Islamic Science and Technology Historical Museum

Yalikavak, Turkey

Our last stop in Istanbul was at the İstanbul Islâm Bilim ve Teknologi Tarihi Müzesi (Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam) in the Eminönü district. It’s a wonderful museum, displaying centuries of achievements in geography, navigation, astronomy, mathematics, music, optics, chemistry, chronometry, historiography, medicine, military, civil engineering, and other disciplines.

I was told in school that the period when most of these discoveries and creations occurred (9th-16th century CE) was called the Dark Ages, a time of fear, superstition, lack of progress, even regression from the Classical era. Then the Classical learning was miraculously rediscovered and expanded during the Renaissance. And of course, like many things I learned in school, it was partly true.

But the fact is that while great scientific and technical accomplishments were happening in the Islamic world, much of Christian Europe languished in these areas, not completely, but to a large extent in comparison. Islamic scholars maintained and extended the Classical learning, and incorporated additional ideas from Greek, Byzantine, Indian, Judaic, and other traditions. They not only advanced learning considerably, but did so by listening to and learning from other cultures.

Long before Roger Bacon, they articulated and promoted experimental science, and they wrote about inductive or scientific methods long before Francis Bacon. They studied the circulation of blood before William Harvey, and made many other medical advances. But the exhibits do not take a “who did it first?” approach; instead, they emphasize the continuity of learning, across time and across cultures.

The Ages were not Dark everywhere, and the Renaissance in Europe was not autonomous; it was dependent upon and grew organically from an Islamic culture that valued learning in all its forms.

The Museum displays fascinating astrolabes, glassware, maps, globes, medical instruments, ships, an elephant clock, and many other artifacts. I’ve never seen such an assemblage anywhere, and these are beautifully presented and explained with multilingual text and video. Scientists, mathematicians and other scholars, such as Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Ibn Sena (Avicenna), Geber, Al-Jazari are featured.

That’s why it was both surprising and a bit depressing to see how few people came to the exhibits. I counted five total visitors during the entire time that we were there, Make that seven if I include Susan and me. There were about fifteen staff and guards. Of course, it’s been open only two years.

İstanbul offers tough competition for any museum. World Heritage sites like the Topkapi Palace nearby, the Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque), and Hagia Sophia are just a few of those within easy walking distance, each offering jaw-dropping sights. But those also offer long lines and crowded viewing. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the Topkapi dagger while being shoved along in a crowd. The Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam offers a different and equally important view of Islamic culture, one that I suspect is not well known by many within or outside of Islam,

The Museum is housed in the Has Ahırlar (Imperial Stables) complex now in Gülhane Park. This area was once the outer garden for the Topkapı Palace during the days of the Ottoman Empire.

The working instruments and other objects were constructed by the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt, based on illustrations and descriptions in textual sources, and to some extent, on surviving original artifacts. There is a similar exhibit there under the direction of Fuat Sezgin. The İstanbul museum is a joint project of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA), the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and Goethe University.

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