John O’Neill returns with another essay about the damage inflicted on Classical Civilization by Islam, this time focusing on the literary heritage of the ancients.
How Islam Destroyed the Literary Inheritance of the Classical World
by John J. O’Neill
Since at least the time of the Renaissance scholars have wondered at the disappearance of Classical civilization — the advanced, urban and literate culture which began in Greece during the fifth century BC and was subsequently spread by the Romans throughout Western and Northern Europe. The traditional explanation for its disappearance is well-known and hardly needs repeating: Basically, after the Barbarian Invasions (of Goths, Huns, Vandals, etc) in the fifth century, the peoples of Western Europe reverted to living in thatched, wattle-and-daub huts. Cities were destroyed and abandoned, the art of writing virtually lost, and the mass of the population kept in a state of ignorance by an obscurantist and fanatical Church, which effectively completed the destructive work of the Barbarians.
The above is the narrative that has held sway for many centuries. In the last hundred years, however, something new has been added: We are now told that into the darkened stage that was Europe after the fall of the Western Empire, the Arabs arrived in the seventh and eighth centuries like a ray of light. Tolerant and learned, they brought knowledge of the science of antiquity, of Greece and Rome, back into Europe and, under their influence, the Westerners began the long journey back to civilization.
That, in a nutshell, is the story told in an enormous number of scholarly treatises and academic textbooks. It is a story implicitly accepted by a large majority of professional historians, both in Europe and North America — a fact illustrated very clearly by a lecture delivered recently (April 13, 2010) in London by Dr. Peter Adamson, professor of ancient and medieval philosophy in King’s College, London. The title of the lecture, “How the Muslims Saved Civilization: the Reception of Greek Learning in Arabic,” speaks for itself.
Yet it is the contention of the present writer that the above version of events represents a view of the past that is completely and utterly false. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a narrative further removed from what actually happened. For the “Barbarians” had nothing whatsoever to do with the disappearance of Classical Civilization: The great cities of the Empire, both in the West and the East, continued to flourish during the fifth and sixth centuries. The “Barbarian” kings, we now know, actually fostered Classical learning, and wasted no time in becoming completely Romanized themselves. They minted gold coins stamped with the image of the Emperor in Constantinople, and regarded themselves as functionaries of the Empire. The cities built by the Caesars continued to flourish, and there was even a great deal of new building and expansion. By the beginning of the sixth century Classical civilization had spread into the formerly barbarian regions of Ireland, Scotland, and eastern Germany; and the works of Homer and Virgil were now discussed in the rocky crags of Ireland’s Atlantic coast and the remote isles of the Hebrides. And intellectual life flourished among the cities and towns of Europe: authors such as Boethius and Cassiodorus were thoroughly steeped in the learning of Greece and made important contributions of their own. The former is regarded as one of the greatest minds of antiquity, a man whose all-encompassing genius sought to reconcile the thinking of Plato and Aristotle.
There was, therefore, no “dark age” in the fifth or sixth centuries.
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And the second part of the above narrative — the idea that Islam saved the knowledge and learning of the Classical world, can only be described as a monstrous untruth. It is “monstrous” for it represents a precise inversion of what actually occurred: The reality is that far from being the saviour of Classical science and learning, Islam was its nemesis and destroyer. The real end of the Classical Age, as increasing numbers of historians are beginning to understand, occurred not in the fifth century, but during the seventh — immediately after the arrival of Islam on the world stage. And it was in the seventh century that Classical Civilization disappeared both from Western Europe and from the Middle East and North Africa. In Europe, as I explain in detail in my recently published Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, Islam terminated Classical culture by means of an economic blockade; but in the Middle East and North Africa, those regions conquered and controlled by the Muslims, it was terminated as a deliberate act of policy.
The first author, as far as I am aware, to identify the true cause of Classical civilizations’s disappearance was Belgian medievalist Henri Pirenne, whose posthumously published Mohammed et Charlemagne (1938), ignited a debate that has not yet come to an end. Pirenne showed that it was the Arab conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, in the seventh century, that marked the real boundary between the world of Classical antiquity and that of the Middle Ages. The Mediterranean, he showed, previously the world’s main artery of trade, now became a hunting-ground of pirates and slave-traders; and the great cities of the West, of Gaul, Spain, and Italy, whose prosperity was depedant upon the Mediterranean trade, began to die. (It should be noted that the closing of the Mediterranean had little to do with regaular warfare, and was rather the result of the Islamic teaching of perpetual war against unbelievers — a teaching which encouraged small-scale actions carried out by individuals and led to a virtual tidal wave of piracy). In Mohammed et Charlemagne, Pirenne documented the sudden disappearance of luxury products of the East which had, until the start of the seventh century, been commonplace in Gaul, Spain and Italy. Syrian wine disappears, as do various spices. Silk also becomes scarce or non-existent, as does gold. Indeed, Pirenne found that, from the latter half of the seventh century, Europe became impoverished both culturally and economically with a speed that could only be described as astonishing. The great cities of Gaul die, and with them goes the massive and lucrative taxes which they had previosuly generated for the Frankish kings. The result was inevitable: The power of these kings, of Franks in Gaul, of Visigoths in Spain and Ostrogoths in Italy, dissipates: local strongmen, or barons, seize control of the provinces, and set in place the feudal order. The Middle Ages had begun.
