Update: The three nodes in this series have actually been published now. If you want to cite, use:
C. P., 'The Historical Context of Arabic Translation, Learning, and The Libraries of Medieval Andalusia', Library History, Vol. 18 No. 2, pp. 73-87, July 2002.
The chain of events which culminated in the establishment of the Great Mosque library of Cordoba in the 10th century, and the pilgrimages made thence by so many European scholars beg the following questions. First, how so many great works of philosophy and science came to be preserved there, secondly, why in particular the Arabic rulers felt inclined to sponsor and support such scholarly activity, thirdly, how the technical means for such bibliographic work developed there, and finally, why there existed such a contrast of wealth between the libraries of Christendom and those of Islam? While a detailed account of these contextual questions is clearly beyond the scope of this essay, it is important for the sake of coherence to at least sketch the scope of events leading up to the establishment of such a diverse and involved literary culture in Islamic Spain during the Abbasid and Umayyad periods (711-1031). A cursory glance to the preceding events will, hopefully, shed some light on how, for example, the works of a pagan Greek thinker from the 5th century B.C. could appear, for translation by medieval Christians, in the Arabic libraries of cities thousands of miles away (and nearly a millennium later) from their first being written down. Such a chain of transmission is simply too sumptuous and important to pass over.

As touched upon briefly in the first section of this essay, there are specific conditions necessary for any societies’ maintenance of a continuous written record. Stability (cultural, political, military and economic) is certainly the most precious for textual preservation on the societal scale, and if there is one thing which the Roman Empire provided for nearly a millennia, it was stability. Greece was officially given the status of a Roman province in 27 AD, roughly four centuries after the apex of Hellenistic civilization, and so it passed to Roman administrators to maintain the tradition of the ancient Greeks. To this purpose the ethos of Rome was aptly suited, at least at first. Prolonged and accurate cultural memory requires, first and foremost, long-term support of those institutions whose primary function is to preserve the textual record, namely libraries and schools. 13 Without economic, political and cultural stability among the ruling elite, this support often falters. Rome found herself in a unique position of strength, largely unchallenged (and therefore able to offer her cultural treasures protection) between 70 BC and roughly 390 AD. However, after this period of peace, cultural absorption into the Empire for many people became less alluring. The merchant class griped about taxes, the poor about religious freedom. Roman borders began to recede, her legions increasingly challenged. This contraction of imperial domain seems to have affected the economy severely and learning became a luxury. 14

Besides loss of financial and political support, damage is often inflicted upon cultural repositories when social conditions worsen at the lower levels of a particular populace. This is a particular danger when tensions between elite and common classes escalate into civil unrest. When the elite ceases support of an institution, funding may cease, but when the commoner turns en masse against a repository (be it frustrated looting or rebellious violence), the impact can be profound. By the late 4th century AD, most of the provinces of Rome were being harried by internal and external forces. Peasant insurgencies by the Burgundies of Gaul, the mass migrations of the Gothic people across the Danube (369), and Christian rioting in Alexandria (391) rapidly took their toll on Roman hegemony.

