Catalogue for exhibition at Museum of Islamic Arts, Doha
How did the golden age of eastern science impact on the scholars of the Enlightenment in the west? When Syrian-born physicist Dr Rim Turkmani turned to the archives of the Royal Society in London to find out, she discovered a wealth of east-west links which she explored in an exhibition, Arabick Roots, a 1001 Inventions project.
I worked with Dr Turkmani on the catalogue for Arabick Roots, which launched in 2011 at the Royal Society and then transferred to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. The exhibition title used the 17th-century spelling of Arabic, used to refer to Arabic-script languages including Arabic, Persian and Ottoman.
We told stories that illustrated the way in which eastern style took Europe by storm four hundred years ago – from prize horses and plants to luxury fabric and literature – and that this was much more than a passing fashion. Western scholars were intensely interested in the science, knowledge and philosophy of the east and searched out scientific manuscripts in Arabic and Persian at every opportunity.
Among the findings from the archives was that early Royal Society Fellows included three representatives from the Arabic World, including two Moroccan ambassadors and the ambassador of the King of Tripoli. Documents and letters shows western astronomers requesting translations of star catalogues from 10th-century Al-Sufi and 15th-century Ulugh Beg.
Correspondence back and forth between eastern embassies and western scholars query the strength of Damascus steel, the kinds of metal ores that can be mined, and the medicinal plants and cures in use. In 1680, Royal Society Fellow Christopher Wren wrote to the British Embassy in Istanbul to request plans for the Hagia Sophia as he planned his design for St Paul’s Cathedral.
At the exhibition launch, Dr Turkmani said: “This exhibition uncovers the never-before told story of the connections between the early Royal Society and contemporary and classical Arabic learning, and how they were used to solve some of the most pressing problems of the day.
“This was a time when British society as a whole was largely ignorant of the cultural achievements of the Arabic world… this forgotten history reveals a rich tradition of communication between two very different cultures, and shows that then – just like today – collaboration across linguistic and cultural boundaries can lead to great results.”