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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Understanding the Islamic Golden Age

The Islamic Golden Age is a period of scientific, mathematical, philosophical, medical and artistic advancement, generally believed to have started with the Abbasid Caliphate in the mid 8th century lasting until the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258. The Abbasids claimed to descend from the Prophet Muhammed’s youngest uncle, and therefore the same tribe as the Prophet, and were considered holy by many. The Islamic Golden Age is traditionally considered by scholars to be inaugurated by the transfer of the capital from Damascus to Baghdad.

From the 4th to 7th centuries, scholarly work in the Syriac and Greek languages continued the traditions of the Hellenistic period. These were then copied into Arabic during the Golden Age, while most were destroyed, suppressed or lost to the Christian world during the dark ages and religious suppression of knowledge that followed the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity.

The Abbasids were influenced by Qur'anic injunctions and hadith such as: "the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr" that stressed the value of knowledge.[2] The rise of Islam was instrumental in uniting the warring tribes of the region into a powerful empire.  During this period the Middle East became an intellectual centre for science, philosophy, medicine and education; the Abbasids championed the cause of knowledge and established the House of Wisdom (Bait-ul-Hikmat) at Baghdad,[3] where both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars sought to translate and gather all the world's knowledge into Arabic.

This Caliphate and the dynasties that followed showed a strong interest in assimilating the scientific knowledge of the civilisations they had overrun. Many classic works of antiquity that might otherwise have been lost were translated into Arabic and Persian and later in turn translated into Turkish, Hebrew and Latin. During this period, the Arab world was a collection of cultures; put together, synthesised and significantly advancing the knowledge they had inherited and collected from the ancient Roman, Persian, Kurdish, Greek, Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Byzantine and Phoenician civilisations.

The decimal system travelled from India to Arabia and in 9th century and was popularised in the region by the Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the Fatimid Sultanate made many contributions to the advancement of science. During the Abayassid Sultanate that followed, many new schools, hospitals and universities were founded by female members of the dynasty. Later in the 12th century, a Christian monk Abelard (immortalised in the Romance of Heloise and Abelard) introduced it to Europe. Islamic mathematicians also began the use of a first form of algebra (without numerical exponents) in order to solve complex mathematical problems.

In fact many of the mathematical terms we use today derive from arabic - words like algebra, algorithm, alchemy - which became chemistry, alkaline, average, azimuth, cipher, elixir, almanac, nadir, soda, zenith and zero, to name just a few. The very concept of zero - a numeric representation of nothing - comes from Arabic, as does the first binary code.

With a new, easier writing system and the introduction of paper, information was democratised to the extent that for the first time in history, it became possible to make a living as an author. Around the eight century the use of paper spread from China into the Islamic world, arriving through Spain to the rest of Europe in the 10th century. It was easier to manufacture than parchment, less likely to crack than papyrus, and could absorb ink, making it difficult to erase and ideal for keeping records. Islamic paper makers devised assembly-line methods of hand-copying manuscripts to turn out editions far larger than any available in Europe for centuries. It was from these countries that the rest of the world learned to make paper from linen.

Islamic governments during this period heavily funded scholars. The money spent during the Translation Movement for some translations is estimated to be equivalent to twice the annual research budget of the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council. The best scholars and notable translators, such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, had salaries that are estimated to rival professional athletes today.

Eastern Christian scholars (including ibn Ishaq) were important in preserving ancient Greek texts. Indeed, we owe our knowledge of these works directly to the Golden Age of Islam.

Centres of learning and of transmission of classical wisdom included colleges such as the School of Nisibis and later the School of Edessa, and the renowned hospital and medical academy of Jundishapur; other centres of translation and learning functioned at Merv, Salonika, Nishapur and Ctesiphon situated just south of what was later to become Baghdad. The House of Wisdom was a library, translation institute and academy established in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq.


The scholars Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina played a major role in saving the works of Aristotle, whose ideas came to dominate the non-religious thought of the Christian and Muslim worlds. Leading thinkers also absorbed ideas from China, and India, advancing these ideas through their own experimentation and study. Ibn Sina, al-Kindi and al-Farabi combined Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism with new ideas introduced from Islam, while Avicenna argued his famous "Floating Man" thought experiment, concerning self-awareness, where a man prevented of sense experience by being blindfolded and free falling would still be aware of his existence.

Arabic philosophic literature was eventually translated into Latin, and Ladino, finding its way into the West via returning Crusaders and eventually contributing to the development of modern European philosophy. The Islamic golden age also enabled the flourishing of non-Muslim philosophers. The Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides who lived in Andalusia thrived thanks to Islamic rule, during a period in the Christian world where non-religious philosophical thought was repressed.

