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Tracing the footsteps of historical Cairo's lost icons: Ibn Al-Haytham

The first in a series exploring Cairo's medieval history as a vital global centre of science and learning traces the life of pioneering physicist Ibn Al-Haytham

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Thursday 26 Jul 2012
Ibn al-Haytham, 11th century Iraqi scientist
Views: 6912
Views: 6912

“It was under the influence of the Arabs and Moorish revival of culture, and not in the 15th century, that a real renaissance took place.” - Robert Briffault, The Making of Humanity

There are over 600 listed monuments in historic Cairo, and one can enjoy the richness of its history and the diversity of architectural styles that span some one thousand years of history. But beyond the monuments and the markets, the streets of Islamic Cairo conceal yet another realm that only those who know its history can appreciate: in these very same streets and corners, we will trace the footsteps of some of the greatest minds that ever walked this city.

The golden age of Islamic civilization is generally considered to extend over the period from the ninth to the fourteenth century, and Cairo was one of the major destinations for intellectuals from as far to the west as Al-Andalus to as far to the east as Central Asia. In this series, we examine their legacy, both in the streets of the old city and in the works that they left.

A ‘Prince of Light’ in Al-Muizz Street

"He was the greatest Muslim physicist and student of optics of all times. Whether it be in England or faraway Persia, all drank from the same fountain. He exerted a great influence on European thought from Bacon to Kepler." George Sarton, History of Science

It was here that a prince from Iraq would –for very different reasons- fake madness centuries before Shakespeare’s Hamlet would do it. The prince is Ibn Al-Haytham, commonly celebrated as the "Prince of Light", and known in the West by his Latinized name, "Alhazen" (from his middle name, Al-Hasan). This peculiar scene obviously had a story behind it, for how would the Prince of Light end up lost in the dark recesses of his own mind?

The story (as told by Al-Qifty in his book Akhbar Al-Hukamaa) started in the court of Al-Hakim, Egypt’s third Fatimid caliph. Apart from his eccentric nature, this caliph is famous for a grand mosque bearing his name, which is still standing to the present day. As you enter Fatimid Cairo by the northern gate of Bab Al-Futuh, you are quickly drawn by the clear white façade of the Mosque of Al-Hakim. Not far from here, down Al-Muizz Street, was Al-Hakim’s palace, and it was there that he first heard about our prince. The court of Al-Hakim saw the rise (and, at times, the fall) of several prominent scientists like Ibn Yunis, Egypt’s greatest astronomer ever, famous for his book of astronomical tables titled Al-Zij Al-Hakimi (The Astronomical Tables of Al-Hakim). Now it was time for Ibn Al-Haytham to join this circle.

While in Iraq, Ibn Al-Haytham claimed: “If I were in Egypt, I could control its Nile in a way that would benefit people both during the flood season and the drought season.” Al-Hakim, incited by the statement, invited him to his capital and provided him with all the means necessary to honour his word. A trip to Aswan ended the dream as he discovered that his project was practically impossible, given how untamable the Nile was. How would he break a piece of news like that to a much-feared caliph notorious for his impulsiveness and his ruthlessness? He finally did, and surprisingly (as Ibn Abi Usaibia tells us in his book Uyun Al-Anbaa), Al-Hakim forgave him, but he still felt threatened, and here came the turning point: he feigned madness, withdrew from public life, and opted for a world of isolation where he felt safe under house arrest.

Fully dedicated to study and writing, he made good use of that period to finalize his masterpiece, which would immortalize him among the finest scientists of all time: Kitab Al-Manazir (The Book of Optics), the greatest work on physics until Newton’s time some six centuries later (as highlighted by Professor Jim Al-Khalili, University of Surrey, UK).

Salvation for our prince would come years later when, in 1021, Al-Hakim would disappear. Once the news was confirmed he finally came out of his shell, and our next stop will be the place where he went to live and work: Al-Azhar.

As I stroll around Al-Azhar Mosque, I try to imagine how the area must have been like in the eleventh century when Ibn Al-Haytham roamed it. Times have changed, but some details seem to transcend time and live on as reminders of ages gone by. At Al-Tabilta Street, one can still come across many bookshops and book binding workshops. A little less than one thousand years ago, Ibn Al-Haytham would be copying books and publishing treatises here for a living. At Al-Azhar Mosque he would be teaching his theories and discussing his ideas.

A polymath of unique talent and ample knowledge, his oeuvre covered astronomy, philosophy and mathematics, among other things. Moreover, he was one of the pioneers of the scientific method of analysis that he based on observation and experimentation. Still, his fame would live on as the Father of Modern Optics.

Among Ibn Al-Haytham’s students was Ibn Fatek, an Egyptian polymath famous for his works on logic and philosophy, but none of Ibn Al-Haytham’s followers came even close to his legacy, a legacy that still echoes –unheard and unheard of- in the streets of Fatimid Cairo where he lived, worked, lectured and died.

Not a single plaque commemorates his achievements, not a single itinerary is based on the life of this masterful scientist and that of other polymaths who lived in these streets, frequented these monuments and enriched human knowledge with their contributions. Let this article be the first plaque, the first step towards a more comprehensive itinerary that we will draw together over the coming articles in this series.


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