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How to evaluate early modern travel accounts and their descriptions of the sciences in Iran or the Ottoman Empire?

Posted 1/1/2016

There is a widespread inclination among modern historians to trust reports of early modern French, Italien, German or English visitors (missionaries, envoys, merchants. adventurers) of Iran or the Ottoman Empire about the sciences and technology (as well as other aspects of these two societies). While many elements of these accounts can be judged only with difficulties, because there are no or very few independent local sources available that talk about the same issues, description of the sciences can be evaluated by comparing them with extant manuscripts and instruments. Unfortunately, this work has not been done so far. Historians of social or economic history of the two early modern societies rarely have enough knowledge of the sciences in Islamicate societies. Historians of science are often not interested in the study of the skills and scholarly practices of physicians, astrologers, madrasa teachers or chancellery officials in both early modern states. When one checks, however, extant manuscripts for instance on geometry, arithmetic and algebra, remarkable differences to cherished beliefs among historians of science become visible. For Safavid Iran, for instance, the standard belief is that Baha' al-Din al-'Amili's (d. 1622) textbook on these three fields of mathematics, al-Khulasat fi l-hisab (The Essence of Arithmetic), dominated mathematical education. For the Ottoman Empire, no clear position has been formulated. But a friend of mine once said: the elementary works of the Mamluk scholar Sibt al-Maridini (1423-1506) flooded the madrasas and ruined any further higher studies. Neither claim is backed by the available manuscripts in Turkish and Iranian libraries. In Ottoman Anatolia, it was indeed Baha' al-Din al-'Amili's elementary textbook that was mostly read on the lowest level of madrasa studies. But student texts show that it was not the only mathematical text studied in the Ottoman Empire. More interested students read this introductory text parallel with two higher-level books written by the Ilkhanid author Nizam al-Din Nisaburi (d. 1328/9) and the Timurid scholar Ghiyath al-Din Kashi (d. 1429). Students in Safavid Iran occasionally read the Essence of Arithmetic. But the reading canon was much more diversified. In addition to the works of Nisaburi and Kashi they also studied other Ilkhanid and Timurid mathematical texts as well as the standard works of ancient scholars such as Euclid, Archimedes, Theodosius, Autolykos and Hypsikles, mostly in the recensions of Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1274). Some even read Apollonius' Conics, a pretty difficult work. The reports of early modern travelers thus appear as one-sided and the narrators as ill-informed. Dictionaries compiled by early modern Europeans in collaboration with Armenian or Arab Christians or Persian converts show how little missionaries or travelers were interested in the intellectual culture in Iran or the Ottoman Empire. But they had firm judgments. Unfortunately, not much has changed since the 17th century.