Étiquette : Arabs
Without waiting for the end of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), Jacques Cœur, an intelligent and energetic man of whom no portrait or treatise exists, decided to rebuild a ruined, occupied and tattered France.
Not only a merchant, but also a banker, land developer, shipowner, industrialist and master of mines in Forez, Jacques Coeur was a contemporary of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), who lived in 1429 in Coeur’s native city of Bourges.
First and foremost, he entered into collaboration with some of the humanist popes of the Renaissance, patrons of the scientific genius Nicolaus Cusanus and the painter Piero della Francesca. With Europe threatened with implosion and chaos, their priority was to put an end to interminable warfare and unify Christendom.
Secondly, following in the footsteps of Saint-Louis (King Louis IX), Cœur was one of the first to fully assume France’s role as a naval power. Finally, thanks to an intelligent foreign exchange policy and by taking advantage of the maritime and overland Silk Roads of his time, he encouraged international trade. In Bruges, Lyon and Geneva, he traded silk and spices for cloth and herring, while investing in sericulture, shipbuilding, mining and steelmaking.
Paving the way for the reign of Louis XI, and long before Jean Bodin, Barthélémy de Laffemas, Sully and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, his mercantilism heralded the political economy concepts later perfected by the German-American economist Friedrich List or the first American Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
We will concentrate here on his vision of man and economy, leaving aside important subjects such as the trial against him, his relationship with Agnès Sorel and Louis XI, to which many books have been dedicated.
Jacques Cœur (1400-1454) was born in Bourges, where his father, Pierre Cœur, was a merchant pelletier. Of modest income, originating from Saint-Pourçain, he married the widow of a butcher, which greatly improved his status, as the butchers’ guild was particularly powerful.
The Hundred Years’ War
The early XVth century was not a particularly happy time. The « Hundred Years’ War » pitted the Armagnacs against the Burgundians allied with England. As with the great systemic bankruptcy of the papal bankers in 1347, farmland was plundered or left fallow.
While urbanization had thrived thanks to a productive rural world, the latter was deserted by farmers, who joined the hungry hordes populating towns lacking water, hygiene and the means to support themselves. Epidemics and plagues became the order of the day; cutthroats, skinners, twirlers and other brigands spread terror and made real economic life impossible.
Jacques Cœur was fifteen years old when one of the French army’s most bitter defeats took place in France. The battle of Agincourt (1415) (Pas-de-Calais), where French chivalry was routed by outnumbered English soldiers, marked the end of the age of chivalry and the beginning of the supremacy of ranged weapons (bows, crossbows, early firearms, etc.) over melee (hand-to-hand combat). A large part of the aristocracy was decimated, and an essential part of the territory fell to the English. (see map)
King Charles VII
In 1418, the Dauphin, the future Charles VII (1403-1461), as he is known thanks to a painting by the painter Jean Fouquet, escaped capture when Paris was taken by the Burgundians. He took refuge in Bourges, where he proclaimed himself regent of the kingdom of France, given the unavailability of his insane father (King Charles VI), who had remained in Paris and fallen to the power of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy.
The dauphin probably instigated the latter’s assassination on the Montereau bridge on September 10, 1419. By his ennemies, he was derisively nicknamed « the little King of Bourges ». The presence of the Court gave the city a boost as a center of trade and commerce.
Considered one of the most industrious and ingenious of men, Jacques Coeur married in 1420 Macée de Léodepart, daughter of a former valet to the Duke of Berry, who had become provost of Bourges.
As his mother-in-law was the daughter of a master of the mints, Jacques Coeur’s marriage in 1427 left him, along with two partners, in charge of one of the city’s twelve exchange offices. His position gave rise to much jealousy. After being accused of not respecting the quantity of precious metal contained in the coins he produced, he was arrested and sentenced in 1428, but soon benefited from a royal pardon.
Although the Treaty of Troyes (1420) disinherited the dauphin from the kingdom of France in favor of a younger member of the House of Plantagenets, Charles VII nonetheless proclaimed himself King of France on his father’s death on October 21, 1422.
The de facto leader of the Armagnac party, retreating south of the Loire, saw his legitimacy and military situation considerably improved thanks to the intervention of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), operating under the benevolent protection of an exceptional world-historic person: the dauphin’s mother-in-law Yolande of Aragon (1384-1442), Duchess of Anjou, Queen of Sicily and Naples (Note 1).
Backed and guided by Yolande, Jeanne helped lift the siege of Orléans and had Charles VII crowned King of France in Reims in July 1429. In the mean time Yolande d’Aragon established contacts with the Burgundians in preparation for peace, and picked Jacques Coeur to be part of the Royal Court (Note 2).
The contemporary chronicler Jean Juvenal des Ursins (1433–44), Bishop of Beauvais described Yolande as « the prettiest woman in the kingdom. » Bourdigné, chronicler of the house of Anjou, says of her: « She who was said to be the wisest and most beautiful princess in Christendom. » Later, King Louis XI of France recalled that his grandmother had « a man’s heart in a woman’s body. »
A twentieth-century French author, Jehanne d’Orliac wrote one of the few works specifically on Yolande, and noted that the duchess remains unappreciated for her genius and influence in the reign of Charles VII. « She is mentioned in passing because she is the pivot of all important events for forty-two years in France », while « Joan [of Arc] was in the public eye only eleven months. »
Journey to the Levant
In 1430, Jacques Cœur, already renowned as a man « full of industry and high gear, subtle in understanding and high in comprehension; and all things, no matter how high, knowing how to lead by his work » (Note N° 3), with Barthélémy and Pierre Godard, two Bourges notables, set up,
« a company for all types of merchandise, especially for the King our lord, my lord the Dauphin and other lords, and for all other things for which they could provide proof ».
In 1431, Joan of Arc was handed over to the English by the Burgundians and burned alive at the stake in Rouen. One year later, in 1432, Jacques Cœur went to the Levant. A diplomat and humanist, Cœur went as an observer of customs as well as economic and political life.
His ship coasted from port to port, skirting the Italian coast as closely as possible, before rounding Sicily and arriving in Alexandria, Egypt. At the time, Alexandria was an imposing city of 70,000 inhabitants, bustling with thousands of Syrian, Cypriot, Genoese, Florentine and Venetian ships.
In Cairo, he discovered treasures arriving from China, Africa and India via the Red Sea. Around the Sultan’s Palace, Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Ethiopian and Nubian merchants offered precious stones, perfumes, silks and carpets. The banks of the Nile were planted with sugar cane and the warehouses full of sugar and spices.
Selling Silver at the Price of Gold
To understand Jacques Coeur’s financial strategy, a few words about bimetallism. At the time, unlike in China, paper money was not widely used. In the West, everything was paid for in metal coins, and above all in gold.
According to Herodotus, Croesus issued silver and pure gold coins in the 6th century BC. Under the Roman Empire, this practice continued. However, while gold was scarce in the West, silver-lead mines were flourishing.
Added to this, in the Middle Ages, Europe saw a considerable increase in the quantities of silver coinage in circulation, thanks to new mines discovered in Bohemia. The problem was that in France, national production was not sufficient to satisfy the needs of the domestic market. As a result, France was obliged to use its gold to buy what was lacking abroad, thus driving gold out of the country.
According to historians, during his trip to Egypt, Coeur observed that the women there dressed in the finest linens and wore shoes adorned with pearls or gold jewels. What’s more, they loved what was fashionable elsewhere, especially in Europe. Coeur was also aware of the existence of poorly exploited silver and copper mines in the Lyonnais region and elsewhere in France.
Historian George Bordonove, in his book Jacques Coeur, trésorier de Charles VII (Jacques Coeur, treasurer of Charles VII), reckons that Coeur was quick to note that the Egyptians « strangely preferred silver to gold, bartering silver for equal weight ». whereas in Europe, the exchange rate was 15 volumes of silver for one volume of gold !
In other words, he realized that the region « abounded in gold », and that the price of silver was very advantageous. The opportunity to enrich his country by obtaining a « golden » price for the silver and copper extracted from the French mines must have seemed obvious to him
What’s more, in China, only payments in silver were accepted. In other words, the Arab-Muslim world had gold, but lacked silver for its trade with the Far East, hence its huge interest in acquiring it from Europe…
Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus
Cœur then travels via Beirut to Damascus in Syria, at the time by far the biggest center of trade between East and West.
The city is renowned for its silk damasks, light gauze veils, jams and rose essences. Oriental fabrics were very popular for luxury garments.
Europe was supplied with silk and gold muslin from Mosul, damasks with woven motifs from Persia or Damascus, silks decorated with baldacchino figures, sheets with red or black backgrounds adorned with blue and gold birds from Antioch, and so on.
The « Silk Road » also brought Persian carpets and ceramics from Asia. The journey continues to another of the Silk Roads’ great maritime warehouses: Cyprus, an island whose copper had offered exceptional prosperity to the Minoan, Mycenaean and Phoenician civilizations.
The best of the West was bartered here for indigo, silk and spices.
Genoa and Venice
During his voyage, Coeur also discovered the maritime empires of Venice and Genoa, each enjoying the protection of a Vatican dependent on these financial powers.
The former, to justify their lucrative trade with the Muslims, claimed that « before being Christian », they were Venetians…
Like the British Empire, the Venetians promoted total free trade to subjugate their victims, while applying fierce dirigisme at home and prohibitive taxes to others. Any artist or person divulging Venetian know-how suffered terrible consequences.
Venice, outpost of the Byzantine Empire and supplier to the Court of Constantinople, a city of several million inhabitants, developed fabric dyeing, manufactured silks, velvets, glassware and leather goods, not to mention weapons. Its arsenal employs 16,000 workers.
Its rival, Genoa, with its highly skilled sailors and cutting-edge financial techniques, had colonized the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, from where treasures from Persia and Muscovy flowed. They also shamelessly engaged in the slave trade, a practice they would pass on to the Spanish and especially the Portuguese, who held a monopoly on trade with Africa.
Avoiding direct confrontation with such powers, Cœur kept a low profile. The difficulty was threefold: following the war, France was short of everything! It had no cash, no production, no weapons, no ships, no infrastructure!
So much so, in fact, that Europe’s main trade route had shifted eastwards. Instead of taking the route of the Rhône and Saône rivers, merchants passed through Geneva, and up the Rhine to Antwerp and Bruges. Another difficulty was soon added: a royal decree prohibited the export of precious metals! But what immense profits the Kingdom could draw from the operation.
The Oecumenial Councils
On his return from the Levant, France’s history accelerated. While preparing the economic reforms he wanted, Jacques Cœur also became involved in the major issues of the day. Through his brother Nicolas Cœur, the future bishop of Luçon, he played an important role in the process initiated by the humanists to unify the Western Church in the face of the Turkish threat.
Since 1378, there had been two popes, one in Rome and the other in Avignon. Several councils attempted to overcome the divisions. Nicolas Cœur attended them. First there was the Council of Constance (1414 to 1448), followed by the Council of Basel (1431), which, after a number of interruptions, was transferred to Florence (1439), establishing a doctrinal « union » between the Eastern and Western churches with a decree read out in Greek and Latin on July 6, 1439, in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, i.e. under the dome of Florence’s dome, built by Brunelleschi.
The central panel of the Ghent polyptych (1432), painted by the diplomatic painter Jan Van Eyck on the theme of the Lam Gods (the Lamb of God or Mystic Lamb), symbolizes the sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of mankind, and is capable of reuniting a church torn apart by internal differences. Hence the presence, on the right, of the three popes, here united before the Lamb. Van Eyck also painted portraits of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, one of the instigators of the Council of Florence, and Chancellor Rolin, one of the architects of the Peace of Arras in 1435.
The Peace treaty of Arras
To achieve this, the humanists concentrated on France. First, they were to awaken Charles VII. After the victories won by Joan of Arc, wasn’t it time to win back the territories lost to the English?
However, Charles VII knew that peace with the English depended on reconciliation with the Burgundians. He therefore entered into negotiations with Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.
The latter no longer expected anything from the English, and wished to devote himself to the development of his provinces. For him, peace with France was a necessity. He therefore agreed to treat with Charles VII, paving the way for the Arras Conference in 1435.
This was the first European peace conference. In addition to the Kingdom of France, whose delegation was led by the Duke of Bourbon, Marshal de La Fayette and Constable Arthur de Richemont, and Burgundy, led by the Duke of Burgundy himself and Chancellor Rolin, it brought together Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg, Mediator Amédée VIII of Savoy, an English delegation, and representatives of the kings of Poland, Castile and Aragon.
Although the English left the talks before the end, thanks to the skill of the scholar Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, at that cardinal of Cyprus (and futur Pope Pius II) and spokesman for the Council of Basel, the signing of the Treaty of Arras in 1435 led to a peace agreement between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, the first step towards ending the Hundred Years’ War.
In the meantime, the Council of Basel, which had opened in 1431, dragged on but came to nothing, and on September 18, 1437, Pope Eugene IV, advised by cardinal philosopher Nicolaus Cusanus and arguing the need to hold a council of union with the Orthodox, transferred the Council from Basel to Ferrara and then Florence. Only the schismatic prelates remained in Basel. Furious, they « suspended » Eugene IV and named the Duke of Savoy, Amédée VIII, Felix V, as the new pope. This « anti-pope » won little political support. Germany remained neutral, and in France, Charles VII confined himself to implementing many of the reforms decreed in Basel by the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges on July 13, 1438.
King’s Treasurer and Great State Servant
In 1438, Cœur became Argentier de l’Hôtel du roi. L’Argenterie was not concerned with the kingdom’s finances. Rather, it was a sort of commissary responsible for meeting all the needs of the sovereign, his servants and the Court, for their daily lives, clothing, armament, armor, furs, fabrics, horses and so on.
Cœur was to supply the Court with everything that could neither be found nor manufactured at home, but which he could bring in from Alexandria, Damascus and Beirut, at the time major nodal points of the Silk Road by land and sea, where he set up his commercial agents, his « facteurs » (manufacturers).
Following this, in 1439, after having been appointed Master of the Mint of Bourges, Jacques Cœur became Master of the Mint in Paris, and finally, in 1439, the King’s moneyer. His role was to ensure the sovereign’s day-to-day expenses, which involved making advances to the Treasury and controlling the Court’s supply channels.
Then, in 1441, the King appointed him commissioner of the Languedoc States to levy taxes. Cœur often imposed taxes without ever undermining the productive reconstruction process. And in times of extreme difficulty, he would even lend money, at low, long-term rates, to those who had to pay it.
Ennobled, Coeur became the King’s strategic advisor in 1442. He acquired a plot of land in the center of Bourges to build his « grant’maison », currently the Palais Jacques Coeur. This magnificent edifice, with fireplaces in every room and an oven supplying the rest and bath room with hot water, has survived the centuries, although Coeur rarely had the occasion to live there.
Coeur is a true grand state servitor, with broad powers to collect taxes and negotiate political and economic agreements on behalf of the king. Having reached the top, Coeur is now in the ideal position to expand his long-cherished project.
Rule over Finance
On September 25, 1443, the Grande Ordonnance de Saumur, promulgated at Jacques Coeur’s instigation, put the state’s finances on a sounder footing.
As Claude Poulain recounts in his biography of Jacques Coeur:
« In 1444, after affirming the fundamental principle that the King alone had the right to levy taxes, but that his own finances should not be confused with those of the kingdom, a set of measures was enacted that affected the French at every level. »
These included: « Commoners owning noble fiefs were obliged to pay indemnities; nobles who had received seigneuries previously belonging to the royal domain would henceforth be obliged to share in the State’s expenses, on pain, once again, of seizure; finally, the kingdom’s financial services were organized, headed by a budget committee made up of high-ranking civil servants, ‘Messieurs des Finances’. »
In clear, the nobility was henceforth obliged to pay taxes for the Common Good of the Nation !
The King’s Council of 1444, headed by Dunois, was composed almost exclusively, not of noblement but of commoners (Jacques Coeur, Jean Bureau, Étienne Chevalier, Guillaume Cousinot, Jouvenel des Ursins, Guillaume d’Estouteville, Tancarville, Blainville, Beauvau and Marshal Machet). France recovered and enjoyed prosperity.
If France’s finances recovered, besides « taxing the rich », it was above all thanks to strategic investments in infrastructure, industry and trade. The revival of business activity enabled taxes to be brought in. In 1444, he set up the new Languedoc Parliament in conjunction with the Archbishop of Toulouse and, on behalf of the King, presided over the Estates General.
In reality, Jacques Cœur’s various operations, sometimes mistakenly considered to be motivated exclusively by his own personal greed, formed part of an overall plan that today we would describe as « connectivity » and at the service of the « physical economy ».
The aim was to equip the country and its territory, notably through a vast network of commercial agents operating both in France and abroad from the major trading cities of Europe (Geneva, Bruges, London, Antwerp, etc.), the Levant (Beirut and Damascus) and North Africa (Alexandria, Tunis, etc.), in order to promote win-win trade. ), to promote win-win trade, while reinvesting part of the profits in improving national productivity: mining, metallurgy, arms, shipbuilding, training, ports, roads, rivers, sericulture, textile spinning and dyeing, paper, etc.
Of special interest were the silver mines of Pampailly, in Brussieu, south of l’Arbresle and Tarare, 25 kilometers west of Lyon, acquired and exploited as early as 1388 by Hugues Jossard, a Lyonnais jurist. They were very old, but their normal operation had been severely disrupted during the war. In addition, there were the Saint-Pierre-la-Palud and Joux mines, as well as the Chessy mine, whose copper was also used for weapons production.
Jacques Cœur made them operational. Near the mines, « martinets » – charcoal-fired blast furnaces – transformed the ore into ingots. Cœur brought in engineers and skilled workers from Germany, at the time a region far ahead of us in this field. However, without a pumping system, mining was no picnic.
Under Jacques Cœur’s management, the workers benefited from wages and comforts that were absolutely unique at the time. Each bunk had its own feather bed or wool mattress, a pillow, two pairs of linen sheets and blankets, a luxury that was more than unusual at the time. The dormitories were heated.
High quality food was provided to the laborers: bread containing four-fifths wheat and one-fifth rye, plenty of meat, eggs, cheese and fish, and desserts included exotic fruits such as figs and walnuts. A social service was organized: free hospitalization, care provided by a surgeon from Lyon who kept accident victims « en cure ». Every Sunday, a local priest came to celebrate a special mass for the miners. On the other hand, workers were subject to draconian discipline, governed by fifty-three articles of regulation that left nothing to chance.
The Ports of Montpellier and Marseille
On his return from the Levant in 1432, Jacques Coeur chose to make Montpellier the nerve center of his port and naval operations.
In principle, Christians were forbidden to trade with Infidels. However, thanks to a bull issued by Pope Urban V (1362-1370), Montpellier had obtained the right to send « absolved ships » to the East every year. Jacques Cœur obtained from the Pope that this right be extended to all his ships. Pope Eugene IV, by derogation of August 26, 1445, granted him this benefit, a permission renewed in 1448 by Pope Nicholas V.
At the time, only Montpellier, in the middle of the east-west axis linking Catalonia to the Alps (the Roman Domitian Way) and whose outports were Lattes and Aigues-Mortes, had a hinterland with a network of roads that were more or less passable, an exceptional situation for the time.
