The House of Wisdom

Dear lovers of knowledge,

                A few days back when I was researching for my next book( “Pilgrims of Episteme”, expected in 2013) I came across some very interesting information. I will share that with you in this VERITAS.

                As you are aware, the Greeks had a great tradition of science, mathematics and philosophy. People like Socrates, Aristotle, Euclid, Plato etc – there is a long list of Greek greats in these fields. In the second century BC after the Punic and Macedonian wars, the Greek city states declined and the Romans became the dominant power in the Mediterranean.  The Romans were very powerful in terms of military and had a great political system. However they were weak in Science, Arts, Philosophy etc. So they admired the Greeks for these things. On the other hand the Greeks considered themselves much superior in terms of culture and knowledge but they feared the military might of the Romans.

                After the Punic wars Greek culture became very popular amongst the Romans. They learnt the Greek language, copied their architecture, even identified their gods with the Greek gods. The good thing that the romans did was to preserve the Greek culture, language, philosophy and science. The Romans did not add anything to Greek thought but did their best to preserve it. So Greek science and philosophy continued to progress under Roman rule.

                In the 4th and 5th century AD the Roman empire declined. Also there was a lot of conflict between the new Christian religion and the older pagan religion. This resulted in the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria in 391 AD( See VERITAS: Loss of a Great Library, 27 July 2000, Rome was attacked and looted several times by Gothic tribes between 409 and 476 AD. One of the tribes, the Vandals were extremely ruthless and destroyed just about everything. The word vandalism is derived from this tribe. In 476 AD the emperor of Rome abdicated and the Roman empire finished. Europe descended into the dark ages. The knowledge of Greek was lost, the Pope acquired great powers and the tradition of science and questioning came to an end.

                The eastern part of the Roman empire became the Byzantine empire and it is here that the Greek language and culture continued to flourish to some degree. However the Byzantines could not add much to the great works of the Greek.

                So the Romans and The Byzantines cannot be considered the real inheritors of Greek science and mathematics.  To find the real succesors of the great Greeks we will have to look elsewhere- a different time and a different place.

                Lets now talk about Baghdad in the 8th century AD.  At that time the Abbasid Caliphate was in power. The Abbasid Caliphs had come to power in 750 AD and in 762 AD shifted their capital to a new city: Baghdad. The Abbasids were influenced by the Hadith( sayings by Prophet Mohammed) such as “The Ink of the Scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr” and “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave” and they started making Baghdad a centre of learning and knowledge. The third Caliph of the Abbasid Calipate, Harun al-Rashid formed Bayt Ul-Hikma or “The House of Wisdom”.  Harun al-Rashid was a great patron of science, music and art. We all know him from the book “A Thousand  and one Nights” also known as “Arabian Nights”.  Many stories in this book involve Harun al-Rashid and his vizier, Jafar.

  The House of Wisdom became the centre of what is known as the Translation movement. The Abbasids had formed a library at the House of Wisdom and they were obsessed with getting every book in the world translated into Arabic and kept in the library. First the Persian texts were translated. Then the focus shifted to Greek texts. Harun al-Rashid’s son, Al-Mamun who ruled from 813 to 833 took the House of Wisdom to great heights. Al-Mamun was hugely influenced by Greek thought. It is said that when he was a young man he once dreamt of Aristole. In the dream Aristotle came to him and spoke about philosophy and politics. Under Al-Mamun’s rule, the works of Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Eulid, Archimedes – every great Greek philosopher, mathematician, physician were translated into Arabic.

                Now the translation of works of Philosophy, Science, Mathematics and medicine is not an easy task. The translator has to be knowledgeable about these subjects to  be able to translate them well. Al-Mamun was not just a collector of books, he was also a collector of the best minds. So everyday, translators, scribes, scientists, mathematicians, physicians met at the House of Wisdom to translate works by the great Greeks. The House of Wisdom became so famous that scholars from around the world came to join it.

                Now what happens when scholars get together under one roof? New ideas, new thoughts emerge. So what started as a Translation Movement soon became a thriving place where original work was carried out in science, mathematics and other subjects.  The scholars at the House of Wisdom extended the works of the great Greeks and took science and mathematics forward.

                Another thing that happened at the House of Wisdom was that texts from India and China were also translated. The scholars were able to combine the works from the east and the west to make great leaps in knowledge. Let me take an example: the Greeks and Romans could not multiply the way we can. Yes, Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Archimedes etc could not multiply as easily as a school kid can in today’s age. They used to add repeatedly. Why? Because they did not have a decimal system: Imagine trying to multiply XCVIII with DCCVII! Now lets convert it to another notation: 98 X 707. Now it becomes so simple. Why? Because the decimal system gives each place a value- it is a positional system. A positional system requires the number 0. The Arab scholars got this system from India and were quick to realize how superior it was over the Greek-Roman system. Al-Khwarizimi wrote “On the calculation with Hindu numerals” in 825 AD. Al-Kindi wrote a 4 volume subject on the same subject in 830 AD.  

                Now that was one example. The House of Wisdom was the centre of world science and mathematics at that time. Let me give you a few more examples: The word Algorithm comes from Al-Khwarizimi who as we saw earlier wrote the book on Indian number system. Al-Khwarizimi described a step by step way of solving algebraic equations- we call it Algorithm these days. Talking about algebra- the word algebra comes from Al-Khwarizimi ‘s book Kitab Al-jebr. The words Alchemy, Chemistry, Almanac, Amber, Alcohol, Alkali, Azimuth come to us from Arabic and are all associated with some major contributions towards science or mathematics by the scholars at the House of Wisdom.

                The works of many greek philosophers and scientists would have been unknown to us if they were not carefully translated and preserved by the scholars at the House of Wisdom. Lets take the case of Galen, the great Greek man of medicine. The 3 million words that he wrote are available to us only because the Arabs translated them and kept them so carefully. Mohammed al-Razi was known as the “Galen of the Arabs”. He used Galen’s works as a basis and then  wrote a 23 volume text on medicine. He formed a fuction between Persian, Greek and Indian systems of medicine.

  The Islamic Golden Age of Science lasted from 750 Ad to 1258 AD- 5 centuries of scientific progress by the greatest minds of the day based on the great works of Greeks, Indians and Chinese. But then, as it typically happens, lust for power destroys love for knowledge. Baghdad was conquered in the year 1258 by the Mongols led by Hulgau Khan who was the grandson of Genghiz Khan. The House of Wisdom was destroyed. The Mongols took the books from the House of Wisdom and threw them into the Tigris to form a bridge on the river so that they could cross it!

                Friends, from 476 AD to the 14th century, Europe was in dark ages. It was a place of orthodox religion, superstition and ignorance. The centre of science, philosophy, culture and mathamatics was in Baghdad, in the House of Wisdom. When Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century, it was based on what the Arabs had preserved. The House of Wisdom prepared Europe for Renaissance. Without the House of Wisdom, Renaissance would not have happened, or would have been delayed by several centuries.

                In the end I will leave you with a thought by Al-Kindi, a mathematician and a scholar from the House of Wisdom: “We ought not to be embarrassed of appreciating the truth and of obtaining it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. Nothing should be dearer to the seeker of truth than the truth itself.”


 Like you, a lover of Knowledge




Go wondrous creature, mount where science guides

go measure earth, weigh air, state the tides,

instruct the planets in what orbs to run

correct old time, regulate the sun



Read my latest book, “Shadows of Lost Time”.

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