There aren’t that many places in the world as remote as Kiva in the Korezm province of Uzbekistan. Even from Taskent, the capital of Uzbekistan, you need to fly an hour and several hundred kilometres westward over desolate steppe to get there.
This is why I was astonished when on a morning stroll in Kiva on a recent holiday in Uzbekistan, I turned a random corner and what should I see but a giant statue of an old acquaintance, Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.
For those of you who did not pay much attention to your high school history teacher, he is the man from whose name the mathematical term ‘algorithm’ is derived from. And again for those of you who have not been paying too much attention to what’s been going in the world of late, the algorithm is what drives, among other things, Search Engines, Social Networking sites and other marvels of our age.
The term ‘algorithm’ is the latinization of his name. ‘Al-Kwarizmi’ in Latin became ‘algorismi’ and from there ‘algorithm’. He worked in Baghad’s House of Wisdom at a time when wild beasts roamed the areas where Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne now stand. His book, ‘On Calculation with Hindu Numerals’ (‘Kitab al-Gam? wa-al-tafriq bi-?isab al-Hind’), written in 825 was translated into Latin in the 12th century as ‘Algoritme de Numero Indorum’, literally, ‘Al-Khwarizmi on the Hindu Art of Reckoning’. This book introduced a decimal system of numbers composed of the numbers 1 to 9 and a 0 to the western world. His other book, ‘al-Kitab al-mukhta?ar fi ?isab al-jabr wa-l-muqabala’, is considered to be the foundational text on algebra, the word ‘algebra’ itself being a latinization of ‘al-jabr’
Al-Kwarizmi, means ‘from Kwarizm’ and Kwarizm is another way of spelling Korezm, the modern name of the Uzbekh province in which Kiva now stands.
One of the answers to this puzzle could be that this tiny town of Kiva with a population of about 3000 in Al-Kwarizmi’s time had half a dozen madrasas which is roughly the equivalent of New York City today having 67,000 colleges. So Kiva was clearly a university town in its time. The educational programme in these madrasas at that time lasted three years and students had to study the Koran and related things for about 40% of the time, the rest of the time was spent in learning astronomy and mathematics. Each student was admitted based on the recommendation of a tutor. On admission each fresher was attached to a senior student and the pair, through discussion and debate, worked their way through the questions of the day. The final exam at the end of the three year stint had two parts to it. The first part was where four different tutors other than the one who recommended the student for admission quizzed him on all that he was supposed to learn. The second part was when the student had to tell the tutor who had admitted him, something that the tutor did not already know! Thus was the frontiers of knowledge pushed a little further by every student who attended a madrasa. The penalty for not coming up with an original thought was to repeat the three year program. It is said that some students spent their whole life trying to achieve a pass grade.
But how to explain how such frontier and research based education took place in this remote corner of the world?
The answer to this is that Kiva in the Al-Kwarizmi’s time, the 9th century AD, was, directly on the Silk Road, that vast international trade system which carried merchandize and ideas from producing centres such as India and China to consuming centres in Europe. In that sense Kiva was at the centre of the world of that time and open to the flow of ideas back and forth across the Silk Road.
How does a city which lives and prospers in the centre of the world become relegated to a corner of the world? The answer of course is that the centre can itself shift. Christopher Beckwith, in his book ‘Empires of the Silk Road’, says that the discovery by Europeans of the direct sea route to India and China shifted trade almost completely away from the Silk Road.
The Europeans established an Asian Littoral zone attracting people, culture and technology to the port cities that they established and controlled throughout Asia. Even the Russian Empire, despite its control of vast swath of Central Eurasia, shifted its trade to sea from its capital St Petersburg in the Baltic to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. In short order, the Eurasian economy had changed from the continental-based Silk Road system to a coastal Littoral System. With this shift, says, Beckwith, ‘Central Eurasia disappeared’.