Everything you ever wanted to know about Menelaus of Alexandria but were afraid to ask

I’ve just come across an ancient author who is completely unfamiliar to me.  His name was Menelaus, and he was a mathematical writer, and one of his books even survives today, his Spherics, although only just.

Let’s see what ancient sources say about him.

In the Almagest (or Syntaxis) VII.3, Ptolemy tells us that he was in Rome and making astronomical observations in the first year of Trajan; that is, in 98 AD.  Here are the two passages from that chapter of book 7.  Page numbers are from the Toomer translation.[1]

(p.336): [Thirdly] the geometer Menelaus says that the following observation was made [by him] in Rome. In the first year of Trajan, Mechir 15-16, when the tenth hour [of night] was completed. Spica had been occulted by the moon (for it could not be seen), but towards the end of the eleventh hour it was seen in advance of the moon’s centre, equidistant from the [two] horns by an amount less than the moon’s diameter.

(p.338): Similarly, Menelaus, who observed in Rome, says that in the first year of Trajan, Mechir 18/19, towards the end of the eleventh hour, the southern horn of the moon appeared on a straight line with the middle and the southernmost of the stars in the forehead of Scorpius, and its centre was to the rear of that straight line, and was the same distance from the middle star as the middle star was from the southernmost; it appeared to have occulted the northernmost of the stars in the forehead, since [this star] was nowhere to be seen.

Mechir is the Egyptian 6th month, by the way, which I am told is Feb. 8th – March 9th in our calendar.

Menelaus appears in the Moralia of Plutarch, in De facie in orbe lunae (On the face in the moon), chapter 17.[2]  This is a dialogue, most likely a Greek-style symposium, between various well-connected people.  A man who may be Plutarch’s brother is speaking:

“Yes, by Heaven,” said Lucius, “there was talk of this too”; and, looking at Menelaus the mathematician as he spoke, he said: “In your presence, my dear Menelaus, I am ashamed to confute a mathematical proposition, the foundation, as it were, on which rests the subject of catoptrics. Yet it must be said that the proposition, ‘all reflection occurs at equal angles,’ is neither self-evident nor an admitted fact….

Menelaus does not reply, nor speak.  I picture him as perhaps being busy with the food tray.

In Proclus’ Commentary on the first book of Euclid’s Elements, we find this under Proposition 25:[3]

But the proofs that others have produced for the same proposition we shall recount briefly, and first the proof discovered and set forth by Menelaus of Alexandria.

This indicates that Menelaus came from Alexandria, like so many other mathematical philosophers.  There is also something in Pappus, Mathematical Collection.[4]  In book 4 he says:[5]

Some of these curves have been found worthy of a deeper study, and one has even been labelled the “paradoxical curve” by Menelaus.

In book 6:[6]

In his Spherics, Menelaus calls such a figure a “trilateral”.

and[7]

He says nothing about the setting of these arcs, because the reasoning of the demonstration falls back on the distinctions relative to their rising, and a work, on which we will later put forward some considerations, has already been written on this subject by Menelaus of Alexandria.

No such “considerations” appear in the text of Pappus as it has reached us, however.  But Pappus confirms that Menelaus is from Alexandria, and indicates knowledge of a lost work by Menelaus.

There is a little more information about Menelaus’ books from Arabic sources, much later.  By the 10th century scholars in Baghdad were translating as much of Greek technical literature as they could find.

Four works are listed in al-Nadim’s Fihrist or Catalogue, which has an entry on Menelaus.[8]  It reads:

Menelaus

He lived before the time of Ptolemy, who mentioned him in the book Almagest. Among his books there were:

Forms of Spherics [Menelai Alexandria sphaericorum], Knowledge of Quantity in Distinguishing Mixed Bodies [De cognitione quantatis discretae corporum permixtorum]—He wrote it for Emperor Domitian.[9] The Elements of Geometry [Elementa geometriae], which Thabit ibn Qurrah rendered in three sections; Triangles [De triangulis], a small part of which appeared in Arabic.

Rather later is al-Qifti who writes:[10]

Menelaus is among the guides of the geometers of his time, before the time of Ptolemy, the astronomical observer who mentions him in his book the Almagest. He was at the forefront for the benefit of his domain in the city of Alexandria – some said Memphis. His books were once translated into Syriac, then into Arabic. Among his writings is a book On the Knowledge of the Quantity of Specification of Mixed Bodies, dedicated to the King Ṭūmāṭiyānūs.

The Elements of Geometry translated by Thabit ibn Qurrah is known to other Arabic writers.  Al-Sijzī had a copy, and al-Biruni quotes from it.[11]  It is a lost book, however.

