Running on Railroad Time

by pamela on April 21, 2015

railroad time

I was recently reading an excellent new book on the Battle of Waterloo* in which the author made an off-hand comment about the difficulty of synchronizing accounts even when sources give exact times for events because there was no standardized time.

Until the rise of the railroads in the mid-nineteenth century, time was essentially local. With the exception of the few points where public institutions intersected private schedules,** most people’s lives were measured by sun time rather than clock time.*** Clocks became more important with the industrial revolution and the growth of factories; whole communities found their lives regulated by the factory whistle. But even when two places used the same calendar,**** there was no way to synchronize their clock towers. More importantly, there was no reason to. The factory in No Place In Particular had no need to match its schedule to the factory in The Town Over The Hill.

That all changed with the railroads.

Railroads were born in Britain in 1825, using technologies developed in the British mining industry. The first public railway, the Stockton and Darlington, carried six hundred passengers over a twenty-six mile line in only four hours on its first trip. Over the next twenty years, investors formed more than six hundred rail companies that together laid more than ten thousand miles of track in Britain–transforming train travel from a novelty to a necessity. As rail travel became more common, differences in local time (sometimes as much as twenty minutes!) became a problem. In 1840, the Great Western Railroad instituted “railway time”. Other railroads soon followed. Some towns resisted bringing their public clocks into line with the railroad,***** but by 1880 all of Great Britain was using the same time standard, assuming everyone remembered to wind their watches.

The problems were bigger in the United States, where the distances involved and the potential time variations were greater and rugged individualism was the national pastime. By 1840, America had more miles of track than Great Britain. By 1860, it had more railroad track than the rest of the world combined–and was laying more. For the first time it was important for someone in Pittsburgh to know the exact time in Poughkeepsie, Peoria, and Pacific City. If local time differed too much from place to place, people missed trains, trains missed switches, produce rotted. At first, time was regulated on a railroad by railroad basis. Busy stations had to have a different clock for each railroad. It was confusing, It was messy. And it was dangerous.

In 1883, North American railroad officers finally adopted a plan for Standard Time, creating four zones in the United States and one in eastern Canada, based on mean sun times at set meridians from Greenwich, England. (Western Canada was apparently left to fend for itself in terms of time.) Despite some local opposition–the Indianapolis Sentinel complained that people would have to “eat,sleep, work…and marry by railroad time”(see *****)– Standard Time became the norm. The Standard Time Act of 1918 belatedly sanctioned existing practice. (I must admit, I wonder what problem required its passage. Was there a town somewhere that simply refused to reset its clocks?)

“Making the trains run on time” remains a synonym for efficiency, Amtrak not withstanding.

*David Crane’s Went The Day Well, one of a flood of new books on the subject because the bicentennial of the battle is nigh.
**Think the start of a Christian church service or the Muslim call to prayer. Both of which were publicly and loudly announced in the pre-modern world–church steeples and minarets served much the same function.
***At some gut level, we still run on sun time. Who doesn’t remember feeling outraged at the unfairness of being sent to bed while it was still light out on a summer evening? And don’t get me started on Daylight Savings Time.
****Not a given, as we’ve discussed before.
*****Someone is always ready to fight for the status quo, even if it means missing the train.

Image courtesy of ingfbruno, via Wikamedia Commons


History on Display: Project 1915

by pamela on April 16, 2015

Armenia (Hayasdan)

A smaller version, which will enable you to see the whole thing, but less detail.

A smaller version, which will enable you to see the whole thing, but less detail.

On April 24, 2015, Armenians around the world will commemorate the centennial of the Armenian genocide, generally considered the first large-scale genocide of the 20th century. Many of the remembrances will focus on the horror of the genocide itself. In Project 1915, Chicago-based Armenian-American artist Jackie Kazarian chooses instead to celebrate 3000 years of Armenian culture and resilience.

When Kazarian first considered creating a piece of art to commemorate the genocide, she immediately thought about Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s anguished response to another act of horror in the twentieth century–the first saturation bombing of a civilian population as an act of terror in 1936. The painting that stands at the heart of Project 1915, Armenia (Hayasdan), references that initial inspiration with its monumental size and Kazarian’s skillful use of symbolic elements.* Nonetheless the two works are fundamentally different. In Geurnica, Picasso uses fragmentation,  dislocation, metamorphosis and a bleak monochromatic palette to create a searing image of the agony of war. In Armenia, Kazarian combines a semi-abstract landscape, a Pollack-like manipulation of wet paint, Armenian cultural imagery, and the glowing palette of a medieval manuscript to imbue Armenia’s tumultuous history with a sense of both loss and joy.

