Étiquette : China
The history of mankind completely changed with the domestication of the horse. Things considered “impossible” before the domestication of the horse became the “new normal”. How and when horses became domesticated has been disputed. Although horses appear in Paleolithic cave art as early as 36,000 BC (Chauvet cave, France), these were wild horses and were probably hunted for meat.
Zoologists define « domestication » as human control over breeding, which can be detected in ancient skeletal samples by changes in the size and variability of ancient horse populations. Other researchers look at the broader evidence, including skeletal and dental evidence of working activity; weapons, art, and spiritual artifacts; and lifestyle patterns of human cultures. There is evidence that horses were kept as a source of meat and milk before they were trained as working animals.
In India, close to Bopal, the “Bhimbetka rock shelters”, which are the oldest known rock art of the country (100 000), figures dance and hunting scenes from the Stone Age as well as of warriors on horseback from a later time (10 000 BC). Horses were a late addition to the barnyard. Dogs were domesticated 15,000 years ago; sheep, pigs and cattle, about 8,000 to 11,000 years ago. But clear evidence of horse domestication doesn’t appear in the archaeological record until about 5,500 years ago.
The clearest evidence of early use of the horse as a means of transport is from chariot burials. The earliest true chariots known are from around 2,000 BC, in burials of the Sintashta-Petrovka culture in modern Russia in a cluster along the upper Tobol river, southeast of Magnitogorsk.
They contain spoke-wheeled chariots drawn by teams of two horses.
Kazakhstan and Ukraine
Up till recently, it was thought that the most common horse used today was a descendant of the horses domesticated by the Botai culture living in the steppes of the Akmola Province of Kazakhstan, around 3500 BC.
Recent genetic research points to the fact that the Botai horses were the forefathers of the Przewalski horse, a species that nearly disappeared.
Our common horse, the Equus ferus caballus, genetic research says, has been domesticated 4,200 years ago in Ukraine, in an area known as the Volga-Don, in the Pontic-Caspian steppe region of Western Eurasia, around 2,200 BC.
As these horses were domesticated, they were regularly interbred with wild horses.
Interesting in this respect, is the fact that according to the “Kurgan” or “steppe hypothesis”, most Indo-European languages spread from the same region throughout Europe and parts of Asia.
It postulates that the people of a Kurgan culture in the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea were the most likely speakers of what some call the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE).
The term is derived from the Turkic word kurgan, meaning tumulus or burial mound.
Tea Road, Horse Road or Silk Road?
As a matter of fact, the main commodities traded on the “Silk Road” (a term only coined in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand Von Richthofen), were… horses, mules, camels, donkeys and onagers.
Silk and tea were of course traded, but appeared mainly as a means… to pay for horses. People “paid” with silk, gold, porcelain and tea, the animals they needed to secure the survival of their society!
What was known as the « Tea-Horse Road » (Southern Silk Road) extended from the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China, south through Yunnan into India and the Indochina Peninsula, and extended westwards into Tibet. It was an important route for the tea trade throughout South China and Southeast Asia and contributed to the spread of religions like Taoism and Buddhism across the region.
China, feeling itself under constant threat from the nomadic steppe people from the North, started building the first parts of its “Great Wall” as early as the VIIth Century BC, with selective stretches joined by Qin Shi Huang (220–206 BC), the first emperor of China and completed under the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to become one of the most impressive feats in history.
The Eurasian nomads were groups of nomadic peoples living throughout the Eurasian Steppe. The generic title encompasses the varied ethnic groups who have at times inhabited the steppes of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Russia, and Ukraine.
By the domestication of the horse around 2,200 BC (i.e. 4,200 years ago), they vastly increased the possibilities of nomadic life and subsequently their economy and culture emphasized horse breeding, horse riding, and nomadic pastoralism, usually engaging in trade with settled peoples around the steppe edges, be it in Europe, Asia or Central Asia.
Nomads, by definition, don’t create empires. It is thought they operated often as confederations. But it was them who developed the chariot, wagon, cavalry, and horseback archery and introduced innovations such as the bridle, bit, stirrup, and saddle and the very rapid rate at which innovations crossed the steppe-lands spread these widely, to be copied by settled peoples bordering the steppes.
During the Iron Age, Scythian (Persian) culture emerged among the Eurasian nomads, which was characterized by a distinct Scythian art.
China and the Horse
Throughout China’s long and storied past, no animal has impacted its history as greatly as the horse. Its significance was such that as early as the Shang dynasty (ca.1600-1100 BC), military might was measured by the number of the war chariots available to a particular kingdom.
The mounted cavalery, which emerged in the IIIrd century BC grew rapidly during the IInd century BC to meet the challenge of horse-riding peoples threatening China along the northern frontier.
Their large, powerful, horses were very new to China. As said before, traded for luxurious silk, they were the first major import to China from the “Silk Road.”
Chinese grave goods provide extraordinary amounts of information about how the ancient Chinese lived. Archaeological evidence shows that within a few years, the marvelous Arabian steeds had become immensely popular with military and aristocracy alike and upper-class tombs began to be filled with images of these great horses for use in the afterlife. But horses were hard to find in China.
Chinese diplomats and the Kingdom of Dayuan (Ferghana)
Something had to be done. In the late IInd Century BC, Zhang Qian, a Han dynasty diplomat and explorer, travels to Central Asia and discovers three sophisticated urban civilizations created by Greek settlers he named « Ionians ». The account of his visit to Bactria, including his recollection of his amazement at finding Chinese goods in the markets (acquired via India), as well as his travels to Parthia and Ferghana, are preserved in the works of the early Han historian Sima Qian.
Upon returning to China, his account prompts the Emperor to dispatch Chinese envoys across Central Asia to negotiate and encourage trade with China. Some historians say that this dicision gave « birth of the Silk Road.«
Besides Parthia and Bactria, where Chinese goods were being traded via Indian imports, Zhang Qian visited, in the fertile Ferghana valley (today essentially in Tajikistan), a State the Chinese called the “Kingdom of Dayuan” (“Da” meaning “great”, and “Yuan” being the transliteration of Sanskrit Yavana or Pali Yona, used throughout antiquity in Asia to designate « Ionians », i.e. Greek settlers).
The Records of the Grand Historian and the Book of Han describe the Dayuan as numbering several hundred thousand people living in 70 walled cities of varying size. They grew rice and wheat, and made wine from grapes. They had Caucasian features and “customs identical to those of Bactria” (the most Hellenistic state of the region since Alexander the Great) which is today’s northern Afghanistan.
Now, as said before, China felt under permanent threat by the nomadic people from the steppes and was in the process of building the “Great Wall”. China also was acutely aware that the nomadic steppe people derived their military superiority from something dramatically lacking at home: powerful horses !
Added to that, the fact that in terms of China’s scale of values, horses where nearly of the same mythological nature as dragons: they could fly and represented the divine, creative spirit of the universe itself, something essential for any Chinese emperor eager to acquire both military security for his Empire and for his personal immortality.
In short, having good horses became an issue of national security. So much, that in 100 BC, the Han dynasty started what is known as the “War of the Heavenly Horses” with Dayuan, when its ruler refused to provide high quality horses to China !
The War of the Heavenly Horses
The War of the Heavenly Horses was a military conflict fought in 104 BC and 102 BC between China and a part of the Saka-ruled (Scythian) Greco-Bactrian kingdom known to the Chinese as Dayuan, in the Ferghana Valley (between modern-day Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).
First, Emperor Wu decided to defeat the nomadic steppe Xiongnu, who had harassed the Han dynasty for decades.
As said earlier, in 139 BC, the emperor sent diplomat Zhang Qian to survey the west and forge a military alliance with the Yuezhi nomads against another group of nomads, the Xiongnu. On the way to Central Asia through the Gobi desert, Zhang was captured twice. On his return, he impressed the emperor with his description of the « Heavenly Horses » of Dayuan, that could greatly improve the quality of Han cavalry mounts when fighting the Xiongnu.
The Han court sent at least five or six, and perhaps as many as ten diplomatic groups annually to Central Asia during this period to get a hold on these “Heavenly Horses”.
A trade mission arrived in Dayuan with 1000 pieces of gold and a golden horse to purchase these precious animals.
