The Map of Knowledge’s adjective-filled prose clearly takes pleasure in a recreation of the atmosphere, the feel of the cities of its narrative, and does so by emphasizing the exoticism of these places and inventing scenes to illustrate this. The chapter on Córdoba begins: “A man lies in the shade of a pomegranate tree … his eyes are pouched and creased, but they can still pierce you with their blackness”. Córdoba in the year 929 is recreated with “scrupulously clean streets”, “lit with lanterns at night”, where “the scent of delicious food and fragrant spices filled its bazaars”. The Jewish scholar Hasdai ibn Shaprut, physician and counsellor to Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, is described as “charming, sophisticated, clever – everything a ruler could wish for in an advisor”.
In her summary it runs: “There were the Greeks, and then the Romans, and then there was the Renaissance.” In the interim between the last two, Europe had merely misplaced its intellectual heritage, before finding it in the attic, where it had been all along. The true story, carefully illustrated by Moller in this fascinating book, is both far more complicated and far more interesting... While specialists might long for more depth in places, and table their own queries about Moller’s choices of focus, it is hard to imagine how it could be done better.
Ambitious but concise, deeply researched but elegantly written, and very entertaining, The Map of Knowledge is popular intellectual history at its best.
What Moller does that your average OUP or your CUP history or companion most certainly does not do is to imagine vivid scenes and scenarios and to populate them with colourful historical figures thinking big, bold, beautiful ideas: basically, The Map of Knowledgeis a Peter Ackroyd, written by Bettany Hughes. The book boasts a cast of thousands, from the great al-Mansur founding Baghdad, to the Banu Musa brothers (a trio of eccentric geniuses, famous for their Book of Ingenious Devices), to the translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Aldus Manutius with his printing house, and Hypatia, famed as the first great female mathematician.
She describes with great passion how precarious and unpredictable the process of textual transmission can be. Her descriptions of the fates of books and their passage through various collections are so engaging that one wonders whether her own book might have been better shaped as a broader history of the written word or of the library... The problem is that the three scientists she selects as her protagonists become rather lost in the narrative as she turns from one city to another... Nonetheless, the story she tells is a fascinating one. It is peppered with examples of extraordinary human endeavour.
It’s a much more interesting tale than it sounds... a picturesque tour of a series of fabulously wealthy civilisations... Moller brings the wonders of the medieval Muslim empires vividly to life and you’re left yearning for more... By the time she moves into Christendom, things feel more prosaic, and the idea of looking at seven cities means the structure can feel stop-start: a city rises, flourishes and is destroyed, then the next one does the same. Fortunately, Moller’s talent for historical colour keeps things lively.