Real Life Mystery: The House of Wisdom

While the mystery surrounding a lost library in A Hidden Fire is entirely fictional, there have been numerous libraries in history which have been lost, destroyed, or stolen.  Perhaps the most famous for Western readers is the Royal Library of Alexandria, which contained vast quantities of knowledge from the ancient world. Not as commonly known is the House of Wisdom, what could be considered the “special collections” of the great libraries of medieval Baghdad.

Founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the 9th century, the House of Wisdom was more than we think of a library today.  It flourished as a center of learning and translation from the ninth to the thirteenth century, before the advent of the modern university.  Scribes and scholars of many nationalities and faiths congregated there to discuss the humanities and translate texts from Persian, Greek, Sanskrit, and other ancient languages.

The caliphs who expanded the libraries of Baghdad sent for books from as far as Sicily to incorporate into the House of Wisdom.  Legends even say that vast caravans traversed the desert carrying nothing but scrolls destined for its scribes.  In addition to the humanities, it became a center of learning for disparate and numerous subjects such as mathematics, alchemy, zoology, and even cartography.  It revived and preserved much of the history of the Persian Empire, which ruled the ancient world for centuries.

The House of Wisdom also contributed directly to libraries today.  While the knowledge of paper-making had been known for some time from Chinese prisoners, the library helped to expand its use, making paper the common material for scrolls instead of the more costly and harder to produce papyrus.  The ease of paper production caused far greater numbers of books to be preserved and distributed.  The House also introduced the concept of a card catalogue for the library, grouping works by genre and author instead of other organizational methods.

Tragically, the House of Wisdom was destroyed in 1258 during the great Mongol invasion of Baghdad.  The libraries of the city were destroyed and countless ancient manuscripts were thrown into the Tigris River.  Reports at the time say that the river ran black for days as the ink from this vast collection of knowledge washed downriver and out of history.  There is no way of knowing all that was lost, but the ancient and modern world are poorer because of it.

For two different takes on the subject, check out The House of Wisdom by Jim al-Khalili or The House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons, both available at Amazon.

Thanks for reading,


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