The only work of Menelaus to survive is his Spherics.  The original Greek text is lost.  Only a few quotations survive, which were mainly collected by A.A. Bjørnbo.[12]

However a number of translations were made into Arabic, from which the text became known in the west.  The Arabic tradition is complicated and is the subject of study at the moment.  One reason for the complexity is that Menelaus did not give complete proofs of his propositions, but rather outlines of how they might be proven.  Consequently the book was invariably expanded and “rectified” by translators or editors in Arabic, in order to make the book actually useful.  The result is that a number of versions exist, and the relationship between them is unclear.  Krause in the 1930’s edited and translated into German the edition by Abu Naṣr Manṣūr[13], and Rani Hermiz translated it into English[14].  I understand that a revision of this was printed in Hyderabad.[15].  A portion of a very early translation, differing from all the others, plus the edition of al-Māhānī/al-Harawī, has recently been edited and translated into English by Rashed and Papadopoulos.[16]

A Hebrew translation made from Arabic exists.  There are 8 manuscripts of this.  Two of them attribute the translation into Arabic to Hunain ibn Ishaq, the famous translator; the other six attribute it to Ishaq ibn Hunain, his son.  But the actual text of the Hebrew translation is based on more than one of the Arabic editions, not on whatever Hunain ibn Ishaq may have produced.[17]

There is also a medieval Latin translation by Gerard of Cremona, but this also is based on a mix of Arabic editions.

The Arabic version was translated for the first time into Latin by Francois Maurolyc, and printed at Messina in 1558, in a work containing also Latin versions of the Spherics of Theodore and the treatise “Of the movement of the sphere” by Autolycus.[18]  This was reprinted at Paris in 1644 in a work by Fr Mersenne, and then with the 2nd edition of the Greek text of Theodosius by Hunt, at Oxford in 1707.  The English astronomer Halley, the discoverer of Halley’s Comet, produced two Latin editions of the work at Oxford.  These were based upon the Hebrew and the Arabic versions, both of which were accessible in manuscripts in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.[19]

That’s all I have on Menelaus, perhaps a famous man in his own day and now hardly known.  Only his Spherics has survived.

Let us hope that perhaps a copy of the Elements of Geometry lingers somewhere, in some unexplored eastern library.  It was a “religious library” in Meshed in Iran that proved to contain an Arabic version of Galen’s On my own books, so discoveries may yet be made.

It is interesting to reflect that, when Menelaus was taking his observations in the capital of the world, and chatting with Plutarch, the apostle John was still alive.[20]  Doubtless neither Menelaus nor his important friends had ever heard of John.  But it was John who changed the world.  It’s a reminder to us, not to take the valuations of our world at face-value.

  1. [1]G. J. Toomer, Ptolemy’s Almagest, Duckworth, 1984.
  2. [2]The Loeb translation is online at Lacus Curtius here.  Beware: chapter 18 appears before chapter 17.
  3. [3]Proclus: A commentary on the first book of Euclid’s Elements, tr. Glenn R. Morrow, 1970, p.269.
  4. [4]Paul ver Eecke, “Pappus d’Alexandrie: La collection mathematique”, Paris, 1933.
  5. [5]p.208.
  6. [6]Proposition 1, p.371.
  7. [7]Proposition 56, p.459.
  8. [8]Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist of Al-Nadim: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture, 1970, 2 vols. Chapter 7, p.638.
  9. [9]Lit. “King Ṭūmāṭiyānūs”, so R&P, ch. 1, p.11.
  10. [10]Quoted from R&P, p.12, rather than directly.
  11. [11]See R&P for details.
  12. [12]A.A. Bjørnbo, Studien über Menelaos’ Sphärik (Leipzig, 1902): pp.22-25.  Online at Archive.org here.  A few more were located in the scholia to the Almagest : F. Acerbi, “Traces of Menelaus’ Sphaerica in Greek Scholia to the Almagest,” SCIAMVS 16 (2015): p.91-124; online at academia.edu here.
  13. [13]M. Krause, Die Sphärik von Menelaos aus Alexandrien in der Verbesserung von Abū Naṣr Manṣūr b. ‘Alī b. ‘Irāq, Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1936.
  14. [14]Rani Hermiz, “English Translation of the Sphaerica of Menelaus”, California State University San Marcos, MA diss., 2015.  Online here.
  15. [15]Naṣr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Kitāb Mānālāwus, Taḥrīr, Hyderabad: Osmania Oriental Publications Bureau, 1940
  16. [16]Roshdi Rashed, Athanase Papadopoulos, Menelaus’ ‘Spherics’: Early Translation and al-Māhānī/al-Harawī’s Version. Scientia Graeco-Arabica 21.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. xiv, 873.  ISBN 9783110568233. There is a Google Books preview here. I am indebted to the Bryn Mawr review of this by Nathan Sidoli of Waseda University for much of the above.  The review is here.
  17. [17]So R&P.
  18. [18]Theodosii Sphaericorum elementorum libri. III. ex traditione Maurolyci Messanensis. Online here.
  19. [19]Menelai Sphaericorum libri III, ed. Ed. Halleius, Oxonii 1758; and Menelai Sphaericorum lib. III, quos olim collatis mss. hebraicis et arabicis typis exprimandos curavit Ed. Halleius, praefationem addidit G. Costard.  Oxonii, 1758.  Online at Google Books here.
  20. [20]Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, book 2.

