Seeking Seamless Scientific Wonders: Review of Emilie Savage-Smith’s Work

by Najma Kazi Published on: 24th November 2007

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Najma Kazi reviews some salient aspects of Emilie Savage-Smith's work. Emilie Savage-Smith, who is a Professor of History of Science at the Oriental Institute (Oxford University), is an internationally recognised authority on the History of Islamic Science, and is a key figure within a small band of historians that are spearheading the discovery of Muslim Heritage and its impact on civilisation.


We marvel at the legacy of the ancient Egyptians who left us their awesome pyramids not to mention their colossal temples and obelisks. We do not credit them with scientific know-how, though we speculate on how they erected such mathematically exact and stupendous structures, long before the Greeks – lauded as the first scientists made their impact on the world stage. The great pyramid of Giza was already a relic of antiquity when Greek and Roman invaders encountered them and both were as awe-struck by these astonishing stone sky-scrapers, as we are today – a feat all the more remarkable when we consider that until the 19th century these sole surviving wonders of the ancient world flaunted their supremacy as the tallest buildings to grace the earth’s skyline.

The pyramids command admiration and awe, so much so that some find it inconceivable that they can represent the product of human imagination, ingenuity and toil of an era long gone, resorting instead to whacky and outlandish pseudo-scientific conjecture to explain them away, such as, the idea that they were built by aliens, because the Egyptians, it is argued, could not have possessed the know-how to achieve such lofty and audacious feats. They stand in brazen defiance to the assumptions of our scientific age and what we imagine to be the limits set by the rudimentary technology and tools of the era in which they were built. But what of those achievements of the past that today’s experts tell us are technically impossible even in our hi-tech age?

Celestial Globes

Such was the conundrum faced by historian of science, Emilie Savage-Smith, when she began her investigation, applying the most cutting edge tools of 20th century science to determine how celestial globes were made in the Muslim World. Savage-Smith is an internationally acclaimed authority on Islamic science and medicine. Happily, a chance encounter coupled with her forensic eye, set her on course towards a world wide quest which uncovered the unique construction of celestial globes made in parts of the Muslim World and led to a new understanding of the evolution of these instruments.

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Figure 1: Islamic Celestial Globe in brass, dated 1630 CE. This globe served both as a map of the heavens, as viewed from outside the starry sphere, and as a precision tool for making astronomical calculations. Engraved on its surface are various coordinate lines, constellation figures, and Arabic inscriptions. The stars are made of embedded bits of silver. The globe is hollow and was cast in one seamless piece. (Source).

The celestial globe, known as al-kurah in the Muslim world, though in the 9th and 10th centuries it was also known as al-baydhah (egg-shaped), is the culmination of the earliest attempts to map the sky, by the philosophers and scientists of antiquity and was designed to track the position and movement of constellations and other celestial bodies relative to given terrestrial latitudes. The earth was regarded as the centre of the universe and surrounded by stars and other heavenly bodies. The Chaldeans and ancient Egyptians are thought to be the first to depict the sky and its stars on a sphere and the Greeks the first to construct celestial globes. Greek civilisation was contemporaneous with and overlapped that of the Middle East after Alexander the Great’s eastern conquests ensured that the new centre of gravity of the Greek universe was no longer Athens but Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt. The consequent amalgam of Greek, ancient Egyptian and Babylonian gave rise to a flowering of science, in particular the science of astronomy, in the Hellenistic era, and it was this heritage that the Arabs became the new guardians of when they in turn conquered Alexandria in 641. No precision pre-Islamic celestial globes are known to exist but references to them abound in Greek, Roman, Sanskrit and of course Arabic writings on astronomy. Decorative globes were also in demand as were copies of older globes as evidenced by three globes that have survived the Egyptian and Graeco-Roman period. The oldest surviving is the metal Kugel globe, and a copy of an even older globe, clearly not made by a professional instrument maker since he replicated the evidence of repairs on the original, thinking they depicted celestial detail. The Mainz globe, also of metal is Roman/Egyptian and originally part of a sundial. The Farnese globe is a 2nd century CE Roman copy in marble of an older Greek globe.