Pressing threats and social conditions, if not leading to outright destruction, can often lead to elite and common indifference toward culture. This downward spiral, particularly in the late Roman case, can be seen in several overlapping signs of collapse as outlined by Tainter above. Both forms of cultural indifference certainly hold true for the periods when learning was seen to have passed from the West as the late Roman Empire began to recede. In this case, we have evidence from the period of invaders (Visigoths, Huns and finally Arabs), competing cultures (Syrian and early Byzantine), class conflict (pagan vs. Christian), societal contradiction, elite mismanagement (high taxation), societal dysfunction (slavery), as well as mystical factors (ascetic Christian morality). L. D. Reynolds’ Scribes and Scholars outlines a grave succession of disasters in the fourth and fifth centuries as Rome’s imperial clout began to slip. Civil wars and uprisings, sectarian violence, religious repression and heresies all conspired to upset the Pax Romana which had provided stability to the culture of Mediterranean learning since the 3rd century B.C. 15Clearly something was amiss in the world, as historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells us from his account in 393:
The few houses that were formerly distinguished for the cultivation of serious pursuits now overflow with the pastimes of inert sloth and resound with singing, piping and harping. In the place of the philosopher the singer is called in…libraries are shut tight like tombs…see how our standards have been debased. 16
By the time of the Justinian’s reign in 529, it goes without saying Roman authorities were preoccupied with events they felt were far more pressing than the continued funding of public libraries and philosophical schools. The emperor summarily closed the Academy of Athens, which had for centuries served to house the authorities of Greek thought, under the pious pretense that the pagan philosophy housed there was no longer necessary, as Rome was now wholly Christianized and universally committed to God. As Morris Bishop writes, ‘the period from the sixth to eight centuries was a time of endings and forgetting. In most of the West an architect could no longer build a dome, or a ship builder a galley, or a wheelwright a chariot. No written manuals were handed down; artisans in later times had to begin anew.’ 17 One cultures’ loss can easily be seen to be another’s gain, and the diasporas of scholars and philosophers created by the withdrawal of imperial support led to the passing of texts and thought to the Near East. 18 Reynolds relates that even as the closure of the public institutions among the Roman provinces began, their writings and patrons migrated to the more supportive conditions found in centers like Nisibis and Odessa (where Aristotle and Lucian, for example, had been translated into Syrian as early as the 4th century). Kushraw Anushiwan, ruler of Persia (531-578) explicitly offered asylum to several Neo-Platonists after hearing of Justinian’s decree against the Academy in Athens, even going to far as to insist upon their safe passage to his land as he signed a treaty with the Byzantine administration. 19 It was not long after this period transcribed copies were being sought after by the Arabs of Damascus (particularly the Poetics and Plato’s Phaedrus), and the Persian mysticism evident in much of Islam is deeply imbued with Neo-Platonic abstraction. 20

Which brings us to the second and third aspects (the motive and means) of our question: why were the Arabs so intensely interested in this alien, frequently perplexing material, and how did they manage to accumulate so much material? 21To address the matter generally, religion seems to have provided the impetus, while conquest delivered the materials. In the thirty years alone after the death of the Prophet, Muhammad in 632 C.E., the borders of the Arab Empire quickly spread from the Arabian peninsula to the north (engulfing Syria and Persia), west (moving into central and south-east Asia) and East (through northern Africa and finally into Spain). The Arab sweep through much of the Near East and Southern Mediterranean seems an impossible feat, rivaling even the routs of Alexander, but it is not so surprising when one considers several concurrent developments.
  • First, the Bedouin tribes throughout the region had, for almost a century before Islam’s rise, greatly favored the horse over camel, and in the process had become accomplished riders and breeders. As a military force they had mastered early both the stirrup and lance, giving them a profound advantage as an invasion force. 22
  • Secondly, given the timing of the invasions, they met little resistance; Rome, by 647 when the Arab conquests began, had become a memory in many of its provinces, and had been forced to abandon Gaul, Galatia, Iberia, Carthage and Egypt in the 5th and 6th centuries. A vacuum of power throughout the region was waiting to be filled, and the indigenous populations frequently welcomed the literate administration of the Arabs over the frequently inept rule of the local unlettered. 23
  • Thirdly, in 653 AD, the Koran (Qu’ran) was codified, and a central tenet of its preaching was being able to read its words, and to know them well. This emphasis grew into an acceptance of universal learning.
This last precept transformed Arab culture, from one primarily fixated on trade and the desert, to one focused on culture and the city. Or as one literate historian surmises,
The Arabs brought a single book with them from the desert, and yet wherever they went they found more books. Many felt that these foreign books were of no value as compared to their own, but others, though continuing to hold the Koran unique, hastened to read whatever they found…they collected books and translated them into the language of the Prophet. They say and heard of libraries and felt they must have libraries too. 24
It took less than a century after the codification of the Koran for Islamic culture to become deeply interested in the acquisition of greater science and literacy, regardless of its source, if only because it now had a far-flung empire to administer. 25 At the same time, numerous religious schisms developed among the cities of Damascus and Baghdad. As the influence of the Koran began to circulate throughout the newly conquered regions or Syria, Persia, Palestine and Egypt, the faith naturally came into contact with other sects and doctrines. As with any religious or philosophical orthodoxy, Islamic authorities in each new region had to make a choice: react with fury and condemn, or reason and argue. More often than not, they sought to reason with the unenlightened. Yet to do so the clergy needed to ‘know their enemy’, and so the transcription of religious and theological works of all kinds accelerated. 26 The institution of the Moslem madrasa, or religious academy, taleban, was suited specifically to this purpose. Soon the peoples of the Mediterranean, who had come to be ruled by the Arabs, could not hasten quickly enough to abandon their broken Latin (the language of the last empire) for the tongue of the new imperial power, Arabic. 27