Sayings of Luqman – translated by Anthony Alcock

The sage Luqman appears in the Koran, but also in other sources, as the author of collections of wisdom.  Anthony Alcock has translated one of these collections from Arabic, which is very good news.  The content itself is highly readable, and it is very useful to have.  Here it is:

Thank you, Dr. A!

Al-Maqrizi on the pyramids

Jason Colavito has done something great, and something sensible.  He has translated all the passages in al-Maqrizi’s al-Khitat which relate to the pyramids of Egypt and placed them online:

Ancient astronaut proponent Giorgio Tsoukalos claims that the fourteenth century Al-Khitat of Al-Maqrizi (1364-1442 CE) contains evidence that ancient astronauts assisted human beings in the construction of Egypt’s pyramids. This book, the most significant collection of medieval Arabian and Coptic pyramid lore ever assembled, has never been translated into English, so I have translated the passages dealing with pyramids to make this text accessible to interested readers. The following contains all of the significant references to the pyramids in the volume, though some minor allusions have been omitted.

He adds, quite properly:

I do not speak Arabic, so I am translating from the French edition published in 1895 and 1900. I cannot claim to be a professional translator, so before citing any material below, be sure to consult the original Arabic version.

The fact is, however, that this enterprise will still make these passages far more accessible.  It is rather a point against the “ancient astronauts” people that they have not made such a translation. 

It doesn’t seem to be possible to add comments, or I would have asked where he found the French edition.  I suspect it is online somewhere, and it would be nice to know where.  The book itself should plainly be translated into English in its entirety.

(Via Paleobabble)

UPDATE: From Wikipedia I get the following:

The most important is the Mawaiz wa al-‘i’tibar bi dhikr al-khitat wa al-‘athar (2 vols., Bulaq, 1854), translated into French by Urbain Bouriant as Description topographique et historique de l’Égypte (Paris, 1895–1900; compare A. R. Guest, “A List of Writers, Books and other Authorities mentioned by El Maqrizi in his Khitat,” in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1902, pp. 103–125).

Volume 1 is on Google books here.

The whole book in two volumes is at Gallica.bnf.fr here.

Arabic biographies of Mohammed – Brockelmann’s bibliography

More than a month ago I obtained paper copies of Brockelmann’s great but flawed reference volumes on Arabic literature.  Seeing only a page or two on the Arabic biographers of Mohammed, I was moved to try to scan these, and then turn them into English. 

Well, it’s been one heck of a fight!  The abbreviations were incomprehensible, and the material so densely packed that even Brockelmann himself got confused about his number sequences (I have seen two cases so far where his numeration of works by an author gets out of sync), and his text was evidently unreadable to his typesetters as well.  Worse yet, there is no obvious way to merge the data in the “supplement” with the main text. 

But I did it.  And the material is now online, here.  Enjoy, if you can!

It’s not quite finished.  That’s because I simply couldn’t understand some parts of it.  My German is weak, and my knowledge of Arabic literature and the bibliography for it is non-existent.  But I did what I could.

From my diary

I have volume 1 of Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur (2nd ed. 1941) on order via my library.  But a correspondent sent me an interesting word document yesterday.  He’d downloaded volume 1 of the 1898 first edition, run it through some OCR, and then run the output through Google Translate.  The .doc file contained the result, which was really rather interesting, and by no means useless.

Last night I also downloaded the PDF, and I ran Finereader 10 against it during the night.  The results were not too bad, although I gather that quotations may not be handled that well.  The PDF resolution is not that great, unfortunately.  Footnotes tended to be handled rather badly.  I started correcting the OCR of the main text, but had to go away unexpectedly, which prevented further progress.  But I will do more next week, if Adam’s curse permits.

While I was hunting for PDF’s of Brockelmann, I found another interesting item, Nicholson’s 1907 book, A literary history of the Arabs.  This looked interesting enough that I ordered a version on paper from Amazon.  We have to ignore the early chapters, dedicated to pre-islamic material — at least, that isn’t what I want to read about — but it gets quite interesting from the Ummayad period on.  Something I can scribble on is what I need.

I’m still cursing Brill for the price they place on Brockelmann’s second edition.  A thousand dollars, for heaven’s sake, for a thousand page paperback!?! 

Let’s see what kind of a grasp of Arabic literature I can get.