This is just a small snapshot of this amazing period in history. Stay tuned for more discoveries from the Golden Age of Islam in my next blog.

Discover more about his amazing period in The Infidel and its sequel Veritas:

Islamic Radicalism and Multicultural Politics. Taylor & Francis. p. 9. ISBN 978-1-136-95960-8. Retrieved 26 August 2012.

Vartan Gregorian, "Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith", Brookings Institution Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8157-3283-X

Medieval India, NCERT, ISBN 81-7450-395-1

"In Our Time - Al-Kindi,Hugh Kennedy". 28 June 2012. Retrieved May 18, 2013.

"Islam's Gift of Paper to the West". 2001-12-29. Retrieved 2014-04-11.

"Kevin M. Dunn, ''Caveman chemistry : 28 projects, from the creation of fire to the production of plastics'', Universal-Publishers, 2003, page 166". Retrieved 2014-04-11.

"In Our Time - Al-Kindi,James Montgomery". 28 June 2012. Retrieved May 18, 2013.
Ferguson, Kitty Pythagoras: His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe Walker Publishing Company, New York, 2008,

Kaser, Karl The Balkans and the Near East: Introduction to a Shared History p. 135.
Yazberdiyev, Dr. Almaz Libraries of Ancient Merv Dr. Yazberdiyev is Director of the Library of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat.

Hyman and Walsh Philosophy in the Middle Ages Indianapolis, 3rd edition

Meri, Josef W. and Jere L. Bacharach, Editors, Medieval Islamic Civilization Vol.1, A - K, Index, 2006,

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Epic birth of a fledgling saga by Jocelyn Righton, The Bay Post, Friday 21st of March, 2014

WITH assassins and mercenaries on the family tree, Elisabetta Faenza couldn’t resist the temptation to write about them.

On March 27, the first book of a trilogy based on her famed ancestors, The Infidel, will be introduced by the author at the Bay Bookshop in Batemans Bay.

As the title suggests, this work of historical fiction takes place during the Crusades, which ended in the 13th century after 200 years of religious fanaticism.

Elisabetta, who lived in Batemans Bay for 25 years and now lives in Mongarlowe, says the original idea to write her epic work came from a project on family history at high school in Canberra.

“My family had a family tree on parchment which came from the Vatican,” she said.

“The family tree traced the Faenza family back to the 12th century, when they arrived in Italy from Faiyum in Egypt. It started a quest to fill in the gaps.”

When the parchment’s text was translated into English, Elisabetta was more than fascinated to find out that the males in the line became mercenaries and assassins, were appointed captains of Verona and Venice, and worked for the Doges of Venice and the Sforza family in Rimini.

From 1989 to the early 1990s, she wrote the original script of the trilogy.

Advised that Australian publishers weren’t interested in non-Australian content, she sent a sample to agents in the UK and US, where it was picked up by a literary agent in California.

“They said a film company was interested,” Elisabetta said.

“I then sent the entire script but the company vanished and, unbeknown to me, it was passed around Hollywood under another name and the film rights were sold.”

The fate of her work was brought to her attention by a newspaper article about the most expensive film ever planned at that time, but shelved because of an unwieldy script and a budget blowout.

Bells began to ring when she made further investigations and realised it was her story.

“I heard Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to play the protagonist, but I don’t know why because the character is North African,” she said

A letter from her lawyers to the production company informing it of her authorship and with an offer to help with the script was met with the news of its bankruptcy.

Elisabetta was so disillusioned she swore off writing fiction for the next 10 years, though she did write the libretto for Bay Theatre Players’ production of D’Arc, The Legend of Saint Joan in 1998.

“When I met my new partner, John Duffy, I didn’t have any money so I wrote him a story for a Christmas present,” she said.

“He was working offshore and he and his workmates kept asking for more stories.
I showed John the script of The Infidel and he was so impressed he encouraged me to pursue it.”

She reworked the entire script, broke it into three parts and, once again, tried her luck.

This time, it was a perfect run. The book was accepted by a reputable US publisher, Strategic Books, is now in print and negotiations are under way for it to be translated.

“It’s a dream come true that people are finally able to read it - and enjoy it,” she said.

Elisabetta takes a realistic view of her place among writers.

“I wouldn’t describe myself as a literary giant – I’m a storyteller,” she said.

“My stories are really fast-paced, have a lot of adventure and are a little bit naughty. They are an alternative romp through history!”

The Infidel is part one of The Condottiero Trilogy, which is but just the first trilogy of the Kingmaker Saga.