The disappearance of the Roman cities, and with them the entire cultural and economic infrastructure of the Classical world, would by itself have had a devastating impact upon the survival of the Classical world’s literary heritage. The hundreds of thousands of books written by Greek and Latin authors over a period of ten or eleven centuries needed the type of society which generated them (largely urban and literate) in order to survive. They needed a literate and wealthy class of laypeople who could appreaciate and patronize them. They also needed governmental support. Great public libraries and academies of the type which flourished in the territory of the Roman Empire could not survive without the economic assistance of kings and emperors. This assistance had been forthcoming and generously given until the middle of the seventh century. With the loss of tax revenue which marked the decline of the cities during the seventh century, the kings of western Europe would have had little surplus cash to patronize the arts, sciences and literature. The great public libraries can only have gone into terminal decline.
But the closing of the Mediterranean dealt another blow to the literary inheritance of Greece and Rome; one whose consequences were perhaps even more severe than the loss of the great libraries.
Henri Pirenne noted that one of the products of the East which disappears in the seventh century is papyrus. Until the first quarter of the seventh century, Egyptian papyrus is ubiquitious in the records and documents of western Europe. By the second half of the seventh century it disappears completely, to be replaced by parchment. Now parchment, of course, was immensely expensive in comparison with papyrus, and there can be no doubt that the loss of the papyrus supply would by itself have had a devastating effect upon the state of literacy and literature in Europe. Pirenne himself recognized this, and rightly saw the disappearance of papyrus from the West as a seminal event in Europe’s history.
Now, we know that the great majority of works of the Classical authors, of which an estimated 95% — 98% have been lost, were written on papyrus. A whole industry existed employing scribes to copy these books, which were then sold to other libraries, academies, or private collectors. Papyrus is more delicate than parchment and disintigrates after a few centuries if stored in a humid environment. But this did not matter as long as there were fresh supplies of papyrus upon which to make new copies and rich patrons to pay for them. The disappearance of both these in the seventh century meant that, in Europe at least, the great majority of the Classical works were doomed to disappear. It is known that even those works written on parchment were frequently lost when, in later centuries, old parchments were reused many times, after old texts had been cleaned from them. The very expense of parchment made such catastrophes all too commonplace.
The one institution in Europe that could save the Classical works was the Church: And we know that, from the middle of the seventh century many monasteries had large collections of the “pagan” authors. Indeed, the great majority of the literature of Greece and Rome that has survived into modern times was preserved by the monks of the sixth and seventh centuries. Thus for example Alcuin, the polyglot theologian of Charlemagne’s court, mentioned that his library in York contained works by Aristotle, Cicero, Lucan, Pliny, Statius, Trogus Pompeius, and Virgil. In his correspondences he quotes still other classical authors, including Ovid, Horace, and Terence. Abbo of Fleury (latter tenth century), who served as abbot of the monastery of Fleury, demonstrates familiarity with Horace, Sallust, Terence, and Virgil. Desiderius, described as the greatest of the abbots of Monte Cassino after Benedict himself, and who became Pope Victor III in 1086, oversaw the transcription of Horace and Seneca, as well as Cicero’s De Natura Deorum and Ovid’s Fasti. (Charles Montalembert, The Monks of the West: From St. Benedict to St. Bernard. 5 Vols. (Vol. 5) (London, 1896) p. 146) His friend Archbishop Alfano, who had also been a monk of Monte Cassino, possessed a deep knowledge of the ancient writers, frequently quoting from Apuleius, Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Varro, and Virgil, and imitating Ovid and Horace in his verse.
Notwithstanding the efforts of the monks, it must be understood that the Church did not see its primary role as the preservation of profane knowledge. And even if it had devoted greater effort to transcribing from papyrus to parchment the great works of the Greeks and Romans, it is doubtful if they could have saved little more than it did. The immense expense of parchment would have been prohibitive; wealth that the monasteries would no doubt have felt better expended upon the care of the poor and sick.
