Cultures, languages and learning intermingled in places of transit – ports, oases, intersections on caravan routes – and in princely palaces and caliphs’ residences, to which scholars were invited and where they lived – writers, teachers and translators. They intermingled in libraries, manuscript study centres and “academies”, some of them situated in towns that have now almost or completely disappeared.
The palace, rather than the market or the mosque, was the centre of urban life in the Islamic world. Many towns founded in the Middle Ages grew up round a palace, which itself resembled a town: consisting of many buildings linked by courtyards and gardens and protected by a perimeter wall, several hundred people lived in it, including the troops quartered there. In addition to his officials, the sultan liked to surround himself with poets, and men of religion and science, whose knowledge and talent were his court’s most brilliant ornaments. The model of the ruler as protector of learning and the arts, collector of books and founder of libraries, was of great importance for the intellectual and scientific development of the mediaeval Islamic world. This model, which was at least as political as it was cultural, had a significant influence on the rulers of the West when they encountered it during the Crusades.
The first conquests, which began in 632 when the Prophet Mohammed died, brought important centres where Greek philosophy, science and medicine were taught into the Muslim-Arab world.
It was in Alexandria, the first intellectual capital of the Byzantine Empire, conquered between 642 and 645, that a form of teaching that brought together science and philosophy was offered. Its study programme left its mark on the Arab and then on the mediaeval Latin world. Later, in Baghdad, founded by al-Mansûr in 762 and capital of the Empire, an extraordinary intellectual flowering took place. The size of its population, the wealth of the court and the universal authority of the caliph made Baghdad the centre of the world. The caliphs are generally thought of as enlightened oriental despots, who encouraged and protected groups of scholars. They included Hârûn ar-Rashîd (786-809), the ruler who appears in many stories of the Thousand and one nights, and Ma’mun (813-833), his son and the founder of Bayt al-Hikma (the House of Wisdom), the first great Arab centre of translation and learning.
The role of Baghdad, important as it was, was never isolated. The whole Abbasid Empire was involved in the same process, partly because there was so much contact, some of it resulting from the need to perform the pilgrimage, but also because the rivalry between the various regional powers that made up the Empire found expression in the intellectual field. In the tenth century, intellectual life was dispersed among a great many cities, notably in Iran, at Bukhâra and Isfahân, and Cairo in Egypt. Arab science was nomadic. Its construction was at the mercy of the periods of openness and closure dictated by political ups and downs and the reversals of local powers.
The Islamic Empire united vast areas on both sides of the old frontiers of Antiquity: from Spain to Persia and Central Asia, by way of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The linguistic, legal and monetary unity formed by Arabic, Islamic law and the dinar/dirham, fostered the development of trade and cities. While some urban sites were abandoned after the Arab conquests, others developed and took over from them nearby: Tunis took over from Carthage, Fez from Volubilis. Some of the most ancient cities in the world, such as Damascus in Syria, were rejuvenated. The growth of cities was not confined to the ancient borders of the Roman Mediterranean world, but stretched far to the East, across Iraq and Iran to Central Asia and northern India. To the South, it reached sub-Saharan Africa, along the African coast of the Indian Ocean to the ports of Swahili country, present-day Kenya and Tanzania. In the Middle Ages the Islamic world became a sort of urban archipelago in which the towns and their oases were washed by the great current of international trade that crossed vast, virtually uninhabited, regions – seas, deserts and mountain ranges. The routes that linked them led to the edges of the known world: China, where merchants went in search of silks and porcelain, and the Sunda Islands, in present-day Indonesia, from which they brought spices, pepper and nutmeg.
In the early centuries of the Middle Ages the centre of gravity of the world economy moved eastward. The central lands of Islam – what we now call the Middle East, turned more towards Asia and the Indian Ocean than the Mediterranean – became the focal point of the flow of people and wealth. The major international trade routes were reorganized around their main urban centres. The precious goods, such as spices, that arrived in the West at that time were all transported by Jewish or Muslim merchants from the Islamic world. Islam, whose cities were at the crossroads of the major land and maritime routes of the Middle Ages (from Cordoba, Damascus, Baghdad, Palermo, Cairo, Venice, Pisa and Constantinople to Samarkand), was indeed at the centre of the world. The activity of the Mediterranean ports was not confined to economic exchange, but also involved books and learning. The Italian ports played an important part in the transmission of Muslim-Arab learning to the Latin world. Merchants went from Pisa to Bougie (Béjaïa) and Syria. Pisa had close relations with the Principality of Antioch, the only Crusader city in the East that played an essential role in the transfer of Arab learning to the West.
In Europe, Muslim and Christian realms had coexisted since the conquest of Spain and then Sicily in the eighth and ninth centuries. Although they were often mutually hostile, this proximity nonetheless resulted in reciprocal influence. The emirs and caliphs of Palermo and Cordoba ordered philosophical and scientific texts from Baghdad. Arab science trickled into the Christian world through Catalonia. The Norman conquest of Sicily did nothing to diminish the Latin world’s interest in Arab learning and the Kings of Sicily supported Arab scholars at the court of Palermo. The ensuing contacts between the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen and philosophers and scholars of the Muslim world are well known.
In the twelfth century, the Latin incursion into Muslin lands made works in Arabic available to clerics and scholars. Through Spain, this gave them access to the linguistic knowledge of the Mozarabs and Jews and, through Sicily, to the learning of the Greeks and Muslims. Taking possession of this prodigious legacy resulted in the transfer of a huge amount of learning to the West.
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