Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Rise and Fall of the Bayt-al-Hikmah

The Rise and Fall of the Bayt-al-Hikmah
Mini Krishnan 
Within 25 years of the death of their Prophet, the Arabs conquered the whole of Persia, Syria, Armenia, and a bit of Central Asia. In the east, they reached the Indus river and Sindh. In the west, they swept across Egypt and northern Africa, crossed the seas and landed at Gibraltar. In time, Spain too fell.
They were soon in possession of a different kind of power. In 751 AD, they captured Chinese paper-makers. This knowledge changed the nature of how writing was shared and stored. When the strongest people in the world saw the importance of establishing libraries, learning sprang up everywhere in their footsteps. Muslims were the first people to show an interest in translating manuscripts and scrolls from cultures other than theirs. Popularly known as the knowledge empire of the caliphs, there followed a history of 500 years of Islamic library building. By the ninth century, scholars in Cordoba and Spain were corresponding with their counterparts in Cairo, Bokhara, Samarkand and Baghdad. Baghdad! Persian for “gift from God”!
Baghdad was born in 762 AD. Caliph Mansur, whose empire stretched from India to the Atlantic, sailed up and down the Tigris looking for a place to call home. He finally settled on a spot and shifted his capital from Damascus to Baghdad. He united many intellectual centres and employed scholars to carry out research and translate the world into Arabic. Interestingly, most of the translations into Arabic were done by writers whose first language was not Arabic.
The Abbasid Caliphs supported schools of Syrian, Greek, Persian, Jewish, Hindu and Armenian translators. In their time, it was easy for intellectuals and scholars to make a living. An academic life was a sign of status, and legendary translators were paid the weight of their work in gold. Rare scrolls and ancient texts were preferred war booty. For instance, Ptolemy’s Almaget was claimed as a condition for peace after a war between the Abbasids and the Byzantine Empire. Baghdad gained reputation as one of the world’s most cultured places and its storytellers, scientists, artists and scholars translated most of what was known to the ancient world.
The buying of manuscripts began when a mathematical work from Sanskrit (Bramhasphuta Siddhanta) was translated into Arabic in the 8th century. Scholars were told to go anywhere in the world and name any price to collect manuscripts on astronomy, medicine, philosophy and the natural sciences. Arab intelligence spread across the world even more swiftly and dramatically than Greek had a thousand years before, and had a great effect upon the human mind and upon the destiny of the world. And nearly all of this energy came from one city.
In 830 AD, Al-Mamun, son of Harun-al-Rashid, established Bayt al-Hikmah, the House of Wisdom, to preserve manuscripts. Anyone could enter the House so long as they were genuine users of the library. Translators, scientists, scribes, authors, men of letters, writers, copyists and others met here every day for co-translation, dialogue and discussion. Manuscripts on various scientific subjects were prepared in collaboration, and translated into and from different languages.
The walls rang with Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Greek and Latin and occasionally Sanskrit. Aristotelian logic, cosmology, the nature of the universe, medicine and mathematics were all created out of an alloy of Arabic-Greek-Persian-Indian minds. Without the archiving and research that was conducted in the House of Wisdom and later translated into Latin in Cordoba and Toledo, much ancient knowledge would have been lost to the world.
We are two weeks away from a tragic anniversary.
On February 10, 1258, the Mongol, Hulagu Khan, fulfilled his grandfather Genghis Khan’s ambition and sacked the city of Baghdad, ignoring the Caliph’s message that any aggression against Baghdad would move the entire Muslim world against them. This gift from God, this centre of translation, this city filled with treasures of the mind was plundered and set ablaze. Thousands of students, physicians and scholars lost their lives. Since the Caliph was considered royalty, the Mongols killed him without spilling blood. He was bundled up in a carpet and trampled to death by horses.
The Mongols ransacked palaces, homes and 36 libraries. Bayt-al-Hikmah was destroyed in a matter of days. It is reported that the River Tigris ran red with the blood of the dead and then black from the ink of manuscripts. Along with the library went all astronomical observatories and other experimental endeavours not to mention the largest translation department ever known to man.
Ironically, the descendants of Hulagu Khan later turned to Islam and learnt to value art and learning.
(Courtesy: The Hindu dated 29th January 2017)

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