Emilie Savage-Smith’s ground breaking study began in a somewhat impromptu fashion with a casual encounter: “I was with the Smithsonian in the division of medical sciences. At the time it was the National Museum of History and Technology” she recaps. One day the director of the Institution approached her. The museum had just acquired a celestial globe, inscribed in Arabic. Would she take a look at it and identify where, when and by whom it was made? On examining the globe she found it to be undated and unsigned whereupon the director suggested that she embark on a trawl of the museums of Europe and the Middle East to see if she could find any more. She set off on her expedition with her husband in tow. “You can take the pictures,” she told him, mindful of how difficult it is to photograph spheres. Little did she realize that the assignment she had embarked on so casually would morph into a decade long quest, as it dawned on her that these globes were not just beautiful and superlatively crafted examples of metal work but were technical feats in themselves. Every museum had one or two of these globes and “I started to see signatures and dates,” she says. Gradually she built up a picture of their construction and history. On her return to Washington, the Conservation and Analytical Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution agreed to conduct a full range of tests using x-rays and cameras in order to identify the faintest trace of a join anywhere on the inside and the outside surface of the spheres, anything that might give a clue as to how the spheres were cast. By tracking down and studying a large number of the globes she was finally able to put together the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle and identify the maker of the anonymous Smithsonian globe that had set her off on her quest to solve the mystery of why such a fine instrument was left unsigned and undated. More crucially her detective work led her to identify the unique way the globe was constructed – something that had hitherto gone unnoticed.

Savage-Smith’s investigation found that celestial globes from the Muslim world fall into two categories: those made by casting two metal hemispheres and soldering these to produce a seamed globe, on which astronomical data is then inscribed. This was by far the easiest and the most common method of constructing metal globes. Most existing celestial globes are seamed and tend to originate in the Western parts of the Islamic world. The earliest surviving example of a celestial globe is a seamed globe and was made in Muslim Spain in Valencia in 473H/1080 CE by Ibrahim ibn Sa’id al-Sahli al-Wazzan and his son Muhammad. Until Savage-Smith’s work it was assumed by historians of science and all metallurgical experts that all surviving metal globes made anywhere in the world are unquestionably seamed.

The second category is that of seamlessly cast metal globes. In her weighty monograph in which she details the outcome of her decade long quest, Savage-Smith reveals that the process of seamlessly casting hollow metal spheres became well established in North Western India by the end of the 16th century. Though a Lahore workshop was the most prolific, she discovered other workshops were also making precision seamlessly cast globes. One example she found was made in Kashmir by Ali Kashmiri ibn Luqman in 998H/1589-90 CE, in the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Another was made by Muhammad Salih Tahtawi in 1074H/1663-64 CE and is of interest for being inscribed in both Arabic and Sanskrit. Savage-Smith comments that seamlessly cast globes continued to be made in Lahore up to the mid 19th century. In 1842 Lala Balhumal Lahuri, a Hindu maker of precision instruments made such a globe, inscribed in Arabic and Persian for his Sikh patron. Savage-Smith adds that no workshop today, anywhere in the world, knows how to do this and indeed the casting of seamless metal spheres is regarded as technically impossible.

Her discovery that the hollow metal globe she was asked to identify was an outstanding technical ‘miracle’, it being cast seamlessly in one piece and produced by a workshop of precision instrument makers in 16th and 17th century Mughal India, shocked the world’s leading metallurgical experts. Prior to her investigation no one imagined that there might be anything extraordinary about the construction of some of these globes with their origins in classical antiquity. The very idea that they could be cast in one piece with no seam was dismissed, as being an impossible feat. As she says “When I first discovered these I was told by the museum as well as historians of metal work that that was physically not possible. You cannot cast a hollow sphere with no seam.”

Savage-Smith discovered that the anonymous Smithsonian instrument belonged to a remarkable family of globes that were seamlessly cast and made by one workshop in the city of Lahore, in present day Pakistan. As she discovered, this family of precision instrument makers, were the most prolific producers of seamlessly cast celestial globes and masters of the technique, establishing this as their particular area of expertise. But why did the maker leave such a fine instrument undated and unsigned? On closer examination Savage-Smith identified a factual error in the surface engraving and surmises that this caused him to cease work on this almost finished globe, leaving the unfinished instrument undated and unsigned.

The Journey into the History of Medicine

If most people know anything about the history of early science and medicine and the link between classical Greek and Arabic, it is that the Arabs translated Classical Greek treatises be they mathematical such as Euclid or medical, into Arabic and that these were available in the Islamic world for several centuries before the push began in Europe to translate these back into Latin from the Arabic. Few make the connection that this link actually tracks the progress of science and technology from the Greek to the Renaissance period. But, Savage-Smith recalls that “when I started looking more at the Arabic material I realised that that is only one aspect of it.” Beyond the link and far more exciting was the consolidation and reorganisation of existing knowledge and the addition of new knowledge and ideas. This transformation and strengthening of existing scientific literature, applied not only to medicine but also to mathematics, astronomy, cartography and other areas. “Once you realize that, it’s much richer,” there is no need then to view the Islamic phase in the history of science as “only a conduit by which Europe regained it’s knowledge of Greece.”

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Figure 2: A Latin copy of the Canon of Medicine of Ibn Sina, dated 1484, located at the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Eyeglasses are here for scale. (Source).

