There is a mysterious passage in Zakariyya al-Qazwini's Athar al-Bilad (Monuments of the Countries) which sticks in the mind because of its strangeness.
Yunan, writes al-Qazwini, using the old word for Ionia, was the birthplace of the Greek philosophers. "But now the sea has taken possession of it. Among its wonders is the fact that anyone who thinks of something in that land never forgets it, or at least remembers it for a long time. Merchants who have gone there by sea say that when they come to that place, they remember things they had forgotten. This is why it was the birthplace of those philosophers, whose like has rarely been found elsewhere."
For this popular 13th-century author, a slightly older contemporary of Spanish monarch Alfonso the Wise, writing at the time of the Crusades, the birthplace of Plato and Aristotle had little to do with the geographical area called Greece. Rather, it was a semi-mythical land of enhanced memory, cut off by the sea - a partial Atlantis, comparable to another island between the coasts of Yemen and Ethiopia that was said to possess a fountain of wisdom that cleared the minds of those who drank its waters.
Classical Greece was as remote in time to the medieval Arabs as the Atlantic islands were remote in distance. The Arabs' partial recovery of philosophical and scientific works from a culture so remote, so alien in outlook, was an effort of remembering, a voyage of the mind that - necessarily - both preceded and prefigured the voyages across open seas that led to the geographical discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries - the era we call the Age of Discovery.
A fragile chain of transmission links us, in the West today, to the Greek roots of the philosophical and scientific culture that we share with the Muslim peoples. The chain reaches from Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor to Athens, loops through Alexandria and back to Rome, across Anatolia and through Iran to India, back again through Gondeshapur and Baghdad, west down the length of the Mediterranean to Córdoba, Seville, Granada and Toledo and thence to Sicily, Salerno and the university towns of medieval Europe.
This chain was forged by men of many different linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds: pagans, Hindus, Jews, Christians and Muslims. They were alike only in their concern to find answers to the questions so simply and clearly formulated by the Greeks as early as the fifth century BC. What is the shape of the earth? How big is it? What supports it? Where does it stand in relation to the sun, moon and stars? How can we know our true location upon its surface? How can that surface be mapped?
The Greeks not only posed these questions but also answered them, insofar as they were able with the means at their disposal. When answers eluded them, it was generally because they lacked the technology to answer them correctly.
In other cases correct answers were given, often very early, and subsequently rejected or simply forgotten. Aristarchus of Samos in the third century BC said, "The fixed stars and the sun remain unmoved, and the earth revolves about the sun on the circumference of a circle, the sun lying in the middle of the orbit." This description of the heliocentric solar system, made 2000 years before Copernicus, is cited in a work by Archimedes called the Sand-Reckoner; Archimedes says that Aristarchus combined this with the earth's rotation about its own axis, completing the model. The Sand-Reckoner is not included among the works of Archimedes that were circulating in Arabic translation in 10th-century Baghdad, but al-Biruni, writing in about AD 1000, refers to the heliocentric model quite casually, as if it were well-known, saying that although it was evidently the correct one, the Ptolemaic, or geocentric, model was always preferred for theological reasons.
As much was forgotten as was remembered. This is particularly true in the history of geographical discovery. The Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa preceded the speculations of the earliest Greek philosophers by almost 100 years. Even Herodotus, who preserves the story, disbelieved it.
The discovery and "loss" of the Canary Islands is another example of how geographic knowledge -indeed, scientific knowledge in general-did not gradually accumulate, block upon interlocking block, as in the video game Tetris, but in fits and starts, often after long periods of inactivity or loss.
The number of times an effort was consciously made to "remember," to recover and then build upon the works of the ancient Greeks, is very small. Such an effort was made in Hellenistic times, in Alexandria, when the surviving works of the ancients were gathered together, catalogued and often commented upon. For our purposes, the major works that resulted were Claudius Ptolemy's Almagest and his Geography. In these two books, Ptolemy attempted nothing less than to map the heavens and the earth.