Part two, Veritas, about the fall of Constantinople, will be published later this year, and part three, The Assassin, swings back to the life and times of St Paul, will follow.

Elisabetta said she was very grateful to Vince and Glenda Heys.

“They were the first people to read it, and were really encouraging all those years ago,” she said.

With Elisabetta at Bay Bookshop will be her very good friend the Hon Dr Margaret Reid AO, an ACT senator for 25 years, who will speak at the gathering.

They first met in 1983 when Elisabetta was the Queen of Canberra for her fundraising and work for people with a disability in the ACT.

Everyone is welcome to attend the Bookshop, in Orient Street, from 5pm.

An RSVP is not essential but would be appreciated to 4472 6338.

The Infidel can be bought online from the publishers:

or through Amazon:

For more news about The Infidel see:

Friday, March 7, 2014

Unlocking the Secrets of the Nimrud Lens

I've written before about the vast amount of technology that arrived in Europe from the Middle East during or just after the Crusades.  Christianity destroyed or forbid thousands of ancient scientific texts, and it was only after Christians were exposed to these books and technological advances while traveling to such ancient cities as Antioch, Ascalon, Jerusalem, Alexandretta, Tyre and Acre that the West began to crave what had long been forbidden.

The works of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras had been preserved by Islamic scholars, debated and further developed, leading to such advances as the modern clock, telescope, compass and the wonders of hydraulic and mechanical robotics.

Travel back in time to the medieval and ancient  Middle East in The King Maker Saga, read Book 1 - The Infidel:

Of course many inventions predate even the Greek masters, and are unique to the ancient scientists of civilizations like Egypt and Assyria.  One such invention is the Nimrud Lens.

Below is an excellent article by Ancient Origins - enjoy...

The Nimrud lens is a 3,000-year-old piece of rock crystal, which was unearthed by Sir John Layard in 1850 at the Assyrian palace of Nimrud, in modern-day Iraq.  Since its discovery over a century ago, scientists and historians have debated its use, with one prominent Italian professor claiming the lens was used by the ancient Assyrians as part of a telescope, which would explain how the Assyrians knew so much about astronomy.
The Nimrud lens (also called the Layard lens), which has been dated to between 750 and 710 BC, is made from natural rock crystal and is a slightly oval in shape.  It was roughly ground, perhaps on a lapidary wheel. It has a focal point about 11 centimetres from the flat side, and a focal length of about 12 cm.  This would make it equivalent to a 3× magnifying glass (combined with another lens, it could achieve much greater magnification). The surface of the lens has twelve cavities that were opened during grinding, which would have contained naptha or some other fluid trapped in the raw crystal. The lens is said to be able to focus sunlight although the focus is far from perfect.
There has been much debate over the original use of the Nimrud lens.  Some speculate that it was used as a magnifying glass, or as a burning-glass to start fires by concentrating sunlight, while others have proposed that the lens was part of a telescope.  However, if we are to believe the British Museum’s description, the Nimrud lens “would have been of little or no practical use”, and while they acknowledge that “this piece of rock crystal has been carefully ground and polished, and undoubtedly has optical properties”, they reach the unusual conclusion that the optical properties were “probably accidental”.  I wonder if the British Museum also maintains that the hundreds of other carefully crafted and polished lenses found throughout the ancient world were also “accidental”?
The British Museum finished by saying that: “There is no evidence that the Assyrians used lenses, either for magnification or for making fire, and it is much more likely that this is a piece of inlay, perhaps for furniture.” However, many disagree with this claim.
Sir John Layard suggested that Assyrian craftsmen used the lens as a magnifying glass to make intricate and miniscule engravings, such as those that have been found on seals and on clay tablets using a wedge-shaped script. But experts on Assyrian archaeology are unconvinced. They say that the lens is of such low quality that it would have been a poor aid to vision.