One end result of such a major cross border survey and reorganisation of the world’s existing literature -and remember this venture was not confined to the Greek heritage but also took in the Persian and the Indian-, was that medical encyclopaedias started to become commonplace. Savage-Smith points out that they were a rarity in Greek medical literature, an exception being a 7th century encyclopaedia compiled in Alexandria by Paul of Aegina. It is said that he was in Alexandria when the city fell to the Arabs in 641. More significant changes were afoot as new material was added to the existing body of knowledge. In Baghdad “as early as the 9th century they were describing some entirely new diseases, diseases that were not known to Galen” says Savage-Smith. Smallpox was identified and described in detail for the first time and “a treatise was written on smallpox and measles and how to distinguish the two in the 10th century,” she adds. This was written by al-Razi, who headed a hospital in Baghdad and died in 925. His treatise, she says, turned out to be very influential right up to the 18th century. By the early 10th century Arab physicians were naming and describing trachoma and its complications. “It’s an eye disease. The major cause of blindness at the time was trachoma and its series of complications,” she explains. One complication of trachoma is Pannus, and is a form of vascularisation of the cornea. Arab physicians realised that this, along with trachoma, was infectious and that it could be spread from person to person, something that had never been expressed by earlier physicians.

“Even more remarkably” says Savage-Smith, “they developed a surgical technique for actually removing it by using a series of small hooks to lift the cornea from the epithelium and cutting it with a small knife. We have illustrations of the instruments they used. We have accounts of this technique being done for several centuries in the Islamic middle ages. The technique was translated into Latin and then into the vernacular in Europe and that very technique with virtually no change was used right through the First World War”.

One scientist /philosopher and physician who enjoyed overwhelming prestige and influence in Europe was Abu Ali al-Husayn Ibn Sina. Europeans, who knew him as Avicenna, regarded him as the world’s foremost medical authority, on the basis of his famous book, The Canon of Medicine (Kitab al Qanun fi al-Tibb). Ibn Sina died in 1037 and at the end of the 12th century his Canon was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona, one of the most prolific translators of Arabic manuscripts. In 1527 a new Latin edition, translated by Andreo Alpago, who lived in Damascus for over 30 years, was published. Between 1500 and 1674, 60 editions of the canon were published in Europe. It held sway in Europe and dominated medical education through to the 17th century. This massive tome comprised 5 books, covering general medical principles, medicinal substances, and treatments for all known diseases from head to toe, systemic diseases such as fevers, and finally recipes for making remedies. Ibn Sina was the outstanding logician of his day, though it is thought by some that he may never have been a practicing physician, says Savage-Smith. He organised his canon “in a very logical way into sections, sub-sections and sub-sub-sections” she adds, producing the most highly detailed medical text book of it’s time. The end result was so large that in Europe it was referred to as the ultimate authority – the magnum opus of the Islamic world in the field of medicine.

But The Canon of Medicine, though important in the Muslim world, was by no means the best the Islamic world had to offer, as Savage-Smith points out, and was certainly not unanimously regarded as the ultimate authority by Muslim physicians who came after Ibn Sina. Muslims continued to revere Ibn Sina after his death as the outstanding scientist / philosopher and logician that he was, but in the field of medicine things moved on, as later Muslim physicians challenged Ibn Sina and indeed the master physician, Galen himself. The tremendous influence of Ibn Sina’s Canon was in reality rather unfortunate for the development of medicine in Europe says Savage-Smith because it stultified Europe and closed it to other, newer influences from the Islamic world. “There were people, particularly in Egypt and Syria, in the 12th and 13th centuries who did very original monographs.” Her own studies have drawn attention to “the work of the 12th and 13th century eye surgeons, surgical procedures and how really innovative that was.” Sadly the work of these people “never gets incorporated into the larger medical view” as so much of this work remains in the Muslim World, untranslated.

One leading physician who wrote commentaries expressing criticisms of the way Ibn Sina organised his Canon, was Ibn al-Nafis, who was born in Damascus in 1213 and died in 1288. He criticised the Canon for the way the human anatomy sections were organised and the descriptions scattered. So for instance the anatomy of one part of the body was described with the diseases of that part, instead of all anatomy being under one section. In the same critique and much more importantly Ibn Nafis made medical history by being the first physician in the world to challenge Galen in regard to the anatomy of the heart and the path of the pulmonary or lesser circulation of the blood. He stated that the blood in the right ventricle must reach the left ventricle via the lungs and not through passages or invisible holes connecting the two ventricles, as Galen believed.