Dayuan, who was one of the furthest western states to send envoys to the Han court at that point, had already been trading with the Han for quite some time and benefited greatly from it. Not only were they overflowed by eastern goods, they also learned from Han soldiers how to cast metal into coins and weapons. However unlike the other envoys to the Han court, the ones from Dayuan did not conform to the proper Han rituals and behaved with great arrogance and self-assurance, believing they were too far away to be in any danger of invasion.
Hence, in a stroke of folly and taken by pure arrogance, the Dayuan king not only refused the deal, but confiscated the payment in gold. The Han envoys cursed the men of Dayuan and smashed the golden horse they had brought. Enraged by this act of contempt, the nobles of Dayuan ordered Yucheng, which lay on their eastern borders, to attack and kill the envoys and seize their goods.
Upon receiving word of the trade mission’s demise, humiliated and enraged, the Han court sent an army led by General Li Guangli to subdue Dayuan, but their first incursion was poorly organized and under-supplied.
A second, larger and much better provisioned expedition was sent two years later and successfully laid siege to the Dayuan capital at Alexandria Eschate, and forced Dayuan to surrender unconditionally.
The Han expeditionary forces installed a pro-Han regime in Dayuan and left with 3,000 horses, although only 1,000 remained by the time they reached China in 101 BCE.
The Ferghana also agreed to send two Heavenly horses each year to the Emperor, and lucerne seed was brought back to China providing superior pasture for raising fine horses in China, to provide cavalry which could cope with the Xiongnu who threatened China.
The horses have since captured the popular imagination of China, leading to horse carvings, breeding grounds in Gansu, and up to 430,000 such horses in the cavalry during the Tang dynasty.
China and the agricultural revolution
After imposing its role in military strategy for the next centuries, horsepower, together with water management, became a crucial factor to raise the productivity of the world’s food production.
First, contrary to the Romans, who preferred to use “human cattle” (slaves) rather than animals (which they raised for race contests), the Chinese greatly contributed to the survival of mankind with two crucial innovations respecting a more efficient use of horse power.
As can be seen in murals and paintings, through the ancient world, be it in Egypt or Greece, plows and carts were pulled using animal harnesses that had flat straps across the neck of the horse, with the load attached at the top of the collar, above the neck, in a manner similar to a yoke used for oxen.
In reality, this greatly limited a horse’s ability to exert itself as it was constantly choked at the neck. The harder the horse pulled, the harder it became to breathe.
Due to this physical limitation, oxen remained the preferred animal to do heavy work such as plowing. Yet oxen are hard to maneuver, are slow, and lack the quality of horses, whose power is equivalent but whose endurance is twice that of oxen.
China reportedly first invented the “breast strap” which was the first step in the right direction.
Then, in the Vth Century, China also invented what is called the “rigid horse collar”, designed as an oval that fits around the neck and shoulders of the horse.
It has the following advantages:
–First, it relieved the pressure of the horse’s windpipes. It left the airway of the horse free from constriction improving massively the animal’s energy through-put.
–Second, the traces could be attached to the sides of the collar. This allowed the horse to push forward with its more powerful hind-legs rather than pulling with the weaker front legs.
Now you can argue that this is anecdotal. It is NOT, because what appears as only a slight change had absolutely monumental consequences.
In a strategic alliance and cooperation with the humanist Baghdad Abbasid caliphate, Charlemagne and his successors introduced the “rigid horse collar” in Europe.
With that new, far more efficient tool, European farmers finally could take full advantage of a horse’s strength. The horse was able to pull another recent innovation, the heavy plow. This became particularly important in areas where the soil was hard and clay-like. This opened up new plots of lands to agriculture. The rigid horse collar, the heavy plow, and horseshoes helped usher in a period of increased agricultural production.
As a result, between 1000 CE and 1300 CE, it is estimated that in Europe, crop yields increased by threefold, allowing to feed a rising number of citizens in the urban cities appearing in the XVth century and kick starting the global “Golden” European Renaissance. Thank you, China!
Some numbers are nevertheless disturbing:
–it took humanity thousands of years to finally domesticate the horse (long after the cow), in 3200 BC.
–it took humanity another 3700 years to learn how to find out, in the Vth century AD, the most efficient way to use horse-power…
Shifting from a “lower” infrastructure platform to a “higher” infrastructure platform might take some time. Today’s new “higher” platforms are called “space data” and “fusion power.” Let’s not wait another century to find out how to use them correctly!
In the heart of downtown Strasbourg, a stone’s throw from the cathedral and with its back to the 1585 Chamber of Commerce, stands the beautiful bronze statue of the German printer Johannes Gutenberg, holding a barely-printed page from his Bible, which reads: « And there was light » (NOTE 1).
Evoking the emancipation of peoples thanks to the spread of knowledge through the development of printing, the statue, erected in 1840, came at a time when supporters of the Republic were up in arms against the press censorship imposed by Louis-Philippe under the July Monarchy.
Strasbourg, Mainz and China
Born around 1400 in Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg, with money lent to him by the merchant and banker Johann Fust, carried out his first experiments with movable metal type in Strasbourg between 1434 and 1445, before perfecting his process in Mainz, notably by printing his famous 42-line Bible from 1452.
On his death (in Mainz) in 1468, Gutenberg bequeathed his process to humanity, enabling printing to take off in Europe. Chroniclers also mention the work of Laurens Janszoon Coster in Harlem, and the Italian printer Panfilo Castaldi, who is said to have brought Chinese know-how to Europe. It should be noted that the « civilized » world of the time refused to acknowledge that printing had originated in Asia with the famous « movable type » (made of porcelain and metal) developed several centuries earlier in China and Korea (NOTE 2).
In Europe, Mainz and Strasbourg vie for pride of place. On August 14, 1837, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the « invention » of printing, Mainz inaugurated its statue of Gutenberg, erected by sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsenalors, while in Strasbourg, a local committee had already commissioned sculptor David d’Angers to create a similar monument in 1835.
This little-known sculptor was both a great sculptor and close friend of Victor Hugo, and a fervent republican in personal contact with the finest humanist elite of his time in France, Germany and the United States. He was also a tireless campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery.
The sculptor’s life
French sculptor Pierre-Jean David, known as « David d’Angers » (1788-1856) was the son of master sculptor Pierre Louis David. Pierre-Jean was influenced by the republican spirit of his father, who trained him in sculpture from an early age. At the age of twelve, his father enrolled him in the drawing class at the École Centrale de Nantes. In Paris, he was commissioned to create the ornamentation for the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and the south facade of the Louvre Palace. Finally, he entered the Beaux-arts.
David d’Angers possessed a keen sense of interpretation of the human figure and an ability to penetrate the secrets of his models. He excelled in portraiture, whether in bust or medallion form. He is the author of at least sixty-eight statues and statuettes, some fifty bas-reliefs, a hundred busts and over five hundred medallions. Victor Hugo told his friend David: « This is the bronze coin by which you pay your toll to posterity. »
He traveled all over Europe, painting busts in Berlin, London, Dresden and Munich.
Around 1825, when he was commissioned to paint the funeral monument that the Nation was raising by public subscription in honor of General Foy, a tribune of the parliamentary opposition, he underwent an ideological and artistic transformation. He frequented the progressive intellectual circles of the « 1820 generation » and joined the international republican movement. He then turned his attention to the political and social problems of France and Europe. In later years, he remained faithful to his convictions, refusing, for example, the prestigious commission to design Napoleon’s tomb.
David’s art was thus influenced by a naturalism whose iconography and expression are in stark contrast to that of his academic colleagues and the dissident sculptors known as « romantics » at the time. For David, no mythological sensualism, obscure allegories or historical picturesqueness. On the contrary, sculpture, according to David, must generalize and transpose what the artist observes, so as to ensure the survival of ideas and destinies in a timeless posterity.
David adhered to this particular, limited conception of sculpture, adopting the Enlightenment view that the art of sculpture is « the lasting repository of the virtues of men », perpetuating the memory of the exploits of exceptional beings.
The somewhat austere image of « great men » prevailed, best known thanks to some 600 medallions depicting famous men and women from several countries, most of them contemporaries. Added to this are some one hundred busts, mostly of his friends, poets, writers, musicians, songwriters, scientists and politicians with whom he shared the republican ideal.
