Lesson 3) Preservation of Science
Professor Rosenquist is hanging the last of the drapes across the ceiling and down the walls with her wand. The floor is covered with a multicolored carpet adorned with an arabesque pattern. The chairs have been replaced with purple ottomans. With the room being dimmer than usual due to the drapes, a candle sits on each desk to help with visibility.
After the students settle and get over the initial surprise of “where’s my chair and why is there an ottoman here?” Professor Rosenquist stops messing with the drapes and directs her attention towards the class.
“I hope all of you like the change of scenery this week! As fun as Egypt is, I have never really cared for staying in one place for too long. Hence why I travel a lot. Today, we will be going over Arabian alchemy and how the Arabs preserved the art. I see some confused faces… Oh! I suppose it’s because we left off the last lesson with the Arabs burning down the Great Library of Alexandria. Preserving something they tried burning probably doesn’t make sense right now. However, you will see in a bit that the Arabs indeed played a special role. Let’s start.”
A Possible Hero?
We learned in the last lesson that the Arabs destroyed what was remaining of the Great Library of Alexandria. However, in a way, they actually were huge contenders in preserving alchemical knowledge. The Arabs travelled all over - from places like Palestine, Syria, and Persia to Egypt, Spain, and more - to spread Islam. They managed to assimilate all of these different cultures within a short period of time due to their curiosity about the other cultures’ knowledge.
As far as alchemy goes, most of the important Alexandrian manuscripts were sent to Arabia, but a few were shipped off to Constantinople. A lot of the scrolls had already been translated into Arabic and transported out of the country shortly after Emperor Diocletian’s ruling in 290 C.E. The Nestorians, a specific group of Christians that emphasized the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus, actually saved many alchemical texts in 400 C.E. by taking them to Persia and Arabia for safekeeping.
As the Arabs continued to travel, so did the knowledge of alchemy. Alchemy finally reached Europe in 711 C.E. through the Moorish invasion of Spain. The Muslim occupation of Europe covered Spain, Gibraltar, a majority of Portugal, and southern France. Cordoba, Spain became the new center of alchemical knowledge, much like how Alexandria was. Alchemists from all fields around the world flocked there to share their ideas. Many lost alchemical texts were retrieved as they translated them back into Latin from Arabic. Jewish texts written during this time even gave birth to esoteric fields such as Kabbalah. As we can see, alchemy would probably not have been as widespread as we know it today without the help of the Arabs.
Alchemist Spotlight: Jabir ibn Hayyan
This week’s alchemist was considered by many to be the greatest alchemist within Arabic culture. His contributions to alchemy, in general, were phenomenal and I would be a fool not to put him in this week’s spotlight.
Jabir ibn Hayyan (721 C.E. - 815 C.E.), also known as Geber, was a man of many trades. He was a chemist, astronomer, astrologer, engineer, philosopher, physician, physicist, geographer, pharmacist, and, most importantly, an alchemist. His name might seem familiar to you because he was briefly mentioned in Year Two! Approximately 3,000 treatises, articles, books, scrolls, and manuscripts were attributed to him. His literary works spanned across all sorts of different fields, not to mention a good number of them which dealt with nearly every aspect of alchemy. His most prominent works were Book of the Kingdom, Book of Concentration, Book of Stones, Book of Mercury, and Little Book of the Balances. In addition to writing all of these books, he also helped translate numerous alchemical manuscripts and saved many of the lost texts from the Great Library of Alexandria.
Jabir was a powerful wizard who conducted several experiments on elements and their chemical properties. He corrected experimental errors in works by Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato, and other Greek philosophers. He also created his own numerological system of scientific alchemy. Properties of elements were defined with numeric values assigned based on the Arabic consonants in the element’s name.
One subject that Jabir was particularly interested in was Takwin. Takwin is the creation of synthetic life in the laboratory, including human life. This was a goal of certain Muslim alchemists. The Book of Stones is full of recipes for creating creatures such as scorpions, snakes, and humans. Whether or not the recipes actually did create artificial creatures is a mystery but creating actual sentient life with magic is not possible. Even if these synthetic creatures were to be created physically through the recipe, the “life” being conjured wouldn’t last long at all and the creature wouldn’t be able to think for itself.
Jabir also contributed to the Four Aspects. Remember in Year Two that Aristotle gave each aspect two qualities? Fire is hot and dry, earth is cold and dry, water is cold and wet, and air is hot and wet. Jabir related these qualities to metals (i.e. lead is cold and dry, gold is hot and wet, etc.) and he theorized that rearranging the qualities of one metal will result in a completely different metal. He believed that, in order for this to happen, the process needed a catalyst, an enigmatic elixir that had the power to make the transformation happen. The elixir he mentioned ultimately contained an important ingredient, a dry red powder, made from a legendary stone that is known to us as the Philosopher’s Stone.
Views and Contributions
It’s always interesting to see how societies view people and texts from cultures different from their own. The Arabs knew of the legend of Thoth or Hermes and referred to him as Idris or Hirmis. According to them, Hermes was exiled from Egypt, went to Babylon to teach, and wrote around fifteen more books about alchemy and magic.
The Arabs also particularly liked Greek philosophers and their works. Plato was considered to be a great alchemist who created several laboratory devices. Pythagoras was said to have acquired his knowledge on alchemy and mathematics through scrolls found in the Pillar of Hermes. Socrates was said to be a practicing alchemist who was able to generate an artificial life form. Ironically, Socrates never publicly admitted that he was an alchemist nor did he write any alchemical treatises. Aristotle, Archelaos, Bolus of Mendes, and Zosimos were also very popular. A group of Hermetic alchemists named the Brethren of Purity put together an encyclopedia that consolidated alchemical theory and practice from 909 C.E. and 965 C.E.
We can also thank the Arabs for many scientific advances. Their experiments were meticulous and made to gather information as well as answer specific questions. Here is where we can see the beginning of the scientific method. They perfected alloying and refining metals while improving distillation, sublimation, calcination, dissolution, and crystallization, which were basic laboratory methods at the time. One Arabian alchemist in particular, Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (otherwise known as Razi or Rhazes), produced the first systematic classification of elements, chemicals, and other substances.
That’s all I have for you today! There’s a short quiz for some easy house points. Be prepared to head east next lesson!