Syrian Inventions That Changed the World

Friday, August 23, 2013

By Grady Loy

Tokyo- (PanOrient News) A Thousand and One Nights is said to have been Sassanian Persian stories collected in Baghdad during the Abassid Caliphate, and perhaps the best known of these stories, and one of the most imaginative, was not from Persia, but is first remembered as told by Youhenna Diab, a Syrian scholar, to French writer Antoine Galland in 1709.

Likewise the modern sciences have long been regarded as having been established by brilliant Persian scholars of the Kwarasmian school working in Baghdad under the first Abassid Caliph in the 8th century combining their own genius with the stores of knowledge salvaged from Persia and classical Alexandria. And that is true, but this story also has an interesting Syrian twist in regard to chemistry. The story of chemistry is to a great extent the story of glass. Glass is the material that has made it possible for alchemists and later chemists to separate substances into their components and then combine them into new things without contaminating or ruining them.

The story of glass goes back a very long time. Discovered in pre-history as an accidental byproduct of the smelting of copper (sand and ash would sometimes get in the smelter and melt into blobs of glass). Glass in the second and third millennium BCE was made in three places – Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt. It was mostly used as decoration.

With the end of the Bronze Age and the collapse of old empires much of what was known of glassmaking was lost and had to be rediscovered. This time, however, the glass makers of the great trading nation of Phoenicia on the Syrian – Lebanese coast not only discovered how to make a very pure, high quality glass, they also developed the art of glass blowing as well. A taste for Phoenician wares, including fine glassware, soon spread throughout the known world and much of that that was not known as well.

As the great empires of antiquity swept one after another over the region culminating finally with the Romans, glass-working became a high art. Syria remained the source of the best materials and arguably the best craftsmen. Ennion was among the famed glassblowers of Levantine Syria at that time. These craftsmen established great glass work shops and rapidly created new techniques, expanding their business through Cyprus and eventually Italy to the rest of the Roman Empire. These businesses, though over the years less dominant and facing some competition from Alexandria, remained where they were as Syria passed through the Byzantine Empire and into the Ummayad Caliphate. Qal’at Sem’an was a major center for glass production, as were Tyre, Acre and Beth Shearim. Changes in the availability of natron (Soda) supplies and the new accessibility to old Persian centers resulted in a vigorous period of innovation in glass making and glass blowing during the first years of Islamic civilization.

At this point it is necessary to take a short detour in space and time to Mesopotamia and mention the mother of chemistry, Tapputi-Belatikallim who lived in Babylon not far from modern day Baghdad in Iraq. She was an official in the royal Babylonia palace in about 1200 BCE and is said to be the oldest recorded user of a ceramic still – she distilled flowers, oil, and calamus along with cyperus, myrrh, and balsam to create fragrances for religious and perhaps aesthetic purposes. Suffice it to say the art of distillation was quite old but hampered by the use of poor materials. Ceramics, particularly ancient ones are often porous and materials used in their manufacture can interact with the material being distilled.

Returning to the Roman era, there was an Egyptian Alexandrian, probably of Greek descent, named Zosimus of Panapolis who applied the distillation practices developed and handed down from Babylon over the centuries to the pursuits of knowledge in the second century. He was a great alchemist and a member of the gnostic sect who believed that Alchemy along with metallurgy, had been one of the heavenly secrets taught by the fallen angels, the Nephilim, to their human wives before the flood as told in the Apocryphal Book of Enoch.

