The House of Wisdom

A new book by Jonathan Lyons, The House of Wisdom: how the Arabs transformed Western civilisation, has a few surprising insights on developments in the recording and transmission of knowledge in the period.
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Lyons focuses on the contribution of Abbasid rulers of Baghdad, from the founding of the dynasty in 762 to its overthrow by the Mongols in 1258, and on the ways in which Arab knowledge was introduced to the West, by such travelling scholars as Adelard of Bath in the twelfth century. The usual Western image of such transmission portrays the Arabs as faithful and benevolent, if rather unimaginative, guardians and custodians of Greek learning, saving the classic texts by translating them into Arabic, and then returning them to Europe just in time to start the Renaissance. Lyons shows that the Arab contribution was a much more active and creative one, with interpretation and discovery in many fields, from astronomy and physics, to medicine and agriculture.

The ‘House of Wisdom’ of the title was the early mechanism for this process: a combination of library, book depository, and translation bureau, supporting a active community of scholars. Libraries appeared in many environments, the larger ones typically holding tens of thousands of volumes. Elsewhere in the Arab world, the library of the caliphs in Cordoba was generally reckoned to have a collection of nearly half a million volumes, comparable to to a substantial university library today. In general, as Lyons shows the contribution of Arab learning and recording of knowledge is still underestimated in the West.

The position of the Abbasid realms, spreading onto three continents, enabled them to engage on a grand-scale in what would later be termed knowledge transfer. Their links with the Mediterranean world, and in particular the Hellenistic cities which came under their control and with the still-powerful Byzantine empire, gave them access to the classical literature. Their contacts with the civilisations of the Indian sub-continent provided what we still call Arabic numerals, though they are in truth Indian. And their spread into central Asia brought them into contact with the Chinese empire, from which they learnt the making of paper. At a time when Europe was still reliant on parchment for recording information, the Arab world was paper-based. The cheapness, convenience and ease of storage of paper played a great part in the development of a ‘book culture’, which drew the attention of those Europeans who came into contact with it. Intriguingly, and a point which Lyons does not speculate on, the Arabs never adopted that other Chinese innovation, printing. If they had done so, the Arab world might have developed a print-on-paper information environment five hundred years before Europe managed to do so. The consequences of that make intriguing food for thought for those who like to speculate on alternative histories.

Finally, Lyons has a cautionary tale for those who believe the power of collections of recorded information to pass on, by their very existence, the knowledge of a culture or a civilisation. The Arabs, he points out, had, from a very early stage, accurate translations of Ptolemy’s astronomical works. But they lacked understanding of the astronomical concepts, and could make no use of them. It is not, apparently, enough just to store the information; understanding has to kept alive along with it, or painfully rediscovered.

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