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Was Ancient Greek Knowledge Preserved by the Byzantines or by the Arabs?

Which contributed more to the preservation of ancient Greek knowledge, Islamic scholarship or the Byzantine Empire?
Which contributed more to the preservation of ancient Greek knowledge: Islamic scholarship or the Byzantine Empire? Credit: Nikos Niotis. CC BY-2.0/flickr

A common thesis is that many ancient Greek texts may have been lost if it were not for the preservation efforts of Islamic scholars, and, while that may be true to an extent, it is ultimately the Byzantine Empire that ensured the continued existence of ancient Greek ideas.

The Arabic World’s Meeting With Ancient Greek Knowledge

Exposure of Arabic, Islamic scholars to ancient Greek philosophy, science, medicine, and technology came about during the Umayyad invasion and subsequent conquering of previously Hellenized areas in Egypt and the Levant in roughly the 7th century.

Arabic logicians and thinkers preserved ancient Greek knowledge, upon which Islamic art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and technological achievements were built. Ibn Khaldun, an Arab historian, wrote, “The sciences of only one nation, the Greeks, have come down to us, because they were translated through Al-Ma Mun’s efforts. He was successful in this direction because he had many translators at his disposal and spent much money in this connection.”

Abbasid Caliphate and Umayyad Emirate.
Abbasid Caliphate and Umayyad Emirate. Credit: Khateeb88. CC BY-3.0/Wikimedia Commons/Khateeb88

From the very beginning, however, many Arabs were opposed to Classical learning, and, because of this, the religious caliphs could not support scientific translations of ancient Greek works. Translators instead had to find wealthy—rather than religious—business patrons.

The Islamic scholars’ translations and commentaries on the ancient Greek texts gradually made their way through Arab-conquered parts in the West into Spain and Sicily, both of which became significant hubs for the transmission of ideas.

It wasn’t until Abbasid rule—which followed Umayyad rule—in the 8th century, however, that any significant amount of translation took place. Most knowledge of Greek during Umayyad rule was acquired from scholars of Greek who were still around from the Byzantine period rather than through far-reaching translation and dissemination of texts.

Most translation took place in the Abbasid period, when the second Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. This is where he founded The House of Wisdom, a great library that housed Greek Classical texts.

Tapestry depicting Islamic scholars studying in the House of Wisdom.
Tapestry depicting Islamic scholars studying in the House of Wisdom. Credit: lblanchard. CC BY-2.0/flickr

Al-Mansur ordered these texts to be translated into Arabic, and under him, translations were made from Greek, Syriac, and Persian. The latter two were themselves translations from Greek or Sanskrit.

The 6th century King of Persia, Anushirvan the Just, also introduced several ancient Greek ideas into his kingdom.

Ancient Greek Knowledge Preserved by Byzantines, Then Passed Onto Islamic Scholars

The ancient Greek texts and culture that we appreciate today, however, would ultimately not have been preserved were it not for the efforts of scholars and monks of the Byzantine period. It was they who passed this knowledge on to the rest of Europe and the Islamic world at various times throughout history.

Aristotle had been translated in France at the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel before translations of the great Greek philosopher into Arabic. The Arabic translations came through the Syriac of the Christian scholars from the conquered lands of the Byzantine Empire.

The best-known works of the Classical era, particularly those of Greece, were readily available to the Byzantines and Western peoples who had cultural and diplomatic ties with the Byzantine Empire. Of the Greek Classics in existence today, at least 75 percent are known through Byzantine copies, according to Michael Harris’s History of Libraries of the Western World.

Another historian, John Julius Norwich, claimed that “much of what we know about antiquity, especially Hellenic and Roman literature, and Roman law, would have been lost forever if it weren’t for the scholars and scribes of Constantinople.”

Likewise, Ibn Khaldun also reported that Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur requested the mathematical works of the Greeks from the Byzantine emperor.

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