House of Wisdom

The remarkable story of how the medieval Arabs made dazzling advances in science and philosophy – and of the itinerant European scholars who brought this knowledge back to the West

For centuries following the fall of Rome, Western Europe was a benighted backwater, a world of subsistence farming, minimal literacy, and violent conflict. Meanwhile Arab culture was thriving, dazzling those Europeans fortunate enough to catch even a glimpse of the scientific advances coming from Baghdad, Antioch, or the cities of Persia, Central Asia, and Muslim Spain. There, philosophers, mathematicians, and astronomers were steadily advancing the frontiers of knowledge and revitalizing the works of Plato and Aristotle. Central to this effort was the royal library in Baghdad, known as the House of Wisdom, where an army of scholars worked at the behest of the Abbasid caliphs.

At a time when the best libraries in Europe held several dozen books, Arab collections boasted as many as four hundred thousand volumes. Jonathan Lyons shows just how much “Western” ideas owe to the glories of medieval Arab civilization.

Even while their countrymen waged bloody Crusades against Muslims, a handful of intrepid Christian scholars, hungry for knowledge, traveled to Arab lands and returned with priceless jewels of science, medicine, and philosophy that laid the foundation for the Renaissance. In this brilliant, evocative book, Jonathan Lyons reveals the story of how Europe drank from the well of Muslim learning.