Generations 448-449, 960-1000. The city of victory and the luminous university

At the beginning of this period the Fatimid rulers of Ifriqiyah (now known as Tunisia) expanded their realm into Egypt. In 969 they established a new capital near the existing town of Fustat. They called it al-Qahira, Victory. By the end of this period Qahira (or Cairo) was a vibrant and flourishing city. A millennium later, Cairo is still arguably the cultural centre of the muslim world.

Skilled craftspeople soon came to the new city. Lustreware, ceramics with a metallic glaze, was now made here. Producing it is a complicated process, so an entire industry shifted its base of production 2000km west from Basra to Cairo in this period.
fatimid lustreware bowl



Here is a lustreware bowl from the end of this period, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.





The Fatimids quickly set about establishing a centre of learning. Al-Azhar mosque was built in 972. (Al-Azhar means ‘The Luminous’, one of the names used to describe the Prophet’s daughter Fatima.) Scholars were invited to base themselves there. By 975 it had a library and is now considered to be the oldest continually-operational university in the world. Philosophy, astronomy, law, logic and grammar were studied there. Some of these subjects were deemed heretical in the Abbasid capital of Baghdad, and so the scholars moved to the freer air of Cairo. At Al-Azhar they continued the line of learning that that had been inherited from the Greeks, Persians, Indians and further developed in the muslim world. In the following generation the founder of the scientific method, ibn al-Haytham, moved to al-Azhar from Basra in the footsteps of the lustreware makers. At the Luminous University he developed a new theory of the nature of light.

Ewer_birds_Louvre_MR333Talking of luminosity, for me one of the outstanding artistic achievements of this period is the carved rock crystal ewers.
This one made the journey from Egypt to King Roger in Sicily, to Italy (where it acquired the gold filigree lid) to the abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris. It is now in the Louvre Museum.

They are exquisite. Only a few survive. Perhaps only a few were made; after all, how many solid pieces of rock crystal of such clarity could be found?


The Fatimids were not only tolerant of ideas. They were accepting of the beliefs of other People of the Book, including the Coptic Christians who formed a large minority of the population of Egypt. Thanks to a cache of documents discovered in the store room  of a Cairo synagogue, it is now known that there was an extensive trading network of Jewish merchants across the Mediterranean and through the Middle East.  The Genizah (Hebrew for ‘storeroom’) documents tell us of a regulated world where people conducted their business affairs, paid their taxes, petitioned the administration in cases of injustice. The officials they petitioned may have been christian or muslim: all worked together in the ordered world so rapidly established during this caliphate.

The first caliph, al-Muizz, is credited with inspiring the invention of the fountain pen. He asked for a pen that would not stain his clothes with its ink, and it is said that a pen with a reservoir of ink was made (although none survive). Maybe he didn’t want to stain his beautiful silk garments.

linen-silk veil

This veil of linen and silk, was made in the year 983. It is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

With the exception of al-Hakim, the caliph who had ibn al-Haytham imprisoned, the Fatimid dynastywas open and tolerant. In the following century christian pilgrims were able to visit Jerusalem. Good relations were established with the christian kings of Sicily (who defeated client emirs of the Fatimid caliph to gain control of the island). When the shi’a Fatimids were defeated by the sunni Seljuk Turks, this window of opportunity came to an end and the light of learning moved elsewhere.







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.

Generations 451-452, 1000-1040. Airbrushed from history

This period saw the work of three extraordinary men, and my school history lessons told me nothing about them.

One of the men was one of the most influential philosophers of the islamic world. His updating of the ideas of Aristotle was to influence christian, jewish and muslim thought for the next few hundred years. He also wrote a medical encyclopedia that was the standard text in Europe and the islamic world for the next half-millennium.

Another was a renaissance man four centuries ahead of his time. His wide-ranging interests included anthropology, pharmacology and mineralogy. He devised a way to measure the circumference of the Earth, which he did to an accuracy of within two hundred miles.

The third can be reasonably described as the founder of the scientific method. He established the practice of developing a hypothesis and using reproducible experiments to test it, to verify or disprove it. He was called ibn al-Haytham, and will be the subject of the rest of this post.

