The Abbasid Greco–Arabic translation movement; the cultural rivalry & exchanges with the Eastern Roman Empire

Here we present selected parts of the very informative paper titled “Arabo-Byzantine Traffic of Manuscripts and the Connections between the Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement and the First Byzantine ’Renaissance’ (9th-10th Centuries)“, by Jakub Sypiański.


“The Muslim civilisation that emerged in the seventh century was highly affected by the culture of its Byzantine and Sassanid predecessors. We can observe many Byzantine influences in the nascent caliphate. In very few cases they were direct (as in art), but this was not necessarily always the case. Almost everything that Arabs were doing on a larger scale – building monumental architecture, searching for identity, waging wars, even defining religion – was done in defiance of the splendour of the still mighty and impressive empire of Constantinople.

By contrast, Arabic influences on Byzantium are occasional and difficult to track. They include: the transfer of motifs in art and literature, the dubious idea that iconoclasm was inspired by Islam, as well as influences in astrology and occult sciences.

The literary aspect of the “Macedonian” cultural revival (more precisely the renewal of written production in the ninth century, related to the invention of the extremely efficient minuscule script) and the Abbasid Greco–Arabic translation movement of IX and X centuries, during which a major part of scientific literature and Greek philosophy was translated into Arabic, including Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Ptolemy and Galen took place almost simultaneously. This activity, concentrated in Baghdad, was generously sponsored by the caliphs and politico-cultural elite and lead to Greek thought being incorporated into the Islamic tradition.

In the past, all influence of the Arab world upon Byzantium has been largely denied, especially by the scholars of Byzantium, who called it “just a remarkable coincidence”. A few years ago, this approach was questioned by Dimitri Gutas, a specialist in the Greco-Arabic translation movement. He found it hard to believe that these two movements, which occurred almost simultaneously and which where in many ways so similar, could have been completely unrelated. He maintained that the Byzantines were well aware of philosophical and scientific movements in Baghdad; indeed, they were even under Arabic influence.

Gutas makes a very interesting comparison between the books that were being copied or translated in the ninth century in Byzantium on one hand and in the Abbasid caliphate on the other. He sets side by side the list of works translated into Arabic at that time and the list of the very first manuscripts that have undergone the process of transcription into minuscule in Byzantine scriptoria. The correlation between them is striking.

Gutas gives two possible explanations for these similarities. Firstly, the Greek manuscripts could have been copied in the ninth and tenth centuries through imitation or as a response to the Arabic translation of these very works. This would represent a kind of emulation or rivalry at the cultural level. The Byzantines, being aware of Arab achievements in the fields of science and philosophy, would have wanted to prove their superiority. This rivalry was a constant element in the diplomatic game of that time. The Byzantine determination to reclaim cultural superiority over the Arabs would have provoked their desire to emulate Muslim achievements and nourished a renewed interest in Greek heritage.

Secondly, the manuscripts could have been copied in Byzantium because of a specific Arabic demand for these works. The Arabs were highly interested in Greek philosophical and scientific literature. They needed the manuscripts. In fact, as we will see, the caliphs seized every opportunity to obtain them from Byzantium. The Byzantines possibly became aware of this matter and according to Gutas they may have provided the Arabs with fresh copies of the Greek manuscripts that were in their possession.


The Arabic demand

The Arabic demand for Greek manuscripts would be difficult to underestimate. On several occasions, sources inform us of great efforts undertaken by caliphs in order to obtain Greek manuscripts from Byzantium. Frequently they were taken as booty after conquest of a Byzantine city. According to Ibn Gulgul, Caliph al-Mu‘taim, after the conquest of the major Byzantine city of Amorium, ordered to take the remains of the books stored in the local library and then called the famous physician Yuhannā ibn Māsawayh to translate them. It is probable that such events occurred quite often, since the Muslim jurists of that period paid special attention to the question of what to do with foreign books acquired as booty in wartime. The caliphs also employed more peaceful means to obtain books. According to Ibn al-Nadīm, al-Ma’mūn wrote to the Byzantine emperor asking him for a selection of old scientific manuscripts from Byzantium. The letter was followed by a group of scholars sent by the caliph with an order to bring and translate these books.

It was not only the caliphs who were interested in books from Byzantium. The same Ibn al-Nadīm tells us what he heard from Ibn Šahrām, a tenth century envoy to Constantinople. He came back to Baghdad with reports about the abundance of books in Byzantium.

Byzantium therefore was famous in the Arabic world for possessing numerous Greek works. Moreover, this reputation was common not only in the Abbasid Caliphate, but in Umayyad Spain and in Fatimid Egypt as well. Some sources speak of Arabs who came to Byzantium precisely with the specific aim of buying Greek books.