Among the most enlightened of his time were: Victor Hugo, Marquis de Lafayette, Wolfgang Goethe, Alfred de Vigny, Alphonse Lamartine, Pierre-Jean de Béranger, Alfred de Musset, François Arago, Alexander von Humboldt, Honoré de Balzac, Lady Morgan, James Fenimore Cooper, Armand Carrel, François Chateaubriand, Ennius Quirinus Visconti and Niccolo Paganini.
To magnify his models and visually render the qualities of each one’s genius, David d’Angers invented a mode of idealization no longer based on antique-style classicism, but on a grammar of forms derived from a new science, the phrenology of Doctor Gall, who believed that the cranial « humps » of an individual reflected his intellectual aptitudes and passions. For the sculptor, it was a matter of transcending the model’s physiognomy, so that the greatness of the soul radiated from his forehead.
In 1826, he was elected member of the Institut de France and, the same year, professor at the Beaux-Arts. In 1828, David d’Angers was the victim of his first unsolved assassination attempt. Wounded in the head, he was confined to bed for three months. However, in 1830, still loyal to republican ideas, he took part in the revolutionary days and fought on the barricades.
In 1830, David d’Angers found himself ideally placed to carry out the most significant political sculpture commission of the July monarchy and perhaps of 19th century France: the new decoration of the pediment of the church of Sainte-Geneviève, which had been converted into the Pantheon in July.
As a historiographer, he wanted to depict the civilians and men of war who built Republican France. In 1837, the execution of the figures he had chosen and arranged in a sketch that was first approved, then suspended, was bound to lead to conflict with the high clergy and the government. On the left, we see Bichat, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David, Cuvier, Lafayette, Manuel, Carnot, Berthollet, Laplace, Malesherbes, Mirabeau, Monge and Fénelon. While the government tried to have Lafayette’s effigy removed, which David d’Angers stubbornly refused, with the support of the liberal press, the pediment was unveiled without official ceremony in September 1837, without the presence of the artist, who had not been invited.
During the 1848 Revolution, he was appointed mayor of the 11th arrondissement of Paris, entered the National Constituent Assembly and then the National Legislative Assembly, where he voted with the Montagne (revolutionary left). He defended the existence of the Ecole des Beaux-arts and the Académie de France in Rome. He opposed the destruction of the Chapelle Expiatoire and the removal of two statues from the Arc de Triomphe (Resistance and Peace by sculptor Antoine Etex).
He also voted against the prosecution of Louis Blanc (1811-1882) (another republican statesman and intellectual condemned to exile), against the credits for Napoleon III’s Roman expedition, for the abolition of the death penalty, for the right to work, and for a general amnesty.
He was not re-elected deputy in 1849 and withdrew from political life. In 1851, with the advent of Napoleon III, David d’Angers was arrested and also sentenced to exile. He chose Belgium, then traveled to Greece (his old project). He wanted to revisit his Greek Maiden on the tomb of the Greek republican patriot Markos Botzaris (1788-1823), which he found mutilated and abandoned (he had it repatriated to France and restored).
Disappointed by Greece, he returned to France in 1852. With the help of his friend de Béranger, he was allowed to stay in Paris, where he resumed his work. In September 1855, he suffered a stroke which forced him to cease his activities. He died in January 1856.
Friendships with Lafayette, Abbé Grégoire and Pierre-Jean de Béranger
David d’Angers was a real link between 18th and 19th century republicans, and a living bridge between those of Europe and America.
Born in 1788, he had the good fortune to associate at an early age with some of the great revolutionary figures of the time, before becoming personally involved in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848.
Towards the end of the 1820s, David attended the Tuesday salon meetings of Madame de Lafayette, wife of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834).
While General Lafayette stood upright like « a venerable oak », this salon, notes the sculptor,
« has a clear-cut physiognomy, » he writes. The men talk about serious matters, especially politics, and even the young men look serious: there’s something decided, energetic and courageous in their eyes and in their posture (…) All the ladies and also the demoiselles look calm and thoughtful; they look as if they’ve come to see or attend important deliberations, rather than to be seen. »
David met Lafayette’s comrade-in-arms, General Arthur O’Connor (1763-1852), a former Irish republican MP of the United Irishmen who had joined Lafayette’s volunteer General Staff in 1792.
Accused of stirring up trouble against the British Empire and in contact with General Lazare Hoche (1768-1797), O’Connor fled to France in 1796 and took part in the Irish Expedition. In 1807, O’Connor married the daughter of philosopher and mathematician Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794) and became a naturalized French citizen in 1818.
Lafayette and David d’Angers often got together with a small group of friends, a few « brothers » who were members of Masonic lodges: such as the chansonnier Pierre-Jean de Béranger, François Chateaubriand, Benjamin Constant, Alexandre Dumas (who corresponded with Edgar Allan Poe), Alphonse Lamartine, Henri Beyle dit Stendhal and the painters François Gérard and Horace Vernet.
In these same circles, David also became acquainted with Henri (Abbé) Grégoire (1750-1831), and the issue of the abolition of slavery, which Grégoire had pushed through on February 4, 1794, was often raised. In their exchanges, Lafayette liked to recall the words of his youthful friend Nicolas de Condorcet:
« Slavery is a horrible barbarism, if we can only eat sugar at this price, we must know how to renounce a commodity stained with the blood of our brothers. »
For Abbé Gregoire, the problem went much deeper:
« As long as men are thirsty for blood, or rather, as long as most governments have no morals, as long as politics is the art of deceit, as long as people, unaware of their true interests, attach silly importance to the job of spadassin, and will allow themselves to be led blindly to the slaughter with sheep-like resignation, almost always to serve as a pedestal for vanity, almost never to avenge the rights of humanity, and to take a step towards happiness and virtue, the most flourishing nation will be the one that has the greatest facility for slitting the throats of others. »
(Essay on the physical, moral and political regeneration of the Jews)
Napoleon and slavery
The first abolition of slavery was, alas, short-lived. In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte, short of the money needed to finance his wars, reintroduced slavery, and nine days later excluded colored officers from the French army.
Finally, he outlawed marriages between « fiancés whose skin color is different ». David d’Angers remained very sensitive to this issue, having as a comrade a very young writer, Alexandre Dumas, whose father had been born a slave in Haiti.
As early as 1781, under the pseudonym Schwarz (black in German), Condorcet had published a manifesto advocating the gradual disappearance of slavery over a period of 60 to 70 years, a view quickly shared by Lafayette. A fervent supporter of the abolitionist cause, Condorcet condemned slavery as a crime, but also denounced its economic uselessness: slave labor, with its low productivity, was an obstacle to the establishment of a market economy.
And even before the signing of the peace treaty between France and the United States, Lafayette wrote to his friend George Washington on February 3, 1783, proposing to join him in setting in motion a process of gradual emancipation of the slaves. He suggested a plan that would « frankly become beneficial to the black portion of mankind ».
The idea was to buy a small state in which to experiment with freeing slaves and putting them to work as farmers. Such an example, he explained, « could become a school and thus a general practice ». (NOTE 3)
Washington replied that he personally would have liked to support such a step, but that the American Congress (already) was totally hostile.
From the Society of Black Friends to the French Society for the Abolition of Slavery
In Paris, on February 19, 1788, Abbé Grégoire and Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793) founded « La Société des amis des Noirs », whose rules were drawn up by Condorcet, and of which the Lafayette couple were also members.
The society’s aim was the equality of free whites and blacks in the colonies, the immediate prohibition of the black slave trade and the gradual abolition of slavery; on the one hand, to maintain the economy of the French colonies, and on the other, in the belief that before blacks could achieve freedom, they had to be prepared for it, and therefore educated.
After the virtual disappearance of the « Amis des Noirs », the offensive was renewed, with the founding in 1821 of the « Société de la Morale chrétienne », which in 1822 set up a « Comité pour l’abolition de la traite des Noirs », some of whose members went on to found the « Société française pour l’abolition de l’esclavage (SFAE) » in 1834.
Initially in favor of gradual abolition, the SFAE later favored immediate abolition. Prohibited from holding meetings, the SFAE decided to create abolitionist committees throughout the country to relay the desire to put an end to slavery, both locally and nationally.
Goethe and Schiller
In the summer of 1829, David d’Angers made his first trip to Germany and met Goethe (1749-1832), the poet and philosopher who had retired to Weimar. Several posing sessions enabled the sculptor to complete his portrait.