In 1963, it was discovered that at the site of the village of Lattes (population 17,000), 4 km south of today’s Montpellier and on the River Lez, there had been an Etruscan port city called Lattara, considered by some to be the first port in Western Europe. The city was built in the last third of the VIth century BC. A city wall and stone and brick houses were built. Original objects and graffiti in Etruscan – the only ones known in France – have suggested that Etrurian brokers played a role in the creation and rapid urbanization of the settlement.
Trading with the Greeks and Romans, Lattara was a very active Gallic port until the 3rd century AD. Then maritime access changed, and the town fell into a state of numbness.
In the 13th century, under the impetus of the Guilhem family, lords of Montpellier, the port of Lattes was revitalized, only to regain its splendor when Jacques Cœur set up his warehouses there in the 15th century.
As for the port of Aigues-Mortes, built from top to bottom by Saint-Louis in the XIIIth century for the crusades, it was also one of the first in France. To connect the two, Saint-Louis dug the canal known as « Canal de la Radelle » (today’s Canal de Lunel), which ran from Aigues-Mortes across the Lake of Mauguio to the port of Lattes. Cœur restored this river-port complex to working order, notably by building Port Ariane in Lattes.
Over the following centuries, these disparate elements of canals and water infrastructure will become an efficient network built around the Canal du Rhône à Sète, a natural extension of the « bi-oceanic » Canal du Midi (between the Meditteranean and the Atlantic) begun by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (see map).
Coeur had the local authorities involved in his project, shaking Montpellier out of its age-old lethargy. At the time, the town had no market or covered sales buildings. Also lacking were moneychangers, shipowners and other cloth merchants.
In Montpellier, an entire district of merchants and warehouses was erected him, the Great Merchants Lodge, modeled on those in Perpignan, Barcelona and Valencia.
Numerous houses in Béziers, Vias and Pézenas also belonged to him, as did residences in Montpellier, including the Hôtel des Trésoriers de France, which, it is said, was topped by a tower so high that Jacques Cœur could watch his ships arrive at the nearby Port of Lattes.
And yet, as an old merchant and industrial city, Montpellier had long been home to Italians, Catalans, Muslims and Jews, who enjoyed a tolerance and understanding that was rare at the time. It’s easy to see why François Rabelais felt so at home here in the XVIth century.
Port of Marseille
The hinterland was rich and industrious. It produced wine and olive oil, in other words, exportable goods. Its workshops produced leather, knives, weapons, enamels and, above all, drapery.
From 1448 onwards, faced with the limitations of the system and the constant silting-up of the port infrastructure, Coeur moved one of his agents, the navigator and diplomat Jean de Villages, his nephew by marriage, to the neighboring port of Marseille, at that time outside the Kingdom, to the home of King René d’Anjou, where port operations were easier, a deep harbor protected from the Mistral by hills and a port equipped with waterfront shops and storehouses. The boost that Jacques Coeur gave to Montpellier’s port Lattes, Jean de Villages, on Coeur’s behalf, immediately gave to Marseille.
Good ports mean ocean-going ships! Hence at that time, the best France could do was build a few river barges and fishing boats.
To equip himself with a fleet of ocean-going vessels, Cœur ordered a « galéasse » (an advanced model of the ancient three-masted « galley », designed primarily for boarding) from the Genoa arsenals.
The Genoese, who saw only immediate profit in the project, soon discovered that Coeur had had the shapes and dimensions of their ship copied by local carpenters in Aigues Mortes!
Furious, they landed at the shipyard and took it back, arguing that Languedoc merchants had no right to fit out ships and trade without the prior approval of the Doge of Venice!
After complicated negotiations, but with the support of Charles VII, Coeur got his ship back. Cœur let the storm pass for a few years. Later, seven great ships would leave the Aigues-Mortes shipyard, including « La Madeleine » under the command of Jean de Villages, a great sailor and his loyal lieutenant.
Judging by the stained-glass window and bas-relief in the Palais de Coeur in Bourges, these were more like caraques, North Sea vessels with large square sails and much greater tonnage than galleasses. But that’s not all!
Having understood perfectly well that the quality of a ship depends on the quality of the wood with which it is built, Cœur, with the authorization of the Duke of Savoy, had his wood shipped from Seyssel. The logs were floated down the Rhône, then sent to Aigues-Mortes via the canal linking the town to the river.
One last problem remained to be solved: that of crews. Jacques Cœur’s solution was revolutionary: on January 22, 1443, he obtained permission from Charles VII to forcibly embark, in return for fair wages, the « idle vagabonds and caimans » who prowled the ports.
To understand just how beneficial such an institution was at the time, we need to remember that France was being laid to waste by bands of plunderers – the routiers, the écorcheurs, the retondeurs – thrown into the country by the Hundred Years’ War. As always, Coeur behaves not only according to his own personal interests, but according to the general interests of France.
Connecting France to the Silk Road
Now with financial clout, ports and ships at his disposal, Cœur organized win-win commercial exchanges and, in his own way, involved France in the land and Maritime Silk Road of the time. First and foremost, he organized « détente, understanding and cooperation » with the countries of the Levant.
After diplomatic incidents with the Venetians had led the Sultan of Egypt to confiscate their goods and close his country to their trade, Jacques Coeur, a gentleman but also in charge of a Kingdom that remained dependent on Genoa and Venice for their supplies of arms and strategic raw materials, had his agents on site mediating a happy end to the incident.
Seeing other potential conflicts that could disrupt his strategy, and possibly inspired by Admiral Zheng He‘s great Chinese diplomatic missions to Africa from 1405 onwards, he convinced the king to send an ambassador to Cairo in the person of Jean de Villages, his loyal lieutenant.
The latter handed over to the Sultan the various letters he had brought with him. Flattered, the Sultan handed him a reply to King Charles VII:
« Your ambassador, man of honor, gentleman, whom you name Jean de Villages, came to mine Porte Sainte, and presented me your letters with the present you mandated, and I received it, and what you wrote me that you want from me, I did.
« Thus I have made a peace with all the merchants for all my countries and ports of the navy, as your ambassador knew to ask of me… And I command all the lords of my lands, and especially the lord of Alexandria, that he make good company with all the merchants of your land, and on all the others having liberty in my country, and that they be given honor and pleasure; and when the consul of your country has come, he will be in favor of the other consuls well high…
« I send you, by the said ambassador, a present, namely fine balsam from our holy vine, a beautiful leopard and three bowls (cups) of Chinese porcelain, two large dishes of decorated porcelain, two porcelain bouquets, a hand-washer, a decorated porcelain pantry, a bowl of fine green ginger, a bowl of almond stones, a bowl of green pepper, almonds and fifty pounds of our fine bamouquet (fine balsam), a quintal of fine sugar. Dieu te mène à bon sauvement, Charles, Roy de France. »
To the Orient, Coeur exported furs, leathers and, above all, cloth of all kinds, notably Flanders cloth and Lyon canvas. His « factors » also offered Egyptian women dresses, coats, headdresses, ornaments and jewels from our workshops. Then came basketry from Montpellier, oil, wax, honey and flowers from Spain for the manufacture of perfumes.
From the Near East, he received animal-figured silks from Damascus (Syria), fabrics from Bukhara (Uzbekistan) and Baghdad (Iraq); velvet; wines from the islands; cane sugar; precious metals; alum; amber; coral; indigo; coral; indigo from Baghdad; madder from Egypt; shellac; perfumes made from the essence of the flowers he exported; spices – pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, jams, nutmegs, etc. – and more.
From the Far East, by the Red Sea or by caravans from the Euphrates and Turkestan, came to him: gold from Sudan, cinnamon from Madagascar, ivory from Africa, silks from India, carpets from Persia, perfumes from Arabia – later evoked by Shakespeare in Macbeth – precious stones from India and Central Asia, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, pearls from Ceylon, porcelain and musk from China, ostrich feathers from the black Sudan.
As we saw in the case of mining, Coeur had no hesitation in attracting foreigners with valuable know-how to France to launch projects, implement innovative processes and, above all, train personnel. In Bourges, he teamed up with the Balsarin brothers and Gasparin de Très, gunsmiths originally from Milan. After convincing them to leave Italy, he set up workshops in Bourges, enabling them to train a skilled workforce. To this day, the Bourges region remains a major center of arms production.
In the early days of printing in Europe, Coeur bought a paper mill in Rochetaillée, on the Saône near Lyon.
In Montpellier, he took an interest in the dyeing factories, once renowned for their cultivation of madder, a plant that had become acclimatized in the Languedoc region.
It’s easy to understand why Cœur had his agents buy indigo, kermes seeds and other coloring substances. The aim was to revive the manufacture of cloth, particularly scarlet cloth, which had previously been highly sought-after.
With this in mind, he built a fountain, the Font Putanelle, near the city walls, to serve the population and the dyers.
In Montpellier, he also teamed up with Florentine charterers based in the city, for maritime expeditions.
Through their intermediary, Coeur personally traveled to Florence in 1444, registering both his associate Guillaume de Varye and his own son Ravand as members of the « Arte della Seta » (silk production corporation), the prestigious Florentine guild whose members were the only ones authorized to produce silk in Florence.
Coeur engaged in joint ventures, as he often did in France, this time with Niccolo Bonnacorso and the Marini brothers (Zanubi and Guglielmo). The factory, in which he owned half the shares, manufactured, organized and controlled the production, spinning, weaving and dyeing of silk fabrics.
It is understood that Coeur was also co-owner of a gold cloth factory in Florence, and associated in certain businesses with the Medici, Bardi and Bucelli bankers and merchants. He was also associated with the Genevese and Bruges families.
Jacques Coeur organized a vast distribution network to sell his goods in France and throughout Europe. At a time when passable roads were extremely rare, this was no easy task. Most roads were little more than widened paths or poorly functioning tracks dating back to the Gauls.
Cœur, who had his own stables for land transport, renovated and expanded the network, abolished internal tolls on roads and rivers, and re-established the collection (abandoned during the Hundred Years’ War) of taxes (taille, fouage, gabelle) to replenish public finances.
Jacques Cœur’s network was essentially run from Bourges. From there, on the French level, we could speak of three major axes: the north-south being Bruges-Montpellier, the east-west being Lyon-Tours. Added to this was the old Roman road linking Spain (Barcelona) to the Alps (Briançon) via Languedoc.
From Bourges, for example, the Silverware, which served the Court, was transferred to Tours. This was only natural, since from 1444 onwards, Charles VII settled in a small castle near Tours, Plessis-les-Tours. So it was at the Argenterie de Tours that the exotic products the Court was so fond of were stocked. This did not prevent the goods from being shipped on to Bruges, Rouen or other towns in the kingdom.
Counters also existed in Orléans, Loches, Le Mans, Nevers, Issoudun and Saint-Pourçain, birthplace of the Coeur family, as well as in Fangeaux, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Limoges, Thouars, Saumur, Angers and Paris.
Orléans and Bourges stocked salt from Guérande, the Vendée marshes and the Roche region. In Lyon, salt from the Camargue and Languedoc saltworks. River transport (on the Loire, Rhône, Saône and Seine rivers) doubled the number of road carts.
Jacques Coeur revived and promoted trade fairs. Lyon, with its rapid growth, geographic location and proximity to silver-lead and copper mines, was a particularly active trading post. Goods were shipped to Geneva, Germany and Flanders.
Montpellier received products from the Levant. However, trading posts were set up all along the coast, from Collioure (then in Catalonia) to Marseille (at the home of King René d’Anjou), and inland as far as Toulouse, and along the Rhône, in particular at Avignon and Beaucaire.
A trading post was set up in La Rochelle for the salt trade, certainly with a view to expanding maritime traffic. Jacques Cœur also had « factors » in Saint-Malo, Cherbourg and Harfleur. After the liberation of Normandy, these three centers grew in importance, and were joined by Exmes. In the north-east, Reims and Troyes are worth mentioning. They manufactured cloth and canvas. Abroad, Geneva was a first-rate trading post, as the city’s fairs and markets had already acquired an international character.
Coeur also had a branch in Bruges, bringing back spices and silks from the Levant, and shipping cloth and herring from there.
The fortunes of Bruges, like many other towns in Flanders, came from the cloth industry. The city flourished, and the power of its cloth merchants was considerable. In the 15th century, Bruges was one of the lungs of the Hanseatic League, which brought together the port cities of northern Europe.
It was in Bruges that business relations were handled, and loan and marine insurance contracts drawn up. After cloth, it was the luxury industries that ensured its prosperity, with tapestries. By land, it took less than three weeks to get from Bruges to Montpellier via Paris.
Between 1444 and 1449, during the Truce of Tours between France and the English, Jacques Coeur tried to build peace by forging trade links with England.
Coeur sent his representative Guillaume de Mazoran. His other trusted associate, Guillaume de Varye, began trading in sheets from London in February 1449. He also bought leather, cloth and wool in Scotland. Some went to La Rochelle, others to Bruges.
Internationally, Coeur continued to expand, with branches in Barcelona, Naples, Genoa (where a pro-French party was formed) and Florence.
At the time of his arrest in 1451, Jacques Coeur had at least 300 « factors » (associates, commercial agents, financial representatives and authorized agents), each responsible for his own trading post in his own region, but also running « factories » on the spot, promoting meetings and exchanges of know-how between all those involved in economic life. Several thousand people associated and cooperated with him in business.
The Military Reform that saved the Nation
Cœur used the profits from this lucrative business to serve his country. When in 1449, at the end of the truce, the English troops were left to their own devices, surviving by pillaging the areas they occupied, Agnès Sorel, the king’s mistress, Pierre de Brézé, the military leader, and Jacques Cœur, encouraged the king to launch a military offensive to finally liberate the whole country.
Coeur declared bluntly:
« Sire, under your shadow, I acknowledge that I have great proufis and honors, and mesme, in the land of the Infidels, for, for your honor, the souldan has given me safe-conduct to my galleys and factors… Sire, what I have, is yours. »
We’re no longer in 1435, when the king didn’t have a kopeck to face strategic challenges. Jacques Coeur, unlike other great lords, according to a contemporary account,
« spontaneously offered to lend the king a mass of gold, and provided him with a sum amounting, it is said, to around 100,000 gold ecus to use for this great and necessary purpose ».
Under the advice of Jacques Coeur and others, Charles VII was to carry out a decisive military reform.
On November 2, 1439, at the Estates General that had been meeting in Orleans since October of that year, Charles VII ordered a reform of the army following the Estates General’s complaint about the skinners and their actions.
As Charles V (the Wise) had tried to do before him, he set up a system of standing armies that would engage these flayers full-time against the English. The nobility got in the king’s way. In fact, they often used companies of skinners for their own interests, and refused to allow the king alone to be responsible for recruiting the army.
In February 1440, the king discovered that the nobles were plotting against him. Contemporaries named this revolt the Praguerie, in reference to the civil wars in Prague’s Hussite Bohemia.
Yolande d’Aragon passed away in November 1442, but Jacques Coeur would continue pressuring the King to go ahead with the required reforms.
Following the Truce of Tours in 1444, an ordinance was issued on May 26 announcing no general demobilization should occur; instead, the best of the larger units were reconstituted as “companies of the King’s ordinance » (Compagnies d’Ordonnance),” which were standing units of cavalry well selected and well equipped; they served as local guardians of peace at local expense. This consisted of some 10,000 men organized into 15 Ordonnance companies, entrusted to proven captains. These companies were subdivided into detachments of ten to thirty lances, which were assigned to garrisons to protect the towns’ inhabitants and patrol the countryside. In a territory similarly patrolled by the forerunners of our modern gendarmerie, robbery and plunder quickly ceased.
Although still a product of the nobility, this new military formation was the first standing army at the disposal of the King of France. Previously, when the king wished to wage war, he called upon his vassals according to the feudal custom of the ban. But his vassals were only obliged to serve him for forty days. If he wished to continue the war, the king had to recruit companies of mercenaries, a plague against which Machiavelli would later warn his readers. When the war ended, the mercenaries were dismissed. They then set about plundering the country. This is what happened at the start of the Hundred Years’ War, after the victories of Charles V and Du Guesclin.
Then, with the Ordinance of April 8, 1448, the Francs-Archers corps was created. The model for the royal « francs archiers » was probably taken from the militia of archers that the Dukes of Brittany had been raising, by parish, since 1425.
The Ordinance stipulated that each parish or group of fifty or eighty households had to arm, at its own expense, a man equipped with bow or crossbow, sword, dagger, jaque and salad, who had to train every Sunday in archery. In peacetime, he stays at home and receives no pay, but in wartime, he is mobilized and receives 4 francs a month. The Francs-Archers thus formed a military reserve unit with a truly national character.
As writes the Encyclopedia Brittanica:
« With the creation of the “free archers” (1448), a militia of foot soldiers, the new standing army was complete. Making use of a newly effective artillery, its companies firmly in the king’s control, supported by the people in money and spirit, France rid itself of brigands and Englishmen alike. »
At the same time, artillery grandmaster Gaspard Bureau and his brother Jean (Note N° 4) developed artillery, with bronze cannons capable of firing cast-iron cannonballs, lighter hand cannons, the ancestors of the rifle, and very long cannons or couleuvrines that could be dragged on wagons and taken to the battlefield.
As a result, when the time came to go on the offensive, the army went into battle. From all over the country, the Francs-Archers, made up of commoners trained in every region of France rather than nobles, began to converge on the north.
The war was on, and this time, « the gale changed sides ». The merciless French army, armed to the highest standards, pushed its opponents to the limit. This was particularly true at the Battle of Formigny near Bayeux, on April 15, 1450. It was a kind of Azincourt in reverse, with English losses amounting to 80% of the forces engaged, with 4,000 killed and 1,500 taken prisoner. At last, towns and strongholds returned to the Kingdom!
Helping a Humanist Pope
As mentioned above, the Council of Basel had ended in discord. On the one hand, with the support of Charles VII and Jacques Coeur, Eugene IV was elected Pope in Rome in 1431. On the other, in Basel, an assembly of prelates meeting in council sought to impose themselves as the sole legitimate authority to lead Christendom. In 1439, the Council declared Eugene IV deposed and appointed « his » own pope: the Duke of Savoy, Amédée VIII, who had abdicated and retired to a monastery. He became pope under the name of Felix V.
His election was based solely on the support of theologians and doctors of the universities, but without the support of a large number of prelates and cardinals.
In 1447, King Charles VII commissioned Jacques Coeur to intervene for Eugene IV’s return and Felix V’s renunciation. With a delegation, he went to Lausanne to meet Felix V. While the talks were going well, Eugene IV died. As Felix V saw no further obstacles to his pontificate, the Pontifical Council in Rome quickly proceeded to elect a new pope, the humanist scholar Nicholas V (Tommaso Parentucelli).
To make France’s case to him, Charles VII sent Jacques Coeur at the head of a large delegation. Before entering the Eternal City, the French formed a procession.
The parade was sumptuous: more than 300 horsemen, dressed in bright, shimmering colors, bearing weapons and glittering jewels, mounted on richly caparisoned horses, dazzled and impressed the whole of Rome, except for the English, who saw themselves doubled by the French to serve the Pope’s mission.
From the very first meeting, Nicholas V was charmed by Jacques Coeur. Slightly ill, Coeur was treated by the pope’s physician. Thanks to information obtained from the Pontiff, notably on the limits of concessions to be made, Coeur’s delegation subsequently obtained the withdrawal of Felix V, with whom Coeur remained on good terms.