Hunain ibn Ishaq on the perils of jealousy at the Abbasid court

Thanks to the generosity of David Wilmshurst here, we have this passage from Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, iii.198-200, which does not show the great translator from Greek to Arabic, Hunain ibn Ishaq, in a very favourable light:

There flourished at that time the doctor Hunain, son of Isaac, the translator of books of medicine. He quarrelled with Israel, the doctor of Tifur, and accused him to the caliph al-Mutawakkil, saying, ‘This Israel worships an image or an idol in his house, and is a Christian in name only.’ The caliph then sent agents to search Israel’s house, and they found an image of the Mother of God which they brought to the caliph. Hunain swore that this was the image he had referred to. Then Israel said, ‘If it is an idol, spit on it.’ But Hunain did not dare to spit on the image. The caliph thereupon summoned the catholicus to him, and asked him about the image. He asked whether the catholicus recognised it or not; and if he did, what punishment was fitting for a man who spat on it. The catholicus replied, ‘It is not an idol, but the image of our Lord’s mother. Any Christian who despises it deserves to be excommunicated.’ And so, at the order of the caliph, the catholicus anathematised Hunain and deprived him of ecclesiastical communion.

But Hunain gives his own account of it in the Letter on his misfortunes, which is quoted by Ibn Abi Useibia, as I mentioned in previous posts.  An English translation of a substantial chunk is in Dwight F. Reynolds, Interpreting the self(2001), p.107-118.  After describing the envy of his co-religionists, all Nestorians employed as doctors by the Abbasid caliph, he writes:

Bakhtishu` the physician 3succeeded in setting in motion a plot against me by which he was able to place me in his power. This he did by means of an icon depicting the Madonna holding Our Lord in her lap and surrounded by angels. It was beautifully worked and most accurately painted, and had cost Bakhtishu` a great deal of money. He had it carried to the court of the caliph al-Mulawakkil,4 where he positioned himself to receive the icon as it was brought in. and to present it personally to the caliph, who was extremely impressed with it. Bakhtishu`, still in the caliph’s presence, began kissing the icon repeatedly.

“Why are you kissing it?” asked Mutawakkil.

“If I do not kiss the image of the Mistress of Heaven and Earth, your Majesty, then whose image should I kiss?”

“Do all the Christians do this?” asked Mutawakkil.

“Yes, your Majesty,” replied Bakhtishu`, “and more properly than I do now. because I am restraining myself in your presence. But in spite of the preferential treatment granted the Christians. I know of one Christian in your service who enjoys your bounty and your favors, but who has no regard for this image and spits on it He is a heretic and an atheist who believes neither in the oneness of God nor in the Afterlife. He hides behind a mask of Christianity, but in fact denies God’s attributes and repudiates the prophets.”

“Who is this person you are describing?”

“Hunayn the translator,” said Bakhtishu`.

“I’ll have him sent for,” said Mutawakkil. “and if what you say turns out to be true. I’ll make an example of him. I’ll drop him in a dungeon and throw away the key; but not before I’ve made his life miserable and ordered him tortured over and over until he repents.”

Bakhtishu` said. “With your Majesty’s permission, might his summons be delayed until such time as I return?” Mutawakkil assented to his request.

Bakhtishu` left the palace and came to see me.

“My dear Hunayn,” he said, “you should know that someone has presented the caliph with an icon. He’s quite taken with it and thinks it’s of Syrian origin. He keeps saying how marvelous it is. If we let him keep it. and praise it in his presence, he’ll never stop dangling it in front of us and saying, ‘Look! It’s a picture of your god and his mother!’ He has already said to me, ‘Look at this wonderful image! What do you think of it?’ I told him, ‘It’s a picture like the ones they paint on the walls of bathhouses and churches or use in decorations; it is not the kind of thing we are concerned about or pay any attention to at all.’ He said. So it means nothing to you?’ ‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘Spit on it, then, and we shall see if you are telling the truth.’ he said. So I spat on it and left him there laughing up a storm. Of course I did this just so he would get rid of it and stop provoking us with it and making us feel different from everyone else. If someone gives him the idea of using it against us, the situation can only get worse. So. if he calls for you and asks you questions like the ones he asked me. the best thing to do is to do what 1 did. I have spread the word among the rest of our friends who might see him, and told them to do the same.”

I fell for this stupid trick and agreed to follow his advice. Barely an hour after he left, the caliph’s messenger arrived to summon me. When I entered the caliph’s presence, I saw the icon before him.

“Isn’t this a wonderful picture. Hunayn?”

‘Just as you say. your Majesty.”

“What do you think of it? Isn’t it the image of your god and his mother?”

“God forbid, your Majesty! Is God Almighty an image, can He be depicted? This is a picture like any other.”

“So this image has no power at all, either to help or to harm?”

“That’s right, your Majesty.”

“If it’s as you say, spit on it.”

I spat on it, and he immediately ordered me thrown in prison.

Then he sent for Theodosius, the head of the Nestorian church.5 The moment he saw the icon, he fell upon it without even saluting the caliph and held it close, kissing it and weeping at length. A retainer moved to stop him, but the caliph ordered him away. Finally. Theodosius—after much weeping—look the icon in his hand, stood up. and pronounced a long benediction on the caliph. The caliph answered the greeting and ordered him to take his seat. Theodosius sat down holding the icon in his lap.

