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From Cuneiform to Topkapi

In the Islamic world, where reading and literacy have always been highly prized for the access they provide to the word of God and the world of knowledge, books were objects of both utility and beauty. Some of the most beautiful, in their calligraphy, illustration and binding, formed part of great collections assembled by the rich or learned for their own use or as endowments for mosques or religious foundations. Overtime, these collections grew or shrank, flourished or were dispersed, but one of the finest and most extensive of them remains a treasure-house today.


A little more than 5,000 years ago, businessmen in ancient Sumer, in what is now Iraq, found they were having trouble keeping track of their various commercial transactions: for example, how many oxen one of them had sold to the fellow in the next village, and in exchange for what. To make things easier, they developed – gradually, over generations – an efficient way to record these transactions in some detail, by making tiny wedge-shaped, or cuneiform, marks on palm-sized clay tablets.

Then as now, though, new solutions bred new problems. Soon everybody had to find a way to keep track not of the transactions but, now, of all the little clay tablets being used for record keeping throughout the entire region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Someone had the idea of organizing a kind of central repository – it might have been simply a few shelves in a storeroom of the royal palace – where commercial documents could be stored in an orderly manner. That way, if a merchant ever claimed he had not received the proper, previously agreed upon payment for those oxen he had handed over to Mr. Nimbarzab of Kish, the original written agreement, now a matter of public record, could be consulted by the government official charged with settling the dispute.

Before long, all sorts of documents were being kept in centralized collections at a number of locations across Mesopotamia – not only those of economic import, but also cuneiform texts dealing with religion, kingship, administration, law, history, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, natural history, technology, and food and drink, not to mention compositions of a purely literary nature.

Separately, some 700 miles (1,100 km) away in Egypt, a similar set of events had occurred, probably on a more restricted scale. There, instead of making wedge-shaped impressions on clay tablets, people were writing on sheets of plant pith – papyrus – in a picturesque, pictographic script that we call hieroglyphic Egyptian. Though we do not know who invented the card catalogue, or when and where the first overdue notice was sent, we do know that libraries – organized collections of written materials – were born in the Middle East, where writing was invented more or less simultaneously by two civilizations.

In time, the clay-tablet archives of the Sumerians and other peoples of the ancient Near East gave way to the classical libraries of the Greco-Roman Orient – the most famous of these was the Great Library at Alexandria – and these were succeeded in turn by the libraries of Byzantium and Sassanid Persia. Thus, when the Arab conquests of the seventh century carried Islam to virtually every corner of the Middle East and North Africa, the religion took root and its sacred book was studied in lands where repositories of the written word had already been part of the cultural landscape for perhaps three and a half millennia.

We know next to nothing about the libraries of the very early decades of Islam and of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750). Books in Arabic do not seem to have been very common during this period. Korans were written on parchment, which was expensive and difficult to prepare. Most other documents were written on papyrus, which had to be obtained from Egypt and which had a relatively short shelf life in humid climates.

Chinese papermakers in Samarkand

Chinese papermakers in Samarkand

The much more extensive library collections of the Abbasid era (750-1258) were made possible by an Arab military victory that took place deep in Central Asia, far from the heartlands of Islam. In July 751, on the Talas River near the site of present-day Dzhambul (in the southern Kazakh S.S.R.), Abbasid forces under the leadership of Ziyad ibn Salih defeated a Chinese army commanded by the Korean general Kao Hsien-chih (See Aramco World, September-October 1982).

The political importance of the Battle of Talas – the only time in history that Arab and Chinese armies have ever clashed – was that the Chinese were driven permanently out of what is known today as Soviet Central Asia. But the battle had an even greater impact on the cultural and intellectual history of the times, because it marked the crucial link in the westward transmission of the ancient Chinese craft of papermaking. The author al-Tha’alibi (961-38) explains how this occurred, in his book Lataif al-Ma’arif (“Curious and Entertaining Information”), translated by Clifford Edmund Bosworth.

[Samarkand’s] specialties include paper, which has driven out of use the Egyptian papyrus and the parchment which previous generations employed; this is because it looks better, is more supple, is more easily handled and is more convenient for writing on. It is only made in Samarkand and China. The author of the Kitab al-Masalik wal-Mamalik [“The Book of Pathways and Kingdoms”] relates that amongst the Chinese prisoners of war captured by Ziyad ibn Salih and brought to Samarkand were some artisans who manufactured paper in Samarkand; then it was manufactured on a wide scale and passed into general use, until it became an important export commodity for the people of Samarkand. Its value was universally recognized and people everywhere used it.

Exactly how paper made its way further westward from Samarkand is not known. By 794, however, there was a paper mill in Baghdad, and similar factories could soon be found in every Muslim country. Papyrus swiftly fell into oblivion. Paper became so common that Cairo grocers of the eleventh century used it to wrap their customers’ purchases, just like many of the products in today’s supermarkets. More to the point, the advent of paper lowered the price of books so drastically that public and private libraries soon became common throughout the Islamic world. Schools – and bookshops – began to proliferate, and in all likelihood the literacy rate climbed. In the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, for example, there is a religious manuscript copied out by a 13th-century metalworker from Mosul – a simple craftsman – for his own use.

Christian Europe, meanwhile, did not have an important center of papermaking until the middle of the 12th century, a key reason why even the important monastic libraries in Western Europe possessed collections numbering only in the hundreds of books at a time when the great Muslim libraries could boast of having tens or hundreds of thousands – and why no European equivalent of the Mosul manuscript is ever likely to be found.