Writer and poet Victor Pavie (1808-1886), a friend of Victor Hugo and one of the founders of the « Cercles catholiques ouvriers » (Catholic Workers Circle), accompagnied him on the trip and recounts some of the pictoresques anecdotes of their travel in his « Goethe and David, memories of a voyage to Weimar » (1874).
In 1827, the French newspaper Globe published two letters recounting two visits to Goethe, in 1817 and 1825, by an anonymous « friend » (Victor Cousin), as well as a letter from Ampère on his return from the « Athens of Germany ». In these letters, the young scientist expressed his admiration, and gave numerous details that whetted the interest of his compatriots. During his stay in Weimar, Ampère added to his host’s knowledge of Romantic authors, particularly Mérimée, Vigny, Deschamps and Delphine Gay. Goethe already had a (positive) opinion of Victor Hugo, Lamartine and Casimir Delavigne, and of all they owed to Chateaubriand.
A subscriber to the Globe since its foundation in 1824, Goethe had at his disposal a marvellous instrument of French information. In any case, he had little left to learn about France when David and Pavie visited him in August 1829. On the strength of his unhappy experience with Walter Scott in London, David d’Angers had taken precautions this time, and had a number of letters of recommendation for the people of Weimar, as well as two letters of introduction to Goethe, signed by Abbé Grégoire and Victor Cousin. To show the illustrious writer what he could do, he had placed some of his finest medallions in a crate.
Once in Weimar, David d’Angers and Victor Pavie encountered great difficulties in their quest, especially as the recipients of the letters of recommendation were all absent. Stricken with despair and fearing failure, David blamed his young friend Victor Pavie:
« Yes, you jumped in with the optimism of a young man, without giving me time to think and get out of the way. It wasn’t as a coward or under the patronage of an adventurer, it was head-on and resolutely that we had to tackle the character. (…) You’re only as good as what you are, it’s a yes or no question. You know me, on my knees before genius, and imployable before power. Ah! court poets, great or small, everywhere the same!
(…) And with a leap from the chair where he had insensitively let himself fall: Where’s Schiller? I’d like to kiss him! His grave, where I will strike, will not remain sealed for me; I will take him there, and bring him back glorious. What does it matter? Have I seen Corneille, have I seen Racine? The bust I’m planning for him will look all the better for it; the flash of his genius will gleam on his forehead. I’ll make him as I love and admire him, not with the pinched nose that Dannecker (image below) gave him, but with nostrils swollen with patriotism and freedom.
Victor Pavie’s account reveals the republican fervor animating the sculptor who, faithful to the ideals of Abbé Grégoire, was already thinking about the great anti-slavery sculpture he planned to create:
« At that moment, the half-open window of our bedroom, yielding to the evening breeze, opened wide. The sky was superb; the Milky Way unfurled with such brilliance that one could have counted the stars. He (David) remained silent for some time, dazzled; then, with that suddenness of impression that incessantly renewed the realm of feelings and ideas around him:
‘What a work, what a masterpiece! How poor we are compared to this!Would all your geniuses in one, writers, artists, poets, ever reach this incomparable poem whose tasks are splendors? Yet God knows your insatiable pretensions; we flay you in praise… And light! Remember this (and his presentiments in this regard were nothing less than a chimera), that such a one as received a marble bust from me as a token of my admiration, will one day literally lose the memory of it. – No, there is nothing more noble and great in humanity than that which suffers. I still have in my head, or rather in my heart, this protest of the human conscience against the most execrable iniquity of our times, the slave trade: after ten years of silence and suffering, it must burst forth with the voice of brass. You can see the group from here: the garroted slave, his eye on the sky, protector and avenger of the weak; next to him, lying broken, his wife, in whose bosom a frail creature is sucking blood instead of milk; at their feet, detached from the negro’s broken collar, the crucifix, the Man-God who died for his brothers, black or white. Yes, the monument will be made of bronze, and when the wind blows, you will hear the chain beating, and the rings ringing' ».
Finally, Goethe met the two Frenchmen, and David d’Angers succeeded in making his bust of the German poet. Victor Pavie:
« Goethe bowed politely to us, spoke the French language with ease from the start, and made us sit down with that calm, resigned air that astonished me, as if it were a simple thing to find oneself standing at eighty, face to face with a third generation, to which he had passed on through the second, like a living tradition.
(…) David carried with him, as the saying goes, a sample of his skills.He presented the old man with a few of his lively profiles, so morally expressive, so nervously and intimately executed, part of a great whole that is becoming more complete with our age, and which reserves for the centuries to come the monumental physiognomy of the 19th century. Goethe took them in his hand, considered them mute, with scrupulous attention, as if to extract some hidden harmony, and let out a muffled, equivocal exclamation that I later recognized as a mark of genuine satisfaction.Then, by a more intelligible and flattering transition, of which he was perhaps unaware, walking to his library, he charmingly showed us a rich collection of medals from the Middle Ages, rare and precious relics of an art that could be said to have been lost, and of which our great sculptor David has nowadays been able to recover and re-immerse the secret.
(…) The bust project did not have to languish for long: the very next day, one of the apartments in the poet’s immense house was transformed into a workshop, and a shapeless mound lay on the parquet floor, awaiting the first breath of existence. As soon as it slowly shifted into a human form, Goethe’s hitherto calm and impassive figure moved with it. Gradually, as if a secret, sympathetic alliance had developed between portrait and model, as the one moved towards life, the other blossomed into confidence and abandonment: we soon came to those artist’s confidences, that confluence of poetry, where the ideas of the poet and the sculptor come together in a common mold. He would come and go, prowling around this growing mass, (to use a trivial comparison) with the anxious solicitude of a landowner building a house. He asked us many questions about France, whose progress he was following with a youthful and active curiosity; and frolicking at leisure about modern literature, he reviewed Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Nodier, Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo, whose manner he had seriously pondered in Cromwell.
(…) David’s bust, writes Pavie, was as beautiful as Chateaubriand’s, Lamartine’s, Cooper’s, as any application of genius to genius, as the work of a chisel fit and powerful to reproduce one of those types created expressly by nature for the habitation of a great thought. Of all the likenesses attempted, with greater or lesser success, in all the ages of this long glory, from his youth of twenty to Rauch’s bust, the last and best understood of all, it is no prevention to say that David’s is the best, or, to put it even more bluntly, the only realization of that ideal likeness which is not the thing, but is more than the thing, nature taken within and turned inside out, the outward manifestation of a divine intelligence passed into human bark. And there are few occasions like this one, when colossal execution seems no more than a powerless indication of real effect. An immense forehead, on which rises, like clouds, a thick tuft of silver hair; a downward gaze, hollow and motionless, a look of Olympian Jupiter; a nose of broad proportion and antique style, in the line of the forehead ; then that singular mouth we were talking about earlier, with the lower lip a little forward, that mouth, all examination, questioning and finesse, completing the top with the bottom, genius with reason; with no other pedestal than its muscular neck, this head leans as if veiled, towards the earth:it’s the hour when the setting genius lowers his gaze to this world, which he still lights with a farewell ray. Such is David’s crude description of Goethe’s statue.- What a pity that in his bust of Schiller, so famous and so praised, the sculptor Dannecker prepared such a miserable counterpart!
When Goethe received his bust, he warmly thanked David for the exchange of letters, books and medallions… but made no mention of the bust ! For one simple reason: he didn’t recognize himself at all in the work, which he didn’t even keep at home… The German poet was depicted with an oversized forehead, to reflect his great intelligence. And his tousled hair symbolized the torments of his soul…
David d’Angers and Hippolyte Carnot
Among the founders of the SFAE (see earlier chapter on Abbé Grégoire) was Hippolyte Carnot (1801-1888), younger brother of Nicolas Sadi Carnot (1796-1832), pioneer of thermodynamics and son of « the organizer of victory », the military and scientific genius Lazare Carnot (1753-1823), whose work and struggle he recounted in his 1869 biography Mémoires sur Lazare Carnot 1753-1823 by his son Hippolyte.
In 1888, with the title Henri Grégoire, évêque (bishop) républicain, Hippolyte published the Mémoires of Grégoire the defender of all the oppressed of the time (negroes and Jews alike), a great friend of his father’s who had retained this friendship.
For the former bishop of Blois, « we must enlighten the ignorance that does not know and the poverty that does not have the means to know. »
Grégoire had been one of the Convention’s great « educators », and it was on his report that the Conservatoire des Arts-et-Métiers was founded on September 29, 1794, notably for the instruction of craftsmen. Grégoire also contributed to the creation of the Bureau des Longitudes on June 25, 1795 and the Institut de France on October 25, 1795.
