An accidental empire. 680-740, generations 435-437.

During Mohammed’s lifetime the Arabian peninsula was united into a single polity. After he died in 632 the expansion of arab-controlled land accelerated. The rate of expansion was astounding and unprecedented. The latest dynasty of the Persian empire, the Sasanian dynasty, had the misfortune that its capital, Ctesiphon, was not easily defensible against the arab armies. After losing a battle against the invaders in 636, the Sasanian royal family abandoned Ctesiphon. Once the capital was gone, the rest of the empire could be picked off bit by bit. The arabs repeatedly attempted to take Constantinople too, but failed. Emperor Constantine had chosen a defensible location three centuries previously, on a promontory encircled by the Bosphorus. So the Roman empire, although dramatically reduced in size, was not wiped from the map in the way that the Sasanian one was, and its rump continued to be administered from Constantinople.

Within fifty years of Mohammed’s death the Umayyad dynasty was established in Damascus. From this base it controlled the whole of the ex-Persian empire as far as China, a large part of the Roman empire (Anatolia, the eastern Mediterranean, north Africa) and, by the year 720, most of the Iberian peninsula. The map of the world had changed, irrevocably.

The Umayyads appointed arab governors to each region, who collected taxes and sent them back to Damascus. There was a vigorous slave trade. It was said that after the defeat of the Visigoths in southern Spain, 30,000 blond Visigothic slaves were on sale in the slave markets of Damascus. This was beginning to look more like an empire than a religious arising. The arab elite grew rich.

Tensions began to show. The arab rulers came from the desert of Arabia. Hitherto, their main contact with the empires administered from Constantinople and Ctesiphon had been as traders and raiders: people on the move, not city-dwellers. There were not many of them: they were a tiny minority in their vast unexpected empire. They did not have the infrastructure or the traditions to manage it. How to administer these lands and retain their distinctive identity?

One way was not to move into the pre-existing cities. In Mesopotamia the arabs set up encampments, which became garrison towns in Kufa and Basra. In Egypt they set up a semi-permanent camp on the banks of the Nile at Fustat, which is now a suburb of Cairo. They left the Roman and Sasanian administrative structures in place and almost untouched. For those living in the villages of the new empire, the regime change must have been hardly noticeable. The fact that the annually-collected taxes now went to Damascus instead of Constantinople or Ctesiphon probably didn’t impinge. Otherwise, life continued unchanged.

However, there was unrest. There were repeated uprisings all over the new empire. The arabs came with a powerful new religion and a book which proclaimed a bright future for the Believers. The book seemed to say that bloodlines and tribal loyalties were secondary to what a person chose to believe. For an open-minded, thinking person this appeared to offer a way out of their current situation . It was possible to be a part of this powerful wave that had swept over the world, simply by declaring one’s adherence to the new religion. But it didn’t work out like that in practice. When several hundred escaped slaves moved to Basra and Kufa and declared themselves to be muslims, the governor had them arrested, branded and sent back to their masters. Evidently, in this new world some were more equal than others.

The pervasiveness of slavery may have been an escape-valve. The slave trade was a fact of life, seen as a necessary evil. Attempts had been made since ancient times to regulate it, but never to outlaw it. This posed new dilemmas for the arab rulers. What was the legal status of the offspring of an arab father and his non-arab slave? Could they become a muslim? Over the years a complicated hierarchy emerged. A person with two arab parents was at the top of the tree, followed by one with one arab parent, and so on. There was movement between the categories. For example, the general who led the conquest of Spain in 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, was probably an ex-slave. Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq) is named after him.

Another area addressed by the Umayyads was the coinage. In the early years of Umayyad rule the empire continued using the Sasanian and Roman currencies. This meant that, long after the arabs had taken control, images of the Roman Emperor were still on each coin in the purses of the traders of Alexandria and Damascus. In the 680’s the Umayyad emperor had his own coins made, with his image, modelled on the Roman solidus minted in Constantinople.