As the Caliphate took over the lands of the old Empires in the east and trade over the silk road greatly increased, the Chinese under the T’ang Emperors began to develop a heightened interest in perfumes, incense and flavorings. To quote Edward Schaefer’s “The Golden Peaches of Samarakand.” In T’ang, a man or woman of the upper classes lived in clouds of incense and mists of perfumes. The body was perfumed, the bath was scented, the costume was hung with sachets. The home was sweet smelling, the office was fragrant, the temple was redolent of a thousand sweet-smelling balms and ointments.” (p. 155) We have long heard that Europeans obtained sweet-smelling spices from the East, but apparently the trade went both ways. The earliest certain mention of distillation of essential oils survives in a text by Ibn al Baitar written in Andalusia in the first half of the 13th century, but it is clear from what we know of the trade with China at that time that both the Byzantines (who during T’ang times still held a part of coastal Syria) and the Arabs and Persians had been busy refining essential oils almost 700 years before Al Baitar’s treatise and there are records of families of Arabs and Persians based in Canton and other great cities in China so powerful as to have dominated the fragrance and medicines trade and attracted the notice of the T’ang and Song emperors. Given the amount of money involved the techniques they used to prepare their goods may have for a time been carefully guarded “trade secrets” even though all of the rival traders possessed very similar secrets.

The brisk trade in distilled essential oils and like substances combined with improvements in separation techniques and glass materials particularly in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, gave rise to and almost certainly were supported by the brisk development in chemical studies culminating in the person of Jabir Ibn Hayyan – father of chemistry. Jaban Ibn Hayyan was said to be a pupil of the Imam Jafar al Sidiq, the great jurist and scholar from Medina, who in turn was said to have introduced him to such diverse chemical knowledge as that of calcium, distillation, evaporation and crystallization. Although Jabir is perhaps justly best known for his theoretical work on the foundations of chemistry, his development of the glass retort for condensing and his improvements of Zosimus’ alembic and other glassware were extremely important in expanding what could be accomplished with chemical processes like distillation. It is certain that much of what he was able to accomplish in this regard depended on having access to a large and vital craft possessing the world’s finest glass blowers.

The development of the these tools and techniques and the opportunities they provided both intentionally and unintentionally to those who created material wealth and prosperity and the vast improvement in trade with China and India on the East and the Italian cities to the west were a crucial part of the foundation of the vitality and longevity both of the Islamic Civilization and the subsequent rise of Modern Civilization.

And lying inconspicuously at the heart of the change lay a 4000 year history of craftsmanship in glass. Certainly distillation of spirits is and was always largely carried out using vessels and piping made of ceramics and metals. Still the use of glassware at a particular point in the development of these technologies opened up a grand vista of new possibilities. And it is important to note as well that glassware, relatively inert, relatively resistant to high temperatures, impervious to most chemical attack and wondrously workable into any shape imaginable opened the gates to a flood of research that started with Jabir Ibn Hayyan and has yet to abate.

In a final note although alcohol is forbidden as a beverage in Islam, the distillation technology that made refined spirits clearly developed as a result of improved distillation techniques. The roots of distillation of alcohol in China appear to date back well into the T’ang (618 – 907) and are thought to have been inspired by the distillation of essential oils learned from Persian and Arab traders. Likewise, with the art of fine glassmaking moving west through Byzantium and eventually taking root in Venice, so too did an understanding of distillation that had the Italians distilling alcohol into spirits by the 1100’s. Interestingly, Irish records suggest that Whskey (Irish “uisge beatha or “water of life” – an Italian phrase originally - and ancestor of such beverages as scotch and bourbon today) may have gotten its start a century earlier in the monastaries of Ireland. I once visited Glendalough and heard from someone there that the monks had been to the Mediterranean on their peregrinations or other business in the middle ages and had learnt a great many things, among them how to make whiskey. I think it is assumed that they went to Italy but as a great many Irish kings made pilgrimages to the Holy Land (where the Jews and Christians were permitted to prepare alcohol though it was primarily wine) before the crusades and it seems certain that because these pilgrimages were peaceful in nature, rather than soldiers they went surrounded by Irish monks who were much more useful in speaking some language that could be understood in the countries they were going to and obtaining suitable lodging for the night than knights or mercenaries would be. Irish monks before the advent of Strongbow were wondrously well educated and capable of absorbing and recreating new knowledge they encountered when it suited them. And that brings this tale to an end – from the perfumeries and palaces of ancient Babylon and the glass foundries of ancient Phoenicia to the misty shores of China and Ireland.

Photo: The Alembic (Distillation Apparatus) of Zosimus of Panapolis

Grady Loy is an American chemist and a lawyer residing in Japan.

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