The House of Wisdom or Bayt al-Hikmah became an unrivalled knowledge centre where arts and sciences flourished. At a time when Europe was reeling from intellectual decay, it played a crucial role in enlightening the world.
For over a thousand years after the decline of the Roman Empire and before the beginning of the Renaissance, Europe descended into dark ages, and civilization was caught in the age of decadence. The entire continent had taken a long holiday from scientific thinking and other branches of learning.
But between the 8th and 13th century, when Europe was reeling from intellectual decay, it was Baghdad that shone as a "city upon a hill". It hosted the House of Wisdom, also known as the Grand Library of Baghdad, where philosophers, polymaths, poets, mathematicians and astrologers from around the world and from different faiths— Christians, Jewish, Muslims, Zoorastrians — devoted themselves to knowledge building.
According to Esref Altas, an associate professor at Istanbul Medeniyet University, the House of Wisdom was an intellectually vibrant place which was mainly driven by its cosmopolitanism, something that was "never seen before".
“This, in turn, led to the emergence of a common understanding of science and philosophy around the Mediterranean basin. Different nations mobilized around the same ideal of knowledge, and a standard culture came into existence. It is an example of a holistic information activity in which the library, translation, interpretation and production coexisted,” Altas, who is an expert in Islamic history, told TRT World.
“First of all, Bayt al-Hikmah (the house of wisdom) was not just a library but a treasure of that time. And more importantly, it was able to bring together scientists from different fields without any distinction of identity,” he added.
Explaining the roots of this iconic constitution, Professor Mustafa Demir from Selcuk University, an expert in history, human civilisation and the Middle Ages, told TRT World that while the Umayyad period passed as "the period of conquests", it was replaced by Abbasids in 750. The arrival of Abbasids, he said, radically altered both the world and Islamic history.
Professor Demir said the rulers of the Abbasid era exhibited delicate statesmanship as they were skilled administrators and believed in not just expansion but also strengthening the state and the culture around it.
“The Abbasids, on the other hand, moved towards establishing institutions rather than focusing only on conquests. They created large cities and Baghdad became a symbol of their cultural advancement. Founded in 756, Baghdad became the most populous city in the world 30 years later, we estimate it had 800,000 inhabitants,” Demir told TRT World..
The history professor added that the Abbasids, somewhat inspired by the models of the ancient Persian Empire, formed an administrative unit in Baghdad and established Hizanetul Hikmah (library of services). Between 750 AD and 800 AD, the first attempts to build a grand library began during the reign of Caliph Al-Mansur.
"Abbasid caliph Al Ma’mun was the philosopher caliph, son of Harun Al-Rashid and belonged to the Mutezile sect. When he deposed his brother from power and came to Baghdad as Caliph, there were 20-30 greatest scholars in his lifetime. He then converted Hizanetul Hikmah into the Bayt al-Hikmah, the House of Wisdom.”
Al Ma'mun made up a 68-person scientific delegation, which included one of the great polymaths of that era, Al Khwarizmi. They studied measurements, investigated and experimented with various philosophical methods from the Indian and Greek traditions. The research helped them draw detailed maps of the world with the latitude and longitude.
“They measured the length of the Earth's equatorial belt, and the only difference between the current value was 500 meters. These works still exist today. They also made a map of the world, noting the distances between cities, seas, mountains. The replica of this map is still in front of the Fuat Sezgin Science and Technology Museum (in Turkey),” Demir told TRT World.
The professor also added that there were studies about planets, stars and astrology.
“Al Ma’mun once called Al Khwarizmi and asked him to find easy methods for financial accounts, to formulate land measurements, inheritance divisions, financial regulations, and then 700 formulas were developed by Al Khwarizmi, that’s how algebra came up,” Demir says.
Eventually, the House of Wisdom became an unrivalled centre for the study of humanities and sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, philosophy, literature and the arts – as well as some more subjects such as alchemy and astrology.
According to associate professor Esref Altas, when it comes to philosophy, the House of Wisdom has two major contributions.
“First, Bayt al-Hikmah served as a bridge between ancient Greek philosophy and Modern Western philosophy. It collected ancient Greek artifacts from Egyptian, Byzantine, Sassanid and Roman countries and prevented them from disappearing. Thus, these artifacts have reached Western civilization in a neat manner,” he told TRT World.
“Secondary one is a descriptive, interpretive and complementary contribution. Scholars who grew up and worked in Bayt al-Hikmah laid the foundation of many modern sciences. Al Khwarizmi founded algebra, Al Kindi developed cosmological proofs of God, the Banu Musa brothers advanced mechanics and Jabir Ibn Hayyan paved the way for the appearance of modern chemistry”.
The House of Wisdom was destroyed in the Mongol Siege of Baghdad in the middle of the 13th century but the discoveries made there introduced a powerful, abstract mathematical language, scientific developments and breakthroughs that would later be adopted by various empires from Asia to the Middle East to Europe.