Among the many intriguing objects on display in the Egypt: faith after the pharaohs British Museum exhibition is an 18th-century copy of the Book of the Seven Climes (Kitāb al-aqālīm al-ṣab‘ah), on loan from the British Library. The book’s 13th-century author, Abū al-Qāsim al-‘Irāqī, believed it held ancient secrets coded in hieroglyphic texts. He was right, but not exactly as he imagined.
Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-'Irāqī, known as al-Sīmāwī ('the practitioner of natural or white magic'), was an author of books on alchemy and magic. He lived in Egypt during the reign of the Mamluk sultan Baybars I al-Bunduqdārī (r. 1260–1277). His books were popular and survive in many copies, but almost nothing is known about al-'Irāqī himself.
The Book of the Seven Climes is the earliest known study focused wholly on alchemical illustrations. The 'climes' (from which our word 'climate' is derived) are the seven latitudinal zones into which the astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy divided the inhabited world in the 2nd century AD. Their mention in al-'Irāqī’s title expressed an intention for his book to be all-encompassing.
Al-'Irāqī reproduced illustrations from earlier Arabic alchemical texts and tried to decode their mysterious symbols and allegories, annotating the illustrations with his own interpretations. But how faithful was he in copying the illustrations for his book, and what changes were made as they were copied and re-copied during the five centuries of transmission linking al-'Irāqī’s lost original to the 18th-century copy held at the British Library?