Hippolyte Carnot and David d’Angers, who were friends, co-authored the Memoirs of Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac (1755-1841), who acted as a sort of Minister of Information on the Comité de Salut Public, responsible for announcing the victories of the Republican armies to the Convention as soon as they arrived.
It was also Abbé Grégoire who, in 1826, commissioned David d’Angers, with the help of his friend Béranger, to bring some material and financial comfort to Rouget de Lisle (1860-1836), the legendary author of La Marseillaise, composed in Strasbourg when, in his old age, the composer was languishing in prison for debt.
Overcoming the sectarianism of their time, here are three fervent republicans full of compassion and gratitude for a musical genius who never wanted to renounce his royalist convictions, but whose patriotic creation would become the national anthem of the young French Republic.
of the Second Republic
All these battles, initiatives and mobilizations culminated in 1848, when, for two months and 15 days (from February 24 to May 9), a handful of genuine republicans became part of the « provisional government » of the Second Republic.
In such a short space of time, so many good measures were taken or launched! Hippolyte Carnot was the Minister of Public Instruction, determined to create a high level of education for all, including women, following the models set by his father for Polytechnique and Grégoire for Arts et Métiers.
Article 13 of the 1848 Constitution « guarantees citizens (…) free primary education ».
On June 30, 1848, the Minister of Public Instruction, Lazare Hippolyte Carnot, submitted a bill to the Assembly that fully anticipated the Ferry laws, by providing for compulsory elementary education for both sexes, free and secular, while guaranteeing freedom of teaching. It also provided for three years’ free training at a teacher training college, in return for an obligation to teach for at least ten years, a system that was to remain in force for a long time. He proposed a clear improvement in their salaries. He also urged teachers « to teach a republican catechism ».
A member of the provisional government, the great astronomer and scientist François Arago (1886-1853) was Minister for the Colonies, having been appointed by Gaspard Monge to succeed him at the Ecole Polytechnique, where he taught projective geometry. His closest friend was none other than Alexander von Humboldt, friend of Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.
He was another abolitionist activist who spent much of his adult life in Paris. Humboldt was a member of the Société d’Arcueil, formed around the chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet, where he also met, besides François Arago, Jean-Baptiste Biot and Louis-Joseph Gay-Lussac, with whom Humboldt became friends. They published several scientific articles together.
Humboldt and Gay-Lussac conducted joint experiments on the composition of the atmosphere, terrestrial magnetism and light diffraction, research that would later bear fruit for the great Louis Pasteur.
Napoleon, who initially wanted to expel Humboldt, eventually tolerated his presence. The Paris Geographical Society, founded in 1821, chose him as its president.
Humboldt, Arago, Schoelcher, David d’Angers and Hugo
Humboldt made no secret of his republican ideals. His Political Essay on the Island of Cuba (1825) was a bombshell. Too hostile to slavery practices, the work was banned from publication in Spain. London went so far as to refuse him access to its Empire.
Even more deplorably, John S. Trasher, who published an English-language version in 1856, removed the chapter devoted to slaves and the slave trade altogether! Humboldt protested vigorously against this politically motivated mutilation. Trasher was a slaveholder, and his redacted translation was intended to counter the arguments of North American abolitionists, who subsequently published the retracted chapter in the New York Herald and the US Courrier. Victor Schoelcher and the decree abolishing slavery in the French colonies.
In France, under Arago, the Under-Secretary of State for the Navy and the Colonies was Victor Schoelcher. He didn’t need much convincing to convince the astronomer that all the planets were aligned for him to act.
A Freemason, Schoelcher was a brother of David d’Angers’s lodge, « Les amis de la Vérité » (The Friends of Truth), also known as the Cercle social, in reality « a mixture of revolutionary political club, Masonic lodge and literary salon ».
On March 4, a commission was set up to resolve the problem of slavery in the French colonies. It was chaired by Victor de Broglie, president of the SFAE, to which five of the commission’s twelve members belonged. Thanks to the efforts of François Arago, Henri Wallon and above all Victor Schoelcher, its work led to the abolition of slavery on April 27.
Victor Hugo the abolitionist
Victor Hugo was one of the advocates of the abolition of slavery in France, but also of equality between what were still referred to as « the races » in the 19th century. « The white republic and the black republic are sisters, just as the black man and the white man are brothers », Hugo asserted as early as 1859. For him, as all men were creations of God, brotherhood was the order of the day.
When Maria Chapman, an anti-slavery campaigner, wrote to Hugo on April 27, 1851, asking him to support the abolitionist cause, Hugo replied: « Slavery in the United States! » he exclaimed on May 12, « is there any more monstrous misinterpretation? » How could a republic with such a fine constitution preserve such a barbaric practice?
Eight years later, on December 2, 1859, he wrote an open letter to the United States of America, published by the free newspapers of Europe, in defense of the abolitionist John Brown, condemned to death.
Starting from the fact that « there are slaves in the Southern states, which indignifies, like the most monstrous counter-sense, the logical and pure conscience of the Northern states », he recounts Brown’s struggle, his trial and his announced execution, and concludes: « there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, it is Washington killing Spartacus ».
A journalist from Port-au-Prince, Exilien Heurtelou, thanked him on February 4, 1860. Hugo replied on March 31:
« Hauteville-House, March 31, 1860.
You are, sir, a noble sample of this black humanity so long oppressed and misunderstood.
From one end of the earth to the other, the same flame is in man; and blacks like you prove it. Was there more than one Adam? Naturalists can debate the question, but what is certain is that there is only one God.
Since there is only one Father, we are brothers.
It is for this truth that John Brown died; it is for this truth that I fight. You thank me for this, and I can’t tell you how much your beautiful words touch me.
There are neither whites nor blacks on earth, there are spirits; you are one of them. Before God, all souls are white.
I love your country, your race, your freedom, your revolution, your republic. Your magnificent, gentle island pleases free souls at this hour; it has just set a great example; it has broken despotism. It will help us break slavery. »
Also in 1860, the American Abolitionist Society, mobilized behind Lincoln, published a collection of speeches. The booklet opens with three texts by Hugo, followed by those by Carnot, Humboldt and Lafayette.
On May 18, 1879, Hugo agreed to preside over a commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the presence of Victor Schoelcher, principal author of the 1848 emancipation decree, who hailed Hugo as « the powerful defender of all the underprivileged, all the weak, all the oppressed of this world » and declared:
« The cause of the Negroes whom we support, and towards whom the Christian nations have so much to reproach, must have had your sympathy; we are grateful to you for attesting to it by your presence in our midst. »
A start for the better
Another measure taken by the provisional government of this short-lived Second Republic was the abolition of the death penalty in the political sphere, and the abolition of corporal punishment on March 12, as well as imprisonment for debt on March 19.
In the political sphere, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly were proclaimed on March 4. On March 5, the government instituted universal male suffrage, replacing the censal suffrage in force since 1815. At a stroke, the electorate grew from 250,000 to 9 million. This democratic measure placed the rural world, home to three quarters of the population, at the heart of political life for many decades to come. This mass of new voters, lacking any real civic training, saw in him a protector, and voted en masse for Napoleon III in 1851, 1860 and 1870.
To return to David d’Angers, a lasting friendship united him with Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Recently married, Hugo and David would meet to draw. The poet and the sculptor enjoyed drawing together, making caricatures, painting landscapes or « architectures » that inspired them.
A shared ideal united them, and with the arrival of Napoleon III, both men went into political exile.
Out of friendship, David d’Angers made several busts of his friend. Hugo is shown wearing an elegant contemporary suit.
His broad forehead and slightly frowning eyebrows express the poet’s greatness, yet to come. Refraining from detailing the pupils, David lends this gaze an inward, pensive dimension that prompted Hugo to write: « my friend, you are sending me immortality. »
In 1842, David d’Angers produced another bust of Victor Hugo, crowned with laurel, where this time it was not Hugo the close friend who was evoked, but rather the genius and great man.
Finally, for Hugo’s funeral in 1885, the Republic of Haiti wished to show its gratitude to the poet by sending a delegation to represent it. Emmanuel-Edouard, a Haitian writer, presided over the delegation, and made the following statement at the Pantheon:
The Republic of Haiti has the right to speak on behalf of the black race; the black race, through me, thanks Victor Hugo for having loved and honored it so much, for having strengthened and comforted it.