Kazarian describes the work as an “ascension painting”, a phrase that describes not only the chromatic movement in the painting but the emotional movement that it embodies. As the granddaughter of four genocide survivors , Kazarian witnessed and shared their pain, sadness and anger over what they had experienced–emotions shared by the Armenian community as a whole.  She hopes the painting will help foster conversation about genocide, tolerance, and forgiveness: “The painting is a gesture of remembrance for the victims and survivors, but it is also meant to inspire conversation about how to promote understanding, compassion and tolerance amongst different communities of people.”

Armenia (Hayasdan) will be displayed in Chicago from April 17 through May 29 at Mana Contemporary. If you’re in Chicago, or coming through, take the time to see it. It is a breathtaking and thought-provoking work of art. If Chicago isn’t in the cards for you, with any luck you’ll have other chances to see the painting. Project 1915 is a non-profit and is currently raising funds to tour the exhibition to other locations throughout the United States and the world.

For more information about the painting and Project 1915, check the website:

*The only explicit echo seems to be a ox-like creature from a medieval Armenia manuscript that occupies the same position on the canvas as Picasso’s menacing human-headed bull. On the other hand, both paintings are so rich that I could have missed something.


On The Shores of Tripoli

by pamela on April 10, 2015

Decatur boarding the Tripolitan gunboat during the bombardment of Tripoli, 1804. by Dennis Malone Carter

In my seventh grade music class, we regularly sang the anthems of the various branches of the United States’ armed services.*  Three days a week, the caissons rolled, bones sank to Davy Jones, planes sailed into the wild blue yonder, and the Marines fought from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.  It was years later before I realized that the “shores of Tripoli” referred to the United States’ first foreign war: an odd combination of pirates (err, privateers), naval battles, a new nation flexing its political muscles,  and the man on the spot taking matters into his own hands. **

The Barbary corsairs were privateers who dominated the Mediterranean and North Atlantic under the auspices of the Barbary states of North Africa from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The corsairs raided ships and coastal towns.  They not only seized treasure, they took captives, who were held for ransom or sold into slavery. European  powers paid  tribute [e.g. bribes] to the Barbary states to ensure that their merchant vessels were allowed to sail the Mediterranean without interference.***  The Barbary states regularly complained about the quality of the tribute goods they received,  broke treaties with other powers, and negotiated new treaties with higher rates of tribute.

The end of the American Revolution brought a new player into the Mediterranean.  Britain had prohibited its North American colonies from trading directly with other countries. The newly formed United States was eager to gain free access to Mediterranean ports.  From the perspective of the Barbary states, the United States was a new opportunity for extortion. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Moroccan sultan was the first foreign ruler to recognize American independence. )

The United States authorized negotiations with the Barbary states within months of becoming an independent country and signed agreements with Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis between 1786 and 1797.  The relationships were difficult from the beginning: both sides complained of bad faith on the part of the other.

In 1801 the pasha of Tripoli demanded increased amounts of tribute.  When Jefferson refused to pay, Tripoli declared war on the United States.  For the next few years, the two powers carried out a half-hearted naval war.  The United States blockaded and bombarded Tripolitan ports.  The pasha’s fleet seized the frigate USS Philadelphia with the intention of demanding ransom money for the crew and adding the ship to the Tripolitan navy.  Lieutenant Stephen Decatur earned a reputation as a hero with a daring night time raid in which he sailed the ketch Intrepid into Tripoli harbor, boarded the Philadelphia, set her on fire, and escaped. (Leaving her captain and crew in the hands of the pasha.) In short, the First Barbary War began as a series of skirmishes and raids that hardly deserved the name of war.

