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Decoding the Labyrinth: Rome in Arabic and Persian Medieval Literature

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The city of Rome is described in a number of Arabic and Persian geographical and historical texts produced between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Despite the chronological range and geographical distances that separate many of these texts, a common thread of transmission unites them, testament to the fact that very few eyewitness accounts of the city were used. Instead, the descriptions of Rome drew on the authority of more ancient literary accounts, that were reproduced with variations and additions deriving from a number of different origins. While it is not possible to identify the exact web of sources used, nor whether some descriptions refer to Old Rome—the city of the Pope—or to the new Rome on the Bosporus, Constantinople, these texts nevertheless reveal a substantial knowledge of the city’s symbolic features. Indeed, it appears that accurate physical descriptions of Rome were considered less important than exemplary representations of the city. One of the figurative details assumes the iconographic form of a labyrinth, at times identified as a map of the city of Rome, and at other times as a prison located in the city. In this paper, it will be argued that the labyrinth icon is drawn from one of Rome’s own myths concerning the founding of the city by complex and at times obscure means that offer promising directions for further research. More generally, it would appear that the Arabic and Persian sources considered here share a view of the city of Rome that is nourished by a great respect and admiration.

Affiliations: 1: Faculty of Linguistics and Foreign Literature, University of Salento Lecce Italy


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