The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse

Image © 1001 inventions House of Wisdom Sketch

Arabic Version (بيت الحكمة)

The heyday of Baghdad was 1,200 years ago when it was the thriving capital of the Muslim civilisation. For about 500 years the city boasted the cream of intellectuals and culture, a reputation gained during the reigns of some of its most famous Caliphs (Al-Rashid, Al-Ma’mun, Al-Mu’tadhid and Al-Muktafi).

As one of the world’s biggest and richest cities at the time, Baghdad had wealth that went far beyond money. For more than two centuries, it was home to the House of Wisdom, an academy of knowledge that attracted brains from far and wide. From mathematics and astronomy to zoology, the academy was a major centre of research, thought and debate in Muslim Civilisation.

Let us re-discover some of the history related to this centre of knowledge and intellect – the House of Wisdom:


The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse
A view of one of the two “Iwans” overlooking the courtyard of the so-called “Abbasid Palace” (“al-Qasral-‘Abbasi”) in Baghdad

Some of Baghdad’s most famous Caliphs including Al-Rashid and Al-Ma’mun had taken a personal interest in collecting global, ground-breaking scientific works. As well as collecting books from East and West, they brought together scholars from the corners of the Muslim land to create one of the greatest intellectual academies in history.

The House of Wisdom was initially built by Caliph Haround Al-Rasheed (ruled 786 – 809 CE) as a magnificent library named Khizanat al-Hikma (Library of Wisdom) that included manuscripts and books collected by his father and grandfather about various subjects in the arts and the sciences and in different languages.

Three decades later, the collection had grown so large that his son, Caliph Al-Ma’mun, built extensions to the original building turning it into a large academy named Bayt al-Hikma (the House of Wisdom) that housed different branches of knowledge. Later, he added numerous other study centres to allow more scholars to pursue their research, and an observatory in 829.

Soundtrack clip from the new film ‘1001 Inventions and the World of Ibn Al-Haytham’ with voice of legendary actor Omar Sharif narrating the story of the House of Wisdom

The Scholars

The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse
13-th century manuscript, drawn by Al-Wasiti of the celebrated book “The Assemblies”. Written by Hariri, shows a library in Baghdad

In the House of Wisdom, translators, scientists, scribes, authors, men of letters, writers, authors, copyists and others used to meet every day for translation, reading, writing, scribing, discourse, dialogue and discussion. Many manuscripts and books in various scientific subjects and philosophical concepts and ideas, and in different languages were translated there.

People from all over the Muslim civilisation flocked to the House of Wisdom – both male and female of many faiths and ethnicities. Among the academy’s leading lights were Al-Kindi, who commissioned the transition of Aristotle, and Hunyan ibn Ishaq, who translated Hippocrates.

Other names associated with the House of Wisdom include: Banu Musa bin Shakir Al-Munajjim (the Astronomer); Yahya bin Abi Mansour Al-Munajjim Al-Ma’mouni (the Ma’moun Astronomer); Muhammad bin Musa Al-Khawarizmi; Sa’eed bin Haroun Al-Katib (the Scribe); Hunayn bin Ishaq (Isaacs) Al-‘Ibadi, and his son Ishaq; Thabit bin Qurra; and ‘Umar bin Farrukhan Al-Tibar.

The Languages

The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse
The round city of Baghdad in the 10th century at the time of House of Wisdom. Illustration: Jean Soutif/Science Photo Library

A wide range of languages including Arabic, Farsi, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Greek and Latin were spoken and read at the House of Wisdom.

Experts constantly worked to translate the old writings into Arabic to allow the scholars to understand, debate and build on them. Among the famous translators was Youhanna bin Al-Batriq Al-Turjuman (the Translator Jonah son of the Patriarch), who translated the Book of Animals (Kitab Al-Haywan) by Aristotle. Also, Hunayn bin Ishaq.

Caliph Al-Ma’mun is said to have encouraged translators and scholars to add to the library in the House of Wisdom by paying them the weight of each completed book in gold.

Tradition of Learning

The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse
From educational MineCraft 3D game, This build is inspired by the House of Wisdom

The successful knowledge transfer and the creation of a centre of learning in Baghdad was echoed in many other cities across Muslim Civilisation. In Cairo a Dar al-Hikma was built in 1005 by Caliph Al-Hakim and lasted for 165 years. Other cities in the eastern provinces of the Muslim civilisation also established House of Science (Dar al-‘Ilm), or more accurately Houses of Knowledge, in the 9th and 10th centuries to emulate that of Baghdad.