Here is a coin from 693, showing an image of the caliph Abd-al Malik. Courtesy Muslim Heritage

Whereas the Roman Emperor’s solidus had his image on one side and the christian cross on the obverse, Abd-al Malik’s dinar had an image of himself holding a sword on one side and the symbol shown here on the back of the coin. Evidently the muslim prohibition of depicting the human form had not yet kicked in. His image was encircled by the testimony of Islam written in Arabic: “In the name of God, there is no deity but God; He is One; Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Interestingly, Abd-al Malik had grown up in Medina, the final home of the Prophet and base for an uprising against Umayyad rule on the grounds that it was not following the way of the Believers. By placing the Testimony of Islam on his coins, maybe Abd-al Malik was nailing his colours to the mast.

In Abd-al Malik’s next minting, in 697, there were no images.


These coins were made compulsory throughout the empire. Persian and Roman coins were melted down and restamped, on pain of death. The language of the administration was declared to be arabic rather than greek or persian as it had been. The conquered territories began the process of cohering into a single entity, the dar al-islam, the abode of islam.

The blackbird comes to Cordoba. Generations 442-443, 820-860

He is remembered as the blackbird, el pajaro negro, in Spain to this day. He is credited with introducing the lute, toothpaste, deodorant, tablecloths, glass tableware and the three-course meal to the court at Cordoba, as well as asparagus, a new hairstyle and seasonal fashions. He was reportedly a composer who memorised 10,000 songs himself and was the founder of a music school.

The legends continue. He is said to have designed a new, lightweight style of lute with an extra, fifth string. The first four strings were said to symbolise the four humours. This new fifth string, he is reported to have said, represented the soul.

His name was Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Nafi’. He was born around 789 somewhere in the middle east. Persia, Kurdistan and Mesopotamia have all been suggested. The accounts agree that he studied music in Baghdad as a young man. They also agree on his nickname, Zaryab or Ziryab, but not its meaning or origin. Does it come from the arabic word for blackbird, shahrur, or from the persian words for liquid gold, zar ab? This is a political minefield that I prefer not to enter. In Baghdad the religion came from the arabs but a large part of the civilisation came from the persians, so there was probably a degree of tension between the two cultures.

The accounts all agree that he was forced to leave Baghdad, but the reasons given vary. Was it political exile after the civil war between the caliph al-Amin and his brother al-Mansur? If he was a protege of al-Amin it would have been prudent to make himself scarce after al-Mansur took over. The story told by ibn Khaldun several centuries later was that he excelled his music master, who became jealous and paid him to leave. However, that story had been told before, about a musician at the Persian court a couple of centuries previously. Maybe it was too good a tale to waste.

It is agreed that he travelled across north Africa, and spent some time at the court of the emir Ziyadat Allah I in Ifriqiya, modern Tunisia. From there he was invited to Cordoba. The emir who had issued the invitation, al-Hakam, was dead by the time he and his family arrived in 822, but al-Hakam’s son and successor, Abd al Rahman, upheld it. He was given a villa in the city, land in the countryside and a stipend of 200 gold pieces per month, guaranteed for thirty years.

Ziryab repaid Abd al-Rahman’s investment. He systematised the study of music and founded a conservatoire. His teaching methods were replicated across north Africa. The styles of music he explored, combining middle eastern traditions with the indigenous music of al-Andalus, are the basis of a large part of the musical traditions in Spain and north Africa to this day.

He is also remembered for his contributions to civilised city living. He made it popular for men to be clean-shaven and for women to have short hair with a fringe on the forehead (US: bangs). He invented a soap with rosewater and salts. He introduced seasonal fashions: fresh colours in spring, white in the heat of the summer, fiery reds and yellow in autumn and dark, warm furs in winter.

