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ovemm. The Arabians not only contributed to preserve
scientific cultivation, by leading men ba^k to the perennial
sources of Greek philosophy, but they also extended that culti-
vation, and opened new paths to the investigation of nature.
The desolation of our continent by the overwhelming torrent
of invading nations commenced in the reign of Valentinian L,
in the last quarter of the 4th century, when the Huns (of
Finnish not Mongolian origin) crossed the Don, and
oppressed the Alani, and later with the help of these, the
Ostrogoths. Par off in eastern Asia, the torrent of
migrating nations had been set in motion several centuries
before our era. The first impulse was given, as we
have already said, by the attack of the Hiungnu {% Turk-
ish tribe), on the fair-haired and blue-eyed, perhaps Indo-
germanic, population of the IJsun, dwelling adjacent to the
Tueti (Qetse ?), in the upper valley of the Hoangho in North-
western China. This desolating torrent, propagated from
the great waU erected against the Hiuugnu (214 B.C.) to
the most western parts of Europe, moved through central
Asia north of the chain of the Himalaya. These Asiatic
hordes were not animated by any religious zeal before
they came in contact with Europe; it has even been
shown that they were not yet Buddhists (3i3) when they
arrived as conquerors in Poland and Silesia. Causes of an
entirely different kind gave to the warlike outbreak of a
southern people, the Arabians, a peculiar character.

In the generally compact and unbroken continent of
Asia, (31*) the almost detached peninsula of Arabia, between
the Eed Sea and the Persian Gulf, the Euphrates and the
Syrian part of the Mediterranean, forms a remarkably dis-
tinct feature. It is the westernmost of the three peninsulas

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oi southern Asia> and its proximity to Egypt and to a
European sea render its geographical position a very favour-
able one, both politically and commercially. In the central
parts of the Arabian peninsula lived the population of the
Hedjaz, a noble and powerful race, uninformed but not
rude, imaginative, and yet devoted to the careful observa-
tion of all the phenomena presenting themselves to their
eyes in the open face of nature, on the ever clear vault of
heaven or on the surface of the earth. After this race
had lived for thousands of years ahnost without contact with
the rest of the world, and leading for the most part a
nomadic life, they suddenly broke forth, became polished
and informed by mental contact with the inhabitants of the
ancient seats of cultivation, and subdued, proselytised, and
ruled over nations from the Pillars of Hercules to the Indus
as far as the point where the Bolor chain intersects that of
the Hindoo Coosh. Even from the middle of the ninth
c^itury they maintained commercial relations at once with the
northern countries of Europe and with Madagascar, with East
Africa, India and China; they diffused their language, their
coins, and the Indian system of numbers, and founded a
powerful combination of countries held together by the ties
of a common rehgious faith. It often happened that great
provinces were only temporarily overrun. The swarming
tioop, threatened by the natives, encamped, according to a
comparison of their native poets, '^like groups of clouds
which are soon scattered anew by the wind.^' No national
movement ever offered more animated phenomena; and the
mind-r^ressing spirit which appears to be inherent in Islam,
has manifested itself, on the whole, far less under the Ara-
bian empire than among the Turkish races. Beligious per-




aecution was here as elsewhere (among Christian nations
also), rather the effect of a boundless dogmatising despo-
tism, (315) than of the original faith and doctrine or of the
religious contemplation of the nation. The severity of the
Koran is principally directed against idolatry, and espedallj
against the worship of idols by Aramean races.

As the Hfe of nations is determined not only by their
internal mental dispositions, but also by many esAemal con-
ditions of soil, climate, proximity of the seaj, &c., we should
first recal the diversities of form presented by the Arabian
peninsula. Although the first impulse which led to the
great changes which the Arabians wrought in the three
continents proceeded from the Ismaelitish Hedjaz, and
owed its principal strength to a solitary pastoral tribe, yek
the coasts of the other parts of the peninsula had for thou-
sands of years enjoyed some portion of intercourse with the
rest of the world. In order to obtain an insight into the
connection and necessary conditions of great and. singular
events, we must ascend to the causes which gradurully prepared
the way for them.

