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The Role of Science and Technology in Ancient Muslim and Byzantine Empires

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Science and Technology in The Ancient Byzantine and Muslim Empires

Because of differences in history, culture, and circumstance, the ancient Muslim world and the Byzantine Empire developed with very different scientific goals and achievements. The Muslims worked with a great spread of mathematical and scientific work, while the Byzantine Empire focused on architecture. These different focuses would affect both the people in the empires themselves and in the surrounding areas for years to come.

The ancient Muslim Empire made great advancements predominantly in astronomy, math, and medicine thanks to Islam, their capital of Baghdad, and the House of Wisdom. The reason Islam helped focus the population on the sciences starts with their prophet Mohammad, who personally supported learning in these fields (Beck, 274). However, a more major push into astronomy specifically was how knowledge in that field was necessary to fulfill 3/5 of the Pillars of Islam: fasting during the month of Ramadan, performing the hajj and praying towards Mecca (Beck, 275). The religious need to measure time and position eventually created the Astrolabe, made of a fixed plate containing a map of the sky, and a rotating “rete” simulating the Earth’s movement (Beck, 275). In later years, the House of Wisdom was opened in Baghdad as a library, academy and translation center for scholars of all different beliefs and cultures (Beck, 276). Texts about anything from philosophy to medicine would be translated from Greek, Indian and Persian languages into Arabic (Beck, 276). The House of Wisdom brought forth many great scholars. For example, the Muslim scholars believed math to be “the basis of all knowledge”, leading one mathematician Al-Khwarizmi to study Indian sources (Beck, 278). He then wrote about al-jabr, or “the art of bringing together unknowns to match a known quantity”, known today as Algebra (Beck, 278). Another mathematician, Ibn al-Haytham, wrote Optics about vision, going against common belief by saying that rays go from objects to the eyes instead of the other way around (Beck, 278). This knowledge was used in making telescope and microscope lenses (Beck, 278). Another large science studied in Baghdad was medicine, which was most famously studied by the persian al-Razi, possibly the best physician of his time (Beck, 278). His Comprehensive Book was an encyclopedia of knowledge from Greek, Syrian, Arabic, Indian and personal sources (Beck, 278). This shows the positive effects of the House of Wisdom’s cultural diversity.

The Byzantine Empire focused their scientific studies on architectural achievement, which was greatly influenced by history and religion. Byzantine architecture drew on that of it’s predecessor, Rome (Greenfield). However, there are many aspects of Roman architecture on which the Byzantines expanded. For example, the commonly used pendentives were four curved and indented triangles used to build large domes (Trachtenberg, Hersey). These were often seen in churches, which played a large part in Byzantine architecture and culture (Trachtenberg, Hersey). One such church was the Hagia Sofia, known as the “most splendid church in the Christian world” (Beck, 303). This was rebuilt by Justinian’s order, as he considered churches the most visible sign of his Empire’s connection between church and state (Beck, 303). Justinian also had a passion for architecture, making a program that greatly enlarged his palace, as well as making new baths, courts, schools, hospitals and aqueducts for the public. Besides Justinian’s personal wants, architecture was important in the Byzantine Empire because of Christianity. While majority of the Empire got little education, those in government positions got educated in various important subjects, but were given an emphasis on Christian literature (Greenfield). Christianity greatly influenced both literature and architecture, inspiring great churches (Greenfield). The Byzantine Empire’s architectural ideas and churches spread within the Christian east, most notably Russia, remaining there even after the Empire’s fall (Greenfield).

The reason for the differences in scientific focus between the Muslim and Byzantine Empires are caused by different backgrounds and overall goals. The Byzantine Empire’s History as the second Roman Empire gives them a history rich with architecture, which the emperor Justinian has an interest in, leading him to create the great Hagia Sofia (Beck, 303). Having a close church and state connection, churches were often built by the empire using their architectural knowledge (Trachtenberg, Hersey). Meanwhile in the Muslim world, architecture was studied in the House of Wisdom, but was overshadowed by greater scientific achievement (Beck, 287). Also having a religious push into academic learning by the prophet Mohammed, as well as the need to fulfill the Five Pillars of Islam, the Muslims focused their energy on the sciences (Beck, 274-275). The House of Wisdom in Baghdad took scholars from all different cultures and beliefs to translate works, both recent and past, from those surrounding areas into the scholarly language of Arabic (Beck, 276). The wide spread of the Muslim Empire, their belief in mathematics as the basis of knowledge, and their religious drive into Astronomy is something that the Byzantines and Christianity lack, pushing Muslim studies in a different direction than the Byzantine Empire’s (Beck, 275-278).

While they were both driven by religion, the Byzantine and Muslim Empires focused their education and studies on very different topics. By paying attention to these differences, differences in the religions can be identified and differences in the areas at the time can be better understood. The studies of such large and influential Empires affect the surrounding areas for years, and will lead to different technology and education in their futures, and knowing how and why these areas are different now starts with realising the differences in their roots.

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