The process by which Claudius Ptolemy became the Arabs' Batlamiyus Kludiya, and entered a completely alien linguistic and cultural universe, is of absorbing interest. In early ninth-century Baghdad, a conscious effort was made under the Caliph al-Ma'mun to produce Arabic versions of Greek scientific and philosophical works. The toleration that Islam extended to peoples with a shared scriptural tradition - "The Peoples of the Book" - meant that Muslim scholars who did not know Greek were able to benefit from direct contact with Christian scholars who did. Nestorian Christians who had maintained the traditions of the Alexandrian academy were attracted to the brilliant court in Baghdad. Here they were safe from Byzantine persecution, and were able to meet Muslim and Jewish scholars avid for Greek learning. Some Arab scholars were able to master Greek and work directly with the original texts, or translate them into Arabic. Other scholars worked through the intermediary of translations from Greek into Syriac, prepared by Nestorian Christians.
There is hardly a work of Greek science or philosophy that was not available in Arabic by the mid-ninth century. Al-Hajjaj finished his translation of the Almagest in 826; the Geography may have been translated even earlier. These two books established the framework within which astronomical and geographical researches were to be conducted for the next 700 years.
Ptolemy was not received passively in the Islamic world. From the very beginning, the Almagest and the Geography were subjected to very critical scrutiny. The observatories set up by al-Ma'mun were used to correct Ptolemy's star catalogue; the Geography was recast, coordinates re-calculated and hundreds of new observations added. His mathematics were sometimes violently criticized, amended and refined as new instruments were invented and more sophisticated mathematical tools became available. As more early Arabic texts are edited and published, the originality of the work of Muslim scientists and mathematicians becomes increasingly apparent.
The Arabic versions of Greek texts prepared in ninth-century Baghdad circulated throughout the
Islamic world. The translations were revised, commentaries were written upon them, and original works were composed that used the naturalized texts as points of departure.
This growing body of scientific literature, for the most part produced in little more than 100 years, found its way to western Islamic lands very early. Córdoba became a leading intellectual center in al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, in the 10th and 11th centuries. When Toledo fell to the Christians in 1085, another effort was made to transfer the legacy of the ancient Greeks to another language, this time to Latin. In the early 12th century, Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars produced a corpus of translations, from the Arabic, of the Greek authors and their Arabic commentators.
It was at this time that the works of Aristotle first reached the Latin West, with such enormous consequences for European intellectual history. Aristotle and his Arab commentators, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd - revered in the West as Avicenna and Averroes - became the point of departure for almost all European scientists and philosophers until the Renaissance.
The culmination of the transfer of Greek and Arab learning to the West was reached in the 13th century and occurred during the reigns of two European monarchs, who each ruled over formerly Islamic lands and over subjects of different faiths. Between them, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily and Jerusalem, and his close relation Alfonso X of Spain almost span the century. Both men spoke Arabic and may have been able to read the classical language. At Frederick's brilliant court in Sicily, Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars worked together. Men like Michael Scot translated Averroes; it was here that Leonardo of Pisa introduced Arabic numerals to Europe. Later in the century, Alfonso set up the first school of Arabic, under the direction of a Muslim scholar, in the newly conquered province of Murcia. This school was later transferred to Seville, which in the second half of the 13th century inherited the mantle of Toledo and became an active center for scientific research, particularly in astronomy.
Alfonso the Wise had literary as well as scientific interests. He sponsored translations of such famous Arabic works as Kalilah wa Dimnah, and his own Cantigas de Santa Maria are not only in the Arab metrical form known as zajal, but were set to pre-existing melodies of Arabic song. Both Frederick and Alfonso wrote comprehensive law codes, and it is difficult not to see the influence of the example of the shari'a, or Islamic law, in this concern for the minute regulation of relations among their subjects.
It is perhaps not surprising that the first European voyage of exploration we know of should have taken place against that background and in that century. In 1291, shortly after the death of Alfonso, the Vivaldi brothers, from Genoa, undertook a major expedition down the west coast of Africa, in an effort to find the sea route to the Spice Islands. They never returned, and how far south they reached is not known, but the very fact that they thought it possible to circumnavigate Africa means they had access to a non-Ptolemaic tradition, probably of Arab origin, for as we shall see, scholars like al-Biruni were certain the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean joined in the south.
Among the minor works of poet-historian Ibn Sa'id al-Maghribi - almost an exact contemporary of Alfonso the Wise, born in Granada, raised in Seville and widely traveled in the East - is a little geographical handbook. Based on Ptolemy, it is not very original, but it contains a certain amount of information about the coasts of Africa, western and eastern, not found elsewhere. Ibn Sa'id derived this information from Ibn Fatimah, of whom little is known except that he seems to have been a merchant who flourished around 1250. Ibn Fatimah's importance lies in his descriptions of places that were not reached by Europeans for another 200 years. He mentions the Cape Verde Islands, for example, but with a maddening lack of detail. On the east coast of Africa, he knows Madagascar and something of the coast opposite it. It is hard to know whether information of this sort reached men like the Vivaldi brothers and influenced them, but Ibn Sa'id's works were certainly well-known in Andalusia.