At the table, he replaced the traditional metal drinking goblets with drinking vessels of crystal. He is credited with inventing the leather tablecloth and the three-course meal of soup or starter, followed by a main course and finishing with a dessert or nuts. This latter was a completely new invention. Not even Baghdadis had three-course meals. Many dishes are named after him. It is possible that the Indian sweet dish, the jalebi, derives its name from Ziryab.

He invited other learned men from his homeland. Indian visitors brought the game of chess. He invited doctors and astrologers from elsewhere in the arabic-speaking world to come to Cordoba to share their learning.

He died in 857. His children continued his work. One of his daughters married the court vizier. His legacy is fondly remembered in Spain.


A christian and a muslim playing lutes, cover of the cantigas de santa Maria by Alfonso el Sabio, king of Toledo, 13th century.

Sunni, shia and caliphs: the world from 900-1000AD

By generation 450, 1000 AD, there were three caliphs: one each in Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba. As the word ‘caliph’ implies one-and-only successor to the prophet, clearly something had gone off-script.

This post gives some broad brush-strokes to the map of the world we are exploring.

After Mohammed died in 632 AD, the official story tells us that the umma, the community, elected his uncle Abu Bakr as their leader. He gave himself the title ‘khalifa’, caliph, successor to the prophet. When he died another companion of the prophet, Omar, was elected. When Omar died, the umma elected another companion of the prophet. Othman was a devout man and also a very successful businessman. His skills were put to use to administer the rapidly-growing world that the muslims were moving into. He appointed other members of his wealthy family, the Umayyads, as governors in Egypt and Damascus.

But then it went wrong. Othman was assassinated when the people began to suspect that his family were getting rich at the expense of the rest of them. Othman’s family refused to accept the legitimacy of the next caliph elected by the umma: the prophet’s son-in-law Ali. The Ummayads defeated Ali in battle and set themselves up as caliphs in Damascus. The caliphate became hereditary.

But there were some in the umma who believed that Ali carried the authority, the spark that had been transmitted through Mohammed. Instead of caliph, they called him ‘imam’, the person who leads them to prayer. The Umayyads hunted down and killed Ali’s two sons, Hassan and Hussein, who in their turn had each been designated imam. When Hussein was killed his followers began to be known as shi’i, partisans. And so there was schism in the muslim world traceable back to thirty years after the death of the prophet.

Under the Umayyads, Damascus prospered. The muslim world continued to expand. Its policy of religious tolerance of other ‘people of the book’, christians and jews, meant that it was welcomed by christians in the Anatolian peninsula who adhered to a different version of their religion than their rulers in Constantinople. This was the start of the golden age. The official language of the empire was arabic. There was craft, trade and learning across the vast new realm.

Everyone flourished, but arabs were more equal than non-arabs, and Damascus and the Umayyads flourished most of all. This inevitably led to questioning of the authority of the Umayyads, whether they were really following the path as stipulated by the prophet. He had folded a blanket to sleep on and now these rulers wore fine silks. The discontent found strongest expression outside the arab world, in Persia, and among the shi’a. The rebels found a figurehead in one Abbas, who claimed descent from an uncle of Mohammed. To cut a very long story short (I’m not interested in politics and bloodshed, I confess) the rebel forces defeated the Umayyad army in 750 and Abbas was proclaimed caliph.

Enter the Abbasids. Once installed, Abbas forgot his interest in shi’ism and a lot of the promises he had made to his supporters. He rounded up the remaining Umayyads – and had them all killed. The caliphate became hereditary again. He built a new capital city at Baghdad. He invited scholars from all over the known world to work in its libraries, translating books from Greek, Persian and Hindu into arabic. The golden age went up a gear.

abbasid box

This inlaid ivory box comes from early in the Abbasid dynasty, around 800AD. Courtesy of Islamic Arts

But one of the Umayyad family, Abd al-Rahman, managed to escape the Abbasid soldiers and made his way to the far west, to the new province of al-Andalus. There he was welcomed as a member of the imperial family. He mustered enough support to take over the peninsula and defeat the Abbasid army that came from Africa to overthrow him. He established his capital in Cordoba. A couple of hundred years later his successors felt confident enough to designate themselves caliphs once more.


