Window to Islam’s Contribution to Knowledge

A visit to Museum of Islamic Science in Istanbul provides a throwback to seminaries, academies libraries and laboratories of medieval empires.

By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

The period between 9th and 16th century was the golden era for the flowering of science and technology across the regions under Islamic caliphates and Muslim imperial dynasties. The period witnessed birth of renowned scientists and innovators who taking a cue from Greeks and Indians, came up with significant discoveries and devices. The West which benefitted immensely from the inheritance as Muslim world began to sink into political and cultural decline, used it as the springboard for the next leap. Although the axis of invention kept shifting from one nation to another, largely the West remained dominant. It is only now that the axis of technological innovation seems to be moving towards the Far East with Japan and China leading the charge.
In Imperial Stable
The Museum of the History of Islamic Science and Technology (Islam BilimveteknologiTarihi Muzesi)in Istanbul puts on display a variety of objects, charts, and reconstructed devices pertaining to varied disciplines. The Museum opened its portals for visitors and students in May 2008. It is located in Gulhane Park (literally Rose Garden) at the terminal of tram that trundles through the heart of the City spanning two continents. Gulhane Park is the most picturesque part of the city. The Museum extends over 3,500 sq. mt. area of a building that used to serve as the stable of Ottoman emperors and runs along the palace wall. The complex also has two other museums, viz, Archaeological museum and Crystal Palace, a museum for tiles.
It was Islamic scholar FuatSezgin (1924-2018) who conceived the idea for such a Museum and was supported by the Turkish Government headed by President (then prime minister) RecepTeyyipErdogan and the Istanbul Municipality which extended material and financial support to see its realization. Prof. Sezgin had earlier founded the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt.
A large globe placed inside an art work of arched poles is placed at the entrance.
The map on the globe was constructed on orders from Caliph Mamunar-Rasheed (ruled 813-833 CE). The map displays surprising accuracy of the geography of the part of the world which was known till then.
Transcreation
In one sense, the Istanbul Museum is the final realization of dream of Prof. FuatSezgin who had spent nearly two decades at the Goethe University in piecing together the history of Islamic Science and Technology. Here at Istanbul, with generous help of the Turkish Government he could transcreate the text into devices and models. The objects have been presented systematically in sections devoted to astronomy, geography, nautics, time measurement and horology, geometry, optics, medicine, chemistry, mineralogy, physics, techniques, architecture and military machines thereby presenting the voyage of discovery as a continuous flow. We describe a few artefacts displayed at the Museum:
Mustansiriya Acadmy of Baghdad: The great academy was founded in 1227 on the banks of the Tigris river in Baghdad by the penultimate Abbasid caliph Mustansirbillah. It was probably the oldest Arabic-Islamic academy where, besides the syllabi of four orthodox law schools, medicine and mathematical sciences were also taught. It employed a 400 maintenance work forces. The Academy possessed a large and important library which was plundered after the conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols. The Caliph visited the academy often and heard the lectures and the disputations of the scholars from a place specially appointed for him. Every now and then, he held official receptions there for state guests.
The building survived the destruction of the capital and the downfall of the Abbasid dynasty at the conquest by the Mongols in 1258. A decade later the Academy started functioning once agains. It seems to have been much neglected around the last few centuries.
After its restoration between 1945 and 1963, the building is now part of the museum of Islamic Culture and Art. (The model of the building in the museum was done by HansjorgSchmid).
Windmill: The Museum’s model was made after the drawing and description in the 13th century CE book on geography by Shams al-Din al-Dimashqui.
Water Clock: This replica is modelled after the magnificent water clock which was constructed in 1362 in the Qarawiyyin mosque in Fes (Marocco), and which has been restored recently by the Institute of History of Arabic-Islamic Science in Frankfurt/ Main. The falling float of water provides the power and regulation of the clock through an ingenious mechanism. The 24 doors in the upper gallery close one by one in regular intervals of precisely one hour. Every four minutes a small metal ball drops into a metal bowl and produces a tone. The dial on the left displays the actual position of the stars and the ecliptic in the sky.
Qalawun Hospital, Cairo: Finally in the field of medicine of the 13th century, the hospital built in 1284 in Cairo by the Mamluk sultan al-Malik al-Mansur Saifaddin Qalawun shall be mentioned. After the Adudihsopital in baghdad (981) and the Nuraddin hospital in Damascus (1154), it was the latest and the most advanced of the three major hospitals in the Islamic world established by that time. In some respects it seems almost modern. Such progressive features are its medical organisation with specialised treatments, the playing of music to patients suffereing from mental illness or insommnia, in-house medical training, an elaborate administration, financial security through sufficient income from an endowment (with quite interesting conditions specified in the foundation deed (which seems to have collapsed after the 17th century) and its cruciform ground plan is believed to have served as the model for similar hospitals in Europe.
Celestial globe from observatory of Maragha (North-West Iran): In 1279, a celestial globe of diameter 14.4 cm was constructed by Muhammad al-Urdi, son of the well-known astronomer Mu’ayyad al-Din al-‘Urdi. It was expertly made out of bronze, and the celestial constellations as well as the equator, the ecliptic and latitude circles were inlaid in silver and gold. The surrounding rings, representing the horizon, the meridian and the prime vertical, could be adjusted to different geographical latitudes. The globe originally belonged to the famous observatory of Maragha in Northwestern Iran, but it was transferred to Dresden in 1562 where it has been preserved ever since. The replica is made out of messing and the inlays are in silver.
Six-cylinder pump
One of the most common applications of medieval Islamic technology was raising water to a higher level. While two-cylinder water pumps were described earlier in the 13thcentury by al-Jazari, the six-cylinder water pump were invented and described by the Ottoman polymath Taqi al-Din in 1553 CE. It forms the culmination of this development. The ingenious design, incorporating the use of a camshaft and six cylinders in a row as one bloc, makes a constant stream of water possible.
Astrolabe of the Yemeni Sultan al-Ashraf,
Many rulers and dignitaries in various parts of the medieval Islamic world were actively engaged in scientific research and the construction of instruments. An example is al-Ashraf Umar, who became Sultan of Yemen from 1295 to 1296. The Museum possesses a replica of an astrolabe, which al-Ashraf constructed in 1291, and which is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Al-Ashraf gave details about the construction of astrolabes in a treatise which is extant, and one of the manuscripts includes testimonials by his teachers about the excellent quality of his work. The Museum has 31 Astrolabe displayed in chronological order.
(The author was on a visit to Turkey between October 21 and November 1, 2018) g

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