Meanwhile, just as the ‘religious work’ continued apace, the march of the Moslem armies in to the West did not halt until their cavalry was met at Poitiers, France (indicated above) by a confederation of Christianized Franks, Gauls and Visigoths in 733 AD. 28 The invasion of Al-Andalusia itself was undertaken under the guise of a merchant fleet from Morocco. Once there, the Arab general Tarik reportedly made a grand banquet of conquest, in which the invaders seemed to eat their prisoners (in actuality the captives were simply being held for ransom). News spread over the countryside of this Moorish barbarity, and most towns along the route to the capital, Cordoba, surrendered in fear. 29Meanwhile, the expansion to the West went deep into Asia, where in 751 the Arab armies seized the city of Samarkand (now Uzbekistan). This conquest represented a continuous band of territory, with secured political and economic administration, stretching from more than 5000 km from East to West. Such a vast tract of territory, as noted in the discussion of the Roman case, can be extremely difficult to maintain. Yet it was in Samarkand, and through the capture of several Chinese colonials, that the Arabs encountered the technology which would vitally aid their effort at imperial maintenance, commercial transaction and cultural exchange: paper. 30 Readily available paper, along with broad-based civic literacy (encouraged by the Koran and the madrasa) throughout the Arab domain provided the medium and manpower through which Islamic libraries soon became renowned throughout Europe:
In 751, the Arab governor of Samarkand and his army defeated the enemy at Atlakh near Tashkent; among the prisoners of war were Chinese who knew the art of papermaking…Samarkand paper was esteemed for centuries and the first Mughal emperor Babur (1453) stated in his memoirs the best paper in the world still originated there. Paper making was introduced into Egypt around 900, Morocco about 1100 and into Italy by the Arabs around the end of the 13th century when it spread to the whole of Europe. 31
In the 150 years after the death of the prophet Muhammad, the armies (followed soon after by the administrators) of the Arab Caliphates had swept through the cities, islands and enclaves of civilization surrounding the Mediterranean. Many regions still housed the fragile shadows of Antiquity’s legacy, the monasteries of Syria, Palestine, Jordan and other desert communities as far as Constantinople came under the flag of the Crescent as early as 667. The Arab general Mu’awiya took 10,000 cavalry with him to lay siege to Alexandria, only to find it largely undefended. When the General Tarik landed his troops in Guadalete, he reportedly had no intention of invading but was merely scouting the area to assess any threat to his Moroccan territory. The Visigoth leadership, however, was so despised that within three months he had moved his troops as far as Seville. Local authorities fled north into Gaul.

Conversion to Islam and education in Arabic quickly followed, and everywhere the Arabs had established themselves, from Alexandria to Antioch, from the streets of Cordoba to the frontiers of China, the careful process of cultural transmission, exchange and translation began as a extension of the new imperial administration. 32

Still you are awake? Read On?