The christian church in Cordoba was converted into a mosque and massively enlarged under Umayyad rule. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And so there were two caliphates: the Abbasids in Baghdad in the east and the Umayyads in Cordoba in the west.

The third caliphate was halfway between them, in north Africa. The shi’a Fatimids traced their descent through a line of imams from Fatima, Mohammed’s daughter who was married to Ali. In the early tenth century these shi’a teachers gathered enough support to overthrow the local rulers in north Africa. The Fatimid caliphate was established first in Tunisia. Then in 969 they created a new capital at Cairo in Egypt.

rock crystal ewer This drinking jug made from a single piece of rock crystal, hollowed out and carved, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It comes from Fatimid Egypt.

The Fatimids also participated in the exchange of learning and creativity, as the arabic language was shared across the three caliphates. They ruled Palestine (where christian pilgrims were welcomed as fellow people of the book), Sicily and southern Italy and across north Africa.

The stage is set for us to launch into the glory of the islamic golden age.

Measuring time and space. Generations 451-454, 1000-1080

Towards the end of this period a metalsmith in Toledo devised a universal astrolabe. His name was al-Zarqali, known later in the west as Arzachel.

earliest surviving astrolabe

Astrolabes were made of brass and were things of beauty. This one is from Iran, a century earlier. (Image from UC Santa Barbara) 

The astrolabe was a glorified protractor, but much more sophisticated. It allowed a person to measure the positions of the stars and planets, thereby enabling them to determine local time. It had been devised by the ancient Greeks, but had a drawback: each one was valid only for a given latitude. Al-Zarqali’s astrolabe had the advantage that it could be set for any latitude and so was much more useful. Over the following centuries it became known in northern Europe as a Saphaea. Abelard and Heloise, in Paris in the following century, named their son Astrolabe. Chaucer describes the use of one in the Canterbury Tales a couple of centuries later still. Astrolabes were leading-edge technology until the development of the telescope in the 1500’s.

Astrolabes were also used to measure the heights of buildings.

measuring height with an astrolabe

Here is a much later image, from the 16th century, demonstrating its use. (Image courtesy of the Whipple Library, University of Cambridge)

The muslim world stretched from Toledo across North Africa, through the middle east to what is now Afghanistan. The use of the astrolabe demonstrates a new departure in thinking that was taking place across this world. It used mathematical principles (straight lines, perfect numbers) to describe the observed world where lines are never straight and numbers never quite add up. For the ancient Greeks the two were irreconcilably separate. But islamic scholars demonstrated that precise mathematical principles could be used to describe the fuzzy physical world.

One of the greatest scholars lived at the eastern end of this world, between the Caspian Sea and Afghanistan. Al-Biruni was so influential that some have described the first half of the eleventh century as ‘the age of Al-Biruni’. Because the caliphs in Baghdad 1500 miles or 2500 km away were retreating behind the protection of their Mamluk guards, this region was left to fend for itself, and so al-Biruni lived in a time of political turmoil. Depending on who was ruling at any time he moved from one town to another, always continuing his wide-ranging researches.

He wrote a history of India, based on reports from captured Indian scholars brought back from the campaigns of one of his rulers. This was the first known dispassionate study of another culture, a heathen one at that, not one of a people of the Book. Here is an extract:

“With regard to God, the Hindus believe that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by free will, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, and preserving; one who is unique in his sovereignty, beyond all likeness and unlikeness, and neither resembling anything nor having anything resemble him. In order to illustrate this, we shall produce some extracts from the Hindu literature, lest the reader should think that our account is nothing but hearsay.”

