Post 42: Science & Islam

I recently read Science & Islam by Ehsan Masood, designed to accompany a BBC television series, and decided to put out a post on it. To spoil things up front, I found the book disappointing but the topic fascinating so I began writing a huge essay on it. So huge in fact that I’ve decided to split it into a number of posts. This first one will give a general history and my thoughts on the book itself, and it should be followed by a post or two on the science behind all this (something that I think the book struggled to deal with as much as I would have liked).

The Rise of Islam

When the Arab armies came storming out of the desert into the tired Byzantine and Persian Empires, their initially success was astounding. They soon found themselves in control of a vast empire containing a mix of religions and peoples in which arabs and Islam were a minority. This shift from military expansion to administration provided a set of challenges for the Caliphate to deal with – providing food for the population, minting coins, providing a central administration and building new cities and buildings. This began a boom in science and technology that would last for centuries, but it did not start from scratch – those christians, jews and zoroastrians that had populated the land before would lend their talents to this and techniques would be brought in and translated from outside the reaches of the empire. The universal adoption of the arabic language helped this process, providing easy communication between scholars from distant lands.

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Post 41: The Search For King Alfred

Dr Tucker and AlfredI recently went to a talk by Katie Tucker in a pub in Southsea/Portsmouth*. She’s the leader of a group from the University of Winchester that has potentially found the bones of King Alfred the Great. As she’s an archaeologist specializing in bones the talk was a bit short on biographical detail, but nonetheless provided a fascinating description of the investigation into and the story behind his remains and final resting place. In the aftermath of Richard III’s re-appearance this search was splashed all over tabloid front pages with lurid headlines and dubious mis-quotes. The results may not be quite as complete as that of the University of Leicester but Dr Tucker’s investigation was quite a different one with a brilliant conclusion in its own way.

When Alfred died in 899 AD, he was originally buried in the old Minster at Winchester but within a few years he had be shifted to the New Minster next door, built by his son as a dynastic church for the family. So far so good*, but the difficulties start when the Normans arrived and decided to build a new cathedral on the site. Alfred’s remains, and those of some close relatives and companions, were packed up and taken to a new abbey at Hyde on a new site. They were reburied here, although the exact position is disputed. Then in 1538 the abbey was dissolved and demolished, and in 1788 the site had a prison built on top. This is where the location of the bodies starts to get messed up – contemporary reports suggested that the bones were scattered by the building work.

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Post 40: Exhibiting Germany

PlacardI’m been reading more and more about Germany recently – between the History of Germany Podcast and learning German, it seems like the thing to do. Therefore I’m quite pleased to pass on the news that The British Museum is soon to start a new exhibition on the story of Germany. I went to their big Viking one earlier in the year and heard good things about their recent Ming dynasty one, so I’m sure this will be of a very high standard.

2014 coincides with a number of big anniversaries for German history and German-British relations – 100 years since World War One, 300 since the Hanoverians came to the UK and 25 since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s a lot to cover so the curators have limited themselves to the 15th century onwards, but there’s still more than enough fascinating stories and history to tell. There is more information on the British Museum blog (which is well worth following btw) at http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2014/09/11/exhibiting-germany/.

Tickets can be booked online at http://www.britishmuseum.org/germany

And, as if that wasn’t enough, there will be an accompanying radio show by the director of the museum on BBC Radio. It should be worth checking out come the start of October.

Post 39: How Jamaica Conquered The World

On first sight, How Jamaica Conquered The World did not sound particularly promising. No offence to Jamaica, but I’d never had any real interest in their history. It’s to podcaster Roifield Brown’s credit then that he has managed to make such a fascinating and unique podcast that it can win over skeptics like me.

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Post 38: Gettysburg Requiem

The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates

Book CoverYet another of the slightly obscure biographies that I’ve picked up at the Last Bookshop in Oxford over the last few years; this book tells the story of William C. Oates, a confederate officer who was on the defeated side at Little Round Top in the battle of Gettysburg. He was a reasonably successful man in his own way, but in the grand scheme of things was a very minor player. However, history isn’t just about your Lincolns and your Lees (to use a Jamie Redknapp style syntax) and we can learn a lot from looking at someone like Oates; not just his role in (possibly) one of the crucial moments of the war, but also his general outlook and his life before and after the war.

Oates was born in Alabama in 1835 to a poor farming family, and had a bit of a wild life as a young man (and, to be honest, as an adult). He nearly killed a man in a drunken brawl and ran off to be a drifter in Florida, before being found by his younger brother John and returning to become a local lawyer. In many ways, he wasn’t a particularly likeable character (to put it mildly) – hot tempered, racist, sexist and arrogant – but he was also smart and determined. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the 15th Alabama in the Confederate army and rose through the ranks. He was talented as an officer, if occasionally a bit too opinionated or headstrong to reach the level he felt he deserved.

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