Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria Ariana (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in the Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Aladdin’s Lamp by John Freely

Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely. (ISBN 0307277836).
An all encompassing title and ditto subject! What a book! My memory falls short and cannot keep up with all the names and the inventions, treatises, analysis, and discoveries that were made over the centuries in so many fields: geometry, philosophy, cosmology, physics, mathematics, medicine, astrology and astronomy, to name just a few!

As the title states, Greek science has traveled from Athens to Alexandria, and from there with the spread of Islam to Baghdad and Central Asia where lots of works were translated into Arabic. But the Islam also went westwards through northern Africa to Spain where the Moors ruled for several centuries. With the Reconquista by the different Christian kings of Spain, some textbooks were then translated  into Spanish. Power in Europe shifted then to Sicily where Arabic documents were consulted and translated into Latin, picked up by several popes who hired and invited such scientists to their court, just like the eastern rulers had done before them. With the creation of the first universities, the Greek theories of men like Aristotle and Euclid were reinterpreted and at times even translated into English. On the other hand, works that had stayed in Byzantium found their way, if not burned by the Crusaders, to the powerful Italian city-states where they were translated into Latin. It is quite amazing to read how early discoveries were reviewed and reworked over the centuries while others were totally ignored until new scientists reinvented theories that were in fact more than a millennium old. This is not exactly bedtime reading, but absolutely worthwhile in order to understand the lost richness of antiquity and our modern world.

John Freely starts in Miletus with Thales (end 7th/early 6th century BC), Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus and Hecataeus. He then moves to the 6th century (mainly in Magna Graecia, southern Italy) with Pythagoras of Samos (the one of the famous theorem, which states that in a right triangle the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides), Xenophanes of Colophon, Philolaus of Crotona, Parmenides and Zeno of Elea, Empedocles of Acragas, Leucippus of Milete, Democritus of Abdera (Thrace) and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae – and more.

He then moves to classical Athens with the times of Pericles, when Plato founded the Academy (to be compared with the colleges in the first European Universities) and when Hippocrates of Cos wrote the Hippocratic Oath that was used by physicians for centuries. This is the time of Eudoxus of Cnidus, the greatest mathematician (including arithmetic, geometry, harmonics and astronomy), of Callipsus of Cyzicus the astronomer who studied our planets, and of the great Aristotle of Stagira who was competent in a wide range of sciences: logic, metaphysics, rhetoric, theology, politics, economy, meteorology, literature, ethics, psychology, physics, mechanics, astronomy, cosmology, biology, botany, natural history and zoology (a knowledge-baggage that Alexander the Great must have picked up, of course!). Among his pupils we find Heraclides Ponticus (from the Black Sea) and Theophrastus, who was Aristotle’s successor at the Athenian Lyceum.

I’m not going to list all the scientists which John Freely is treating is this book, the list would be too long. I only wanted to put the above names down because I’m terribly impressed with their sheer numbers and the knowledge of so many scientists so early in our history.

With the decline of the Macedonian rule due to repeated civil wars, Athens was soon to be surpassed by Alexandria with its precious Museum and Library, founded by Ptolemy (one of the generals and successors of Alexander the Great) and further developed by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus. In the early 3rd century BC the Library seems to have counted more than half a million parchment rolls.

That era was full of great names that were referred to time and again in later centuries. One of them was Euclid (ca. 295 BC) whose extant textbook on geometry is still in use today; he also laid the foundations of algebra and number theory; and wrote a textbook on astronomy and an elementary treatise on perspective. Greek mathematical physics reached its peak with Archimedes of Syracuse (ca 287-212 BC), famous for his inventions, among which a model of the celestial motions (mechanism of Antikythera?) and his screw used to move water to a higher level. He worked as military engineer, discovered the concept of specific gravity, studied the fluids in equilibrium, and found that the earth rotated around the sun! And our faithful geographer Strabo (63 BC-25 AD) who also made encyclopedic descriptions about land and sea, animals, plants, fruits, etc. Finally, we should not forget to mention the astrology and geography works of Claudius Ptolemaeus (ca 100-170 AD), in short referred to as Ptolemy. He cataloged the stars, wrote extensively about trigonometry and did researches on light.

