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From Abbas Ibn Firnas to Assassin’s Creed: The legacy of Medieval intellectualism

The dream of flying has a long premodern history. Think of the myth of Daedalus, the ancient Greek inventor who designed wings for himself, and his ill-fated son Icarus. Or think of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketches and studies of birds and flying devices.

It might surprise many to know that, centuries before Leonardo da Vinci depicted birds in flight and flying machines in Renaissance Italy, an intrepid polymath in the city of Córdoba, in today’s Spain, may have carried out an experiment in early human gliding flight. My book, A Bridge to the Sky, focuses on that intrepid ninth-century aeronaut, Abbas Ibn Firnas, and the Islamic civilization that provides the backdrop and context for his life and work. As a specialist in medieval Islamic architecture, art, and history during the caliphal period (c.650-1250 CE) most of my work has focused on Córdoba, the capital of early Islamic Iberia. In A Bridge to the Sky I set out to understand Ibn Firnas’ unusual experiment, to try to understand why an intellectual in a medieval Islamic context imagined and then is reported by his contemporaries to have carried out such an unusual experiment, and why this might be significant for the way we understand the past. 

Like the prototypical “Renaissance Man” Leonardo, with whom he is often compared, Ibn Firnas was a person of many talents: a poet, a musician, a philosopher, and a ‘scientist’ who designed fine scientific instruments for the Umayyad dynasty who ruled Córdoba and Iberia between the 8th and 11th centuries. He carried out fascinating experiments and activities that combine science and art, including designing and creating a chamber in his home that sounds very much like the medieval version of a 3D immersive Virtual Reality experience: famously, this experience made ninth century viewers imagine they were seeing stars, lightning, and clouds, and hearing thunder.

My book introduces readers to Ibn Firnas and his flight experiment, against the backdrop of caliphal artistic and intellectual cultures. Those who play the new Assassin’s Creed Mirage video game will find a different type of introduction in the game’s setting, its characters, and the historical information contained in its Codex.

The connections between my book and the game are reflective of my work as an external historian on Assassin’s Creed Mirage, which was released by Ubisoft in October 2023. The narrative setting of Mirage is Baghdad in the ninth century, and my role was to provide the Ubisoft in-house historians with detailed historical information about medieval Baghdad and Islamic art, history, and civilisation in the caliphal period.

The topics and entries represented in the game’s educational feature, known as the “History of Baghdad,” were chosen by Ubisoft’s historians, and were based on a series of thematic workshops that were very like an intensive graduate research seminar on the history and visual culture of the caliphal period. Out of those workshops, the Ubisoft team chose things they thought were important to include, focusing on art and the exact sciences (especially astronomy and engineering), all of which are central to A Bridge to the Sky.

For instance, players of Mirage can read about astrolabes, celestial globes, and other scientific instruments of the time, and see these illustrated in the Codex, much as they are in my book. In the game they’ll encounter astronomers, an astronomical observatory, and references to important treatises, including ones on astronomy, engineering, mathematics, and other exact sciences, which I write about in A Bridge to the Sky.

In A Bridge to the Sky, I write about the Banu Musa, three intellectual brothers who were ninth-century contemporaries of Ibn Firnas. Important Abbasid courtiers in Baghdad, they are especially well known for their work in engineering, thanks to their important treatise, The book of ingenious devices (Kitāb al-ḥiyal). In Mirage, players have the chance to ‘meet’ the Banu Musa, who provide Mirage’s protagonist, Basim, with ingenious tools and mechanical devices. Indeed, one of the game quests has players seeking one of the brothers, Ahmad, in the House of Wisdom, and investigating his workshop there.

I’ll leave it to players to learn if Ibn Firnas makes an appearance in the game, though I will say that players who go looking will find intriguing references to a flight experiment.

While working on a video game might be an unusual choice for a scholar, my reasons for doing so are the same ones that led me to write a Bridge to the Sky—a desire to make academic knowledge about medieval Islamic art and history widely accessible to broader audiences. In that sense my book and Assassin’s Creed Mirage are quite similar. Both depict a vibrant age of scientific and artistic achievement in which caliphal intellectuals imagined, created, and experimented with art and science, and which shares many similarities with later times and places, such as Renaissance Florence, with which today we are much more familiar. My hope is that readers of A Bridge to the Sky and those who follow Basim in his adventures through Baghdad in Mirage will come away with a new appreciation for the Age of the Caliphs and a period of medieval intellectual and artistic innovation that profoundly shaped global history, including Italy in the age of Leonardo, and eventually Europe’s Scientific Revolution.

Feature image by Imre Solt. CC3.0. GFDL.

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