European knowledge from Arabick roots

Discover how 17th-century European scholars rediscovered knowledge from early Muslim civilisation

By 1001 Inventions

Entrance wall graphic of Arabick Roots exhibitionOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

17th-century leaders of the scientific revolution were Europeans like Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Edmond Halley and Johannes Hevelius.

Discover how important the 'Arabick' roots of knowledge were to these western scholars.

European scholars rediscovered the advances made in early Muslim civilisation led by scientists such as Ibn al-Haytham.

They also searched out the living knowledge of the East, and used both as sources for new leaps of understanding.

Selenographia was the first book to chart the Moon's surface as seen through a telescope.

Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius published it in 1647.

On the title page, he chose to honour two giants of science whose work had madethe book possible: Ibn al-Haytham and Galileo Galilei.

11th-century scholar Ibn al-Haytham is drawn on the left with a plinth bearing an image of the brain and the word Ratione ('reason' in Latin), crediting him as a pioneer of the rational scientific method.

Arabic or Arabick?

17th-century European scholars used the term 'Arabick' to refer to languages that use the Arabic script, including Arabic, Persian and Ottoman, which they learned in their quest to unlock a treasure of knowledge.

Searching for the roots of knowledgeOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Searching for the roots of knowledge

From prized horses and exotic plants to luxury fabrics and literature, eastern style took Europe by storm four hundred years ago.

In the 17th century, leading western thinkers had rejected the theoretical ideas and methods of the recent European past.

Instead, they adopted a new approach based on experiment and scientific observation, and therefore searched for manuscripts in Arabic and Persian, travelled east and even learned Arabick languages.

Science over a cup of coffeeOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Science over a cup of coffee

With scholars adapting new philosophies and rediscovering the classical learning of the East, 17th-century Europe was buzzing with discussions of new ideas in science and philosophy.

The hottest debates took place in the coffeehouses. Here, conversation flowed, along with the steaming brew that kept bright minds even more alert.

Trade with the East had only recently brought coffee to cities like Venice and London.

In London, Edward Lloyd's coffeehouse became a meeting place for merchants and ship-owners, politicians and scholars.

For the price of a cup of coffee, one could hear the great minds of the day discuss the big issues. Coffeehouses became known as 'penny universities'.

Growing peace, sharing knowledgeOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Growing peace, sharing knowledge

London, Tripoli, Constantinople... capital cities in East and West exchanged ambassadors for the first time in the 17th century.

As peace flourished, trade treaties saw exciting new products arriving at western ports, from new plant species to new delights, like coffee.

This set the scene for an even more influential exchange - the sharing of ideas.

Arabick Wealth of KnowledgeOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Well-read westerners in 17th-century Europe knew that the golden era of Muslim civilisation had left a wealth of knowledge in Arabic and Persian.

Merchants and businesspeople travelling east began to seek manuscripts to send back to eager European scientists.

Kings and bishops requested enough books to fill miles of library shelves.

Arabick RoutesOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Arabick routes

The Levant Company was formed in 1580 and promoted trade between Britain and the Ottoman Empire.

Aleppo, Constantinople (Istanbul), Smyrna (Izmir) and other cities in the Eastern Mediterranean sent goods like luxury Damask silk to ports in Venice and London.

Velvet and silk luxury items were a common import to Europe along the new trade routes from the East.

The original technique for producing velvet was developed in ancient Egypt.

The first factory to produce silk velvet for the Ottoman Empire was opened in Istanbul in the 16th century, and from there it spread to Europe.

Map highlighting 17th-century trade routes between Europe and the EastOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Along with exotic wares that came to Europe from the East in the 17th century, the trade routes also fed a western appetite for eastern knowledge.

Many employees of the Levant Company (formed in 1580) learned Arabic while serving abroad, enabling a trade in books and manuscripts from the East.

Ambassadors of KnowledgeOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Ambassadors of knowledge

Eastern ambassadors received an admiring welcome in 17th-century Europe, and western ambassadors found a similarly friendly reception in the East.

Diplomatic relationships opened up new channels for an exchange of knowledge.

In London, Arab ambassadors were invited to speak at the Royal Society (founded in 1660).

Its members, the leading thinkers of their day, were fascinated by the knowledge of the East.

Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali was the Ambassador of the King of Morocco in London from 1725 to 1727.

He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society during his stay in London.

Royal PatromageOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Royal patronage

East-West relations gained the royal seal of approval 400 years ago. In 1580, the Levant Company received a royal charter, establishing trade relations between England and the Ottoman Empire.

Later, King Charles I wrote in 1634 to merchants of the Levant Company, asking that every ship returning to England should bring back Arabick manuscripts.

The Changing Language of ScienceOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

The changing language of science

Western scholars needed more than their mother tongue to join the 17th century's craze for eastern science.

With Arabick books constantly arriving from the East, it was vital to decode the valuable knowledge within them. Many scientists learned the new languages, made translations and wrote dictionaries and grammar books.

Others travelled to the East in pursuit of undiscovered writings.

Circle of Scientists and ArabistsOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Circle of scientists and Arabists

With the increasing interest in eastern science in 17th-century Europe, chairs of Arabic were established at leading universities, and professors searched hundreds of Arabic and Persian books for scientific ideas to share.

A close-knit circle of scholars formed, united in the aim to learn from eastern writings.

