Étiquette : greek
By Karel Vereycken, Paris, France.
Same article in FR, même article en FR.
No visitor to Florence can miss the gilded bronze reliefs decorating the Porta del Paradiso (Gates of Paradise), the main gate of the Baptistery of Florence right in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore surmounted by Filippo Brunelleschi’s splendid cupola.
In this article, Karel Vereycken sheds new light on the contribution of Arab science and Ghiberti’s crucial role in giving birth to the Renaissance.
The Baptistery, erected on what most Florentines thought to be the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the Roman God of Mars, is one of the oldest buildings in the city, constructed between 1059 and 1128 in the Florentine Romanesque style. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri and many other notable Renaissance figures, including members of the Medici family, were baptized in this baptistery.
During the Renaissance, in Florence, corporations and guilds competed for the leading role in design and construction of great projects with illustrious artistic creations.
While the Arte dei Lana (corporation of wool producers) financed the Works (Opera) of the Duomo and the construction of its cupola, the Arte dei Mercantoni di Calimala (the guild of merchants dealing in buying foreign cloth for finishing and export), took care of the Baptistery and financed the embellishment of its doors.
The Gates of Paradise
The Baptistry, an octagonal building, has four entrances (East, West, North and South) of which only three (South, North and East) have sets of artistically important bronze doors with relief sculptures. Three dates are key : 1329, 1401 and 1424.
- In 1329, the Calimala Guild, on Giotto‘s recommendation, ordered Andrea Pisano (1290-1348) to decorate a first set of doors (initialy installed as the East doors, i.e. seen when one leaves the Cathedral, but today South). These consist of 28 quatrefoil (clover-shaped) panels, with the 20 top panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist (the patron of the edifice). The 8 lower panels depict the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence, praised by Plato in his Republic and represented during the XVIth century by the Flemish humanist painter and reader of Petrarch, Peter Brueghel the Elder. Construction took 8 years, from 1330 till 1338.
- In 1401, after having narrowly won the competition with Brunelleschi, the 23 year old and inexperienced young goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), is commissioned by the Calima Guild to decorate the doors which are today the North Gate. Ghiberti cast the bronze high reliefs using a method known as lost-wax casting, a technique that he had to reinvent entirely since it was lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. One of the reasons Ghiberti won the contest, was that his technique was so advanced that it required 20 % less (7 kg per panel) bronze than that of his competitors, bronze being a dense material far more costly than marble. His technique, applied to the entire decoration of the North Gate, as compared to his competitors, would save some estimated 100 kg of bronze. And since in 1401, with the plague regularly hitting Florence, economic conditions were poor, even the wealthy Calimala took into account the total costs of the program.
The bronze doors are comprised of 28 panels, with 20 panels depicting the life of Christ from the New Testament. The 8 lower panels show the four Evangelists and the Church Fathers Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory, and Saint Augustine. The construction took 24 years.
- In 1424, Ghiberti, at age 46, was given—unusually, with no competition—the task of also creating the East Gate. Only in 1452 did Ghiberti, then seventy-four years old, install the last bronze panels, since construction lasted this time 27 years! According to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) later judged them « so beautiful they would grace the entrance to Paradise ».
Over two generations, a bevy of well paid assistants and pupils were trained by Ghiberti, including exceptional artists, such as Luca della Robbia, Donatello, Michelozzo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Bernardo Cennini, Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Verrocchio and Ghiberti’s sons, Vittore and Tommaso. And over time, the seventeen-foot-tall, three-ton bronze doors became an icon of the Renaissance, one of the most famous works of art in the world.
In 1880, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin was inspired by it for his own Gates of Hell on which he worked for 38 year
Of utmost interest for our discussion here is the dramatic shift in conception and design of the bronze relief sculptures that occurred between the North and the East Gates, because it reflects how bot the artist as well as his patrons used the occasion to share with the broader public their newest ideas, inventions and exciting discoveries.
The themes of the North Gate of 1401 were inspired by scenes from the New Testament, except for the panel made by Ghiberti, « The Sacrifice of Isaac », which had won him the selection competition the same year. To complete the ensemble, it was therefore only logical that the East Gate of 1424 would take up the themes of the Old Testament.
Originally, it was the scholar and former chancellor of Florence Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) who planned an iconography quite similar to the two previous doors. But, after heated discussions, his proposal was rejected for something radically new. Instead of realizing 28 panels, it was decided, for aesthetic reasons, to reduce the number of panels to only 10 much larger square reliefs, between borders containing statuettes in niches and medallions with busts.
Hence, since each of the 10 chapters of the Old Testament contains several events, the total number of scenes illustrated, within the 10 panels has risen to 37 and all appear in perspective :
- Adam and Eve (The Creation of Man)
- Cain and Abel (Jalousie is the origin of Sin)
- Noah (God’s punishment)
- Abraham and Isaac (God is just)
- Jacob and Esau
- David (Good commandor)
- Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
The general theme is that of salvation based on Latin and Greek patristic tradition. Very shocking for the time, Ghiberti places in the center of the first panel the creation of Eve, that of Adam appearing at the bottom left.
After the first three panels, focusing on the theme of sin, Ghiberti began to highlight more clearly the role of God the Savior and the foreshadowing of Christ’s coming. Subsequent panels are easier to understand. One example is the panel with Isaac, Jacob and Esau where the figures are merged with the surrounding landscape so that the eye is led toward the main scene represented in the top right.
Many of the sources for these scenes were written in ancient Greek, and since knowledge of Greek at that time was not so common, it appears that Ghiberti’s “theological advisor” was Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), with whom he had many exchanges.
Traversari was a close friend of Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), a protector of Piero della Francesca (1412-1492) and a key organizer of the Ecumenical Council of Florence of 1438-1439, which attempted to put an end to the schism separating the Church of the East from that of the West.
The bronze reliefs, known for their vivid illusion of deep space in relief, are one of the revolutionary events that epitomize the Renaissance. In the foreground are figures in high relief, which gradually become less protruding thereby exploiting the full illusionistic potential of the stiacciato technique later brought to its high point by Donatello. Using this form of “inbetweenness”, they integrate in one single image, what appears both as a painting, a low relief as well as a high relief. Or maybe one has to look at it another way: these are flat images traveling gradually from a surface into the full three dimensions of life, just as Ghiberti, in one of the first self-portraits of art history, reaches his head out of a bronze medal to look down on the viewers. The artist desired much more than perspective, he wanted breathing space!