Mutawakkil said. “What do you think you are doing taking something from in front of me and putting it in your lap without permission?”

“Your Majesty ,” said Theodosius, “I have more right to it. Of course the caliph—may God grant him long life!—has precedence over us all, but my faith does not allow me to leave an image of the Holy Family lying on the ground, in a place where its sanctity is unrecognized, or even in a place where its sanctity might not be recognized. It deserves to be placed where it will he treated as it deserves, with the finest of oils and most fragrant incense bunting before it continually.”

The caliph said. “Then you may leave it in your lap for now.”

“I ask your Majesty to bestow it as a gift to me, and to deem it equivalent to an annual income of a hundred thousand dinars, until I can discharge the debt I owe your Majesty. Your Majesty will find me ready to grant any request he may make of me in the future.”

“I give you the image.” said the caliph. “But I want you to tell me how you deal with someone who spits on it.”

Theodosius replied, “If he is a Muslim, then there is no punishment, since he does not recognize its sanctity. Nevertheless, he should be made aware of it, reprimanded, and reproached—in accordance with the severity of the offense—so that he never does it again. If he is a Christian and ignorant, people are to reproach and rebuke him, and threaten him with awful punishments, and condemn him. until he repents. At any rate, only someone totally ignorant of religion would commit such an act. But should someone in full command of his own mind spit on this image, he spits on Mary the Mother of God and on Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“And how must you deal with such a person?”

“I, your Majesty, can do nothing, having no authority to punish with whip or rod, nor do I have a deep dungeon to imprison him in. But I can excommunicate him and forbid him to enter the church and to partake in Communion, and I can prohibit Christians from intercourse or conversation with him, and I can make life a severe trial for him. He would remain an outcast among us until he repents and recants. Then he must move through the community and disburse a part of his wealth in alms to the poor and the downtrodden, and observe all the prayers and fasts. At that point we invoke our Scripture—’If ye forgive not the sinners, your own sins will not be forgiven you’—and lift the ban of excommunication on the offender, and all would be as it was before.”

Then the caliph ordered Theodosius to take the icon, and told him to do as he liked with it. and gave him a hundred dirhams, telling him to spend it on his icon. After he had left the caliph sat a while marveling at him and his lose and adoration for his god.

“This is a truly amazing thing,” said the caliph, and then ordered me brought in. He called for the ropes and the whip, and ordered me stripped and spread before him. I was struck a hundred lashes. Then the caliph ordered that I be confined and tortured, and that all my furnishings, riding animals, books, and the like be carried off. My houses were destroyed and the wreckage was dumped in the river. I remained confined in the palace for six months under conditions so appalling that I was transformed into an object of pity for those who saw me. The beatings and the tortures were repeated every few days.

I remained thus until the fifth day of the fourth month of my imprisonment, when the caliph fell ill. He became so ill that he was unable to move or stand: everyone, including him. gave up any hope of his recovery. Nevertheless, my enemies the physicians were at his bedside day and night to attend to him and administer his medicines. All the while, they would continue to bring up my case to him: “If your Majesty would only rid us of that heretical atheist he would be ridding the world of a great menace to religion.”

They continued pressing him to do something about me, accusing me of all sorts of vile things in his presence, until finally he said, “So what would you have me do with him?” “Get rid of him once and for all,” they replied. In the meantime, whenever one of my friends came to ask about me or tried to intercede for me, Bakhtishu` would say. “That, your Majesty, is one of Hunayn’s disciples; he holds the same opinions as his master.” Thus, the number of people who could help me diminished whereas the number of people plotting against me increased, and I despaired of my life. At last, in the face of their persistent demands, the caliph said. “I’ll kill him first thing tomorrow morning and spare you any more trouble on his account.” The whole lot of them were greatly relieved and returned cheerfully to their own affairs.

A palace functionary informed me that I had been condemned. With distraught mind and aching heart, in terror of what was to befall me on the morrow, innocent, having done nothing to deserve such a punishment, nor committed any offense other than falling victim to a plot and playing into the hands of mv enemies, I beseeched God Almighty to vouchsafe me such providence as He had shown me in the past. I prayed: “Dear God. You know I am innocent, and You are the one to save me.” At last my anxiety gave way to sleep.

Then I felt someone shaking me. and heard a voice say. “Rise and praise God, for He has delivered you from the power of your enemies. He will cure the caliph at your hands so put your heart at rest.”

I awoke terrified. “Since I invoked Him while awake,” I thought, “why deny having seen Him in my sleep?” And so I prayed continuously until the break of day.

When the eunuch arrived and opened my door earlier than usual, I thought, “The time is all wrong—they are going ahead with it after all. My enemies’ triumph is at hand.” I begged God for His help.

