There was no gateway between east and west; only innumerable conduits

A long article on the influence of Islamic thought on European minds throughout the early middle ages. It includes an interesting discussion about Dante’s Divine Comedy being a dialogue-response to Islam.

As early as the Ninth century, Andalusia had become one of the wonders of the world. The Arabs, who arrived on Spanish shores in 711, set to the task, in the following century, of building an urban-based society, modelled on the example of Baghdad, the “city of peace,” which, built from scratch in 762, was to become a thriving center of industry, agriculture, trade, science, and the arts, whose influence radiated out to the East as far as India and China…Using the same technologies and applying the same fiscal and credit policies which had been introduced by the Baghdad caliphate in Iraq, Andalusia built up an advanced agricultural sector. Islamic legislation did not recognize primogeniture, but favored family farming, facilitating the distribution of land to all offspring. Farmers who took advantage of irrigation techniques, financed through taxation, paid only 5% rather than 10% of their yield in taxes. Dams, irrigation canals, and pumps contributed to productivity levels which far outstripped those in Northern Europe for centuries to come. The textile industry, which employed 13,000 persons out of the 130,000 households in Cordoba, produced cotton, linen, wool, and silk. State as well as private textile mills were equipped with spindles and horizontal looms.

In the Ninth century, Andalusia’s cities were the marvel of chroniclers: “One sings praises to the golden threaded silk of Almeria, Malaga, and Murcia, whose faultless quality arouses the delight even of oriental observers. In Abadilla they produce those rugs that bring such high prices in the Orient. Granada delivers the especially gloriously colorful silk dresses, of the type known as ‘velvet shimmer.’ … Murcia produces wonderful inlaid bedsteads, marvelous fabrics, metal wares, like goldplated knives and scissors … which reach North Africa as frequent export articles. From Murcia, Almeria, and Malaga come costly glass and gold porcelain. Al-Andalus also knows the production of various kinds of mosaics.”

But the greatest wonder of Andalusia was the advancement of learning. None of its wealth in industry and trade would have been possible without a conscious state policy promoting science, as the driving force behind technological progress and overall economic growth…In the Ninth-Tenth centuries, the mosque schools evolved into universities, the first in Europe, which flourished in every city, drawing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars and students like magnets, from all over the world. Finally, there were the academies, separate from the mosques, the most famous of which were the House of Wisdom (Dur al-Hikmah) and the House of Science (Dur al-’Ilm), which were libraries, translation centers, and astronomical observatories. In the Tenth and Eleventh centuries, the madrasah, a state-sponsored educational institution, appeared in Persia and Baghdad, as well as in Andalusia…Al Hakem was himself a scholar, who had read many of the 400,000 books which filled his famous library, as indicated by his marginal notations. Books originally written in Persia and Syria, became known first in Andalusia. The city produced 60,000 books a year, facilitated by the use of paper, an invention the Arabs had taken from the Chinese, and developed in factories in every major city.

…Frederick II (1215-1250), who grew up with Arabic as his native language, called Baghdad scientists to his court, along with musicians and poets. He was so thoroughly Arabized (he was even buried in Arab dress), that Pope Innocent IV accused him of being a crypto-Muslim. Both Frederick and Roger II (1101-1154) came to be known as the “baptized sultans of Sicily.” His “crusade” to Jerusalem particularly outraged the Papacy, because, instead of waging war to regain territories, Frederick negotiated with the Muslims, and dedicated his time to philosophical discussions with their scholars. Later, Frederick addressed a series of questions regarding the nature of God to the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Sabin, whose answers were published as the “Sicilian Questions.” He founded the University of Naples in 1224, on the model of the Andalusian centers of study. Enjoying a royal charter, the university offered a program in oriental studies, one which Thomas Aquinas, among others, took advantage of. Significantly, Frederick II also continued the Muslim fiscal system, which the Normans before him had adopted. Frederick’s son Manfred, who was an accomplished geometer, continued his father’s policies. His liberal approach to Muslims who filled his court earned him and his brother Conrad a Papal condemnation.

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Mr. Gorbachev was not the one to tear down these walls

This essay about the destruction of old borders in Europe, and the creation of new ones, is both fascinating and captures the feel of the continent spot-on. I hope it becomes a longer essay, there’s rather a lot to say about where Europe’s heading and how that will change the sense of identity for many, many people:

Yet, while attending several celebratory conferences over the last few months about the revolutions of 1989, I found myself thinking about the new walls that have risen within and around Europe. The same Schengen agreements that create a zone of free internal movement for all but a few EU members require the construction and defense of a single external European frontier. This is as it must be; but with the result that someone from beyond the zone, from Belarus or from Turkey, may find herself refused entry. The difference between not needing a passport at all and needing a special visa is considerable, and creates a distance that can be psychologically and politically damaging.

Europe itself seems much further from the United States than it did twenty years ago. In western Europe, the election of Obama has undone some of the feeling of estrangement that resulted from the American decision to invade Iraq; while in some east European countries, such as Poland, Obama sometimes takes the blame for the weakened American position in world affairs. In the meantime European and American society have become increasingly incomprehensible to one another. Standards of living in several west and central European countries are now much better than in America. I did not expect twenty years ago that poor Poland could become so quickly comparable to the United States in its infant mortality rates and life expectancy. Its downtowns feel safer and its public transportation is better. Although Poles and other east Europeans are more likely than West Europeans to repeat the rhetoric of economic libertarianism, they accept the fundamentals of the welfare state that in America are now so contested. It is no easier to explain American debates over health care reform in Warsaw than in Vienna.

Yet all is far from well within Europe. In much of central and eastern Europe, nationalist populism—whether in Russia, Poland, Hungary, or Austria—is more resonant than twenty years ago. Throughout the continent, pedagogical systems have remained national, or, in such cases as Russia and Ukraine, become so. Young people in almost every European school system learn versions of history more appropriate for the nineteenth century than the twenty-first.

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Bird fishing

Motivated by a fascinating travel photo, I’ve been digging into the world of cormorant fishing. Evidently, cormorant fishing arose independently across several regions in the world, which I suppose is a win for, um, convergent cultural evolution. It’s a fascinating look at the way people and animals interact.


See, what these fishermen do is catch cormorants and start training them to fish in a domestic fashion. They will tie a small band around the neck so that the bird cannot swallow large fish, though it can still gulp down the small ones. The fisherman and bird then work at night, crawling across the river on a boat with a bright light attached to attract the fish. The birds then mechanically hunt for the fish and bring it back to be spat out in a basket as you can see here.

This form of fishing arose in Japan, China, Europe, and Peru independently. There were regional variations; European cormorant hunting was more related to falconry, while the Chinese method actually domesticated the cormorants rather than using wild birds. The oldest record of this form of hunting is in Peru in the fifth century AD, and then a century later in Japan. At one point, a single cormorant was enough to feed a family. Now, however, the practice has devolved into little more than a tourist attraction.