He wrote a book on pharmacology in which he listed each plant in five languages. And using the astrolabe and islamic advances in trigonometry, he developed a method to measure the circumference of the Earth.The previous best attempt had been in Egypt, and involved placing a stake in the ground in Cairo, pacing the distance north to Alexandria, and then measuring the angle of the sun’s shadow at each place. Al-Biruni introduced his method with the following sentences: ‘Here is another method for the determination of the circumference of the Earth. It does not require walking in deserts.’ (quoted in ‘Pathfinders’ by Jim Al-Khalili, Puffin Books)

Travelling on his patron’s military campaigns in Pakistan, he saw a mountain surrounded by a plain near the fort of Nandana, which was just what he needed to apply his new method. In a two-stage process, he first calculated the height of the mountain from the plain. Then he climbed to the top of the mountain and measured the angle to the horizon.This gave him the first triangle ABH in the diagram.Then by calculating the distance to the horizon he could project a second, larger triangle with the same angles between the mountaintop, the horizon and the centre of the Earth, triangle ACS.


I don’t understand the maths myself, but I can see that the angle marked θ has the same value at the centre of the Earth, at ground level and between the top of the mountain and the horizon line, that another angle is a right angle and so the third must also be equal.

How ingenious! The calculations presupposed that the Earth was a perfect sphere and scientists now tell us it isn’t quite, but his work displays a confidence in the human ability to make sense of the world around us. The age of al-Biruni indeed.

Going off the edge of the map. 1100 CE

So far in our story there has been a largely agreed-to narrative.

We began in the current generation, generation 500, with its unprecedented level of interconnectedness and availability of information. As we explored back through the twentieth century we saw how technological innovations, initially available only to the rich, eventually empowered so many more of us. Mobile phones, computers, washing machines, air travel, for example.

Then we moved back through the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. This saw technological breakthroughs and also a change in thinking. Areas previously deemed off-limits to the uninitiated were now open to question. Charles Darwin, a country vicar living in the south of England, wrote ‘The Origin of Species’ and sparked a furore which still continues in some places.

The eighteenth century saw the Enlightenment. Some people felt empowered to question established ways of organising society and describing reality. They wrote about it and talked about it in the coffee shops of Paris, London and elsewhere. The Enlightenment also saw the birth of a powerful idea, that no man has the right to own another. (Women were a grey area but the principle was established. It took another century for the same rights to be extended to them.) The same expansive sense sent men around the world. Australia and New Zealand were colonised by Europeans. Clipper ships brought cargoes of tea and spices from the East to London and Rotterdam.

And so we can continue back with a recognisable strand of events, each generation building on the achievements of the previous one. The story has been agreed. Most history books that we read will pick up on a part of this narrative.

But I have reached a break. In the year 1100 the largest city in Europe was Cordoba. I never knew that! This wasn’t covered in any history lesson I remember. In comparison to the Europe we have largely focused on so far, the muslim world of 1100 was vast. A scholar from northern Persia could travel to Baghdad or Damascus (both much bigger cities than Cordoba),  meet someone from Toledo there, and converse in their common language of Arabic to exchange ideas and experiences.

My problem is that I can’t find the map of the world I am about to enter. I have found a lot of sources, but they all tell slightly different stories. The maps don’t quite match each other, and there are a lot of blank spaces. But while the lack of a map makes this world more difficult to explore, it also is much more interesting for me.

I will have to abandon the approach of one generation at a time. Perhaps because the muslim world is so big, ideas and innovations no longer fit into tidy twenty-year slots. So the next entry in the blog will explore the world-changing events that occurred between 1050 and 1100 (or thereabouts).

Generation 457, 1120-1140. Creativity in turbulent times

Stories from this generation illustrate the fragility of the historical record, how some events are remembered, some writings are preserved and others are lost.

Some that did survive were the works of Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, written in al-Andalus a couple of generations later than this one, towards the end of the twelfth century. His older friend the vizier introduced him to the caliph, who invited him to write a summary of the works of Aristotle as they were difficult to understand. These summaries were translated into latin and caused convulsions in northern Europe in the next century.