In 1805, the war took a weird turn.  William Eaton, took a lesson from the British experience in India and decided to become a king maker as a way of resolving the tribute problem.   A rival claimant to the Tripolitan throne, older brother of the ruling pasha, was in exile in Egypt.  Eaton traveled to Alexandria, where he made a deal with the would-be pasha (without the agreement or authority of the United States government).  Using his own money, he raised an expeditionary force that can only be described as motley, cliche or no: sixteen members of the American Navy and Marines,**** forty Greek mercenaries, a squadron of Arab cavalry, and a fleet of camels.  Commanded by Eaton, whose military experience was limited to service in the Continental Army as a sergeant and ended in court martial, the force marched more than 500 miles across the Libyan desert–the same territory where Rommel and Montgomery would duke it out in WWII.  Food was short and his little army almost mutinied on the way. On April 27, 1805, Eaton and his crew attacked and captured the town of Derna, with the help of  three American ships stationed in the Berna harbor.

After the battle, Eaton requested permission to lead his forces against Tripoli.  He was told that peace negotiations were underway and he should sit tight.  The final treaty reduced the tribute the United States paid to Tripoli, but did not place Eaton’s candidate on the throne.  (The American government also didn’t reimburse the money he had spent on his army.)

Ten years later, the United States was once more at war with one of the Barbary States.  The resulting treaty with Algiers outlawed future demands for tribute from the North African power.  It was soon followed by similar treaties with Tunis and Tripoli, in theory changing the rules of shipping in the Mediterranean.***** Not bad for a new country with a tiny navy.

* Did this happen in other schools?  Because in retrospect it seems  very odd.  It was 1970.   I’m sure some of my classmates had older brothers, cousins and/or fathers stationed in Vietnam. War protests were every where: even on the college campuses of our small Ozark city, where the counterculture was relatively thin on the ground.   On the other hand, we also sang plenty of songs that were part of the folk revival of the time.

**The “halls of Montezuma” will have to wait for another blog post.  One stupid war at a time.

***It is only fair to point out that those same powers, including the United States, also licensed privateers to attack foreign shipping in times of war, which was often loosely defined.   And they actively traded in African slaves.  Despite eighteenth century hysteria on the subject, enslaving Europeans was not worse than enslaving Africans.

****Hence “the shores of Tripoli”.

*****In fact, Algeria continued to attack European ships in the Mediterranean until the French invasion of 1830.


Eye of the Beholder

by pamela on April 4, 2015



Johannes Vermeer. The Geographyer

In Eye of the Beholder, philosopher and historian Laura J. Snyder uses the parallel lives of painter Johannes Vermeer and clothier turned scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to illustrate the critical role played by optical lenses in the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, with its new emphasis on empirical observation.

Direct observation as a means of understanding nature brought with it a need for new scientific instruments. The most notable of these were the telescope and microscope, which not only allowed scientists to see things that were previously unseen, but forced them to reconsider how we see. Painters responded to new theories about how sight works with their own investigations into light, shadow and perspective using mirrors, lenses and variations of the camera obscura.

Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek were active players in the international artistic and scientific communities that explored the nature of sight on the canvas and in the world. Snyder sets the details of their careers within the broader contexts of art and science in seventeenth century Europe. She tells the histories of lenses and the use of perspective in painting. She draws possible links between Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek–and describes their positions within the society of the Dutch Golden Age. And, like Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek, she explores the tricky relationship between what we believe and what we see.

Drawing on the disciplines of art history and the history of science, Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing will appeal to readers of both.


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.



Word With A Past: Pyrrhic Victory

by pamela on March 31, 2015

Pyrrhus of EpirusPyrrhus (319 to 272 BCE),  king  of the Greek city-state  Epirus, was a second cousin of Alexander the Great.  He earned a reputation as a successful general in the political chaos of the successor kingdoms that arose from the ruins of his famous cousin’s empire.  A hundred years after Pyrrhus’s death, Hannibal, famous for crossing the Alps with elephants and  one of history’s great military commanders, considered Pyrrhus the second greatest general of all time. (Hannibal modestly placed himself at number three.)  Pyrrhus’ Memoirs  and his books on the art of war were quoted by many authors of the ancient world.

From the perspective of the soldier on the field, Pyrrhus’ reputation was hard earned.  He won his battles against Macedonia and Rome at the cost of high casualties.  In fact, he is reported to have said “One more such victory against the Romans and we are undone.”

