Rebirth or reinvention: Why Europe’s Renaissance would not have been possible without the Middle East

As a transit hub for goods, and an early contributor to globalisation, the Arab world brought innovations from rival civilisations to Europe, in more ways than you might expect.


7/2/20236 min read

Think of the renaissance and you might think of top-tier artists, beautiful architecture, and small European cities. The period was characterised by intense cultural, artistic, political, and economic 'rebirth' that spanned from the 14th to 17th century, alongside a rediscovery of the beauty of classical Greek and Roman civilisation. But many of the new ideas that characterised the renaissance were in fact made possible by the Middle East. As a transit hub for goods, and an early contributor to globalisation, the Arab world brought innovations from rival civilisations to Europe, in more ways than you might expect. From astronomy to accounting and luxury to law, here are twelve areas where the Middle East influenced Europe.

1. Global Exploration

The Middle East served as the pivotal nexus between the East and the West, fostering substantial economic exchange with Europe. The Silk Road, as well as maritime trade routes through the Mediterranean Sea, connected the Arab traders with Europe, exchanging goods such as spices, silk, paper, glassware, and precious metals. This burgeoning trade stimulated European economies and catalysed a desire for exploration, directly influencing the age of discovery and colonisation of the Americas.

2. Food

The transmission of spices to Europe dramatically changed the quality of cuisine available, and foreshadowed the creation of many popular dishes today. Before the modern era, and the discovery of new plants in the Americas, European food was dominated by root vegetables and variations of porridge, with poor nutritional value and flavouring coming only from salt. Black pepper, cloves, and cinnamon made their way into Italian dishes, French sauces, and Danish pastries. The use of spices not only improved the taste, it also improved the shelf life of food, an important consideration in a time before refrigeration. The anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties of many spices were likely to have reduced cases of food poisoning and therefore premature sickness and death.

3. Knowledge

Arab scholars translated, preserved, and advanced the knowledge of the ancients, including the Greeks and Romans, which later found its way to Europe. Key texts on medicine, mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy were introduced to European scholars, contributing to the sophistication of scientific and academic disciplines during the Renaissance. As a region that had both strong Arab and Northern European presence, Sicily became a key conduit for knowledge.

4. Luxury

The Islamic world today is famous for the beauty of its calligraphy, often used as decoration. But when Arabic calligraphy was discovered by European tastemakers in the Medieval era, it caused a flurry of activity and interest, as Western artists tried to emulate it. Since these artists knew little about Arabic itself, many resorted to what is now known as pseudo-Arabic script. Legendary Italian artists like Giotto (1267-1337) used pseudo-Arabic, and its cousin pseudo-Kufic, in their paintings. For a period of decades, pseudo-Arabic was also used to decorate the golden halos of biblical figures, as creatives believed that Arabic was similar to the languages used at the time of the birth of Jesus. Pseudo-Arabic and pseudo-Kufic then went on to be painted or carved into luxury objects for centuries, with countless examples still surviving in museums to this day.

5. Architecture

Middle Eastern building techniques, particularly from the Islamic world, often made their way into Renaissance architecture. The ornate geometric designs, the use of calligraphy to fill blank spaces, and the open courtyard layout were borrowed and incorporated into European architectural principles. Some of the most beautiful European buildings in the world, like Amalfi Cathedral in Italy, Westminster Abbey in England, or the Alhambra in Spain, draw certain features directly from mosques and madrasas built before them.

For example, the pointed arch, the quintessential feature of Northern European gothic architecturel, was borrowed from Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, built in the 7th century by early Muslims.

Even up until the 19th century, legendary Western creatives like Alexandre Dumas drew heavily from near-East aesthetics to decorate their private homes.

6. Politics and Law

The structure and administration of the Ottoman Empire, a significant political entity during the Middle Ages, influenced the political and legal organisation of polities in Europe. Later in history, the Ottoman law of nations was a significant model for European international law, when the concept was formally established in Paris in 1856. Furthermore, the Ottoman millet system, allowing religious autonomy within the empire, was considered innovative enough to draw attention to the need for politically secular society.

