House of Wisdom: An Introduction

Written by Hisham Jabrah

The year 1258 was the darkest year for Baghdad, the splendid capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. The largest city in the world, with a population of more than a million people, was besieged by Mongol forces and surrendered after only twelve days. The Mongol troops, led by Hulagu Khan, spent the next week looting, destroying and massacring to their hearts’ content. It was the death knell of the Islamic Golden Age. Baghdad, left in ruins, would take centuries to recover.

But those who survived the massacre left us a curious note about the destruction. They said that the waters of Tigris ran black with ink from all the books thrown into the river. What books were those and where did they come from? Their home was the House of Wisdom, one of the most incredible communities of learned men in history, and the most magnificent library of the Middle Ages.

The legendary sultan

The story of the House of Wisdom starts with an almost mythic ruler, Harun al-Rashid, who reigned from 766 to 809 AD. Many people who have never heard of the Abbasid Caliphate know about its greatest caliph because of his fantastic adventures in One Thousand and One Nights. Islamic culture, religion, art and science flourished under his rule. It was also the time of the rise of Baghdad as a rich and cultured city.

Harun al-Rashid was keenly interested in scholarship and literature. Learned men from all over the world flocked to Baghdad. The caliph had a large library, called Bayt al-Hikma, which would become the core of the House of Wisdom. As the library attracted scientists, they gathered in a society, which grew into what we might call a research institute.

The first library was founded by the caliph’s predecessor al-Mansur, who financed translations of foreign works into Arabic. Under al-Rashid, the translations multiplied. Manuscripts were acquired across the vast area from Greece in the west to India in the east. At first, the texts were only about the sciences of astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Soon, however, they were joined by philosophy and other areas of knowledge.

The translations were helped by a new writing material. Chinese had taught the Arabs how to make paper, which was more affordable than parchment or papyrus. Baghdad was the birthplace of the first known paper mill in the world, which spread literacy among the people.

An intellectual on the throne

Al-Rashid was succeeded by his son al-Ma’mun. During his reign, the library entered a period of unprecedented prosperity. It was caused by two reasons. Firstly, al-Ma’mun was an even greater and more knowledgeable patron of learning than his father. Secondly, Abbasid society, especially rich merchants and army officers, began to appreciate knowledge and consider it a matter of prestige to be well-learned.

Under al-Ma’mun, the House of Wisdom turned into an incomparable center for all the fields of human knowledge, from mathematics and chemistry to geography, zoology and poetry. Astronomical observatories were set up. Arab scholars became familiar with ancient Greek and Indian wisdom, including philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle (Greek philosophy was called “philosophy of the ancients” by Muslim scholars), mathematicians like Pythagoras, Euclid, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta, physicians like Hippocrates, Sushruta and Charaka, as well as the luminaries from the late Roman period such as  Plotinus or Galen.

The sultan often visited the House of Wisdom to check up on his favorite scientists. Since he was an intellectual himself, he organized learned men into research groups for various projects, such as determining the size of the Earth or drawing the world map. A proto-archeologist, al-Ma’mun went to Giza in Egypt and personally participated in excavations of the pyramids.

From algebra to automata

Several scholars in the House of Wisdom earned a place in world history because of their contributions to philosophy, sciences or arts.

Perhaps the greatest among them was Al-Khwarizmi (c.780-850 AD). This mathematician, astronomer and geographer made epochal contributions to algebra, a part of mathematics named after one of his calculating methods. What is more, the word algorithm was coined after the Latinized version of his name!

Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (c.801-873 AD), hailed as the “father of Islamic or Arabic philosophy”, made important contributions to many sciences, from optics to code breaking. As an opponent of alchemy, he showed that the transformation of base metals into gold was nothing but a myth.

The three Banu Musa brothers (c.803-873) were masters of applied sciences. Their Book of Ingenious Devices describes one hundred inventions, which include innovative technologies and automatic machines, mostly operated by water pressure and more advanced than ancient Greek devices.

Their achievements would probably be impossible without the translations from Farsi, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, Hebrew, Sankrit and other languages. Known as “Sheikh of the translators”, Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873) translated 116 works into Arabic.

During the lifetimes of these great men, Baghdad turned into a magnet of civilization, pulling towards itself the best that the Arab and Persian world could offer in philosophy and science. The learned society within its walls included scientists, alchemists, writers and copyists. It was similar to today’s universities, although there was no formal teaching. What is more, the learned men in the House of Wisdom usually did practical work in Baghdad, designing buildings and civil engineering projects or being useful in their areas of expertise like medicine or politics.

Blood and ink

It was already in the 9th century that the House of Wisdom became the biggest book repository in the world. For almost five hundred years, this incredible library kept growing. It is not known how many manuscripts there were in the House of Wisdom in the 13th century, when the Mongols made the river flow with ink. The number must have been huge, however, since the scholar Nasir al-Din al-Tusi managed to rescue almost half a million texts before the siege.

The library was not the only inestimable loss during that fateful week. It was written that the river was red from the blood of the scientists, philosophers and scholars murdered by the Mongols.

Comparable to such revered modern institutions as Bibliothéque nationale in Paris or the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., the House of Wisdom was a magnificent academy where the most intelligent and learned men of the Islamic world came together for discussions on all kinds of subjects. It should be remembered as one of the greatest pinnacles of culture in human history.