Friday, February 03, 2012

From The Meadows of Gold by Mas'udi

Translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, and issued in 2007 in Penguin’s “Great Journeys” series, this volume is a small selection from Mas’udi’s massive historical encyclopedia Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, of which the only other English translation appears to have been the volume published in 1841 by Aloys Sprenger under the auspices of the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain. A complete translation of the five volumes would be a daunting task. It appears that the Penguin selection functioned as a preview of a larger work envisioned for publication as a Penguin Classic, however, I have found no indication that this project is advancing.*

Written in the tenth century in Baghdad, Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems is an encyclopedic universal history, based not only upon Mas’udi’s researches, but on his extensive travels as well. He gives descriptions of the lands and customs of Islamic Spain, the Mediterranean, Frankish Europe, the Norsemen, the Slavs, and the various tribes of the Caucasus and beyond. He also ventures descriptions of Egypt and Africa, India, China, Southeast Asia, and the Indonesian archipelago. This volume, being such a radical abridgement, gives but a taste of the larger work, to which Mas’udi brings a remarkably cosmopolitan eye.

In the Sprenger edition, Mas’udi notes that he has given his work a rich name “in order to excite a desire and curiosity after its contents, and to make the mind eager to become acquainted with history.” Having perused the Sprenger, I would have to say that it is a real treat, a fountain of lore beginning with the creation of the world, tracing, in the Arabic iteration, the story of the Old Testament and the life of Jesus, moving on to the history and religion of the Indian subcontinent, then to a general discussion of geography and astronomy, seas and rivers, oceanography, the Chinese Empire, island peoples, Spain, perfumes, the Caucasus tribes (with special attention to the Khazars, who adopted Judaism after conference with representatives of the three Abrahamic religions), Russia, the Byzantine Empire, and an entertaining diversion regarding the distribution and astonishing habits of monkeys.

The present translation, though laudable, doesn’t hold a candle to the 1841 edition, which one can easily access through Internet Archive. The Penguin is, for me, too disjointed, breaking the narrative into mostly short paragraphs on diverse subjects (the histories of chess and backgammon, electric catfish), which are, by turns, informative and fantastic. Still, in any version, Masu’udi is an entertaining guide, deserving of his reputation as an Arabic Herodotus, a prodigious traveler, historian, and naturalist. Sadly, only two of his known thirty-six works have survived. Despite lapses into pedantry, they are deserving of a larger audience.

*Apparently a selection focusing exclusively on Mas'udi's account of the Abbasid Dynasty has been published.