Generation 464, 1260-1280. Destruction and brilliance

So much that still resonates with us now can be traced back to this generation.

Let’s start in the oases of central Asia. Earlier in the century the Mongols had devastated a swathe of cities that saw the flowering of Persian culture. Balkh, Bokhara, Gurganj, Merv, Samarkand … They separated out the craftsmen and others with useful skills and sent them to other parts of the empire, to work for them. The women and children were sold as slaves. The able-bodied men were divided into groups, each assigned to a soldier who then killed them. No  mention is made of what happened to the old people. We can imagine they were probably left to die. The cities themselves were destroyed, by breaching dams and flooding them or otherwise breaking the irrigation systems on which they depended. If it was still on a trade route the city might be rebuilt, such as Samarkand. Otherwise the sands blew over them and they existed only in memory, to be rediscovered by archaeologists centuries later.

One family fled from Balkh in what is now northern Afghanistan, ahead of the Tartar tide. By the time we are in now their son was  in Konya in eastern Anatolia, modern-day Turkey. His books of poetry are still read and loved. His name was Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi.

Rumi wrote so many beautiful and wise things. Here are a couple, both of which feel timeless to me:

‘The lion who breaks the enemy’s ranks is a minor hero compared to the lion who overcomes himself.’

‘Little by little, wean yourself. This is the gist of what I have to say. From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood, move to an infant drinking milk, to a child on solid food, to a searcher after wisdom, to a hunter of more invisible game.’

But the Mongol advance continued. Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu was given the task of completing his grandfather’s work of conquering the moslem world, and was even more ruthless than Genghis. In 1257 the caliph of Baghdad believed his city was inviolable and refused to surrender to the infidel invaders. Because he had resisted, Hulagu had every non-christian in the city killed. Hundreds of thousands of people were massacred. He spared the christians because his mother, wife and general of his army were all Nestorian christians.

Hulagu sent some of his army to complete what his grandfather had not been able to do, to defeat the small Shia sect known as the Assassins at their mountain stronghold of Alamut south of the Caspian Sea, in modern-day Iran. And here we meet the next brilliant man from this generation.

Nasir al-din al-Tusi was a survivor. He had lived and worked at Alamut for thirty years. The Assassins had a fierce reputation, so it would not have been most people’s choice of residence. When the Mongols arrived, he persuaded Hulagu to sponsor the establishment of an astronomical observatory at Maragha, three hundred miles to the west of Alamut, possibly with the incentive of offering astrological predictions.  However, as we have seen, Maragha then became a centre of learning, attracting scholars from Europe to China.

As well as making contributions to astronomy, al-Tusi invented trigonometry as a separate mathematical discipline. He was interested in evolution, too. And remember Einstein’s famous quote: that energy cannot be destroyed, it can only change its form? Here is al-Tusi’s statement of the same principle, six and a half centuries earlier:

“A body of matter cannot disappear completely. It only changes its form, condition, composition, colour and other properties and turns into a different complex or elementary matter.”

Al-Tusi also made contributions to a debate that was polarising catholic Europe. A new institution had appeared a century earlier, first in Bologna, then in Paris, Oxford and other European cities. The universities were independent of  both emperor and church. Their common language was latin. Scholars grouped around a particular master, who themselves were grouped into faculties: of law, arts, medicine, philosophy and theology, among others.

The faculty of theology grew increasingly alarmed that the other faculties were encroaching on to its territory. In 1270 the bishop of Paris issued a list of thirteen subjects that were out of bounds for discussion by the philosophers. To do so was to engage in heresy. This was one of many lists that were issued during the century – meaning that not much attention was being paid to the prohibitions.

The banned subjects highlight tensions in the world view.  Is everything governed by God, or can a human make their own mind up? How can God possibly even know everything that is going on? Do we learn about God by studying the creation, or by studying christian doctrine? And if by studying the works of God for ourselves, what is the role of the church?

Into this debate came another brilliant thinker. Originally from the province of Aquino in southern Italy, Thomas of Aquino, known now as St Thomas Aquinas came from a noble family. He was sent to Monte Cassino as a child, to train as a priest. There he met the new mendicant order of Dominicans, and joined them. This was not the career path his family had in mind for him. They kidnapped him, took him back home and tried to tempt him away from this ascetic lifestyle choice. However, Thomas was rigorous in his thinking, independent-minded and not likely to be swayed by anything other than more powerful arguments than the ones he put forward. His family eventually gave up the struggle and let him go.

He went on to study at Naples and Paris Universities. He was  meticulous, painstaking and dogged in his researches into the questions that were convulsing Paris, so in the period under discussion the Dominican order sent him back there to try to calm things down. He wrote voluminously. His masterwork, the Summa Theologica, is the most thorough exploration of what it means to be human that I have ever read. He asks, what is happiness, what is joy, what is good and hundreds of other questions. With each question he goes on to ask where do these qualities reside, what are the arguments against, what are those for, what is his conclusion, on and on for three volumes.

In other words, he used the very God-given power of independent thought that the bishop was fulminating against, and so found many of his own ideas condemned by the church.  He probably incorporated enough of the new ideas that were coming from the moslem world that could be safely absorbed by the christian north without causing major ruptures. He steered a middle path. Within a couple of generations his contribution was recognised and he was canonised.

There were other brilliant thinkers in this generation: Roger Bacon in Oxford, Gregory Bar Hebraeus from Ebra in modern Turkey (also now a saint) to name two. But those three remarkable men give a flavour of what a lively time this was.


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