That was the situation in the West. It was also, incidentally, the situation in Byzantium, which archaeology has now shown experienced its own “Dark Age” after the middle of the seventh century. Here too we find impoverishment, the abandonment of cities, and the growth of a feudal system. None of this is as yet widely known or accepted in the scholarly community, so it would perhaps be worthwhile to quote the words of Cyril Mango in the topic:
“One can hardly overestimate the catastrophic break that occurred in the seventh century. Anyone who reads the narrative of events will not fail to be struck by the calamities that befell the Empire, starting with the Persian invasion at the very beginning of the century and going on to the Arab expansion some thirty years later — a series of reverses that deprived the Empire of some of its most prosperous provinces, namely, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and, later, North Africa — and so reduced it to less than half its former size both in area and in population. But a reading of the narrative sources gives only a faint idea of the profound transformation that accompanied these events. … It marked for the Byzantine lands the end of a way of life — the urban civilization of Antiquity — and the beginning of a very different and distinctly medieval world.” (Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (London, 1981) p. 4)
Mango remarked on the virtual abandonment of the Byzantine cities after the mid-seventh century, and the archaeology of these settlements usually reveals “a dramatic rupture in the seventh century, sometimes in the form of virtual abandonment.” (Ibid. p. 8) With the cities and with the papyrus supply from Egypt went the intellectual class, who after the seventh century were reduced to a “small clique.” (Ibid. p. 9) The evidence, as Mango sees it, is unmistakable: the “catastrophe” (as he names it) of the seventh century, “is the central event of Byzantine history.” (Ibid.)
The final conquest of Byzantium by the Turks in 1453 saw the destruction of what libraries still existed, and we cannot doubt that the few texts which reached the West with refugees in the years that followed represented but a pitiable remnant of what once existed.
So, all of Christendom was devastated by the Muslim conquests. What then, we might ask, of the Islamic world itself; those regions of the Middle East and North Africa conquered and held by the Muslims in the seventh century and which were to become the core of the Muslim world as we now understand it?
Until the first quarter of the seventh century Classical Civilization was alive and well in the Middle East and North Africa — even more so than in Europe. City life flourished, as did the economy and the arts. Literacy was widespread, and the works of the Classical historians, as well as the philosophers, mathematicians, and physicians, were readily available and discussed in the academies and libraries located throughout the Near East, North Africa, and Europe. In Egypt, during the sixth century, renowned philosophers such as Olympiodorus (died 570) presided over the Alexandrian academy which possessed a well-stocked and funded library packed with probably thousands of volumes. The Alexandrian academy of this time was the most illustrious institute of learning in the known world; and it is beyond doubt that its library matched, if indeed it did not surpass, the original Library founded by Ptolemy II. The writings of Olympiodorus and his contemporaries demonstrate intimate familiarity with the great works of classical antiquity — very often quoting obscure philosophers and historians whose works have long since disappeared. Among the general population of the time literacy was the norm, and the appetite for reading was fed by a large class of professional writers who composed plays, poems and short stories — the latter taking the form of mini-novels. In Egypt, the works of Greek writers such as Herodotus and Diodorus were familiar and widely quoted. Both the latter, as well as native Egyptian writers such as Manetho, had composed extensive histories of Egypt of the time of the pharaohs. These works provided, for the citizens of Egypt and other parts of the Empire, a direct link with the pharaohnic past. Here the educated citizen encountered the name of the pharaoh (Kheops) who built the Great Pyramid, as well as that of his son (Khephren), who built the second pyramid at Giza, and that of his grandson Mykerinos, who raised the third and smallest structure. These Hellenized versions of the names were extremely accurate transcriptions of the actual Egyptian names (Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure). In the history of the country written by Manetho, the educated citizen of the Empire would have had a detailed description of Egypt’s past, complete with an in-depth account of the deeds of the pharaohs as well as descriptions of the various monuments and the kings who built them.
The change that came over Egypt and the other regions of the Middle East following the Arab Conquest can only be described as catastrophic. Almost all knowledge of these countries’ histories disappears, and does so almost overnight. Consider the account of the Giza Pyramids and their construction written by the Arab historian Al Masudi (regarded as the “Arab Herodotus”), apparently in the tenth century:
“Surid, Ben Shaluk, Ben Sermuni, Ben Termidun, Ben Tedresan, Ben Sal, one of the kings of Egypt before the flood, built two great pyramids; and, notwithstanding, they were subsequently named after a person called Shaddad Ben Ad … they were not built by the Adites, who could not conquer Egypt, on account of their powers, which the Egyptians possessed by means of enchantment … the reason for the building of the pyramids was the following dream, which happened to Surid three hundred years previous to the flood. It appeared to him that the earth was overthrown, and that the inhabitants were laid prostrate upon it, that the stars wandered confusedly from their courses, and clashed together with tremendous noise. The king though greatly affected by this vision, did not disclose it to any person, but was conscious that some great event was about to take place.” (From L. Cottrell, The Mountains of Pharaoh (London, 1956)).