This new approach will influence Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1517). As art historian Daniel Arasse points out :
At the beginning of the 15th century, several theoretical approaches existed and eventuall contradicted each other. Around 1423-1427, the talentful sculptor Donatello, a young collaborator of Ghiberti, created his Herod’s Banquet, a bas-relief in the stiacciato technique for the baptismal font of the Siena Baptistery.
In this work, the sculptor deploys a harmonious perspective with a single central vanishing point. Around the same time, in Florence, the painter Massacchio (1401-1428) used a similar construction in his fresco The Trinity.
As we will see, Ghiberti, starting from the anatomy of the eye, opposed such an abstract approach in his works as well as in his writings and explored, as early as 1401, other geometrical models, called « binocular ». (see below).
Then, as far as our knowledge reaches, in 1407, Brunelleschi had conducted several experiments on this question, most likely based on the ideas presented by another friend of Cusa, the Italian astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397-1482), in the latter’s now lost treaty Della Prospettiva. What we do know is that Brunelleschi sought above all to demonstrate that all perspective is an optical illusion.
Finally, it was in 1435, that the humanist architect Leon Baptista Alberti (1406-1472), in his treatise Della Pictura, attempted, on the basis of Donatello’s approach, to theorize single vanishing point perspective as a representation of a harmonious and unified three-dimensional space on a flat surface. Noteworthy but frustrating for us today is the fact that Alberti’s treatise doesn’t contain any illustrations.
However, Leonardo, who read and studied Ghiberti’s writings on, would use the latter’s arguments to indicate the limits and even demonstrate the dysfunctionality of Alberti’s “perfect” perspective construction especially when one goes beyond a 30 degres angle.
In the Codex Madrid, II, 15 v. da Vinci realizes that « as such, the perspective offered by a rectilinear wall is false unless it is corrected (…) ».
Perspectiva artificialis versus perspectiva naturalis
Alberti’s “perspectiva artificialis” is nothing but an abstraction, necessary and useful to represent a rational organization of space. Without this abstraction, it is fairly impossible to define with mathematical precision the relationships between the appearance of objects and the receding of their various proportions on a flat screen: width, height and depth.
From the moment that a given image on a flat screen was thought about as the intersection of a plane cutting a cone or pyramid, a method emerged for what was mistakenly considered as an “objective” representation of “real” three dimensional space, though it is nothing but an “anamorphosis”, i.e. a tromp-l’oeil or visual illusion.
What has to be underscored, is that this construction does away with the physical reality of human existence since it is based on an abstract construct pretending:
- that man is a single eyed cyclops;
- that vision emanates from one single point, the apex of the visual pyramid;
- that the eye is immobile;
- that the image is projected on a flat screen rather than on a curved retina.
Slanders and gossip
The crucial role of Ghiberti, an artist which “Ghiberti expert” Richard Krautheimer mistakenly presents as a follower of Alberti’s perspectiva artificialis, has been either ignored or downplayed.
Ghiberti’s unique manuscript, the three volumes of the Commentarii, which include his autobiography and which established him as the first modern historian of the fine arts, is not even fully translated into English or French and was only published in Italian in 1998.
Today, because of his attention to minute detail and figures « sculpted » with wavy and elegant lines, as well as the variety of plants and animals depicted, Ghiberti is generally presented as “Gothic-minded”, and therefore “not really” a Renaissance artist!
Giorgio Vasari, often acting as the paid PR man of the Medici clan, slanders Ghiberti by saying he wrote « a work in the vernacular in which he treated many different topics but arranged them in such a fashion that little can be gained from reading it. »
Admittedly, tension among humanists, was not uncommon. Self-educated craftsmen, such as Ghiberti and Brunelleschi on the one side, and heirs of wealthy wool merchants, such as Niccoli on the other side, came from entirely different worlds. For example, according to a story told by Guarino Veronese in 1413, Niccoli greeted Filippo Brunelleschi haughtily: « O philosopher without books, » to which Filippo replied with his legendary irony: « O books without philosopher ».
For sure, the Commentarii, are not written according to the rhetorical rules of those days. Written at the end of Ghiberti’s life, they may have simply been dictated to a poorly trained clerk who made dozens of spelling errors.
The Commentarii does reveal a highly educated author and a thinker having profound knowledge of many classical Greek and Arab thinkers. Ghiberti was not just some brilliant handcraft artisan but a typical “Renaissance man”.
In dialogue with Bruni, Traversari and the “manuscript hunter” Niccolo Niccoli, Ghiberti, who couldn’t read Greek but definitely knew Latin, was clearly familiar with the rediscovery of Greek and Arab science, a task undertaken by Boccaccio’s and Salutati’s “San Spirito Circle” whose guests (including Bruni, Traversari, Cusa, Niccoli, Cosimo di Medici, etc.) later would convene every week at the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent. Ghiberti exchanges moreover with Giovanni Aurispa, a collaborator of Traversari who brought back from Byzantium, years before Bessarion, the whole of Plato’s works to the West.
Amy R. Bloch, in her well researched study Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, Humanism, History, and Artistic Philosophy in the Italian Renaissance (2016), writes that « Traverari and Niccoli can be tied directly to the origins of the project for the Gates and were clearly interested in sculptural commissions being planned for the Baptistery. On June 21, 1424, after the Calima requested from Bruni his program for the doors, Traversari wrote to Niccoli acknowledging, in only general terms, Niccoli’s ideas for the stories to be included and mentioning, without evident disapproval, that the guild had instead turned to Bruni for advice. »
Ghiberti’s patron, sometimes advisor, and close associate was Palla Strozzi (1372-1462), who, besides being the the richest man in Florence with a gross taxable assets of 162,925 florins in 1427, including 54 farms, 30 houses, a banking firm with a capital of 45,000 florins, and communal bonds, was also a politician, a writer, a philosopher and a philologist whose library contained close to 370 volumes in 1462.
Just as Traversari and Bruni, Strozzi learned Latin and studied Greek under the direction of the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, invited to Florence by Salutati.
Ghiberti’s close relationship with Strozzi, writes Bloch, « gave him access to his manuscripts and, as importantly, to Strozzi’s knowledge of them. »
But there was more. « The relationship between Ghiberti and Palla Strozzi was so close that, when Palla went to Venice in 1424 as one of two Florentine ambassadors charged with negociating an alliance with the Venetians, Ghiberti accompanied him in his retinue. »
Strozzi was known as a real humanist, always looking to preserve peace while strongly opposing oligarchical rule, both in Florence as in Venice.