The eunuch had been sitting only a moment when his page arrived accompanied by a barber, “Come, fortunate one,” said the eunuch, “and have your hair cut.” After the haircut, he took me to the bath and had me washed and cleaned and perfumed on the caliph’s orders. When I emerged from the bath the eunuch put splendid clothes on me and left me in his booth, where I waited until the rest of the physicians arrived. Each took his appointed place. The caliph called out, “Bring in Hunayn!”

Those assembled had no doubt that he was calling me in to have me executed. Seeing me, he had me approach closer and closer until I at last sat directly before him. He said, “I have gratified a well-wisher of yours and forgiven you your crimes. Give thanks to God for your life, then treat me as you see fit, for I have been ill too long.”

I look his pulse and prescribed cassia pods, handpicked off the stalk, and manna, which were the obvious things to prescribe for his constipation.6

“God help you, your Majesty, if you take his medicine,” clamored my rivals, “it can only make your condition much worse.”

“Do not try and argue with me—I have been commanded to take whatever he prescribes,” said the caliph. He ordered the drug prepared and took it at once.

Then he said. “Hunayn, acquit me of all I have done to you. The one who interceded for you is powerful indeed.”

“His Majesty is blameless in his power over me. But how is it that he spared my life?”

The caliph spoke up: “Everyone must hear what I am about to say.” They gave him their full attention and he said:

“As all of you know, you left last night under the impression that I was going to execute Hunayn this morning, as I had promised, last night. I was in too much pain to fall asleep. About midnight. I dropped off. and dreamed that I was trapped in a narrow place, and you my physicians, along with my entire retinue, were far off in the distance. I kept saying, ‘Damn you, why are you staring at me? Where am I? Is this a place fit for me?!’ But you sat silent, ignoring my cries. Suddenly a great light shone upon me as I lay there, a light that terrified me. And there stood before me a man with a radiant face, and behind him another man dressed in sumptuous clothes. The man before me said. ‘Peace be with you,’ and I answered his greeting. ‘Do you recognize me?’ he asked.

‘No,’ I said.

‘I am Jesus Christ,’ he said.

I trembled and shuddered in terror and asked, ‘Who is that with you?’

‘Hunayn ibn Ishaq.’

I said, ‘Forgive me—I cannot rise to greet you.’

He said. ‘Pardon Hunayn. and absolve him of his crime, for God has forgiven him. Take what he prescribes for you and you will recover.’

“I awoke unable to stop thinking about what Hunayn had suffered at my hands, and marveling at the power of his intercessor. Now it is my duty to restore to him what was rightfully his. You are all dismissed: it is he who shall attend me. Every one of you who asked me to take his life shall bring me ten thousand dirhams as blood-price. Those who were not present need pay nothing. Whoever fails to bring this amount will lose his head.”

Then he spoke to me: “You may take your appointed seat.”

The group dispersed and each member returned with the ten thousand dirhams. When all they had brought had been collected, the caliph ordered that a like amount be added from his own treasury, for a total of more than two hundred thousand dirhams. and ordered it handed over to me.

By the end of the day, the medicine had moved his bowels three times, and he fell the onset of recovery. “All you wish. Hunayn, is yours,” he said, “for your standing is much enhanced in my eyes, and you are far more important to me than ever before. I shall restore your losses many times over, reduce your rivals to abject dependence upon you, and elevate you above all of your colleagues.”

Then he commanded that three houses belonging to him personally be renovated. They were houses the likes of which I had never occupied in all my days, nor known any of my fellow physicians to own. Everything I needed—furniture, bedding, utensils, books, and the like—was delivered as soon as the houses were made over to me. This was confirmed in the presence of notaries in view of the substantial value of the houses—a figure in the thousands of dinars. In this way. the caliph, out of concern and affection for me, wanted to ensure that the houses would belong to me and my children without anyone being able to contest our right to them.

When all his instructions regarding the transport of the property to the houses had been carried out, including the installation of curtains and hangings, and there remained only the matter of actually moving in, the caliph ordered the money due me, multiplied many times over, brought before me. He then had me conveyed in a train of five of his best mules, with all their trappings. He also gave me three Greek retainers, and granted me a monthly stipend of fifteen thousand dirhams, which, in addition to my accumulated back pay from my time in prison, added up to a substantial sum. Furthermore, his servants, the women of the harem, and the rest of his family and retainers, contributed countless moneys, robes of honor, and parcels of land. In addition, the services I used to perform outside the caliphal residence were transferred, in my case, to the interior of the residence. I became the leading representative of the physicians—my allies as well as the others. This crowned my good fortune: this is what the enmity of evildoers wrought. As Galen said, The best of people are those who can turn the animosity of evil men to advantage.”