Nicholas V, it should be remembered, was a happy exception. Nicknamed the « humanist pope », he knew Leonardo Bruni (Note N° 5), Niccolò Niccoli (Note N° 6) and Ambrogio Traversari (Note N° 7) in Florence, in the entourage of Cosimo de’ Medici.
With the latter and Eugenio IV, whose right-hand man he was, Nicholas V was one of the architects of the famous Council of Florence, which sealed a « doctrinal union » between the Western and Eastern Churches. (Note N° 8)
Elected pope, Nicholas V considerably increased the size of the Vatican Library. By the time of his death, the library contained over 16,000 volumes, more than any other princely library.
He welcomed the erudite humanist Lorenzo Valla to his court as apostolic notary. Under his patronage, the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius and Archimedes were reintroduced to Western Europe. One of his protégés, Enoch d’Ascoli, discovered a complete manuscript of Tacitus’ Opera minora in a German monastery.
In addition to these, he called to his court a whole series of scholars and humanists: the scholar and former chancellor of Florence Poggio Bracciolini, the Hellenist Gianozzo Manetti, the architect Leon Battista Alberti, the diplomat Pier Candido Decembrio, the Hellenist Giovanni Aurispa, the cardinal-philosopher Nicolas de Cues, founder of modern science, and Giovanni Aurispa, the first to translate Plato’s complete works from Greek into Latin.
Nicholas V also made gestures to his powerful neighbors: at the request of King Charles VII, Joan of Arc was rehabilitated.
Later, when he sought refuge in Rome, Jacques Coeur was received by Nicholas V as if he was a member of his family.
The Coup d’Etat against Jacques Coeur
Jacques Coeur’s adventurous life ended as if in a cloak-and-dagger novel. On July 31, 1451, Charles VII ordered his arrest and seized his possessions, from which he drew one hundred thousand ecus to wage war.
The result was one of the most scandalous trials in French history. The only reason for the trial was political. The hatred of the courtiers, especially the nobles, had built up. By making each of them a debtor, Coeur, believing he had made allies of them, made terrible enemies. By launching a number of national products, he undermined the financial empires of Genoa, Venice and Florence, which eternally sought to enrich themselves by exporting their products, notably silk, to France.
One of the most relentless, Otto Castellani, a Florentine merchant, treasurer of finances in Toulouse but based in Montpellier, and one of the accusers whom Charles VII appointed as commissioner to prosecute Jacques Coeur, practiced black magic and pierced a wax figure of the silversmith with needles!
Lastly, Charles VII undoubtedly feared collusion between Jacques Coeur and his own son, the Dauphin Louis, future Louis XI, who was stirring up intrigue after intrigue against him.
In 1447, following an altercation with Agnès Sorel, the Dauphin had been expelled from the Court by his father and would never see him again. Jacques Cœur lent money to the Dauphin, with whom he kept in touch through Charles Astars, who looked after the accounts of his mines.
« Trade with infidels », « Lèse majesté », « export of metals », and many other pretexts, the reasons put forward for Jacques Coeur’s trial and conviction are of little interest. They are no more than judicial window-dressing. The proceedings began with a denunciation that was almost immediately found to be slanderous.
A certain Jeanne de Mortagne accused Jacques Coeur of having poisoned Agnès Sorel, the king’s mistress and favorite, who died on February 9, 1450. This accusation was implausible and devoid of any serious foundation; for, having placed all her trust in Jacques Coeur, she had just appointed him as one of her three executors.
Coeur is imprisoned for a dozen equally questionable reasons. When he refused to admit what he was accused of, he was threatened with « the question » (torture). Confronted by the executioners, the accused, trembling with fear, claims that he « relies » on the words of the commissioners charged with breaking him.
His condemnation came on the same day as the fall of Constantinople, May 29, 1453. Only the intervention of Pope Nicholas V saved his life. With the help of his friends, he escaped from his prison in Poitiers, and took the route of the convents, including Beaucaire, to Marseille for Rome.
Pope Nicholas V welcomed him as a friend. The pontiff died and was succeeded by his successor. Jacques Cœur chartered a fleet in the name of his illustrious host, and set off to fight the infidels. Jacques Coeur, we are told, died on November 25, 1456 on the island of Chios, a Genoese possession, during a naval battle with the Turks.
The great King Louis XI, unloved son of Charles VII, as evidenced by his ordinances in favor of the productive economy, would continue the recovery of France begun by Jacques Coeur. Many of Coeur’s collaborators soon entered his service, including his son Geoffroy, who, as cupbearer, became Louis XI’s most trusted confidant.
Charles VII, by letters patent dated August 5, 1457, restored to Ravant and Geoffroy Coeur a small portion of their father’s property. It was only under Louis XI that Geoffroy obtained the rehabilitation of his father’s memory and more complete letters of restitution.
- During the five years between Joan of Arc’s first appearances and her departure for Chinon, several people attached to the Court stayed in Lorraine, including René d’Anjou, the youngest son of Yolande d’Aragon. While Charles VII remained undecided, his mother-in-law welcomed La Pucelle with maternal solicitude, opening doors for her and lobbying the king until he deigned to receive her. During the Poitiers trial, when Jeanne’s virginity had to be verified, she presided over the council of matrons in charge of the examination. She also provided financial support, helped her gather her equipment, provided safe stopping points on the road to Orléans, and gathered food and relief supplies for the besieged. To this end, she did not hesitate to open her purse wide, even going so far as to sell her jewelry and golden tableware. Yolande’s support was rewarded on April 30, 1429 with the liberation of Orléans, followed on July 17 by the King’s coronation in Reims. Although many of her contemporaries praised her simplicity, her closeness to her subjects and the warmth of her court, Yolande d’Aragon was a stateswoman. And whatever sympathy she may have felt for her protégée, she would not hesitate to abandon her to her sad fate when her warlike impulses no longer accorded with her own political objectives : to negociate a peaceful alliance with the Duchy of Burgundy. The Duchess knew how to be implacable, and like her comrades-in-arms, the Church and the King himself, she abandoned La Pucelle to the English, to Cauchon, to her trial and to the stake. For more: Gérard de Senneville, Yolande d’Aragon : La reine qui a gagné la guerre de Cent Ans, Editions Perrin)
- Georges Bordonove, Jacques Coeur, trésorier de Charles VII, p. 90, Editions Pygmalion, 1977).
- Description given by the great chronicler of the Dukes of Burgundy, Georges Chastellain (1405-1475), in Remontrances à la reine d’Angleterre.
- Jean Bureau was Charles VII’s grand master of artillery. On the occasion of his coronation in 1461, Louis XI knighted him and made him a member of the King’s Council. Louis XI stayed at Jean Bureau’s Porcherons house in northwest Paris after his solemn entry into the capital. Jean Bureau’s daughter Isabelle married Geoffroy Coeur, son of Jacques.
- Leonardo Bruni succeeded Coluccio Salutati as Chancellor of Florence, having joined his circle of scholars, which included Poggio Bracciolini and the erudite Niccolò Niccoli, to discuss the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio. Bruni was one of the first to study Greek literature, and contributed greatly to the study of Latin and ancient Greek, offering translations of Aristotle, Plutarch, Demosthenes, Plato and Aeschylus.
- Niccolò Niccoli built up one of the most famous libraries in Florence, and one of the most prestigious of the Italian Renaissance. He was assisted by Ambrogio Traversari in his work on Greek texts (a language he did not master). He bequeathed this library to the Florentine Republic on condition that it be made available to the public. Cosimo the Elder de’ Medici was entrusted with implementing this condition, and the library was entrusted to the Dominican convent of San Marco. Today, the library is part of the Laurentian Library.
- Prior General of the Camaldolese Order, Ambrogio Traversari was, along with Jean Bessarion, one of the authors of the decree of church union. According to the Urbino court historian Vespasiano de Bisticci, Traversari gathered in his convent at San Maria degli Angeli near Florence. There, Traversari brought together the heart of the humanist network: Nicolaus Cusanus; Niccolo Niccoli, who owned an immense library of Platonic manuscripts; Gianozzi Manetti, orator of the first Oration on the Dignity of Man; Aeneas Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II; and Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, the physician-cartographer and future friend of Leonardo da Vinci, whom Piero della Francesca also frequented.
- Philosophically speaking, reminding the whole of Christendom of the primordial importance of the concept of the filioque, literally « and of the son », meaning that the Holy Spirit (divine love) came not only from the Father (infinite potential) but also from the Son (its realization, through his son Jesus, in whose living image every human being had been created), was a revolution. Man, the life of every man and woman, is precious because it is animated by a divine spark that makes it sacred. This high conception of each individual was reflected in the relationship between human beings and their relationship with nature, i.e., the physical economy.
What follows is an edited transcript of a lecture by Karel Vereycken on the subject of “Perspective in XVth-century Flemish religious painting”.
It was delivered at the international colloquium “La recherche du divin à travers l’espace géométrique” (The quest for the divine through geometrical space) at the Paris Sorbonne University on April 26-28, 2006, under the direction of Luc Bergmans, Department of Dutch Studies (Paris IV Sorbonne University).
« Perspective in XVth-century Flemish religious painting ». At first glance, this title may seem surprising. While the genius of fifteenth-century Flemish painters is universally attributed to their mastery of drying oil and their intricate sense of detail, their spatial geometry as such is usually identified as the very counter-example of the “right perspective”.
Disdained by Michelangelo and his faithful friend Vasari, the Flemish « primitives » would never have overcome the medieval, archaic and empirical model. For the classical “narritive”, still in force today, stipulates that only « Renaissance » perspective, obeying the canon of « linear », “mathematical” perspective, is the only « right », and the “scientific” one.
According to the same narrative, it was the research carried out around 1415-20 by the Duomo architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), superficially mentioned by Antonio Tuccio di Manetti some 60 years later, which supposedly enabled Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), proclaiming himself Brunelleschi’s intellectual heir, to invent « perspective ».
In 1435, in De Pictura, a book entirely devoid of graphic illustration, Alberti is said to have formulated the premises of a perspectivist canon capable of representing, or at least conforming to, our modern notions of Cartesian space-time (NOTE 1), a space-time characterized as « entirely rational, i.e. infinite, continuous and homogeneous », « in one word, a purely mathematical space [dixit Panofsky] » (NOTE 2)
Long afterwards, in a drawing from the Codex Madrid, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) attempted to unravel the workings of this model.
But in the same manuscript, he rigorously demonstrated the inherent limitations of the Albertian Renaissance perspectivist canon.
The drawing on f°15, v° clearly shows that the simple projection of visual pyramid cross-sections on a plane paradoxically causes their size to increase the further they are from the point of vision, whereas reality would require exactly the opposite. (NOTE 3)
With this in mind, Leonardo began to question the mobility of the eye and the curvilinear nature of the retina. Refusing to immobilize the viewer on an exclusive point of vision (NOTE 4), Leonardo used curvilinear constructions to correct these lateral deformations. (NOTE 5) In France, Jean Fouquet and others worked along the same lines.
But Leonardo’s powerful arguments were ignored, and he was unable to prevent this rewriting of history.
Despite this official version of art history, it should be noted that at the time, Flemish painters were elevated to pinnacles by Italy’s greatest patrons and art connoisseurs, specifically for their ability to represent space.
Bartolomeo Fazio, around the middle of the 15th century, observed that the paintings of Jan van Eyck, an artist billed as the « principal painter of our time », showed « tiny figures of men, mountains, groves, villages and castles rendered with such skill that one would think them fifty thousand paces apart. » (NOTE 6)
Such was their reputation that some of the great names in Italian painting had no qualms about reproducing Flemish works identically. I’m thinking, for example, of the copy of Hans Memlinc‘s Christ Crowned with Thorns at the Genoa Museum, copied by Domenico Ghirlandajo (Philadelphia Museum).
But post-Michelangelo classicism deemed the non-conformity of Flemish spatial geometry with Descartes’ « extended substance » to be an unforgivable crime, and any deviation from, or insubordination to, the « Renaissance » perspectivist canon relegated them to the category of « primitives », i.e. « empiricists », clearly devoid of any scientific culture.
Today, ironically, it is almost exclusively those artists who explicitly renounce all forms of perspectivist construction in favor of pseudo-naïveté, who earn the label of modernity…
In any case, current prejudices mean that 15th-century Flemish painting is still accused of having ignored perspective.
It’s true, however, that at the end of the XIVth century, certain paintings by Melchior Broederlam (c. 1355-1411) and others by Robert Campin (1375-1444) (Master of Flémalle) show the viewer interiors where plates and cutlery on tables threaten to suddenly slide to the floor.
Nevertheless, it must be admitted that whenever the artist « ignores » or disregards the linear perspective scheme, he seems to do so more by choice than by incapacity. To achieve a limpid composition, the painter prioritizes his didactic mission to the detriment of all other considerations.
For example, in Campin’s Mérode Altarpiece, the exaggerated perspective of the table clearly shows that the vase is behind the candlestick and book.
Jan van Eyck’s Lam Gods (Mystic Lamb) in Ghent is another example.
Never could so many figures, with so much detail and presence, be shown with a linear perspective where the figures in the foreground would hide those behind. (NOTE 7)
But the intention to approximate a credible sense of space and depth remains.
If this perspective seems flawed by its linear geometry, Campin imposes an extraordinary sense of space through his revolutionary treatment of shadows. As every painter knows, light is painted by painting shadow.
In Campin’s work, every object and figure is exposed to several sources of light, generating a darker central shadow as the fruit of crossed shadows.
Van Eyck influenced by Arab Optics?
This new treatment of light-space has been largely ignored. However, there are several indications that this new conception was partly the result of the influence of « Arab » science, in particular its work on optics.
Translated into Latin and studied from the XIIth century onwards, their work was developed in particular by a network of Franciscans whose epicenter was in Oxford (Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, etc.) and whose influence spread to Chartres, Paris, Cologne and the rest of Europe.
It should be noted that Jan van Eyck (1395-1441), an emblematic figure of Flemish painting, was ambassador to Paris, Prague, Portugal and England.
I’ll briefly mention three elements that support this hypothesis of the influence of Arab science.
Robert Campin (master of Flémalle) in the Werl Triptych (1438) and Jan van Eyck in the Arnolfini portrait (1434), each feature convex mirrors of considerable size.
It is now certain that glaziers and mirror-makers were full members of the Saint Luc guild, the painters’ guild. (NOTE 8)
But it is relevant to know that Campin, now recognized as having run the workshop in Tournai where the painters Van der Weyden and Jacques Daret were trained, produced paintings for the Franciscans in this city. Heinrich Werl, who commissioned the altarpiece featuring the convex mirror, was an eminent Franciscan theologian who taught at the University of Cologne.
These convex and concave (or ardent) mirrors were much studied during the Arab renaissance of the IXth to XIth centuries, in particular by the Arab philosopher Al-Kindi (801-873) in Baghdad at the time of Charlemagne.
Arab scientists were not only in possession of the main body of Hellenic work on optics (Euclid‘s Optics, Ptolemy‘s Optics, the works of Heron of Alexandria, Anthemius of Tralles, etc.), but it was sometimes the rigorous refutation of this heritage that was to give science its wings.
After the decisive work of Ibn Sahl (Xth century), it was that of Ibn Al-Haytam (Latin name : Alhazen) (NOTE 9) on the nature of light, lenses and spherical mirrors that was to have a major influence. (NOTE 10)
As mentioned above, these studies were taken up by the Oxford Franciscans, starting with the English bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253).
In De Natura Locorum, for example, Grosseteste shows a diagram of the refraction of light in a spherical glass filled with water. And in his De Iride he marvels at this science which he connexts to perspective :
« This part of optics, so well understood, shows us how to make very distant things appear as if they were situated very near, and how we can make small things situated at a distance appear to the size we desire, so that it becomes possible for us to read the smallest letters from incredible distances, or to count sand, or grains, or any small object.«
Grosseteste’s pupil Roger Bacon (1212-1292) wrote De Speculis Comburentibus, a specific treatise on « Ardent Mirrors » which elaborates on Ibn Al-Haytam‘s work.
Flemish painters Campin, Van Eyck and Van der Weyden proudly display their knowledge of this new scientific and technological revolution metamorphosed into Christian symbolisms.
Their paintings feature not only curved mirrors but also glass bottles, which they use as a metaphor for the immaculate conception.
A Nativity hymn of that period says:
« As through glass the ray passed without breaking it, so of the Virgin Mother, Virgin she was and virgin she remained… » (NOTE 11)
The Treatment of Light
In his Discourse on Light, Ibn Al-Haytam develops his theory of light propagation in extremely poetic language, setting out requirements that remind us of the « Eyckian revolution ». Indeed, Flemish « realism » and perspective are the result of a new treatment of light and color.
« The light emitted by a luminous body by itself -substantial light- and the light emitted by an illuminated body -accidental light- propagate on the bodies surrounding them. Opaque bodies can be illuminated and then in turn emit light. »
This physical principle, theorized by Leonardo da Vinci, is omnipresent in Flemish painting. Just look at the images reflected in the helmet of St. George in Van Eyck‘s Madonna to Canon van der Paele (NOTE 12).
In each curved surface of Saint George’s helmet, we can identify the reflection of the Virgin and even a window through which light enters the painting.
The shining shield on St. George’s back reflects the base of the adjacent column, and the painter’s portrait appears as a signature. Only a knowledge of the optics of curved surfaces can explain this rendering.
« Light can penetrate transparent bodies: water, air, crystal and their counterparts. »
« Transparent bodies have, like opaque bodies, a ‘receiving power’ for light, but transparent bodies also have a ‘transmitting power’ for light.«
Isn’t the development of oil mediums and glazes by the Flemish an echo of this research? Alternating opaque and translucent layers on very smooth panels, the specificity of the oil medium alters the angle of light refraction.
In 1559, the painter-poet Lucas d’Heere referred to van Eyck‘s paintings as « mirrors, not painted scenes.«
Before the advent of « right » central linear perspective, art historians sought a coherent explanation for its birth in the presence of several seemingly disparate vanishing points by theorizing a so-called central « fishbone » perspective.
In this model, a number of vanishing lines, instead of coinciding in a single central vanishing point on the horizon, either end up in a « vanishing region » (NOTE 13), or align with what some call a vertical « vanishing axis », forming a kind of « fishbone ».
French Professor Dominique Raynaud, who worked for years on this issue, underscores that « all medieval treatises on perspective address the question of binocular vision », notably the Polish scholar Witelo (1230-1280) (NOTE 15) in his Perspectiva (I,27), an insight he also got from the works of Ibn Al-Haytam.
Witelo presents a figure to defend the idea that
« the two forms, which penetrate two homologous points of the surface of the two eyes, arrive at the same point of the concavity of the common nerve, and are superimposed at this point to become one » (Perspectiva, III, 37).
A similar line of reasoning can be found in Roger Bacon‘s Perspectiva Communis, written by John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury (1240-1290) for whom:
« the duality of the eyes must be reduced to unity »
So, as Professor Raynaud proposed, if we extend the famous vanishing lines (i.e., in our case, the « fish bones ») until they intersect, the « vanishing axis » problem disappears, as the vanishing lines meet. Interestingly, the result is a perspective with two vanishing points in the central region!
Suddenly, the diagrams drawn up to demonstrate the « empiricism » of the Flemish painters, if viewed from this point of view, reveal a legitimate construction probably based on optics as transmitted by Arab science and rediscovered by Franciscan networks and others.
Two paintings by Jan van Eyck clearly demonstrate that he followed this approach: The Madonna with Canon van der Paele of 1436 and the Dresden Tryptic of 1437.
