Monday, June 25, 2007 06/25/07-Muslims, Greeks, and Distillation

In today's excerpt--at the end of the first millennium CE, it is the Muslims who save the wisdom of the ancient Greeks for the Western world, and--among many other things--apply the process of distillation to wine thus creating the distilled spirits that become so widely consumed in the West. The Arabic influence of this period shows up in such words as algebra and alcohol:

"At the close of the first millennium AD, the greatest and most cultured city in western Europe was not Rome, Paris, or London. It was Cordoba, the capital of Arab Andalusia, in what is now southern Spain. There were parks, palaces, paved roads, oil lamps to light the streets, seven hundred mosques, three hundred public baths, and extensive drainage and sewage systems. Perhaps most impressive of all was the public library, completed around 970 CE and containing nearly half a million books--more books than any other European library, or indeed most European countries. And it was merely the largest of seventy libraries in the city. No wonder Hroswitha, a tenth-century German chronicler, described Cordoba as 'the jewel of the world.'

"Cordoba was only one of the great centers of learning within the Arab world, a vast dominion that stretched at its height from the Pyrenees in France to the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia, and as far south as the Indus Valley in India. At a time when the wisdom of the Greeks had been lost in most of Europe, Arab scholars in Cordoba, Damascus, and Baghdad were building on knowledge from Greek, Indian, and Persian sources to make further advances in such fields as astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. They developed the astrolabe, algebra, and the modern numeral system, pioneered the use of herbs as anesthetics, and devised new navigational techniques based on the magnetic compass (from China), trigonometry, and nautical maps. Among their many achievements, they also refined and popularized a technique that gave rise to a new range of drinks: distillation.

"Simple distillation equipment dating back to the fourth millennium BCE has been found in northern Mesopotamia, where, judging from later cuneiform inscriptions, it was used to make perfumes. ... But it was only later, starting in the Arab world, that distillation was routinely applied to wine, notably by the eighth-century Arab scholar Jabir ibn Hayyan, who is remembered as one of the fathers of chemistry. ... Knowledge of distillation was one of the many aspects of the ancient wisdom that was preserved and extended by Arab scholars, and, having been translated from Arabic into Latin, helped to rekindle the spirit of learning in Western Europe. ... The modern word alcohol illuminates the origins of distilled alcoholic drinks in the laboratories of Arab alchemists. It is descended from al-koh'l, the name given to the black powder of purified antimony, which was used as a cosmetic to paint or stain the eyelids. The term was used more generally by alchemists to refer to other highly purified substances, including liquids, so that distilled wine later came to be known in English as 'alcohol of wine.' ... The abstemious Arab scholars who first distilled wine regarded the result as ... a medicine, rather than an everyday drink. Only when knowledge of distillation spread into Christian Europe did distilled spirits become more widely consumed.

Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses, Walker, 2005, 93-97.


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