September 3, 2017

"In the tenth century… the Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, in order not to part with his collection of 117,000 volumes when traveling..."

"... had them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order."

59 comments:

mockturtle said...

Good for him! A man after my own heart! :-) Books are more valuable than gold.

Unknown said...

How did the camels walk in alphabetical order? Didn't they just maintain their positions in the caravan, carrying individual loads organized in alphabetical order?

buwaya said...

Its good to be the Grand Vizier of Persia!

John henry said...

And now I could carry a million books in my pocket with a couple of thumb drives and my phone

The ability to search eliminates the need to alphabetize.

I much prefer it this way

John Henry

john said...

I only have about 50 books on my Kindle and I even forgot once and tried to order a second copy of one of them. Amazon reminded me I need not buy it again.

Amazon is my lead camel driver.

Fernandinande said...

He could read one a day if he lived for 320 years.

What a load of nonsense.

Quaestor said...

At first, I found the factoid charming: a lovely illustration of the importance of books in the early Islamic world. Then I felt a little jealous at the idea of owning 1117,000 books.

The operative word is factoid, with the emphasis on the oid. A caravan of 400 camels trained to walk in alphabetical order... that has a distinct whiff of dromedarian effluent about it. Firstly, why train them to walk in alphabetical order? Presumably, each camel had a handler (what fool would trust his precious library to a horde of unsupervised quadrupeds?) so wouldn't be simpler to instruct the mahouts (or whatever a camel jockey wants to be called) as to his proper place in the caravan? And in whose alphabetical order did the beast trod on? In the 10th century, most books were in either Greek or Chinese. And what language did the Grand Viser prefer to read, Arabic or Farsi?

I tried to look up this guy, but every hit was a reference to this same crapzilla. If Abdul Kassem Ismael (that name by itself is highly suspect) was such a hotshot scholar wouldn't he be notable for some kind of sane accomplishment, like creating a system of paved roads so that his portable library could tavel on wheels and not stink of camel on every page?

Fernandinande said...

camels trained to walk in alphabetical order

Of course the camels were not trained to walk in alphabetical order.

What a load of nonsense.

Quaestor said...

typo correction: ...like creating a system of paved roads so that his portable library could travel on wheels and not stink of camel on every page?

Fernandinande said...

I tried to look up this guy, but every hit was a reference to this same crapzilla.

It sounds like something from the old "Ripley's Believe it Not".

Rob said...

He'd walk a camel for a mile.

Ken B said...

Another link from that site talks about male menstruation in early modern medicine.

Did you know "gullible" is not in the dictionary?

mockturtle said...

He'd walk a camel for a mile.

:-)

Dave Begley said...

The glory of Islam. Islam invented democracy, equal rights. capitalism and the rule of law. There is nothing sweeter than the call to prayer five times a day.

mockturtle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ken B said...

Dave Begley is right of course. That's the purpose of this factoid. Just as the male menstruation factoid has a purpose.

mockturtle said...

Well, it's a nice tale, anyway. Like the Thousand and One Nights. ;-)

Luke Lea said...

Without looking at the article, I'm not sure I believe that.

rcocean said...

"Without looking at the article, I'm not sure I believe that."

What about 3 Donkeys and the Encyclopedia Britannica?

Quaestor said...

Would you believe three gerbils and a collection of Bazooka Joe bubble-gum wrappers?

Balfegor said...

Re: Quaestor:

I tried to look up this guy, but every hit was a reference to this same crapzilla.

I think you can find him here. Not sure if that link is going to remain good, but it's to a 1903 book called Short Histories of the Literatures of the World. I'll excerpt the relevant bit:

The Sahib Ibn 'Abbad (Abul Qasim Ismail) al-Talaqani, born at Talaqan near Qazvin in 938 was the son of the vizier of the Buwaihid princes Rukn al-daula and 'Adud al-daula; he was the first to receive the title of sahib, or comrade. He attended the lessons of Faris at Rai, and completed his studies at Baghdad. When he returned from this city, the Buwaihid prince Mu'ayyid al-daula, whose companion he had been in boyhood, chose him to be his minister, and he continued to hold the post under the prince's successor, Fakhr al-daula. He was a patron of art and science, and himself wrote poems and letters which have been collected under the title of Kafil-Kufat. The third volume of his Muhit, a dictionary in alphabetical order, in seven volumes, now preserved in the Khedival Library at Cairo, contains a very large number of words, insufficiently supported by a very few instances. He died in 995. He was popular at Rai, and his funeral, over which the prince presided in person, called forth a great demonstration of sorrow.

I think these are the same people because in googling about, I found a Turkish page that gives the same dates and has the anecdote about 117,000 volumes in abbreviated form.

