Imagine you’re walking down a stone walkway through one of the most beautiful gardens you’ve ever seen. Beautiful trees stretch upward and flowers line the pathway. Ahead you see a sparkling pool of water with lilies and a bubbling fountain. Past the fountain is a grand building with arched doorways and windows. It’s one of the tallest ancient buildings you’ve ever seen with multiple floors and is bustling with people who are talking and hurrying to and fro. This is a House of Wisdom in the ancient city of Baghdad, Iraq. As you walk past the pools of water and enter the House of Wisdom, you are greeted by friendly faces and warm smiles. The first room you enter has walls lined with shelves upon shelves of books and scrolls, all filled with stories and secrets of ancient philosophers waiting to be discovered. Some in the room are busy translating older stores into their own language. The air is alive with excitement and curiosity.
In the next room, you come across mathematicians who love to solve puzzles and play with numbers. They show you how to add, subtract, and do amazing calculations with their knowledge of math.
In the courtyard of the House of Wisdom, artists are painting beautiful pictures and crafting intricate designs. They use vibrant colors and delicate brushes to create stunning works of art. Others are weaving beautiful rugs that tell stories of their faith and Arabic history.
As you explore further, you stumble upon a room where poets and storytellers gather. They recite beautiful verses and weave enchanting tales that transport you to far-off lands and imaginary worlds. You listen with wide eyes and imagination dancing in your mind.
Finally, you climb stairs up two floors to the top of the House of Wisdom where you meet a group of astronomers who study the stars. They have built special telescopes that help them see far into the night sky. They tell you fascinating tales about the constellations and planets, sharing their knowledge about the wonders of the universe.
The House of Wisdom is a place where people from different cultures and backgrounds come together. They share their ideas and learn from each other. It’s a place of friendship, understanding, and respect for everyone’s unique perspectives.
As you leave the House of Wisdom, you feel like you have become a little wiser and more curious about the world. You realize that learning is an exciting adventure that never ends. With a heart full of knowledge and a mind ready to explore, you step back into the world, ready to make your own mark and share your own wisdom.
Houses of Wisdom
Between 700 and 1200 C.E., Houses of Wisdom like the one we visited together were an important place of study and progress for the people of the Islamic Empire or Caliphate that ruled much of what today is the Middle East and parts of Africa. After the prophet Muhammed founded the religion of Islam around 600 C.E., the leaders who ruled the Islamic religion and empire were called caliphs. The caliphate wanted their empire to be a place of learning and wisdom, since The Qu’ran, their holy book and scripture, taught the importance of gaining knowledge, The leader at the time was named Harun al-Rashid. The wealth of the empire was used to build many of these houses in cities like Iraq to bring together teachers and scholars and people of science, to help advance the arts and sciences of the empire. In what is now Baghdad, Iraq, one of the most important Houses of Wisdom was built.
Translations & Diverse Influences
One of the most important goals of this House of Wisdom was to translate ancient books to their own language. The Greek civilization existed hundreds of years earlier and was known for their brilliant teachers, poets, scholars, and scientists, and advances in many areas of knowledge. Their writings had been recorded on scrolls in the Greek language. The scholars of the Arab world wanted to understand and preserve the ancient wisdom, so they set about the work of translation of thousands of these scrolls. Paper was a new technology at the time, so the leaders hired many people to make copies of all of the books they had translated. The House of Wisdom became a huge factory of translating and copying all of the Greek scrolls into Arabic books. They believed it was deeply important to have this ancient wisdom a part of their own empire, so they could learn from it and build on with their own insights.
Interestingly, it wasn’t just Arabs who contributed to the translations and new knowledge of the Houses of Wisdom. Persians, Jews, Christians, Iranians and people of other ethnicities and religions were also involved and translations were sometimes made into multiple langauges.
With all of the knowledge coming together in the same place through translations and the Houses of Wisdom, as you can imagine, the smart people of this time were able to take everything they were learning and put it to good use! For this reason, many amazing things happened during this time such as scientific discoveries, new inventions, and works of art.
One example, is an early version of the Scientific Method used by Ibn al-Haytham. The Scientific Method is a series of steps used by scientists today to make scientific discoveries. It starts with asking a question, doing some basic research, and then making a hypothesis, which is like a guess. Finally, you test the hypothesis, analyze the data, and draw conclusions based on the data. Ibn al-Haytham is called the “world’s first true scientist” by some historians.
There were also great advances in mathematics during the Islamic Golden Age. Algebra actually comes from a Arabic word which means the “reunion of broken parts.” Geometry, trigonometry, and calculus were also advanced during this time by scholars such as Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Omar Khayyam, and Sharaf al-Din al-Tusi.
The study of physics was also advanced by scientists like Alhazen and Al-Biruni who made discoveries about light and optics. Alchemy was the study of base metals and helped to form the foundation of what would later become chemistry. Al-Biruni also estimated the radius of the earth, which was the best estimate at that time in history.
The study of astronomy was also popular during the Islamic Golden Age. Using translations of the Greeks, Islamic scientists were able to build on their discoveries and improve upon the astrolabe. The astrolabe (astro-labe) was a device used to make calculate the position of stars, moons, and planets. It was used to calculate the time of religious festivals and for mariners during the Middle Ages and later during the Age of Discovery.
Gifted engineers during this time invented new and useful devices. The Banu Musa Brothers wrote The Book of Ingenious Devices which described an automatic flue player which may have been the first programmable machine. The flute sounds were produced through hot steam and the user could adjust the device to play different sounds. They also described an automatic crank, valves, and a siphon, and other useful tools. They worked out of one of Houses of Wisdom, their work paid for by the powerful ruling Abbasid Caliphate.
Taqi ad-Din Muhammad was one of the earliest engineers to propose the use of steam energy and its application in the use of a steam turbine.
Along with all of these discovering and inventions there were advances in farming, healthcare in the form of hospitals, medicine, and surgery, the law, theology, philosophy, and map-making.
And we can’t forget the arts with beautiful works such as the folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights, which tales that you might be familiar with such as Aladdin, which was made Disney animated and live-action films, and Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, and Sinbad the Sailer. If you get the chance, be sure to look up and read some of the stories from One Thousand and One Nights, which are full of colorful characters and adventure. Beautiful poetry was also written durign this time in the Arabic language by Rumi, Hafez, Saadi, and Omar Khayyam. Many of these poets lived and were supported at the Houses of Wisdom by the ruling class during the Islamic Golden Age. Gorgeous caligraphy, ceramics, paintings, architecture and music were also created and shared widely during this time.
The advances and creativity that flowed from the Houses of Wisdom during this time spread to other parts of the world, but sadly this magnificent time was eventually cut short when Ghengis Khan and the Mongol Empire invaded the Islamic Empire during the 13th century. While Islamic Empire was powerful, they weren’t prepared to face off against the Mongols who conquered Baghdad along with the Houses of Wisdom.
We’re fortunate today to benefit from many of the advances during the Islamic Golden Age. From algebra to the scientific method, timeless tales from One Thousand and One Nights, to the beautiful architecture and poetry that spread out from the empire – we have the kings, scholars, scientists, and artists to thank for a period of true enlightenment where advances in knowledge were held in the highest esteem.
Take a moment to imagine if you lived during the time of these Houses of Wisdom. What would you have studied or created if you were one of the scholars or artists supported by the kings? If you come up with an idea be sure to click on the Share Your Thoughts link in the show notes. We’d love to hear from you!