Violet Moller’s Map of Knowledge retells the epic tale of the transmission of culture and knowledge from the Classical past to the Renaissance. Rather than tell the story in the lives of notable Great Men, it tells this tale through seven Great Cities.
These cities would be called world cities now a days: Alexandria, Baghdad, Cordoba, Salerno, Palermo and Venice. Each was a multicultural melting pot, whose leaders saw the value of patronising the arts and sciences.
Each city described was also a major trade centre which supported the transmission of knowledge and supported global networks.
The library of Alexandria is famous as the only universal library of all human knowledge ever created. Yet as Moller points out private libraries were possibly more important in many locations. The importance of cities like Alexandria was that they offered close networks for scholars.
Cities like Alexandria and Baghdad were home to communities from all over the world. It was in Baghdad that the mathematical system of the Indian Brahmagupta (who also invited perpetual motion machines) become systemised by Arabic speaking mathematicians.
Cordoba in Spain is perhaps the most evocative. Moller describes how Rahman I’s love of gardens from his childhood in Damascus leftest to a green revolution which reinvigated agriculture in Spain.
Palermo in Sicily is perhaps the most intriguing of cities. Roger II the Norman ruler of the Island encouraged a multicultural society. He styled himself as Defender of Christianity and Powerful Through the Grace of Allah. His kingdom become prosperous and a centre for scholarship.
These cities are powerful reminders of the value and importance of globally open and connected cities.
By telling the story of Arabic scientists and scholars, it reminds us of the incredible importance of Muslim civilisation to the world throughout its history. A history that has become more and more important to tell with growing Islamophobia led in part by political leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
Yet it misses something in its oversimplified model of teleological transmission from East to West. The pre-classical influences are glossed at, for example the millennia old Astrological and Mathematical science of the Babylonians which fed into both Euclid’s and Ptolemy’s work.
In the book, once the Arabic scholars have transmitted their knowledge to the West, they leave the stage as if no scientific or cultural developments took place after around 900 CE. This is patently not true. The book could have continued to choose Istanbul as its Eight city.
This is whig history. The non-scientific such as magic and amulets is not mentioned. For example, the Apocalypse of the Pseudo-Methodius is not mentioned once, even though it was an immensely popular work which was translated into Greek and Latin within a hundred years and continued to influence apocalyptic visions into the high medieval period in the West and East.
What of the books or ideas that don’t survive? Alexandria was the “home” of Hellenistic science, but the first discover of the steam engine never thought about a practical application for his invention. Whilst Alexandrian scholars were editing Homer or translating religious texts such as the Septuagint, others were teaching philosophical interpretations of the same religious books.
Alexandria was also home to the Jewish scholar Philo whose allegorical readings of the Old Testament fed into Gnosticism, which was (possibly) also developed in Catechumenal schools. Enough ink has been spilled on this topic, perhaps. Yet this was happening in the same places and, more than likely, in the same intellectual milieu. The modern concept of science was not the same as the ancient one.
These criticisms are unfair given the necessary size limitations of the book, but show some of the tensions implicit in the narrative.