The Alexandrian Library was active at least till the early 6th century AD, and although the Romans controlled most of the Mediterranean by the mid-second century BC, Rome never reached the level of Alexandria. Yet Rome was not left out of the inevitable cultural exchanges. We are all familiar with the accounts of Pliny the Elder (ca 23-79 AD) about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, or Seneca’s letters, dialogues and tragedies, for instance.

With the rise of the Islam, tables were turned around. It took only a century for the armies of Islam to be stopped in southern France in 732 during the Battle of Tours. From Jerusalem, they moved to Damascus and soon reached Baghdad that was established as the capital in the years 762-765. It so happened that the ruling caliphs had books translated from foreign languages into Arabic. This meant that books on arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and on practical skills as surveying, meteorology and civil engineering in Greek, Latin, Byzantine Greek, Pahlavi, Neo-Persian and Syriac found their way east. Local astrologers added their own knowledge; mathematical works were reviewed; and algebra found a place of its own. Philosophers and scientist got involved, and it is amazing to see the explosion of new calculations and new discoveries.

I must admit that I’m not familiar with their names, except maybe Al-Biruni (973-1050) who wrote many works on astronomy, astrology, chronology, time measurement, geography, geodesy, cartography, mathematics (including arithmetic, geometry and trigonometry), mechanics, medicine, pharmacology, meteorology, mineralogy, history, philosophy, religion, literature and magic, as well as detailed description of his own inventions and about the instruments he used. To complete the description of this genius, it should be noted that he spoke Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Chorasmian, and Turkic, besides Greek, Hebrew and Syriac! We honestly have no idea of the wealth of knowledge that brought Baghdad to the center of the world.

Meanwhile, Moorish Spain knew a Renaissance of its own with Cordoba promoted to capital city in 784-786 and the independence of Al-Andalus by the end of the 10th century. This is the time of El Cid, which I remember from the movies, where the Christian opposition fought for the Reconquista that ended with the fall of Cordoba in 1236. During the Moorish rule, Greek and Arabic manuscripts were used to study and create new theories. Cordoba had a reputed school of medicine from which many prominent physicians emerged. Also astrology flourished beside science, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, and many works were translated in Spanish. It is surprising to read that score of women copyists were employed in that field!

In these golden times, Christian scholars came to study in Spain. We owe it to them that many scientific works were translated from Arabic into Latin, often with the help of local multilingual scribes. When the Crusaders established their first states in cities like Edessa, Antioch and Jerusalem, east and west met once again and new volumes were translated from Arabic to Latin while additional treatises were written in Arabic, Latin and Greek. All these translations were terribly important for there was no other way for scholars to learn about previous inventions or theories.

By the 13th century, Europe was slowly awakening from the dark Middle-Ages now that an enormous amount of Graeco-Arabic works were translated into Latin. New universities were opened one after the other, in Bologna (1088), Paris (1150), Oxford (1167), Salerno (1173), Palenzia (1178), Reggio (1188), Vicenza (1204), Cambridge (1209), Salamanca (1218), Padua (1222), etc. By 1500 Europe counted some eighty universities! In spite of the goodwill of so many scholars, they all had to reckon with the Vatican who stuck to the theory that the earth was the center of the universe because God had created the world, meaning that many discoveries and proofs otherwise remained unpublished or were silenced. The Polish Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543), the German Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and the Italian Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) faced hard times because of that.

When we reach the days of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), it is surprising to read that he made no reference to any Arabic scientist while he widely credited his European predecessors, most notably Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, as well as the ancient Greeks like Pythagoras, Empedocles, Philolaus, Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius, Aristarchus, Diophantus, Ptolemy and Pappus of Alexandria.

Since I’m personally far more interested in antiquity than in any other time of history, my summary may seem distorted, but I can assure the prospect reader that there are enough facts and figures and names in this book to place every scholar in the right context. There are plenty of drawings to illustrate the significance or consequence of many of the theories. It’s a kind of reference work to be consulted on many occasions!