The first really outstanding library in the Islamic world was the one associated with the famous Bait al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, in Baghdad (See Aramco World, May-June 1982). According to tradition, the House of Wisdom was founded in 830 by the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun, although a government-supported library probably existed in the city in the previous century. The distinguished Arab-American historian Philip K. Hitti described the House of Wisdom as “a combination library, academy and translation bureau which in many respects proved the most important educational institution since the foundation of the Alexandrian Museum” some 1100 years before.

At the House of Wisdom, scholars of many nationalities and religions translated into Arabic, Greek, Persian and Indian works on mathematics, logic, astronomy, philosophy and the exact sciences, and wrote commentaries on those texts as well as original works of their own. In addition to those scientific works, the institute’s library would have housed Korans and collections of Hadith; books on Islamic jurisprudence and theology; collections of poetry; works on genealogy, history, geography and grammar; reference works; and books of proverbs, fables, anecdotes, witticisms and the like. With some differences of emphasis, books on these subjects formed the core of all the great library collections of the medieval Islamic world.

The House of Wisdom Baghdad

The library of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was, moreover, a public library: it was apparently open to anyone who had the education to use it. Many, though not all, of the important libraries of the Abbasid realm followed this example set by the House of Wisdom, with the result that in Muslim, lands learning and scholarship were disseminated across a wider cross section of society than anywhere in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages.

The library of the original House of Wisdom served as a model in other ways, too, for large libraries throughout the Islamic world. Much of what we know about them comes from incidental asides in the writings of Arab and Persian historians and geographers of the time, so we do not have a comprehensive picture, but it is clear that in dozens of cities from Spain to Asia, bibliophiles had much to be grateful for.

In Muslim Spain, the most celebrated library was that of Cordova; it was the pride and joy of Caliph al-Hakam II al-Mustansir (961-976), himself a scholar of no small reputation. Al-Hakam sent book-buyers to Alexandria, Damascus and Baghdad, and employed large numbers of scribes, calligraphers and bookbinders. His library is said to have contained more than 400,000 books, whose titles filled a 44-volume catalogue. In comparison, the royal library of Fatimid Cairo, founded by Caliph al-‘Aziz (975-996), is supposed to have housed some 200,000 volumes, including some 2400 illuminated Korans and an autograph copy of al-Tabari’s History of the Messengers and Kings. This library was later incorporated into a House of Wisdom established in Cairo by al-‘Aziz’s successor, al-Hakim (996-1021). According to the historian al-Maqrizi, the collection of the House of Wisdom of Fatimid Cairo was open “to everyone, without distinction of rank, who wished to read or consult any of the books.”

Cordova, incidentally, was widely known as a city of bibliophiles. As the following story from [al-Maqqari] (translated by Philip Hitti) shows, however, some were more dedicated to learning than others.

When living in Cordova I frequented its book market, looking for a book in which I was especially interested. At last a copy of good calligraphy and handsome binding fell into my hands. Full of joy, I began to bid for it but was time after time outbid by another, until the price offered far exceeded the proper limit. I then said to the auctioneer, “Show me this rival bidder who has raised the price beyond the worth of the book.” Accordingly he took me to a man attired in distinguished garb. Approaching him, I said, “May God keep our lord the faqih strong! If you have a special object in acquiring this book I will let it go, for the bidding has already exceeded the limit.” His answer was: “I am not a faqih, nor am I aware of the contents of the book. But I have just established a library and made much of it in order to pride myself among the notables of my town. There is still an empty space there which this book will just fill up. Seeing that it was in [an] elegant hand and good cover, I liked it and cared not how much I paid for it, for, thank God, I am a man of means.”

The Muslim East too had its great libraries. The historian al-Maqdisi describes the library founded in Shiraz by the Buyid ruler ‘Adud al-Dawla (976-983), where the books were shelved according to subject in huge decorated bookcases. “There is no book written up to this time, in any branch of science, that the prince has not acquired a copy of,” writes al-Maqdisi. Important libraries also existed in Basra, Mosul and Rayy, but perhaps the most influential one in the eastern Islamic world at this time was the one in Bukhara, in what is now the Uzbek S. S. R. The brilliant scholar Ibn Sina, later known in Western Europe as Avicenna, lived in Bukhara during the reign of the Samanid amir Nuh ibn Mansur (976-997). Ibn Sina wrote that the library there had many rooms, each room being set aside for books in a given discipline. “I saw in this collection books of which few people have heard even the names, and which I myself have never seen either before or since,” he recalled.

Two centuries later, the libraries of Merv (in what is today the Turkmen S.S.R.) and Khwarizm (the Oxus delta district, south of the Aral Sea) were among the most impressive in the Islamic East – until, that is, they were incinerated by the invading Mongols, who, at that stage in their history, had precious little interest in books.

The Mongols and, in the Muslim West, the Berbers destroyed more than a few libraries; others were reduced to ashes by other invaders or sometimes by purely internal strife. But new ones sprang up to take their places all across the widening Islamic world – in Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey, for example. Istanbul, in fact, became the main gathering place of Islamic manuscripts, its libraries amassing, in peace and war, unmatched collections of Turkish, Persian and Arabic texts. Foremost among the collections in the Ottoman capital was that of the Topkapı Palace library, some of whose riches are displayed in this issue of Aramco World. Today, new libraries continue to flower throughout the world of Islam, not only in North Africa, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East, but increasingly also in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. Everywhere, the newest generation of Houses of Wisdom is thriving, eleven and a half centuries after their magnificent prototype was unveiled.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the March/April 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Written by Barry Hoberman, Illustrated by Trevor Newton

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About the Author
Former managing editor of Biblical Archaeologist, holds history degrees from Harvard and Indiana Universities and now free-lances from Boston.
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