Camels and Wheels

I read through Martin Amis’s long piece in yesterday’s Observer, and was struck by one thing in particular: he writes in the third part that

The tradition of intellectual autarky was so robust that Islam remained indifferent even to readily available and obviously useful innovations, including, incredibly, the wheel. The wheel, as we know, makes things easier to roll; Bernard Lewis, in What Went Wrong?, sagely notes that it also makes things easier to steal.

It’s a while since I flipped through a book called The Camel and the Wheel by Richard Bulliet that deals with the fascinating story of the disappearance of wheeled transport from the post-Roman Middle East, but I don’t remember the story there having much to do with the “intellectual autarky” of the Islamic world, and a glance at this article, in which Bulliet summarises his argument, suggests that my memory’s working along the right lines.

So is anyone seriously making the case against Bulliet that Muslim “intellectual autarky” (rather than the good old-fashioned historical materialist reasons of geography, political economy and camels) was a major cause of the collapse in the use of the wheel (whose decline, in any case, predated the rise of Islam), or is this just becoming something people like Bernard Lewis and Martin Amis can say in order to make the Islamic world sound more unreasonable than it in fact was?

Welcome to the New-Look Stoa!

Welcome to the second incarnation of the Virtual Stoa.

I’ve finally left Blogger, after five-and-a-half years, not because it was irritating me, as it has irritated so many thousands of other bloggers in the past, but for a couple of other reasons. First, the old Enetation comments system that I’d been using was running very slowly indeed; and, second, I was approaching the limit of my quota of disk space on the Oxford University server, and would have had to do something before too long, anyway. I could have just republished the whole thing on blogspot.com, I suppose, and enabled the Blogger comments system, but instead I’ve decided, at long last, to experiment with a different software package for running these pages, and WordPress was the one that everyone I spoke to seemed to recommend.

I hope the transition is a reasonably smooth one. It’s going to be far too much work to move all the discussions from the old comments sections over to this site, I’m afraid, so if you’re weird enough to want to spend your time reading old Stoa comments threads, you’ll have to do it back at the old site, and you’ll just have to put up with slow-opening comments-boxes.

But I have imported the old posts to this site, to create the illusion of continuity, and I’ll tidy up these archives a bit in the days and weeks to come. (If you scratch around in them, you’ll see that the bulk of the posts have numbers instead of titles attached to them, and the foreign diacriticals have gone haywire.)

Thanks a lot to all the bloggers I emailed over the last few days with technical questions of one kind or another: I hope I wasn’t too troublesome, and the advice you all gave has been extremely valuable in helping me get my bearings in the adjustment to post-2001 blogging technology. (You know who you are.)

I expect I’ll be fiddling with the site design a bit, so don’t worry if the appearance wobbles around a bit from day to day. I’m quite pleased with this general look (or ‘theme’, as WordPress insists on calling it), but do drop me a note if it looks ghastly on whatever browser you’re using to view the site.