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Tag: History

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May 30, 2013 Posted by tahir in Books

New Release: Three Essays

3Essays

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

Amazon.com 

Amazon.co.uk 

The Kumbh Mela: The Greatest Show on Earth

Amazon.com 

Amazon.co.uk 

Cannibalism: It’s Just Meat

Amazon.com 

Amazon.co.uk 

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Forthcoming projects...

I’m often asked about what I’m working on. Here’s a sneak peek into what’s in the works at the moment:

Scorpion Soup (In Production)

A story within a story, the book is inspired by The Arabian Nights in its use of a frame tale. One story leads to another, taking the reader down through numerous levels. The idea is derived partly from my fascination for The Arabian Nights, as well as my love for my grandfather’s book THE GOLDEN PILGRIMAGE — in which fellow travellers to and from Mecca relate their own tales.

Hannibal Fogg and the Supreme Secret of Man (In Production)

An epic work of fiction, I wrote Hannibal Fogg back in 2009, with the intention of creating a character that would satisfy my obsession for the obscure, the fantastic, and all the places I had been to but never really spoken of.

The House of Wisdom (In Production)

Having lectured on the legacy of Arab science, I have taken every opportunity to draw attention to the extraordinary contribution that Arab science from the Abbasid era — the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam — has played in the development of Occidental know how and science. Named after the Bayt al Hikma, The House of Wisdom is a fast-paced thriller that considers the roles of Arab science from the great polymaths of the Abbasid age.

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The Water Sellers

We have all seen them, in the flesh or in postcards, standing in the central square in Marrakech, bright costumes, ear to ear smiles, furry goatskins full of cool water dangling at their waists.


     Think Morocco and you think of the inimitable purveyors of water. Their costumes are red, wide Berber hats providing shade, shallow brass cups polished so brightly you can see your face in them, their shoes as shiny as a soldier’s on parade.


     The water sellers are so famous, so celebrated, that they’ve become icons in their own right, known throughout the kingdom and far beyond. But something has gone awry. These symbols of the exotic, slakers of the desert thirst, have moved on to a new realm. So extremely famous have they become that they no longer need to sell water at all. Most of the time they make money — and plenty of it — by posing for tourists in Marrakech and elsewhere. They’re mannequins for a zillion digital shots.


     In my travels I have become preoccupied by tourism and the effect it has on countries and on fragile facets of culture. Most of the time, and you know where I am heading with this, I’m not a big fan. 


     And Marrakech is the quintessential example of a city in the middle of nowhere landing the big fish — a full on tourist bonanza that’s rolled up out of the blue.


     An Imperial Moroccan city, it was once many days journey from the anywhere, locked away in the desert. While, these days, it’s so unnecessarily accessible. And for me that’s the point. It’s too easy, far too easy, to get to Marrakech. In my opinion you should have to sweat blood to get there.


     Talk to me about Marrakech and I do tend to get hot under the collar. I’m sorry, but I do. And in the grand scale of things it’s the water sellers who have both been made and been broken by the cold hard tourist cash.


     Just up the hill from Dar Khalifa, where we live, there’s a traffic light. I spend a lot of time stopped there, staring out the car window. There’s usually an old water seller standing right there at the light. He’s ragged, his costume a far cry from his well-heeled kin in Marrakech. But he’s the real thing — a man who hasn’t sold out his tradition.


     And what irony there is in that. You have to come to Casablanca, the seemingly most European city in Morocco, to find the untainted vestiges of ancient culture.

 

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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.



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Inventions II

 

1.             Windmills were first described by Persian geographer Estakhri in the ninth century. They were used to grind corn and draw up water and looked different from European ones. The technology is thought to have arrived in Europe through Islamic Spain.

2.             The first hydro-powered water supply system was developed by al-Jaziri in Damascus – driven by gears and hydro-power – to supply water to the city’s mosques and hospitals. Fès had a similar system which worked until relatively recently. Hydro-power was used to power paper mills and all sorts of other devices.

3.             Water wheels called Norias were developed for feeding water into aqueducts. The newly-invented crankshaft was added, and the technology was constantly refined.

4.             As well as crankshafts, Arab engineers devised flywheels, chain pumps, gearing systems, suction pumps, and automata.

5.             The greatest engineer of the era was without doubt al-Jazari, whose breakthroughs in the twelfth century can still be found around us today. His masterwork was the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. He developed the first automatic gates, run on hydro-power, water clocks, and machines which looked like people and would serve cold drinks. He invented the flush mechanism found in most of our toilets, and even a musical robot band.



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Inventions

I have already mentioned in passing a number of Arab inventions from the Golden Age. They include a wide range of medical, chemical and astronomical devices. But there are whole other areas in which the Arabs inventors excelled.

         Arab engineers learned from the Romans, Greeks and from their own scientists, and came up with creations that demonstrated their astonishing ingenuity. Some of these creations improved living conditions, while others were more whimsical.

         Engineers were hugely important. When the tenth century Persian engineer and polymath, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), reached Cairo, the Caliph himself went to the gates to greet him. He had been invited to regulate the flooding on the Nile. It soon dawned on him that he couldn’t solve the problem. The only way to save his neck was to feign madness and live for years under house arrest… biding his time until the Caliph’s own death.



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Astronomy II

The corrections and original breakthroughs in astronomy were eventually absorbed into the works of Copernicus and the Renaissance astronomers. The greatest Arab achievements in the fields included:

1.                               The Arabs distinguished between astronomy and  astrology for the first time. And astrology was regarded as a key science by the Abbasids.

2.                               Milky Way: Al-Biruni (Persian astronomer 11th century) proposed that the Milky Way was a collection of nebulous stars.

3.                               Ibn Bajjah (Avempace, 12th c.) concluded that the Milky Way was a vast collection of stars but appeared to be a continuous entity, because of the effect of refraction in the Earth’s atmosphere. It wasn’t until 1610 that Galileo studied the Milky Way with a telescope and discovered it was composed of a huge number of faint stars.

4.                               Arab astronomy developed numerous pieces of equipment for measuring angles, such as quadrants… and importantly, astrolabes. These were used for measuring the distance of celestial bodies above the horizon, as well as in determining latitude.

 

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Evolution

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.



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Medicine

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.


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Scientific Method

Scientific Method includes the use of controlled experimentation, and the idea of quantifying results, to distinguish between competing scientific theories. What’s interesting is that this scientific method took off in a big way and was used across the board, and is still used by all scientists today.

         The first ‘modern’ medical experiment is known to have been carried out by al-Razi in the tenth century, when he was working out where to build his hospital in Baghdad. He hung pieces of meat all over the city and observed where the meat decomposed least quickly. It was there that he built the hospital.



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