Ibn al-Nadīm gives few names of some important scholars and political figures “who were concerned with the bringing of books from the Byzantine country” and goes on to say that they sent “Hunayn ibn Ishāq and others to the Byzantine country to bring them rare books and unusual compositions about philosophy, geometry, music, arithmetic, and medicine”. There are more stories of that kind, even dating to later periods, for example of Muhammad b. Sa‘id, a thirteenth century historian and librarian from Malaga, who was an avid buyer of Byzantine books. When he heard of a famine in Byzantium, he sent a shipment of grain to Constantinople, but commanded his agent not to give it to the starving Byzantines unless in exchange for – nothing else than – books.


The Financial aspect

It is easy to envisage a number of difficult predicaments related to this kind of activity. Getting into contact with Byzantine copyists, buying old precious manuscripts or commanding new ones to be copied and importing them to Baghdad… It would be quite a costly affair. Did the scholars of Baghdad have that amount of money? In fact they did. Firstly, we must understand the importance of the book trade in the Arab world, which prospered much better than that in Byzantium. It was so important that, for example, in Baghdad, there was a whole neighbourhood of bookstores and many people made their living through the production and trade of books. For instance – Ibn al-Nadīm himself, inherited from his father a bookstore coupled with a publishing company and his opus – Al-Fihrist’ – was intended as a complete catalogue of the books and authors that he possessed in his facilities (or that he knew of).

Simply speaking – there was huge amount of money involved in the book business in Baghdad, especially in the Greco-Arabic translation movement. This process was very fortunate when it came to finding patrons. Most of the groups belonging to the elite of Baghdad – regardless of their position and of religious or ethnic affiliation – were interested in sponsoring translations. This movement was initiated by the Abbasid caliphs themselves. Subsequently, it was developed and sponsored by their families, courtiers, state officials and by the emerging community of scholars. As they paid a lot for these works, their expectations grew. The more profitable the translation movement became, the more professional it turned out to be.

When the translations became a very profitable business, their authors were able to devote plenty of resources and effort in order to acquire the manuscripts to work on and the skills required to translate them. However, could Arab demand for Greek books have influenced Byzantine manuscript production? The sources themselves contain no straightforward information regarding this matter.


A Palestinian intermediary?

It is worthwhile at this point to refer to the fact that Greek manuscripts were probably as numerous inside the caliphate as in Byzantium. The Arabs inherited, with the conquered Byzantine provinces, two focal points of Greek cultureAlexandria and Antioch, as well as many smaller centres. Palestine, or more generally, Syria, was a particularly important area of post-Byzantine learning within the caliphate. The Orthodox environment around Jerusalem not only survived the Muslim conquest, but thanks to its new position within the vast Muslim caliphate, it became very dynamic and innovative, as is proven for instance by the very early implementation of paper or minuscule script.

In this case, perhaps it would be more appropriate to relocate or re-centre the entire model of Arabo-Byzantine manuscript traffic? Maybe we should place this demand-supply scheme within the Caliphate: in Syria and Palestine? We can assume that Arabic translators searched intensively for Greek manuscripts in Palestine, and in Syria in general. Perhaps the concentrated activity of these communities is at least to a certain degree a consequence of the intellectual Golden Era in the Abbasid caliphate? Could it be that Arabs were eager to buy manuscripts from Palestinian monks? Maybe this interest prompted the latter to invent a more efficient way of writing: the famous minuscule? Nevertheless if all of this demand-supply pattern were to be confined to the areas of the Abbasid caliphate, how could we connect it to the development of the Macedonian renaissance in Byzantium?

To better analyse this relationship, we should take into account the close cultural ties
between the Greek communities of Palestine and Constantinople in this period. They became very intense due to the arrival of refugees from the Eastern Provinces after the Muslim conquest. Moreover, they magnified during the time of the civil wars and turmoil of the second half of the eighth century and beginning of the ninth. Several important figures of ninth-century Byzantine culture were refugees from Palestine – Theodore and Theophanes Graptoi, George Syncellus, Michel Syncellus and Antony the Younger. For this reason, it would not be a complete novelty if Muslim-ruled Palestine influenced Constantinople culturally.

The main problem is that the sources do not give us direct evidence of the interactions, which would have tied Byzantine (or Palestinian) scriptoria and the translators and scholars from the caliphate. Yet besides the lack of explicit information in the sources, the latent evidence, is not unequivocal. Beyond doubt there are several points of this theory that need further analysis.”


Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus



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