The 13th century also marks the appearance of the first portulan charts, extremely accurate mariner's maps of the Mediterranean, showing every cape and bay of the coastline. Distances are very accurate, and the length of the Mediterranean is almost exact - unlike the length given by Ptolemy. Their appearance coincides with the first widespread use of the compass, and they are normally provided with loxodlromes, or rhumb lines, to find the correct bearing.
The existence of the portulan charts, which sometimes mark and caption "imaginary" islands in the Atlantic, is the perfect illustration of the survival, among mariners, of techniques of navigation and a practical science of map-making that owed nothing to Ptolemaic tradition and were much more accurate. These are the kind of maps Columbus and his brother Bartholomew made and sold for a living; they are the kind of maps drawn by Ottoman Turkish navigator Piri Reis. The techniques that produced them are scarcely mentioned in the learned tradition. So alongside the written tradition there was another: an oral tradition that reached back to the Greeks and perhaps even beyond to older Mediterranean civilizations.
The written and the oral traditions interpenetrated. "Learned" information, such as Ptolemy's statement that no one knew what lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, was transformed by popular tradition into giant bronze statues, warning voyagers to turn back. Conversely, popular traditions such as this, and the many stories that circulated about islands in the Atlantic, found their way into "learned" works, such as al-Idrisi's geography.
Both of these traditions contributed to Columbus's discovery of the New World, but of the two, the popular, oral tradition was probably the more significant, for Columbus was a medieval man and his mind was filled with marvels. It was only after his return from his first voyage that he began to search in scholarly works for justifications for the theories he held.
The primacy of oral over learned tradition in the Columbian adventure is shown in another facet of the admiral's protean character. There is no doubting Columbus's seamanship; years ago biographer Samuel Eliot Morison took note of his skill at dead-reckoning and his uncanny ability to find his way in uncharted waters. These were the sort of skills that made the portulans. But Columbus was hopeless with the compass and the astrolabe - with the latter, making errors sometimes in excess of 20 degrees. So compass and astrolabe may have reached Andalusia via the Arabs, but they were of little help in finding America.
The same might be said of the caravel. It used to be widely believed that Columbus's journey was made possible through innovations in ship-building: the development of the round-bottomed ship, the borrowing of the lateen rig from the Arabs, and so on. These certainly made the voyage easier, but they did not make it inevitable. The Phoenicians undertook long voyages in galleys; the Vikings in longboats; the Arabs in dhows; Cheng Ho of China in his huge, flat-bottomed junks; the Polynesians in outrigger canoes. Much more important than the kind of craft is having a destination, and Columbus knew exactly where he was going: He was sailing directly for Japan.
It is easy, blinded by his amazing discovery, to lose sight of Columbus's original purpose: He wanted to find a sea-route to the Spice Islands and China in order to trade for valuable spices directly with the suppliers, eliminating the middle men, who for centuries had been Muslim merchants. And if there is a single event that focused the minds of 15th-century Europeans on the desirability of doing this, it is probably the rise of Tamerlane.
Tamerlane and his hordes of Central Asian warriors laid waste great stretches of the Middle East. The old overland routes to China were interrupted; cities like Damascus and Aleppo and Cairo, merchant cities that trans-shipped spices and other goods to Europe, were either devastated or threatened with devastation. In 1401, the Spanish crown sent an embassy to Tamerlane in Samarkand, presumably to learn his intentions. Two years later, the Chinese emperor, also alarmed, sent an embassy to Malacca, an important emporium in the spice trade, for the same purpose.
Between 1405 and 1433, the emperor of China sent seven expeditions of huge junks, under the command of a Muslim admiral named Cheng Ho, into the Indian Ocean, to make contact with the rulers of the Spice Islands and to map them. Cheng Ho visited most of the Indian Ocean ports, including those on the Arabian Peninsula, and produced a fine map, on the Chinese grid-pattern, of the Indian Ocean. Later in the century Prince Henry the Navigator and his brother began to sponsor the Portuguese voyages down the coast of Africa. Both the Portuguese and the Chinese were reacting to the same events: the effects of Tamerlane on long-distance trade.
