Today’s scientific world rests upon the shoulders of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars who translated ancient scriptures in the Middle Ages; first in the Middle East into Arabic, and then in Europe – starting in southern Italy and Spain – from Arabic into Latin. The significance of this transfer of knowledge cannot be overstated, even if it wasn’t the only strand of transmission. The arrival of Aristotle’s writings in medieval Europe, for example, was possible largely thanks to this translation activity.
The “House of Wisdom” was founded in Baghdad in the 9th century and became the site of much translation effort: Persian, Aramaic, Syrian, Hebrew, Indian (Sanskrit) and Latin manuscripts were translated into Arabic there by Jewish, Christian and Sabaean scholars. The polymath al-Khwarizmi (780–850) taught here, too and we owe him for a term that is very much relevant today: that of the algorithm, derived from a malapropism of his name.
Developed by the Austrian National Library, the exhibition is dedicated to this phenomenal period of the meeting of cultures. Four great writing cultures are presented: Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Latin. While religiously-motivated questions prevented the acceptance of cross-cultural knowledge, they also often provided the initial impetus for scientific research.
Within this field of tension, the exhibition focuses on areas that benefited particularly from this intercultural dialogue. The topics that have been much discussed since ancient times take centre stage: medicine, astronomy and astrology. The often richly illuminated manuscripts are mainly from the Middle Ages and impressively evidence how fundamental knowledge in these scientific fields was passed on. These meetings, which were enriching for all parties, primarily took place at the points of intersection and contact in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. The courts of the caliphates of the Middle East and the princedoms in Europe, the schools, as well as the universities that were beginning to become institutionalised functioned as melting pots and catalysts in this process. Here, texts were translated, the individual disciplines discussed, engagement with foreign writing and languages was fostered and thus the preconditions for the reception of new content and its integration into the respective translated texts were created.
Serving as a starting point throughout the Middle Ages was the cultural heritage from Antiquity: Greek and Roman knowledge. Transmitted via Byzantium, but above all through the early translations by Arabic scholars, it left its mark on the entire Middle Ages. The exhibition strikingly shows how, after translation into the respective language and knowledge culture, the comments and excerpts from original works served to initiate a creative process of appropriation.