chapter  6
Cultural capitals
Pages 9

Abba-sid Baghdad is associated with a Golden Age of literary and scientific activities that would put their mark on ages to come, and as we have seen, Constantinople in the same era has been similarly imagined as the scene of a Byzantine revival, humanism or even “renaissance”. Whereas there is some justification for these designations, the paradigms did not emerge out of nothing: the allegedly “dark” ages that had seen the disintegration of the Roman world and the rise of Islam were times of agricultural development (the spread of new crops all over Europe and the Near East), technical innovations (mills, stirrups, paper) and scientific discoveries (in medicine, chemistry, mathematics and astronomy) from China to the Mediterranean. They cut across the cultural and historical paradigms by which we are accustomed to approach the past, and despite the comparably scarce amount of written testimony of the era, we have spotted a few notable cases that involved our political protagonists: the “Greek Fire” and alleged optical telegraph that defended Constantinople against Muslim attacks; the irrigation systems of the Umayyad desert estates and the Arab acquisition of knowledge in seafaring; the astronomical mechanisms in the palace of Khosrau II. Intellectually, the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud, the last ecumenical church councils and the Umayyad attempts at political universalism in the name of Islam show us an era not of stagnation and fanaticism, but one when the religions we have come to know seem to have been more formative than ever. This reveals a fundamental problem with the historicising terms in which

the ensuing ages have been defined and begs the question of whether the real continuity break with the Ancient world took place at the point when it was supposedly revived. From the moment when the past is relegated to the other side of a “Middle Age” it is confined to a closed and historicising understanding of time and change; even if this was not necessarily how the ninth-century elites saw their own role in history, it is a caveat that modern readers must bear in mind lest they feel tempted to revive the simplifying historical narrative of a “renaissance” when they are struggling to get a grasp on the dynamic complex we have come to know as the Early Middle Ages.1