Then in the the 12th century, Toledo in Andalucia (Muslim Spain) became the focus of another huge translation effort – this time from Arabic to latin. Arabic works and translations of important ancient Greek texts came to light, and Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars flocked to the city to translate ancient Greek and Arabic treaties to Latin and then into European languages.

Related Books

The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse
Imaginary drawing of the “House of Wisdom” library
  • “The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance” by Jim Al Khalili
  • “The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization” by Jonathan Lyons
  • “The House of Wisdom” by Florence P. Heide and Judith H. Gilliland
  • “House of Wisdom” by Carmel Reilly
  • “Bayt Al-Hikma and the Intellectual Movement During the Time of Caliph Al-Ma’mūn” by David Edward Atkinson
  • And “1001 Inventions: Uncovering The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization” National Geographic, edited by Professor Salim Al-Hassani

Further Reading

The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse
1001 inventions “House of Wisdom” Canvas: Scholars from all over the Muslim civilisation worked at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. The illustration depicts scholars, both male and female and of many faiths, who came to study and research at this Baghdad powerhouse

What did they say about “House of Wisdom”:

Dr Subhi Al-Azzawi, Senior architect:

The House of Wisdom was also referred to as Al-Hikma Bookstore (Khizanat Al-Hikma), and The House of Wisdom Bookstore of Al-Ma’moun (Khizanat Dar Al-Kutub Al-Ma’mouniya). It should be pointed out that the Arabic term Khizanat Kutub, meaning literally a bookstore, is an old name meaning a present day library...

Prof Jim al-Khalili, Professor of Physics:

The Arab empire was hugely powerful by late 8th and early 9th century; its rulers were getting taxes from across the empire and had money to spend on translations and patronage of scholarship. About this time the House of Wisdom was set up in Baghdad by one of the Abbasid caliphs, al-Ma’mun. It began as a translation house, translating Greek texts into Arabic and rapidly started to attract the greatest minds in the Islamic world, while Arabic became the international language of science. There was also a strong influence from Persia; an Arab scholar once said, “We Arabs have all the words but you Persians have all the ideas.”

In this context, a widely held misconception claims that the Islamic world did no more than act as steward of Greek science. However, “an incredible number of important and original advances were made by Arab scientists, who were the first to undertake real science – theory and experimentation – several hundred years before the scientific revolution in Europe.”

Prof Faroque Ahmad Khan, Professor of Medicine:

Subsequent chapters [in Michael Hamilton Morgan’s book called “Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists”, highlight the great accomplishments in Baghdad during the rule of the Abassid Caliph al-Ma’mūn from 813-833 AD, under whose leadership Baghdad rose to become the center of learning and the heart of the Arab golden age. Caliph al-Ma’mūn’s House of Wisdom, where Christian and foreign translators rendered the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, and Hindu classics into Arabic, helped lay the foundation of modern mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, medicine and literature. As a result of al-Ma’mūn’s patronage and vision, Baghdad gave birth to algebra and advanced trigonometry, the names of the stars, the mixtures of tinctures and remedies, and the heart of philosophy and literature. It was in Baghdad that Scheherazade told the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights [1001 Arabian Nights]”

FSTC Editorial Team:

Jonathan Lyons, tells the story of the House of Wisdom, the caliphs who supported it and the people who worked there, at a riveting, breakneck pace. In quick succession we meet scholars such as al-Khwarizimi, the illustrious Muslim mathematician and founder of algebra, the geographer al-Mas’udi, who described major sea routes to Persia, Cambodia and as far as the Malay peninsula inThe Book of Roads and Kingdoms, and al-Kindi, the first Arab philosopher. But Lyons is more concerned with how what was happening in Baghdad and other Muslim cities was transferred to Europe. So he focuses on a string of colourful translators and scholars who travelled to the Muslim world and took its knowledge and discoveries back with them...

Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad during his reign (786-809). It was a research and educational center where leading scholars from various fields came to share their knowledge. The House of Wisdom was the largest repository of books in the whole world already by the middle of the ninth century. It was the leading center for the study of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy, chemistry, zoology, geography and cartography. Unluckily the mongols destroyed the House of Wisdom when they attacked Baghdad in 1258. (Source)

There are many gates to the house of wisdom.”
Edward Counsel

BAYT AL-HIKMA (بيت الحكمة)

The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse

The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse

The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse

The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse
Over 800 years ago, scholars gathered here to work on Latin versions for ancient texts, this building in Toledo is still a translation centre
The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse
13-th century manuscript, drawn by Al-Wasiti of the celebrated book “The Assemblies”. Written by Hariri, shows a library in Baghdad