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Tag: The People of the secret


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.



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.




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.





Modern chemistry may owe more to Islamic science than just about any other area. Its very name of course is derived from al-kemia, the word for alchemy.

Although alchemy was very important, and had come to the Arabs from both India and the Roman Empire, we now understand increasingly how many Arab scientists refuted the belief in transmuting base metals into gold.

Arab breakthroughs in chemistry are plentiful, and were aided by new scientific practice, as we have seen. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the various that were championed under the Abbasids.


Knock on effect...

Understandings in our environment and the natural world allowed for breakthroughs in agriculture. These included areas such as pollination, pesticides, irrigation, grafting, crop rotation and soil preparation, as well as the classification of plants. Works such as those by the thirteenth century Andalucian botanist al-Baitar, were used in Europe for centuries to come. His masterwork listed 1400 plants (300 discovered by himself). His writings were translated into Latin and kept in print until 1758, and used until the start of the nineteenth century. Breakthroughs in water technology and hydraulics meant that regions which had been barren could be irrigated, and man could control his environment in ways that had never been possible.



Medical Breakthroughs

Medical breakthroughs and developments during this golden age are too extensive to list here. But they included:

1.    The first inoculations against smallpox.

2.    The existence of micro-organisms, especially bacteria, centuries before the invention of the microscope.

3.    Dentistry, and pioneering work on dental fillings (although god help some of the patients, for example, Ibn Sina suggested that arsenic be boiled in oil and used to fill teeth!).

4.    Caesarean sections and pain control.

5.    Antiseptics – from tenth century purified alcohol (an Arab discovery itself) was being applied with lint dressings to wounds.

6.    Cataract surgery, which used the first hollow metallic hypodermic needles and glass suction tubes in about 1000 AD.

7.    Hundreds of steel medical tools, such as scalpels, were pioneered (a result of sword-making breakthroughs, Damascene steel).

8.    The first psychiatric hospital, built in Baghdad in 705 AD.

9.    Music Therapy, including 10th century Persian music theorist al-Farabi, whose book Meanings of the Intellect, discussed the effect of music on the soul.

10.And for the first time specific diseases were isolated and studied, including diabetes, meningitis, and cancer, as well as rabies, smallpox, and forms of plague.




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.




A huge number of Classical texts no longer exist in their original Greek or Latin, and were brought to the Renaissance through the Arabic. The Abbasids drew from Greek and Roman classics, as well as the classical Persian, Turkic and Indian sources. In this way, information on subjects such as Zero, came to the Arabs (from the Indian subcontinent). Such breakthroughs led to a snowballing effect, with problems of mathematics, physics and so on that were uncrackable before, being solved for the first time.

The House of Wisdom was at first essentially a translation house and giant library. Then gradually it turned into a think-tank, which built on the foundations of earlier cultures, and welcomed Christians and Jews as well as Muslims to study.



Vast Libraries

Magnificent libraries were made possible by the price of cheap paper, and by the growing literacy because people were required to read and write the Qur’an. An example was the Royal library in 10th century Cordoba, assembled under the patronage of Caliph al-Hakim II, which boasted 400,000 books. The library’s directory stretched to 44 huge ledgers. Caliph al-Hakim II sent scholars across the East to buy and have copied important books, and in so doing, added to the expansion of knowledge. The library at Cairo supposedly had two million volumes; and the one at Tripoli had three million, before it was destroyed by Crusaders. We can only imagine the extent of the House of Wisdom’s great library before it was sacked. It must have run into the millions of documents as well. It is said that when it was sacked in 1258 by the Mongol Horde, that the Tigris ran black with ink for six entire months.



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.