FFrom the clay tablets of ancient Mesopotamia to the legendary libraries of Alexandria, from the burnt scrolls of the Qing dynasty to the pyres of books in Hitler’s Germany, the library served two impulses: the first, the urge to secure and to celebrate the best and most valuable writing; and second, the desire to contain and control knowledge. The books confronted technology, shaped the forces of change, and were often the scene of physical or metaphorical battles.
When we hear or say the word ‘library’ we think of silence and reflection, but the history of the library has actually been both turbulent and violent. Two incidents, in particular, are memorable for the way they demolished invaluable manuscripts of our knowledge of the material and spiritual world. The first of these was when Julius Caesar came to the aid of Cleopatra in her war against her brother Ptolemy in 48 BC. At that time, the libraries of Alexandria were already three hundred years old. Caesar burned the ships in the city’s harbor to prevent his enemy from taking the city by sea. According to Seneca, some forty thousand “books” were lost in the fire which spread to the libraries. Legend has it that Marc Antony offered Cleopatra the books of Pergamum as compensation. If mankind hadn’t evolved to vellum and paper, no library would have been reduced to ashes because the first books were written and baked on clay!
The second sad memory of the human calendar is February 10, 1258. On this date, more than 760 years ago, the world lost thousands of manuscripts and books collected over five centuries. Everything was burned and destroyed in a single day, ending Bayt-al-Hikmah – the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.
Baghdad – Persian for “gift of God” – 1200 years ago was the bustling capital of Islamic civilization. For around 500 years, the city was home to the most distinguished intellectuals and scholars, a reputation built during the reigns of some of its most famous caliphs (Al-Rashid, Al-Ma’mun, Al-Mu’tadhid and Al -Muktafi). As one of the wealthiest cities in the world at the time, Baghdad boasted of street lighting while London was just a village.
Less than 25 years after the death of their prophet, the Arabs conquered all of Persia, Syria, Armenia and a little of Central Asia. To the east they reached the Indus River and Sindh. To the west they swept through Egypt and North Africa, crossed the seas and landed at Gibraltar. In time, Spain also fell before the might of the Arab sword.
They were soon in possession of another kind of power. In 751 they captured Chinese papermakers. Knowledge of this art changed the nature of how writing was shared and stored. The Muslims were the first to take an interest in the translation of manuscripts and scrolls from cultures other than their own. Popularly known as the knowledge empire of the Caliphs, there followed a 500-year history of Islamic library building. In the ninth century, scholars in Cordoba and Spain corresponded with their counterparts in Cairo, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Baghdad.
Baghdad was born in 762 AD. Caliph Mansur, whose empire stretched comfortably from India to the Atlantic, traveled the Tigris in search of a place he could call home. He finally chose one and moved the capital of his empire from Damascus to Baghdad. It brought together many intellectual centers and employed scholars to carry out research and translate the world into Arabic. For Indians translating into English, an interesting fact about this center was that most translations into Arabic were done by those whose mother tongue was not Arabic.
The Abbasid Caliphs supported schools of Syrian, Greek, Persian, Jewish, Hindu and Armenian translators. In their time, it was easy for intellectuals and scholars to earn a living. A college life was a sign of status, and legendary translators received the weight of their work in gold. Rare scrolls and ancient texts were the preferred spoils of war. For example, Ptolemy’s Almagest was claimed as a condition of peace after a war between the Abbasids and the Byzantine Empire.
Baghdad earned a reputation as one of the most cultured places in history, and its storytellers, scientists, artists, and scholars translated most of what was known of the ancient world into Arabic. The purchase and translation of manuscripts began when a mathematical work from Sanskrit (Bramhasphuta Siddhanta) was translated into Arabic in the 8th century. Scholars were told to go anywhere in the world they wanted and name whatever prize they thought necessary to collect manuscripts on astronomy, medicine, philosophy, and the natural sciences. Arab intelligence spread across the world even more rapidly and dramatically than Greece had a thousand years before. As any astronomer, engineer or medical student knows, it had a great effect on the human spirit and the fate of the world.
In 830, AD Al-Mamun, the son of Harun-al-Rashid, founded the Bayt al-Hikmah, the House of Wisdom to preserve manuscripts from different cultures and religions. Anyone could enter the House as long as they were a true library user. Translators, scientists, scribes, authors, men of letters, writers, copyists and others met every day in this Academy to co-translate, discourse, dialogue and discuss. Manuscripts of various scientific topics were collaboratively prepared and translated into and from different languages. The walls rang with Arabic (the lingua franca), Farsi, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Greek and Latin and sometimes Sanskrit, which was used to translate old Indian manuscripts. Aristotelian logic, cosmology, the nature of the universe, medicine and mathematics were all created from an alloy of Arab-Greco-Persian and Indian minds.
On February 10, 1258, the Mongol Hulagu Khan fulfilled his grandfather Genghis Khan’s ambition and sacked the city of Baghdad, ignoring the Caliph’s message that any aggression against Baghdad would incite the entire Muslim world against them. This gift of God, this center of translation, this city filled with treasures of the spirit has been looted and burned. Thousands of students, doctors and academics lost their lives. Since the caliph was considered royalty, the Mongols killed him without shedding blood. He was wrapped in a rug and trampled to death by horses.
The Mongols ransacked palaces, houses and 36 libraries. The centuries-old knowledge store that Bayt-al-Hikmah was destroyed in a matter of days. It is reported that the Tigris River was red with the blood of the dead, then black with the ink of the manuscripts thrown into it. With the great library went all the cutting edge astronomical observatories and other major experimental endeavors not to mention the intangible potential of the greatest translation department ever known to man.
Ironically, Hulagu Khan’s descendants turned to Islam and learned to value art and learning.
Mini Krishnan is the coordinating editor of the Tamil Nadu Textbook & Educational Services Corporation.