The Age of the Translators

Nestorian translators and scholars built the bridge linking the knowledge of classical antiquity with the European Middle Ages.

During the ‘Age of the Translators’ (sixth to ninth centuries), Nestorian and Jacobite physicians and scholars translated the Greek classics of philosophy, mathematics, geometry, medicine and astrology from Greek into Syriac and then into Arabic. The greatness of their reputation can be seen in the fact that Caliph al-Ma’mun (ruled 813-833) appointed the Nestorian philosopher and physician Yuhanna Ibn Massawah as head of the state library and university that had been founded in 832 and was called the ‘House of Knowledge’, and paid in gold for the translations of the most renowned Nestorian scholar, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (808-873). Thanks to these translation projects, the Arab-Iranian culture preserved the treasures of Greek knowledge and, through the University of Toledo, offered them to Europe, which had lost them in the darkness of the early Middle Ages. Finally, the revival of Aristotle and the starting points of the work of Thomas Aquinas would have remained unthinkable without this Nestorian-Arab bridge.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 6

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, classical and biblical manuscripts were preserved by two unlikely sources, the newly-Christian Irish scribes and the minority Christian scholars of Mesopotamia, living under Zoroastrian and then Muslim rule. Both preserved the written treasures of the West, with the Irish preserving mainly the Latin texts and the Eastern Christians preserving the Greek. Thus, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that some of Western Civilization’s most forgotten and unlikely heroes turn out to be the ancient monks of Eire and Baghdad.

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

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