What seemed a clumsy, empirical approach in the form of a « fishbone » perspective (left) turns out to be a binocular perspective construction.
Was this type of perspective specifically Flemish?
A close examination of works by Ghiberti, Donatello and Paolo Uccello, generally dating from the first half of the XVth Century, reveals a mastery of the same principle.
But this whole demonstration is merely a look into the past through the eyes of modern scientific rationality. It would be a grave error not to take into account the immense influence of the Rhenish (Master Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Heinrich Suso) and Flemish (Hadewijch of Antwerp, Jan van Ruusbroec, etc.) « mystics ».
This trend began to flourish again with the rediscovery of the Christianized neo-Platonism of Dionysius the Areopagite (Vth-VIth century), made accessible… by the new translations of the Franciscan Grosseteste in Oxford.
The spiritual vision of the Aeropagite, expressed in a powerful imagery language, is directly reminiscent of the metaphorical approach of the Flemish painters, for whom a certain type of light is simply the revelation of divine grace.
In On the Heavenly Hierarchy, Dionysius immediately presents light as a manifestation of divine goodness. It ennobles us and enables us to enlighten others:
« Let those who are illuminated be filled with divine clarity, and the eyes of their understanding trained to the work of chaste contemplation; finally, let those who are perfected, once their primitive imperfection has been abolished, share in the sanctifying science of the marvelous teachings that have already been manifested to them; similarly, let the purifier excel in the purity he communicates to others; let the illuminator, gifted with a greater penetration of spirit, equally fit to receive and transmit light, happily flooded with sacred splendor, pour it out in pressing streams on those who are worthy… » [Chap. III, 3]
Let’s think again of the St. George in Van Eyck‘s Madonna to Canon van der Paele, which indeed pours forth the multiple images of the Virgin who enlightens him.
This theo-philosophical trend reached full maturity in the work of Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa (Cusanus) (1401-1464) (NOTE 16), embodying the extremely fruitful encounter of this « negative theology » with Greek science, Socratic knowledge and Christian Humanism.
In contrast to both a science « without a hypothesis of God » and a metaphysics with an esoteric drift, an agapic love leads it to the education of the greatest number, to the defense of the weak and the humiliated.
But let’s sketch out some of Cusanus’ key ideas on painting.
In De Icona (The Vision of God) (1453), which he sent to the Benedictine monks of the Tegernsee, Cusanus condenses his fundamental work On Learned Ignorance (1440), in which he develops the concept of the coincidence of opposites. His starting point was a self-portrait of his friend « Roger », the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, which he sent together with his sermon to the monks.
This self-portrait, like the multiple faces of Christ painted in the XVth century, uses an « optical illusion » to create the effect of a gaze that fixes the viewer, regardless of his or her position in front of the altarpiece.
In De Icona, written as a sermon, Cusanus asks monks to stand in a semicircle around the painting and watch this gaze pursue them as they move along the segment of the curve. In fact, he elaborates a pedagogical paradox based on the fact that the Greek name for God, Theos, has its etymological origin in the verb theastai (to see, to look at).
As you can see, he says, God looks at you personally, and his gaze follows you everywhere. He is therefore one and many. And even when you turn away from him, his gaze falls on you. So, miraculously, although he looks at everyone at the same time, he nevertheless establishes a personal relationship with each one. If « seeing » for God is « loving », God’s point of vision is infinite, omniscient and omnipotent love.
A parallel can be drawn here with the spherical mirror at the center of Jan van Eyck’s painting The Arnolfini portrait, painted in 1434, nineteen years before this sermon.
Firstly, this circular mirror is surrounded by the ten stations of Christ’s Passion, juxtaposed by a rosary, an explicit reference to God.
Secondly, it reveals a view of the entire room, an image that completely escapes the linear perspective of the foreground. A view comparable to the allcompassing « Vision of God » developed by Cusanus.
Finally, we see two figures in the mirror, but not the image of the painter behind his easel. These are undoubtedly the two witnesses to the wedding. Instead of signing his painting with « Van Eyck invent. », the painter signed his painting above the mirror with « Van Eyck was here » (NOTE 17), identifying himself as a witness.
As Dionysius the Aeropagite asserted:
« [the celestial hierarchy] transforms its adepts into so many images of God: pure and splendid mirrors where the eternal and ineffable light can shine, and which, according to the desired order, reflect liberally on inferior things this borrowed brightness with which they shine. » [Chap. III, 2]
The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381) evokes a very similar image in his Spiegel der eeuwigher salicheit (Mirror of eternal salvation) when he says:
« Ende Hi heeft ieghewelcs mensche ziele gescapen alse eenen levenden spieghel, daer Hi dat Beelde sijnre natueren in gedruct heeft. » (And he created each human soul as a living mirror, in which he imprinted the image of his nature).
And so, like a polished mirror, Van Eyck’s soul, illuminated and living in God’s truth, acts as an illuminating witness to this union. (NOTE 18)
So, although the Flemish painters of the XVth century clearly had a solid scientific foundation, they choose such or such perspective depending on the idea they wanted to convey.
In essence, their paintings remain objects of theo-philosophical speculation or as you like « intellectual prayer », capable of praising the goodness, beauty and magnificence of a Creator who created them in His own image. By the very nature of their approach, their interest lay above all in the geometry of a kind of « paradoxical space-light » capable, through enigma, of opening us up to a participatory transcendence, rather than simply seeking to « represent » a dead space existing outside metaphysical reality.
The only geometry worthy of interest was that which showed itself capable of articulating this non-linearity, a « divine » or « mystical » perspective capable of linking the infinite beauty of our commensurable microcosm with the immeasurable goodness of the macrocosm.
- Recently, Italian scholars have pointed to the role of Biagio Pelacani Da Parma (d. 1416), a professor at the University of Padua near Venice, in imposing such a perspective, which privileged only the « geometrical laws of the act of vision and the rules of mathematical calculation ».
- Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, p.41-42, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1975.
- Institut de France, Manuscrit E, 16 v° « the eye [h] perceives on the plane wall the images of distant objects greater than that of the nearer object. »
- Leonardo understands that Albertian perspective, like anamorphosis, condemns the viewer to a single, immobile point of vision.
- See, for example, the slight enlargement of the apostles at the ends of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in the Milan refectory.
- Baxandall, Bartholomaeus Facius on painting, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 27, (1964). Fazio is also enthusiastic about a world map (now lost) by Jan van Eyck, in which all the places and regions of the earth are depicted recognizably and at measurable distances.
- To escape this fate, Pieter Bruegel the Elder used a cavalier perspective, placing his horizon line high up.
- Lionel Simonot, Etude expérimentale et modélisation de la diffusion de la lumière dans une couche de peinture colorée et translucide. Application à l’effet visuel des glacis et des vernis, p.9 (PhD thesis, Nov. 2002).
- Ibn Al-Haytam (Alhazen) (965-1039) wrote some 200 works on mathematics, astronomy, physics, medicine and philosophy. Born in Basra, after working on the development of the Nile in Egypt, he travelled to Spain. He is said to have carried out a series of highly detailed experiments on theoretical and experimental optics, including the camera obscura (darkroom), work that was later to feature in Leonardo da Vinci’s studies. Da Vinci may well have read the lengthy passages by Alhazen that appear in the Commentari of the Florentine sculptor Ghiberti. According to Gerbert d’Aurillac (the future Pope Sylvester II in 999), Bishop of Rheims, brought back from Spain the decimal system with its zero and an astrolabe, it was thanks to Gerard of Cremona (1114-c. 1187) that Europe gained access to Greek, Jewish and Arabic science. This scholar went to Toledo in 1175 to learn Arabic, and translated some 80 scientific works from Arabic into Latin, including Ptolemy’s Almagest, Apollonius’ Conics, several treatises by Aristotle, Avicenna‘s Canon, and the works of Ibn Al-Haytam, Al-Kindi, Thabit ibn Qurra and Al-Razi.
- In the Arab world, this research was taken up a century later by the Persian physicist Al-Farisi (1267-1319). He wrote an important commentary on Alhazen’s Treatise on Optics. Using a drop of water as a model, and based on Alhazen’s theory of double refraction in a sphere, he gave the first correct explanation of the rainbow. He even suggested the wave-like property of light, whereas Alhazen had studied light using solid balls in his reflection and refraction experiments. The question was now: does light propagate by undulation or by particle transport?
- Meiss, M., Light as form and symbol in some fifteenth century paintings, Art Bulletin, XVIII, 1936, p. 434.
- Note also the fact that the canon shows a pair of glasses…
- Brion-Guerry in Jean Pèlerin Viator, sa place dans l’histoire de la perspective, Belles Lettres, 1962, p. 94-96, states in obscure language that « the object of representation behaves most often in Van Eyck as a cubic volume seen from the front and from the inside. Perspectival foreshortening is achieved by constructing a rectangle whose sides form the base of four trapezoids. The orthogonals thus tend towards four distinct points of convergence, forming a ‘vanishing region' ».
- Dominique Raynaud, L’Hypothèse d’Oxford, essai sur les origines de la perpective, PUF, Paris 1998.
- Witelo was a friend of the Flemish Dominican scholar Willem van Moerbeke, a translator of Archimedes in contact with Saint Thomas Aquinas. Moerbeke was also in contact with the mathematician Jean Campanus and the Flemish neo-Platonic astronomer Hendrik Bate van Mechelen. Johannes Kepler‘s own work on human vision builds on that of Witelo.
- Cusanus was above all a man of science and theology. But he was also a political organizer. The painter Jan van Eyck fought for the same goals, as evidenced by the ecumenical theme of the Ghent polyptych. It shows the Mystic Lamb, symbolizing the sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of mankind, capable of reuniting a church torn apart by internal differences. Hence the presence of the three popes in the central panel, here united before the lamb. Van Eyck also painted a portrait of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, one of the instigators of the great Ecumenical Council organized by Cusanus in Ferrara and then moved to Florence. If Cusanus called Van der Weyden « his friend Roger », it is also thought that Robert Campin may have met him, since he would have attended the Council of Basel, as did one of his commissioners, the Franciscan theologian Heinrich Werl.
- Jan Van Eyck was one of the first painters in the history of art to date and sign his paintings with his own name.
- Myriam Greilsammer’s book L’Envers du tableau, Mariage et Maternité en Flandre Médiévale (Editions Armand Colin, 1990) documents Arnolfini’s sexual escapades. Arnolfini was taken to court by one of his victims, a female servant. Van Eyck seems to have understood that the knightly Arnoult Fin, Lucchese financier and commercial representative of the House of Medici in Bruges, required the somewhat peculiar presence of the eye of the lord.
By Karel Vereycken
(texte original en français)
“The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.”Sayings (Hadith) most often attributed to the Prophet.
“Seek knowledge from the Cradle to the Grave.”
“Seek knowledge even as far as China.”
We live in a time of cruel stupidity. While the history of civilization is characterized by multiple cultural contributions allowing an infinite and magnificent mutual enrichment, everything is done to dehumanize us.
By dint of media coverage of the most extreme crimes, notably by claiming that such and such an abject or barbaric act has been committed « in the name » of such and such a belief or religion, everything is done to set us against each other. If we do not react, the famous thesis of a « Clash of Civilizations », concocted by the British Islamologist Bernard Lewis (Henry Kissinger’s, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s and Samuel Huntington’s mentor) as an evil tool of geopolitical manipulation, will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In order to combat prejudices and dangerous misunderstandings about “Islam” (with 1.6 billion believers a non-negligible part of the world’s population), here follows a brief overview of the major contributions of the Arab-Muslim civilization.
By recalling two major contributions of the “Golden Age” of Islam, notably Arab astronomy and mutazilism, what is at stake here is the recognition that –just like Memphis, Thebes, Alexandria, Athens and Rome– Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba were major crucibles of a universal civilization which is ours today.
While Europe has come to recognize that the invention of printing took place in China long before Gutenberg, and that America was visited way before Christopher Columbus, consensus and group think keeps repeating that the Arabs contributed nothing to the progress of science.
In the 1300 years separating the Greek astronomer from Alexandria, Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 100-178 AD) from the Polish Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), they pretend, nothing but “a black hole”.
In 1958, in his book The Sleepwalkers, British Hungarian writer Alfred Koestler, who helped Sydney Hook to co-found the CIA’s cultural cold war front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, epitomized western arrogance, writing:
the Arabs had merely been the go-betweens, preservers and transmitters of the heritage. They had little scientific originality and creativeness of their own. During the centuries when they were the sole keepers of the treasure, they did little to put it to use. (…) and by the fifteenth century, the scientific heritage of Islam had largely been taken over by the Portuguese Jews. But the Jews, too, were no more than go-betweens, a branch of the devious Gulf-stream which brought back to Europe its Greek and Alexandrine heritage, enriched by Indian and Persian additions.
Nothing is more false. Definitely, one must be born on the right spot to be allowed to have a seat in the train of history…
Copernicus himself, unlike Koestler, was perfectly familiar with Arab astronomy. In 1543, in his De Revolutionibus, he quotes several Arab scientists, more precisely Al-Battani, al-Bitruji, al-Zarqallu, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Thabit ibn Qurra. Copernicus also refers to al-Battani in his Commentariolus, a manuscript published posthumously. Later, the great Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) would also refer to Ibn Al-Haytam in his work on optics.
In reality, Copernicus and even more Kepler, whose creative genius cannot be overrated, came up with answers to questions raised by several generations of Arab astronomers preceding them and whose contribution remains largely ignored and even worse, unexplored. To this day, with about 10,000 manuscripts preserved throughout the world, a large part of which has still not been the subject of a bibliographic inventory, the Arab astronomical corpus constitutes one of the best preserved components of medieval scientific literature waiting to be rediscovered.
Science and religion versus slavery
Before examining the contributions of Arab astronomy, a few words about the intimate link between Islam and the development of science.
According to tradition, it was in 622 AD that the Prophet Muhammad and his companions left Mecca and set out for a simple oasis that would become the city of Medina.
If this event is known as the “Hegira”, an Arabic word for emigration, break-up or exile, it is also because Mohammad broke with a societal model based on blood ties (clan organization), in favor of a model of a shared destiny based on belief. In this new religious and societal model, where each person is supposed to be a “brother,” it is no longer permissible to abandon the poor or the weak as was the case before.
The powerful clans in Mecca did everything they could to eliminate this new form of society, which diminished their influence.
The “Medina Constitution” allegedly proclaimed equality among all believers, whether they were free men or slaves, Arabs or non-Arabs.
The Koran advocates strict equality between Arabs and non-Arabs in accordance with the Prophet, who said, in his farewell address:
“There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”(Reported by Al-Bayhaqi and authenticated by Shaykh Albani in Silsila Sahiha no. 2700).
Hence, if after the Prophet’s passing away, slavery and slave trade became a common practice in close to all Muslim countries, he cannot be held accountable. Zayd Ibn Harithah, according to tradition, after having been the slave of Khadija, Muhammad’s wife, was freed and even adopted by Muhammad as his own son.
For his part, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s companion and successor as the first Caliph (Arab word for “successor”), also freed Bilal ibn-Raba, the son of a former Abyssinian princess who had been enslaved. Bilal, who had a magnificent voice, was even appointed the first muezzin, that is to say the one who calls for prayer five times a day from the top of one of the mosque’s minarets.
Among the first verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad one finds :
“Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous,(Surat 96).
Who taught by the pen — Taught man that which he knew not.”
The Prophet also states,
“The best among you (Muslims) are those who learn the Koran and teach it.”
Other sayings, often attributed to the Prophet, clearly invite Muslims to seek knowledge and cherish science :
“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr”.
“Seek knowledge from the Cradle to the Grave”.
“Seek knowledge even as far as China”.
The mosque is therefore much more than a place of worship, it is a school of all sciences, where scholars are trained. It serves as a social and educational institution: it may be completed with a madrassa (Koranic school), a library, a training center, or even a university.
As in most religions, in Islam, practices and rituals are punctuated by astronomical events (years, seasons, months, days, hours). Every worshipper must pray five times a day at times that vary depending on where he or she is on Earth: at sunrise (Ajr), when the sun is at its zenith (Dhohr), in the afternoon (Asr), at sunset (Magrib) and at the beginning of the night (Icha). Astronomy, as a spiritual occasion to fine-tune one’s earthly existence according to the harmony of the Heavens, is omnipresent.
As an example, to underscore its importance, July 16, 622 AD, the first day of the lunar year, was declared the first day of the Hegira calendar. And during the eclipse of the sun, mosques host a special prayer.
Islam encourages Muslims to guide themselves by the stars. The Koran states :
“And He is the One who made the stars for you
to guide you with them in darkness of the land and the sea”.
With such an incentive, early Muslims could not but feel compelled to perfect astronomical and navigational instruments. As a result, today more than half of the stars used for navigation bear Arabic names. It was only natural that the faithful constantly tried to improve astronomical calculations and observations.
The first reason to do so is that during the Muslim prayer, the worshipper has to prostrate himself in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, so he has to know how to find this direction wherever he is on Earth. And the construction of a mosque will be decided according to the same data.
The second reason is the Muslim calendar. The Koran states :
“The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve (in a year)-
so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth;
of them four are sacred: that is the straight usage.”
Clearly, the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar months, which are approximately 29.5 days long. But 12 times 29.5 days is only 345 days in the year. This is far from the 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 4 seconds that measure the duration of the rotation of the Earth around the Sun…
Finally, a last challenge was posed by the interpretation of the lunar movement. The months, in the Muslim religion, do not begin with the astronomical new moon, defined as the moment when the moon has the same ecliptic longitude as the sun (it is therefore invisible, drowned in the solar albedo); the months begin when the lunar crescent starts to appear at dusk.
The Koran says: “(Muhammad), they ask you about the different phases of the moon. Tell them that they are there to indicate to people the phases of time and the pilgrimage season.”
For all these reasons, the Muslims could not be satisfied with either the Christian or the Hebrew calendar, and had to create a new one.
In order to forecast the phases of the moon, new methods of calculation and new instruments capable of observing them were required. The calculation of the day when the crescent moon starts to become visible again was a formidable challenge for the Arab scholars. To predict this day, it was necessary to be able to describe its movement in relation to the horizon, a problem whose resolution belongs to a rather sophisticated spherical geometry.
It was the determination of the direction of Mecca from a given location and the time of prayers that led the Muslims to develop such geometry. To solve these problems, it is necessary to know how to calculate the side of a spherical triangle of the celestial sphere from its three angles and the other two sides; to find the exact time, for example, it is necessary to know how to construct the triangle whose vertices are the zenith, the north pole, and the position of the Sun.
The field of astronomy has strongly stimulated the birth of other sciences, in particular geometry, mathematics, geography and cartography. Some people like to recall that Platonists and Aristotelians were arguing about rather abstract concepts, each of them believing that reason was sufficient to understand nature. Arab astronomy, on the other hand, played a decisive role in the emergence of a true scientific method by verifying the various hypotheses, by building measuring instruments and astronomical observatories and by rigorously recording observations over many years.
The question then arises as to where this infatuation with science and astronomy could have come from, in a culture essentially centered on religion?
