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Tag: Baghdad


The End Game

The grandson of Genghis Khan, Hulagu Khan, set out for Baghdad in 1257 with a vast army. The Caliph refused to surrender, and enraged the Mongol leader with threats and taunting. Worse still, he hadn’t strengthened the city walls or prepared for a siege, perhaps believing his own publicity that his capital was impregnable. As a result victory was swift (the siege was less then two weeks).

Baghdad was sacked and burned to the ground. The waters of the Tigris supposedly ran black with ink for months from all the ink, from the House of Wisdom and other great  libraries, which were hurled into the river.

The Caliph was rolled up in a rug and the Mongols rode their horses over him. So great was the stench of death and decay that Hulagu had to move his camp upwind of the city.



Chemistry II

 Some of the breakthroughs in chemistry under the Abbasids:

1.                   Distillation equipment (such as alembic apparatus, stills and retorts) allowed for alcohol (ethanol) to be distilled for the first time (which was used for perfume and sterilization, rather than drinking). Rosewater was also made through distillation.

2.                   Kerosene was was distilled from petroleum by al-Razi in ninth century Baghdad. He described the process in Kitab al-Asrar, The Book of Secrets. Kerosene was used in lamps. Other petrol products were known and used. The streets of Baghdad were paved with tar in the eighth century. And Arab scientists first distilled crude oil to create what we know as petrol.

3.                   Other processes developed and refined, included crystallization, filtration, and steam distillation.

4.                   Strong acids were created for the first time, including nitric, hydrochloric, and sulphuric acid (the ancients had only had vinegar).

5.                   Other elements were discovered, such as arsenic and antimony, and chemical elements were clearly divided into categories and studied.

6.                   Soap was manufactured for the first time; and even glue was made from cheese… a secret recipe described in ibn Hayyan’s (Gerber) The Book of the Hidden Pearl.

7.                   Cosmetics were also developed, including those by the fabulous-sounding ‘Ziryab’ ‘The Blackbird’, a former Persian slave, who is credited with inventing toothpaste. The idea caught on like wildfire. He went on to open a beauty parlour in Andaucian Spain and supposedly pioneered underarm deodorants and the chemical removal of unwanted body hair for women.

8.                   Other inventions were far less whimsical and were snapped up by the military… including potassium nitrate (saltpetre) which enabled a complete recipe for gunpowder (tenth century). Gunpowder had been made and discussed for a long time, but the first book dedicated to it was written in the thirteenth century by Hasan al-Rammah, entitled The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices.





Theories of evolution were widespread across the Islamic world by the 12th century. One of the pioneers of this thinking was Al-Jahiz, who was working in ninth century Baghdad. He wrote about the idea of the environment on an animal, and the animal’s chances of survival based on the environment; as well as writing on what he called ‘the struggle for existence’, a forerunner of Darwin’s ‘natural selection’.

Al-Jahiz also described the idea of food chains were first described, and the concept of nature versus nurture.



The Starting Point

The point where I want to begin the story is the moment at which paper — that most magical aids to the spread of learning — was acquired by the Arabs. The second of the two great Islamic Caliphates, the Abbasids, ruled from 750 AD (after overthrowing the Umayyads), with their capital at Baghdad — having moved from the Umayyad capital of Damascus. Baghdad in the ninth century, a city of 800,000 souls, second city in the world to only Constantinople. It was ruled by the Abbasid Caliph Harun ar-Rachid.

The mixture of people in the city, from so many cultures – Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor and Central Asia – created a blend of cultures as it had never really been known before. And they could all communicate through Arabic, the lingua franca of Islam, all equal under this new faith.

Harun, who’s known more for his Alf Layla wa Layla, ‘1001 Nights’, set about accumulating books in huge a private library. He loved poetry, music, learning. Whenever he heard of learned people, he invited them to his court. The idea of wisdom being rewarded spread, and scholars made their way from the corners of the growing Islamic world to Baghdad.

In March 809 Harun ar-Rachid was succeeded by his son Al-Amin, (but he was killed four years later, in 813, after going against the order of succession left by his father). His half-brother, al-Ma’mun, became Caliph, and it’s with him that our story really begins…

Like his father, Ma’mun was fascinated by learning, and was eager to know how the world and the universe worked. He built up the library founded by his father, and brought together scholars from every corner of the world, from known every religion, speaking every language. He dispatched messengers to bring to Baghdad every book, document, and sensible man in existence… and bring it back to his centre of learning, which became known as Bayt al Hikma… The House of Wisdom.


April 25, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel


One of the things I love about the study of history is how a small event changes the lives of everyone, and dramatically alters the world in which we live. A great example of this began in the year 751 AD, when a fledgling Abbasid force met that of the Chinese Tang Dynasty on the Talas River. The Chinese were superior as a fighting machine, and were expected to win the battle. But on the day, it was the Muslims who defeated the Chinese. The important point of story is that the Muslims captured a number of Chinese and took them prisoner. Among them, was a group of experts in papermaking. The Muslims took them to the city of Samarkand, where they forced them to build a papermaking factory. The technology was completely unknown in Europe at the time, and had been a closely guarded secret in China. Eventually, the Abbasids had another papermaking factory built at Baghdad using the Tang knowhow. And with this technology they could begin the extraordinary accomplishments in science for which they became so celebrated.

With paper, and the knowledge of writing which was so key to read the Qur’an, the Muslims were able to write books, detailing their breakthroughs in the evolving sciences. And they could now pass these books east and west along the ever-growing pilgrimage routes, centred at the holy city of Mecca. It was in its own way a kind of primitive Internet, made possible by the secret knowledge of paper, acquired on a distant battlefield in 751.

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.