Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Throughout his travels (1165–1173), Benjamin of Tudela marveled at the ingenuity of Arabic scholars, who knew “all manner of wisdom” and were “expert in all manner of witchcraft.” Many of the sights he described can also be found in the pages of a popular 12th-century Arabic literary work called the Maqamat (Assemblies) by the Islamic writer al-Hariri (d. 1120). It tells the story of an itinerant con-man who bumbles his way across the Islamic world. In this drawing, taken from an early 13th-century illuminated edition of the Maqamat, a group of intellectuals debate some obscure question in the book-lined library of Basrah, just outside Baghdad.