The House of Wisdom

In many cases, when we address issues related to the history of translation, we tend to focus exclusively on the Western cultural legacy, which is what we consider to be our heritage. However, it is sometimes useful to broaden our outlook and look at other realities that, a priori, may seem more distant, as in the case of the civilizations of the Middle East.

While the European West was witnessing the rise of Charlemagne in the second half of the 8th century, a new political order, the Abbasid Caliphate, was being forged in the Islamic Near East. Due to the contact of the Arabs with various subjugated nations, the second ruler of the Abbasid dynasty, Caliph Al-Mansur (745-775), established in Baghdad the “House of Wisdom” (Bayt al-Ḥikmah). This institution was founded to safeguard and translate books from other cultures in order to benefit from their advances and enrich the Arab culture. Thus, when Al-Mansur came to power, he surrounded himself with intellectuals of various origins and ordered them to translate into Arabic the books of science and arts coming from other civilizations.

If the House of Wisdom was founded by the caliph Al-Mansur, it was under the reigns of Harun al-Rashid (786-809), the caliph of the Thousand and One Nights, and Al-Mam’un (813-883), that the institution reached its zenith, coming to be considered the greatest intellectual center of the known world. Al-Mam’un, who was passionate about philosophy and science, was especially interested in the House of Wisdom, devoting much of his time and resources to it. He organized meetings in the palace for the most outstanding scientists of the time, and used to send delegates to Constantinople and other Roman cities asking for books in Greek —among which were works by Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Galen or Euclid-—, which were translated and studied conscientiously in the House of Wisdom. 

Baghdad as a cultural epicenter

With the coming to power of the Abbasids, the center of power of the Islamic world shifted from Damascus to Baghdad, which soon became not only the seat of the Islamic caliphate and central power, but also a nucleus where Arab culture converged with the different cultures of the peoples newly incorporated into the Abbasid state. As a result, Baghdad became an international city whose influence extended beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world. It was inhabited by genes from very different places, making the Abbasid capital a meeting place for the most important cultures of that time; it became the universal capital of knowledge for a long period of time, and translation was consolidated as the main engine of culture due to its role as a vehicle of contact between the knowledges of different cultures.

The House of Wisdom in Baghdad benefited from the contributions of the conquered states, especially the Sassanid or Byzantine civilization. It included a storehouse for books, a general library, a translation agency and an astronomical observatory founded by Al-Mam’un. There the learned scholars gathered to translate, write, study and copy books; it was certainly a center of attraction for scientists, doctors, artists and writers from different parts of the world.

The translators, therefore, belonged to diverse cultures and religions, and among them were Christians and Jews. In this regard, the role played by the non-Muslim subjects working in the House of Wisdom and their contribution to the translation movement and the transmission of universal heritage and thought into the Arabic language should be emphasized. Freedom of worship prevailed in the House of Wisdom, and translators enjoyed an elevated position before the caliphs.

Intermediate language in the translation process

The use of an intermediary language in the process of transmission and assimilation of the knowledge of other cultures by the Arabic-Muslim civilization is an evident fact in the early times of the House of Wisdom. Thus, translation was done through Persian and, above all, Syriac. The main problem for translators was translating directly from Greek into Arabic, so it was quite common that, while some translated the Greek text into Syriac, others translated it from Syriac into Arabic. Syriac, a Semitic language belonging to the Aramaic group, enjoyed great prestige among intellectual and literary circles in the Middle East and was considered a bridge of communication between languages.

However, from the reign of Harun al-Rashid onwards, translation began to be done directly from Greek into Arabic, so that these languages lost their role as intermediaries.

The impact of translation on the target language

Due in large part to the translation work carried out in the House of Wisdom, the Arabic language flourished in the so-called “Golden Age of Islam” (8th to 13th centuries); thus, Arabic became a language of culture that covered a wide range of fields: science, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, agriculture, etc. In general, the choice of the content to be translated was conditioned by a somewhat utilitarian mentality, since it was intended that the texts could somehow contribute to the progress of the Islamic community.

In turn, one of the main consequences of this process of cultural assimilation was the appearance of previously unknown ideas and concepts. Later, although the Baghdadi translators harbored a firm conviction that urged them not to borrow from other languages, they were eventually forced to adopt them, especially in the development of philosophical and scientific language.

The House of Wisdom: a school of translation?

Undoubtedly, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was a key institution in the translation movement. However, the use of the term “school” to designate all the activities carried out in this context is rather controversial. Actually, there is no evidence that the House of Wisdom served the function of an educational center as such, where the principles of translation were taught and learned. However, there is evidence that translators worked in groups, collaborating with each other, which has led to the term “school” being used to refer to this institution.

Carlos Sánchez Luis