The vizier who introduced Averroes to the caliph was called Ibn Tufayl and he lived in this generation. Ibn Tufayl was an accomplished man in his own right – but most of his writings are lost and so he is a lesser figure in our story.

One writing of Ibn Tufayl’s that has survived, however, is a story about a baby boy who was abandoned on a desert island. ‘Hayy ibn Yaqzan‘ (‘Alive the son of Awake’) tells how the baby was adopted by a gazelle, grew to adulthood and along the way explored the meaning of life from what he observed around him. The story illustrates the philosophical debates that were flourishing across the muslim world. The theme comes from the writings of Avicenna, a Persian philosopher from a century earlier. However, Ibn Tufayl develops it further. One of the questions explored is reason versus revelation: does learning come from reason, by working it out, or is it divinely inspired, by revelation? Or a combination of the two?

He was not the only creative writer of the time. North of the Almohad caliphate and south of the Pyrenees was the christian kingdom of Navarre, including the town of Tudela. A jewish poet and philosopher called Judah Halevi lived there. Here is one of his poems, a wry look at his greying hair:

One day I observed a grey hair in my head;
I plucked it right out, when it thus to me said:
‘You may smile, if you wish, at your treatment of me,
But a score of my friends soon will make a mockery of you.’

Nine centuries later, I can relate to that.

Further north still, in Paris, a philosophy teacher and his gifted female student had fallen in love.

Pierre Abelard was a prolific and clear-thinking philosopher whose outspoken opinions often got him into trouble. He was a popular teacher – and at this time a teacher earned his living by donations from the students he could attract to his classes. Paris University had not yet been established. An example of his inability to keep his mouth shut happened when he stayed at the abbey of St Denis near Paris for a while. St Denis is the patron saint of France. Abelard discovered that there were two historical St Denis (or St Dionysus) and told the abbot that they had mixed them up. For pointing this out he was expelled from the abbey.

While at St Denis he wrote a textbook entitled ‘Sic et Non‘, (‘Yes and No’ or ‘On one hand and on the other’) in which he listed 158 questions concerning contradictions in the writings of the church fathers and other classical authorities. He provided no answers – only questions. It has been said that his style of thinking would not be out of place in a 21st century university.

His emotional maturity was more questionable, however. When their affair was discovered by Heloise’s uncle, Pierre decided that they should both take holy orders. Heloise agreed, possibly because she had already decided that they should not live as man and wife. How could either of them continue their academic work with a household and children to look after? Pierre asked Heloise to take the vows first, admitting later that he did not want her to have relationships with other men if he was not allowed to.

The letters of Abelard and Heloise were preserved by accident: a century later they were translated from latin into French by Jean de Meung, the author of the Romance of the Rose.


Abelard and Heloise, from the Roman de la Rose

Heloise’s intelligence and maturity shine from the pages of their letters. Here is one extract, in which she contemplates whether she is guilty by loving him still, a decade after she has taken the veil:

“And, though exceedingly guilty, I am, as thou knowest, exceeding innocent. For it is not the deed but the intention that makes the crime. It is not what is done but the spirit in which it is done that equity considers.”

I wonder what else Heloise wrote, that has been lost.

Abelard and Heloise lived at the beginning of the intellectual flowering in Europe that was stimulated by the translations coming north from the muslim world, particularly al-Andalus. Al-Andalus itself was an outpost of a larger world which was undergoing transition. New invaders from central Asia, the Seljuk Turks, had overrun it in the previous century, from Afghanistan through to Anatolia.

But the Turks adopted the new culture they met. They left the caliphate in place in Baghdad, called themselves sultans (rulers) and employed bureaucrats from Persia as viziers to look after the administration, so that the creativity and learning continued uninterrupted.

Architecture too.             Kalyan minaret

The Kalyan minaret in Bukhara in what is now Uzbekhistan was built in 1127, under the reign of the Seljuk ruler Mohammed Arslan Khan.