Another hypothesis is that the lens was used as a burning glass to start fire. Burning-glasses were known in the ancient world. Aristophanes refers to "the beautiful, transparent stone with which they light fires" in his play The Clouds (424 BC). Pliny the Elder (23-79AD) describes how glass balls filled with water could set clothes on fire when placed in line with the sun. However, there is no clear evidence to support the theory that this was the purpose for which the Nimrud lens was created.
Italian scientist Giovanni Pettinato of the University of Rome has proposed that the lens was used by the ancient Assyrians as part of a telescope.  According to conventional perspectives, the telescope was invented by Dutch spectacle maker, Hans Lippershey in 1608 AD, and Galileo was the first to point it to the sky and use it to study the cosmos. But even Galileo himself noted that the 'ancients' were aware of telescopes.
While lenses were around before the Nimrud lens, Pettinato believes this was one of the first to be used in a telescope.  The earliest lenses identified date back around 4,500 years ago to the 4th and 5th Dynasties of Ancient Egypt (e.g., the superb `Le Scribe Accroupi' and `the Kai' in the Louvre), where it appears they were used as schematic eye structures (iris/pupil inserts) associated with funerary statues. Latter examples have been found in Knossos dated to around 3,500-years-old.  In total, there are several hundred reported lenses now on record from around the ancient world, so it appears that the ancients knew a lot more about lenses than some, like the British Museum, give them credit for.
Saturn’s Serpents
One of the reasons Pettinato believed that the Assyrians used the Nimrud lens as part of a telescope is that some of their knowledge about astronomy seems impossible to have acquired without a telescope.  For example, the ancient Assyrians saw the planet Saturn as a god surrounded by a ring of serpents, which Pettinato suggests was their interpretation of Saturn's rings as seen through a telescope. However, other experts say that serpents occur frequently in Assyrian mythology, and note that there is no mention of a telescope in any of the many surviving Assyrian astronomical writings.
Whatever its purpose, as an ornament, as magnifying lens, a burning glass, or part of a telescope, the Nimrud lens certainly appears to be more than an “accident”.  But exactly how it was used, we may never know.

Featured Image: The Nimrud Lens. Photo credit: Wikimedia
By April Holloway
The Nimrud Lens / The Layard Lens – The British Museum
World's oldest telescope? – BBC
The Development History of the Telescope – Antique Spectacles
Ancient Lenses - Ancient Wisdom
Ancient Optical Lenses – Ancient Cinema

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Saladin - A Medieval Icon


Name in full Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (“Righteousness of the Faith, Joseph, Son of Job”), also called al-Malik al-Nāṣir Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf I 

Kurdish - born 1137/38, Tikrīt, Mesopotamia [now in Iraq]—died March 4, 1193, Damascus [now in Syria]. 

Saladin was one of the most famous heroes of the medieval age. Muslim sultan of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine, Saladin was the founder of the Ayyūbid dynasty. In wars against the Christian Crusaders, he achieved great success with the capture of Jerusalem (October 2, 1187), ending its nearly nine decades of occupation by the Franks.

Saladin was born into a prominent Kurdish family. On the night of his birth, his father, Najm al-Dīn Ayyūb, gathered his family and moved to Aleppo, there entering the service of ʿImad al-Dīn Zangī ibn Aq Sonqur, the powerful Turkish governor in northern Syria. Growing up in Baʿlbek and Damascus, Saladin was apparently an undistinguished youth, with a greater taste for religious studies than military training.

His formal career began when he joined the staff of his uncle Asad al-Dīn Shīrkūh, an important military commander under the emir Nūr al-Dīn, who was the son and successor of Zangī. During three military expeditions led by Shīrkūh into Egypt to prevent its falling to the Latin Christian (Frankish) rulers of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, a complex, three-way struggle developed between Amalric I, the king of Jerusalem; Shāwar, the powerful vizier of the Egyptian Fāṭimid caliph; and Shīrkūh. After Shīrkūh’s death and after ordering Shāwar’s assassination, Saladin, in 1169 at the age of 31, was appointed both commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt and vizier of the Fāṭimid caliph there. His relatively quick rise to power must be attributed not only to the position of his Kurdish family but also to his own emerging talents. As vizier of Egypt, he received the title “king” (malik), although he was generally known as the sultan.

Saladin’s position was enhanced when, in 1171, he abolished the weak and unpopular Shīʿite Fāṭimid caliphate, proclaiming a return to Sunni Islam in Egypt. Although he remained for a time theoretically a vassal of Nūr al-Dīn, that relationship ended with the Syrian emir’s death in 1174. Using his rich agricultural possessions in Egypt as a financial base, Saladin soon moved into Syria with a small but strictly disciplined army to claim the regency on behalf of the young son of his former suzerain. Soon, however, he abandoned this claim, and from 1174 until 1186 he zealously pursued a goal of uniting, under his own standard, all the Muslim territories of Syria, northern Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt. This he accomplished by skillful diplomacy backed when necessary by the swift and resolute use of military force. Gradually his reputation grew as a generous and virtuous but firm ruler, devoid of pretense, licentiousness, and cruelty. In contrast to the bitter dissension and intense rivalry that had up to then hampered the Muslims in their resistance to the Crusaders, Saladin’s singleness of purpose induced them to rearm both physically and spiritually.

