BRINGING THE OUTSTANDING CONTRIBUTIONS OF ISLAMIC CULTURE IN THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE TO VISITORS, THE ISTANBUL MUSEUM OF THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY IN ISLAM WAS FOUNDED IN 2008 IN THE GROUNDS OF GÜLHANE PARK, ONE OF ISTANBUL’S LOVELIEST LOCATIONS. WE DISCUSSED THE HISTORY OF ISLAMIC SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY WITH THE MUSEUM’S FOUNDER, PROFESSOR FUAT SEZGIN.
Sir, how did the idea of establishing this museum occur to you?
I had been serving as a professor of the history of the natural sciences at the University of Frankfurt since 1965, alongside two fellow professors working at the same institute.
I took on the responsibility of pointing out the role of the Muslims in this common heritage. I would see more clearly each day, in the period when I was giving lessons, that there were injustices in the way the Muslim’s contribution to the history of science was presented, and I worked tirelessly on the question of how to resolve this.
On the other hand, I knew how difficult it was to put together the lessons I had taken on. I should say that it is not as though there was a complete absence of work in the field. For 250—or even 300—years, European orientalists had learned Arabic, Persian, and the other languages of the East, and made great efforts to learn the substance of the sciences in Islam. They studied the Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish works they obtained from the Islamic world to this end. These efforts continued, and still continue today. Despite all this, it was a very hard task to point out the role of the Muslims in the history of the sciences in general, and to present a relatively realistic treatment based on all these studies.
In the meantime I took on a very difficult job: that of writing a history of the sciences in Islam insofar as circumstances would allow. I strive to this day to fulfill this duty.
At the same time, the idea occurred to me to establish within the University of Frankfurt an institute of the history of Arab and Islamic science, aimed at promoting the study and teaching of the history of science in Islam. I was able to make this idea a reality in 1980 and 1982, for which Allah be praised.
Among my institute-related endeavors was the aim of establishing a museum that would feature, for the first time, examples of the devices and instruments that Muslims created—or borrowed from other cultures and improved—over the course of the history of Islamic science. I was lucky enough to be able to do that, too. Over the last twenty-five years, a museum has emerged in Frankfurt that has models of about nine hundred devices and instruments.
Which branches of science are included in your museum?
Our museum covers fifteen scientific fields. For example, there are models related to astronomy, mathematics, geography, physics, and chemistry on display.
Could you name a few instruments used in these fields—astronomy, for instance?
We have roughly one hundred astronomical instruments. Now, it bears repeating that scientists from other cultures—the Greeks, for example—had made some of these instruments before the Muslims. The Muslims borrowed some of these from the Greeks, developed them further, and brought them to a great level of refinement. For instance, Muslim scientists borrowed a very basic form of the astrolabe from the Greeks, but the improvements made in the Islamic world up to the 16th century were nothing short of astonishing. The astrolabe that the Muslims borrowed from the Greeks was a planar astrolabe, and in the ninth century they invented the spherical astrolabe.
If I may, I have an astronomy-related question. Since when were Muslims aware that the earth was round? What did they think about the idea that the earth revolves?
The Muslims received the idea of the earth being round from the Greeks at the end of the first century of Islam. Here it is notable that this idea did not lead to any theological debate among them. The history of this idea in the in the Christian world, of course, was rather tumultuous.
As for the earth rotating around itself—Muslims started debating this issue in the ninth century. I know of several scientists who adopted this idea as the basis of their astronomical systems in the tenth century, although in the eleventh century great Muslim scholars—al-Bîrûnî, for example—argued about this matter at length. He said that accepting the rotation of the earth was not a difficulty for us, it only involved physical problems, but that there was no issue about accepting the notion of the earth's rotation to explain our astronomical problems.
Did the notion of the earth’s roundness influence Islamic geography?
There is a large globe in front of the museum in Istanbul. Besides the world being round, it shows a very important fact, namely that it uses the degrees of latitude and longitude.
The Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mûn reigned during the first quarter of the ninth century AD. It can be said without a doubt that this caliph was the ruler who played the greatest role in the development of science in all of history, having hundreds of Greek works translated into Arabic. He was the person who founded the first astronomical observatory in the world so that accurate astronomical measurements could be obtained. In addition to the one in Baghdad, the caliph set up another large observatory in Damascus, and he personally made the measurements and the observatory alongside the scientists.
At that time he also commissioned seventy scientists with the task of creating a world map and world geography based on the determination of latitude and longitude, dispatching them across the world to make measurements. And working with what they had available then, they produced the first ever world map based on actual measurements. It was known that such a world map had been made, but that it had been lost. I was able to find that map at Topkapı Palace in an encyclopedia written in AD 1340. In addition, we obtained a book with the coordinates of a world map, and we seized the opportunity to create a map based on these tables and compare it with the al-Ma’mûn map.
Now, I should mention that the book on geography by Ptolemy, the Greek scholar of astronomy, and his tables of latitude and longitude had reached the Muslims. However, the degrees of latitude and longitude provided by Ptolemy were not the product of actual measurement, with a few exceptions. There is no doubt that the Muslims used his book as a point of departure and learned certain principles from it, but it was al-Ma’mûn’s initiative that paved the way for the creation of a real world map. Through their painstaking efforts from the 9th to the 16th century, Muslims took hundreds of measurements. They were constantly seeking to correct the complete and regional maps of the world.
Let me add that the caliph al-Ma’mûn, above all, made great efforts to discover the true length of the equator, and obtained for the benefit of mankind, with measurements taken using a scientific method that would astonish science historians, a result that was very close to what we know today to be the length of the equator.
The maps used by the Europeans until the 18th century, and taken from them to the East, were based on Islamic sources that reached Europe in earlier times. In connection with this I should say that the Muslims sought to reach Asia from the west of Europe for centuries, and they created a partial map of the American continent in the early 15th century at the latest. Christopher Columbus was relying on these maps to make his voyages toward the west.
How did the idea of establishing a similar museum in Istanbul arise?
In 2006, the then Minister of Culture, Mr. Atilla Koç, visited our museum in Frankfurt and expressed a desire to see another like it in Istanbul, which was very much my own desire as well. But at the time we weren’t able to come to an agreementon how the museum would be founded.
Among the visiting delegation was Mr. Muammer Güler, then the governor of Istanbul, and currently the Minister of the Interior (we have now developed a lovely friendship). As he was leaving, he lamented, “We really could have done this in Istanbul, sir…” Six months later, on my summer holiday visit, I saw the imperial stables building in Gülhane Park, which had nearly finished being renovated. I was enchanted, and some friends told this to the mayor of Istanbul. A few days later, the mayor, Dr. Kadir Topbaş, visited Frankfurt, where he saw the museum and admired it very much. He called me a few days after he returned to Istanbul to inform me of the municipality’s favorable decision.
What do you feel about having brought such a museum to Istanbul?
Above all, I have seen (and continue to see) that the worldview of my nation, which was brought up to believe in a flawed myth of the Renaissance, has started changing, and that pleases me. I mean the false conception of the Renaissance, which some unknown person came up with in the 18th century, which linked scientific advancement in Europe during and after the 15th century directly to the Greeks. Anyway, I started to feel that this worldview, that ignored the great progress that took place in the Islamic world over eight hundred years, was changing among Muslims, especially Turks, and I came to believe that this would play out very significantly. I hope some tourists have started feeling this change of mindset as well.
The five-volume catalog that I wrote in the natural course of my work, and its translations from German to English, French, Arabic, and Turkish, will play an important role in this direction.
The Istanbul Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and closed on Tuesday. For more information:
HOW TO GO?
The Museum is located in the building of the former Imperial Stables of the Topkapı Palace, in the Gülhane Park. The Museum can be reached from the main gate to Gülhane Park near the Aya Sofya or from the opposite gate at the Sahil Yolu (Kennedy Caddesi) near the Saray Burnu.
Address: Has Ahırlar Binaları. Gülhane Parkı. Sirkeci/Eminönü İstanbul/Türkiye – Phone: +90 212 528 8065