  1. I have a new book on my reading list!

    With a deep interest in antiquity, particularly with ancient Greece, and as someone from Middle Eastern descent I've always been proud of how the Muslims were able to preserve earlier works by translating them into Arabic (also wishing I could give it to the number of extremists who among several other horrendous acts, discourage education).

    Otherwise, the Renaissance has always reminded me how connected history is. Knowledge is what creates a well established society, built on the foundations of past discoveries.

    Yet another wonderful post :D

  2. Thank you, Sheri. You’ll thoroughly enjoy this book for it is such pleasant reading, besides being instructive. It comes in a handy format, easy to carry with you and a dear friend wherever you travel.

    We are indeed indebted to the many scholars in the East and particularly to those in Baghdad for saving our Western history, but it is sad to see that then and now East and West never managed to be on the same wavelength. I honestly believe that Alexander could have made the difference had he lived long enough, but that we’ll never know of course.

  3. I believe he could as well, had he lived long enough. Change takes time, but Alexander was one of the rare individuals who were able to completely change the world, and in studying his campaigns, it is apparent that underestimating him is unwise, and even dangerous if an opponent. Some scholars say his actions such as the marriage to Roxane, integration of Persian nobles into his administration, Persian soldiers into his military and the Susa Weddings were all simply pragmatic matters. While I agree that there were many practical benefits to these measures, his adoption of Persian dress and his attempts to employ proskynesis as well as the elaborate planning and grand scale of the Susa weddings suggests that there was some intent at uniting East and West culturally, in addition to their being conquered lands under his hegemony.

    Of course, since the Persian wars and all ensuing events between the "East" and the "West" such as the Crusades and current wars, the psychology these conflicts generate emphasize all differences, even minor ones, and make the possibilities of any cohesion or even empathy intangible. Rudyard Kipling's quote, "East is East and West is West, and the twain shall never meet" comes to mind, even though it has met several times in history, in the Hellenistic era that sprung after Alexander's death and was present in his simultaneously Persian and Greek mode of dress.

    (That was way longer than I expected...Sorry! :))

  4. Hi Sheri,
    No need to apologize, I love your detailed reaction.

    Alexander was a visionary far ahead of his time. Philip, was right in more than one way when he said that Macedonia was too small for his son.

    I just read an interesting remark about the gold and silver booty Alexander amassed after Gaugamela and which he transferred to Ecbatana – NOT to Greece and NOT to Macedonia. That tells a long story about his intentions in making Persia the center of his new world – something his generals couldn’t understand and with them his soldiers. The Persians may have understood this better than what went down in our history books.

    Besides, Alexander had the Queen Mother on his side, a precious instrument for him to get insight in the complex philosophy and life-style of the Persians. For a long time I wondered how Sisygambis could accept Alexander as her son while Darius, her own flesh and blood was still alive – yet running away from his duties… She must have had great admiration for Alexander, of course, but we don’t realize how important it was to “save” the Persian Empire! Alexander was the only right instrument to accomplish this – another point of view that has never reached our wise ancient authors!

    Yes, more stuff to think about!

  5. That's an excellent observation! I wasn't aware of his transporting gold to Ekbatana, but I was aware that while he accumulated wealth for his army in conquering the Persian capitals, he did not drain Persia of its wealth while enriching Macedonia. A statement of Oliver Stone comes to mind-that Alexander was a rare conqueror who never returned to the West. Had he lived to consolidate his Empire, I wonder if the terms "East" or "West" would have retained the same gravity, if the Hellenistic period had taken place with a director, so to say.

    I've become fond of Queen Sisygambis and wondered the same as well. I think you're right that she saw Alexander as the key to "saving" Persia, which would become more apparent as more and more Persian nobles crossed over to Alexander. I always thought Sisygambis a figure that deserves more attention than history has granted her.

  6. What a philosophical thought you have! “East” and “West” would indeed have come in a different light had Alexander lived longer. Can you imagine a Hellenistic world, without Roman Empire and maybe even without a Christian Church or a Genghis Khan? A dazzling thought, don’t you think?

    On Sisygambis, I can warm-heartedly recommend Robbert Bosschart’s book “All of Alexander’s Women, the Facts” – see My Bookshelves.