Towards the south west, near the Erythrean Sea, is
situated the fine fruitful and agricultural country of the
Joctanides, {^^^) Yemen, the ancient seat of civilization
(Saba). It produces incense (lebonah of the Hebrews, per-
haps Boswellia thurifera, Colebr.), (3i7) myrrh (a kind of
Amyris, first exactly described by Ehrenberg), and what is
called the balsam of Mecca (Balsamodendron gileadense^
Kunth) : all of which formed articles of a considerable trade
with neighbouring nations, and were carried to the Egyp-
tians, to the Persians and Indians^ and to the Greeks and
itomans. It was from these productions that the geographical

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denomination of Arabia Felix, which we find first employed
by Diodorus and Strabo, was given. On the south-east
of the peninsula, on the Persian Gulf, the town of Gerrha,
situated opposite to the Phoenician settlements of Aradus
and Tylus, formed an important mart for the traffic
in Indian goods. Although almost the whole of the in*
terior of Arabia may be termed a treeless sandy desert,
yet there exist in Oman (between Jailan and Batna), a
chain of oases, watered by subterranean canals; and we
owe to the activity of the meritorious traveller Wellsted, (^is)
the knowledge of three mountain chains, of which the lof-
tiest summit, Djebel Akhdar, rises, clothed with forests, to
an elevation of more than six thousand feet above the level
of the sea. There are also in the mountain country of
Yemen, east of Lopeia, and in the littoral chain of Hedjaz
in Asyr, as well as east of Mecca near Tayef, elevated
plains, of which the constantly low temperature was known
to the geographer Edrisi. {^^^)

The same variety of mountain landscape characterises the
peninsula of Sinai, the ^^ copper land" of the Egyptians of
the '' ancient kingdom" (before the time of the Hyksos), and
the rocky valleys of Petra. I have already spoken, in a
preceding section, (320) of the Phoenician trading settlements
on the most northern part of the Eed Sea, and the voyages
to Ophir of the sliips of Hiram and Solomon, which sailed
from Ezion Geber. Arabia, and the adjacent island of
Soootora (the Island of Dioscorides), inhabited by Indian
settlers, were the intermediate links of thq traffic of the
world with India and the east, coast of Africa. The produc*
lions of these countries were commonly confounded with
those of Hadramaut and Yemen. We read in the prophet

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Isaiah, 'Hhey (the dromedaries of Midian) shall come from
Saba,, they shall bring gold and incense/' (^2^) Petra was
the emporium .for the valuable gbods designed for Tyre
and Sidon, and a principal seat of the once powerful com-
mercial nation of the Nabateans, supposed by the learned
Quatrem^re to have had their original dwelling-place in the
Gerrha mountains, near the lower Euphrates. This northern
part of Arabia, by its proximity to Egypt, by the spreading
of Arabian tribes into the mountains bounding Syria and
Palestine and into the countries near the Euphrates, as well as
by the celebrated caravan road from Damascus through Emesa
and Tadmor (Pabnyra) to Babylon, had come into influential
contact with other civilised states. Mahomet himself
sprung from a noble but impoverished family of the tribe of
Koreish, in the course of his trading occupations, before
he came forward as an inspired prophet and reformer,
had visited the fair of Bosra on the Syrian border, the fair
held in Hadramaut the land of incense, as well as the twenty
days' fair of Okadh near Mecca, where poets, chiefly Bedouins^
assembled for lyrical contests. I allude to these particulars
of the Arabian commerce, and the circumstances thence
arising, in order to give a 'more vivid picture of that which
prepared great revolutions in the world.

The spreading of the Arabian population towards the
aorth reminds us of two events, the circumstances of
which are indeed veiled in obscurity, but which afford
evidence that ages before Mahomet the inhabitants of
the peninsula had mixed in the affairs of the world by
outbreaks to the west and east, towards Egypt and the
Euphrates. The Semitic or Aramaic descent of the Hyksos^
who, under the twelfth dynasty, 2200 years before our en^