13As Arundell Esdaile remarks, ‘Librarians are a race apart in that they seek to preserve for posterity, in some form or another, material which was most frequently designed by its producers to be ephemeral,” Manual of Bibliography, 4th. rev. ed. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1967), 57.
14 The signs of this economic strain are best indicated in the late 3rd c. edict of Diocletian regarding prices, Edictum Diocletianide Pretiis Venalibus, in which the emperor blames reduced government social support upon severe inflation (caused, in turn, by speculative merchants). In 303, under this cloud of economic crisis, Diocletian withdrew the citizenship of all Christians in the Empire, forbade their emancipation as slaves and ordered all churches burned. When revolt erupted around the empire, he imprisoned all the Christian clergy. See History of Rome : from its origins to 529 AD, as told by the Roman Historians, ed. Moses Hadas (NY: Doubleday, 1956), 179.
15 Reynolds, L. D. Scribes and scholars : a guide to the transmission of Greek and Latin literature, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Oxford, 1991), 81-83; mentioned therein , the increasing rigidity of Roman canons for education (ca. 312 AD), the destruction of Christian writings by Julian (ca. 362), the burning of Julian’s library in Antioch by his successor Jovian (ca.364) and the general spread of disinterest in education among the Roman elite by the late fifth century.
16 Ammianus Marcellinus (14.6.18), from History of Rome…, 213.
17 Bishop, 20.
18 Syrian Christians, both Nestorian and Monophysite, were intensely interested in the Greeks, and numerous Syrian translators and commentators (particularly those writing on medical issues) were ushered from Odessa to Nisibis and Jundishapur by the Persian court, where they soon established a ‘Hippocratean Academy’. Plato’s Republic and Laws were also eagerly translated into the Persian and Arabic in the late 5th century. By the early 9th century, from Byzantium to Baghdad, there had also traveled transcriptions of Galen, Plutarch, Proclus and Porphyry. See Raymond Klibansky, The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition During the Middle Ages (Munich: Kraus, 1982), 14-18, and Han J.W. Drijvers, “The School of Edessa: Greek Learning and Local Culture”, in Centers of Learning: learning and location in Pre-modern Europe and the Near East (NY: E.J. Brill, 1995), 50-51.
19 Later, we are told, the Caliph al-Ma’mun dispatched a special diplomatic junket to Constantinople, to meet with Emperor Leo (who was at that time dealing with the Iconoclastic Controversy c. 726 AD) to discuss the logistics of copying Byzantine books for inclusion in the Caliph’s libraries at home. By this time, Arab armies had spread as far as the Indus Valley in the East and the Pyrenees in the West, and the cultural center of Arabia was hungry for new knowledge. See R. S. Mackensen, “Background of the History of Muslim Libraries,” American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature, v. 51 (1934), 29-31.
20 Reynolds, 56.
21 While one is inclined to remember the historians adage here, that there is no such thing as an ancient statistician, numerous historians estimate the madrasa (college) and royal libraries of Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba may have run into the hundreds of thousands of books by the 11th century, at a time when Europe struggled to produce libraries with a few dozen texts. See Enrique Sordo, Moorish Spain (Toronto: Ryerson, 1963), 55; J.J. Saunders History of Medieval Spain (NY: Routledge, 1993), 167; Noram M. Titley, “Islam” in The Book Through 5000 Years ed. H. Vervliet (NY: Phaidon, 1985), 52, and Karl Christ, Handbook of Medieval Library Handbook (Scarecrow, 1984), 172; as well as Dannenfeldt,104; Imamuddin, 141; Harris, 79-86, and Diringer, 332 (op.cit).