In fact it was Palla Strozzi, not Cosimo de’ Medici, who first set in motion plans for the first public library in Florence, and he intended for the sacristy of Santa Trinita to serve as its entryway. While Palla’s library was never realized due to the dramatic political conflict knows as the Albizzi Coup that led to his exile in 1434, Cosimo who got a free hand to rule over Florence, would make the library project his own.
A bold statement
Ghiberti begins the Commentarii with a bold and daring statement for a Christian man in a Christian world, about how the art of antiquity came to be lost:
Ghiberti understood the importance of multidisciplinarity for artists. According to him, “sculpture and painting are sciences of several disciplines nourished by different teachings”.
In book I of his Commentarii, Ghiberti gives a list of the 10 liberal arts that the sculptor and the painter should master : philosophy, history, grammar, arithmic, astronomy, geometry, perspective, theory of drawing, anatomy and medecine and underlines that the necessity for an artist to assist at anatomical dissections.
As Amy Bloch underscores, while working on the Gates, in the intense process of visualizing the stories of God’s formation of the world and its living inhabitants, Ghiberti’s engagement « stimulated in him an interest in exploring all types of creativity — not only that of God, but also that of nature and of humans — and led him to present in the opening panel of the Gates of Paradise (The creation of Adam and Eve) a grand vision of the emergence of divine, natural, and artistic creation. »
The inclusion of details evoking God’s craftmanship, says Bloch, « recalls similes that liken God, as the maker of the world, to an architect, or, in his role as creator of Adam, to a sculptor or painter. Teh comparison, which ultimately derives from the architect-demiurge who creates the world in Plato’s Timaeus, appears commonly in medieval Jewish and Christian exegesis. »
Philo of Alexandria wrote that man was modeled « as by a potter » and Ambrose metaphorically called God a « craftsman (artifex) and a painter (pictor) ». Consequently, if man is « the image of God » as says Augustine and the model of the « homo faber – man producer of things », then, according to Salutati, « human affairs have a similarity to divine ones ».
The power of vision and the composition of the Eye
Concerning vision, Ghiberti writes:
Now, any serious scholar, having worked through Leonardo’s Notebooks, who then reads Ghiberti’s I Commentarii, immediately realizes that most of Da Vinci’s writings were basically comments and contributions about things said or answers to issues raised by Ghiberti, especially respecting the nature of light and optics in general. Leonardo’s creative mindset was a direct outgrowth of Ghiberti’s challenging world outlook.
In Commentario 3, 6, which deals with optics, vision and perspective, Ghiberti, opposing those for whom vision can only be explained by a purely mathematical abstraction, writes that “In order that no doubt remains in the things that follow, it is necessary to consider the composition of the eye, because without this one cannot know anything about the way of seeing.” He then says, that those who write about perspective don’t take into account “the eye’s composition”, under the pretext that many authors would disagree.
Ghiberti regrets that despite the fact that many “natural philosophers” such as Thales, Democritus, Anaxagoras and Xenophanes have examined the subject along with others devoted to human health such as “Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna”, there is still so much confusion.
Indeed, he says, “speaking about this matter is obscure and not understood, if one does not have recourse to the laws of nature, because more fully and more copiously they demonstrate this matter.”
Avicenna, Alhazen and Constantine
Therefore, says Ghiberti:
This is quite a statement! Here we have “the” leading, founding figure of the Italian and European Renaissance with its great contribution of perspective, saying that to get any idea about how vision functions, one has to study three Arab scientists: Ibn Sina, Ibn al Haytham and Qusta ibn Luqa ! Cultural Eurocentrism might be one reason why Ghiberti’s writings were kept in the dark.
Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) made important contributions to opthalmology and improved upon earlier conceptions of the processes involved in vision and visual perception in his Treatise on Optics (1021), which is known in Europe as the Opticae Thesaurus. Following his work on the camera oscura (darkroom) he was also the first to imagine that the retina (a curved surface), and not the pupil (a point) could be involved in the process of image formation.
Avicenna, in the Canon of Medicine (ca. 1025), describes sight and uses the word retina (from the Latin word rete meaning network) to designate the organ of vision.
Later, in his Colliget (medical encyclopedia), Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198) was the first to attribute to the retina the properties of a photoreceptor.
Avicenna’s writings on anatomy and medical science were translated and circulating in Europe since the XIIIth century, Alhazen’s treatise on optics, which Ghiberti quotes extensively, had just been translated into Italian under the title De li Aspecti.
It is now recognized that Andrea del Verrocchio, whose best known pupil was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1517) was himself one of Ghiberti’s pupils. Unlike Ghiberti, who mastered Latin, neither Verrocchio nor Leonardo mastered a foreign language.
What is known is that while studying Ghiberti’s Commentarii, Leonardo had access in Italian to a series of original quotations from the Roman architect Vitruvius and from Arab scientists such as Avicenna, Alhazen, Averroes and from those European scientists who studied Arab optics, notably the Oxford Fransciscans Roger Bacon (1214-1294), John Pecham (1230-1292) and the Polish monk working in Padua, Erazmus Ciolek Witelo (1230-1275), known by his Latin name Vitellion.
As stressed by Professor Dominque Raynaud, Vitellion introduces the principle of binocular vision for geometric considerations.
He gives a figure where we see the two eyes (a, b) receiving the images of points located at equal distance from the hd axis.
He explains that the images received by the eyes are different, since, taken from the same side, the angle grf (in red) is larger than the angle gtf (in blue). It is necessary that these two images are united at a certain point in one image (Diagram).
Where does this junction occur? Witelo says: « The two forms, which penetrate in two homologous points of the surface of the two eyes, arrive at the same point of the concavity of the common nerve, and are superimposed in this point to become one ».
The fusion of the images is thus a product of the internal mental and nervous activity.
The great astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) will use Alhazen’s and Witelo’s discoveries to develop his own contribution to optics and perspective. “Although up to now the [visual] image has been [understood as] a construct of reason,” Kepler observes in the fifth chapter of his Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena (1604), “henceforth the representations of objects should be considered as paintings that are actually projected on paper or some other screen.” Kepler was the first to observe that our retina captures an image in an inverted form before our brain turns it right side up.
Out of this Ghiberti, Uccello and also the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, in contact with the Italians, will construct as an alternative to one cyclopic single eye perspective revolutionary forms of “binocular” perspective while Leonardo and Louis XI’ court painter Jean Fouquet will attempt to develop curvilinear and spherical space representations.
In China, eventually influenced by Arab optical science breakthrough’s, forms of non-linear perspective, that integrate the mobility of the eye, will also make their appearance during the Song Dynasty.