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put an end to the " ancient kingdom" of Egypt, is now
received by almost all liistoric investigators. Manetho even
had said, ^^some maintaiu that these shepherds were
Arabians." In other sources of historical knowledge they
are called Phoenicians — a name which in antiquity was
extended to the inhabitants of the valley of the Jordan, and
to aU the Arabian tribes. The acute Ewald refers particu-
larly to the Amalekites (AmalekaHans), who originally dwelt
in Yemen, and then spread themselves by Mecca and Medina
to Canaan and Syria, and are said, in early Arabian historical
works, to have had power over Egypt in the time of
Joseph. (322) It stiU must appear remarkable how the noma-
dic tribes of theHyksos should have been able to overthrow the
powerful and well-established ^^ ancient kingdom" of Egypt.
Men accustomed to freedom fought with success against men
habituated to a long course of servitude, even though at that
period the victorious Arabian invaders were not, as they sub-
sequently were, animated by religious enthusiasm. Erom fear
of the Assyrians (races of Arpachsad), the Hyksos established
the fortress of Avaris as a place of arms on the eastern branch
of the Nile. Perhaps this circumstance may indicate a suc-
cession of advanciiig warlike masses, or a movement of nations
directed towards the west. A second event, which occurred
fully 1000 years afterwards, is that which Diodorus(323)
relates from Ctesias. Ariseus, a powerful Himyarite prince,
entered into alliance with Ninus on the Tigris, and with
him, defeated the Babylonians, and returned to his home in
gouthem Arabia laden with rich spoils. (^24)

Although, on the whole, the prevailing mode of life in
Hedjaz, and that followed by a large and powerful portion
of the people, was a free and pastoral one, yet even then

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the towns of Medina and Mecca (the latter with its highly
ancient and enigmatical sacred Kaaba) were distinguished
as places of importance visited by foreign nations. In
districts adjacent to the sea^ or to the caravan roads
which act as river vallies, the complete savage wildness
engendered by entire insulation never prevailed. Gibbon,
whose conception of the different circumstances of man-
kind is always so clear, notices the important distinction
to be drawn between the nomadic life of the inhabitants of
the Arabian peninsula, and that of the Scythians described
by Herodotus ap.d Hippocrates ; since among the latter, no
part of the pastoral population ever settled in towns, whereas
in the great Arabian peninsula, the inhabitants of the country
have always kept up intercourse with the inhabitants of the
towns, who they regard as descended from the same original
race as themselves. {^^) In the Kirghez Steppe, a portion of
the plains inhabited by the ancient Scythians (Scoloti and
Sacse) and exceeding Germany in superficial extent, (^26) no
town has existed for thousands of years; yet at the time of my
Siberian journey, the number of tents (yourtes or kibitkos)
i^ the three wandering hordes stiU exceeded 400,000, indi-
9ating a nomadic population of two millions. I need not
enter more fully on the influence which such differences, in
regi^d to the greater or less insulation of nomadic life, must
hav^ exercised on the national aptitude for mental cuiuvauun,
evep supposing an equality of origmal disposition and

In tl^e noble and richly-giited Arab race, the internal dis-
position and aptitude lor mental cultivation concur with the
external circumstances to which I have adverted, — I mean the
natural features of the countij^ and the ancient commercial

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intercourse of the coasts with highly-civilised neighbouring
states,— in explaining how the irruptions into Syria and Persia^
and at a later period the possession of Egypt, could have
80 rapidly awakened in the conquerors a love for the sciences,
and a disposition to original investigation. We may per-
ceive that, in the wonderful arrangement of the order of the
world, the Christian sect of the Nestorians, who had exerted
a very important influence on the diffusion of knowledge,
became also of use to the Arabians before the latter came to
the learned and controversial city of Alexandria; and even
that Nestorian Christianity was enabled to penetrate far into
eastern Asia under the protection of armed Islam, The
Arabians were first made acquainted with Greek literature
through the Syrians, (^27) a cognate Semitic race, who had
received this knowledge hardly a century and a half be-
fore from the Nestorians. Physicians trained in Grecian
establishments of learning, or in the celebrated medical
school founded at Edessa in Mesopotamia by Nestorian
Christians, were living at Mecca in the time of Mahomet,
and connected by family ties with himseK and Abu-Bekr.

