‘Bayt al-Hikmah’ or the House of Wisdom found by Caliph Al-Ma’mun: The Most Extensive Library of 8th Century

Fareeha Arshad

‘Bayt al-Hikmah’ or the House of Wisdom found by Caliph Al-Ma’mun in the 8th centuryWikipedia

Also known as Khizanat-al-Hikma or the ‘Storehouse of Wisdom’, this great library in Bagdad was initially a private library that belonged to the Abbasid Caliphs in the late 8th century. Much later, during Al-Ma’mun’s reign, this personal library was opened to the general public to encourage educational activities.

The manuscripts present in this place were derived or translated from other ancients texts available originally in other languages. The scholars worked on the preserved texts and furthered those works through more discoveries. Ancient works in Pahlavi, Syriac, Greek, and Sanskrit were translated to Arabic and documented. For hundreds of years, this place was known as the hub of educational research and intellectual center in humanities and sciences and remained unrivaled in the world.

Five centuries later, the Mongols raided this land and looted not only people but also the most valuable treasures — the books that the House of Wisdom held — and dumped them all in the river Tigris. The total number of books thrown away in the river can be gauged because the river ran black for half a year because of the ink from the thousands of books drowned to their metaphorical deaths. Thus came the end of the House of Wisdom. What was supposed to be the beacon of hope for many millennia to come perished in a moment of rage.

The establishment of the ‘House of Wisdom’: Its goals and purpose

lso known as Khizanat-al-Hikma or the ‘Storehouse of Wisdom’, this great library in Bagdad was initially a private library that belonged toFlickr

During the 600s AD, Muawiyah I was the Caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty. Being a bibliophile, he collected a large number of books in Damascus. He was the first one to lay the foundations of the Bayt-al-Hikma. With the help of Christian and Persian scholars, the Umayyads supervised the translation of most foreign works into Arabic. This new ease of access open knowledge opened wider doors for the Arab world towards development. This was also the Islamic Golden Age when the Arabs flourished scientifically, culturally, and economically.

After the Abbasid Dynasty succeeded the Ummayads, the new Caliph Al-Mansur accounted Baghdad as the new capital instead of Damascus. Following his predecessor, Al-Mansur promoted scholarship and laid the foundation of a palace library where learned scholars from all over the world came and exchanged all kinds of knowledge. Their works were documented, translated, and stored in that library. This new library was also called the Bayt-al-Hikma or the House of Wisdom.

The next Caliph, Al-Ma’mun, was so fond of scientific knowledge that he preferred scientific works over any other war spoils. He worked even more towards this cause — the same his ancestors had worked for. This was seen when he claimed Ptolemy’s work Almagest as the peace condition with the Roman Empire. In general, Abbasid society was fashioned this way: the academics were given more preference over other professionals; academia was considered a status symbol.

Being the Abbasid Caliphate’s capital, Baghdad was already a popular location where many scholars came to from all around the world. Many prominent scholars like the Banu Musa brothers (the Scientists), Al-Khwarizmi (the Mathematician), Al-Jahiz (the Philosopher), Al-Kindi (the father of Arab philosophy), and Al-Battani (the Astronomer) were all attracted to the House of Wisdom. Together they produced many remarkable works of their time. By the second half of the ninth century, this House of Wisdom housed the world’s most extensive book collection.

The destruction of the ‘House of Wisdom’: End of the golden era

The extent of the Mongol Empire, 1259 | The Mongols attacked, plundered, and sieged various parts of the world in efforts to expand their emWikimedia Commons

In 1258, almost five hundred years after the official establishment of the Bayt-al-Hikma, the Mongols attacked Baghdad and a thirteen-day siege ensued. The Mongols intended to plunder the Abbasid capital and leave the land in ruins. As history narrates it, they did precisely the same.

With Hulagu Khan, Ghengis Khan’s grandson as their commander, they launched a surprise invasion on Baghdad. They demanded the Caliph to submit to the khagan forces and support their troops in Persia. These conditions were unacceptable to the Abbasid Caliph. This called for a full-blown siege on the area by the Mongol forces for twelve days. Unable to fight back, the Abbasids were forced to surrender to Hulagu and his army.

The level of pillage, destruction, and atrocities that Baghdad had to go through is unimaginable. The Caliph was immediately executed, while the locals were massacred on a large scale. It was during this siege that all the books from the House of Wisdom were thrown into the Tigris River. Many books were ripped apart and burnt, while their leather covers were kept to make sandals. In his book History of Libraries of the Western World, Michael H. Harris wrote that the number of books thrown into the river was so enormous that a bridge could be formed using those books in water alone — supporting a man mounted on a horse. The only books that remained from this library were the ones that Nasir-al-Din-al-Tulsi took along with him to Maragheh before the attack.

Thus came the tragic end of one of the most advanced, developed, and diverse libraries in history — which also marked the end of the Islamic Golden Age.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I write about current affairs, history, science, and lifestyle.

Texas State

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