The four bas-reliefs
of the Gutenberg statue
Once the reader has identified this « great arch » that runs through history, and the ideas and convictions that inspired David d’Angers, he will grasp the beautiful unity underlying the four bas-reliefs on the base of the statue commemorating Gutenberg in Strasbourg.
What stands out is the very optimistic idea that the human race, in all its great and magnificent diversity, is one and fraternal. Once freed from all forms of oppression (ignorance, slavery, etc.), they can live together in peace and harmony.
These bronze bas-reliefs were added in 1844. After bitter debate and contestation, they replaced the original 1840 painted plaster models affixed at the inauguration. They represent the benefits of printing in America, Africa, Asia and Europe. At the center of each relief is a printing press surrounded by characters identified by inscriptions, as well as schoolteachers, teachers and children.
To conclude, here’s an extract from the inauguration report describing the bas-reliefs. Without falling into wokism (for whom any idea of a « great man » is necessarily to be fought), let’s point out that it is written in the terms of the time and therefore open to discussion:
is represented by a bas-relief featuring René Descartes in a meditative attitude, beneath Francis Bacon and Herman Boerhaave. On the left are William Shakespeare, Pierre Corneille, Molière and Racine. One row below, Voltaire, Buffon, Albrecht Dürer, John Milton and Cimarosa, Poussin, Calderone, Camoëns and Puget. On the right, Martin Luther, Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, Copernicus, Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Hegel, Richter, Klopstock. Rejected on the side are Linné and Ambroise Parée. Near the press, above the figure of Martin Luther, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Rousseau and Lessing. Below the tier, Volta, Galileo, Isaac Newton, James Watt, Denis Papin and Raphaël. A small group of children study, including one African and one Asian.«
A printing press is shown again, with William Jones and Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron offering books to Brahmins, who give them manuscripts in return. Near Jones, Sultan Mahmoud II is reading the Monitor in modern clothes, his old turban lies at his feet, and nearby a Turk is reading a book. One step below, a Chinese emperor surrounded by a Persian and a Chinese man is reading the Book of Confucius. A European instructs children, while a group of Indian women stand by an idol and the Indian philosopher Rammonhun-Roy.«
Leaning on a press, William Wilberforce hugs an African holding a book, while Europeans distribute books to other Africans and are busy teaching children. On the right, Thomas Clarkson can be seen breaking the shackles of a slave. Behind him, Abbé Grégoire helps a black man to his feet and holds his hand over his heart. A group of women raise their recovered children to the sky, which will now see only free men, while on the ground lie broken whips and irons. This is the end of slavery.«
The Act of Independence of the United States, fresh from the press, is in the hands of Benjamin Franklin. Next to him stand Washington and Lafayette, who holds the sword given to him by his adopted homeland to his chest. Jefferson and all the signatories of the Act of Independence are assembled. On the right, Bolivar shakes hands with an Indian. »
We can better understand the words spoken by Victor Hugo on November 29, 1884, shortly before his death, during his visit to the workshop of sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, where the poet was invited to admire the giant statue bearing the symbolic name « Liberty Enlightening the World », built with the help of Gustave Eiffel and ready to leave for the United States by ship. A gift from France to America, it will commemorate the active part played by Lafayette’s country in the Revolutionary War.
Initially, Hugo was most interested in American heroes and statesmen: William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Role models, according to Hugo, who enabled the people to progress. For the French politician who became a Republican in 1847, America was the example to follow. Even if he was very disappointed by the American position on the death penalty and slavery.
After 1830, the writer abandoned this somewhat idyllic vision of the New World and attacked the white « civilizers » who hunted down Indians:
« You think you civilize a world, when you inflame it with some foul fever , when you disturb its lakes, mirrors of a secret god, when you rape its virgin, the forest. When you drive out of the wood, out of the den, out of the shore, your naive and dark brother, the savage… And when throwing out this useless Adam, you populate the desert with a man more reptilian… Idolater of the dollar god, madman who palpitates, no longer for a sun, but for a nugget, who calls himself free and shows the appalled world the astonished slavery serving freedom!«
Overcoming his fatigue, in front of the Statue of Liberty, Hugo improvised what he knew would be his last speech:
« This beautiful work tends towards what I have always loved, called: peace between America and France – France which is Europe – This pledge of peace will remain permanent. It was good that it was done!«
1. If the phrase appears in the Book of Genesis, it could also refer to Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) a novel by Victor Hugo, a great friend of the statue’s sculptor, David d’Angers. We know from a letter Hugo wrote in August 1832 that the poet brought David d’Angers the eighth edition of the book. The scene most directly embodied in the statue is the one in which the character of Frollo converses with two scholars (one being Louis XI in disguise) while pointing with one finger to a book and with the other to the cathedral, remarking: « Ceci tuera cela » (This will kill that), i.e. that one power (the printed press), democracy, will supplant the other (the Church), theocracy, a historical evolution Hugo thought ineluctable.
2. It was the encounter with Asia that brought countless technical know-how and scientific discoveries from the East to Europe, the best-known being the compass and gunpowder. Just as essential to printing as movable type was paper, the manufacture of which was perfected in China at the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty (around the year 185). As for printing, the oldest printed book we have to date is the Diamond Sutra, a Chinese Buddhist scripture dating from 868. Finally, it was in the mid-11th century, under the Song dynasty, that Bi Sheng (990-1051) invented movable type. Engraved in porcelain, a viscous clay ceramic, hardened in fire and assembled in resin, they revolutionized printing. As documented by the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, it was the Korean Choe Yun-ui (1102-1162) who improved this technique in the 12th century by using metal (less fragile), a process later adopted by Gutenberg and his associates. The Anthology of Zen Teachings of Buddhist High Priests (1377), also known as the Jikji, was printed in Korea 78 years before the Gutenberg Bible, and is recognized as the world’s oldest book with movable metal type.
3. Etienne Taillemite, Lafayette and the abolition of slavery.
4. Victor Hugo undoubtedly wanted to rebound on the news that reached him from America. The Pacific Northwest smallpox epidemic of 1862, which was brought from San Francisco to Victoria, devastated the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast, with a mortality rate of over 50% along the entire coast from Puget Sound to southeast Alaska. Some historians have described the epidemic as a deliberate genocide, as the colony of Vancouver Island and the colony of British Columbia could have prevented it, but chose not to, and in a way facilitated it.
5. Victor Hugo, La civilisation from Toute la lyre (1888 and 1893).
While in the West, “modern” artistic expression has degenerated into vibrant eulogies on the “Eros/Thanatos” theme (sex/death), Chinese artists have been encouraged to revive the most uplifting forms of art, often combining classical universal geniuses with their own historic traditions.
A case in point is Wang Shaolun (born 1968), whose “realistic” paintings, including beautiful portraits of women, are rejected by western critiques as remnants of “social realism”. It is true that, even when the country is rapidly becoming an industrial giant and urban residents become richer and richer, this young artist continues depicting farmers.
Following his graduation from the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts, Shaolin, sponsored by the Chinese government, could finish his training at the world famous Repin Art Academy of Saint-Petersburg. Recently, Shaolin was commissioned by the Chinese government to paint several life-size oil paintings for museums in major cities, as well as for national celebratory events.
On Nov. 18, CGTN, presented Shaolun’s 1999 work titled: « Xiaogang, The Night Of November 24, 1978 » depicting a night scene in a rural farming village in Anhui Province. “That evening, 18 farmers signed an agreement that would change the course of agriculture in China.” writes CGTN. Before 1978, China practiced collective farming. But food shortages due to drought, lack of incentives and other challenges were persistent.
The historical accord was called « The Household Responsibility System (HRS)” and for the first time all allowed individual households to contract land and machinery to produce their own yields. With this new procedure, “Each household sold the government their grain at an official price. But any leftover grain could be sold on the open market at a much higher price.” The new system was one of the key reforms of Deng Xiaoping and a key step of pulling millions out of extreme poverty. As a result, between 1978 and 1984, agricultural output in China almost doubled. The HRS resolved the food scarcity crisis and elevated incomes.
The painting is clearly inspired by Rembrandt’s 1661 oil painting called the “Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis” with the light literately emanating out of the table and illuminating a group of peasants intensively concentrating on accomplishing an act that’s going to change the course of history.