The dates and the names of rulers allow us to place him more precisely. Here is Mu'ayyid and here is Fakhr. His title seems to have been somewhat inflated -- if I have pieced this together accurately, he was not Grand Vizier of Persia, but rather, the vizier to a regional governor (Emir) under the senior Buyid Emir.

Unknown said...

A muslim interested in learning, and with a huge library largely comprised of muslim works.

Then---a thousand years of almost nothing at all from the Islamic world. No more Avicennas, no more Averroes ...gradually no more....anything.

To the point that the Islamic world today offers the world almost no inventions, no patents. A few important physicists here and there, otherwise... ISIS and other hard-liners despise the West, yet rely on it for everything modern, from weapons to cars to refrigerators. No Muslim nation makes its own cars, builds its own airplanes, designs its own computers.

What the hell happened?

Quaestor said...

The third volume of his Muhit, a dictionary in alphabetical order, in seven volumes, now preserved in the Khedival Library at Cairo, contains a very large number of words, insufficiently supported by a very few instances.

Yup. The bogusity is definitely on the uptick with this one. It reminds me of Blackadder and Baldrick re-creating Johnson's Dictionary over night.

Balfegor said...

And if you search for Abul Qasim Ismail, you get this book which seems to be about him? I didn't read anything more than the first page or two, since I am not actually interested in the fellow, but someone thought he was notable enough to write a whole book about him. I guess. I don't think it mentions the anecdote about the 117,000 volumes -- my only link for that is a random comment on a Turkish cite, so who knows? Maybe I have got the wrong man.

Ralph L said...

How did the camels walk in alphabetical order?

The real trick was to teach each camel the 400 names.

mockturtle said...

No Muslim nation makes its own cars, builds its own airplanes, designs its own computers.

Work is for kaffirs.

mockturtle said...

It reminds me of Blackadder and Baldrick re-creating Johnson's Dictionary over night.

I'm sure Baldrick had a cunning plan. ;-)

Quaestor said...

From the book cited by Balfegor: After the Būyid age, the Muslim world took a decisively anti-rationalist turn. In Sunni Islam, Mu’tazilī theology was officially denounced as heretical, Mu’tazilī books were burnt and Mu’tazilī teaching outlawed and eventually suppressed.

I'll wager the camels were pleased by this outcome.

Crimso said...

"but someone thought he was notable enough to write a whole book about him"

I'd like to think that someone, somewhere has the book. And carries it around on the back of a camel trained to walk.

Static Ping said...

If this was true, I would expect that Abdul Kassem Ismael would have a Wikipedia page or at least a reference somewhere. There is not other than this "factoid." There is also the issue that Persia was in a state of political flux in the 10th century and it is questionable that there was a country that could be called "Persia" during that time. Finally, it is unclear that there was a title "grand vizier" in Persia at any point in time. (There were viziers and perhaps an equivalent post, but Wikipedia seems to think that as an official title this only applies to the Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire, neither of which had come into existence yet.)

The first thing that came to mind is what language would these "volumes" be written in and, once established, did the language even have an alphabet. Farsi and Arabic do have alphabets so at least that part is plausible.

There's also the matter of how much weight a camel can carry. The average camel is going to have to carry 292 1/2 "volumes" plus the rider. Apparently a camel can carry between 375-600 pounds for normal travel so that might also be plausible if an average volume weighs less than 2 pounds.

It's a nice story, but I doubt it is true.

Quaestor said...

From the Muhit of Sahib Ibn 'Abbad (Abul Qasim Ismail) al-Talaqani:

mmmmmen: adjective, the past participle of mmmmm, as in "By the beard of the Prophet, that was a mmmmmen apple!"

Static Ping said...

If Balfegor has tracked down the man in question, then this is his Wikipedia page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahib_ibn_Abbad

No mention of the 400 camel library.

Balfegor said...

re: Static Ping:

See my comment above for an alternate spelling and my guess as to the vizier referenced (just a vizier, not a Grand Vizier). That said, just as his title seems to have been inflated for the anecdote, the business about books and camels is also likely inflated. You and Quaestor are probably right that it's mostly invented. Among other things, I'd be surprised if the Buyid emirs were rich enough that one of their ministers could have train of 400 camels devoted exclusively to carting his library around.

Balfegor said...

Ah, and here is an English source linking Ibn Abbad directly to the 117,000 book story. The author comments:

Sadly, this seems to be apocryphal, but the germ of it is an anecdote that is very likely true in which Ibn 'Abbad refused to become the vizier of a Samanid ruler ont he grounds that he would have to travel and that it would be too expensive to move his library on the backs of four hundred camels.

Jim S. said...