Ghiberti will add another dimension to perspective: light. One major contribution of Alhazen was his affirmation, in his Book of Optics, that opaque objects struck with light become luminous bodies themselves and can radiate secondary light, a theory that Leonardo will exploit in his paintings, including in his portraits.
Already Ghiberti, in the way he treats the subject of Isaac, Jacob and Esau (Figure), gives us an astonishing demonstration of how one can exploit that physical principle theorized by Alhazen. The light reflected by the bronze panel, will strongly differ according to the angle of incidence of the arriving rays of light. Arriving either from the left of from the right side, in both cases, the Ghiberti’s bronze relief has been modeled in such a way that it magnificently strengthens the overall depth effect !
While the experts, especially the neo-Kantians such as Erwin Panofsky or Hans Belting, say that these artists were “primitives” because applying the “wrong” perspective model, they can’t grasp the fact that they were in reality exploring a far “higher domain” than the mere pure mathematical abstraction promoted by the Newton-Galileo cult that became the modern priesthood ruling over “science”.
Much more about all of this can and should be said. Today, the best way to pay off the European debt to “Arab” scientific contributions, is to reward not just the Arab world but all future generations with a better future by opening to them the “Gates of Paradise”.
See all of Ghiberti’s works at the WEB GALLERY OF ART
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- Vereycken, Karel, interview with People’s Daily: Leonardo Da Vinci’s « Mona Lisa » resonates with time and space with traditional Chinese painting, 2019.
- Vereycken, Karel, Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio and the art of military command, 2022.
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- Vereycken, Karel, Van Eyck, un peintre flamand dans l’optique arabe, 1998.
- Vereycken, Karel, Mutazilism and Arab astronomy, two bright stars in our firmament, 2021.
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By Karel Vereycken
(texte original en français)
“The ink of the scholar is more sacred 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) [*3], 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) [*2], 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;
By Karel Vereycken
Some friends asked me to elaborate on the following:
It is sometimes said that the introduction of Plato in the context of the Councils of Ferrara and Florence (1439) “triggered the explosion of the Italian Renaissance”.
And of the great humanist, the German Cardinal-philosopher Cusanus, it is said that he “brought to Florence Bessarion and Plethon, who were both Greek scholars of Plato and brought the entire works of Plato which had been lost in Europe for centuries”.
At the same time, goes the narrative, “the Medicis financed a crash program to translate the works of Plato. This excitement made the Italian Renaissance what it became”.
While Plato’s ideas and the renewal of greek studies did play a major role in triggering the European Renaissance, the preceding affirmations, as we shall document here, require some refinement.
Was the Italian Renaissance “triggered” by the Council of Florence?
Not really. It was rather –40 years earlier–, the “Greek language revival project” project of Coluccio Salutati (1332-1406), who would become the chancellor of Florence and invite the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) to his city, that “triggered” a revival of Greek and Hebrew studies, which in return lead to the unification of the churches at the Council of Florence (1439).
The idea had regained interest from Petrarch and Boccaccio, which Salutati admired. Along with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), it is undoubtedly the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) who best embodies the ideals guiding the humanists of the Renaissance.
All his life, it is said, Petrarch tried to
rediscover the very rich teaching of classical authors in all disciplines and, starting from this sum of knowledge, most often scattered and forgotten, to revive and pursue the research that these authors had begun.
After following his parents to Avignon, Petrarch studied in Carpentras where he learned grammar, then in Montpellier, rhetoric, and finally in Bologna, where he spent seven years at the school of jurisconsults.
However, instead of studying law, which in those days paved the way to a brilliant career, Petrarch secretly read all the classics hitherto known, including Cicero and Virgil, despite the fact that his father occasionally burned his books.
Petrarch and Barlaam of Samara
Under the pontificate of Benedict XII, Petrarch tried to learn Greek language with the help of a learned monk of the Order of St. Basil, Barlaam of Seminara (1290-1348), known as Barlaam the Calabrian, who came to Avignon in 1339 as ambassador of Andronic III Paleologus in an unsuccesful attempt to put an end to the schism between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
A philosopher, theologian and mathematician, Barlaam, while having limited knowledge of Greek and Latin, was one of the first to wish that the study of the Greek language and philosophy be reborn in Europe.
In his Treatise On my own ignorance and that of many others (1367), Petrarch declared himself proud of his Greek manuscripts – and of his library in general – and expressed his deep admiration for Barlaam :
I have at home sixteen works of Plato. I don’t know if my friends have ever heard the titles […]. And this is only a small part of Plato’s work, for I have seen, with my own eyes, a large number of them, especially in the Calabrian Barlaam, a modern model of Greek wisdom who began to teach me Greek while I was still ignorant of Latin, and who might have done so successfully if death had not taken him away from me and hindered my honest plans, as usual.
In 1350, two years after Barlaam’s death, Petrarch met the son of a banker, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). The latter, like Petrarch, fell in love with the greek culture and language. In his youth, in Naples, he too had met Barlaam and learned a few words of Greek, meticulously copying alphabets and verses, adding the Latin translation and pronunciation indications.
Boccaccio and Leontius Pilatus
To increase his mastery of Greek, Boccaccio then called from Thessaloniki a disciple of Barlaam, Leontius Pilatus (died in 1366), an austere, ugly and very bad-tempered character. But this Calabrian lectured him on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and translated sixteen of Plato’s dialogues. How could one get angry with him?
Boccaccio offered him shelter and food for three years in his home and had a chair of Greek created for him in Florence, the firs time ever!
Unfortunately, Pilatus did not really master this language. Although posing as a native Greek, the man had poor knowledge of ancient Greek and his translations never got beyond the level of word-for-word. As for the lessons he gave Petrarch, they were so brutal that he disgusted him forever.
This did not prevent Pilatus, at the insistence of Boccaccio, from translating Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey into Latin from a Greek manuscript sent to Petrarch by Nicolaos Sigeros, the Byzantine ambassador to Avignon.
Hence, history being what it is, it was thanks to this highly imperfect translation that Europe rediscovered one of the great founding works of its culture!
And on this fragile ground will rise a flame that will revolutionize the world.
Was it not I, » writes Boccaccio in his Genealogy of the Gods, « who had the glory and honor of employing the first Greek verses among the Tuscans? Was it not I who, through my prayers, led Pilatus to settle in Florence and who housed him there? I brought at my own expense copies of Homer and other Greek authors when none existed in Tuscany. I was the first of the Italians to whom Homer, in particular, was explained, and then I had him explained in public.
