The House of Wisdom

The House of Wisdom was one of the greatest libraries in the ancient world, before it was toppled by an invading Mongol horde.

What makes this story interesting is that when one thinks of Mongol hordes, one thinks of barbarians, but as history would have it, these Mongols were led by a man friendly to Christians, who eventually died a Buddhist.

And while they were attacking a presumably Islamic library, many of the tomes it housed were actually Greek, Latin or Persian in origin.

Confused yet? Let’s take closer look.

Starting as a palace library, the House of Wisdom was built in Baghdad in 762, just as the city was being founded by the caliph Al-Mansur as the new capital. The period was known as the Islamic golden age, a time where the Islamic empire was flourishing, and resources were being poured into knowledge and scholarship. In addition, over the previous century, Islamic scholars had started adopting the newly discovered technology of paper making from China, which had revolutionized the academic world and the ability to store knowledge.

Paper was tremendously less expensive and quicker to make than the animal skin parchment that was previously used, allowing the library to be  established as a storehouse for copies of many of the ancient texts that were being translated from Greek, Latin and Persian.

Think the World Wide Web, circa 762 CE.

By 813 CE, under the guidance of Caliph al-Ma’mun, the library was flourishing. The Caliph was a great patron of knowledge. He had a fascination with ancient Egypt and encouraged the study Egyptology, even taking part in the archeological excavations of the pyramids of Giza.  He also commissioned the first astronomical observatory built in the Islamic world, and sent academic envoys into foreign countries to both gain and share knowledge. The library attracted the top Persian and Arab scholars, and extended to become a place of knowledge-sharing for students. In time, it became a precursor for institutionalized education.

Unfortunately, all good things come to end…

In 847 CE, a new Caliph came to town. Al-Mutawakkil was not interested in Egypt. He thought the Greeks were anti-Islamic. He was a literalist when it came to the Quran and the Hadiths.

To use modern parlance, he was into that Old Time Religion.

Then, as now, regardless of faith, people like that don’t have a lot of use for libraries.

After all, what could you need to know that isn’t already stated in the Good Book (insert Holy Text here)?

However, the next blow wouldn’t come from Islamic Fundamentalists, but the Mongols, led by one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, Hulagu Khan.

Hulagu grew up surrounded by Christians. His mother was a Turkish (Karaite) princess who was a member of the Church of the East, which had ties to Nestorianism, a form of Christianity that saw Jesus Christ as both both flesh and soul, man and divinity. This  dualism that did not sit well with the Catholic hierarchy, which deemed them heretical, not that the Nestorians cared.

Hulagu had several wives, but his favorite, Doquz Khatun, was also a Christian. The same was true for Kitbuqa, his best friend and the commanding General of his armies.

Those armies would destroy Baghdad, and all of its libraries, including The House of Wisdom, in 1258 CE.

Unlike the famed burning of the library at Alexandria, Hulagu didn’t have the House of Wisdom torched. Instead, the books were tossed into the river Tigris; as the story goes, the Tigris turned black from all of the ink.

Rivers red with blood, rivers black with ink…

One man, a famed polymath named Tusi, saved over 400,000 manuscripts before the siege of Baghdad. That seems like a lot, so what did we lose?

Original manuscripts by the likes of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid, Plotinus, Galen, Sushruta, Charaka, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta. Many of the translations survived, but in most cases, the originals were drowned in the Tigris.

Did anything come out of this knowledge? Well, if you don’t like Algebra, blame it on the House of Wisdom. If you have a similar disdain for Algorithms, which are the virtual DNA of all computer systems, you can also celebrate Hulagu’s attack on learning.

The House of Wisdom saw the birth of physics, optics, cartography, astronomy and the medical texts that would form the basis of Western medicine. The Indian concept of the number 0, alien to the European counting system (think Roman numerals), was transmitted to the west through the House of Wisdom. The world’s first known programmable machine, a musical device, was also crafted at the House of Wisdom.

Think MIT, where the M stands for Middle-East.

Back to Hulagu, who attempted to destroy it all…

What’s a man to do after attempting to wipe out the collective wisdom of the ages?

Apparently, become a Buddhist.

Before Hulagu shed his mortal coil, he turned to a religion that historically has celebrated learning and eschewed violence, to his wife’s consternation. But convert he did, despite his wife’s objections.

Buddhist or not, he is the last known Mongol leader to have human sacrifices at his funeral.

What’s the moral of this story?

When media fails (and no form of media is fail-proof), all we have is memory.

As faulty as memory is…

It’s the only House of Wisdom that the Man can’t drown.



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