This was what passed for “history” in Egypt after the Arab conquest — little more than a collection of Arab fables. Egypt, effectively, had lost her history. Other Arab writers display the same ignorance. Take for example the comments of Ibn Jubayr, who worked as a secretary to the Moorish governor of Granada, and who visited Cairo in 1182. He commented on “the ancient pyramids, of miraculous construction and wonderful to look upon, [which looked] like huge pavilions rearing to the skies; two in particular shock the firmament …” He wondered whether they might be the tombs of early prophets mention in the Koran, or whether they were granaries of the biblical patriarch Joseph, but in the end came to the conclusion, “To be short, none but the Great and Glorious God can know their story.” (Andrew Beattie, Cairo: A Cultural History (Oxford University Press, 2005) p. 50)
We should not imagine that this loss of connection with the past occurred gradually. Nor can the loss of Egypt’s and Persia’s histories be blamed on poverty or absence of cheap writing materials such as papyrus. The Caliphate established in the Middle East was neither impoverished nor lacking in resources to facilitate learning. Egypt, after all, was the source of papyrus, and it was right at the heart of the Caliphate. And in conquering the regions of the Middle East the Arabs came to possess the most populous, the most wealthy, and the most venerable centres of civilization in the known world at the time. For the histories of Egypt and Syria and Babylonia written by the Greek authors to have disappeared from these regions they must have been destroyed deliberately; or at the very least the libraries and academies wherein they were stored must have been deprived of all funding and allowed to fall into decay. More likely, however, they were actively destroyed. How else can we explain the loss of every copy of Herodotus, Diodorus and Manetho (and every other Classical author who wrote of Egypt’s pharaohnic history) in such a short period of time? And the impression of active destruction is confirmed by what we know from other areas. We know, for example, that from the very beginning the Arabs displayed absolute contempt for the culture and history of both Egypt and the other countries of the region they conquered. Immediately upon the invasion of Egypt, the Caliph established a commission whose purpose was to discover and plunder the pharaohnic tombs. We know that Christian churches and monasteries — many of the latter possessing well-stocked libraries — suffered the same fate. The larger monuments of Roman and pharaohnic times were similarly plundered for their cut-stone, and Saladin, the Muslim hero lionized in so much politically-correct literature and art, began the process by the exploitation of the smaller Giza monuments. From these, he constructed the citadel at Cairo (between 1193 and 1198). His son and successor, Al-Aziz Uthman, went further, and made a determined effort to demolish the Great Pyramid itself. (Ibid.) He succeeded in stripping the outer casing of smooth limestone blocks from the structure (covered with historically invaluable inscriptions), but eventually canceled the project owing to its cost.
The loss of contact with the past occurred in all the lands conquered by the Muslims. Here we need only point to the fact that the Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam, at the end of the eleventh century, was largely ignorant of his own country’s illustrious history, and imagined that the great palaces built by the Achaemenid Emperors Darius and Xerxes, as Persepolis and Susa, were raised by a genie-king named Jamshid.
What then of the much-vaunted Arab respect for learning and science that we hear so much of in modern academic literature? That the Arabs did permit some of the science and learning they encountered in the great cities of Egypt, Syria, Babylonia, and Persia to survive — for a while — is beyond doubt. Yet the learning they tolerated was entirely of a practical or utilitarian nature — and this is a fact admitted even by Islamophile writers. Thus, for a while, they patronised physicists, mathematicians and physicians. Yet the very fact that knowledge has to plead its usefulness in order to be permitted to survive at all speaks volumes in itself. And even this utilitarian learning was soon to be snuffed out under the weight of an Islamic theocracy (promulgated by Al Ghazali in the eleventh century) which regarded the very concept of scientific laws as an affront to Allah and an infringement of his freedom to act.
In this way then the vast body of Classical literature disappeared from the lands of the Caliphate. Thus the Arabs destroyed Classical Civilization and its literary heritage in Europe through an economic blockade, whilst in the Middle East they destroyed it deliberately and methodically.
Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, is published by Felibri Publications. For information, see the Felibri website.