The threat from Tamerlane soon receded; his descendants embraced Islam and became noted for their interest in architecture and science. But the idea of sailing directly to the East had taken root in the Iberian Peninsula, where close contact with the Islamic geographical tradition, both popular and learned, perhaps made such an idea appear more feasible than it would have elsewhere in Europe.
The major Islamic power during the European Age of Discovery, the Ottoman Empire, was little concerned with events on the far side of the Atlantic. But as the 16th century wore on, the lives of people living in Islamic lands were changed by these events, first in small and then in more important ways. Exotic fruits and plants made their appearance - the pineapple, the custard apple - and even a new bird, the turkey. More important was the introduction of maize, first mentioned in the Ta'rikh-i Hind-i Gharbi, where it is called "Egyptian millet," and the American root (or root-like) crops - manioc, sweet potatoes, potatoes and peanuts. These transformed lives and economies.
By the end of the 16th century, a Muslim reader who knew Turkish, Arabic or Persian could read of Co-lumbus's discoveries and the conquests of Pizarro and Cortes, the discoveries of Balboa and Magellan, the exotic customs of the courts of Moctezuma and Atahualpa, in the Ta'rikh-i Hind-i Gharbi. The number of surviving manuscripts of this little book, and the marginal annotations by readers, carefully collected by Goodrich, show that there was a popular interest in the New World in Islamic lands.
Tobacco reached Fez in 1599, brought there by Andalusian mercenaries from the south. Soon afterward, it appeared in the East. Its spread gave rise to polemics, and Hajji Khalifah, author of the first comprehensive modern geography in Turkish, the ]ihan Numa, wrote against its use. It nevertheless became thoroughly acclimatized in Ottoman lands and was of great economic importance.
The flood of American silver into the Ottoman Empire - indeed, into all the economies of the world -had far-reaching consequences. For generations the "piece of eight" was the standard currency of trade from Morocco to China, and even Arab traveler Elias ibn Hanna, writing at the close of the 17th century, never left the domain of this silver coin, although he traveled from Baghdad to Peru. The former hegemony of the Spanish coin is evoked every time we write the dollar sign $ - the two vertical strokes of which represent the Pillars of Hercules.
The transfer to the Americas of agricultural technologies and techniques that had originally been developed in Islamic lands - production of cotton, silk, sugar, indigo and cochineal - meant that some of these industries gradually declined or even disappeared in their original homelands. The prevalence of the prickly pear throughout Mediterranean lands today may be a relic of an effort to compete with cheap American cochineal.
It is fitting that this issue should close with the travels of an Arab of Nestorian descent, Elias ibn Hanna, and that he should have been the first Arab to travel widely in South America and write about his experiences. The Nestorians were the first interpreters to the Muslim scholars in Baghdad of Greek learning almost a thousand years before. In the 17th century, when Elias wrote, other members of the Oriental Christian communities, principally Maronites and Chaldeans, were once again acting as the interface between two cultures, this time between Christendom and Islam. These people were instrumental in the first European attempts to scientifically study the Arabic language.
The Catholic monarchs who sponsored Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella, lived in Seville in an Arab palace, the Alcázares Reales. At the end of the 15th century, Seville, from which the exploration of the New World was orchestrated and from which Magellan set out on his circumnavigation of the earth, was dominated by the minaret of what had formerly been the Great Mosque. Charles V and other Spanish monarchs continued to dwell in the Alcázares Reales. Throughout the palace complex, decorative tiles made according to the old Islamic technique bear, below a representation of the Pillars of Hercules, the legend Plus Ultra, "There is More Beyond."
The removal of the negative, the two little letters ne, from the ancient motto Ne Plus Ultra was one of the great achievements of the human spirit. It was possible only through the efforts of people of different cultures and religions to remember and recover their common legacy.
Historian and Arabist Paul Lunde, author of the whole issue of Aramco World , is a frequent Contributor to the magazines with some 50 articles to his credit over the past two decades, including special multi-article sections on Arabic-language printing and the history of the Silk Roads. His immediate research for this issue was carried out in Seville, Rome, London and Cambridge, and he wrote from his base in Seville’s Barrio do Santa Cruz, a stone’s throw from the city’s cathedral—once a mosque—and from Alcázares Resales, the Moorish palace complex that remains today one of the residences of Spain’s Christian kings.