10.21.2006

Astonomy, Ancient Greece and Islam

Today's Image of Mohammed is on holiday, as some countries are celebrating the end of Ramadan with Eid ul-Fitr - most Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan this year on the 23/24 October, but the Muslim calendar varies.

I've posted this image as an excuse to make a few points about Islam and Ancient Greece.

We Classicists spend a lot of time believing that clever Muslims translated many Greek and Latin Classics into Arabic, and that one day someone with a good knowledge of all three languages will stumble onto some lost treasures. A bit like Name of the Rose, but without the murders. I keep reading academic articles about the great manuscripts waiting to be found. Many of these are hidden in secret archives in Istanbul, according to stories repeated to academics by dying monks .... Some variations include knowledge of the real location of Alexander the Great's Tomb.

Sporadic discoveries are sometimes made, often of Early Christian documents in Coptic Monasteries. Constantinople is where we expect the learned texts from Athens and Alexandria to have been gathered by the emperors.

A few years ago, a friend who worked at St. Mark's Library in Venice applied to see some documents, which according to a 19th century inventory were in an archive in Istanbul. The works were listed by title, and looked promising. He was told that there was nothing written in Greek there. There are several options: he was lied to; the inventory was wrong; or the documents went missing at some point.

At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, Lord Elgin was in Istanbul. We all know about the Firman he was given to remove the Parthenon sculptures (my translation here), but we forget that he and his men were given other Permissions by the Sultan to search for ancient documents in the Ottoman Empire (I skimmed over it in my book). The Chaplain went through the monasteries in Syria, getting Elgin into trouble by forgetting to return books he's borrowed. He also went through monasteries on Mount Athos, and found nothing of interest. Elgin and his men were granted the unprecedented permission of being allowed to go through the closed libraries of the Topkapi royal palace ... and found nothing.

At some point we are going to have to face the fact that we are never going to find lost books of Aristotle's Poetics in any library anywhere.
Our best source for lost ancient manuscripts has been the rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt.

Just as the Koran built on the Bible, which in turn built on the Pentateuch, so Muslim science built on that of the Greeks and Romans. Islamic medicine continued the research of Galen, and Islamic astronomy also built on what had gone before.

This image perfectly illustrates my point, with a constellation in the southern hemisphere interpreted as a centaur in a 10th century Islamic manuscript on astronomy written by 'Abd al-Rahmân al-Sûfi (AD 903-986): Suwar al-kawâkib al-thâbita (Catalogue of Fixed Stars). This copy was probably put together in Samarkand (Uzbekistan), and belonged to Olugh Bêg (d. 1449), the grand-son of Tamerlaine. (Photo: BNF, Paris)<>

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