Greek non-technical works in Arabic

An interesting comment on my last post deserves further examination.  It read, in part:

Okasha El Daly’s Egyptology: the missing millennium: ancient Egypt in medieval Arabic writings mentioned a number of unexpected Arabic translations of Greek writings, including poets like Homer.

The link to the Google Books preview allows us to investigate a bit.  The book, indeed, looks interesting and I wish I could access it in full.

On page 26:

The other major sources used by Arab writers were the extant Greek and Latin sources on Ancient Egypt which were widely available in their original languages and also in translations in either Arabic or Syriac and perhaps also Aramaic and Persian.

A glance at the index of Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist) shows that many classical sources were already known and quoted in Arabic writings in the 10th century and we have the Arabic versions of many of the classical sources, for example Josephus (Pines 1971), who was quoted extensively by Arab writers such as Al-Shahrastani.

Herodotus, Manetho, Plutarch, Plato and Plotinus among others were known and it was perhaps these sources which were being referred to by Al-Biruni (Al-Athar. 84) when he said that he acquired ‘Books which had die periods of reigns of the kings of Ashur of Mosul, and the periods of the kings of the Copts who were in Egypt and the Ptolemaic kings …’

This seems a little dodgy.  Pines in 1971 does not refer to a translation into Arabic of Josephus as far as I know, but to the possible presence of a version of the Testimonium Flavianum in the Arabic Christian history of Agapius, who is working from Byzantine chronicles of various sorts.

On page 62 we read:

Knowledge of ancient Egyptian also came from Arabic translations of many of the classical writers, whose works included references to ancient Egyptian language and scripts. These included Homer, Herodotus, Plutarch, Chaeremon, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus (Budge 1929: 179ff; Iversen 1993: 38ff). These classical writers were widely quoted by Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist: 315), Ibn Fatik (Mukhtar. 54), and Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah (Tabaqat: 50).

Now this is not very satisfactory, because the Arabic works in question cannot easily be consulted by anyone else.  Budge in The Rosetta Stone (1929) merely lists Greek writers on hieroglyphics, and says nothing about Arabic use of them, as far as I can tell.

On p.109-110:

It was common for long passages to be quoted from classical writers such as Homer, Herodotus, Iamblichus, Plato, and Plotinus even in Arab literary works, for example in the writings of Al-Sajistani and of Ibn Fatik.

Surprise at these early Arabic translations on the part of highly respected modern scholars seems to stem from a misleading presumption that Arabs translated only what was of direct practical use to them, such as medical books. For example, the eminent orientalist CH Becker (1931: 14-15) specifically commented on the enthusiasm of the Caliph Al-Ma’moun (early 9th century) whom he refers to as an ‘enlightened despot’, questioning his motives for translating a large number of works by Greek philosophers. Becker found such enthusiasm ‘unknown and abnormal in the Orientals’, suggesting that the Arab translations were not:

“as a result of an abstract desire to acquire science and knowledge, because if this had been the case then Homer or the Tragedies would have been translated as well, but the reality was that people did not take any interest in nor feel any need for them.” (Becker 1931:14-15, translated from German)

Becker’s assertion that the Arabs did not translate Homer is easily disproved by looking at the long quotations from Homer by Al-Sajistani (Siwan: 68ff) who referred to an Arabic translation of Homer produced by Stephanus the Elder (Ostanes). This is likely to be the Greek/Byzantine Alexandrian Ostanes, the philosopher and alchemist who, according to Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist: 303f), also translated alchemical works for Prince Khalid Ibn Yazid (d. 704) in the first century of Islam.

But once again, we have a bunch of references to sources that we cannot check.  It is unfortunate that we cannot see the bibliography which expands these cryptic references.

The Fihrist of al-Nadīm is the title of a 1970 translation by Bayard Dodge.  A table of contents is here.  It looks as if the page numbers refer to this translation, from a non-accessible page in the preview.  The book is in print at, for a ridiculous sum.

I think, since I can’t get to a library, we’ll have to leave it here.  But it would be most interesting to know what each of these references says!

Translating from Arabic into Latin in Medieval Spain

A really important blog post at Quodlibeta on a very neglected subject: how did Arabic scientific knowledge get into circulation in Latin in the Middle Ages?  Read it for yourself.  I have asked for a bibliography, as I certainly want to know more!

Readers of this blog will recall my posts on Galen and Hunain ibn Ishaq; how Greek scientific knowledge got into Arabic, by means of Christian translators, first into Syriac by people like Sergius of Reshaina and Job of Edessa, and then in the 10th century across into Arabic by people like Hunain ibn Ishaq.  But the Quodlibeta post continues this, in asking what happened next!

The lost libraries of Timbuktu

One evening last week I happened to see part of a BBC4 TV programme, The lost libraries of Timbuktu:

Aminatta Forna tells the story of legendary Timbuktu and its long hidden legacy of hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts. With its university founded around the same time as Oxford, Timbuktu is proof that the reading and writing of books have long been as important to Africans as to Europeans.

I couldn’t watch this programme for long — too much left-wing or “blacks are wonderful” propaganda, and not much hard information at all.

However I did learn from it that there is a trove of hand-written books in Timbuktu.  They all stem from the Moslem invasion of West Africa in the middle ages.   The oldest are 13th century.  The older books were in Arabic; the more recent ones in tribal languages, written in Arabic script.  The latter were naturally preferred by the modern holders of the books.  During the French period — the only period of civilised rule it has ever known — an unspecified number were rescued and carried off to an unspecified destination (we are invited to consider this as an “indignity”!).  Doubtless they are in the French National Library, and probably properly catalogued too, although this was not said.  Wild estimates of the number of such books were tossed around; anything up to 700,000 was mentioned, although this seems unlikely.  We saw a desktop scanner being used to digitise a page.

There was lots of talk about “riches” of books.  But… what precisely do these texts contain?  How many are of what age?  This I could not learn.

I found online a Moslem Timbuktu Educational Foundation — based in California, as it seems the “riches of African culture” don’t extend to adequate internet connections.  They claim to own the manuscripts.  The site solicits a donation of $100 to preserve and translate each manuscript — although the contact form doesn’t work, and the one and only newsletter is dated to 2003.  The site also is infuriating vague, but gives a little more:

The manuscripts cover diverse subjects: mathematics, chemistry, physics, optics, astronomy, medicine, history, geography, Islamic sciences and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), government legislation and treaties, jurisprudence and much more.

Yes?  So, which authors?  Which texts?  Is there a catalogue?  And… can’t they get some money off the oil-rich states, being good Moslems and all?  (I certainly would, in their shoes).

The BBC is to be commended for commissioning a programme on manuscripts.  Someone there should be shot for making a piece of political agitprop instead.  A wasted opportunity, then; but still good to see manuscripts on the box.  More please.

PS: The Washington Post has a much better article on all this here.  Manuscripts are 16-18th century.  Some of the mss are online at the Library of Congress here.  See also this article.