The hunt for manuscripts
What is important is that during these encounters Petrarch created a cultural network covering the whole of Europe, a network reaching into the East.
He then asked his relations and friends, who shared his humanist ideal, to help him find in their country or province, the Latin texts of the ancients that the libraries of abbeys, individuals or cities might possess. In the course of his own travels he found several major texts that had fallen into oblivion.
It is in Liege (Belgium) that he discovered the Pro Archia and in Verona, Ad Atticum, Ad Quintum and Ad Brutum, all by Cicero. During a stay in Paris, he got his hands on the elegiac poems of Propertius, then, in 1350, on a work by Quintilian. In a constant concern to restore the most authentic text, he subjected these manuscripts to meticulous philological work and made corrections by comparing them with other manuscripts. This is how he reconstructed the first and fourth decades of the Roman History of Titus Livius from fragments and restored some of Virgil’s texts.
These manuscripts, which he kept in his own library, later came out in the form of copies and thus became accessible to the greatest number of people. While acknowledging that the pagans lacked the « true faith, » Petrarch believed that when one speaks of virtue, the old and new worlds are not at war.
The « Circolo di Santo Spirito »
From the 1360s onwards, Boccaccio gathered a first group of humanists known as the « Circolo di Santo Spirito » (Circle of the Holy Spirit), whose name was borrowed from the 13th century Florentine Augustinian convent.
An embryonic form of a university, its Studium Generale (1284) was then at the heart of a vast intellectual center including schools, hospices and refectories for the needy.
Before his death in 1375, Boccaccio, who had recovered part of Petrarch’s library, bequeathed to the convent his entire collection of precious ancient books and manuscripts.
Then, in the 1380s and early 1390s, a second circle of humanists met daily in the cell of the Augustinian monk Luigi Marsili (1342-1394). The latter, who had studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Paris and Padua, where he came already into contact with Petrarch in 1970, rapidly became friends with Boccaccio. Hence, by attending the Cercle Santo Spirito from 1375 onwards, Coluccio Salutati in turn fell in love with Greek studies.
By inviting the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) to Florence to teach Ancient Greek, it was Salutati who gave the decisive impulse leading to the end of the schism between East and West and thus to the unification of the Churches, consecrated at the Council of Florence in 1439.
A century before Salutati, the English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a Franciscan monk residing in Oxford, author of one of the first Greek grammars, already called for such a « linguistic revolution ».
As wrote Dean P. Lockwood in Roger Bacon’s Vision of the Study of Greek (1919):
Obviously, Greek was the master-key to the great storehouse of ancient knowledge, Hebrew and Arabic to lesser chambers. Furthermore, we must no forget that in Bacon’s day the superiority of the ancients was an indisputable fact. The modern world has outstripped the Greek and the Romans in countless ways ; the medieval thinkers were still climbing toward the Hellenic standard.
Three things were clear to Roger Bacon : the need of Greek, the contemporary ignorance of Greek, and the feasability of acquiring Greek. The same may be said of Hebrew, but Bacon rightly put Greek first. Bacon’s program was simple :
1. Seek out the native Byzantine Greeks resident in Europe, preferably grammarians. The latter were very few, of course, but might be found in the Greek monasteries of Southern Italy.
2. From these and from any other available source let Greek books be sought. If this program were to be carried out, Bacon confidently prophetized taht results would not be long in forthcoming.
Manuel Chrysoloras, arrived in winter 1397, an event remembered by one of his most famous pupils, the humanist scholar Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) and later chancellor of Florence at the time of the Council of Florence, as a great new opportunity: there were many teachers of law, but no one had studied Greek in northern Italy for 700 years.
Thanks to Chrysoloras, Bruni and Pier Paolo Vergerio the Elder were able to read Aristotle and especially Plato in the original greek version.
Until then, in Europe, Christians knew the names of Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato by their reading of the church fathers Origen, St. Jerome and St. Augustine.
The latter, in his City of God, did not hesitate to affirm that the « Platonists », that is Plato and those who assimilated his teaching (Plato et qui eum bene intellexerunt), were superior to all other pagan philosophers.
As we have demonstrated elsewhere, in particular in our study on Raphael and the School of Athens, it is to a large extent Plato’s optimistic and Promethean philosophical approach, for whom knowledge comes above all from the capacity for hypothesis and not from the mere testimony of the senses as Aristotle claims, that clearly provided the sap that allowed the Renaissance tree to offer humanity so many wonderful fruits.
Traversari’s humanist circle
The most famous pupil of Chrysoloras was Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), who became general of the Camaldolese order. Today honored as a saint by his order, Traversari was one of the first to conceptualize the type of “Christian Humanism” that would be promoted by Nicolaus of Cusa (Cusanus) and later Erasmus of Rotterdam (who framed the concept of “Saint-Socrates”) and the latter’s admirer Rabelais, uniting Plato with the Holy Scriptures, and the fathers of the Church.
According to Vespasiano de Bisticci, the court historian of the Court of Urbino, Traversari had weekly working sessions on Plato and Greek philosophy at the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent with the crème de la crème of European humanism:
According to Vespasiano de Bisticci, the court historian of Urbino, Traversari led weekly work sessions on Plato and Greek philosophy at the Florentine Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli with the cream of European humanism in the fields of literature, theology, science, politics, town and country planning, education and the fine arts. Among those :
- The German cardinal-philosopher Nicolas of Cusa (Cusanus);
- Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, the great physician and cartographer, also friend and protector of Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci.
- The erudite manuscript collector Niccolò Niccoli, adviser to Cosimo the Elder, heir to the Medici’s industrial and financial empire. Considered at the time to be the richest man in the West, Cosimo was one of the patrons of the sculptor Donatello ;
- Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future humanist pope Pius II;
- Leonardo Bruni, the apostolic secretary of Pope Innocent VII and his three successors. He succeeded Coluccio Salutati at the chancellery of Florence (1410-1411 and 1427-1444).
- The Italian statesman Carlo Marsuppini, passionate about Greek Antiquity, and successor of Bruni as Chancellor of the Republic of Florence after the latter’s death in 1444.
- The philosopher, antiquarian and writer Poggio Bracciolini. After having advised no less than nine popes (!), he was appointed Chancellor of the Republic of Florence following the death of Marsuppini in 1453;
- The politician and ambassador Gianozzi Manetti. In love with ancient Greek and Hebrew, his circle includes l’humaniste Francesco Filelfo, le traducteur Palla Strozzi and Lorenzo Valla ;
Chrysoloras in Florence
Chrysoloras remained only a few years in Florence, from 1397 to 1400, teaching Greek, starting with the rudiments. He moved on to teach in Bologna and later in Venice and Rome. Though he taught widely, a handful of his chosen students remained a close-knit group, among the first humanists of the Renaissance. As said before, among his pupils were numbered some of the foremost figures of the revival of Greek studies in Renaissance Italy.
