Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Baghdad: The scientific seesaw

Baghdad University.jpg

A couple of weeks ago, Jim Al-Khalili, a professor of physics who was originally born and raised in Iraq, wrote about the scientific legacy of Baghdad in the Guardian.

The article touches on all the familiar bases that you will find on pieces that talk about the scientific legacy of the Islamic empire, with a special focus on the House of Wisdom, which acted as a beacon of science for centuries. The Caliphs, espeically the young Abu Ja’far al-Ma’mun, were obsessed with collecting every book in the known world in the coveted halls, and translating them into Arabic. Many historians say it was the greatest centre of knowledge humanity has known since the Great Library of Alexandria.

The glorious scientific legacy of Baghdad, however, came to an end after the invasion of the Mongols completely sacked and burned Baghdad. Historians speak of how the invaders gathered the books in Baghdad’s great libraries, including the House of Wisdom, and threw them in the river to create a passage for their troops across it. Survivors say the water ran black due to the ink in the book and red from the blood of scientists killed.

Baghdad never fully recovered from the blow, it was obviously rebuilt as a glorious city, but nothing like its historical rule. And historically, every invasion chipped away at their scientific culture.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and its allied forces was not too different either. In April 2003, the Iraq National Library and Archive was burned and looted. Over 60% of its archived material was destroyed. The library was home to some of the oldest documents from the Ottoman empire as well as one of the oldest copies of the Q’uran.

A campaign of assassination from 2005 to 2007 killed hundreds, and forced thousands more to flee the country in fear for their lives. Things got so bad that the UNESCO warned that the killings almost collapsed the university system. Attendance dropped in many universities to as low as 30% as even going to the university became an increasingly dangerous endeavour.

Things are much better in Iraq now and it is safer for everyone. The Iraq National Library and Archive was rebuilt and upgraded and became a safe haven for researchers.

Now is the time for the country to live up to the challenge it had endured over the past 1,000 years or so: building up a science culture nearly from scratch once again.

As international aid to the trickles in to the anguished academic sector, the government is trying to send as many students and faculty members as possible to study overseas. A risky strategy, but they hope these individuals will form the nucleus of Iraq’s research efforts.

Now the government would like to reach out to the science Diaspora, and convince them to come back to Iraq. However, the signs are not too encouraging. Iraq is still mired by challenges and problems. For example, steady electricity is still a luxury most universities don’t have.It is hard to believe that Iraq-born scientists currently living in the West will leave their well-equipped laboratories and comfortable lifestyles to return to the dire conditions of their home country.

Baghdad never fully recovered after it was sacked by the Mongols. However, the resilient citizens were always able to rebuild. It may not be as grand as before, but always an impressive feat.

Here’s hoping they can recreate the stunt one more time.

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