Skip to main content
Pre-Ottoman Technology in Islamic History
Middle East Studies Association (MESA), 2013 Annual Meeting, (2013)
  • Karen C. Pinto, Gettysburg College
The word "technology" encompasses an enormous range of human activities. Unlike sciences, which often deal with abstract or speculative matters, or customary behaviors, which are mostly concerned with maintaining traditional ways of life, technological developments are consciously intended to improve the quality of human life in the material realm. Islamic doctrines sometimes relate directly to scientific endeavors, for instance when astronomers calculate the direction of prayer. The aggregate of technologies in use in a given society lends a distinctive character to that society. Technologies affect the organization of labor, the appearance of people and landscapes, the production and exchange of goods, and the rhythms of daily life. This thematic panel will address the place of technology in understanding the Middle East and North Africa from the rise of Islam to the Ottoman conquest of Egypt and Syria. Unlike the Ottoman and modern periods of Middle Eastern history, which commonly include extensive discussions of military technology and, later, technological Europeanization, histories and courses on the pre-Ottoman period seldom cover technology. Presentations in this panel will explore the reasons for this and provide examples of how technological studies can enrich the broader historical narratives. Panelists will address the following topics: 1) The various technologies involved in making paper and how they were transferred from Central Asia across the medieval Islamic lands to Europe; 2) the production and use of medieval Islamic maps in their socio-historical contexts; 3) the craft of block printing across medieval Islamic cultures in which block prints appear; 4) the links between art, craft, metallurgy and science in the mediaeval central Islamic lands, looking at both material and intellectual culture; 5) the harnessing of animal energy to machinery and vehicles in the medieval Muslim world with a focus on economic opportunities and limits intrinsic to animal husbandry in the arid zone; 6) the technological dreams and aspirations of medieval Egyptian irrigation bureaucrats, as embodied in the concept of the zallzqa--a type of gigantic wier or slipway dam that was intended to straddle the Nile river; 7) the challenges of teaching about Islamic technology at the undergraduate level. If accepted, this would be the first in a series of MESA conversations focusing on the importance of Islamic technology for broadening our historical understanding of the medieval period. It is an important and much overdue conversation that builds on the work of Jonathan Bloom, Richard Bulliet and on-going discourses between them and their students.
Publication Date
October 13, 2013
Citation Information
Karen C. Pinto. "Pre-Ottoman Technology in Islamic History" Middle East Studies Association (MESA), 2013 Annual Meeting, (2013)
Available at: