Jim Al-Khalili: The Golden Age of Arabic Science





[Jim Al-Khalili is professor of physics, and professor of the public engagement in science, at the University of Surrey. His latest book is Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science.]

The Bab al-Sharji district in the centre of Baghdad derives its name, which means east gate, from the medieval fortifications of the city. These walls were probably built around the first half of the 10th century. During the brief British stay at the end of the first world war, its gatehouse was used as a garrison church. Nothing of those medieval walls, or the east gate, remains today; I remember Bab al-Sharji as a sprawling, noisy and bustling square, with its food stalls and secondhand record shops scattered around the busy bus depot and taxi ranks. But its name is a reminder of the expansion and transformation of this proud city over the years since its foundation in AD762 as the new seat of power of the mighty Abbasid empire. Indeed, no other city on Earth has had to put up with the levels of death and destruction that Baghdad has endured over the centuries. And yet, as the capital of one of the world's great empires, this was the richest, proudest, most supercilious city on the planet for half a millennium.

Exactly 1,200 years after its foundation, I was born in Karradat Mariam, a Shia district of Baghdad with a large Christian community, a stone's throw away from today's Green Zone and a few miles south of the spot where one of Baghdad's most famous rulers was born in 786. His name was Abū Ja'far al-Ma'mūn. Half Arab, half Persian, this enigmatic caliph was destined to become the greatest patron of science in the cavalcade of Islamic rulers, and the person responsible for initiating the world's most impressive period of scholarship and learning since Ancient Greece.

By the eighth century, with western Europe languishing in its dark ages, the Islamic empire covered an area larger in expanse than either the Roman empire at its height or all the lands conquered and ruled by Alexander the Great. So powerful and influential was this empire that, for a period stretching over 700 years, the international language of science was Arabic.



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