Saladin’s every act was inspired by an intense and unwavering devotion to the idea of jihad, or holy war. It was an essential part of his policy to encourage the growth and spread of Muslim religious institutions. He courted their scholars and preachers, founded colleges and mosques for their use, and commissioned them to write edifying works, especially on the jihad itself. Through moral regeneration, which was a genuine part of his own way of life, he tried to re-create in his own realm some of the same zeal and enthusiasm that had proved so valuable to the first generations of Muslims when, five centuries before, they had conquered half the known world.

One of my favourite historical characters, Salah al-Din (Saladin) was a man of unparalleled character, military instinct and faith. Go behind the action of his most famous battles with Richard Lion Heart in 'Verita's - book two of The Condotierro trilogy, coming soon.

Download a free eBook preview of The Infidel from

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A potted history of the efffect of the Crusades on Western culture.

The crusades were a period of history that set the scene for the Renaissance that followed.  Without the crusades the West would have stayed in the dark, unaware of the great philosophers, and without the benefit of chimneys, glass windows or coffee in their homes.  In this post I aim to provide a perspective on the influence of the crusades.

Crusaders embarked on their quests with zeal and a belief that the societies of Europe based on Roman Catholicism were the most advanced in the world.  What they discovered was that there was much to admire about Eastern ways - including daily bathing, sewers, universal education, advanced astronomy, and tolerance for religious beliefs. Most crusaders arrived with a proselytizing zeal but after a time became converted to the Eastern way of life, bathing, reclining while they ate, wearing loose silk clothing, reading books and eating spicy foods.

Those that returned usually brought these habits home with them, or adopted Eastern technology and habits in their homes.

The works of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Euclid and many others were smuggled back to the west and became treasured, hidden possessions. The ideas in these books eventually leaked out and advanced our Western knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy.  Arabic Numerals replaced the cumbersome Roman Numeral system and Eastern systems of calculation like the Abacus found new homes in the markets of the West. Paper replaced vellum and books became easier to produce, which then drove demand from the average person, spreading ideas faster and leading eventually to the invention of the printing press and the Renaissance.

Paper making had spread from China to Baghdad by the 8th century and by 1220, Italian paper makers had mastered the technique which was commonplace in Germany by 1400. Woodcut printing on paper made treasured handmade fabric books a thing of the past - allowing the average person access to a paper, printed, bound book.  This spread ideas and allowed more people access to self-education, a thing vehemently opposed by Mother Church.  But the cat had been let out of the bag and nothing was going to put it back in, not even the Inquisition, but that is another story.

The city state of Venice, with its key position on the Adriatic coast of the Italian peninsula profited greatly from the demand for Eastern goods: spices, silks, books, paper, and later gun-powder.  After seizing Constantinople in the infamous Fourth Crusade, Venice established itself as the dominant sea power in Europe, controlling both sea and land trade routes.  Venice profited from this position even long after its preeminence as a sea power had waned.  Venice was to hold its position as the cultural, artistic and epicurean avante garde for centuries.  Today the effects of the crusades can be seen in the glass works of Murano, the architecture and statuary of the Basilica of San Marco, and the plethora of exotic foods and books available in Venetian shops, not to mention the very famous Carnivale di Venezia.

Battle strategy was affected by contact with the light horse cavalry of military leaders like Nur al-Din and Saladin, with their lightning fast strike ability on smaller, more maneuverable mounts.  Heavy armor was useless in desert battle, and could be deadly, eventually leading to lighter armor styles and a preference for chain mail, and close quarter fighting.  The advanced siege techniques of Saladin were brought home to the West, giving returned knights the advantage, and breeding a whole new generation of soldiers for hire.

In my next post, I'll provide a timeline of the first four crusades to provide some context for readers.

For further research, I recommend the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium.

Happy Research,

Elisabetta L Faenza

The Research That Created The Infidel

Probably the fact that you are here means you have a thing for medieval trivia.  During the 20 years of research that went into the Condottiero Trilogy I was fortunate to come across many first person accounts of both the crusades and the medieval era in general. The Condottiero Trilogy is set during the period spanning the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Crusades and draws from French, Italian, Byzantine and Arabic historians of the era, and associated historical works. The trilogy covers a 200 year period of history, focused on the experiences of Italian, Byzantine and Arabic participants.

It was my sister Aquila who suggested I write this blog so readers and non-readers of The Infidel could have their medieval curiosity satisfied and the research I couldn't include in the series find a voice.

Thanks for coming to hang out here, and I hope I can keep you returning by posting relevant and interesting material.

Elisabetta L Faenza

December 2013