A learned man who may have seen the building work in progress has also become a victim of the vagaries of the historical record. Omar Khayyam lived in Bukhara for part of his life. He died in 1131. He is best known in the west for a long poem, most of which he may or may not have written. The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam was (loosely) translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald in the nineteenth century from a fourteenth-century copy and became immensely popular. It is beautiful and lyrical, a tribute to the richnesses, joys and transitory nature of our human lives.

But Omar Khayyam was not known as a poet in his own lifetime. He was an astronomer and a mathematician specialising in algebra. He found a way to solve cubic equations by means of drawing the problems geometrically. He investigated problems with parallels and cube roots. He wrote textbooks.


This page, now in Tehran University Library, was written by Omar Khayyam. It shows a solution to cubic equations.

Earlier in his life the sultan had appointed him to head up a commission to reform the calendar. The Jalali calendar they devised was the most accurate in the world until the Gregorian reforms in Europe several centuries later. He calculated the length of the year to be 365.24219858156 days. Using 21st-century calculations, this is believed to be accurate to six decimal places. What skill, what confidence could lead him to even attempt such detailed calculation.

‘Rubaiyyat’ means ‘quatrains’ in Persian: verses of four lines. Further quatrains may have been added to the poem after Omar’s lifetime. ‘Khayyam’ means tent maker, which may have been his father’s profession. Here is a verse that was probably written by him during a difficult period:

Khayyam, who stitched the tents of science,
Has fallen in grief’s furnace and been suddenly burned,
The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life,
And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing!


A modern bust of Omar Khayyam in Nishapur, Iran, where he was born and his body was buried.

Generation 458, 1140-1160. Measuring the world

This generation saw the appearance of a new style of church architecture in northern France.  Nothing like it had been seen before. As with all innovations, it was able to appear because of a combination of circumstances: the opportunity, the motivation, and the people to put it into effect.

First, the opportunity. The latin world in the previous generation had seen a publishing sensation. Adelard of Bath had travelled to the moslem world in search of learning, as had so many others. He was away for seven years, spending most of them in Antioch in present-day Turkey. There he translated books from arabic into latin. His translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry was world changing. If you studied geometry at school, a lot of it can be directly traced back to this book, originally written as a textbook by Euclid of Alexandria in the third century BC. A triangle has 180 degrees? Euclid. If you draw a diameter of a circle, then draw a line from each end of the diameter to any point on the circumference, they will meet at right angles. Ditto, Euclid. Pythagoras’ theorem (3 squared plus 4 squared equals 5 squared is the best known example) can be traced to Euclid’s Elements.

As well as the content of the book (which meant that buildings could be designed more effectively than before) Euclid’s method of reasoning was simple, irrefutable and new to the latin world. He set up a series of five axioms, which now seem self-evident. The first axiom, for example, is that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. He went on to introduce problems, and solved them with logical proofs.

islamic arch

Euclid’s work was well known in the islamic world. This arch from Madrid in al-Andalus, from the previous century, would have been impossible to build without an understanding of the principles of geometry. The pointed arch was a regular feature of islamic architecture.


This prayer niche from the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo clearly shows the pointed arch. It was built three hundred years previously, in the ninth century. 

But it was new to the latin north. Adelard’s translation went to the cathedral schools, where it encountered a different culture. It was not by accident that the church was called the Roman Catholic church. It continued the Roman Empire’s love of large structures. Large churches were not new, therefore, but what this technology allowed was a new departure in their construction. Now they could let the light in, applying the same skills in a very different expression.

Saint-Denis in Paris, Sens in Burgundy, Laon in Picardy – all were rebuilt in the new style in this generation. The builders treated the stone as a framework for the windows, using rib-vaulting and pointed arches, and filled the windows with coloured glass (another technique learned from the moslem world).

Sens cathedral

Here is the interior of Sens cathedral, with the soaring columns and huge windows of the new Frankish style, now known as Gothic.