Pyyrhic victory: a victory won at such cost that it might as well be a defeat


History on Display: Vikings

by pamela on March 27, 2015

As those of you who hang out here in the Margins know, I’ve had my head down recently working on a big project. No new blog posts! No road trips! No museum visits.! No history just for the fun of it!

As soon as I got a moment to breathe, My Own True Love and I headed to an exhibit at the Field Museum that’s been calling our name for a while: Vikings.

Organized by the Swedish Historical Museum, the exhibit is an answer to every misconception about Viking culture that ever caught the public imagination, beginning with the word Viking, which was not the name of a people but a description of an activity.* As the exhibit makes clear, the Scandinavian region was home to several related cultures over a period of some three hundred years, give or take a decade.** People weren’t Vikings, they went a-viking: which included travel and trade as well as the infamous raids immortalized by Irish monks. Most of the people we think of as Vikings were farmers not raiders.

Here are are some of the exhibit highlights (which may tell you as much about my own history nerd fascinations as the exhibit itself):

  • A small Indian bronze of the Buddha was found in a Viking cache, emblematic of the fact that those guys really traveled!
  • The only contemporary accounts of the Vikings we have are those written by eighth century Irish monks and an tenth century Islamic traveler named Ibn Fadlan, who ran into a group of Vikings in Russia****–neither unbiased nor familiar with Viking culture from the inside. The first accounts that we have written from the Viking perspective date from around 1220 CE: the works of Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson. Writing well past the end of the Viking era no matter how loosely it is defined, Snorri is the source of most of what we know about old Norse religion and practices. (More on Snorri in the coming months, I guarantee it.)
  • Viking boatThis recreation of a Viking boat from the outline of the hardware with which it was made. In my imagination this is how an archaeologist sees things, building a complete image from the smallest remains.  (You’ll have to come to the exhibit just to get a better look at the boat, which is far more cool than my limited photographic skills would suggest.)
  • It came as no surprise that Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. I was, however, surprised to learn that the first known appearance of the horned helmet appeared in 1876 in the first appearance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Possibly no other costume designer has influenced the world view of so many. (I would like to point out that though the exhibit regular proclaimed itself a NO HORNS zone, that prohibition did not carry over to the gift shop.)

In short, Vikings is a gorgeous combination of archaeological artifacts (many of them never before seen outside Scandinavia), historical recreation, and interactive museum technology–well worth a visit. The Field Museum is the only US stop for this exhibit, which will run through October 4, 2015. If you’re in Chicago, make time to see it. If you’re interested seriously interested in Vikings, it might be worth a special trip.*****

*Despite its inaccuracy, I’m going to continue using the term, which has become useful shorthand. Feel free to substitute Old Norse etc in your head.
**The canonical start and stop dates are the raid on the monastery at Lindnisfarne in 793CE and the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, at which King Harald of England successfully defended is kingdom against an invasion by Harald Hardrada of Norway.*** In fact, as is often the case, archaeological evidence suggests the periodization is fuzzy at both ends.
***Less than a month before the Battle of Hastings, when another group of Viking descendants invaded England from France.
****Medieval Muslims could give the Vikings a run for their money as far as traveling went.
*****Gina Conkle, I’m looking at you.


The Fall of the Ottomans

by pamela on March 24, 2015

Last year I spent a lot of time and virtual ink on books about World War I. When the year came to an end, I had to take a breather. But this one was too good to let pass:

Western histories of the First World War often focus on the trench warfare on the Western front. When they do discuss the campaigns at Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, they generally tell the story from the Western point of view. In The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, historian Eugene Rogan (The Arabs: A History) looks at the war from the often-overlooked perspective of the Ottoman Empire.

Rogan’s story is as complicated as the multi-ethnic empire at its heart. He describes the forces of internal revolution, external wars, lost provinces and lost confidence that led the Ottomans to seek an ally against Russian aggression in the early months of 1914–and how those same forces shaped Ottoman choices throughout the war. He tells the familiar stories of Gallipoli and the Mesopotamian campaign from an unfamiliar vantage point and the less familiar story of Turkey’s fight against Russia on the Caucasian front.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the recurring question of the relative power of Islam, national identity and ethnicity within the Ottoman world, beginning with Germany’s unfulfilled hope that the Ottoman declaration of war would be seen as an act of jihad, thereby triggering rebellions among Muslim subjects of the British and French empires.* Rogan handles the tricky subjects of jihad, secularism, Arab nationalism, and Turkish paranoia about a possible Armenian fifth column with historical precision and a keen awareness of their implications for the modern world.