The school of Edessa, a prototype of the Benedictine
schools of Monte-Cassino and Salerno, awakened a disposition
for the pursuit of natural history, bj the investigation of
^ healing substances in the mineral and vegetable kingdoms/'
When this school was dissolved from motives of fanaticism
under Zeno the Isaurian, the Nestorians were scattered into
Persia, where they soon obtained a political importance, and
founded a new and much-frequented medicinal institution
at Chondisapur, in Khusistan. They succeeded in carrying
both their scientific and literary knowledge and their religion
as far as China, under the dynasty of the Thang, towards

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the middle of the seventh centory, 572 years after Buddhism
had arrived there from India.

The seeds of western cultivation scattered in Persia by
learned monks^ and by the philosophers of the school of the
later Platonists at Athens persecuted by Justinian, had
exercised a beneficial influence on the Arabians during their
Asiatic campaigns. However imperfect the scientific know-
ledge of the Nestorian priests may have been, yet, by its
particular medico-pharmaceutical direction, it was the more
effectual in stimulating a race of men who had long lived
in the enjoyment of the open face of nature, and preserved a
fresher feeling for every kind of natural contemplation, than
the Greek and Italian inhabitants of cities. That which
gives to the epoch of the Arabians the cosmical importance
which we are endeavouring to illustrate, is very much con-
nected with this feature of the national character. The
Arabians are, we repeat, to be r^arded as the proper
founders of the physical sciences, in the sense which we
are now accustomed to attach to the term.

In the world of ideas^ the internal connection and enchain*
ment of all thought renders it indeed always difficult to
attach an absolute beginning to any particular period of time.
Separate points of knowledge, as well as processes by which
knowledge may be attained, are, it is true, to be seen scattered
in rare instances at an earlier period. How wide is the
difference between Dioscorides who separated mercury from
cinnabar and the Arabian chemist Djeber; and between
Ptolemy as an investigator of optics and Alhazen ! But the
foundation of physical studies, and of the natural sciencei
themselves, first begins when newly opened paths are pursued
by many ai once, although with unequal success. After the

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Simple contemplation of nature, after the observation of such
phenomena on the surface of the earth or in the heavens
as present themselves spontaneously to the eye, comes
investigation, the seeking after that which exists, the
measurements of magnitudes and of the duration of motion.
The earliest epoch of such an investigation of nature, chiefly
limited, however, to the organic world, was that of Aristotle.
In the progressive knowledge of physical phenomena, in the
searching out of the powers of nature, there still remains a
third and higher stage, — ^that of the knowledge of the action
of these powers or forces in producing new forms of matter,
and of the substances themselves which are set at hberty in
order to enter into new combinations. The means which
lead to this hberation belong to the calling forth at will of
phenomena, or to ^'experiment/'

It is on this last stage, which was almost wholly untrodden
by the ancients, that the Arabians principally distinguished
themselves. Their country enjoys throughout the climate
necessary for the growth of pahns, and in its larger portion
possesses a tropical climate, as the tropic of Cancer crosses the
peninsula nearly from Maskat to Mecca;— it is therefore a
part of the world in which the higher vital energy of the
vegetable kingdom offers an abundance of aromas, of
balsamic juices, and of substances injurious as well a*
beneficial to man. The attention of the people must have
been early directed to the productions of their native soil, and
to those obtained by commerce from the coasts of Malabar,
Ceylon, and eastern Africa. In these portions of the torrid
zone organic forms are ''individualised*' in the smallest
geographical spaces, each of which offers pecuhar productions,
—and tlms incitements to the intercourse of men with nature

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were increased and multiplied. Great desire was felt to
become acquainted with articles so precious and so important
to medicine, industry, and the luxury of the temple and the
palace; to distinguish them carefuUy from each other; and
to find out their native place, which was often artfully con-
cealed from motives of covetousness. Numerous caravan
roads, departing from the commercial mart, Gerrha,
on the Persian Gulf, and from the incense district of
Tanen, traversed the whole interior of Arabia to Phoenicia
mi Syria ; and thus the names of these much-desired pro-
ductions, and the interest felt in them, became generally

