Thursday, April 15, 2010

Arab technology: what the hell happened?

I spent part of the summer in Salerno, Italy. In the medieval period, this place boasted Europe’s first medical school. They say it was founded by an Arab, a Jew, a Greek and an Italian. Think Harry Potter, and the Arabs were Gryffindor. The city was so cosmopolitan, its medical school so renowned, that people came from all over the world to be trained and treated there. They called it “opulent Salerno.”

When you go there today, you think: what, THIS little town? Its population hovers in the 60,000s. It’s on the shabby-chic side. Until very recently there was almost no way that you could learn about the city’s remarkable history – no signs or brochures, no significant museums.

But in the 12th Century, it was THE place to be. Thanks to the Arabs, they had the biggest pharmacopoeia and the best surgical procedures. So while the rest of Europe was creeping out of its civilization rot, Salerno was benefiting from its contact with the Arab world, which was flourishing in a golden age of enlightenment.

Wait a minute, Arabs? Enlightened? And Europeans backwards? Yep. So what the hell happened? Because, let’s be honest, is the world completely bowled over by the brilliant scientific, spiritual, and philosophical inspiration coming out of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo today? Not really.

But we don’t thank them enough for their contributions, do we? No, we prefer the Greeks and the Romans. All that architecture and the glory of social structure. But what about early cures for syphilis? The development of sutures? Hypnotherapy? The first understanding of capillaries – and oh, by the way, an understanding of the whole pulmonary system? Not to mention some of the first successful eye and brain surgeries? Thank you, Muslim enlightenment!

Ever notice that the earliest pictures of Christopher Columbus – who called himself “Almirate,” or “prince” in Arabic -- show him wearing a turban? While we’re at it, let’s thank the Arabs for navigation.

In case you’re interested in going to Salerno, there is still some dispute about the actual location of the medical school, but there is a Medical School Museum, which is currently closed for unfathomable reasons. (Actually, from personal experience, I can say that it’s been closed for 14 years. And somehow every time I go looking for it, people direct me to the police station. For something on that fiasco, click here.)