22So important were the animals to Arab culture the Qu’ran addresses itself to the horse, stating, “Thou shalt be for man a source of happiness and wealth; thy back shalt be a seat of honour and they belly of riches; every grain of barley given to thee shalt purchase indulgence for the sinner!” and elsewhere, “When Allah created the horse, He said, 'I have made thee unlike any other. All the treasures of the world lie between Thine eyes. Thou shalt cast mine enemies between Thy hooves, but Thou shalt carry my friends upon Thy back. This shall be the seat from which prayers rise unto me. Thou shalt find happiness all over the earth and Thou shalt be favored above all other creatures, for to thee shall accrue the love of the Master of the Earth. Thou shalt fly without wings and conquer without sword.” See C. Northcarte Parkinson, East and West (NY: Mentor, 1965), 129-31.
23This was particularly true in Spain, where Roman abandonment of the region left it open to massive Visigoth settlement, whose leaders harshly continued the imperial legacy of cruel slavery over the peoples of the Iberian peninsula; St. Isidore of Seville’s History of the Visigoths, written in the century preceding the Arab Conquest of Spain, reflects the unlettered legacy of the Gothic lords. The Goths were said, after all, to have left the libraries of Greece and Rome standing not out of respect for their learning, but under the belief the bookishness they encouraged kept the conquered weak. See Robin Sowerby’s “The Goths in History and the pre-Gothic,” in Companion to the Gothic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 17.
24Ruth Stellhorn Mackensen, “Background of the History of Muslim Libraries,” American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature, v. 52 (1936), 115.
25 “…the Abbasids were the first to foster Greek learning on a large scale; and Al-Mansur, the founder of Baghdad, was one of its first patrons…this enthusiasm for the products of older cultures grew and expanded to include also works of Persian and Indian sources…” – R. S. Mackensen, “Four Great Medieval Libraries of Baghdad,” Library Quarterly v.2 (1932), 279.
26R.W. Southern asserts, ‘Within 400 years of its foundation, Islam had run through phases of intellectual growth with the West achieved only in the course of a much longer development…when the ancient world fell apart, Islam became the chief inheritor of the science and philosophy of Greece, while the barbarian West was left with the literature of Rome.’ Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: University Press, 1962), 8; this is not to imply Islam did not, of course, conduct the same manner of inquisitions and heretical inquiries which form the core of most religious history. St. Augustine, in his early life an adherent to the Manicheans, wrote of the exquisite beauty of the faith’s books, which were summarily burned by religious authorities of Baghdad in a religious purge in 923 AD. Reportedly, the gutters of the city’s streets ran with the melted gold and silver of the books’ illuminations. See Titley, 74.
27Juan Vernet, “The Legacy of Islam in Spain” in Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain ed. J.D. Dodds (NY: Abrams,1991), 173; Ruth Stellhorn Mackensen, "Moslem Libraries and Sectarian Propaganda," American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 51 (1934-35), 83.
28 According to Parkinson and other military historians, when the commander of the Arabian cavalry first crossed the Pyrenees in 722, and attacked Toulouse, the Duke of Aquitaine was barely able to hold off their advance. The confrontation at Poitiers further pressed the urgency for Charlemagne’s armies to covert from infantry to horseback in order to stand a chance against the cavalry of the Arabs. This necessity lay the groundwork of a feudal and chivalric culture in Europe to support the new elite knighthood. The conflict also inspired the medieval ballad, The Song of Roland.
29 Ibn Abd-el-Hakem (d.870), History of the Conquest of Spain, trans. J.H. Jones (Gottingen, W. Fr. Kaestner, 1858), 18-22.
30 Harold InnisEmpire and Communications (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1971), 116-131, in particular discusses the crucial use of a flexible, cheap and portable communications medium, such as paper or papyrus (as opposed to clay tablets or even labor-intensive parchment) to the administrative and military maintenance of a far-flung decentralized empire.
31 Titley, 55. See also H. Beveridge’s “The Papermills of Samarkand,” Asiatic Quarterly Review, v. 30, 160-164.
32Thomas F. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 32-33.

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