By Karel Vereycken, July 2021.
By Karel Vereycken, July 2021.
At a time when old diseases make their return and new ones emerge worldwide, the tragic vulnerability of much of humanity poses an immense challenge.
One wonders whether to laugh or cry when international authorities trumpet without further clarification that to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, “all you have to do” is “wash your hands with soap and water”!
They forget one small detail: 3 billion people do not have facilities to wash their hands at home and 1.4 billion have no access to either water or soap!
Yet, since the dawn of time, mankind has demonstrated its capacity to mobilize its creative genius to make water available in the most remote places.
Here is a short presentation of a marvel of such human genius, the “qanâts”, an underground water conveyance system dating from the Iron Age. Probably of Egyptian origin, it was deployed on a large scale in Persia from the beginning of the 1st millennium BC.
The qanât or underground aqueduct
Sometimes called “horizontal drilling”, the qanât is an underground aqueduct employed to draw water from a water table and convey it by simple gravitational effect to urban settlements and farmland. The word qanât is an old Semitic word, probably Accadian, derived from a root qanat (reed) from which come canna and canal.
This “drainage gallery”, cut into the rock or built by man, is certainly one of the earliest and most ingenious inventions for irrigation in arid and semi-arid regions. The technique offers a significant advantage: by conveying water through an underground conduit, contrary to open air canals, not a single drop of water is wasted by evaporation.
Oases’ are NOT natural phenomena. All known oases are man-made. It is the qanât technique that allows man, in a given geographic configuration, to create oases in the middle of the desert, when a water table is close enough to the ground level or at a site close to the bed of a river lost in the sands of the desert.
Copied and expanded by the Romans, the qanât technique was carried across the Atlantic to the New World by the Spaniards, where many such underground canals still function in Peru and Chile. In fact, there are even Persian qanâts in western Mexico.
While today this three thousand year old technique may not be appropriate everywhere to solve current water scarcity problems in arid and semi-arid regions, it has much to inspire us as a demonstration of human genius at its best, that is, capable of doing a lot with a little.
The oases of Egypt
Today, 95% of the Egyptian population prospers on only 5% of its territory, mainly around the Nile delta. Hence, from the earliest days of Egyptian civilization, irrigation and water storage techniques for the Nile floods were developed in order to conserve this silty, nutrient-rich water for use throughout the year.
The river water was diverted and transported by canals to the fields by gravity. Since water from the Nile did not reach the oases, the Egyptians used the gushing water from the springs, which came from the large aquifer reserves of the western desert, and conveyed it to the fields by irrigation canals.
One of the fruits of this attempt to “conquer the desert” was a sustained habitation of the Dakhleh oasis throughout the Pharaonic period, explicable not only by a commercial interest on the part of the Egyptian state, but also by the new agricultural perspectives it offered.
Closer to us in time, the Qanât Fir’aun (The Watercourse of the Pharaoh) also known as the aqueduct of Gadara, a city today in Jordan. As far as we know, this 170 km long structure, depending on the geography, combines several bridge-aqueducts (of the same type as the Gard aqueduct in France) and 106 km of underground canals using the Persian qanât technique. It is not only the longest but also the most sophisticated aqueduct of antiquity, and the fruit of a years of hydraulic engineering.
In reality, the Romans, hiring persian water experts, did nothing more than terminate in the 2nd century an ancient project designed to supply water to the “Decapolis”, a collaborative group of ten cities founded by Greek and Macedonian settlers under the Seleucid king Antiochos III (223 – 187 BC), one of the successors of Alexander the Great.
These ten cities were located on the eastern border of the Roman Empire (now in Syria, Jordan and Israel), united by language, culture and political status, each with a degree of autonomy and self-rule. Its capital, Gadara, was home to more than 50,000 people and known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, its own university attracting scholars, writers, artists, philosophers and poets. But this rich city lacked something existential : an abundance of water.
The Gadara qanat made the difference. “In the capital alone, there were thousands of fountains, watering holes and baths. Wealthy senators cooled themselves in private pools and decorated their gardens with cooling caves. The result was a record daily consumption of more than 500 liters of water per capita,” explains Matthias Schulz, author of a report on the aqueduct in Spiegel Online.
We all admire the roman aqueducts. But few of us are aware that the Romans only adapted the technique of the qanâts developed much earlier in Persia.
Indeed, it was under the Achaemenid Empire (around 559 – 330 BC.), that this technique spread slowly from Persia to the east and the west. Many qanâts can be found in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Libya), in the South East Asia (Iran, Oman, Iraq) and further east, in Central Asia, from Afghanistan to China (Xinjiang), via India.
The development of these “draining galleries” is attested in different regions of the world under various names: qanât and kareez in Iran, Syria and Egypt, kariz, kehriz in Pakistan and Afghanistan, aflaj in Oman, galeria in Spain, kahn in Balochistan, kanerjing in China, foggara in North Africa, khettara in Morocco, ngruttati in Sicily, bottini of Siena, etc.
Historically, the majority of the populations of Iran and other arid regions of Asia or North Africa depended on the water provided by the qanâts; their construction lifted entire areas to a higher “economic platform”, made deserts habitable and opened new land for agriculture. The map of demographic expansion followed the trail of the development of this new higher platform.
In his article « Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanât » (From natural rhythm to human rhythm: the life and death of a traditional technique, the qanât), Pierre Lombard, a researcher at the French CNRS, points out that this is not an artisanal and marginal process:
“Until a few years ago, the importance of the ancestral technique of qanât was sometimes ignored in Central Asia, Iran, Syria, and even in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. For example, the Public Authority for Water Resources of the Sultanate of Oman estimated in 1982 that all the qanâts still in operation conveyed more than 70 % of the total water used in that country and irrigated nearly 55% of the cereal lands. Oman was still one of the few states in the Middle East to maintain and sometimes even develop its qanât network; this situation, apart from its longevity, does not appear to be exceptional. If one turns to the edges of the Iranian Plateau, one can note with Wulff (1968) the obvious discrepancy between the relative aridity of this area (between 100 and 250 mm of annual precipitation) and its non-negligible agricultural production, and explain it by one of the densest networks of qanâts in the Middle East. It can also be recalled that until the construction of the Karaj dam in the early 1960s, the two million inhabitants of Tehran at that time consumed exclusively the water brought from the Elbourz foothills by several dozen regularly maintained qanâts. Finally, we can mention the case of some major oases in the Near and Middle East (Kharga in Egypt, Layla in Saudi Arabia, Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, etc.) or in Central Asia (Turfan, in Chinese Turkestan) that owe their vast development, if not their very existence, to this remarkable technique.”
On the website ArchéOrient, the French archaeologist Rémy Boucharlat, Director of Research Emeritus at the CNRS, an Iran expert, explains:
“Whatever the origin of the water, deep or not, the technique of construction of the gallery is the same. First, the issue is to identify the presence of water, either its going underground near a river, or the presence of a water table under a foothill, which requires the science and experience of specialists. A motherwell will be dug to reach the top of the water table, indicating at which depth the [horizontal] gallery should be drilled. It’s slope must be very small, less than 2‰, so that the flow of water is calm and regular, and conduct the water gradually to the surface area, according to a gradient much lower than the slope of the foothill.
“The gallery is then dug, not starting from the mother well because it would be immediately flooded, but from downstream, from the point of arrival. The conduct is first dug in an open trench, then covered, and finally gradually sinks into the ground in a tunnel. For the evacuation of soil and ventilation during excavation, as well as to identify the direction of the gallery, shafts are dug from the surface at regular intervals, between 5 and 30 m depending on the nature of the land ».
In April 1973, Lyndon LaRouche’s friend, the French-Iranian professor and historian Aly Mazahéri (1914-1991), published his translation from Arab into French of “The Civilization of Hidden Waters”, a treatise on the exploitation of underground waters composed in the year 1017 by the Persian hydrologist Mohammed Al-Karaji, who lived in Baghdad. (Translated in English in 2011)
After an introduction and general considerations on geography, natural phenomena, the water cycle, the study of terrain and the instruments of the hydrologist, Al-Karaji gives a highly precise technical outline of the construction and maintenance of qanâts, as well as legal considerations respecting their management and maintenance.