Aside from Bruni and Ambrogio Traversari, they included Guarino da Verona and the Florentine banker Palla Strozzi (1372-1462), later the friend and protector of the sculptor and translator Lorenzo Ghiberti. It is worth noting that Strozzi paid part of Chrysoloras’ salary and had the books necessary for the new teaching brought from Constantinople and Greece.
Chrysoloras went to Rome on the invitation of Bruni, who was then secretary to Pope Gregory XII. In 1408, he was sent to Paris on an important mission from the emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (1350-1425). In 1413, he went to Germany on an embassy to the emperor Sigismund, the object of which was to decide on the site for the church council that assembled at Constance in 1415. Chrysoloras was on his way there, having been chosen to represent the Greek Church, when he died that year.
Chrysoloras translated the works of Homer and Plato’s Republic from Greek into Latin. His Erotemata (Questions-answers) which was the first basic Greek grammar in use in Western Europe, circulated initially as a manuscript before being published in 1484.
Widely reprinted, it enjoyed considerable success not only among his pupils in Florence, but also among later leading humanists, being immediately studied by Thomas Linacre at Oxford and by Erasmus when he resided at Cambridge. It’s text became the basic manual used by pupils of the Three Language College set up by Erasmus in Leuven in 1515.
Traversari meets Chrysoloras during his two stays in Florence in the summer of 1413 and in January-February 1414, and the old Byzantine scholar is impressed by the bilingual culture of the young monk; he sends him a long philosophical letter in Greek on the theme of friendship. Ambrogio himself expresses in his letters the highest consideration for Chrysoloras, and emotion for the benevolence he showed him.
It should also be noted that the rich humanist scholar Niccolò Niccoli, a great collector of books, opened his library to Traversari and put him in constant contact with the scholarly circles of Florence (notably Leonardo Bruni, and also Cosimo de Medici, of whom he was advisor), but also of Rome and Venice.
In 1423, Pope Martin V sent two letters, one to the prior of the Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Father Matteo, and the other to Traversari himself, expressing his support for the great development of patristic studies in this establishment, and especially for the work of translation of the Greek Fathers carried out by Traversari.
The Pope had in mind the negotiations he was conducting at the time with the Greek Church: at the beginning of 1423, his legate Antonio de Massa returned from Constantinople and brought back with him several Greek manuscripts which were to be entrusted to Traversari for translation: notably the Adversus Græcos by Manuel Calécas, and for the classics the Lives and Doctrines of the Illustrious Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, a text which circulated for a long time only in Traversari’s Latin translation.
It was following these undertakings that Traversari expressed his great interest in seeing the schism between the Latin and Greek Churches resolved. At the end of 1423, Niccolò Niccoli provides Traversari with an old volume containing the entire corpus of the ancient ecclesiastical canons, and the learned monk expresses in his correspondence with the humanist his enthusiasm for being able to immerse himself in the life of the then united ancient Christian Church, and in the process he translates into Greek a long letter from Pope Gregory the Great to the prelates of the East.
Arrival of Plato’s mind
Were Bessarion and Plethon the first to bring the entire works of Plato to Europe?
Not really. While John Bessarion did indeed bring his own collection of the “complete works of Plato” in 1437 to Florence, they had already been brought to Italy earlier, most notably in 1423 by the Sicilian Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459), who was the teacher of Lorenzo Valla (another collaborator with whom Cusanus exposed the fraud of the “Donation of Constantine” and a major source of inspiration of Erasmus).
In 1421 Aurispa was sent by Pope Martin V to act as the translator for the Marquis Gianfrancesco Gonzaga on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos.
After their arrival, he gained the favor of the emperor’s son and successor, John VIII Paleologus (1392-1448), who took him on as his own secretary. Two years later, he accompanied his Byzantine employer on a mission to the courts of Europe.
On 15 December 1423, 16 years prior to the Council of Florence of 1439, Aurispa arrived in Venice with the largest and finest collection of Greek texts to reach the west prior to those brought by Bessarion. In reply to a letter from Traversari, he says that he brought back 238 manuscripts.
These contained all of Plato’s works, most of them hitherto unknown in the West.
Plato’s works so far were only known very partially. In Sicily, Henry Aristippus of Calabria (1105-1162) had translated in Latin Plato’s Phaedo and Meno dialogues as early as 1160.
Platonists (such as Petrarch, Traversari, Cusanus or Erasmus), have nothing to do and even violently opposed “Neo-platonist” (such as Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblicus, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola) whose influence would create what could and should be called a “counter-Renaissance”. Already Leibniz strongly warned against the “neo-Platonists” demanding Plato be studied in his original writings rather than through his commentators, however brilliant they might be: “non ex Plotino aut Marsilio Ficino, qui mira semper et mystica affectantes diceren tanti uiri doctrinam corrupere.” [Plato should be studied, but “Not from Plotinus nor Marsilio Ficino, who, by always striving to speak wonderfully and mystically, corrupt the doctrine of so great a man. »]
George Gemisthos « Plethon »
Now, let us enter Plethon, who thought Plato and Aristotle could each one play their own role. George Gemistos « Plethon » (1355-1452), was a follower of the radical “neo-Platonist” Michael Psellos (1018-1080). Around 1410 Gemistos created a “neo-Platonic” academy in Mistra (near the site of ancient Sparta) and added “Plethon” to his name to make it resemble to Plato. He was also an admirer of Pythagoras, Plato, and the “Chaldean Oracles”, which he ascribed to Zoroaster.
Gemistos came for the first time to Florence when he was fifteen years old and became an authority in Mistra. So at the time of the Council the Emperor, John VIII Paleologus, knew they were going to face some of the finest minds in the Roman Church on their own soil; he therefore wanted the best minds available in support of the Byzantine cause to accompany him. Consequently, the Emperor appointed George Gemistos as part of the delegation. Despite the fact that he was a secular philosopher — a rare creature at this time in the West — Gemistos was renowned both for his wisdom and his moral rectitude. Among the clerical lights in the delegation were John Bessarion, Metropolitan of Nicaea, and Mark Eugenikos, Metropolitan of Ephesus. Both had been students of Gemistos in their youth. Another non-clerical member of the delegation was George Scholarios: both a future adversary of Gemistos and a future Patriarch of Constantinople as Gennadios II. Initially, Gemistos was opposed to the unity of the western and eastern churches.