He was born in Basra in what is now Iraq in 965. He moved to Egypt in the early 1000’s  and stayed there for the rest of his life. He died in about 1040.

Caliph al-Hakim of Egypt had established a university in Cairo in 1004, and supplied it with a huge library, known as the House of Knowledge or Dar al-Hikmah in arabic. He so wanted to encourage learning that access was open to all and free pens, ink and inkstands were available to those who studied there. Ibn al-Haytham already had a reputation as an impressive thinker, and as he lived in the interconnected arabic-speaking world, he was invited to join the academic community in Cairo, over 1500 miles away.

He was asked to investigate damming the River Nile, in order to regulate the regular devastating floods. On arrival, he soon came to the conclusion that the project was beyond any technology at his disposal. This presented a problem. Caliph al-Hakim did not have a reputation for stability when things didn’t go the way he wanted. One of his nicknames, which was almost certainly not said to his face, was the mad caliph. He once ordered all the dogs in Cairo to be killed because their barking bothered him. Rather than bring the bad news to the caliph, Ibn al-Haytham decided to feign madness himself.

For this he was put under house arrest in Cairo, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He had the resources of the new university and its enormous library nearby, and space to think his own thoughts. One of the subjects he addressed was optics. The ancient Greeks had attempted descriptions of the way humans see things. Plato and Euclid had proposed that rays travel out from the eyes towards the object we look at, and then bring the visual information back to the eye. Ibn al-Haytham raised a simple objection to this: in that case, why does it hurt our eyes when we stare at the sun?

Instead, he proposed another hypothesis, that the eye is able to receive light rays that come from the object, and to translate the information they bring into a visual image. He proposed that light rays travel in straight lines from the distant object to the eye. Others had pondered along these lines, but he then went a further, pioneering step. He set up repeatable experiments to test his hypothesis, and documented them. He looked through a straight tube to show that the light from the object travels in a straight line. He set up a pinhole camera, and placed a candle in front of it. He demonstrated that the light from the top of the candle travels through the pinhole to the bottom of the receiving chamber, and light from the bottom of the candle travels through the pinhole to the top. And so the image appears upside-down. Not only did he record his results, he set up ways for others to test and verify or disprove them.

book of optics eye

A diagram of the eye from Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics. 

He championed enquiry, not taking other people’s word for it (no matter how eminent they are), and relying on one’s own investigations. And so Ibn al-Haytham is considered by many to be the founder of the scientific method.

As well as optics and engineering he wrote on astronomy, philosophy, theology and more. Even number theory. One hypothesis he put forward about prime numbers was finally proven to be correct by the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, eight hundred years later. A geometrical problem he proposed was solved algebraically in 1997.

When his writings were translated into latin and became accessible to the west, his name was latinised as Alhazen. In the thirteenth century the English scholar Roger Bacon and the Polish philosopher Erazmus Witelo wrote extensively on optics after reading his books in translation.

“The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and,.. attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.”

And until I started researching for this blog I had never heard of him.

PS The physicist Jim al-Khalili named these three men as the greatest muslim scientists of all time and among the top ten in the world. Here is a link to his presentation to the Royal Society explaining why.

Generation 465, 1280-1300. Assimilating new influences

For this generation, one of the most exciting places to be was Toledo in Spain. This was the high point of the translation school, in which moslems, christians and jews collaborated on the translation of books from arabic, greek and hebrew. Scholars came from northern Europe to meet and work with the translators. King Alfonso X of Castile requested that the translations be made into Castilian Spanish, not Latin as had previously been the norm, to make the learning more widely accessible.  This had the side-effect of establishing Castilian as a national language, just as Dante’s decision to write in the vernacular established the Italian language in the following generation. By the end of this generation Alfonso was dead and the school was disbanded by his successor.

However, its influence was felt. This generation also saw the peak (literally) of gothic cathedral-building. The highest church nave ever was attempted at Beauvais in northern France. Part of it collapsed when the builders pushed beyond the limits of what was possible. But they rebuilt the nave, with more reinforcements, reaching a height of 48 metres.

choir beauvais cathedral

I suspect that as we go on in our story we shall see the influence of muslim architects and glassmakers in the inspiration for these breathtaking, magnificent buildings that are still to be seen across northern Europe from Britain through France to Germany. Standing inside one of these marvellous churches today we can feel the resonances, perhaps even register something of the new influences that the builders were responding to and trying to give expression to.

But back to Spain. During this generation the merchants from Catalonia, particularly Barcelona, played a greater part in the Mediterranean trade that had hitherto been dominated by Genoa, Pisa and Venice. Aragon (which included Catalonia) was extending its influence.

The Aragonese profited from an abuse of power that took place in Sicily, for example. Sicily had been another place of meeting of influences, from the muslim world, the Mediterranean and northern Europe. A generation previously a French pope had imposed a French king on the Sicilians, having fallen out with the previous incumbent and even launched a crusade against him. Once installed in Sicily, the new king Charles of Anjou started to to have ambitions, even making plans to invade Constantinople. For this he needed funds, so he taxed the Sicilians.

But sometime people are pushed too far. After Vespers on the evening of Easter Monday, March 30th 1282 outside a church in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, a French soldier made an inappropriate advance to a Sicilian lady. Her husband came to her defence and attacked him, killing him. The husband’s compatriots joined in. Within a month or so thousands of French had been killed. Charles gave up his claim to the island and with it his plans for a pan-Mediterranean empire. A relative of the dynasty he had ousted with the pope’s help was married to a prince from Aragon. And so the Aragonese came to Sicily.

Further north in Italy, the power struggles of the merchant city-states had an unintended consequence. Genoa sent a navy into the Adriatic, to challenge Venice. They defeated the Venetians and took the surviving crews of the galleys as prisoners back to Genoa. One of the prisoners was a merchant called Marco Polo, who ended up in a room in Genoa with a poet called Rustichello from Pisa. Marco told Rustichello the story of his travels along the Great Silk Road, the time he spent in the service of Kublai Khan in Cathay, and his return by sea. Rustichello wrote it all down.

Marco Polo was able to make this trip because the Mongols had joined up the known world. It was possible to travel across central Asia, and he was not the only one to take advantage of the opportunity presented to him. A couple of generations previously a friar from Flanders, William of Rubruck, had made the trip to Karakorum in Mongolia, the headquarters of the Mongol Empire. Once there, he found French and German craftsmen living and working in the town.

Clearly, some people felt that it was safe to travel to central and eastern Asia. This suggests to me that there was more to the Mongols than the mindless violence for which they are mostly remembered in the west. Both William of Rubruck and Marco Polo described with respect and admiration the organisation of the societies they met, the variety of religious beliefs (including Nestorian Christians, Saracens or muslims, and idolaters, probably buddhists) and the open-mindedness of the khans. They were both invited to participate in public discussions with adherents of other religions about the merits of their different beliefs.

This opening of communication with the east must have had consequences in the west. To hear about countries and civilisations more sophisticated than one’s own is a lot to take in. It must alter a person’s view of the world.

In the moslem world, the place to be was Cairo. After the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in the previous generation, many of the scholars had made their way here.

To take a couple of examples:

Ibn al-Nafis wrote a description of the circulation of the blood which overturned Galen’s view that arterial and venous blood were separate, and described how the blood mixes with air in the lungs. It could be reasonably asserted that the discovery of the circulation of the blood should be attributed to him rather than the Englishman William Harvey 350 years later.

Qutb al-din Al-Shirazi was a scholar and diplomat, originally from Shiraz in Persia, who probably met Ibn al-Nafis when he was sent on a mission to the Mamluk sultans of Egypt in 1282. He identified previous astronomical observations as transits of Venus.

Qutb al-din al-Shirazi's manuscript

Here is a page from one of al-Shirazi’s manuscripts further exploring one of the perennial problems for muslim astronomers: the movement of the planets.

During this generation the Mamluk sultans also evicted the crusaders from their last stronghold in the holy land, from Acre. The Frankish kingdom of Outremer was no more.