7. Music

The cultural exchanges facilitated by traders, scholars, and diplomats created a vibrant intercultural dialogue, where Western artists would emulate or parody Arabic music and Arab artists would do the same for European music. The “arabesque” became a well-known name for an intricate and harmonious piece of music loosely inspired by Middle Eastern tones and rhythms.

8. Mathematics and Astronomy

Arabic numerals, algebra, and advanced astronomical models from Middle Eastern scholars were adopted by Europeans, forming the basis of scientific and mathematical progress during the Renaissance. The considerable expertise of Arab sea merchants in navigation helped Europe to build its own trade networks, by using the stars to guide their way. The concept of the number zero was also brought to Europe from India via the Middle East, making double book-keeping accounting possible, and therefore giving rise to modern business practices.

9. Medicine

Avicenna's 'Canon of Medicine,' a comprehensive medical text written in the 11th century, was widely studied in European universities. This influence enhanced the understanding and practice of medicine during the Renaissance, and improved both public health and knowledge of the body. Awareness of the need to keep food and human waste separate, and the dangers of blood-borne diseases, were important innovations that gradually helped to improve mortality rates.

10. War

The transmission of the invention of gunpowder from China to Europe via the Middle East marked a monumental turning point in the history of warfare. Gunpowder, a potent mix of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, revolutionized the conduct of war in ways previously unimaginable. Initially developed in China, the knowledge of gunpowder travelled westward, reaching the Middle East and eventually Europe during the medieval era. This transformative transfer of technology paved the way for significant changes on the battlefield. The introduction of firearms, cannons, and explosive weaponry shifted the balance of power and forever altered the strategies and tactics employed in warfare.

Before the arrival of gunpowder in Europe, the predominant military technology relied heavily on traditional weapons such as swords, bows, and siege engines. However, the advent of gunpowder-based weaponry brought about a paradigm shift. Firearms, particularly early versions of muskets and handguns, replaced traditional ranged weapons, enabling soldiers to engage enemies from a distance with unprecedented force. The introduction of cannons revolutionized the concept of siege warfare, as fortified walls and castles that had once seemed impenetrable could now be breached and destroyed with relative ease. This brought about a need for a complete change of tactics in how war was conducted, and gradually eliminated the brutality of hand-to-hand combat.

11. Literature

The introduction of printing and paper to Europe from China via the Middle East had a profound and transformative effect on European civilization. Prior to printing, books were scarce and expensive, mostly handwritten manuscripts produced by scribes. With the advent of printing, the mass production of books became possible, making them more accessible and affordable to a wider audience. This accessibility led to a significant increase in literacy rates las more people gained access to printed materials and had the opportunity to learn to read.

The impact of printing on European civilization extended beyond literacy. The ability to produce books quickly and in large quantities facilitated the spread of knowledge, ideas, and information. It enabled the preservation and transmission of classical works from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the dissemination of scientific, philosophical, and religious texts. The spread of printed materials fostered intellectual growth, spurred scientific discoveries, and fueled the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment movements. It allowed for the exchange of ideas and the formation of intellectual communities, as scholars, scientists, and thinkers across Europe could engage with the same texts and build upon each other's knowledge.

Moreover, the introduction of printing and paper had significant political consequences. The availability of printed materials, including newspapers, pamphlets, and books, facilitated the sharing of information and ideas across regions and nations. It created a sense of shared knowledge and experiences, allowing people to bond over common texts and engage in discussions and debates. The spread of newspapers, in particular, played a crucial role in disseminating news, political opinions, and commentary, fostering a sense of community and shared identity among readers. This led to the formation of public spheres and the rise of a more informed and politically engaged citizenry

12. Curiosity

Lastly, the Crusades significantly affected the relationship between Europe and the Middle East, leading to substantial cultural, religious, and intellectual exchange. They exposed Europe to a more advanced Middle East, and the long history of the region. This fostered an appetite for knowledge and sophistication to compete with their geopolitical rivals.