A first answer comes from the fact that in the 8th century, shortly after the birth of Sunnism (656), Kharidjism (657) and Shi’ism (660), but independently of these currents, a school of Muslim theological and philosophical thought appeared, founded by the revolutionary theologian Wasil ibn Ata (700-748), a current known as “mutazilism” (or motazilism), branded in the West as “the rationalists” of Islam. One explanation of its name came from the fact that the mutazili refused to take part in the internal strife inside factions using theological interpretations for earthly power, the arab word iʿtazala meaning “to withdraw”.
Wasil was born in Medina in the Arabian Peninsula and moved to Basra, now in Iraq. From there he formed an intellectual movement that spread all over the Arab-Muslim world. Many of his followers were merchants and non-Arabs (mawâlî) from Iranian or Aramaic “converted” families, victims of the Omayyad dynasty’s discriminating policies between Arabs and non-Arabs. This hypothesis is sufficient to back the claim of a Mutazilite participation in the overthrow of the Omayyad and that dynasty’s replacement with the Abbasid.
In a clear break with dualistic cosmology (Mazdeism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, etc.), Mutazilism insists on the absolute unity of God, conceived as an entity outside time and space. For them, there is a close relationship between the unity of the Muslim community (Ummah) and the worship of the Lord. The Mutazilites are closely inspired by the Koran, and it is quite wrong to present them as the “free thinkers” of Islam.
However, “we reject faith as the only way to religion if it rejects reason,” the Mutazilite saying goes. Relying on reason (the logos dear to the Greek thinkers Socrates and Plato), which it considers compatible with Islamic doctrines, Mutazilism affirms that man can, outside of any divine revelation, access knowledge.
Just as Augustine, a christian, emphasized man can advance on the path of truth, not only through the Gospel (revelation), but by reading “the Book of Nature”, a reflection and foretaste of divine wisdom. One book of the Bible, The Book of Wisdom, recognizes that
For from the greatness and the beauty of created things(Book of Wisdom, 13:5)
their original author,
by analogy, is seen.
The Mutazilites differed from their opponents in their teaching that God has endowed man with reason specifically so that he can come to know the moral order in creation and its Creator; that is what reason is for. Reason is central to man’s relationship to God.
In the Fundamentals, the great Mutazilite theologian Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad (935-1025), whose texts were discovered only in the 1950’s by Egyptian scholars in a mosque in Yemen, begins by positing the primary duty to reason: « If it is asked: What is the first duty that God imposes you? Say to him: Speculative reasoning which leads to knowledge of God, because He is not known intuitively or by the senses. Thus, He must be known by reflection and speculation ».
Therefore, Reason logically precedes revelation. Reason first needs to establish the existence of God before undertaking the question as to whether God has spoken to man. Natural theology mus be antecedent to theology.
Al Jabbar says: « The stipulates of revelation concerning what we should say and do are no good until after there is knowledge of God, » which knowledge comes from reason. « Therefore, » he concludes, « it is incumbent on me to establish His existence and to know Him so that I can worship Him, give Him thanks and do what satisfies Him and avoid disobedience toward Him ».
How does Reason lead man to the conclusion of God’s existance? It is through the observation of the ordered universe that man first comes to know that God exists, says Al Jabbar. As he sees hat nothing in the world is its own cause, but is caused by something else, man arrives at the contingent nature of creation. From there, man reasons to the necessity of a Creator, an uncaused cause.
The concept of an inherent nature in things (tab’) means that God, though he is the First Cause, acts indirectly through secondary causes, such as the physical law of gravity. In other words, God does not immediately or directly do everything. He does not make a rock fall; gravity does. God allows some autonomy in his creation, which has its own set of rules, according to how it was made.
As Mutazilite writer and theologian Uthman al-Jahiz (765-869) stated, every material element has it own nature. God created each thing with a nature according to which it consistently behaves. The unsupported rock will always fall where there is gravitational pull. These laws of nature, then, are not an imposition of order from without by a commander-in-chief, but an expression of it from within the very essence of things, which have their own integrity. Creation is possessed of an intrinsic rationality from the Creator. That is why and how man is able to understand God’s Reason as manifested in his creation (This does not discount God’s ability to supercede natural laws in the case of a miracle). From that standpoint, the act of discovery of the nature and beauty of things, by each human individual, brings him closer to God.
Hence, Muzatilism gives human reason (the faculty of thinking) and freedom (the faculty of acting) a place and importance not only unknown in other trends of Islam but even in most philosophical and religious currents of the time. Against fatalism (“mektoub!” = it was written!), which was the dominant tendency in Islam, mutazilism affirms that the human being is responsible for his acts.
More than five centuries before Erasmus, Mutazilite faith and philosophy offered already the foundations to solve most of the sterile theological disputes that would destroy the Renaissance and throw Europe in the abyss of self-destruction known as the “wars of religion”.
Here are the five Fundamentals (Principles), described by Abdel al Jabbar and summarized in 2015 by economist Nadim Michel Kalife:
—Monotheism (Al Tawhid) whose concept of God is beyond the simple intellect of the human mind. That is why the verses of the Koran describing God “sitting” on a throne should be interpreted only allegorically and not literally. Hence the Mutazilites called their opponents anthropomorphists who sought to reduce God who is unknowable to a human appearance. And they concluded that this one detail (!) of the Koran is sufficient to prove that the Koran is not “uncreated” but “created” by Allah, via man, to make it accessible to the believer, and therefore, that it can and should evolve and adapt according to the times and circumstances ;
—Divine justice (Adl) is about the origin of evil in our world where God is all-powerful. Mutazilism proclaims free will, where evil is man’s doing and not God’s will, because God is perfect and therefore cannot do evil or determine man to do it. And, if human wrongdoings were the will of God, punishment would lose all meaning since man would be doing nothing but respecting the divine will. This unquestionable logic allowed Mutazilism to refute predestination and the « mektoub » of the Sunni schools;
—Promise and threat (al-Wa’d wa al-Wa’id): this principle concerns the judgment of man at his death and that of the last judgment where God will reward the obedient in the heavenly paradise, and punish those who disobeyed him by damning them eternally in the fires of hell;
—The intermediate degree (al-manzilatu bayn al-manzilatayn), the first principle opposing Mutazilism to the Sunni schools. A great sinner (murder, theft, fornication, false accusation of fornication, drinking alcohol, etc. ) should be judged neither as a Muslim (as Sunnism thinks) nor as a disbeliever or kâfir (as the Kharidjites think), but considered in an intermediate degree from which, when he dies, he will go to hell if he failed to be redeemed by God’s mercy ;
—To order the good and blame the blameworthy (al-amr bil ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al munkar): this principle authorizes even rebellion against authority when it is unjust and illegitimate, to prevent the victory of evil over all. This principle attracted the hatred of the ulama (theologians) and imams (predicators) who saw it as a manouver to weaken their own authority over the faithful. And the Seljuk Turks considered it a serious danger since it called into question their power… over the Arabs.
Mutazilism under the Abbasid
In Baghdad, it was with the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate in 749 that Mutazilism gained influence, first under the Caliph Hâroun al-Rachîd (765-809) (“Aaron the Well-Guided”) and then under his son, Al-Ma’mûn (786-833) (“The one to be trusted”). Shortly before his death in 833, the latter made Mutazilism the official doctrine of the Abbasid Empire.
This was too much for the conservative ulama and imams who rebelled against the Caliph’s enlightened vision that created a space for secular society and limited their grip over society. Faced with the revolt, the Abbasid administration (made up largely of Persians), which was won over to Mutazilism, carried out a ruthless crackdown on Sunni (Arab) clerics for fifteen years, from 833 to 848. This bloody persecution left an increasingly bitter taste in people’s minds, especially when the Abbasid power refused to release Muslim prisoners in the hands of the Byzantines if they did not renounce the dogma of the “uncreated” nature of the Koran…
Finally, in 848, Caliph Jafar al-Mutawakkil (847-861), changed course completely and asked the traditionalists to preach hadiths according to which Muhammad had condemned the Mutazilites and their supporters.
Dialectical theology (Kalâm) was banned and the Mutazilites were not any longer welcome at the Baghdad court. This was also the end of the spirit of tolerance and the return of persecution against Christians and Jews. If the craze for science continued, Mutazilism disappeared with the fall of the Abbasids and the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in the 13th century.
Mutazilism also influenced Judaism. The Kitab Al-Amanat Wa’l-I’tiqadat – that is, the Book of Beliefs and Opinions – by the tenth-century Jewish rabbinic scholar Saadia Gaon (882-942), who lived in Baghdad, draws its inspiration from Christian theological literature as well as from Islamic models. The Kitab al-Tawhid, the Book of Divine Unity, by Saadia’s Karaite contemporary, Jacob Qirqisani (d. 930), is unfortunately lost.
This makes the German Islamologist Sabine Schmidtke say:
The new tradition of Jewish rational thought that emerged in the course of the ninth century was, in its initial phase, mainly informed by Christian theological literature, both in its content and methodology. Increasingly, specifically Mutazilite Islamic ideas, such as theodicy [*1] and human free will, as well as the emphasis on the oneness of God (tawhid), resonated among Jewish thinkers, many of whom eventually adopted the entire doctrinal system of the Mutazila. The now emerging ‘Jewish Mutazila’ dominated Jewish theological thought for centuries to come.
Brothers in Purity
Also worth mentioning in this context, are the Epistles of the Brothers in Purity (Ikwân al-Safâ), an encyclopedia of 52 epistles (dealing with mathematics, natural sciences, rational sciences and theological sciences), composed between the beginning of the ninth and the end of the tenth century and containing common knowledge. The text will be promoted by the Ismailis, an esoteric branch of shiite islam strongly contesting the ruling powers of that time. Produced in Basra, in present-day Iraq, the book, neo-platonic in character, is a collective work. As for the authors, designated under the mysterious name of Brothers of Purity, they belonged to a brotherhood of sages and intellectuals who met regularly to organize sessions of discussion, readings and recitation. Its followers considered that knowledge was an indispensable condition for any spiritual and mystical elevation. Its avant-garde character is apparent in its hymn to tolerance advocating a plurality of paths to salvation. Some experts believe that the Epistles of the Brothers in Purity are the work of a high-level Pythagorean philosopher, a disciple of the mutazilist platonic, al-Kindi.
Leaving aside, therefore, the errors that were very real, it has to be recognized and underscored that the optimistic philosophical vision of Mutazilism (reason, free will, responsibility, perfectibility of man) strongly contributed to the emergence of a true « golden age » of Arab culture and sciences.
Finally, it is not uninteresting to note that today, “neo-Mutazilite” currents are appearing in reaction to obscurantist doctrines and the barbaric acts they provoke. For the Egyptian reformist thinker Ahmad Amin, “the death of mutazilism was the greatest misfortune that befell Muslims; they committed a crime against themselves.”
In 762, the second Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur (714-775) (“the victorious”) began construction of a new capital, Baghdad. Called Madinat-As-Salam (City of Peace), it houses the court palace, the mosque and the administrative buildings. Built on a circular plan, it is inspired by previous traditions, notably the one that gave birth to the Iranian city of Gur (current name: Firouzabad).
We are in the heart of fertile Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers”, essentially the Euphrates and the Tigris, both of which have their source in Turkey. It is here that the Sumerians invented irrigation, agriculture (cereals and livestock) [*2], and writing (3400 years BC), starting in the 10th millennium BC.
Baghdad, a powerful and refined city, reigned over the entire East and became the capital of the Arab world. Crossed by the Tigris River, populated today by some 10 million inhabitants, it remains the largest city in Iraq as well as the second most populated city in the Arab world (behind Cairo in Egypt).
The Abbasid cities were built on huge sites. The palaces and mosques of Samarra, the new capital from 836, stretch along the banks of the Tigris for 40 kilometers. To match the scale of the sites, monumental buildings were erected, such as the Abu Dulaf Mosque or the Great Mosque of Samarra, which had no equivalent elsewhere. Its curious spiral minaret (52 meters high) inspired in the following centuries the Western representations of the Tower of Babel.
Moreover, by relying on an extremely disciplined and obedient army from Khorassan (a region in north-eastern Iran) [*3], as well as on an elaborate system of stagecoaches and mail distribution, the Abbasid rulers managed to increase their hold on the provincial governors. The latter, who in the time of the Omayyad caliphs paid little tax on the pretext that they had to spend locally for the defense of the caliphate’s borders, now had to pay the taxes imposed by the ruler.
The New “Paper” Road
After the military victory against the Chinese in the battle of Talas (a city in present-day Kyrgyzstan) in 751, the year that marked the most eastern advance of the Abbasid armies, Baghdad opened up to Chinese and Indian cultures.
The Abbasid quickly assimilated a number of Chinese techniques, in particular paper-making, an art developed in Samarkand (capital of Sogdiana, now in Uzbekistan), another stopover city on the Silk Roads. The craftsmen of this city smoothed the paper with an agate stone. The resulting extremely smooth and shiny surface absorbed less ink and as a result, both sides of the same sheet became usable. The Chinese, who had invented silk paper, did not need to smooth their paper because they wrote with brushes and not with pens.
Hâroun al-Rachîd was very interested in the industrial production of paper. He ordered the use of paper in all the administrations of the Empire: it is easier to manufacture, less expensive and more secure than silk, because one cannot easily erase what is written on it. He developed the paper factories of Samarkand and established similar ones in Baghdad, Damascus and Tiberias around 1046 – the paper of Tripoli or Damascus was then referred to, and its quality was considered better than that of Samarkand – in Cairo before 1199, where it was used as a packaging for goods, and in Yemen at the beginning of the 13th century. At the same time, several paper factories were established in North Africa. There were 104 paper factories in Fez, Morocco, before 1106, and 400 paper mills between 1221 and 1240. They will emerge in Andalusia, Spain, in Jativa near Valencia in 1054 and in Toledo in 1085.
The first Abbasid caliphs led the economic transition from the Umayyad model of tribute, booty or the sale of slaves to an economy based on agriculture, manufacturing, trade and taxes. The introduction of more energy dense modes of technologies modes of energy (compared to the former ones), will revolutionize irrigation and agriculture:
–Construction of canals ensuring irrigation and limiting flooding;
–Construction of dams and the exploitation of the mechanical energy they produce;
–Construction of water mills;
–Use of tidal energy;
–Construction of windmills;
–Distillation of kerosene used as fuel for lamps and used since. [*4]
Industrial uses of water mills in the Islamic world date back to the 7th century. During the time of the Crusades, all provinces of the Islamic world had operating mills, from al-Andalus and North Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia.
These mills performed various agricultural and industrial tasks.
When Erasmus’ follower Cervantes’ Don Quichote starts attacking the windmills of La Mancha, a Spanish region where Arab influence was notable, he not only ironially mocks the cult of chivalry, but also the insane undertaking called the crusades.
Irrigation, inherited from the ancient world (floods of the Nile in Egypt, canals in Mesopotamia, pendulum wells (shadoof), water wheels used to raise water (noria), dams in Transoxiana, Khuzistan and Yemen, underground galleries at the foot of the mountains in Iran (qanat) or in the Maghreb (khettara), is organized thanks to a solid community organization and the intervention of the State.
Abbasid artisans and engineers will develop machines (such as pumps) incorporating crankshafts and use gears in mills and water-lifting machines. They will also use the dams to provide additional power to watermills and water-lifting machines. Such advances will allow the mechanization of many agricultural and industrial tasks and free up the workforce for more creative occupations.
Agricultural production gains in diversity : cereals (wheat, rice), fruits (apricots, citrus fruits), vegetables, olive oil (Syria and Palestine), sesame (Iraq), roe, rapeseed, flax or castor oil (Egypt), wine production (Syria, Palestine, Egypt), dates, bananas (Egypt), sugar cane.
Breeding remains important for food, for the supply of raw materials (wool, leather) and for transport (camels, dromedaries, horses). Sheep are present everywhere but buffalo farming is developing (marshes of lower Iraq or Orontes). Small poultry, pigeon and bee farms are in high demand. The people’s diet is predominantly vegetarian (rice cake, wheat porridge, vegetables and fruits).
A number of industries will emerge from this agro-industrial revolution, including the first textile factories, the production of ropes, silk and, as noted above, the manufacture of paper. Finally, metalworking, glassware, ceramics, tooling and crafts also experience high levels of growth during this period.
Charlemagne, Baghdad and China
Finally, in the eighth and ninth centuries, seeking to counter the Omayyad and the Byzantine Empire, Abbasid and Carolingian Franks conclude several agreements and alliances.
Three diplomatic missions were sent by Charlemagne to the court of Hâroun al-Rachîd and the latter sent at least two embassies to Charlemagne. The caliph sent him many gifts, such as spices, fabrics, an elephant and an automatic clock, described in the Frankish Royal Annals of 807. It marked the 12 hours with copper balls falling on a plate at each hour, and also had twelve horsemen who appeared in turn at the same intervals.
The same caliph sent a diplomatic mission to Chang’an (now called Xi’an), capital of the Tang dynasty. Chang’an being the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, the western market of Chang’an became the center of world trade. According to the record of the Tang Six Authority, more than 300 nations and regions had trade relations with Chang’an.
Maritime Silk Road
These diplomatic relations with China were contemporary with the maritime expansion of the Muslim world into the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Apart from the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, navigable rivers were uncommon, so transport by sea was very important. The ships of the caliphate began to sail from Siraf, the port of Basra, to India, the Straits of Malacca and Southeast Asia.
Arab merchants dominated trade in the Indian Ocean until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Hormuz was an important center for this trade. There was also a dense network of trade routes in the Mediterranean, along which Muslim countries traded with each other and with European powers such as Venice or Genoa.
The Silk Road crossing Central Asia passed through the Abbasid caliphate between China and Europe. At that time, Canton, or Khanfu in Arabic, a port of 200,000 people in southern China, had a large community of traders from Muslim countries. And when the Chinese Emperor Yongle decided to send his famous flotilla of ships to Africa, he chose Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433), a court eunuch who was born a Muslim. And when in 1497 the Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama reached the Kenyan city of Malindi, he was able to obtain an Arab pilot who took him directly to Kozhikode (Calicut) in India. In short, a sailor who knew how to navigate on the stars.
Scientific and cultural renaissance
Thus, it is under the caliphate of Hâroun al-Rachîd and his son Al-Ma’mûn, that Baghdad and the Abbasids will experience a real golden age, both in the sciences (philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, etc.) and in the arts (architecture, poetry, music, painting, etc.). For the British writer Jim Al-Khalili, “the fusion of Greek rationalism and Mutazilite Islam will give rise to a humanist movement of a type that will hardly be seen before 15th century Italy.”
In the field of sciences, an assimilation of Hellenistic, Indian and Persian astronomical doctrines took place very early. Several Sanskrit [*5] and Pehlevi [*6] writings were translated into Arabic.
Indian works by the astronomer Aryabhata (476-560), a prominent scientist of the Indian Gupta Renaissance, and the mathematician Brahmagupta (590-668) were cited early on by their Arabic counterparts. A famous translation into Arabic appeared around 777 under the title Zij al-Sindhind (or Indian Astronomical Tables). Sources indicate that this text was translated after the trip of an Indian astronomer invited to the court of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur in 770. The Arabs also adopted the sines (inherited from Indian mathematics) which they preferred to the chords used by Greek astronomers. From the same period, a collection of astronomical chronicles compiled over two centuries in Sassanid Persia and known in Arabic as the Zij al-Shah (or Royal Tables).
In the field of music, the Persian-born Arab musician Ishaq al-Mawsili (767-850), among others, can be mentioned. A composer of about two hundred songs, he was also a virtuoso on the oud (a kind of lute with a short neck but no frets). He is credited with the first system of codification of learned Arabic music.