* I first came across this idea in John Buchan‘s Greenmantle. Greenmantle is one of my favorite novels, but I always thought the concept was over the top. I was stunned to discover that it was an actual piece of German policy–minus some of Buchan’s wilder flourishes.

The guts of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers


“Oriental” Jones

by pamela on March 21, 2015

Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones (1746-1794), known to his contemporaries as “Oriental” Jones, was one of the great eighteenth century polymaths. He was a linguist, what was then called an Orientalist,* and a successful public intellectual–the kind of scholar who is able to make abstruse topics not only accessible but exciting.

Jones started early with his love of language: he reportedly learned Persian from a Syrian merchant in London and translated the poems of Hafiz into English at the age of sixteen . Over the course of his life he studied twenty-eight languages including not only Latin and Greek, but German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian and Turkish, several South Asian languages, and a smattering of Chinese.

By the time he received his bachelor of arts from Oxford in 1768, Jones had already become known as a scholar of all things “Oriental”–by which he and his contemporaries meant South Asia and the Middle East. The King of Denmark hired him to translate a biography of the emperor Nadir Shah from Persian into French. Published in 1770, the translation secured Jones’ reputation as translator and linguist. He was only 24.

Over the next thirteen years, Jones published a number of works related to the language and culture of the Islamic world , including the authoritative A Grammar of the Persian Language (1771), which he later translated into French, and a translation of seven famous pre-Islamic poems from Arabic that Tennyson later claimed as an inspiration . During this period, he also published a volume of his own poetry , in which he combined classical conventions with Islamic themes and imagery. (Anyone feeling a tad inadequate at this point will be pleased to know that his poems are workmanlike but not inspired. His biographer describes them as “minor classics”, but that’s generous.)

Like many a modern adjunct professor, Jones soon found it was difficult to make a living as an independent scholar, so he turned to the study of law. He was called to the bar in 1774. Working as a barrister, an attorney, and an Oxford fellow, he made a name for himself as a legal scholar and translated manuscripts in his spare time. He also became known for his pro-American sympathies, traveling to Paris three times during the American Revolution to meet with Benjamin Franklin regarding the military and political situation. In fact, it was rumored that he intended to emigrate America to help write the new country’s constitution. (The mind boggles at the image of Jones and Madison in collaboration.)

It was perhaps inevitable that a cash-strapped attorney with a talent for languages and a fascination with the Orient would end up in India in the service of the British East India Company.**  Jones was engaged to be married,but didn’t have the income to support a wife. When a lucrative job as a judge on the supreme court of the British East India Company’s Bengal Presidency became available, he asked his friends to help him secure the position. Evidently his reputation as a legal scholar and Orientalist outweighed his reputation as a pro-American troublemaker. In 1783, Jones and his new wife sailed to Calcutta.

If Jones had not already earned the nickname “Oriental”, he certainly deserved it after his arrival in India. Many employees of the British East India Company hired local instructors to help them with Bengali, Hindi or Persian. Jones took the unusual step of adding Sanskrit to the list, making him the second Englishman known to have learned the language. During his eleven years in Calcutta, Jones founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal–a Calcutta variation on the Royal Society with an emphasis on “oriental” subjects. In addition to his semi-official work on Indian legal systems, he wrote extensively on Indian history, religion, languages, literature, botany and music. He translated a number of works of Indian literature into English, including Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda , the collection of fables known as the Hitopadesa, and the Laws of Manu, the first step in a compilation of Hindu and Muslim law intended to improve justice in British courts in India.

