Support us | Visit us | Contact us
Portrait of Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali by Enoch Seeman, c. 1726 (larger version). Abgali was Moroccan Ambassador to London from 1725 to 1727.
The Royal Society elected three Arab Fellows in the 17th and early 18th centuries. All were prominent ambassadors who showed scientific curiosity, and they provided the fellows with knowledge about popular medical practices and the ancient history of the region. They were Muhammad ibn Haddu and Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali of Morocco and Cassem Algiada Aga of Tripoli.
Ibn Haddu was Moroccan Ambassador to London in 1682. His visit to the Society was recorded by Robert Hooke, and John Evelyn FRS described him as "the fashion of the season, a handsome person, well featured and of a wise look, subtle and extremely civil".
Signature in the Royal Society Charter Book.
The Arabic Fellows signed the Society's Charter Book (open large image) when they were elected. The first is Muhammad ibn Haddu the Moroccan ambassador in 1682, the second is Mohammed Ben Ali Abgali the Moroccan ambassador in 1726 and the third is Cassem Algiada Aga the ambassador of Tripoli in 1728.
In seventeenth-century Europe, men began to study the world in a new way, using methods we now think of as scientific. At the same time, trade routes to Arab countries expanded, allowing a greater flow of information in both directions.
Map of the middle eastern worlds showing major trade cities (larger version).
England’s diplomatic and trade relations with the Ottoman Empire, boosted by the establishment of the Levant Company, enabled the exchange not only of goods but also of knowledge and manuscripts.
Damask silk was imported from the Middle East (larger version).
Many aspiring Arabists learned Arabic while serving the Levant Company mission in Aleppo and acted as manuscript agents for sponsors such as William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Not only were thousands of manuscripts shipped back home, but also fine horses, Damask silk, new varieties of trees and plants and even a coffee house culture.
Several Fellows of the Royal Society were part of a lively circle of philosophers and orientalists corresponding frequently on valuable knowledge in Arabic and Persian manuscripts. In some cases the orientalist and the philosopher were one and the same.
Back row (left to right): Edward Bernard FRS, John Wallis FRS, Edward Pococke, Thomas Hyde. Front row (left to right): Robert Boyle FRS, Henry Oldenburg FRS, Edmund Castell FRS, Edmond Halley FRS, John Greaves.
Robert Boyle FRS (1627-1691): England’s most famous chemist, he learned the ‘oriental tongues’ to study the Bible and read oriental scholars.
Edward Bernard FRS (1638-1697): Bernard was a mathematician and an orientalist. The Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, he was particularly interested in translating ancient mathematical works, and planned a 14-volume edition of ancient mathematicians. He used Arabic observations heavily in his astronomical research.
John Wallis FRS (1616-1703): A renowned mathematician, he was a founding Fellow of the Royal Society and a very active member. He translated from Arabic and often quoted Arabic mathematicians in his lectures. He included Nasir Eddin Al Tusi’s five-page proof to Euclid’s fifth postulate in his book, Opera Mathematica.
Henry Oldenburg FRS (1617-1677): The first secretary of the Royal Society, he was very aware of the importance of Arabic learning. He was one of the most active members of the circle of philosophers and orientalists, and he was often the hub of its correspondence.
Edmund Castell FRS (1606-1685): The professor of Arabic at Cambridge, he delivered his inaugural lecture on the use of Avicenna’s medical work and later published it. He devoted 18 years to compiling an extensive dictionary of seven oriental languages including Arabic and Persian.
Edward Pococke (1604-1691): The first Laudian professor of Arabic at Oxford University, sponsored by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. He lived in Aleppo for many years where he learnt Arabic and collected manuscripts for Laud. He realised that the old medieval translations of Arabic philosophy were probably corrupt.
Thomas Hyde (1636-1703): Professor of Arabic at Oxford University, he searched the oriental manuscripts of the Bodleian library for useful knowledge that he communicated to philosophers. He translated Ulugh Beg’s star catalogue.
Edmond Halley FRS (1656-1742): A leading astronomer, he was keen to use historical observations for the benefit of the New Astronomy. He researched the observations of al-Battani and learned Arabic in order to translate the Arabic editions of Greek mathematicians.
John Greaves (1602-1652): Greaves was both astronomer and orientalist. The Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, he travelled twice to the Levant where he collectedmanuscripts and observed with local astronomers. He translated Arabic and Persian books and wrote a book on Persian grammar.
The exhibition catalogue (29MB PDF) is available to download.
Go to the Arabick Roots homepage.
Full listing of our events and exhibitions.
Watch videos of past events.
Most of our talks are free and open to the public.
We host major conferences for leading scientists.
Explore our annual science exhibition
Contact the events team.