Not assisting at every theological debate during the Council of Florence in 439, he went in town to give lectures to intellectuals and nobles on the essence of Plato and Neo-platonic philosophy. Plethon also brought with him the text of the “Chaldean Oracles” attributed to Zoroaster.
While most of Plethon’s writing were burned, since he was suspected of heresy, a large number of Plethon’s autograph manuscripts ended up in the hands of his former student Cardinal Bessarion. On Bessarion’s death, he willed his personal library to the library of San Marco in Venice (where over 4000 Greeks resided). Among these books and manuscripts was Plethon’s Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato. This Summary was a summary of the Book of Laws, which Plethon wrote inspired by Plato’s laws. The Summary is a mixture of polytheistic beliefs with neo-Platonist elements.
While John Bessarion (1403-1472), a real humanist, took part in the Council in Ferrara (1437) and Florence (1439), and as the representative of the Greek, signed the decree of the Florentine Union, he held nevertheless to the principle: “I honor and respect Aristotle, I love Plato” (colo et veneror Aristotelem, amo Platonem). For him Platonic thought would have the right of citizenship equal to Aristotelian thought in the Latin world only when it appeared in an irenic interpretation to Aristotelianism and as not in contradiction with Christianity, since only such an interpretation of Platonism could succeed at that time.
Cosimo di Medici and Ficino
Did the Medicis finance a crash program to translate the works of Plato?
In 1397, Giovannni « di Bicci » de’ Medici (1360-1429) founded the Medici Bank. Giovanni owned two wool factories in Florence and was a member of two guilds: the Arte della Lana and the Arte del Cambio.
In 1402, he was one of the judges on the jury that selected Lorenzo Ghiberti’s design for the bronzes for the doors of the Baptistery of Florence.
In 1418, Giovanni di Bicci, wishing to endow his family with their own church, entrusted Filippo Brunelleschi, future architect of the famous dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fioro, the Duomo, with the task of radically transforming the basilica church of San Lorenzo and ordered Donatello to execute the sculptures.
Politically, the Medici family did not come to power until 1434, three years before the Council of Florence and at a time when the Renaissance was already in full swing.
Admittedly, Giovanni’s son and inheritor of his financial empire, Cosimo di Medici (1389-1464), known as the richest man of his epoch, became so inspired by Plethon that he acquired acomplete library of Greek manuscripts. He bought a copy of the Platonic Corpus (24 dialogues) from Plethon, and a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus, acquired in Macedonia by an italian monk, Lionardo of Pistoia. Cosimo also decided to initiate a project to translate from the Greek into Latin, the totality of Plato’s works.
However, as said before, Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), who after having been papal secretary became chancellor of the Florentine republic from 1427 till 1444, had already translated close to all of Plato’s works from Greek into Latin.
It should be underlined that the translator chosen by Cosimo was Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), the son of his personal physician and only five years old at the time of the Council of Florence in 1439. Cosimo had some severe doubts concerning Ficino’s capacities as translator. When the latter offers in 1456 his first translation, The Platonic Institutions, Cosimo asks him kindly not to publish this work and to learn first the Greek language… which Ficino learns then from Byzantine scholar John Argyropoulos (1415-1487), an Aristotelian pupil of Bessarion who rejected the Council of Florence’s epistomological revolution.
But seeing his age advancing and dispite his unfortunate descent into corruption, Cosimo finally gave him the post. He allocates him an annual stipend, the required manuscripts and a villa at Careggi, close to Florence, where Ficino would set up his “Platonic Academy” with a handful of followers, among which Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498).
Ficino’s “Academy”, taking up the ancient neo-platonic tradition of Plotinus and Porphyry (as Ficino states himself) would organize each year a ceremonial banquet “neglected since one thousand two hundred years” on November 7, thought to be simultaneously the birthday of Plato and the day of his death.
After the dinner, the attendants would read Plato’s Symposium and then each of them would comment one of the speeches. The comments are demonstrations, without any real dialogue and void of the essence of real platonic thinking: irony. On top of that it is remarkable that most gatherings of Ficino’s academy were attended by the ambassador of Venice in Florence, notably the powerful oligarch Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), father of “poet” cardinal Pietro Bembo, later special advisor to the evil Genovese “Warrior Pope” Julius II.
It was this alliance of the increasingly more degenerated Medici family, the Venetians Empire’s maritime slave trade and the neo-Platonists that gained dominant influence over the Curia of the Roman Catholic Church. The Medici’s clearly disliked Da Vinci (who never got an order from the Vatican and subsequently left Italy), and through their propaganda man Vasari made the world to belief that the Renaissance was their baby.
But before translating Plato, and at the specific demand of Cosimo, Ficino translated first (in 1462) the Orphic Hymns, the Sayings of Zoroaster, and the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus the Egyptian (between 100 and 300 after BC).
It will be only in 1469 that Ficino will finish his translations of Plato after a nervousbreakdown in 1468, described by his contemporaries as a crisis of “profound melancholy”.
In 1470, and with a title plagiarized from Proclus, Ficino writes his “Platonic Theology or on the immortality of the Soul.” While completely taken in by esoteric neo-Platonism, he becomes a priest in 1473 and writes “The Christian Religion” without changing his neo-platonic pagan outlook, since he launches then an entire new series of translations of the neo-Platonists of Alexandria: he translates the fifty four books of Plotinus “Enneads”, Porphyry and Proclus.
Ficino, in his “Five Questions Concerning the Mind” explicitly attacks the Promethean conception of man:
Nothing indeed can be imagined more unreasonable than that man, who through reason is the most perfect of all animals, nay, of all things underheaven, most perfect, I say, with regard to that formal perfection that is bestowed upon us from the beginning, that man, also through reason, should be the least perfect of all with regard to that final perfection for the sake of which the first perfection is given. This seems to be that of the most unfortunate Prometheus. Instructed by the divine wisdom of Pallas, he gained possession of the heavenly fire, that is, reason. Because of this very possession, on the highest peak of the mountain, that is, at the very height of contemplation, he is rightly judged most miserable of all, for he is made wretched by the continual gnawing of the most ravenous of vultures, that is, by the torment of inquiry…” (…) “What do the philosophers say to these things? Certainly the Magi, followers of Zoroaster and Hostanes, assert something similar. They say that, because of a certain old disease of the human mind, everything that is very unhealthy and difficult befalls us…
The Florentine Neo-Platonic Academy, backed by the libido-driven Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) “The Magnificent”, will serve as a “Delphic” operation: defend Plato to better destroy him; praise him in such terms that he becomes discredited. And especially destroying Plato’s influence by opposing religion to science, at a point where Cusanus and his followers are succeeding to do exactly the opposite. Isn’t it bizarre that Cusa’s name doesn’t appear a single time in the works of Ficino or Pico della Mirandola, so overfed with all encompassing knowledge?
