Sicily in the Book of Curiosities

What the book of Curiosities takes from Ibn Ḥawqal and why


The map of Sicily in the 13th century manuscript of the Book of Curiosities | Fol. 32b-33a: Book 2 – Chapter 12: Brief description of the largest islands in these seas – Copyright: Bodleian Library

Download PDF: Sicily in the Book of Curiosity

In 2002 the Bodleian Library acquired an illustrated Egyptian manuscript of a hitherto unknown Arabic treaty about the cosmos: the Kitāb Ġarāʾib al-funūn wa-mulah al-ʿuyū, commonly known as “The Book of Curiosities”.
Even if the manuscript is dated to the late 6th/12th-early 7th/13th century, it is considered to be a copy of an anonymous work compiled nearly one century earlier, during the 5th/11th century, in Egypt.

The manuscript contains descriptions of the heaven and the earth and also an unprecedented number of maps, depicting both the celestial and the terrestrial geography.
Among other contents, the 12th chapter of the second book of the treaty deals with Sicily (folio 32a), providing a description of the island and also a map (folios 32b-33a)

My aim here is to define how much the description provided in this manuscript relays on Ibn Ḥawqal’s account (374/985) and why the complier should have relied to such a source.

Ibn Ḥawqal and the description of Sicily in the Book of Curiosity

As it is clear from a comparison between the two sources, the Book of Curiosity’s description clearly takes many information from Ibn Ḥawqal’s account, from the description of the island’s geography, to the information about its economy.

As in Ibn Ḥawqal’s Ṣūrat al-arḍ, the writer is chiefly interested in the description of the capital of the island, Palermo, and its administration and surroundings, without taking into consideration other cities. Moreover, the anonymous compiler deals mainly with the same topic we also find in the Ṣūrat al-arḍ.

From Ibn Ḥawqal it takes:

  • the overall description of the island and its main geographical features
  • the reference to the tomb of Aristotle (without naming the philosopher, tough)
  • the references to the markets of Palermo and its mosques
  • the description of its water supply network
  • the account about the great number of qur’anic schools
  • the general description of the population and of the inhabitants’ behaviour
  • the description of the citadel.

On a general point of view, we can say that the description of Palermo in the Book of Curiosities seems to be less exhaustive and more superficial when compared to that provided in the Ṣūrat al-arḍ.

For instance, when writing about the tomb of Aristotle, Ibn Ḥawqal explains that

“Some thinkers say that a Greek philosopher, that is Aristotle, is in a wooden coffin fixed in the shrine which the Muslims had converted into a mosque. They also say that the Christians used to revere his tomb and sought cures from it since they had seen the importance and esteem the ancient Greeks (al-Yūnān) had attached to it. The reason being, they said, is its suspension between heaven and earth at which the people used to pray for rain, for cures or serious matters for which refuge in God Almighty was needed or for seeking His favour in times of hardship, fear of disaster or when some are oppressing others”

In the Book of Curiosities it is only said that in a shrine there is “a piece of wood” and that the Christians address to it “prayers for rain”, without mentioning the Greek philosopher that is presumably buried in it.

Also the account about the habit of eating onion and its drawbacks for the mental health of the population is presented in the Book of Curiosities slightly superficially, without giving the reasoning which is, on the contrary, provided in the Ṣūrat al-arḍ.

Among the issues not fully treated in the Book of Curiosities is also the question of the jihād. Reading Ibn Ḥawqal’s account it seems clear to the reader that the inhabitants of the island are not really engaged in the war against the nearby dar al-ḥarb. This is clear when he criticises the behaviour of the volunteers in the ribāt-s, that are defined “unemployed”, “godless”, and “trouble-makers”. In the same time he stresses the fact that many Sicilians pretend to be Qur’anic teachers, thus escaping their duty taking part in the jihād.

On the other hand, in the Book of Curiosities it appears that the inhabitants of the island are actively engaged in the defensive holy war against the dar al-ḥarb: from the very beginning the writers explains that

“Sicily is the […] most honourable [of the Islamic lands] on accounts of its continuous military expeditions against the enemy – may God forsake them! – and the perennial efforts of its people and [governors] in this respect.”

Generally, it can be stated that in the Book of Curiosities the Sicilian inhabitants are not pictured so badly as in Ibn Ḥawqal’s account; nonetheless, also in this description some of their shortcomings emerge.

Anyhow, their misbehave and defects seem always to be explained by the writer through contingencies: their intelligence is corrupted because they eat onions (but there is no space for Ibn Ḥawqal’s explanation of the fact) and they are “rough”, “quarrelsome”, and hard to be governed not because of their personal inclination, but because of astrological influences.

The Book of Curiosities seems actually to delve long on astrological speculations which are not to be found in the Ṣūrat al-arḍ. In particular the account stresses that Sicily’s ascendant is Leo and that “[when] the House of Leo rises obliquely, it exercises, despite its reputation for beneficence, malign influence so that in every land in which it is influential, it is difficult for the ruler to govern. [The cities where Leo is the ascendant] do not suit their rulers and their rulers do not suit them.”

The description of the Book of Curiosities and Fatimid politics – a suggested interpretation

Comparing the two accounts on Sicily, it is necessary to set them in their historical and social context, as well as trying to relate them to their authors’ personal inclinations.

Ibn Ḥawqal’s description of Sicily must have been affected by his sympathy for the Fatimid dynasty. He did not approve Sicilian people as the majority of them remained Sunni Muslims, thus loyal to the Caliph of Baghdad, despite the strong Shi’i belief of their masters.

As the Book of Curiosities, written in the 11th-century Egypt, is a product of a period in which the Fatimid dynasty reached its zenith, it does not seem strange that the compiler decided to use Ibn Ḥawqal as his primary source for the description of Sicily.

What seems to be strange, though, is the different way in which the two geographers decide to discuss the population of the island: Ibn Ḥawqal seems to simply accuse the Sicilians for their shortcomings, whereas the anonymous compiler gives a sort of supernatural reason for their misbehaviour and nonetheless stresses, right from the very beginning of the description, that both the governors and the population restlessly fight for the jihād.

The Book of Curiosities, being written during the 5th/11th century, deals with Sicily in an extremely different period if compared to Ibn Ḥawqal’s account. The latter wrote at the end of the 4th/10th century, just after the Kalbid apogee under Ja’far bin Muhammad, the governor appointed directly by the Fatimids.

With the end of the 4th/10th century and the beginning of the 5th/11th, Kalbid Sicily entered a declining phase, which eventually would have ended with the Norman Conquest, formally dated 484/1091. It can be assumed that probably the anonymous compiler preferred to attribute this declining phase to supernatural forces rather than admitting that Fatimid rulers or their appointed governors had made mistakes in the government of the Emirate of Sicily.

Giulia Gallini


Anonymous, Kitāb ġarāʾib al-funūn wa mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn, XI century (copied: XII-XIII century). Full text available at:, (last accessed: Jul, 22th 2014).

Ibn Ḥawqal, Ṣūrat al-arḍ, X century. Trans. A. Metcalfe (2005). Available online at: (last accessed: Jun, 26th 2014).

A. Miquel, “Ibn Ḥawķal”, in EI2, vol. III, Brill, Leiden 1986, pp. 786-788.