The first history of the world was compiled by a Muslim of the thirteenth century

Rashid Al-Din Fadl Allah
Mountains between Tibet and India, from the Jamic al-tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles).
(Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Rashid al-Din Fadl Allah was a famous Persian historian of the Ilkhanid* period. Born around1247 to a Jewish apothecary from Hamadan in western Iran, Rashid al-Din converted to Islam at the age of thirty. He enjoyed a long career in the Ilkhanid* court, starting as physician to Abakha (r. 1265–82) and rising to become a powerful vizier, a position he held for almost twenty years until his death in 1318. Rashid al-Din was learned not only in history but also in theology, philosophy, and science.

In 1295, Ghazan Khan (r. 1295–1304), commissioned Rashid al-Din to compile a detailed history of the Mongols and their conquests. The text initially comprised three volumes: the first, was an account of the Mongol rulers beginning with Genghis Khan. The second volume covered Öljeitü’s (r. 1304-1316) life up to the time of writing (1310) as well as the history of the people of Europe. The third was a geography that has not survived. The text was written in Persian and translated into Arabic and perhaps also into Mongolian and Chaghatay Turkish.

On its completion in 1310, the Jami al-tawarikh had acquired the distinction of being the first history of the world written in any language. The history of the Ismailis was compiled as part of the second volume of the Jami al-tawarikh in which he quotes extensively from the Nizari Ismaili chronicles of the Alamut period (1090-1256). Rashid al-Din’s grandfather and the latter’s brother had been guests at Alamut for some time before the Mongol invasion.

Today, only two early fourteenth-century Persian copies of the Compendium and part of one Arabic copy survive. The fragments of the Arabic copy are dispersed between the Edinburgh University Library (151 folios) and the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London (59 folios). These 210 pages comprise about the second half of the second volume. Interspersed are 110 illustrations and 80 small portraits of Chinese emperors and their attendants.

*The Ilkhanids were a Mongol dynasty that ruled much of the eastern Islamic world from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century.

References:
Farhad Daftary, Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Societies, London. I.B. Taurus & Co. Ltd. 2005
Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee, Folios from the Jami’ al-tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles), in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003
The University of Edinburgh Library and University Collections

Research by Nimira Dewji

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