Lorenzo did protect artists such as Sandro Botticelli, whose Birth of Venus examplifies Lorenzo’s neo-platonic symbolism.
Infected with this evil neo-Platonism, Thomaso Inghirami (1470-1516), the chief librarian of pope Julius II, will accomplish nothing but this when dictating to the painter Raphaël the content of the Stanza in the Vatican some decades later.
Neo-platonic “melancholy”, which Albrecht Dürer went after in his famous engraving, will become the matrix for the romantics, the destructive virus affecting the symbolists and the so-called modern school. As for the revolution that Greek studies will bring about in the sciences, I refer you to our article on this website: 1512-2012: From Cosmography to Cosmonauts, Gerard Mercator and Gemma Frisius.
To conclude, here is a short list of translators, and I certainly forgot some of them, and their mastery of foreign languages. Even if some of them can’t be called « humanists », let’s thank them for everything they allowed us to discover. I’m profoundly convinved, that without them, man would certainly not have set foot on the Moon!
- Marcus Tullius Cicero 106-43 BC: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Philo of Alexandria 20 BC – 40 AD: hebrew, Greek;
- Origen of Alexandria 184 – 253, Greek and Latin;
- Jerome of Stridon 342-420: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Boethius 477-524: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Bede the Venerable 672-735: English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Charlemagne 742-814, spoke Latin and understood Greek, Hebrew and Slavonic;
- John Scotus Eriugena 800-876: Irish, Greek, Arab and Hebrew;
- Ḥunayn ibn Isḥaq 809-873: Arabic, Syriac, Persian and Greek;
- Thābit ibn Qurra 826-901: Syriac, Arabic and Greek;
- Al-Fârâbi 872-950 : Farsi, Sogdian and Greek;
- Al–Biruni, 973-1048, Chorasmian, Farsi, Frabic, Syriac, Sanskrit, Hindi, Hebrew and Greek ;
- Adelard of Bath 1080-1152 : English, Latin and Arabic;
- Héloïse 1092-1141 : French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Hugh of Saint Victor 1096-1141: French, Latin, Greek;
- Constantine the African XIth Cent.: Arabic, Latin, Greek and Italian;
- John Sarrazin XIIth Cent.: Latin and Greek;
- Henricus Aristippus 1105-1162: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Gerard of Cremona 1114-1187: Italian, Latin and Arabic;
- Robert Grosseteste 1168-1253: English, Latin and Greek;
- Michael Scot 1175-1232 : Scottish, Latin, Greek, Arab and Hebrew;
- Moses of Bergamo (XIIth Century): Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Burgundio of Pisa (XIIth Century): Italian, Latin and Greek;
- James of Venice (second half IIth Century, dies after 1147): Italian, Latin and Greek ;
- Roger Bacon 1214-1294: English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldean ;
- William of Moerbeke 1215-1286: Dutch, Latin and Greek;
- Raymond Lull 1232-1315: Catalan, Latin and Arabic;
- Arnaldus de Villa Nova 1240-1311 : Catalan, Latin, Greek and Arabic;
- Dante Alighieri 1265-1321: Italian and Latin;
- Francesco Petrarch 1304-1375: Italian and Latin;
- Giovanni Boccaccio 1313-1375: Italian and Latin;
- Coluccio Salutati 1331-1406: Italian and Latin;
- Geert Groote 1340-1384: Dutch, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Florens Radewijns 1350-1400: Dutch and Latin;
- Manuel Chrysoloras 1355-1415: Greek, Latin and Italian;
- Georgius Gemistus « Pletho » 1360-1452: Greek;
- Jacopo d’Angelo 1360-1410, Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Pier Paolo Vergerio (the Elder) 1370-1445: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Leonardo Bruni 1370-1441: Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic;
- Guarino Guarini 1370-1460: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Palla di Onofrio Strozzi 1372-1462: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Giovanni Aurispa 1376-1459: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Vittorino da Feltre 1378-1446: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Poggio Bracciolini 1380-1459: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Ambrogio Traversari 1386-1439: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Gianozzo Manetti 1396-1459: Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Georges of Trebizond 1396-1472: Greek, Latin and Italian;
- Tommaso Perentucelli (Pope Nicolas V) 1397-1494: Italian and Latin;
- Francesco Filelfo 1398-1481: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Carlo Marsuppini 1399-1453: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Theodorus Gaza 1400-1478, Greek and Latin;
- John Bessarion 1403-1472: Greek, Latin and Italian;
- Lorenzo Valla 1407-1457: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Nicolas of Cusa 1401-1464: German and Latin;
- John Wessel Gansfoort 1419-1489: Dutch, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Georg von Peuerbach 1423-1461: German, Latin and Greek;
- Demetrios Chalkokondyles 1423-1511 : Greek and Latin;
- Marcilio Ficino 1433-1499: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Constantine Lascaris 1434-1501 : Greek, Latin and Italian;
- Regiomontanus 1436-1476: German, Latin and Greek;
- Alexander Hegius 1440-1498: Dutch, Latin and Greek;
- Rudolf Agricola 1444-1485: Dutch, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Janus Lascaris 1445-1535: Greek and Latin;
- William Grocyn 1446-1519,: English, Latin and Greek;
- Poliziano 1454-1494: Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Johannes Reuchlin 1455-1522: German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;
- Thomas Linacre 1460-1524: English, Latin and Greek;
- Erasmus of Rotterdam 1467-1536: Dutch, Latin and Greek;
- William Latimer 1467-1545 : English, Latin and Greek;
- Guillaume Budé 1467-1540: French, Latin and Greek;
- Marcus Musurus 1470-1517 : Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Willibald Pirckheimer 1470-1530 : German, Latin and Greek;
- Pietro Bembo 1470-1547 : Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Thomas More 1478-1535 : English, Latin and Greek;
- Girolamo Aleandro, 1480-1542 : Italian, Latin and Greek;
- Germain de Brie 1490-1538: French, Latin and Greek;
- Juan Luis Vivès 1492-1540 : Spanish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew;