The consequences of Constantine

During his tenure as Roman emperor from 306 to 337, Constantine was responsible for two world-changing acts. First, he chose a location for a new capital city on the shores of the Bosphorus. The city carried his name for the next thousand years and more. Constantinople’s defensible position enabled it to withstand invasion from the huns, the muslim armies,the mongols and others. It was a centre of civilisation and stability. The city finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and was renamed as Istanbul.

Bust_of_Constantine_I_from_York_YORYM_1998_23

Bust of Constantine found in York, northern England, the city where he was proclaimed Emperor in 306.

The second act had even more far-reaching consequences. He convened a gathering of christian bishops in the city of Nicaea in present-day Turkey in the year 325. The Council of Nicaea was tasked with finding a consensus view of christianity that would enable it to be adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire.

As one of the defining characteristics of christianity almost from the time of Jesus had been the argumentativeness of its followers, this promised to be as easy as herding cats. One area in which the christians had been united, however, was in their resistance to the Roman Empire with its propensity to deify its emperors. Christians were monotheistic. A Roman emperor could not be a god.

The council was a success in that it reached agreement. As with any successful conference, the delegates agreed a final wording to the conclusion of their discussions. It is still with us today and is known as the Nicene Creed.

Here is an English translation of the original version from that council:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

“And in the Holy Ghost.

“But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

To reach a final wording involved massive compromises. For the moment, I will mention two of them.

The first compromise was to do with the divinity of the emperor. In order for christianity to be acceptable in the Roman empire the bishops had to decree that Jesus was divine. Before that time, for many christians Jesus was a human being like the rest of us. (Being christians and therefore disputatious, there was the complication of the virgin birth. But that was open to many interpretations, all of which were explored, vociferously.)

So the bishops made Jesus into an emperor. In the following years churches had images of all-powerful christ on his throne. They called him Christ pantokrator (‘pantokrator’ means ‘omnipotent’ in Greek).

Mosaico_di_cristo_in_trono_tra_gli_apostoli_e_le_ss._prudenziana_e_prassede,_410_dc_ca._01

This image of Jesus enthroned is from the church of Santa Pudendenzia in Rome, year 410.

But for me the tragedy is in the final paragraph of the original Nicene Creed (which has been cut out of the modern versions). People who disagreed with the wording as pronounced by those bishops were condemned. They became heretics.

Apart from the contradiction of the cruelty that was perpetrated in the name of a religion which exhorted people to love one another, this undermines something fundamental that was fresh and new and which arrived with christianity. It seems to me that Jesus introduced a sense of morality, a sense of right and wrong – and the individual human responsibility to look for that in oneself and act accordingly. Of course it led to arguments, centuries of them. This moral sense was something so new that it was very difficult for our species to assimilate.

But the Roman Empire did not handle ambiguity well. It wanted an official depiction of reality, an official storyline. And so, with the Council of Nicaea, two incompatible words were joined ever afterwards: christian orthodoxy.

The Orthodox, Apostolic Roman Catholic church, with the backing of the empire, gradually became the dominant version of christianity over the following centuries. It only expressed a segment of the spectrum of early christianity, albeit a magnificent one.

Followers of non-orthodox versions of christianity had to be careful. Some followers of the church at Alexandria in Egypt hid their treasured, non-orthodox texts in some pots which they buried in the sand, probably around the year 370. The pots were uncovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945.

Apocalypse of Peter

Part of the Apocalypse of Peter, one of the apocryphal texts from the Nag Hammadi Library.

Was Constantine bowing to the inevitable when he adopted christianity as the religion of the empire? It was certainly on an upward trajectory. What if he had not? Would it still be here today? Would the empire have come to an end sooner if he hadn’t adopted christianity? I really don’t know.

Bridging the gap, 540-760. Generations 428-439

Who carried the baton of learning between the end of the Academy in Athens (closed by the remorseless pressure of the Emperor Justinian around 530) and the founding of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad after 760? What happened to all the books, the scrolls, the papyri?

This is a large gap, of over 200 years. My proposed answer: it was the scholars of the church of the East in the Sasanian Empire. Known by Constantinople as the Nestorian church, it was the largest christian church in terms of geographical extent until the journeys by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It sent missions to India and China. Six hundred years later, Genghis Khan’s wife was a follower of the church of the East. It had schools in Nisibis (in present-day Turkey) and Gundeshapur, also spelt Gondi-Sapor, in present-day Iran. Almost nothing is written or known about them. What follows is the story as I have been able to piece it together.

The Roman emperor Justinian was a driven man. As well as recovering the provinces in north Africa from the Vandals and devastating large tracts of Italy, one of his first acts was to set up a commission to codify Roman law. This law was then used as a cudgel. The neoplatonic academy in Athens was notified first that divination was not permitted (presumably meaning Astrology and the study of the heavens). More decisively, in 529, a new law required that only those of the orthodox faith were permitted to teach or receive a stipend. Anyone who donated to or supported the academy was henceforth deemed to be breaking the law.

mosaic of Justinian I (Ravenna)

mosaic of Justinian I (Ravenna)

This is from a mosaic at the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, after his military campaign there.

This law was aimed at everyone who did not subscribe to the official Roman version of christianity: the orthodox church. There were many non-orthodox versions of christianity, as well as the church of the East. The new law applied to them as well as the Jews, Mithraists, and all  the rest of the panoply of belief systems that prevailed at the time. Government in the empire was devolved to local councils, who were responsible for implementing the law. Orthodox bishops had influence upon local government: they were exempt from taxes and were prosperous. The academy of Athens, that traced its inheritance (with some gaps) back to the time of Plato and Socrates, had no chance.

The scholars packed up and took their scrolls and papyri to the Sasanian Empire where the atmosphere was more open-minded and accepting of non-christian scholars, particularly the city of Nisibis. Nisibis housed a theological college of the church of the East, which had been re-founded in 489 after a previous Roman emperor had closed the school of Edessa just over the border in the Roman empire, on the grounds that it was espousing the wrong version of christianity. The languages were Greek and Syriac. It also housed a large jewish community. The scholars and teachers translated the classical Greek texts into Syriac, and looked to reconcile the works of Aristotle in particular with the old and new testaments of the bible. Their approach was literal and grammatical, in contrast to the allegorical approach of their rivals in Alexandria. This would suggest that, despite the destruction of the library of Alexandria, the tradition of scholarship continued there too. (The leader of the Athens school at the time of its closure, a man called Damascius, is said to have ended up in Alexandria.) However, the church in Alexandria adhered to another non-orthodox view of christianity, and so suffered at the hands of Constantinople.

The exiles from Athens were also invited to Gundeshapur, of which there is hardly a trace left. It was about four hundred miles east of the Sasanian capital Ctesiphon, near the ancient city of Susa. The tradition tells that whereas theological studies were centred in Nisibis, Gundeshapur was the location for secular studies. There was a teaching hospital, ‘bimaristan’ in Persian. Astronomy was studied. At Gundeshapur the translations were from Greek and Syriac into Pahlavi, the Persian language. As India is not too far away (comparatively speaking) and there were cultural links, I would expect that Indian mathematicians also visited. This was the high point of the Gupta Empire in India, and its mathematicians were renowned.

Some of the classical texts were taken to Constantinople, where they were safeguarded by civil servants. However, I can find no evidence that they were studied and commented on. The only use for them in subsequent centuries that I have come across was as a diplomatic gift. A copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest was presented to the court of the caliph in Baghdad at the end of the eighth century, and in the fifteenth Plato’s Timaeus, among other texts, made its way to Florence.

The evidence suggests that it was the Syriac-speaking scholars of the church of the East who transcribed and translated the texts. They studied them, valued them and pondered their meaning. And that is why, when the House of Wisdom was founded in Baghdad in the eighth century, the first translations of the classical Greek texts were from Syriac into Arabic. The head of the church of the East at the time, the katholikos Timothy, was a learned and influential figure in Baghdad.

middle-east-late-antiquity

This is a bit of a sketchy story. An important link in the chain of human learning has hardly been investigated, so far as I can tell.

Entering late antiquity, 540-600. Generations 428-430

Many people alive in this time felt that something was coming to an end. A monk called Gregory, who went on to become pope in 590, wrote that the world ‘was growing old and hoary, hastening to its approaching death’.

He had good reason to say so. These were troubled times.

The latest set of troubles began in the year 536. From Ireland across to China, cold weather and crop failures were reported. It was a year without a summer. The historian Procopius, based in Constantinople, wrote: “during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness… and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear”.

Evidence from ice cores says that it was caused by a volcano – and more to were to follow in the next five years.

Another source of trouble was the continuing migrations. The changing climate wasn’t a cause of the migrations, but may have exacerbated them. The edges of the Roman Empire – the rivers Danube and Rhine in central Europe, for example, had long been a fragile membrane, with the Empire in the settled agricultural lands surrounding the Mediterranean, and the more mobile alliances of peoples living on the less cultivatable land beyond. The peoples living just beyond the border were traditionally paid to stay put, but that system had already broken down. A couple of centuries previously the groups living beyond the frontier had found out how to work around the Roman policy of divide and rule. They formed alliances, too large for the Roman army to easily defeat, and then either invaded or negotiated a settlement of land within the Empire itself.

And the migrants kept on coming. Around 540 it was the Avars, originating from the Eurasian steppe. They moved into the Hungarian plain in particular, and in so doing displaced the Lombards who were the current occupants. The Lombards then moved south and invaded northern Italy. This region was already suffering from Justinian’s brutal recovery of it from the previous wave of invasions (by the ostrogoths), and so had nothing left to resist the next set of incomers. The Lombards moved in and used it as a base for further expansion. Part of northern Italy is still known as Lombardy.

And it got worse. Like the Mongols seven hundred years later, the Avars brought the bubonic plague. It reached Europe and the Mediterranean in 541, and was devastating. The creaking bureaucracies of the Roman Empire based in Constantinople and the Sasanian Empire based in Ctesiphon had to cope with a reduction in tax revenues resulting from the loss of up to a third of the populations. The revenues that were used to pay the armies were reduced, and consequently so were troop numbers.

The economic basis of the Roman and Persian empires was agricultural surplus. The estates produced more food than the inhabitants could eat, and paid taxes to the central administration in Constantinople or Ctesiphon. The richest agricultural region was in the middle east, between the two empires. So it made sense to concentrate what was left of the armies there. This was a period of continual war between Constantinople and Ctesiphon, to gain control of the near east from Anatolia to Mesopotamia. Sometimes the Persians took control, at others the Romans. The conflict must have been a drain on resources and difficult to sustain with everything else that was going on.

One of the other things that was going on was endless argument among christians. Christianity had been the official religion of the Roman Empire since 313, but that was a mixed blessing to most christians, as there were many versions of their faith. Empires, it would seem, are not good with ambiguity. So the continual arguments about the nature of Jesus (for example, was he a human like the rest of us, or divine and co-eternal with God, or both?) were not welcome. Anyone who strayed from the official view of the Roman church (that Jesus incarnated in a physical body but was also divine) was deemed a heretic.

Pope Gregory adhered to a strand of christianity that had more successfully integrated into the Roman church. The happiest period of his life, he said, was when he could shut all the troubles out and get on with being a monk. He followed in the footsteps of Benedict of Nursia, who died around 545. Benedict had pursued the ascetic strand of christianity and formalised it into a rule, which he applied in his new monastery at Monte Cassino in the south of Italy. His rule book had 73 chapters, covering the varieties of monasticism, the authority of the abbot, how to manage the day-to-day life of the monastery, even down to what the monks should wear in bed. Each monastery was a self-contained unit, answerable to its abbot.

Gregory turned his own family estate into a monastery – which for me is a clue as to what was going on. This was a continuation of the Roman economic model, of an estate providing an agricultural surplus. The estate was no longer the property of one aristocratic family, but was a monastery ruled by an abbot (or abbess). When times grew hard in the territories around Rome as the Lombards ventured further south, Gregory could call on the surplus from the monasteries to feed the displaced people. His success in doing so led to the foundation of the Papal States, a swathe across central Italy ruled directly by the papacy for the next 1400 years.

Gregory is also the source of one of the best-remembered bad puns from late antiquity. The story goes that he saw some blond slaves in the slave market in Rome. On enquiring where they were from, he was told they were Angles. ‘Not Angles but angels’, he is said to have replied. Gregory sent one of his monks, by the name of Augustine, to the land of the Angles to convert the pagans. Augustine set up his first monastery in Canterbury. Perhaps that set the stamp for christianity in England – the monastic system. And maybe that is why, a millennium later, Henry VIII targeted the monasteries. They followed the Roman model, owned large tracts of rich agricultural land across the country and did not answer to the king.

hagia-sofia-gallery

Emperor Justinian also had the basilica of Hagia Sofia built in this period, after its predecessor was burned down in riots. Later it was converted to a mosque, but the original structure is still there.

Believers and emigrants. 620-680, generations 432-434

This period was world-changing. It saw the appearance of a new idea, a new frequency in human affairs. The effects can be traced through to the leap in learning that happened in Baghdad a century later, to the Medieval enlightenment in Europe a couple of centuries after that, to the Renaissance in Italy, to the Enlightenment, to the industrial revolution and so to today.

And it started with one man – Muhammad.

However, in order to get a sense of what was going on at the time, we need to remove several layers of padding and interpretation. Most of what was written about Muhammad was put to pen over a century later. My experience tells me that old people’s memories are sometimes unreliable, and even more so when we are dealing with memories of memories from a century or more before.

There are two documents from the arabic-speaking world that can be dated to the period in question: the charter of Medina and the Qur’an. They seem a sensible place to start.

The Qur’an is not a historical document. It is a series of revelations, of perceptions, insights about the human situation and its relationship with God. It has very little reference to external events.

birmingham-koran

Pages from the Qur’an, written during or shortly after Muhammad’s lifetime, recently discovered in Birmingham University. Image taken at Birmingham Museum, UK

The charter of Medina is the treaty document between the the emigrants (referred to as the Quraysh) and the inhabitants of the oasis of Yathrib, henceforth known as Medina. The original has been lost but there are several copies, all similar enough to suggest that they come from one source document.

The first paragraph reads:

“This is a document from Muhammad, the Prophet, governing the relation between the Believers from among the Qurayshites and Yathribites  and those who followed them and joined them and struggled with them. They form one and the same community as against the rest of men.”

Taking these two documents as our main reference brings up some difficult issues. I’ll start with what is for me the most difficult.

There is no mention of Mecca in the charter of Medina. In fact, there is no mention of where the Quraysh emigrated from. In the Qur’an there is one mention of the ‘hollow’ or valley of Mecca, as follows:

“It is He who restrained their hands from you, and your hands from them, in the hollow of Mecca, after that He made you victors over them. God sees the things you do.” (sura 48)

This would suggest that there was a valley of Mecca in which a conflict took place which was won by Muhammad, and whose aftermath was not as violent as it could have been.

Further, there is no mention of Mecca in any other contemporary, non-arabic document. In fact, there is as much evidence that Muhammad lived in Mecca as there is that St Peter lived in Rome six centuries previously. This does not invalidate or diminish the immensity of Muhammad’s achievement. It suggests to me that maybe some later commentators had an interest in locating Muhammad’s origins in the heartlands of the arabian desert, far away from the contaminating influences of Constantinople and Ctesiphon to the north. Almost as if they wanted to emphasise how what Muhammad brought was entirely new.

Which raises a question: where did the Quraysh emigrate from? The Qur’an mentions olives (which only grew in the Mediterranean). It mentions herding of animals and growing of crops, activities more associated with the fertile regions to the north or south of the arabian desert.

Maybe in the end it doesn’t matter where they emigrated from.

A second difficulty is about the term ‘believers’. The word ‘believer’ occurs more than ‘muslim’ in both the charter of Medina and the Qur’an. ‘Believers’ is a much broader term than muslims, encompassing those who believe in God (Allah in arabic) and who adhere to the earlier revelations from God – the old and new Testaments – or the latest one, the Qur’an. The charter of Medina makes it clear that the jews and muslims are distinct, with different religious practices. But they are all part of the community of Believers, the ummah.

This perception is confirmed by archaeological evidence. Several christian churches built in the period in question have been excavated. One in Jerusalem had an altar facing east and a prayer niche, a mihrab, facing south. So the different varieties of believers clearly saw no problem in performing their separate religious practices in the same space. When Damascus was taken over by the arab army, the church of St John was divided into two, so that the muslims could pray in one section and the christians in the other.

Nowadays, we are trained to think in categories: muslim, jew, hindu, buddhist, humanist, and so on. But the seventh century was a time when every valley, each village, each tribe had its own practices. Zorastrianism blended into hinduism and buddhism in the east, towards India. There were jewish christians and christian jews. Diversity was the norm. What Muhammad did with the charter of Medina was reach for an overarching criterion, the ummah that was higher than tribal obligation or religious practice and included all believers under its cover. The Qur’an also contains this view. Diversity of expression is not a problem so long as the core principles are agreed to.

This may help to explain another archaeological mystery. The arab conquests are almost invisible in the archaeological record. Usually when there is an invasion there is a layer of burning. Caesarea was burnt and Alexandria didn’t fare too well, but otherwise there is almost nothing. And that would make sense if the inhabitants of the conquered territories were believers, whose belief systems were regarded as legitimate by the invaders. It would have been in their interest to welcome the invaders. The non-orthodox varieties of christianity, such as the Copts in Egypt, were oppressed by Constantinople. The arrival of the arabs, fellow believers, may have been a welcome relief. It also explains why there was no particular push for conversion by the invaders. Why should they? All were believers.

So when did it change? When did islam separate out? When did the community of believers split into distinct religions? The evidence says this was the achievement of the ummayad caliph abd-al Malik.  Abd-al Malik preferred the word ‘muslim’ to ‘believer’. Muhammad’s name was not written down (in anything that has been recovered from the time) from when he died in 632 or thereabouts until abd-al Malik had it put on the coinage fifty years later. When the Dome of the Rock was built in Jerusalem in 691, phrases from the Qur’an were selected to emphasise the distinctness of islam from christianity – that muslims do not accept the idea of the trinity, for example.

And so humanity had another established religion.

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.

umayyad_coins_0

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.

umayyad_coins_04

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 people of the Book

Mesopotamia, known since ancient times as the Fertile Crescent, is rich in more ways than food production. For centuries it has been a place where learned people inquired into the nature of reality. It was a place of rich and fertile exchange of ideas.

But first, some background. To the west of this region was a great empire, referred to in our history books as the Byzantine Empire. But the word ‘Byzantine’ fell out of use in 330 C.E. When the Roman Empire was divided into a western and eastern half, the emperor Constantine established the capital of the empire of the east in the city of Byzantium in 324 and changed its name to Constantinople in the year 330.

Over the following centuries the western half of the Roman Empire disintegrated under repeated invasions from the north. The eastern half continued for another thousand years. The inhabitants of the empire ruled from Constantinople, which included the Balkans, modern-day Turkey, the eastern Mediterranean and parts of north Africa, referred to themselves as Romans.

Constantine also adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire. Over the following generations scholars argued and agonised over the nature of Jesus. Was he human or divine, or both at once? Could a person so influential, so world-changing, have been a mere mortal like the rest of us? And if he was divine, what was the nature of Mary, his mother? They held councils to debate the question and came up with an official doctrine. Those who did not subscribe to the official view were declared heretics.

Many of those so-called heretics moved to Mesopotamia and joined the church of the East. The orthodox christians back in Constantinople disparagingly referred to them as Nestorians. The name stuck. That is the name used for the church of the East in my history books 1500 years later. (Nestorius was a bishop in Constantinople who had disagreed with the establishment over the term ‘Mother of God’ for Mary. His ideas were more welcome in the church of the East, but it was already in existence when he arrived.)

Byzantine, Nestorian … the third misrepresentation is ‘Zoroastrian’. This word was first used in the nineteenth century, to describe a set of beliefs prevalent in Persia since ancient times. This religion was traditionally founded by a man called Zoroaster, or Zarathustra who lived around 1000 BCE. Its heartlands were the mountains of Persia through to Khorasan in the north and east as far as India. Each region, each mountain valley had its own version of it. Further east, it contained elements of the Vedas. Shiva was incorporated into the belief systems, for example. Some adherents were vegetarians and pacifists who abhorred the unnecessary taking of life. In some regions polyandry was practised. This last appalled the incoming arabs, who described it as ‘wife-sharing’. To the west, it rubbed up against the values of the christians and jews (who themselves could not be separated into distinct categories as they are today. There were jewish christians and christian jews).

Around the same time that the christians were arguing in Constantinople, the scholars of this Persian religion living in the Fertile Crescent decided to transcribe their sacred tradition, recited from generation to generation for over a millennium or more. The book they compiled is known as the Avesta.

The Jews who were living in Mesopotamia already had a book: the Torah, the first five books of the bible. However, it would seem that they also joined in the discussions. While the Avesta was being put together, the Jewish rabbis compiled the Talmud, a set of commentaries on the Torah, often in response to issues raised by the mowbeds, the priests of the Avesta.

These were the three ‘religions of the book’. They shared many beliefs and values. For all of them, history has a beginning, and therefore also an end. The belief systems in India, further to the east, do not have this concept but rather one of endless cycles. There is a belief in one god (although the mowbeds who compiled the Avesta might say two: Ahura Mazda, the lord of light and Ahriman, the principle of evil or darkness). There was the concept of saviours, (prophets in Judaism) who brought new revelations to the human race. Zoroaster and Jesus were saviours. The three wise men who came from the east to visit the infant Jesus were magi, followers of Zoroaster. Some remembered Alexander the Great as a saviour. There were other, lesser saviours too. Later, some saw Abu Muslim, who was the focus of the overthrow of the arab Umayyad dynasty as a saviour.

This is the context in which the new religion of the Arabs arrived. It also had a prophet (Mohammed), a book (the Qur’an) and a timescale: the unbelievers had ‘an evil cradling’ awaiting them, whereas believers could look forward to dwelling in gardens underneath which rivers flow (phrases repeated many times in the Qur’an). And it most decisively had one god, recognised to be the same as  the god of the jews and the christians. By 800 CE the arabs living in the Fertile Crescent had also compiled their commentaries, collections of sayings of Mohammed not included in the Qur’an. These are known as the hadiths. The extent to which the hadiths were influenced by the ideas of the bishops, rabbis and mowbeds, exponents of the other religions of the book living in the same region, is too contentious to even start to explore.

 

The heyday of the House of Wisdom, 820-860, generations 442-444

This was the time when Baghdad was the most exciting place to be, if you were a person who was interested in new ideas, in pushing back the envelope of human understanding. Philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, geography, engineering – all were explored and developed here.

Mathematics was further developed as a tool to make sense of the world. Algebra was invented (the system of balancing the sides of an equation to find the value of an unknown, usually described as ‘x’). This, we non-mathematicians may not realise, is a powerful tool indeed. As are five of the six trigonometric functions, the names of which I remember from school. The sine was brought from India. The others (cosine, tangent, secant, cosine, cosecant, cotangent) were developed in Baghdad in this period. The Indian numbering system that we still use, of nine digits and a zero, was promoted and explored.

The practice of philosophy, of studying how to think about the human situation, was brought into the modern monotheistic world from that of the Greeks.

Engineering techniques (the valve, the crankshaft, feedback controls) were rescued from the ancient world, understood, refined and applied in new ways.

banu musa lamp

This drawing for a self-trimming lamp is one of a hundred entries in the Book of Ingenious Devices by the Banu Musa brothers. The book also contains instructions and the design for a water-powered musical instrument, a concept not attempted again for a thousand years.

The Banu Musa brothers, as well as the multi-talented al-Kindi (known as the father of arabic philosophy) and the extraordinary mathematician al-Khwarizmi, were all employed in the House of Wisdom, the Bayt al-Hikma.

Their employer was the caliph al-Mamun.

How did this all come together? A combination of factors. Here are some of them, in no particular order.

The first paper mill opened in Baghdad in 795. The technology of paper-making was as profound in its significance as the development of the printing press in renaissance Europe or the internet in our own lifetimes. While northern Europeans used scraped animal skins to write on, educated Baghdadis had libraries with hundreds or thousands of books.

Baghdad itself was located at the meeting point of the Persian and Indian cultures to the east and that of the Mediterranean (particularly Greece) to the west. There is a long history of cultural exchange between India and Persia. Baghdad had been built 50km north of the ancient Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Indian mathematicians and their ideas were welcome in Baghdad.

The religion of the rulers, islam, was tolerant of (most) other faiths. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians had to pay a poll tax but were otherwise largely left to pursue their own beliefs. In fact the administration sometimes preferred them not to convert to islam. Mass conversion meant a drop in tax revenues. As Constantinople was pursuing a less tolerant line to unorthodox christianity at the time, many non-mainstream christians found it healthier to live in the muslim world. They brought ancient Greek texts with them, and could read them.

The schools of Athens and Alexandria, with a continuous tradition of learning going back to ancient Greece, had been closed a century or so earlier.

Islam values literacy. The Quran is to be read and recited, in arabic.

Arabic was the common language from Cordoba in the west to Kabul in the east. Some said that they found it easier to express the new ideas in arabic than their native language. It was the language of learning, as latin was in the medieval world and English is now.

The translation movement had been in progress for some time. As well as Indian mathematical texts, Greek medical, scientific and medical texts were brought to Baghdad and translated into arabic. Translators were well paid for their work, sometimes the weight of the finished book in gold. Not only the caliph, but many of the elite joined in the search for ancient texts to translate. It is said that a condition of a peace treaty between Baghdad and Constantinople was that a copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest should be made available to Baghdad. To understand these texts well enough to be able to translate them, advanced knowledge of the subject is required. This then facilitated a comparison of the different traditions. Where do Greek geometry and Indian mathematics coincide, for example?

The culture of Baghdad was one of exchange, of ideas as well as goods. The Prophet himself had been a trader. There was a stable administration. Recently, a written cheque has been found which was issued in Baghdad and cashed in Cordoba. Baghdad became rich.

There were tensions, too. The differences of view about the human’s relation to God came into sharp focus. This is the time when the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, were collected and catalogued. The ulama, the imams, theological scholars, valued the Quran and the hadith above any discoveries by the philosophers and scientists. Some of the points of contention: Was the Quran created at a moment in time, or as it is directly revealed from God is it co-eternal with God? The caliph and the scholars of the House of Wisdom thought the former, the scholars of the ulama thought the latter. Does a person find the way to God via reason, working it out, or inspiration, faith, devotion?

Caliph al-Mamun was an advocate of reason over revelation. He loved the inquiry, the finding it out. (Among other projects, he despatched his scholars to measure the size of the Earth. Ptolemy had given an estimate in the Almagest, measured in stades, but nobody knew what a stade was.) Towards the end of his life al-Mamun issued a decree that the Quran was created. As he was caliph and therefore successor to the Prophet, he declared himself authorised to make such a pronouncement. Any imam who disagreed with him was to be punished. This was a dangerous precedent for the ulama, who saw themselves as the ones best qualified to interpret the wisdom of islam.

Inevitably this hardening of positions led to the creation of heroes and martyrs in those who resisted the caliph. Fifteen years after his death in 833 the decree was revoked and the pendulum began to swing in the opposite direction. The scholars of the House of Wisdom went elsewhere.