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Book Commentary/Review – The House of Wisdom times two; authors Jonathan Lyons, and Jim al-Khalili September 17, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in Baghdad, book review, books, history, House of Wisdom, Islamic Golden Age, Islamic Science, Jim al-Khalili, Jonathan Lyons, medieval period, Middle Ages.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

A few years ago, as I considered my concept for The Ghosts of Baghdad, a book that will be the third novel in my trilogy started last year with the publication of my award-winning novel, The Swords of Faith, I became interested in the “Golden Age” of Islam. Even though The Ghosts of Baghdad is still down the line a bit, I like to stockpile books on future projects. In 2009, I bought a book called The House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons, about “How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization.” I read it, underlined it (as is my practice), and set it aside. In 2011, I bought another book called The House of Wisdom through Scientific American Book Club.  When it arrived in the mail, it looked familiar to me. I pulled out the 2009 The House of Wisdom. Even the covers looked similar. It looked to me as if I had purchased the same book twice. I was all set to return it when I took one last look. The 2011 The House of Wisdom is subtitled “How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance.” The author is Jim al-Khalili, and the book is offered by a different publisher. A closer look—these are two completely different books! I read the 2011 The House of Wisdom and now offer comments about both books in this blog post.

The two books, of course, cover a lot of common ground. For me, they complement each other, each providing unique information for readers interested in this subject.  Both books reflect the backgrounds of their authors. Lyons is a journalist now working with the Global Terrorism Research Center. Al-Khalili is a nuclear physicist who grew up in Iraq (leaving the country in 1979), son of a Muslim father and a British mother. (Al-Khalili is a self-described atheist.)

The House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons, Bloomsbury Press, 2009. Lyons’s book brings us into “the House of Wisdom” through a Westerner’s historical route. “Part I, Al-Isha/Nightfall,” starts with an overview of the Crusades, and a discussion of how the Crusades brought Arabic/Muslim learning to the West. From there, we move to “Part II, Al-Fajr/Dawn,” back to the beginnings in Baghdad. We learn how the new religion of Islam embraced learning from the ancient Greeks, and from sources to the east as well. “Part III, Al-Zuhr/Midday,” discusses 12th Century scholar Adelaide of Bath and others of this period who absorb Islamic learning and bring it back to the West. “Part IV, Al-Asr/Afternoon” closes the book out with the final stages of the transfer of knowledge from East to West that would plant the seeds for the Renaissance. Lyons’s book focuses on the path to the West, though he certainly details the innovations and information that came down that path. This The House of Wisdom gives us a well-documented, eloquent discussion of the debt owed by the modern “West” to the intellectual accomplishments of the medieval Islamic “East,” and how that knowledge made its way from medieval Islam to our world.

The House of Wisdom by Jim al-Khalili, Penguin Press, 2011. Al-Khalili starts us in Baghdad, a city he knows well, the city where the intellectual activity known as the Arabic/Muslim “Golden Age” of learning began. He brings a personal perspective to this material, though he acknowledges present-day Baghdad is a much different place from “Golden Age” Baghdad. His The House of Wisdom brings us to this information through a Muslim chronology, explaining how early Islam developed and gave rise to an emphasis on science and learning. He describes the translation movement, the reaching out from Baghdad for knowledge from ancient Greeks, and from Persia and India as well. He continues on with the Arabic/Islamic additions to the knowledge collected by focusing on the stories of scholars/early scientists based in and around Baghdad. He also visits Spain/Andalusia, another area where learning blossomed during the Middle Ages. His focus is on the Arabic/Islamic figures themselves, and less on transmission than the Lyons book. Al-Khalili’s The House of Wisdom takes us from his personal connection with the area to specifics of the great Islamic scholars, giving readers an entertaining, enlightening look at what exactly Arabic/Islamic scholars contributed to our world.


Though there is some overlap between these books, there is enough distinct material to make both of these books good additions to the library of anyone interested in this aspect of history.

750th Anniversary of the Rise of Baybars to Sultan of the Mamluks October 21, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in 1260, Ayn Jalut, Baybars, historical fiction, history, Hulegu Khan, Mamluks, medieval period, Mongols.
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Just a little less than two months after the pivotal Battle of Ayn Jalut (see my previous blog post about one of the most neglected battles in history), life had changed dramatically among the Mamluk leaders. Sultan Qutuz and Baybars had been sworn enemies before they united to defeat their common enemy, the Mongol invaders under the command of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulegu Khan. Baybars commanded the Mamluk vanguard during the battle, and was instrumental in the Mamluk triumph. After their victory, Baybars and his forces pursued the Mongols north.

In the aftermath of the battle, Qutuz went to Damascus and consolidated Mamluk rule over Syria, now relieved of the Mongol occupation during the previous year. He rewarded Muslim princes who had fought with the Mamluks, and punished those who had submitted to the invading Mongols.

Baybars and men loyal to him had pursued Mongols to northern Syria. Some accounts of these events indicate that Qutuz promised Baybars the governorship of Aleppo in the event of victory at Ayn Jalut and then reneged. Other accounts refer to friction due to Qutuz’s abusive treatment of some of Baybars’ men for allegedly fleeing the Mongols during the battle. But the truth is that these men hated each other, had fought against each other in the past, and had longstanding grudges and grievances. Qutuz would have been setting up a serious rival for power in the region if he had granted rulership of Aleppo to Baybars. The men were destined to clash.

Qutuz had planned to go north to continue his consolidation of his control of Syria. But the rising tensions with Baybars prompted him to go south, back to Cairo. At al-Salihiyya, just east of Cairo, on October 21st or 22nd, Qutuz was assassinated. The details differ among different accounts. But the basic facts are that during a hunt, after Qutuz rode off on the chase for a hare, Baybars and some conspirators killed Qutuz. Baybars was installed as Sultan shortly after.

Baybars proved to be a talented, ruthless ruler, and more importantly, a gifted organizer. This had been a region fraught with disunity. Even Saladin, the great sultan of the Ayyubid Dynasty, considered one of the most important Muslim rulers of the Middle Ages, had trouble bringing together all the regions of his empire of Syria and Egypt. Baybars put in place organizational controls that would keep this empire together until the early 1500s. The Mamluks would defeat Mongol attempts to move back into Syria, and would drive the western Christian crusaders out of the eastern Mediterranean permanently. It is not at all certain that another ruler would have brought this region together as he did, and would have established the basis for a dynasty that would last over two hundred years. Bayars’ leadership established the stability in the region that ensured the Mongols would not be able to undo the results of the Battle of Ayn Jalut. On that October day, when Baybars rose to power as sultan of the Mamluks, an essential following event to the Battle of Ayn Jalut occurred, an event that made certain the lasting impact of the battle.

(My upcoming novel, The Sultan and the Khan, dramatizes these little known, historically pivotal events. More information about The Sultan and the Khan is available at my website.)