Five centuries later the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Sir Christopher Wren, came to the same conclusion. In his ‘Parentalia’ or Memoirs, he writes, ” … what we now vulgarly call the Gothic, ought properly and truly to be named the Saracenic architecture refined by the Christians…”

In 1145 Chartres Cathedral burned down, and the opportunity was taken to rebuild it in the new style. The project was not completed until the following century, but this is where it started. There is a statue of Euclid at Chartres, as one of the representatives of the liberal arts. Luckily for us, Chartres became a backwater over the subsequent centuries, overshadowed by Paris. This meant that nobody could afford to modernise the cathedral, and so it can still be seen largely as it was eight centuries ago.

The word ‘geometry’ literally means ‘earth measuring’. The same rigorous enquiry found different expression in the south of Europe during this generation, but applied to geography (‘earth drawing’). The most accurate map and accompanying description of the world, with the unlikely title of the ‘Book of Roger’ was produced in Sicily in 1154. It set the standard until the time of Mercator, three hundred years later.

The population of Sicily was still largely moslem, as it had been reconquered from the arabs less than a century previously. Palermo, the capital, had several hundred mosques. Like his grandson Frederick II whom we have already met, the Norman king Roger II of Sicily embraced arabic culture. He was dissatisfied with the maps available and in the arabic spirit of enquiry he decided to compile a better one. He commissioned a displaced aristocrat from al-Andalus, Muhammad al-Idrisi, to coordinate the project. Over fifteen years al-Idrisi interviewed travellers, compared their stories and finally put together an authoritative description of the known world, from the Canary Islands to Korea.


There was an engraved map on a large silver plate to accompany the book. In the conventions of the time, north is at the bottom of the map and south at the top. So Asia is on the left, Africa at the top and Europe at the bottom. Both the silver plate and the original book were destroyed in riots shortly after they were finished but many copies remain.

A copy of the book is online here, and it is exquisite (even if you don’t read arabic. The maps are over two pages, so each double-page image is a map and the single pages are text.)


There was  a smaller world map in the book, with Africa at the top and Europe at the bottom. It is said that this map inspired the Portuguese explorers to attempt to sail around Africa, as it is shown surrounded by sea.

There were other towering figures in this generation. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote extensively, composed and corresponded. One of her correspondents was Bernard of Clairvaux, another influential person. He  joined the Benedictine order as a boy and wanted to reform the order, advocating a simpler life. He encouraged the establishment of monasteries in remote areas where they could be self-sufficient, living off the land. He was so driven that in his lifetime he was instrumental in the establishment of six hundred Cistercian monasteries (named after the first monastery he joined at Citeaux). He also campaigned to launch the second crusade to the Holy Land in this generation.

But the order Bernard attempted to reform had its own powerful individual. Peter the Venerable was the abbot of Cluny, the mother house of the previous wave of expansion and establishment of monasteries. He was an open-minded man who advocated understanding the saracens rather than trying to annihilate them. Especially as the second crusade turned out to be a disaster for the christians. He travelled to the Cluniac monastery of Santa Maria La Real in Najera, south of the Pyrenees, and from there to Toledo where the translation movement was in full flood. He persuaded two translators, Robert of Ketton (from a village near Rutland in present day England) and his friend Herman of Carinthia (a region in present-day Austria), to give up their attempts to translate Ptolemy’s Almagest and translate the Quran instead. Called the ‘Law of Mohammed the False Prophet’  the title shows his less-than-dispassionate approach to the subject. But at least the intention was there.

By a strange twist of fate, Robert of Ketton ended up as canon in the church at Tudela, not far from Najera. Tudela is the town from which rabbi Benjamin  set off on his travels in the following generation. So the two men almost certainly knew each other.

There was another English Robert participating in the translation movement at this time. Robert of Chester went to Segovia in al-Andalus. He translated the book that introduced Algebra to the latin north: al-Khwarizmi’s Liber algebrae et almucabola, written three centuries previously.