I'm . . . skeptical. 117,000 volumes would be one of the largest libraries in the world at the time, and it was mobile? Really?

Quaestor said...

I believe that in a past life Prof. Althouse was a citizen of Rome who attended the games frequently, garnering delight from watching the beasts and gladiators make bloody hash from the bodies of condemned miscreants. In her current incarnation, such diversions are in bad taste in the more civilized quarters, yet the appetite lingers... thus she throws intellectual reprobates into the arena where her menagerie of ravenous wits and raconteurs rip them to shreds, while Ann herself sits back and eats a peeled grape.

Balfegor said...

Re: Jim S:

The size of the library may also be inflated. Still googling around idly (the internet is fantastic -- imagine trying to trace this anecdote in a proper library), I suspect that the 17th century Ottoman writer Haji Khalifa is the source of the claim about the size, if not the camel anecdote. That said, 117,000 volumes might be less than you are imagining -- a lot of these old books have "volumes" or "books" that are basically just chapters.

Michael K said...

The Arabs invaded Persia and burned the Zoroastrian libraries around 700 AD.

By the late 10th century, the majority of the Persians had become Muslim. Until the 15th century, most Persian Muslims were Sunni Muslims[citation needed], though today Iran is known as a stronghold of the Shi'a Muslim faith, recognizing Islam as their religion and the prophet's son in law, Ali as an enduring symbol of justice.

I doubt that story. The number of books translated into Arabic in the past 1,000 years is smaller than the number translated into Spanish each year,

Paddy O said...

"How did the camels walk in alphabetical order?"

It was pretty easy.

A = 0
B = 0
C = 400
D = 0
E = 0
...

Quaestor said...

Everyone whose generic name starts with a C, raise a cameltoe.

traditionalguy said...

I feel the need for speed , camel racing speed that is out of Lawrence of Arabia reruns.

William said...

The commenters here have really blew the lid off Sahib ibn Abbad's fake news......I remember yesterday's post about the Big Bang Theory. The commenters there explained how smart people were nothing like the characters on BBT. They knew this because they were smart people, and they would never get bogged down in pointless discussions of Star Wars characters.

Freeman Hunt said...

Trained to walk in alphabetical order? Like they taught the camels the alphabet and sorting?

Freeman Hunt said...

Were there 117,000 books even remotely worth reading at the time?

etienne said...

It was a miracle the Saracens saved the books during the middle ages. The savages running around the European Continent used the pages for cooking porridge, and wiping their ass.

Josephbleau said...

Perhaps pages were smaller or writing was bigger.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josephbleau said...


Blogger Etienne said...
It was a miracle the Saracens saved the books during the middle ages. The savages running around the European Continent used the pages for cooking porridge, and wiping their ass.

Gauss and Euler then Newton. The Middle Easters were poor students collecting multiple under age sex partners.

Unknown said...

Etienne said...
It was a miracle the Saracens saved the books during the middle ages. The savages running around the European Continent used the pages for cooking porridge, and wiping their ass.*********************

Oh, I see...when the Middle Ages ended, the West went to the Muslims , who had preserved all that WESTERN learning.

iow It was the Muslims, not the Christian monks, who preserved all that WESTERN learning.

It was they who preserved those Greeks and Roman writings. And those of the Muslims.

Who then ignored, rejected, and declared them anathema.

We have so much to thank them for!!


Snort!

etienne said...

If not for the Arabs hording books, we would never have the number 0 so early in the Renaissance, without which the calculus would never work.

snort!

furious_a said...

No Muslim nation makes its own cars, builds its own airplanes, designs its own computers.

What the hell happened?


Lepanto.

furious_a said...

The Benedictines preserved, copied and disseminated classical texts, too.

Quaestor said...

Gauss and Euler then Newton

Indispensable all, but isn't it "Newton and Euler then Gauss"?

David said...

Enter the iPad and the Kindle.

Are Persian classics digitalized?

Sammy Finkelman said...

Where are all those books now? Do we even have the authors and titles, let alone copies?

Sammy Finkelman said...

What really destroyed a lot of books were the Mongols, circa 1258. This was around 150 years since they'd stopped making new copies.

Sammy Finkelman said...

What the hell happened?

al-Ghazali

David-2 said...

There are 120 permutations of 5 camels in alphabetical order. Here's one of them:


Camel Camel Camel Camel Camel



kevin.talley said...

I suspect the camel only had to know the name of the camel in front of him.Finding a trainer that could speak and understand "camelese" so fluently as to select camels that were both obedient (not prone to trickery) and all having unique names, would be the ultimate problem. Hopefully one of his books covered this problem. All of the camels I have owned were named Joe.(factoid)