The Book of Felicity

The Book of Felicity f. 84v, The Valley of Sri Lanka and its Gems


f. 84v, The Valley of Sri Lanka and its Gems

This illustration shows four birds of prey flying over a valley represented by the two rocky formations at the sides, at the bottom of which are several colored stones scattered around. One of the flying birds holds a piece of meat in its beak and there are three snakes at the bottom of the valley, moving amidst the colored stones. The island of Sirindib, or Ceylon, or modern Sri Lanka was famous among Arab travel writers not only because the prophet Adam left footprints on one of its mountains but also for its fabled diamonds and precious gems.
It is not surprising therefore, that one of Sinbad the Sailor’s tales in the Thousand and One Nights includes a story about the riches of the island and how to get hold of the precious stones. The gems are found in a valley that is guarded by terrible creatures, represented here clearly as poisonous snakes, so that it is impossible to collect them without risking one’s life. Sinbad says that local merchants devised the following stratagem. They killed a few sheep and cut the raw meat into pieces which they threw down the slopes of the valley, letting them roll to the bottom. The diamonds and gems lying on the ground would stick to the raw meat and, at that point, vultures, eagles and other birds would swoop down to pick up the meat in their talons and bring it to the top of the valley to eat it at leisure. This is where the merchants were waiting to scare them away and separate the meat from the precious stones.

Stefano Carboni
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Curatorial Assistant in Islamic Art
 (Fragment of the Book of Felicity commentary volume)

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