Respecting the visual arts, let us first stress that, contrary to the prevailing opinion, the Koran does not prohibit figurative images. There is no explicitly stated and universally accepted “ban” on images of living figures in Islamic legal texts. On the other hand, Islam, like other major religions, condemns the worship of idols.
From the eighth to the fifteenth century, numerous historical and poetic texts, both Sunni and Shi’a, many of which appeared in Turkish and Persian contexts, include admirable depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The purpose of these images was not only to praise and pay homage to the Prophet, but represent occasions and central elements for the practice of Muslim faith.
In this respect, the book by the German art historian Hans Belting with the catchy title Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance Art and Arab Science (2011) is not only misleading but downright outrageous. Belting presents “Islam” as an aniconic faith (banning all human and animal representations), while in reality, besides exquisite calligraphy and geometric patterns in search for the infinite, representations of men and animals are an essential part of Islamic artistic expression.
In addition, other religions have experienced strong outbreaks of iconoclasm. For example, and this is one of the reasons why so little is known about ancient Greek painting, between 726 and 843, the Byzantine Empire ordered the systematic destruction of images representing Christ or the saints, whether they were mosaics adorning church walls, painted images or book illuminations.
From there on, Belting, for whom Islam is in essence an aniconic civilization, has great difficulty in demonstrating what he announces in the title: the influence of Arab science (notably Ibn al-Haytam work on human vision) on the Renaissance in Florence (in particular its definition of “geometric perspective”). In fact, presenting himself as an erudite, peaceful and “objective” scholar, Belting’s book feeds into the bellicose thesis of a supposed “Clash” of civilizations, while claiming the opposite.
The first manifestations of pictorial art in the Arab-Muslim world date back to the Omayyad period (660-750). It is from this period that date the famous “desert castles”, such as Qusayr ‘Amra, in Eastern Jordan. Covered with wall paintings, these palaces reflect a contribution of the Byzantine, but also Persian Sassanid modes of representation. Thus, in the palace of Qusayr ‘Amra, used as a resort by the Caliph or his princes for sport and pleasure, the frescoes depict constellations of the zodiac, hunting scenes, fruits and women in the bath.
In the field of literature, Al-Rashid built up a vast library including a collection of rare books as well as thousands of books that kings and princes of the ancient world offered him.
For example, Kalila and Dimna, also known as the Indian Fables of Bidpaï, one of the most popular works of world literature. Compiled in Sanskrit nearly two thousand years ago, these animal fables, from which Aesop and La Fontaine drew, were translated from China to Ethiopia. Translated into Arabic around 750 by Ibn al-Muqaffa, they were richly illustrated in the Arab, Persian and Turkish worlds. The oldest illustrated Arabic version was probably produced in Syria in the 1200s. The landscape is symbolized by a few elements: a strip of grass, shrubs with stylized leaves and flowers. Men and animals are represented with bright colors and simplified lines.
A true manual for the education for kings, one of the fables evokes the idea,
of creating a university dedicated to the study of languages,
ancient and modern, and to the preservation,
in renewed forms, of the heritage of the human species…
And at the end of his story, the wise Bidpaï warns the young king Dabschelim:
“I must emphasize this last point: my stories require, at this stage, no extra commentary, wretched imaginings, or vapid guesswork by you, me, or anyone else. The very worst habit would be that of moralizing away the effective substance. Thus the urge to tag tidy little rationalizations, persuasive formulas, intellectual summaries, symbolical labels, or nay other convenient pigeon-holing device, mus be steadfastly resisted. Mental encapsulation perverts the medecine, rendering it impotent. It amount to a bypass around the story’s true destination; to explain away is to forget. It is also a type of hypocrisy – poisonous, an antidote to truth. Thus, let the stories which you can remember do their own work by their very diversity. Familiarize yourself with them, but fiddle with them not.”
Also noteworthy is The Sessions of the poet and man of letters Al-Hariri (1054-1122) [*7], written at the end of the tenth century and which had a tremendous diffusion throughout the Arab world. The text, which recounts the adventures of the brigand Abu Zayd, is particularly suitable for illustration.
Al-Ma’mûn and the Houses of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma)
After a violent dispute with his brother who sought to remove him from power, Al-Ma’mûn, the youngest son of Al-Rashid, became the eighth Abbasid caliph in 813. He was particularly interested in the work of scholars, especially those who knew Greek. He gathered in Baghdad thinkers of all beliefs, whom he treated magnificently and with the greatest tolerance. They all wrote in Arabic, a language that allowed them to understand each other. He brought manuscripts from Byzantium to enrich the vast library of his father. Open to scholars, translators, poets, historians, physicians, astronomers, scientists and philosophers, this first public library became the basis of the Bayt Al-Hikma (the “Houses of Wisdom”) combining translation, teaching, research and even public health activities, long before the Western universities. It was here that all known scientific manuscripts of the time, especially Greek writings, were gathered for study.
In Baghdad, this cultural bubbling will not remain confined to the Court but will go down to the street as this description of Baghdad by Ibn Aqul (died in 1119) testifies:
“First there is the large space called the Bridge Square. Then the Birds’ Market, a market where one can find all kinds of flowers and on the sides of which are the elegant stores of the money changers. (…) Then the caterers’ market, the bakers’ market, the butchers’ market, the goldsmiths’ market, unrivaled for the beauty of its architecture: high buildings with teak beams, supporting corbelled rooms. Then there is the huge booksellers’ market, which is also the gathering place for scholars and poets, and the Rusafa market. In the markets of Karkh and the Gate of the Ark, the perfumers do not mix with the merchants of grease and products with unpleasant smells; in the same way the merchants of new objects do not mix with the merchants of used objects.”
Persia, the Nestorians and medicine
As a model for the Houses of Wisdom, the Persian influence and precedents are often mentioned. It is true that the Barmakids, a family of Persian origin [*8], had a great influence on the first Abbasid caliphs.
In fact, al-Ma’mûn’s tutor was Jafar ben Yahya Barmaki (767-803), a member of the family of the Armenians and the son of the Persian vizier of his father Al-Rashid. The Persian elite who advised the Abbasid caliphs took a keen interest in the works of the Greeks, whose translation had begun during the reign of the Sassanid king Khosro I Anushirvan (531-579).
The latter founded the Academy of Medicine in Gondichapur. Many Nestorian (Christian) scribes and scholars had taken refuge there after the Council of Ephesus in 431. [*9]
The liturgical language of the Nestorians was Syriac, a Semitic dialect [*10].
Like the Jews, these Nestorian Christians possessed a cosmopolitan culture and a knowledge of languages (Syriac and Persian) that enabled them to act as intermediaries between Iran and its neighbors. And thanks to their access to the wisdom of ancient Greece, they were often employed as physicians. [*11]
The Academy of Medicine of Gondichapur [*12] had reached its peak in the 5th century thanks to the Syriac scholars expelled from Edessa. In this school, medicine was taught based on the translations of the Greek scholar and physician Claudius Galen. These teachings were put into practice in a large hospital, a tradition taken up in the Muslim world. This school was a meeting place for Greek, Syriac, Persian and Indian scholars, whose scientific influence was mutual. Heir to the Greek medical knowledge of Alexandria, the school of Gondichapur trained several generations of physicians at the court of the Sassanid and later at that of the Muslim Abbasid. As early as 765, the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur, who reigned from 754 to 775, consulted the head of the Gondichapur hospital, Georgios ben Bakhtichou, and invited him to Baghdad. His descendants will work and teach medicine there. Long after the establishment of Islam, the Arab elites sent their sons to this Nestorian Christian school.
Timothy I (727-823) was the Christian patriarch of the Church of the East (“Nestorian”) between 780 and 823. His first decision was to establish the seat of his church in Baghdad, where it was to remain until the end of the thirteenth century, thus forging privileged links between the Nestorians and the Abbasid caliphs. A man with a good command of Syriac, Arabic, Greek and eventually Pehlevi, Timothy enjoyed the consideration of the Abbasid caliphs Al-Mahdi, Al-Rashid and Al-Ma’mûn.
During his forty-three years of pontificate, the Eastern Church lived in peace. Moreover, the Nestorians played a major role in the spread of Christianity in Central Asia as far as China via the Silk Road. In Central Asia, before the arrival of Islam, it was Sogdian, (the Iranian language of Sogdia and its capital Samarkand) that served as the lingua franca on the Silk Road. [*13]
Translating, understanding, teaching, improving
In Baghdad and Basra, in the Houses of Wisdom, the histories and texts collected after the collapse of the empire of Alexander the Great were translated and made available to scholars, texts initially collated and translated from Syriac into Persian under the aegis of the Sassanid emperors.
The Arab historian and economist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who came from a large Andalusian family of Yemeni origin, paid tribute to this effort to preserve and disseminate the Greek heritage: “What happened to the sciences of the Persians whose writings, at the time of the conquest, were annihilated by order of Omar? Where are the sciences of the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the inhabitants of Babylon? Where are the sciences that reigned among the Copts in the past? There is only one nation, that of the Greeks, whose scientific productions we possess exclusively, and that is thanks to the care that Al-Ma’mûn took in translating these works.”
These first translations into Arabic made available to the Arab-Muslim world hundreds of texts on philosophy, medicine, logic, mathematics, astronomy, music, etc., from Greek, Pehlevi, Syriac, Hebrew, Sanskrit, etc, including those of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Sushruta, Hippocrates, Euclid, Charaka, Ptolemy, Claudius Galen, Plotinus, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta.
They were accompanied by reflections, commentaries, translations of commentaries, etc. and gave rise to a new form of literature. According to the Nestorian patriarch Timothy I, it was at the request of the Caliph Al-Mahdi that he translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic. He also wrote a treatise on astronomy entitled The Book of Stars, now lost.
An astrology and astronomy enthusiast, Al-Ma’mûn once made it a condition of peace with the Byzantine Empire to hand over a copy of the Almagest, Ptolemy’s main work, which was supposed to summarize all Greek astronomical knowledge. In 829, in the upper district of Baghdad, he built the first permanent observatory in the world, the Baghdad Observatory, allowing his astronomers, who had translated the Astronomical Treatise of the Greek Hipparchus of Nicaea (190-120 B.C.), as well as his star register, to methodically monitor the movement of the planets.
Here is what Sâ’id al-Andalusî (1029-1070) tells us about Al-Ma’mûn’s interest in astronomy and his efforts to advance it:
“As soon as Al-Ma’mûn became caliph, his noble soul made every effort to attain wisdom, and to this end he was particularly concerned with philosophy; moreover, the scholars of his time studied in depth a book by Ptolemy and understood the diagrams of a telescope that was drawn therein. So Al-Ma’mûn gathered all the great scholars present throughout the regions of the caliphate, and he asked them to build the same kind of instrument so that they could observe the planets in the same way as Ptolemy had done and those who had preceded him. The object was built and the scholars brought it to the city of al-Shamâsiyya in the region of Damascus in the Sham in the year 214 AH (829 AD). Through their observations they determined the exact duration of a solar year as well as the inclination of the sun, the exit of its center and the situation of its various faces, which allowed them to know the state and positions of the other planets. Then the death of the caliph al-Ma’mûn in 218 A.H. (833) put an end to this project, but they nevertheless completed the astronomical telescope and named it ‘the Ma’mûn telescope’”
Now, let me present you a short list of the main astronomers, mathematicians, thinkers, scholars and translators who frequented the Houses of Wisdom:
—Al-Jahiz (776-867). The encyclopedic approach of this Mutazilite is conceived as « a necklace gathering pearls » or as a garden which, with its plants, its harmonious organization and its fountains, represents in miniature the whole universe. He sketches the principle of the evolution of species;
—Al-Khwarizmi (780-850), (in Latin Algorithmus). This Persian mathematician and astronomer, according to some a Zoroastrian converted to Islam, would have been a follower of mutazilism. He is best known for having invented the method of solving mathematical problems, which is still used today and which is called algorithm. He studied for some time in Baghdad but it is also reported that he made a trip to India. Al Khawarizmi invented the word algebra (from the Arabic word j-b-r, meaning force, beat or multiply), introduced the Indian numerical system to the Muslim world, institutionalized the decimal system in mathematics, and formalized the testing of scientific hypotheses based on observations;
—Sahl Rabban al-Tabari (786-845), a Jewish astronomer and physician whose name means “The son of the rabbi of Tabaristan”. His son Ali was the tutor of al-Razi (865-925). An alchemist who became a physician, he is said to have isolated sulfuric acid and ethanol and was among the first to advocate their medical use. He greatly influenced the conception of hospital organization in connection with the training of future doctors. He was the object of much criticism for his opposition to Aristotelianism;
—Al-Hajjaj (786-823) made the first Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements from Greek. He also translated Ptolemy’s Almagest;
—Al-Kindi (801-873) (known as Alkindus), considered the father of Arab philosophy, was a mutazilist. He was a prolific author (about 260 books) and explored all fields: geometry, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, physics, arithmetic, logic, music and psychology. Along with his colleagues, Al-Kindi was entrusted with the translation of the manuscripts of Greek scholars. After the death of Al-Ma’mun in 833, he was considered too much of a mutazilist, fell into disgrace and his library was confiscated;
—The Banu Musa (“children of Moses”) brothers, three brilliant sons of a deceased astrologer, friend of the Caliph. Mohammed will work on astronomy; Ahmed and Hassan on the canals linking the Euphrates to the Tigris, a guarantee of the control and optimization of their respective floods. They published the Book of Ingenious Mechanisms, an inventory of new techniques and machines [*14];
—Hunayn ibn Ishâk (808-873) (known as Iohannitius). This Nestorian Christian was entrusted by Al-Ma’mun with the task of overseeing the quality of translations; a physician, he translated some of the works of the Greek physician Claudius Galen;
—Thabit ibn Qurra (836-901), a Syrian astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and musicologist;
—Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), a Greek Byzantine physician, also a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, naturalist and translator. A Christian of the Melkite Church, he spoke both Greek (his mother tongue) and Arabic, as well as Syriac. Considered, along with Hunayn ibn Ishaq, as one of the key figures in the transmission of Greek knowledge from Antiquity to the Arab-Muslim world. He was the translator of Aristarchus of Samos for whom the Earth revolved around the Sun and the author of a treatise on the astrolabe;
—Ibn Sahl (940-1000), in the footsteps of Al-Kindi, wrote a treatise on burning mirrors and lenses around 984, explaining how they can focus light on a point. His work was perfected by Ibn Al-Haytam (965-1040) (Latin name: Alhazen), whose writings reached as far as Leonardo da Vinci, via the Commentaries of Ghiberti. In Ibn-Sahl, we find the first mention of the law of refraction, later rediscovered in Europe as the law of Snell-Descartes.
Drawn into Bagdad for the opportunities it offered, these scholars generally worked in teams in a totally interdisciplinary spirit. Al-Ma’mûn, monitoring the science projets and noting the contradictions that arose from the translations of Greek, Persian and Indian sources, fixed with the scholars the next great scientific challenges to be met:
–To obtain, thanks to more efficient astronomical observatories, tables of astronomical ephemerides [*15] of greater precision than those of Ptolemy;
–To calculate with precision the circumference of the Earth with more advanced methods than those of the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes (3rd century BC);
–Produce a world map integrating the latest geographical knowledge concerning the distances between cities and the size of the continents;
–Deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs that Al-Ma’mûn had discovered during his trip to Egypt.
Translations of Plato
By asserting that what had advanced science at this period was the rediscovery of Aristotle and his purely empiricist method, one forgets the rediscovery of Plato, whose dialectical and hypothetical method has often done more for science than blind empiricism.
Al-Kindi’s intense involvement in the Platonic tradition is reflected in his summaries of the Apology and the Crito, and in his own works that paraphrase the Phaedo or are inspired by the Meno and the Symposium. The Syrian scientist Ibn al-Bitriq, a member of Al-Kindi’s “circle” in Bagdad, translated the Timaeus.
Otherwise, the House of Wisdom’s top translator, Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his circle translated the Greek physician Claudius Galen’s commentaries on the Timaeus, especially his On what Plato said in the Timaeus in a medical way and his On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato. And from Hunayn’s own works, we know that some of his students translated Galen’s lost Greek summaries of Plato’s Cratylus, Sophist, Parmenides, Euthydemus, Republic and Laws. Finally, the physician al-Razi presented and commented on Plutarch’s treatise On the Generation of the Soul in the Timaeus.
possible for some, complicated for others
In the West, the name of Al-Kindi is best known in association with The Apology of Al-Kindi, an anonymous text of the time. It is probably a fictitious dialogue between two believers, one Muslim (Abdallah Al-Hashimi), the other Christian (Al-Kindi), both criticizing the other’s and praising one’s own religion and inviting the other to join him! This dialogue supposedly took place at the time of the caliph Al-Ma’mûn. What we know about the open-mindedness of the Caliph does not contradict this assertion. The earliest known mention of the existence of this Apology came to us from Al-Biruni (973-1048).
The manuscript of Al-Kindi’s Apology was translated into Latin in 1142 at the request of Peter the Venerable (1092-1156), grand abbot of the abbey of Cluny, the most powerful and important in Latin Europe. That same year, after visiting Toledo, he conceived the idea of a systematic refutation of the Muslim religion, which he considered heretical and errant.
Here is how he explains the translation he has just ordered of the Koran (the Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete) by a team of translators (including an Arab) brought together for the occasion:
“Whether one gives the Mohammedan error the shameful name of heresy or the infamous one of paganism, one must act against it, that is, write. But the Latins and especially the moderns, the ancient culture perishing, according to the word of the Jews who once admired the polyglot apostles, do not know any other language than that of their native land. So they could neither recognize the enormity of this error nor stop it. So my heart was inflamed and a fire burned in my meditation. I was indignant that the Latins did not know the cause of such a perdition and their ignorance robbed them of the power to resist it; for no one answered, for no one knew. So I went to find specialists in the Arabic language which has allowed this deadly poison to infest more than half the globe. I persuaded them, by dint of prayers and money, to translate from Arabic into Latin the history and doctrine of this wretched man and his very law, which is called Koran”.
Accused hence “the Arabic language which allowed this deadly poison (Islam) to infest more than half of the globe”…
This declaration of war was undoubtedly required to motivate his troops. Let us recall that Eudes de Châtillon, the grand prior of the abbey of Cluny, who will become Pope Urban II in 1088, will be, in 1095, at the origin of the first crusade sending the bandits who ravaged France, to go and wage war elsewhere.
The decline and Al-Ghazali
Let us return to the Abbasids. As we have said, with the arrival in power of Al-Mutawakkil in 847, mutazilism was removed from power and the Houses of Wisdom were reduced to simple libraries. This did not prevent a traveller, describing his visit to Baghdad in 891, from reporting that the city contained more than one hundred public libraries. Following the Bayt Al-Hikma model, small libraries were founded on every street corner of the city…
Entangled in endless theological debates between experts and won by sectarianism, the mutazilist elite cut itself off from a people who were losing confidence and eventually welcomed with a sense of relief the obscurantist doctrine of Al-Ghâzalî (1058-1111) (Latin name: Algazel), the worst enemy of the mutazilites.
Al-Ghâzalî proposed a radical solution: philosophy is only right when it agrees with religion – which, according to Al-Ghâzalî, is rare. This leads him to radicalize his position, and to attack more and more the Greco-Arab philosophy, guilty, in his eyes, of blasphemy.