“…the blood from the right chamber of the heart must arrive at the left chamber, but there is no direct pathway between them. The thick septum of the heart is not perforated and does not have visible pores as some people thought or invisible pores as Galen thought. The blood from the right chamber must flow through the vena arteriosa (pulmonary artery) to the lungs, spread through it’s substance, be mingled with air, pass through the arteria venosa (pulmonary vein) to reach the left chamber of the heart…”

Ibn al-Nafis described his finding some three centuries before these same findings were described by Europeans, Michael Servelus and Realdo Colombo. His discovery was missed by Europe, in large measure, because Europeans thought that medical science had peaked in the Arab/Islamic world with the death of Ibn Sina. Hence, few if any Arabic medical treatises that were written after the death of Ibn Sina were translated into Latin.

Importantly the approach employed by Savage-Smith in this as in other areas of scholarship highlighted the diversity of techniques that were being innovated and put into practice long after the official decline of science and technology in the Muslim World had set in. Judging by her work it is apparent that in order to get a handle on a more realistic picture of the state of scientific advance in the Muslim World it is vital that today’s scholars and historians of science do not confine their focus to those Arabic texts that were translated into Latin in the medieval period but that they also begin to look at the vast body of Arabic texts that escaped the attention of the European Arabic-to-Latin translation movement of the middle ages, thus were not translated and did not reach Europe. At a time when many deride the very notion of science and Islam co-existing, Savage-Smith’s discoveries and her pioneering and on-going work in recovering and re-documenting the achievements in science and technology of Muslim civilisation, has led to a shift in reassessing the place of the medieval Islamic phase in the history of science. The thousands of Arabic manuscripts on a range of scientific subjects that languish in the basements of the world’s leading museums and private collections, are testament to the diversity of sciences practiced after the rise of Islam and challenge the received view that science went into hibernation as the world entered the so called ‘dark ages’ after the collapse of the Greek and Roman empires.

However she stresses that a major problem of working in this field, whether it’s the history of medicine or astronomy or any other area, is the sheer number of manuscripts that remain to be read and translated. “These are tremendously large in number,” especially from the 10th to the 13th centuries and so far “we’ve only looked at a very few of these.” To give some idea of the numbers Savage-Smith cites the Bodleian Library collection, which happens to be very good in this area and has roughly five hundred Arabic treatises anywhere from the 9th century to the most recent from the late 18th century. As historians now appreciate a great deal of this work did not cross into Europe due to the fact that it was never translated into Latin.

Recent publications of Professor Emilie Savage-Smith

Medieval Islamic Medicine (with co-author P. Pormann). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

Medieval Views of the Cosmos (with co-author E. Edson). Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2004.

The Oriental Manuscripts of St John’s College, Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

(ed.) Magic and Divination in Early Islam [The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, 42]. London: Ashgate, 2004.

“Medieval Islamic View of the Cosmos: The newly discovered Book of Curiosities” (with co-author Y. Rapoport), The Cartographic Journal 41 (2004 ), 253-9.

Arabic Treasures of the British Library: From Alexandria to Baghdad and Beyond. London: The British Library/ Friends of the Alexandrian Library, 2003.

“The Book of Curiosities: A newly-discovered series of Islamic maps” (with co-author J. Johns), Imago Mundi, 55 (2003), 7–24 and Plates 1–7.

“Safavid Magic Bowls”. In: Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran, 1505–1576, ed. by Jon Thompson and Sheila R. Canby. Milan: Skira, 2003, pp. 240–247.

“Islam”. In: The Cambridge History of Science. Vol. 4: Eighteenth-Century Science, ed. Roy Porter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003, pp. 649–668.

“Memory and Maps”. In: Culture and Memory in Early and Medieval Islam: A Festschrift in honour of Wilferd Madelung, ed. F. Daftary and J. Meri. London: I.B. Taurus, 2003, pp. 109–27 and Figures 1–4.

“Islamic Geomancy and a Thirteenth-Century Divinatory Device: Another Look” (with co-author M.B. Smith). In: Magic and Divination in Early Islam, ed. by E. Savage-Smith [The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, vol. 42]. London/Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.

‘The Practice of Surgery in Islamic Lands: Myth and Reality’. In: The Year 1000: Medical Practice at the End of the First Millennium, ed. P. Horden and E. Savage-Smith [Social History of Medicine, vol. 13.2], 308-321. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

“An Astrologer’s Map: A Relic of Late Antiquity” (with E. Edson), Imago Mundi, 52 (2000), pp. 7–29.

Introduction and selection of: Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine (Maryland, USA).

Science, Tools and Magic. Part I: Body and Spirit, Mapping the Universe (with F. Maddison), Part II: Mundane Worlds [The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, XII], London/Oxford: Azimuth Editions/Oxford University Press, 1997. 2 vols.

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