How a Middle Eastern treasure chest landed in Dublin

Sophisticated studies of maths, astronomy and medicine were being conducted in the Middle East centuries before the Enlightenment – and one of the finest collections is at Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library

Thu, Mar 6, 2014, 01:00

Many western Europeans tend to assume that rigorous, structured science only arose in the 17th century in the Age of Enlightenment. However, sophisticated studies of mathematics, astronomy and medicine were being conducted centuries earlier in the Middle East.

Scholars were writing medical textbooks explaining circulation and the nervous system. Astronomy books were interpreting the movements of the planets and moon. Maths as we know it was taking shape. Many texts were written from the 12th century, and based on even earlier work, long before the age of reason took hold across western Europe.

It might also surprise some that one of the finest collections of these beautiful manuscripts is held in Ireland: at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, where a number of these priceless works are on display. These reveal that scholarly work in astronomy and medical science was well-established and that a support system, often through the patronage of wealthy families, was sustaining this work at a significant level, says Fionnuala Croke, the director of the library.

How this began is exemplified by the Islamic contribution to the study of maths. Many of the brilliant new conceptions attributed to European mathematicians of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries actually emerged much earlier in Baghdad, in about AD 800, she says. “Without the Muslim achievements at this time, much of the learning from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt would have been lost forever.”

It began under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid of the Abbasid dynasty, who assumed power in AD 786. He encouraged scholarship and the translation of original Greek documents into Arabic, says Croke. His son continued this work with even more enthusiasm, setting up the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, which Croke describes as “a kind of medieval think tank”.

Euclid’s Elements
Among the Greek texts translated was one of the most famous mathematical texts of all time: Euclid’s Elements . Its translation allowed for its study and development by Islamic scholars.

Beatty’s manuscript collection includes a translation of Elements by Ishaq ibn Hunayn, completed during the later half of the 10th century. This, and another text by Thabit Ibn Qurra, became a standard, used by 50 further Arabic scholars who revised and wrote commentaries on it.

Many scholars developed mathematical and astronomical knowledge over the following centuries, and many are represented in the library’s collection. It has several copies of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s Elements . He was a leading mathematician, and one of the first to treat trigonometry as a separate mathematical discipline, but he was also an astronomer and was put in charge of an observatory at Maragheh, Iran. He produced a catalogue of fixed stars that remained in use for several centuries, from China to western Europe, says Croke.

A commentary on al-Tusi’s work by Mansur ibn Ilyas, writing in Iran in 1430, is on display at the library. It shows how later scholars wrote in the margins of books, adding new knowledge as it arose.

Also on display is Tashrih al-Badan , a treatise on human anatomy by Mansur ibn Ilyas, writing in Iran in 1450. Others on display include a copy of a treatise on surgery by al-Zahrawi, who died in 1013. His work would have been copied by others: the version at the library dates from the 13th century.

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