May 28, 2011
The intensity with which the film, Agora, portrays certain events in history is gripping. Alexandria, curator of ancient wisdom, and a beacon to sailers of the Mediterranean, is in throes of a major social upheaval. Its world is turning upside down — shifting rapidly from the philosophy of logic and rational thought to an unquestionable, and unaccountable belief system: Religion.
It was by accident that I got to see this film. Even without the extensive use of CGI, this Alejandro Amenabar film is a spectacle. Commendable performances by Rachel Weisz (as Hypatia), and Max Minghella make it much watchable.
My knowledge of Alexandria, until now, was limited to the magnificent lighthouse. Wanting to learn more, I ordered a copy of The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, after learning that one of the co-authors of the book, Justin Pollard, was the historical advisor to the film.
While not a scholarly work, it suffices to say that the book is an absolute page turner — churning out nuggets of amazing facts about the city, its people, its influence, its politics, and ultimately its destruction. In that sense, the film provides a way to imagine life in Alexandria just as the book takes you through depths of its life and times.
Following are some of the things I learnt about Greek philosophers in the process:
- Pythagoras used symbolic teaching; and was perhaps the first to establish a secret scientific society one of whose tenets stated, “reality at its deepest level is mathematical in nature.”
- Aristarchus was the first philosopher to present the heliocentric model, preceding Copernicus.
- Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth with astonishing accuracy using just a stick, and a pacer!
- Archemedes perhaps had a hand in developing the concept of the first ever computer, the Antikythera mechanism, an eclipse predictor. Found off the coast of Antikythera by sponge divers in 1900, it would take another 70 years for the scientific community to prove that it was indeed a highly sophisticated self-powered computer, using gamma ray scans. (Antikythera mechanism is known to have a crank handle, but was never found. Alternatively, it could well have been water powered — using flowing water like Ctesibius’s water clock.)
- Hero, the author of Automata, developed the first steam and jet power, and the first to build self powered robots using hydraulics, pneumatics, and mechanics, preceding Leonardo da Vinci.
The book provides just a glimpse of the ancient scientific world in a beautiful narrative that it’s hard to put down.
We don’t give people credit for how smart they were 2,000 years ago. There were other mechanical devices as well, that we know about because they’ve been referenced in ancient books. They even had machines to dispense holy water in temples: you’d put a coin in a box and it would move a series of levers to dole out an amount of water to you, just like a vending machine. Kings would commission mechanical novelties because it was considered amazing and clever. But the Antikythera Mechanism is singular because no one is aware of anything else that complicated. To have actually found it, versus just reading about it — you don’t know if those ancient accounts are exaggerated — that’s what’s amazing. It took us 100 years just to analyze how it worked, but over time we’ve found that it’s more and more sophisticated. And we don’t know there were 20 of these things, or if this was the only one.
This discovery has erased all doubts about ancient world’s knowledge and mathematical sophistication. But if it were not for many Arabic translations of some of the great works housed in Alexandria’s library, the book notes, our world may never have known about some of its greatest treasures. Explaining this, it starts off with the following introduction — as it sets the pace for the rest of the book:
On most days in the summer of AD 1295 an eastern orthodox monk called Maximos Planudes could have been found in the great market of Constantinople, making his way past the spice sellers and the silk traders to the dusty undercrofts where the book merchants piled their own wares in tottering stacks of parchment. Here were codices and manuscripts in Arabic, Syriac, Greek, and Latin, some newly completed, some old..
The book dealers must have taken careful note of this unusual creature. Monks swarmed through the city, but their interest in books was invariably limited to medieval Greek religious works..
He spent his hours pouring over the dreariest-looking texts, from faded Latin fragments to terse Arabic treatises.
Then one day, sometime that summer, he found it. It certainly wasn’t much to look at, but there in his hands was a fragment from the wreckage. A rare treasure, finally washed up on a distant shore. He had found Claudius Ptolemy’s great lost work on geography — Geographia, written in ancient Alexandria, stored for centuries in her library, and believed (at least in the West) to have perished there.
Rumors had been circulating in Europe that a copy had been seen in Arabic translation, just as Ptolemy’s other great work was already known to Arabic scholars as The Greatest, or in their language, Almagest. Now here was its companion. The rumors were true.