They translated books on astronomy, medicine, mathematics and philosophy, and discussed their contents through exchanging hundreds of letters.

Arabick StudiesOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Lively debate fanned the flame of discovery in the 17th century, and no more so than in the discussion of Arabick knowledge.

As interest grew, a new collaboration developed between the scientific scholars and the expert Arabists who studied Eastern languages and ideas in the Arab world.

Detailed conversations took place through correspondence.

Our Shared Sky and EarthOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Our shred sky and Earth

In the 17th century, scholars improved the astronomical maps of their predecessors, using more accurate tools and measurements.

British astronomer Edmond Halley realised that the centuries-old Arabic books arriving in England contained reliable measurements of the same heavenly bodies he saw.

He learned Arabic to read the old manuscripts, and also requested that travellers send him the latest observations of the Moon's eclipse in Baghdad, Aleppo and Alexandria.

Remapping the SkiesOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Remapping the skies

In the 1660s, the famous Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius set out to create more accurate charts by remapping the skies.

He used his naked eye and a very large sextant to make new observations, discovering many additional stars. He also consulted and studied observations made by earlier scholars from Muslim civilisation.

Remapping the SkiesOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Hevelius published in 1687 a comprehensive atlas of the constellations on the basis of his observations and additional resources.

At his request, the Royal Society in London translated into Latin a renowned star catalogue produced in 1487 by the astronomer-mathematician Ulugh Beg, which he studied along with observations made in the 10th century by Al-Sufi in his book Forms of Fixed Stars.

Constellations between East and WestOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Constellations out of the star catalogues of Hevelius and Al-Sufi.

Although drawn five and half centuries apart (images are from 1687 and 1125 copies of Hevelius’s and Al-Sufi’s manuscripts respectively), these constellations appear as if they are mirroring each other.

This is because Hevelius's constellations are drawn as they would appear on a celestial globe, while Al-Sufi's are drawn as they appear in the sky.

Our Shared ChallengesOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Our shared challenges

Arabick manuscripts tackled - and often solved - tremendous scientific and medical challenges, using evidence-based methods recognised by the 17th-century western scholars.

In the golden era of early Muslim civilisation, scholars like Al-Kindi, Al-Razi, Thabit ibn Qurra, Ibn al-Haytham, Ibn Sina and Al-Zahrawi had written books that were translated into Latin and remained influential for centuries.

In the enlightened 17th century, western scholars searched out original Arabic texts, both to improve the old translations and to try to find hidden gems yet unknown.

AlbarellosOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

17th-century European scientists were eager for current information on eastern medical remedies, healthy living, and the practice of using inoculation against the killer disease smallpox.

Translations of Arabic medical textbooks, like Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine, were used in European universities until the 18th century.

Bulbs and plants used in herbal medicine were sent to Europe with descriptions of the diseases they could treat.

Our Shared CulturesOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Our shared cultures

Stylish European homes and gardens of the 17th century showed off their eastern influences at every opportunity.

Sophisticated bookshelves displayed volumes of poetry and stories translated from Arabick languages.

Brightly coloured carpets, cushions and curtains decorated living rooms, while stylish wardrobes contained eastern-influenced fashions.

Outside, trees and plants brought from Syria and Morocco were lovingly tended. And the influence of eastern philosophy lived on.

Arabick HorsesOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Arabick horses

The spirit, speed and stamina of Arabian horses captivated Europeans in the 17th century.

European kings and queens as well as enterprising businessmen realised the value of Arabian horses.

In Aleppo in 1704, Thomas Darley bought an impressive horse and shipped it back to England.

The horse gained fame as the 'Darley Arabian' because it fathered so many race-winning offspring.

Arabick LifestyleOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Eastern luxuries like silk, olive oil and spices became part of daily life for smart European families of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The West was fascinated by the ways of the Arab world and the Ottoman Empire.

Everyone who was anyone wore eastern fabrics and styles, including turbans for both men and women.

In 1666, the eastern fashion of coats and trousers for men appeared in London, replacing forever the close-fitting jackets and woollen stockings they had previously worn.

Traders and diplomats working in the East wore local outfits with pride.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an influential ambassador's wife, remarked on the comfortable and modest dress of Ottoman women, and wore it herself.

Exploring the EastOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Exploring the East

Evidence and proof meant the world to 17th-century scientists.

So it's no surprise that western scholars wanted to see eastern lands for themselves.

On tour through the East, scholars gathered evidence from craftsmen and experts practising medicine and astronomy, creating new records, in the form of books and drawings, of everything they found.

East in Western EyesOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Many Europeans glimpsed the East for the first time through drawings and engravings similar to the ones appearing on this map.

As well as historic scenes, western travellers, scholars and artists roaming through Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt keenly recorded contemporary life there. Everything was explored and painstakingly recorded.

Today these images are a snapshot of the East through 17th- and 18th-century western eyes.

Arabick RootsOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Arabick roots, literally

Flowers and trees originally from the East are now a common sight in European gardens.

Travellers to the Levant were delighted by what they found there, and couldn't wait to bring it back.

Edward Pococke the Senior, the talented Arabist translator, developed a love for cedar, plane and fig trees during his years in Aleppo, Syria.

He brought all three species back to Oxford in 1640, where he planted them.

Astonishingly, the three trees survive today.

Credits: Story

Created by 1001 Inventions
Producers: Ahmed Salim, Shaza Shannan
Curator: Dr Rim Turkmani

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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