown time, but this illustration was probably the first in the series of the full-page paintings introduced by a title and zero accompanying text, so characteristic of this manuscript.


The Twenty-Eight Mansions of the Moon

Figure (32) - The Twenty-Eight Mansions of the Moon


The Exaltation and Dejection of Mars and the Sun

Figure (33) - The exaltation and dejection of Mars and the Sun


The Exaltation and Dejection of Saturn and Jupiter

Figure (34) - The exaltation and dejection of Saturn and Jupite


The Ikhtilajnama

Figure (35) - The Ikhtilajnama

The Ikhtilajnama or Book of the Bodily Spasms is one of the branches of physiognomy and fortune telling, the text is about predicting the future by interpreting the parts of the body affected by spasms. The figure illustrating the treatise, the text of which is arranged in a checkerboard pattern, is difficult to interpret in relation to its textual significance. It represents a crowned figure facing forwards, richly dressed in a long green tunic with long sleeves and a short-sleeved, orange outer garment with gold embroidery which is slightly shorter than the tunic underneath. A long scarf-like belt floats and curls at the individual parts of the body are not highlighted like in some images of the so-called Zodiac Man, so this standing figure probably only has the generic significance of an oracle divining the future the oracle’s hands are raised with open palms in a gesture of foretelling and he is flanked by two lit candles..


Signs of the Zodiac

Each of the twelve signs of the zodiac in Abu Macshar’s Kitab al-mawalid (Book of Nativities) are illustrated inside a circle, almost as if they were seen through a telescope pointing at the respective constellation in the night sky. The dark blue sky invariably includes wispy white clouds and is dotted with gold stars. The circle with the sign of the zodiac dominates the centre of each composition and is set within a square. Each square has a different decoration, although similar compositions are recurrent. The central square is topped by a rectangular cartouche bearing the title of the illustration a cursive script that invariably begins with the words “ (“the image of the sign of the zodiac …”) followed by the name of the sign. At the bottom of the entire composition is another rectangular cartouche divided into three equal arched spaces, each including one of the planets associated to the first, second and third decade of the sign illustrated, however, the image of Taurus seems to be missing from the book of wonders so we used the one in the book of felicity as a reference to it. Check out the gallery of art below!




  • Shams al-Ma'arif (شمس المعارف الکبری) by Ahmad al-Buni

  • The Seasons and the Labors of the Months in Islamic Art. - RICE (D. S.)

  • Stefano Carboni,The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fragment of the Book of Felicity commentary volume)

  • Stefano Carboni The ‘Book of Surprises’ (Kitab al-bulhan) of the Bodleian Library, La Trobe Journal

~ Psychic Garden


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