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Tag: China

May 30, 2013 Posted by tahir in Books

New Release: Three Essays


I’m very pleased to share with you the release of these three essays. Those who have read Eye Spy will be especially interested in the essay on cannibalism. They are all currently available online as individual purchases, and the three essay bundle will be available very soon.

The Legacy of Arab Science 

The Kumbh Mela: The Greatest Show on Earth 

Cannibalism: It’s Just Meat 

August 7, 2010 Posted by tahir in Travel

With the Dalai Lama

Spent the last few days in Dharamsala, northern India. And was lucky enough to have a 45 minute meeting with the Dalai Lama yesterday. We spoke about Tibet, Afghanistan and life. I can’t ever remember encountering such a gentle and sincere man.




During the Abbasids’ Golden Age, the first true hospitals were created, including free public ones in Baghdad and elsewhere in the region. The main difference from the ‘sleep temples’ and asylums of the Classical era was that these hospitals were designed to treat and heal, rather than merely to isolate the infected and the sick. The idea was something of a revolution within itself, and later spread to Europe, along with pharmacology, taken back West by the Crusaders.

         These hospitals featured competency tests for doctors and surgeons, grading for purity and strength of pharmaceuticals, and separate wards for people with similar contagious diseases, as well as the first real autopsies. Patients from different religions were treated, and the surgical staff were Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. There were female doctors and nurses for the first time as well.

         The rise in cheap paper and literacy meant that everything could be written down and passed to other cities along the pilgrimage routes, for others to master. Great books were amassed from all the new knowledge. These eventually found their way into Europe and were translated into Latin… although only the Latin-speaking elite could understand them. They included pioneering works like the 30-volume medical encyclopaedia, the ‘Kitab al-Tasrif’, (The Book of Concessions), written by al-Zahrawi, and published in the year 1000 AD. It was used for centuries in both East and West.

And Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine (c. 1020 AD), is still regarded as one of the most important medical textbooks of all time. It was used at the University of Montpellier’s medical department as late as 1650 AD, and was even used across until even later China.

         Dozens of Renaissance and later medical breakthroughs had already been accurately described by the Arab polymaths. Blood circulation, for instance, usually credited to the 17th century English physician, had been published by Ibn al-Nafis  in the 13th century.


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.

June 30, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


In the far north of Pakistan the Himalayas rise up into the heavens, the rooftop of the world. The air is so clear that you can see for a thousand miles, and the scent of the valleys is the scent of freedom. The first time I saw those colossal peaks, it was from the cockpit of a Fokker-27, flying between them in air so thin that the tips of my fingers went numb.

We landed at Chitral and drove and drove up mountain tracks no wider than an axle’s length. We found villages clinging to the slopes, fir trees alive with birds, glistening streams, and children squinting in the winter sunlight. I thought I’d discovered Paradise.
In one village I was taken in and given tea. My host was a man called Attar Khan. He was one of those men whose face mirrored the hardship of his life. His skin was like a sheet of ox leather. But his smile, which never wavered, reflected a serenity, a contentment.
Attar Khan boiled up some water from the stream, thanked God for sending guests to him, and poured the first cup of tea. It was sweet, tasted as if it had been smoked through nights and days. I praised the flavour and asked about life in the mountains.
‘In the winter it’s not easy,’ said Attar Khan, pushing down his turban with his thumbs. ‘The snow is very deep and the wind so cold that we are frozen to be bone.’
‘How do you stand it?’
‘God gives us strength to do so and, besides, we have never known anything different.’
I told him that I had come from a place called London, a city where lives were sometimes swallowed up by stress.
Attar Khan smoothed a hand down his grey beard.
He smiled.
‘I have heard of it,’ he said slowly. ‘I have heard that there are trains running under the ground. And i have wondered whether this is the work of Jinn.’
It was my turn to smile.
‘Not Jinn, but engineers,’ I replied.
I asked if foreigners ever visited the valley where Attar Khan lived. Again, he pressed down his voluminous turban.
‘Last year they came,’ he said. ‘People from the country of the Jinn railway.’
‘What did they do here?’
Attar Khan stroked his beard again.
‘That was the strange thing,’ he said. ‘You see, they wanted to climb up the mountains. We asked them if they were looking for markhor or other game, but they waved a finger and said they had come to climb the mountains for the sake of climbing the mountains. We were confused. You see, here at Gilgit we only climb the mountains when we have a reason to. And your people, the ones who came, thought it made sense to climb the mountains for the sake of climbing them.
Attar Khan poured me a second glass of tea, broke open a pomegranate.
‘To have trains under the ground,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘and to climb mountains for no reason… it seems to me as if people in your country are living upside-down.’