The sQience of materia medica, the foundation of which was
laid in the Alexandrian school by Dioscorides, is, in its scien-
tific form, a creation of the Arabians, who, however, had
previously access to a rich source of instruction, the
most ancient of all, that of the Indian physicians. (^28)
The apothecar/s art was indeed formed by the Arabians,
and the first official authoritative rules for the prepara-
tion of medicines were taken from them, and were diffused
through southern Europe by the school of Salerno. Pharmacy
and the materia medica, the first requirements of the healing
art, conducted to the studies of botany and chemistry.
Prom the confined sphere of utility and of single application,
the study of plants gradually expanded into a wider and freer
field: it examined the structure of organiq tissues; the
connection of this structure with the laws of theur develop-
ment; and the laws according to which vegetable forms are
distributed geographically over the earth's surface, according
to differences of climate and of devation.

After the Asiatic conquests, for the maintenance of which

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Bagdad subsequently became a central point of power and
civilisation^ the Arabs^ in the short space of seventy years^
extended their conquests over Egypt, Cyrene, and Carthage
and through the whole of northern Africa to the distant
Iberian peninsula. The low state of cultivation of the armed
masses and of their leaders, may indeed have rendered occa-
sional outbreaks of a rude spirit not altogether improbable.
The tale of the burning of the Alexandrian library by Amru,
40,000 baths being heated for six months by its contents,
rests, however, solely on the testimony of two writers who
lived 580 years after the supposed event. (329) "We need not
here describe how, in more peacefcQ times, but without
the mental cultivation of the mass of the nation having
attained any free development, in the brilliant epoch of
Al-Mansur, Harun Al-Easchid, Mamun, and Motasem, the
courts of princes and the public scientific institutions
were able to assemble a considerable number of highly
distinguished men. We cannot attempt in these pages to
characterise the extensive, varied, and unequal Arabic litera*
ture ; or to distinguish that which springs from the hidden
depths of the particular organisation of a race and the natural
unfolding of its faculties, from that which is dependent on
external incitements and accidental conditions. The solution
of this important problem belongs to a different sphere of
ideas. Our historical considerations are limited to a &a^«
mentary notice of what the Arabian nation has ^Dutributed,
by mathematical and astronomical knowledge, and in the
physical sciences^ to the more general contemplation of the

The true results of investigation are indeed here, as elsi>
where in the middle ages, alloyed by alchemy, sup^/jsed

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magical arts, and mystic fancies ; but the Arabians, inces-
sant in their own independent endeavours, as well as labo-
rious in appropriating to themselves by translations the
firuits of earlier cultivated generations, have produced much
which is tniiy their own, and have enlarged the view of
nature. Attention has been justly called p^®) to the dif-
ferent circumstances in respect to cultivation of the invading
and immigrating Germanic and Arabic races. The former
became civilized after their immigration ; the latter brought
with them from their native country not only their religion,
but also a highly polished language, and the tender blos-
soms of a poetry which has not been altogether without
influence on the Proven9al poets and the Minnesingers.

The Arabs possessed qualities which fitted them in a
remarkable manner for obtaining influence and dominion
over, and for assimilating and combining^ difierent nations^
from the Euphrates to the Guadalquivir, and southward to
the middle of Africa : they possessed a mobility unexampled
in the history of the world; a disposition, very difPerent
from the repellent IsraeUtish spirit of separation, to efiect a
fusion with the conquered nations ; and yet, notwithstanding
perpetual change of place, to preserve unimpaired their own
national character, and the traditional remembrances of their
original home. No nation can shew examples of more
extensive land joumies undertaken by individuals, not always
for commercial objects, but also for collecting knowledge ;
even the Buddhistic priests fromThibet and China, even Marco
Polo, and the Christian missionaries who were sent to the
Mogul princes, moved over a smaller range of geographical
space. Through the many relations subsisting between
the Arabs and India and China, for their conquests had ex-

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tended under the Caliphate of the Ommaiades by the end of
the seventh century {^^^) to Kashgar, Caubul, and the
Punjab), important portions of Asiatic knowledge reached
Europe. The acute researches of Eeinaud have shewn how
much may be derived from Arabic sources, for the knowledge
of India. Although the invasion of China by the Moguls for
a time disturbed the communications across the Oxus, {^^^)

Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtCosmos, Volume 2 → online text (page 16 of 43)