His most influential translation was Sakuntala, the masterwork of fourth century Indian poet and playwright Kalidasa, whom Jones described as “the Shakespeare of India”. Published in 1789, Jones’ Sakuntala went into five editions in twenty years–a best seller in eighteenth century terms–and was translated into German in 1791 and French in 1803. It is considered one of the most important influences on the first generation of Romantic poets

Most important, his study of Sanskrit led Jones to postulate a common source for what came to be known as the Indo-European languages. In his 1786 presidential discourse to the Asiatic Society, Jones described the relationships he had found between Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, which he believed were too strong to be accidental, and suggested that they not only had “some common source, which perhaps no longer exists”, but were also related to the Gothic, Celtic and Persian languages. That single paper was the beginning of comparative philology

Jones died in Calcutta in April, 1794, exhausted by his twin pursuits of legal studies and Orientalism. His digest of Indian legal systems was incomplete, but he had effectively founded the academic disciplines of comparative philology and Indology (South Asian studies in modern college catalogs) and introduced the first generation of Romantic poets to a broader vision of the world.

* For purposes of this blog post, I am going to ignore the complications that now surround the term Orientalism. Otherwise we’ll be here all day.

**Just a reminder, at this point India was not a colony of the British government. The British East India Company held the right to administer various regions of the subcontinent as a vassal of the Mughal emperor. While this would increasingly become no more than a political fiction, in the 1780s it was still very much a political reality.


I currently have my head down trying to finish a big project that I’m excited about. Instead of driving myself crazy trying to write blog posts at the same time or, worse, “going dark” I’ll be running some of my favorite posts from the past for the next little while. Enjoy. And I’ll see you soon.

Blackbeard the pirate. Digital ID: psnypl_rbk_1073. New York Public Library

When is a pirate not a pirate? When he’s got a license to steal.

From the 16th through the mid-19th centuries, governments issued licenses, called letters of marque, to private ship owners that gave them permission to attack foreign shipping in times of war. Called privateers, these government-sanctioned pirates were an inexpensive way for governments to patrol the seas. Private investors outfitted warships in the hope of earning a profit from plunder taken from enemy merchants.

Unlike pirates, privateers had rules they had to follow. They were only allowed to attack enemy ships during times of war. Sometimes their commissions limited them to a specific area or to attacking the ships of a specific country. In exchange for following the rules, they would be treated as prisoners of war if they were captured.

In fact, it was sometimes hard to tell a privateer from a pirate. If a privateer attacked foreign shipping in peace time, interfered with the ships of neutral countries, or was just too violent, he was sometimes treated as a pirate if he was captured. Some privateers, like Sir Francis Drake, became national heroes. Others, like Captain William Kidd, were hanged as pirates.

Privateering was made illegal in 1856 by international treaty.

Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.


From the Archives: Building Baghdad

by pamela on March 10, 2015

I currently have my head down trying to finish a big project that I’m excited about. Instead of driving myself crazy trying to write blog posts at the same time or, worse, “going dark” I’ll be running some of my favorite posts from the past for the next little while. Enjoy. And I’ll see you soon.

Baghdad, the round city

Today we think of Baghdad in terms of tyranny, terrorism and mistakes. A sinkhole for American troops. A sandbox for suicide bombers.

In the eighth century, Baghdad was the largest city in the world–and the most exciting. Like Paris in the 1890s, Baghdad was a cultural magnet that drew scientists, poets, scholars and artists from all over the civilized world. (Just for the record, that didn’t include Europe, which was having a bit of trouble on the civilization front in the centuries after the fall of Rome.)

Baghdad was a brand new city, built to replace Damascus as the capital of an Islamic empire that was no longer the sole property of the Arab tribes. The Abbasid caliph al-Mansur had his architects draw the outer walls of his new capital in a perfect circle, using the geometric precepts of Euclid.

Completed in 765, the Round City grew quickly. Within fifty years, it had a population of more than a million people: Muslim and Christian Arabs, non-Arab Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sabians and an occasional Hindu scholar visiting from India. It had separate districts for different trades, including a street devoted to booksellers and papermakers.

Most important of all, Baghdad had libraries. Encouraged by an official policy of intellectual curiosity, scholars in Baghdad collected works of literature, philosophy and science from all corners of the empire. (Baghdad reportedly negotiated for a copy of Ptolemy’s Megale Syntax as part of a peace treaty with Byzantium.) Ambitious nobles followed the caliphs’ example and created their own libraries, many of which were open to scholars. Working in a culture that encouraged learning, Abbasid scholars in the eighth through the tenth centuries not only transcribed and translated the classical scholarship of Greece, Persia and India, they transformed it, pushing the boundaries of knowledge forward in mathematics, geography, astronomy and medicine.