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ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Nadia Maria El-Cheikh


From : “Byzantium through the Islamic Prism from the Twelfth to the Thirteenth Century”, included in The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, ed. Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy Parviz Mottahedeh, Dumbarton Oaks © 2001 - Here published with title and subtitles by Elpenor.

Historiography ||| The twelfth and thirteenth centuries ||| al-Rum ||| Byzantine skills ||| General character ||| Constantinople ||| Constantinople and Jerusalem ||| 1204 ||| Symbols of Constantinople ||| Islamic monuments of Constantinople 


Page 5

Not only are the Byzantines great builders, their painting skills are unequaled. Ibn Jubayr, mentioning the pre-Islamic Byzantine church of Mary in Damascus, describes it as being magnificently constructed, housing “marvelous paintings that bewilder the mind and transfix the gaze. It is a marvelous spectacle.”

Echoing a long tradition dating back to al-Jahiz (d. 254/868) and Ibn al-Faqih (d. 291/903), which saw the Byzantines as “the most skilled nation in painting,” al-Qazwini praised the Byzantines using very similar words, stating that “they have in painting great skills; they paint the human being laughing or crying, happy or sad.“

This view is reiterated by the physician bibliographer Ibn Abi Usaybi‘a (d. 668/1270) in ‘Uyun al-anba’ fi tabaqat al-atibba’, which includes a reference found in earlier texts to a correspondence between the caliph of Cordoba, al-Nasir ‘Abd al-Rahman (300–350/912–961), and the Byzantine emperor in the year 337/948.

The correspondence was accompanied by gifts that included the book of Dioscorides, painted in the “amazing Byzantine style” (al-taswir al-rumi al-‘ajib). The twelfth-and thirteenth-century sources, therefore, by a combination of personal observation and hearsay or copying, persevere in the earlier idealization of the Byzantines as master artists and craftsmen.

The later sources thus reproduce positive comments concerning the Byzantines’ origins, beauty, and artistic skills found in the earlier Arabic-Islamic sources. Absent, however, from our texts is the discussion of Byzantine versus Greek learning that used to permeate earlier texts. The texts of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries include a discussion concerning the role of the Byzantines in the scientific and philosophical knowledge passed on to the Muslims. At issue was the extent to which the Byzantines should be credited for the learning of the ancient Greeks. The twelfth-and thirteenth-century sources do not emphasize these points of contention, limiting themselves to a few references that confirm the Byzantines in their role as repositories of ancient Greek knowledge.

The Egyptian Ibn al-Qifti (d. 646/1248) copies the story found in the tenth-century al-Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim, who includes an anecdote concerning Caliph al-Ma’mun’s request of ancient books found in bilad al-Rum. The Damascene historian al-Jazari (d. 793/1338) mentions an original story that has the merchant ‘Abdallah describing the libraries of Hagia Sophia, where one can find “all the sciences” and books embodying the names of cities, rivers, and sources. Otherwise, the debate on Byzantine knowledge, a salient theme of the earlier centuries, is dropped from the later sources. Of course, much of the previous discussion was included in a general reappraisal of the “merits of various nations,” within the context of the Shu‘ubiyya controversy opposing Persians and Arabs within the Muslim empire. With this literary controversy now long gone, a number of related themes no longer appear in our later texts.


Cf.  Christianity and Islam - Two related, yet different religions * Koran – the invention of an artificial religion * Turkey * The Orthodox Church * Byzantine history * On the Byzantine Military Strategy * Greek Language

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