Prof. Dr. Fuat Sezgin

History of the Museum


Shortly after the foundation of the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt in 1982, and in the context of that Institute, the idea emerged to reconstruct the instruments and devices which had been used in the creative period of Arabic-Islamic Science, between the beginning of the ninth and the end of the sixteenth centuries. In the course of the assimilation of science from other cultures, the Muslims adapted a series of instruments and devices, in particular from ancient Greece. Most of these instruments were further developed in Islamic civilization, and the Muslims invented many instruments by themselves. From this very rich tradition, only a few instruments in astronomy, medicine, chemistry and time measurement have come down to us. But it is very fortunate for the history of science that many of the instruments and devices which were used by the Arabic-Islamic scientists, were described by them in numerous treatises and large works, often accompanied by drawings. Some of these works have been preserved, including the large medical work Kitb at-Tasrf of Abu l-Qsim az-Zahrw (tenth century CE), the al-Jmi' bain al-'ilm wa-l-'amal of Ibn ar-Razzz al-Jazar (1200 CE) on physics and time measurement, and the astronomical work Jmi' al-mabdi' wa-l-ghyt of Abu l-Hasan al-Marrkush (13th century CE).

Already in the nineteenth century, several orientalists have drawn attention to the importance of these works and of other treatises on instruments. The most important of them is the physicist and historian of science Eilhard Wiedemann from Erlangen, who devoted more than half a century, between 1875 and 1928, to the investigation of the Arabic-Islamic scientific achievements, and who published more than 200 articles on the subject. For me it is a very pleasant duty to mention with recognition and with gratitude, that Wiedemann was the first who began, around 1900, with the reconstruction of some of the instruments that had been made by the Arabic-Islamic scientists. Five of these replicas were purchased in 1911 by the Deutsche Museum in Munich.

When I started in 1983 to reconstruct the instruments and devices which were known to me from original sources and modern studies, I was thinking of a goal which now, in hindsight, appears to have been too modest: a collection of 20 or 30 reconstructions of instruments which have not been preserved, or which were unknown to my orientalist predecessors or had not been described by them. I had to trace them down in manuscripts and then find the persons who could rebuild them: mere patience was not enough. Already in 2003, the crammed rooms of the Institute in Frankfurt contained a museum with 800 displays in the history of science and technology in Islam. This museum has not yet been officially opened, but every year it receives several thousands of interested visitors by appointment. Approximately 12 years ago it was stimulating and encouraging for me to experience the great interest and surprise of circa 1500 persons, who visited the museum in the context of the Day of the Open Door (Tag der Offenen Tr) of the Universities in the German province of Hessen.

This museum had already become known to some extent, when a comprehensive catalogue in five volumes was published in 2003 under the title "Science and Technology in Islam". The French translation appeared one year later, and since two years, a Turkish translation has also been available. The English translation will soon go to the press. The first volume of the Arabic translation has appeared for two years; the second volume will be printed in two or three months.

In other countries and institutions, the request was made to me several times, whether objects of the museum could be displayed for a certain period, or whether a museum could be founded on the basis of copies of the objects in our museum in Frankfurt. In this way, the Turkish Minister for Culture and Musea, Mr. Attila Ko, visited the Institute in Frankfurt in 2005, and he expressed his wish, to found a similar museum in Istanbul. For me, this was the fulfillment of a dream, but unfortunately, the building that was proposed at that time appeared to be inappropriate. Similar wishes to found a museum were expressed by the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TBA) and TBITAK (the Turkish Association for Technology, Science and Research).

It was a great fortune when, during a visit to Istanbul in September 2006, I heard through my friend Mr. Cevdet Akalı about a historic complex of buildings in Glhane Parkı, the stables of the Sultans, of which the restauration had been nearly finished after six years of work. When I visited the place, I was fascinated by the buildings and their location. Then it was important to obtain the support of the City of Istanbul, which owns the Has Ahırlar Binalar , for the museum. The mayor, Dr. Kadir Topbaş, was at that time abroad, but less than a week after he had been informed about the idea, he came to Frankfurt I mention this with gratitude in order to visit the institute and especially the museum. A few days after his return to Istanbul, he informed me about the approval by the city, on the condition that the foundation of the museum and the installation of the instruments would be carried out as soon as possible. In January 2007, the contract for the foundation of the museum was signed. At the next day I was able to visit the Turkish Prime Minister Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was very interested and gave his full approval. The cabinet decided to approve the foundation of a center for the history of science in the two buildings adjacent to the Museum.

By a happy coincidence we had already started, 23 years earlier, at the request of a generous Arabian friend and with his financial support, with the preparations for an exhibition in the USA. With permission of this sponsor we could donate approximately 80 percent of the instruments to the Museum. The remaining part of the exhibition has been financed by the Turkish government, which has never hesitated to generously allocate the necessary funds to this project. Our happiness did not last long, because the architect managed to attract almost all the responsibilities and decisions about the project to himself. He has left behind a chaos, from an architectonical as well a museological point of view. We have tried, to the extent possible, to repair the damages and errors which he has created; but we will not be able to undo all the damage.

The foundation of the Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam in Istanbul and previously in Frankfurt was inspired by our view of the universal history of science as a united whole. We want to supply a missing link in the historiography of science. I mean the gap which exists because of the incorrect notion that the European Renaissance is an immediate continuation of Greek antiquity. We want to present the original contributions of the creative scientists in the Arabic-Islamic civilization, which have been made between 900 and 1600, after a period of reception and assimilation. These contributions have created the conditions for creative work in Europe from the second half of the sixteenth century onwards.

In the eighteenth century, the historiographic concept of a scientific "renaissance" became increasingly widespread in Europe; this concept implied ignoring or rejecting of the scientfic contributions of the entire middle ages, in Europe as well as in Islamic civilization. But at the same time, the scientific orientation of arabists and islamists in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards, was also beginning to bear fruits. Through the good work of these predecessors and their tireless successors, who increased in number in the following centuries, several important corrections were made in a few areas in the history of science. Nevertheless, most educated people today do not know enough about the real importance of the Arabic-Islamic civilization in the universal history of science. In this way, the common incorrect view of "renaissance" has not been challenged yet.

I hope that this museum, which has been founded at such a beautiful location in Istanbul, will contribute to a correction of this wrong and outdated historical view.


Frankfurt/Main, 17 April 2009                   Fuat Sezgin