It is certainly true that Galen suffered great tribulations, but they were never as bad as mine.7

I can indeed tell you that, time and again, the first people to scurry to mv door and to ask me to intercede for them with the caliph, or to consult me on an illness that had baffled them, were the same rivals who had inflicted upon me the miseries I have already described to you. And I swear by the God I worship, the First Cause, that I would show them goodwill, and hasten to do favors for them. I bore no grudges against them, nor did I ever avenge myself on them for what they did to me. Everyone marveled at the goodwill with which I performed services for my rivals, especially when people heard what my rivals were saving about me behind my back, and in the presence of my master, the caliph. I would also translate books for them on request, without profit or reward, whereas in the old days I used to earn the weight of the translated work in gold dirhams.8

I have recounted all this for no other reason than to remind the wise man that trials may befall the wise and the foolish, the strong and the weak, the great and the small. Those trials, although they respect no differences of degree, must never give him cause to despair of that Divine Providence which shall deliver him from his affliction. Rather, he must trust, and trust well, in his Creator, praising and glorifying Him all the more. Praise the Lord, then. Who granted me a new life, and victory over my oppressors, and Who raised me above them in rank and prosperity. Praise Him ever anew and always.

This is Hunayn’s entire statement as given in his own words.

This is rather a splendid translation, isn’t it?  I don’t know if it is by Dr Reynolds himself, but if so I wish he would do more!  The notes are also rather interesting:

3.Bakhtishu` ibn Jibra`il, like Hunayn, was a Nestorian Christian court physician. He was known for his enormous wealth and his “erudition, loyalty, integrity, charity and perfect adherence to manly conduct” (Ibn Abi Usaybi`a. `Uyun al-anba, 201- 9). Ironically, he is said to have had his own difficulties with the caliphs: both al- Wathiq and al-Mutawakkil dismissed him and confiscated his property, in both cases because of plots hatched by jealous or suspicious rivals.
4.The tenth `Abbasid caliph, reigned 847-61.
5.The head of the Nestorian ecclesiastical hierarchy was called thecatholicos. Theodosius held this office from 853 to 858 C.E.
6. Cassia pods (Ar.khiyar shanbar) are produced by the “Pudding Pipe tree” (Cassia fistula) and pulped for medicinal use; “manna” (Ar.taranjubin) is the sugary exudate of the flowering ash(Fraxinus ornis), collected from cuts in the bark. Cassia and manna were used as purgatives or laxatives.
7. Galen is said to have lost his library in a fire.
8.Ibn Abi Usaybi`a (d. 1270) notes: “I have come across many of these books, and acquired a good number of them for myself. They are written in Muwallad Kufi script, in the hand of al-Azraq, Hunayn’s scribe. They are written in a broad hand, with a thick stroke, and in widely separated lines, on sheets twice and three times as thick as today’s paper, and cut to a size one-third of standard Baghdadi paper. Hunayn produced his books in this way to increase the size and weight of the volumes because he was paid their weight in gold dirhams. Since the paper he used was so thick, it is little wonder that his works have survived all these many years.” Ibn Abi Usaybi`a, `Uyun, 270-71.

The last note is very interesting indeed!  Who would have thought that this motive would exist, or create conditions for improved preservation?  The books had survived from ca.850 AD to the 1250’s — 400 years.

I remember a colleague at university, who found his research results rather thin.  So he arranged for his thesis to be typed up on thick, good quality paper, in order to give it more bulk.  In his viva voce, the examiners complimented him on the quality of his … paper!

Searching for Ibn Abi Useibia’s work on medical writers

Using the form of the name “Ibn-e-Abi Useibia”, I was able to find a bunch of matches for “ibn abi usaybiah” in Worldcat.  We’re looking, of course, for his ʻUyūn al-anbāʼ fī ṭabaqāt al-ʼaṭibbāʼ.  It has things to say about Hippocrates and Galen, and also about Hunain ibn Ishaq.

There are several publications listed in Worldcat.  The catalogues indicate that he lived between 1203-1270.

First, there is “Abdollatiphi bagdadensis vita”, 1808, Oxford, ed. J. Mousley, here.  This is a Life of `Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, by our man.  The latter also wrote, I find, a Historiae Aegyptiae Compendium, which I think we came across when looking at Bar Hebraeus and exists in Latin in the same sorts of places.

There is a German publication Geschichte der Aertze, published “Königsberg : Selbstverlag, 1884” — is that “self-published?” — by  August Muller, who turned up yesterday as the editor of the Arabic text in Cairo in 1882.  This sounds very like a translation; but the record says “principally in Arabic”.  There are no UK locations for it, nor US, nor even German!  The latter, I think, probably reflects a lack of upload from German libraries, rather than lack of holdings.  There is a copy in Paris, tho.

There also seems to be a 1995 publication at Frankfurt-am-Main, in two volumes — I would guess this is a reprint of the 1882 edition.

The 1882 edition exists in the British Library — so useless to us — and in three US libraries, including California and Chicago  universities.

There is a curious publication Oyūn-al-anbā fi tabaqat-al-attebba, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah; trad. et commenté par Seyed Dja’far Ghazban et Mahmoud Nadjmabadi, Publisher: Tehran : Imprimerie Organization de l’Universite de Tehran, 1970-.  Language is French.  The only copy seems to be in “Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen” in the Netherlands.

