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March 4, 2009 Posted by Tahir in Travel

In the Detail

As far as I am concerned, the joy of studying history is not in the great, broad strokes that shape the grand things in life… the kind of history that teachers rant on about at school. Rather, it’s about the little things, the details, that go on to gather weight and speed, like the proverbial snowball running down a mountainside. Our world has been fashioned by detail, and by consequences of one detail effecting another. Let me give you an example, one which I think of every day. In the years after the Prophet’s death, the fledgling faith of Islam spread East and West like a wild-fire. By the middle of the eighth century, the Arabs had reached the gates of China, ruled by the mighty T’ang Dynasty. In 751 AD, the battle lines were drawn, and the Chinese and Arabs warred, for the right to control Central Asia. The Chinese force was by far the superior but, on the day, the Arabs won. The success seems to have surprised the victor as much as it did the vanquished. The outcome was that the Arabs took prisoners and gained technology and knowledge from the conquered side. Among the prisoners taken, were some artisans who were skilled in the secret knowledge of making paper. The know-how was one of the greatest technological mysteries at the time. The Arab conquerers ordered the Chinese prisoners to construct them a paper-mill first at Samarkand and, later, one at Baghdad. They kept the knowledge of this almost magical technology a secret from Europe, for centuries longer. The result was that not only the holy Qur’an could be copied easily and passed on along the pilgrimage routes, but so could scientific and other knowledge, developed in the House of Wisdom at Baghdad, and other learning centres throughout the Islamic world. The knowledge of paper-making was, of course, coupled with the rise in literacy, fuelled by a need to read and copy the Qur’an. And it was all made possible by a secret knowledge won at a battle in Central Asia 1250 years ago.



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