Where someone like the Persian Ibn Sina (980-1037) (Latin name: Avicenna), author of the Canons or Precepts of Medicine (around 1020), crossed Greek philosophy and Muslim religion, Al-Ghazali wanted to filter the first through the second.
Hence his most famous and important work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, written in 1095. In it, he denounces the “pride” of the philosophers who claim to “rewrite the Koran” through Plato and Aristotle. Their error is above all a logical one, as the title of the book itself indicates, which underlines their “incoherence”: they want to complete the Koran with Greek philosophy, whereas the Koran comes later in history and therefore does not need to be completed. He therefore promotes a much more literal approach to the Koranic text, whereas Ibn Sina defended, cautiously it is true, a metaphorical approach. In truth, it is Aristotelianism and nominalism that triumph. The doctrine opposing Mutazilism became known as Ash’arism.
For Ascharites, to speak of God’s justice and rationality is a double blasphemy, because it amounts to limiting his omnipotence. If God were, as the Mutazilites say, compelled to will what is good, then he would be … compelled, which the Ascharites find theologically unacceptable. Therefore, believers should not admit the idea that God wills good, but submit to the principle that whatever he wills is good because he wills it.
Similarly, it is blasphemous to look for « second causes » in nature, i.e. scientific laws. The world exists because God, at every moment, wants it to exist. Any scientific research, any attempt to apply reason and analysis, is an offense to the divine omnipotence.
For Sébastien Castellion, the rejection of reason by the Ascharite school – and subsequently by much of Muslim civilization – was not an implicit and subterranean process, but an explicit decision based on theological principles. The great jurist Ibn Hanbal, whose school is predominant in Saudi Arabia today, said that « all those who indulge in reasoning by analogy and personal opinions are heretics (…). Accept only, without asking why and without making comparisons. »
The fall of Bagdad
From the eleventh century onward, the Abbasid, whose Empire was fragmenting, called upon the Turkish Seljuk princes to protect them against the Shiites, supported by the Fatimid caliphate of Cairo. Gradually, the Turkish and Mongol troops, coming from Central Asia, ended up governing the security of the Abbasid caliph while letting him exercise his religious power.
Then, in 1258, they deposed the last caliph and confiscated his title of successor of the Prophet, which gave them religious power over the four schools of Sunnism. In order to subdue the Arab and Persian populations, the Seljuk Turks created the madrasa (Koranic school) where the conservative doctrine of Acharite Sunnism was taught to the exclusion of the dialectical Mutazilite theology, considered an ideological threat to Turkish authority over the Arabs.
The Abbasid Empire declined as a result of administrative negligence, abandonment of canal maintenance, flood-induced famine, social injustice, slave revolts, and religious tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. At the end of the 9th century, the Zendj, black slaves (from Zanzibar) who worked in the marshes of the lower Iraq, revolted several times, even occupying Basra and threatening Baghdad. The Caliph restored order at the cost of an unprecedentedly violent repression. The rebels were only crushed in 883 at the cost of many victims. The empire did not recover.
In 1019, the Caliph forbade any new interpretation of the Koran, radically opposing the Mutazilite school. This is a brutal stop to the development of critical thinking and intellectual and scientific innovations in the Arab Empire, the consequences of which are still felt today.
Since the dawn of time (it is the case to say it), man has tried to understand the organization of the stars in the environment near the Earth.
Installations such as Stonehenge (2800 BC) in England allowed the first observers to identify the cycles that determine the place and the exact day when certain stars rise. All these observations posed paradoxes: around us, the earth appears relatively flat, but the Moon or the Sun that we perceive with the same eyes seem spherical. The Sun « rises » and « sets », our senses tell us, but where is the reality?
It seems that Thales of Miletus (625-547 BC) was the first to have really wondered about the shape of the Earth. He thought that the Earth was shaped like a flat disk on a vast expanse of water. Then Pythagoras and Plato imagined a spherical shape, which they considered more beautiful and rational. Finally Aristotle reported some observational evidence such as the rounded shape of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during eclipses.
The Greek scientist Eratosthenes (276 BC- 194 BC), chief librarian of the Alexandria library, then calculated the Earth’s circumference. He had noticed that at noon, on the day of the summer solstice, there was no shadow on the side of Aswan. By measuring the shadow of a stick planted in Alexandria at the same time and knowing the distance between the two cities, he deduced the circumference of the Earth with a rather astonishing accuracy: 39,375 kilometers against some 40,000 kilometers for current estimates.
Between Ptolemy’s Almagest and Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, as we have said, Arabic astronomy constitutes “the missing link”.
The original title of Ptolemy’s work is The Mathematical Composition. The Arabs, very impressed by this work, called it “megiste”, from the Greek meaning “very great”, to which they added the Arabic article “al”, to give “al megiste” which became Almageste.
It is important to know that Ptolemy never had the opportunity to re-read his treatise as a whole. After writing the first of the thirteen books of his work, the one on “The Fundamental Postulates of Astronomy”, Ptolemy passed it on to copyists who reproduced it and distributed it widely without waiting for the completion of the other twelve books…
In the end, confronted with observations that called into question his own observations and in order to rectify his errors, Ptolemy wrote another work, after the Almagest, entitled Planetary Hypotheses. The author returned to the models presented in the Almagest while making modifications to the average motions (of the planets) to take into account the latest observations. However, his Planetary Hypotheses went beyond the mathematical model of the Almagest to present a physical realization of the universe as a set of nested spheres, in which he used the epicycles of his planetary model to calculate the dimensions of the universe. Finally, the Almagest also contains a description of 1022 stars grouped into 48 constellations.
Ptolemy also presents stereographic projection invented by Hipparchus, the theoretical basis for the construction of the astrolabe by Arab astronomers.
In the ninth century, when the Arabs became interested in astronomy, knowledge was based on the following principles summarized in the work of Ptolemy:
–Ignoring the assertions of Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) for whom the Earth revolved around the Sun, Ptolemy resumed in the second century AD the thesis of Eudoxus of Cnidus (approx. 400-355 BC) and especially Hipparchus (180 to 125 BC) to assert that the Earth is a motionless sphere placed at the center of the world (geocentrism);
–Ptolemy agreed with Plato, who was inspired by Pythagoras, that the circle was the only perfect form, and that the other bodies turning around the Earth did so according to circular and uniform trajectories (without acceleration or deceleration);
–Yet everyone knew that some planets do not follow these perfect rules. In the 6th century, the neo-Platonic philosopher Simplicius, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, wrote: “Plato then poses this problem to the mathematicians: what are the uniform and perfectly regular circular motions that should be taken as hypotheses, so that we can save the appearances that the wandering stars present?” ;
–In order to account for the « apparent retrograde motion » of Mars, Hipparchus will introduce other secondary perfect figures, again circles. The articulation and interaction of these “epicycles” gave the appearance of sticking with the observed facts. Ptolemy took up this approach;
–However, the more the precision of astronomical measurements improved, the more anomalies were discovered and the more it was necessary to multiply these interlocking “epicycles”. It quickly became very complicated and inextricable;
–The universe is divided into a sub-lunar region where everything is created and therefore perishable, and the rest of the universe, supra-lunar, which is imperishable and eternal.
Hipparchus of Nicea
The Arab astronomers, for both religious and intellectual reasons that we mentioned at the beginning of this article, initially discovered and then, on the basis of increasingly detailed observations, challenged Hipparchus’ hypotheses, which were the basis of the Ptolemaic model.
Hipparchus imagined a system of coordinates for the stars based on longitudes and latitudes. We also owe him the use of parallels and meridians to locate the Earth as well as the division of the circumference into 360° inherited from the sexagesimal calculation (base 60) of the Babylonians.
In astronomy, his works on the rotation of the Earth and the planets are numerous. Hipparchus explains the mechanism of the seasons by noting the obliquity of the ecliptic: the inclination of the Earth’s axis of rotation. By comparing his observations with older ones, he discovered the precession of the equinoxes due to this tilt: the Earth’s axis of rotation makes a conical movement from East to West and of revolution 26,000 years. Thus in a few millennia, the North Pole will no longer be found with the North Star (Polaris) but with another star, Vega.
Based on Hipparchus, the Arabs perfected and fabricated an important instrument for measuring positions: the astrolabe. This “mathematical jewel” allows to measure the position of stars, planets, to know the time on Earth. Later, the astrolabe was replaced by more precise and easier to use instruments, such as the quadrant, the sextant or the octant.
With the manuscripts at their disposal in the Houses of Wisdom and the observatories of Baghdad and Damascus, the Arab astronomers had texts of an incredible richness but often in flagrant contradiction with their own observations of the movements of the Moon and the Sun. It is from this confrontation that later discoveries were born. The Arabs introduced a lot of mathematics to solve problems, especially trigonometry and algebra.
The Arab astronomers
In order to present the main Arab astronomers and their contributions, here is an excerpt from J. P. Maratray’s remarkable article L’astronomie arabe.
—Al-Khwarizmi (783-850) called Algorithmi.
A mathematician, geographer and astronomer of Persian origin, he was a member of the « House of Wisdom ». He is one of the founders of Arab mathematics, inspired by Indian knowledge, in particular the decimal system, fractions, square roots… He is credited with the term “algorithm”. Algorithms are known since antiquity, and the name of Al-Khwarizmi (Algorithmi in Latin) will be given to these sequences of repeated elementary operations. He is also the author of the term “algebra”, which is the title of one of his works on the subject. He was also the first to use the letter x to designate an unknown in an equation. He wrote the first book of algebra (al-jabr) in which he described a systematic method of solving second degree equations and proposed a classification of these equations. He introduced the use of numbers that we still use today. These “Arabic” numbers are in fact of Indian origin, but were used mathematically by Al-Khwarizmi. He adopted the use of the zero, invented by the Indians in the 5th century, and adopted by the Arabs through him. The Arabs will translate the Indian word “sunya” by “as-sifr”, which becomes “ziffer” and “zephiro”. Ziffer will give “number”, and zephiro, “zero”. Al-Khwarizmi established astronomical tables (position of the five planets, the Sun and the Moon) based on Hindu and Greek astronomy. He studied the position and visibility of the Moon and its eclipses, the Sun and the planets. It is the first completely Arabic astronomical work. A crater of the Moon bears his name.
—Al-Farghani (805-880) called Alfraganus (mentioned in Dante’s Commedia).
Born in Ferghana in present-day Uzbekistan, he wrote in 833 the Elements of Astronomy, based on the Greek knowledge of Ptolemy. He was one of the most remarkable astronomers in the service of Al-Ma’mûn, and a member of the House of Wisdom. He introduced new ideas, such as the fact that the precession of the equinoxes must affect the position of the planets, and not only that of the stars. His work was translated into Latin in the 12th century, and had a great impact on the very closed circles of Western European astronomers. He determined the diameter of the Earth, which he estimated at 10500 km. We also owe him a work on sundials and another on the astrolabe.
—Al-Battani (850-929) called Albatenius.
He observed the sky from Syria. He is sometimes called “the Ptolemy of the Arabs”. His measurements are remarkably accurate. He determined the length of the solar year, the value of the precession of the equinoxes, the inclination of the ecliptic. He noted that the eccentricity of the Sun is variable, without going so far as to interpret this phenomenon as an elliptical trajectory. He wrote a catalog of 489 stars. We owe him the first use of trigonometry in the study of the sky. It is a much more powerful method than the geometrical one of Ptolemy. His main work is The Book of Tables. It is composed of 57 chapters. Translated into Latin in 1116 by Plato of Tivoli, it will greatly influence the European astronomers of the Renaissance.
—Al-Soufi (903-986) known as Azophi.
Persian astronomer, he translated Greek works including the Almagest and improved the estimates of the magnitudes of stars. In 964, he published « The Book of Fixed Stars », where he drew constellations. He seems to have been the first to report an observation of the large Magellanic cloud (a nebula), visible in Yemen, but not in Isfahan. Similarly, we owe him a first representation of the Andromeda galaxy, probably already observed before him. He described it as « a small cloud » in the mouth of the Arabian constellation of the Great Fish. Its name (Azophi) was given to a crater on the Moon.
—Al-Khujandi (circa 940- circa 1000).
He was a Persian astronomer and mathematician. He built an observatory in Ray, near Tehran, with a huge sextant, constructed in 994. It is the first instrument able to measure angles more precise than the minute of angle. He measures with this instrument the obliquity of the ecliptic, by observing the meridian passages of the Sun. He found 23° 32′ 19 ». Ptolemy found 23° 51′, and the Indians, much earlier, 24°. The idea of the natural variation of this angle never occurred to the Arabs. They discussed for a long time about the accuracy of the measurements, which made their science advance.
—Ibn Al-Haytam (965-1039) called Alhazen.
A mathematician and optician born in Basra in present-day Iraq, he was asked by the Egyptian authorities to solve the problem of the Nile floods. His solution was the construction of a dam towards Aswan. He gave up in front of the enormity of the task (the dam was finally built in 1970!). Faced with this “failure”, he feigned madness until the death of his boss. He made a critical assessment of Ptolemy’s theses and those of his predecessors, and wrote Doubts on Ptolemy. He draws up a catalog of the inconsistencies, without however proposing an alternative solution. Among the inconsistencies he noted were the variation in the apparent diameter of the Moon and the Sun, the non-uniformity of the allegedly circular motions, the variation in the position of the planets in latitude, the organization of the Greek spheres. Observing that the Milky Way has no parallax, he placed it very far from the Earth, in any case further away than Aristotle’s sub-lunar sphere. Despite his doubts, he maintains the central place of the Earth in the universe. Ibn Al-Haytam takes up the work of Greek scholars, from Euclid to Ptolemy, for whom the notion of light is closely linked to the notion of vision: the main question being whether the eye has a passive role in this process or whether it sends a kind of fluid to “interrogate” the object. Through his studies of the mechanism of vision, Ibn Al-Haytam showed that the two eyes were an optical instrument, and that they actually saw two separate images. If the eye sent this fluid, one could see at night, he speculated. He understood that the sunlight reflected off the objects and then entered the eye. But for him, the image is formed on the lens… He took up Ptolemy’s ideas on the rectilinear propagation of light, accepted the laws of reflection on a mirror, and sensed that light has a finite, but very great speed. He studied refraction, the deviation of a light ray as it passes from one medium to another, and predicted a change in the speed of light as it passes. But he could never calculate the angle of refraction. He found that the phenomenon of twilight is related to the refraction of sunlight in the atmosphere, which he tried to measure the height, without success. Already known in antiquity, we owe him a very precise description and the use for experimental purposes of the dark room (camera obscura), a black room that projects an image on a wall through a small hole drilled in the opposite wall. The result of all this optical research is recorded in his Treatise on Optics, which took him six years to write and was translated into Latin in 1270. [*16] In mechanics, he asserted that an object in motion continues to move as long as no force stops it. This is the principle of inertia before the letter. An asteroid bears his name: 59239 Alhazen.
Certainly one of the greatest scholars of medieval Islam, originally from Persia, he was interested in astronomy, geography, history, medicine and mathematics, and philosophy in general. He wrote more than 100 works. He was also a tax collector and a great traveler, especially in India, where he studied language, religion and science. At the age of 17, he calculated the latitude of his native town of Kath (in Persia, now in Uzbekistan). At the age of 22, he had already written several short works, including one on cartography. In astronomy, he observed the eclipses of the Moon and the Sun. He is one of the first to evaluate the errors on his measurements and those of his predecessors. He noticed a difference between the average speed and the apparent speed of a star. He measured the radius of the Earth at 6339.6 km (the correct figure is 6378 km), a result used in Europe in the 16th century. During his travels, he met Indian astronomers who supported heliocentrism and the rotation of the Earth on its axis. He will always be skeptical, because this theory implies the movement of the Earth. But he will ask himself the question: « Here is a problem difficult to solve and to refute ». He believes that this theory does not lead to any mathematical problems. He refuted astrology, arguing that this discipline is more conjectural than experimental. In mathematics, he developed the calculation of proportions (rule of three), demonstrated that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is irrational (future number Pi), calculated trigonometric tables, and developed methods of geodesic triangulations.
—Ali Ibn Ridwan (988-1061).
Egyptian astronomer and astrologer, he wrote several astronomical and astrological works, including a commentary on another book of Claudius Ptolemy, the Tetrabible. He observed and commented on a supernova (SN 1006), probably the brightest in history. Its magnitude is estimated today, according to the testimonies that have come down to us, at -7.5! It remained visible for more than a year. He explains that this new star had two to three times the apparent diameter of Venus, a quarter of the brightness of the Moon, and that it was low on the southern horizon. Other western observations corroborate this description, and place it in the constellation of the Wolf.
—From the 11th to the 16th century.
After a first phase, more important observatories were built. The first of them, model of the following ones, is that of Maragheh, in the current Iran. Their purpose was to establish planetary models and to understand the movement of the stars. (…) The school thus constituted will have its apogee with Ibn Al-Shâtir (1304-1375). Other observatories will follow, such as the one in Samarkand in the 15th century, Istanbul in the early 16th century, and, in the West, the one of Tycho Brahe in Uraniborg (Denmark at that time) at the end of the 16th century. The new models were no longer Ptolemaic inspired, but remained geocentric. The physics of the time still refused to put the Earth in motion and to remove it from the center of the world. These models were inspired by the Greek epicycles, keeping the circles, but simplifying them. For example, Al-Tûsî proposes a system comprising a circle rolling inside another circle of double radius. This system transforms two circular motions into an alternating rectilinear motion, and explains the variations of the latitude of the planets. Moreover, it accounts for the variations of the apparent diameters of the stars. But to go further, it will be necessary to change the reference system, which the Arabs refused to do. This change will occur with the Copernican revolution, during the Renaissance, in which the Earth loses its status as the center of the world.
—Al-Zarqali (1029-1087) said Arzachel.
Mathematician, astronomer and geographer born in Toledo, Spain, he discussed the possibility of the movement of the Earth. Like others, his writings will be known to Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. He designed astrolabes, and established the Toledo Tables, which were used by the great Western navigators such as Christopher Columbus, and served as a basis for the Alphonsine Tables. He established that the eccentricity of the Sun varies, more precisely that the center of the circle on which the Sun rotates moves periodically away from or towards the Earth. A crater of the Moon bears his name, as well as a bridge of Toledo on the Tagus.
—Omar Al-Khayyam (1048-1131).
Known for his poetry, he was also interested in astronomy and mathematics. He became director of the Isfahan observatory in 1074. He created new astronomical tables even more precise, and determined the duration of the solar year with great accuracy, given the instruments used. It is more accurate than the Gregorian year, created five centuries later in Europe. He reformed the Persian calendar by introducing a leap year (Djelalean reform). In mathematics, he was interested in third degree equations by demonstrating that they can have several solutions (he found some of them geometrically). He wrote several texts on the extraction of the cubic roots, and a treaty of algebra.
Astronomer and mathematician, born in the city of Tus in present-day Iran, he built and directed the observatory of Maragheh. He studied the works of Al-Khayyam on proportions, and was interested in geometry. On the astronomical side, he commented on the Almagest and completed it, like several astronomers (Al-Battani…) before him. He estimates the obliquity of the ecliptic at 23°30′.
