How Arab scholars preserved scientific texts serving as the foundations of modern knowledge

By | July 28, 2019

In a review of Violet Moller’s new book, The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found, Katie Hafner writes:

While religion dictated the cultural winds of the Western world, ideas flowed freely through the Middle East, traversing religions and cultures. Knowledge began flowing into Baghdad from every direction as scholars translated Greek manuscripts into Arabic. Book production soared as texts were read aloud to roomfuls of scribes so that many copies could be made at once. Ptolemy’s Earth-centric explanation of the universe was translated into Arabic early in the ninth century.

Yet Arab scholars, Moller points out, were gradually written out of history.

Moller leaves Baghdad and heads to Córdoba, which by the 10th century had become a hub of scholarship. This was thanks in large part to Crown Prince al-Hakam, who supported the sciences, built a vast network of scholarly contacts, and combined Córdoba’s three royal libraries into one, which contained 400,000 volumes. Copies of Euclid’s “Elements,” Ptolemy’s “Almagest,” and the Galenic corpus came to Córdoba from points East; they were copied in turn and made their way into the hands of scholars.

Luckily, some of those copies reached Toledo. It was there that an impassioned young scholar named Gerard translated “The Almagest” into Latin, the first such translation disseminated throughout Europe.

This was a lucky turn of events, Moller points out, as 700 years of Muslim civilization – including nearly all writings in Arabic – were snuffed out under Catholic rule. [Continue reading…]

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