In his introduction to Al-Karji’s treatise, Professor Mazaheri emphasizes the role of the Iranian city of Merv (now in Turkmenistan). This ancient city, he says, was part of
“the long series of oases extending at the foot of the northern slope of the Iranian plateau, from the Caspian to the first foothills of the Pamirs. There, between the geological extension of the Caspian towards the East, there is a strip of arable land, more or less wide, but very fertile. Now, to exploit it, a lot of ingenuity is needed: where, for example in Merv, a big river, such as the Marghab, coming from the glaciers of the central East-Iranian massif, crosses the chain, it is necessary to establish dams, above the strip of arable land, without which, the ‘river’, divided into several dozens of arms, rushes under the sands. Elsewhere, and it is almost all along the northern slope of the chain, one can create artificial oases, by bringing the water by underground aqueducts.” (p. 44)
“The construction of dams and underground aqueducts are among the most interesting legacies of their (the ancient Persians) irrigation techniques (…) Long before Islam, the Persian hydrologists had built thousands of aqueducts, allowing the creation of hundreds of villages, dozens of cities previously unknown. And very often, even where there was a river, because of the insufficiency of this one, the hydronomists had brought to light many aqueducts allowing the extension of the culture and the development of the city. Naishabur was such a city. Under the Sassanids, and later under the Caliphs, an important network of aqueducts had been created there, so that the inhabitants could afford the luxury of owning a ‘’bathing room’ in the basement, at the level of the aqueduct serving the house.”
Let us recall that most Persian scholars, including the famous mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, not suffering from today’s hyper-specialization that tends to curb creative thinking, excelled in mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine as well as in hydrology.
Mazaheri confirms that this “civilization of underground waters” spread well beyond the Iranian borders:
“Already, under the [Umayyad] Caliph Hisham (723-42), Persian hydronomists built aqueducts between Damascus and Mecca (…) Later, Mecca suffering from lack of water, Zubayda, the wife of Hâroun Al-Rachîd, sent Persian hydronomists there who endowed the city with a large underground aqueduct. And each time the latter was silted up, a new team left Persia to restore the network: such repairs took place periodically under Al-Muqtadir (908-32), under Al-Qa’im (1031-1075), under Al-Naçir (1180-1226) and, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, under the Mongol prince Emir Tchoban. We would say the same of Medina and the stages on the pilgrimage route, between Baghdad and Mecca, wherever it was possible to do so, hydronomic works were undertaken and ‘underground aqueducts’ were created.
“Hydronomy is a highly demanding skill. To practice it, it is not enough to have mathematical knowledge: decadal calculus, algebra, trigonometry, etc., it is necessary to spend long hours in the galleries at the risk of dying by flooding, landslide or lack of air. It is necessary to have an ancestral instinct of ‘dowser’.”
The annual rainfall in Iran is 273 mm, which is less than one third of the world’s average annual precipitation.
The temporal and spatial distribution of precipitation is not uniform; about 75% occurs in a small area, mainly on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, while the rest of the country does not receive sufficient rainfall. On the temporal scale, only 25% of the precipitation occurs during the plant growing season.
7,7 x the circonférence of the Earth
Still in use today in Iran, qanâts currently supply about 7.6 billion m3 of water, close to 15% of the country’s total water needs.
Considering that the average length of each qanât is 6 km in most parts of the country, the total length of the 30,000 qanât systems (potentially exploitable today) is about 310,800 km, which is about 7.7 times the circumference of the Earth or 6/7th of the Earth-Moon distance!
This shows the enormous amount of work and energy applied to build the qanâts. In fact, while more than 38,000 qanâts were in operation in Iran till 1966, its number dropped to 20,000 in 1998 and is currently estimated at 18,000. According to the Iranian daily Tehran Times, historically, over 120,000 qanat sites are documented.
Moreover, while in 1965, 30-50% of Iran’s total water needs were met by qanats, this figure has dropped to 15% in recent decades.
According to the Face Iran website:
“The water flow of qanâts is estimated between 500 and 750 cubic meters per second. As land aridity tends to vary according to the abundance of rains in each region, this quantity of water is used as a more or less important supplement. This makes it possible to use good land that would otherwise be barren. The importance of the impact on the desert can be summarized in one figure: about 3 million hectares. In seven centuries of hard work, the Dutch conquered 1.5 million hectares from the marshes or the sea. In three millennia, the Iranians have conquered twice as much on the desert.
Indeed, to each new qanât corresponded a new village, new lands. From where a new human group absorbed the demographic surplus. Little by little the Iranian landscape was constituted. At the end of the qanat, is the house of the chief, often with one floor. It is surrounded by the villagers’ houses, animal shelters, gardens and market gardens.
The distribution of land and the days of irrigation of the plots were regulated by the chief of the villages. Thus, a qanat imposed a solidarity between the inhabitants.”
If each qanât is “invented” and supervised by a mirab (dowser-hydrologist and discoverer), the realization of a qanât is a collective task that requires several months or years, even for medium-sized qanâts, not to mention works of record dimensions (a 300 m deep mother-well, a 70 km long gallery classified in 2016 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, in northeast Iran).
Each undertaking is carried out by a village or a group of villages. The absolute necessity of a collective investment in the infrastructure and its maintenance requires a higher notion of the common good, an indispensable complement to the notion of private property that rains and rivers do not take in account.
In the Maghreb, the management of water distributed by a khettara (the local name for qanâts) follows traditional distribution norms called “water rights”. Originally, the volume of water granted per user was proportional to the work contributed to build the khettara, translated into an irrigation time during which the beneficiary had access to the entire flow of the khettara for his fields. Even today, when the khettara has not dried up, this rule of the right to water persists and a share can be sold or bought. Because it is also necessary to take into account the surface area of the fields to be irrigated by each family.
The causes of the decline of the qanâts are numerous. Without endorsing the catastrophist theses of an anti-human ecology, it must be noted that in the face of the increasing urban population, the random construction of dams and the digging of deep wells equipped with electric pumps have disturbed and often depleted the aquifers and water tables.
A neoliberal ideology, falsely described as “modern”, also prefers the individualistic “manager” of a well to a collective management organized among neighbors and villages. A passive State authority has done the rest. In the absence of more thoughtful reflection on its future, the age-old system of qanâts is on the verge of extinction as a result.
In the meantime, the Iranian population has grown from 40 to over 82 million in 40 years. Instead of living off oil, the country is seeking to prosper through agriculture and industry. As a result, the need for water has increased substantially. To cope with rising demands, Iran is desalinating sea water at great cost. Its civilian nuclear program will be the key factor to provide water at a reasonable cost.
Beyond political and religious divisions, closer cooperation between all the countries in the region (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, etc.) with a perspective to improve, develop, manage and share water resources, will be beneficial to each and all.
Presented as an “Oasis Plan” and promoted for decades by the American thinker and economist Lyndon LaRouche, such a policy, translating word into action, is the only basis of a true peace policy.
- Remy Boucharlat, The falaj or qanât, a polycentric and multi-period invention, ArcheOrient – Le Blog, September 2015 ;
- Pierre Lombard, Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanat, Persée, 1991 ;
- Aly Mazaheri, La civilisation des eaux cachées, un traité de l’exploitation des eaux souterraines composé en 1017 par l’hydrologue perse Mohammed Al-Karaji, Persée, 1973 ;
- Hassan Ahmadi, Arash Malekian, Aliakbar Nazari Samani, The Qanat: A Living History in Iran, January 2010;
- Evelyne Ferron, Egyptians, Persians and Romans: the interests and stakes of the development of Egyptian oasis environments.
 The ten cities forming the Decapolis were: 1) Damascus in Syria, much further north, sometimes considered an honorary member of the Decapolis; 2) Philadelphia (Amman in Jordan); 3) Rhaphana (Capitolias, Bayt Ras in Jordan); 4) Scythopolis (Baysan or Beit-Shean in Israel), which is said to be its capital; It is the only city west of the Jordan River; 5) Gadara (Umm Qeis in Jordan); 6) Hippos (Hippus or Sussita, in Israel); 7) Dion (Tell al-Ashari in Syria); 8) Pella (Tabaqat Fahil in Jordan); 9) Gerasa (Jerash in Jordan) and 10) Canatha (Qanawat in Syria)
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;
In 2013, at the World Canal Conference in Toulouse, France, Karel Vereycken interviews Serbian, Chinese and Italian experts and historians on the important role of canals.