Persian mathematician and astronomer, he witnessed a lunar eclipse in 1406 and wrote several astronomical works afterwards. He spent the rest of his life in Samarkand, under the protection of Prince Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) who founded a university there. He became the first director of the new observatory of Samarkand. His astronomical tables propose values with 4 (5 according to the sources) digits in sexagesimal notation of the sine function. He gives the way to pass from a system of coordinates to another. His catalog contains 1018 stars. He improves the tables of eclipses and visibility of the Moon. In his treatise on the circle, he obtained an approximate value of Pi with 9 exact positions in sexagesimal notation, that is to say 16 exact decimals! A record, since the next improvement of the estimation of Pi dates from the 16th century with 20 decimals. He leaves his name to a generalization of the Pythagorean theorem to any triangles. This is the Al-Kashi theorem. He introduced the decimal fractions, and acquired a great reputation which made him the last great Arab mathematician astronomer, before the West took over.
—Ulugh Beg (1394-1449).
Grandson of Tamerlan, prince of the Timurid (descendants of Tamerlan). Viceroy from 1410, he acceded to the throne in 1447. He was a remarkable scholar and a poor politician, a position he delegated to devote himself to science. His teacher was Qadi Zada al-Rumi (1364-1436) who developed in him a taste for mathematics and astronomy. He built several schools, including one in Samarkand in 1420 where he taught, and an observatory in 1429. He worked there with some 70 mathematicians and astronomers (including Al-Kashi) to write the Sultanian Tables published in 1437 and improved by Ulugh Beg himself shortly before his death in 1449. The accuracy of these tables will remain unequaled for more than 200 years, and they were used in the West. They contain the positions of more than 1000 stars. Their first translation dates from around 1500, and was made in Venice.
—Taqi Al-Din (1526-1585).
After a period as a theologian, he became the official astronomer of the Sultan in Istanbul. He built an observatory there with the aim of competing with those of European countries, including that of Tycho Brahe. The observatory was opened in 1577. He drew up the Zij tables (“the unbroken pearl”). He was the first to use comma notation, rather than the traditional sexagesimal fractions in use. He observed and described a comet, and predicted that it was a sign of victory for the Ottoman army. This forecast turns out to be erronous, and the observatory is destroyed in 1580… He then devotes himself to mechanics, and describes the functioning of a rudimentary steam engine, invents a water pump, and is fascinated by clocks and optics.
The destruction of the observatory of Istanbul marks the end of the Arab astronomical activity of the Middle Ages. It was not until the Copernican revolution that new progress was made, and what progress! Copernicus and his successors were certainly strongly inspired by the results of the Arabs through their works. Travel and direct contact between scientists of the time were rare. Since Westerners did not understand Arabic, Latin translations probably influenced the West, along with the works of some Greek philosophers who had questioned the central position of the Earth, as Aristarchus of Samos had proposed around 280 BC.
The modern observatory, in its conception, is a worthy successor of the Arab observatories of the late Middle Ages. Unlike the private observatories of the Greek philosophers, the Islamic observatory is a specialized astronomical institution, with its own premises, scientific staff, teamwork with observers and theoreticians, a director and study programs. They have recourse, as today, to increasingly large instruments, in order to constantly improve the accuracy of measurements.
The first of these observatories was built during the reign of Al-Ma’mûn in Bagdad in the 9th century. We have already mentioned the observatory of Ray, near Tehran and second city of the Abbasid Empire after Baghdad, with its monumental wall sextant dating from 994. To these must be added the observatories of Toledo and Cordoba in Spain, Baghdad and Isfahan.
Finally, the one in Maragheh in the north of present-day Iran, built in 1259 with funds collected to maintain hospitals and mosques. Al-Tusi worked there. Then came the era of the observatory of Samarkand, built in 1420 by the astronomer Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), whose remains were found in 1908 by a Russian team.
Much more than the crusades, it will be the Mongol offensives that will devastate entire sections of the Arab-Muslim civilization. Genghis Khan (1155-1227), to the great pleasure of some Westerners, will destroy the Muslim kingdoms of Khwarezm (1218) and Sogdia with Bukhara and Samarkand (1220). The great city of Merv in 1221. In 1238, his son will seize Moscow, then Kiev. In 1240, Poland and Hungary will be invaded. In 1241, Vienna was threatened.
Before bringing down the Song Dynasty in China in 1273, the Mongols turned against the Abbassid.
Hence, the Houses of Wisdom came to a brutal end on February 12, 1258 with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad led by Hulagu (Genghis Khan’s grandson), who killed the last Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tassim (despite his surrender) and destroyed the city of Baghdad and its cultural heritage. Hulagu also ordered the massacre of the caliph’s entire family and entourage.
Mutazilism was banned and the magnificent collection of books and manuscripts in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was thrown into the muddy water of the Tigris, which turned brown for a few days because of the inked papers of the books and manuscripts.
One report says that the Mongols exterminated twenty-four thousand scholars and an incalculable number of books were lost. Of Mutazilism, its doctrine was only known through the texts of the traditionalist theologians who had attacked it. It was only the discovery of the voluminous works of Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad in the 19th century that made it possible to understand the key role played my this current of thought in the Arab renaissance and the formation of current Muslim theology, whether Sunni or Shiite.
Closer to home, the Iraq war of 2003: until then, Iraq was the world’s largest publisher of scientific publications in Arabic. As a result of the chaos caused by a war waged in the name of “democracy” and “the war on terror”, both the National Library and the National Archives were looted and burned. The same happened to the Central Library of Pious Legacies, the Library of the Iraqi University of Sciences, as well as many public libraries in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. The same was true for the archaeological treasures of the Iraqi Museum and its library. It seems that some people have declared war on civilization.
- A theodicy or « righteousness of God ») is an explanation of the apparent contradiction between the existence of evil and two characteristics peculiar to God: his omnipotence and his goodness.
- Sumer. The natural environment of the Sumerian country was not really favorable to the development of a productive agriculture: poor soils with a high content of salts harmful to the growth of plants, very high average temperatures, insignificant rainfall, and flooding of rivers coming in the spring, at harvest time, and not in the fall when the seeds need them to germinate, as is the case in Egypt. It was therefore the ingenuity and relentless labor of Mesopotamian farmers that enabled this country to become one of the granaries of the ancient Middle East. From the 6th millennium BC, the peasant communities developed an irrigation system which gradually branched out to cover a large area, thereby taking advantage of the advantage offered to them by the extremely flat relief of the Mesopotamian delta, where there was no no natural obstacle to the extension of the irrigation canals over tens of kilometers. By regulating the level of water derived from natural watercourses to adapt it to the needs of crops, and by developing techniques aimed at limiting soil salinization (leaching of fields, practice of fallow), it was possible to obtain very high cereal yields.
- Khorassan is a region located in northeastern Iran. The name comes from the Persian and means « where does the sun come from ». It was given to the eastern part of the Sassanid Empire. Khorassan is also considered the medieval name of Afghanistan by Afghans. Indeed, this territory included present-day Afghanistan, as well as southern Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
- In the 10th century, the Persian medical scholar Mohammad Al-Razi describes the distillation of petroleum to obtain kerosene or « illuminating petroleum » in his Book of Secrets.
- Sanskrit is a language of India, among the oldest known Indo-European languages (older even than Latin and Greek). It is notably the language of Hindu religious texts and, as such, it continues to be used as a cultural language, like Latin in centuries past in the West.
- Peshlevi or Middle Persian is an Iranian language that was spoken during the Sassanid era. She descends from Old Persian. Middle Persian was usually written using the Pahlevi script. The language was also written using the Manichean script by the Manichaeans of Persia.
- Abu Muhammad al – Qasim ibn ’Ali al – Hariri (1054–1122), Arab man of letters, poet and philologist, was born near Basra, in present-day Iraq. He is known for his Oaths and his maqâmât (literally fashions, often translated as assemblies or sessions), a collection of 50 short stories combining social and moral commentary with the brilliant expressions of the Arabic language. If the genre of maqâma was created by Badi’al – Zaman al – Hamadhani (969–1008), it is the sessions of al – Hariri that best define it. Written in a rhyming prose style called saj ’and interwoven with exquisite verse, the stories are meant to be entertaining and educational. Each of the anecdotes takes place in a different city in the Muslim world during the time of al – Hariri. They tell of an encounter, usually at a gathering of townspeople, between two fictional characters: the narrator al – Harith ibn Hammam and the protagonist Abu Zayd al-Saruji. Over the centuries, the work has been copied and commented on many times, but only 13 copies still in existence today have illuminations illustrating scenes from the stories. The manuscript presented here, executed in 1237, was both copied and illustrated by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, often considered the first Arab artist. It contains 99 miniatures of exceptional quality. No other known copy contains so much. The miniatures, recognized for their striking depiction of Muslim life in the 13th century, are considered to be the earliest Arab paintings created by an artist whose identity is known. Al – Wasiti, founder of the Baghdad School of Illumination, was also a remarkable calligrapher, as evidenced by his fine Naskhi style. The almost immediate popularity of the maqâmât reached Arab Spain, where Rabbi Judah al-Harizi (1165-c. 1225) translated the sessions into Hebrew under the title Mahberoth Itiel and subsequently composed his own Tahkemoni, or Hebrew sessions. . The work was also translated into many modern languages.
- The Barmecids or Barmakids are members of a Persian nobility family originally from Balkh in Bactria (north of Afghanistan). This family of Buddhist religious (paramaka means in Sanskrit the superior of a Buddhist monastery) who became Zoroastrians and then converted to Islam provided many viziers to the Abbasid caliphs. The Barmakids had acquired a remarkable reputation as patrons and are regarded as the main instigators of the brilliant culture which then developed in Baghdad.
- The Christological thesis of Nestorius (born c. 381 – died 451), Patriarch of Constantinople (428-431), was declared a heretic and condemned by the Council of Ephesus. For Nestorius, two hypostases, one divine, the other human, coexist in Jesus Christ. From the Eastern Church, Nestorianism was one of the historically most influential forms of Christianity in the world throughout late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, to India, China and Mongolia.
- Syriac (a form of Aramaic, the language of Christ) is alongside Latin and Greek the third component of ancient Christianity, rooted in Hellenism but also descended from Near Eastern and Semitic antiquity. From the first centuries, in a movement symmetrical to that of the Greco-Latin Christian tradition towards the west, Syriac Christianity developed towards the east, as far as India and China. Syriac is still today the liturgical and classical language (a bit like Latin in Europe) of the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean and Maronite Churches in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and South India. Where is. Finally, it is the branch of Christianity most in contact with Islam in which he continued to live.
- In South-West Asia, the Greek influence remained alive in several cities under Christian influence: Edessa (now Urfa in Turkey), at the time capital of the county of Edessa, one of the first Eastern Latin states, the closest to the Islamic world; Antioch (now Antakya in Turkey); Nisibe (now Nusaybin in Turkey); Al-Mada’in (ie “The Cities”), an Iraqi metropolis on the Tigris, between the royal cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia on the Tigris and Gondichapour (now in Iran) whose ruins remain. To this must be added the cities of Latakia (in Syria) and Amed (today Diyarbakir in Turkey) where there were Jacobite centers (Christians of the East, but members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, not to be confused with the Nestorians).
- The Gondishapour Academy was located in present-day Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran, near the Karoun River. It offered the teaching of medicine, philosophy, theology and science. The faculty was well versed not only in Zoroastrian and Persian traditions, but also taught Greek and Indian languages. The Academy included a library, an observatory, and the oldest known teaching hospital. According to historians, the Cambridge of Iran was the most important medical center in the Old World (defined as the territory of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East) during the 6th and 7th centuries.
- Sogdian is a middle Iranian language spoken in the Middle Ages by the Sogdians, a trading people who resided in Sogdiana, the historic region encompassing Samarkand and Bukhara and covering more or less present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. Before the arrival of Arabic, Sogdian was the lingua franca of the Silk Road. Sogdian traders settled in China and Sogdian monks were among the first to spread Buddhism there. As early as the 6th century, Chinese rulers appealed to the Sogdian elite to resolve diplomatic, commercial, military and even cultural issues, prompting many Sogdians to migrate from Central Asia and China’s border regions to major Chinese political centers.
- The Book of Ingenious Machines contains a hundred machines or objects, most of them due to the Banou Moussa brothers or adapted by them: funnel, crankshaft, conical ball valves, float valve and other hydraulic regulation systems, mask gas and ventilation bellows for mines; dredge, variable jet fountains, hurricane lamp, auto-off light, auto-powered; automatic musical instruments including a programmable flute.
- Astronomical ephemeris: registers of the positions of stars at regular intervals.
- Ibn Al-Haytam. In 2007, during a conference at the Sorbonne, I explored the use, by the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck (early 15th century), of a bifocal geometric perspective, wrongly qualified as « primitive », erroneous and intuitive, actually inspired by the work and binocular experiences of the Arab scholar Ibn Al-Haytam (Alhazen). The latter drew on the work of his predecessors Al-Kindi, Ibn Luca and Ibn Sahl. Alhazen was widely known in the West thanks to the translations of the Franciscans of the University of Oxford (Grosseteste, Bacon, etc.). See summary biography.
- 310-230 BC.: Life of the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos;
- 190-120 BC.: life of the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea;
- v. 100-160 : life of Roman astronomer Claudius Ptolemy;
- 700-748: life of Wasil ibn Ata, intellectual founder of Mutazilism;
- 750: beginning of the Abbasid dynasty;
- 751: Abbasid victory against the Chinese at the battle of Talas (Kyrgyzstan);
- 763: founding of Baghdad by Caliph Al-Mansur;
- 780: Timothy I, patriarch of the Nestorian Christian church in Baghdad;
- 780-850: life of the Arab mathematician al-Kwarizmi;
- 786 to 809: caliphate for 23 years of Haroun al-Rachîd, legendary hero of the Thousand and One Nights tales. Development of mutazilism;
- 801-873: life of the mutazilist and Platonic philosopher Al-Kindi;
- 805-880: life of Al-Farghani, treatise on the Astrolabe;
- 813-833: caliphate of Al-Ma’mûn (20 years);
- 829: creation of the first permanent astronomical observatory in Baghdad followed by that of Damascus;
- 832: creation of the public library and creation of the Maisons de la Sagesse;
- 833: shortly before his death, Al-Ma’mûn decrees the created Koran and has mutazilism adopted as the official doctrine of the Abbasids;
- 836: transfer from the capital to Samarra;
- 848: the mutazilites removed from the Baghdad court;
- 858-930: life of Al-Battani, known as Albatenius;
- 865-925: life of translator and doctor Sahl Rabban al-Tabari;
- 869-883: revolt of the Zanj (black slaves from Zanzibar);
- 892: return from the capital of the Abbasids to Baghdad;
- 965-1039: life of Ibn Al-Haytam, known as Alhazen;
- 973-1048: life of Al-Biruni;
- 1095: first crusade;
- 1258: Baghdad sacked by the Mongols;
- 1259: creation of the Maragheh Astronomical Observatory (Iran);
- 1304-1375: life of Ibn Al-Shâtir;
- 1422: creation of the Astronomical Observatory of Samarkand, capital of Sogdiana;
- 1543: Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus publishes his De Revolutionibus;
- 1917: British troops enter Baghdad;
- 2003: looting and destruction by systematic arson of libraries and museums during the Iraq war.
- Mutazilism, website of the Association for the Renaissance of Mutazilite Islam (ARIM);
- Antoine Le Bail, Who are the mutazilites, sometimes called the « rationalists » of Islam ?, website of the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), Paris;
- Richard C. Martin, Mark R. Woodward with Dwi S. Atmaja, Defenders of Reason in Islam, Mu’tazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol, Oneworld, Oxford, 1997;
- Rober R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, ISI, Wilmington, 2011;
- Nadim Michel Kalife, The Lights of the First Centuries of Islam, on financialafrik.com, 2019;
- Mahmoud Azab, A Vision of the Universality of Arab-Islamic Civilization, Oberta de Catalunya University, www.uoc.edu;
- Sabine Schmidke, The People of Monotheism and Justice: Mutazilism in Islam and Judaism, Institute for Advanced Study, 2017;
- Malek Chebel, Slavery in the Land of Islam, Fayard, Paris 2012;
- Jacques Cheminade, Sublime words and idiocy by Nasr Eddin Hodja;
- Jacques Cheminade, Proposals for an inter-religious dialogue;
- Hussein Askary: Baghdad 767-1258 A.D., Melting Pot for a Universal Renaissance, Executive Intelligence Review, 2013;
- Hussein Askary: The Beauty of the Islamic Renaissance, the Elephant Clock, S&P website;
- Dr Subhi Al-Azzawi, The House of Wisdom of the Abbasids in Baghdad or the beginnings of the University, pdf on the internet;
- Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arab Culture. The movement of Greco-Arabic translation in Baghdad and primitive Abbasid society (2nd-4th / 8th-10th centuries), Aubier, Paris 2005;
- Jim Al-Khalili, The House of Wisdom, How Arab Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, Pinguin, London 2010;
- Jonathan Lyons, The House of Wisdom, How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, Bloomsbury, London 2009;
- Pastor Georges Tartar, Islamo-Christian Dialogue under Caliph Al-Ma’mûn, Les épitres d’Al-Hashimi and d’Al-Kindî, Nouvelles Editions Latines, Paris, 1985;
- Al-Kindî, On First Philosophy, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1974;
- Marie Thérèse d´Alverny, The transmission of philosophical and scientific texts in the Middle Ages, Variorum, Aldershot 1994;
- Danielle Jacquart, Françoise Micheau, Arab medicine and the medieval West, Maisonneuve, Paris 1990;
- Juan Vernet Gines, What culture owes to the Arabs of Spain, Sindbad, Actes Sud, Paris, 2000;
- Karen Armstrong, Islam, A Short History, Phoenix, London, 2002;
- Muriel Mirak Weisbach, Andalusia, a gateway to the Renaissance;
- Régis Morelon, Eastern Arab Astronomy between the 8th and 11th Century, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 1, Astronomy, Theoretical and Applied, Seuil, Paris, 1997;
- George Saliba, Planetary Theories in Arab Astronomy after the 11th Century, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 1, Astronomy, Theoretical and Applied, Seuil, Paris, 1997;
- Roshi Rashed, Geometric Optics, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 2, Mathematics and physics, Seuil, Paris, 1997;
- Jean-Pierre Verdet, A History of Astronomy, Seuil, Paris, 1990;
- J. P. Maratray, Arab Astronomy, on the Astrosurf.com website;
- Jean-Pierre Luminet, Ulugh Beg – The Astronomer of Samarkand, 2018;
- Kitty Ferguson, Pythagoras, His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe, Walker publishing Company, New York, 2008;
- Sir Thomas Heath, Aristarchus of Samos, The Ancient Copernicus, Dover, New York, 1981:
- A. T. Papadopoulo, Islam and Muslim Art, The Art of Great Civilizations, Mazenod, Paris, 1976;
- Olag Grabar, Art and Culture in the Islamic World, Arts & Civilizations of Islam, Köneman, Cologne, 2000;
- Christiane Gruber, Images of Muhammad in Islam, Afkar / Ideas, Spring 2015;
- Hans Belting, Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance art and Arab science, Harvard University Press, 2011;
- Dominique Raynaud, Ibn al-Haytham on binocular vision: a precursor of physiological optics, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2003, 13, pp. 79-99;
- Jonathan M. Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World, Yale University Press, 2001;
- Karel Vereycken, Jan Van Eyck, a Flemish painter in Arabic optics, S&P website;