But then … I find a mysterious item, with no copies held.  “English translations of History of Physicians (4 v.), and The Book of Medicine of Asaph the Physician (2 v.). 1971.”  What can this be?  A web search quickly turns up a source — in manuscript! — here.  It’s MS C 294, a manuscript at the US National Library of Medicine!  There’s no indication of any further information.

It is a pity that WorldCat is so slow.  But it has given several leads to the material we want.

I shall now compose an email enquiring about that manuscript!

UPDATE (5th August 2011): I was able to get PDF’s of the Muller publication, which is entirely in Arabic.  No response ever appeared on the US item.

Ibn Abi Useibia and his history of medical writers

R. Haddad wrote an interesting article Hunayn ibn Ishaq, apologiste chrétien (1974), which I was reading this evening, thanks to the kind gift of a bunch of articles over the weekend.  

On p.293-4 he gives details of the appalling treatment of the great translator by the Caliph al-Mamun, which apparently come from a History of medical writers by a certain Ibn Abi Useibia.  The Arabic text was published in Cairo in 1882 by A. Müller.  I won’t attempt to give the Arabic title, but Muller, Cairo, 1882 was enough for me to find the book in COPAC.  This contains, on p.190-197, a long extract from On his own misfortunes.  

I can’t find any sign of an English translation of Useibia’s work.  The nearest I can come is an extract from it, from 1834, by William Cureton, on physicians from India.  It’s here.  I don’t know how we could get access to the Arabic text; and what other version exists? 

Here is what Haddad says: 

When he returned to Baghdad after a long period in the country of the Rums, Hunayn ibn Ishaq quickly became famous.  Al-Mamun, learning of his ability as a doctor, wanted to make use of him.  But, afraid, in case Ibn Ishaq had been bribed by the Byzantine emperor to kill him, he decided to put him to the test.  After giving him many gifts, he asked him to supply a violent poison, good enough to kill an enemy.  Hunayn put him off by saying that he only concerned himself with useful medicaments, to the exclusion of lethal poisons.  Threats having no effect, the Caliph threw him in prison.  A year later, he was brought out and the demand repeated with strong threats and promises.  But faced with the obstinate refusal of Hunayn, al-Mamun then revealed what he was really thinking, and reassured him, and then he asked to know what were the reasons for such behaviour.  Hunayn replied: 

“Religion and medicine.  Religion, in fact, commands us to do good to our enemies, still more to our friends.  And medicine forbids us to do harm to men… That is why I could not disobey these two noble obligations, and am resigned to die, believing in the God who will not abandon anyone who risks his life to obey him.” 

The words quoted are from Ibn Abi Useibia’s work, apparently, pp.187-8 of the Cairo edition. 

Arabic literature is so unknown in the west.  I’m interested; yet the only guide I can hear of is Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Literatur, which is multi-volume and, worse, in German.  Why isn’t there an English translation?  Why aren’t all these texts online in English? 

UPDATE: It seems that something does exist in English, in Dwight F. Reynolds, Interpreting the self: autobiography in the Arabic literary tradition.  2001, p.107-118.  This covers the episode when he was entangled by his enemies in a palace intrigue under the Caliph Mutawakkil, and once again ended up in prison. 

The Vlatadon library in Thessalonika

I have had an email back from Veronique Boudon-Millot today, giving the story of how the lost text by Galen, Peri Alupias (On consolation for grief) was found.  It’s very interesting, and I have asked for permission to translate it and place it here. 

She also mentions that Vlatadon 14, the manuscript that contained the new work, also contains the first complete copies of Galen’s On my own books and On the order of my own books, the two works most interesting to non-medical specialists, as evidence for the transmission of texts in the 2nd century AD.  The only previously known copy of the Greek was the Ambrosianus Q 3 sup. in Milan, which has many gaps in the text.  Those gaps previously had, perforce, to be filled from Hunain ibn Ishaq’s Arabic translation, itself extant only in a single forgotten manuscript in the obscure library of Mashhad in Iran.

A key factor in the discovery is that the Vlatadon collection catalogue is itself very obscure and little known.  It was published by S. Eustratiades in 1918.  There is no copy in the United Kingdom, but there is a copy in the French National Library in Paris.  It’s about 136 pages, but ms. 14 is the only medical text.  The remainder are patristic.  And that is exciting!  For if the collection is that little known, who knows what it might contain?!

The library at Meshed / Mashhad in Iran — unknown classical texts!

Let me direct you all to the comments on my earlier post about the discovery of some lost portions of Galen’s On my own books here.  The material is in Arabic translation, and found in a manuscript in Iran, at the library of Meshed.  I’d never heard of it!

A commenter has dug into the question and produced gold!  It seems that there are other unpublished texts there, including a mathematical commentary by Hypatia on Diophantus.  The library is now in a brand new building as well and has a website.

If you know Arabic and want to discover new classical texts, you need to visit Meshed / Mashhad.