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  • Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660
  • Joanna Carraway Vitiello
Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660. By Avner Ben-Zaken. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 256 pp. $60.00 (cloth).

Avner Ben-Zaken's exploration of the scientific and cultural exchange in the early modern period charts new territory, effectively remapping the flow of scientific information in the eastern Mediterranean. Ben-Zaken uses a series of case studies to fundamentally challenge a common understanding that scientific thought in this period moved in only one direction, from an increasingly sophisticated European culture to an increasingly stagnant Islamic world. Ben-Zaken's findings demonstrate cross-cultural intellectual currents in the early modern period.

The work is divided into five chapters, not including a separate introduction and conclusion. The book includes a selected bibliography divided into primary sources of the first and second level, reference works, and secondary sources. The first level of primary sources consists of sources that constitute the foci of the case studies, and the second level includes the materials consulted by the protagonists of these case studies. The book also has a thorough index. The five chapters of the study consist of five elegantly constructed case studies. Each chapter begins with a narrow example of an early modern scholar, and then gradually expands in slowly growing circles to include other texts of the author and his sources, while firmly situating the flow of scientific information in its cultural, political, and sometimes theological context.

The first chapter traces a flow of information and ideas between the worlds of Taqī al-Dīn and Tycho Brahe, both of whom were constructing instruments and developing methods for the observation of the comet of 1577. The work of Tycho Brahe has been understood as a break with the past, innovative in both ideas and methods, while Taqī al-Dīn has been understood as the last scholar of the Islamic golden age. Yet here, Ben-Zaken shows that Taqī al-Dīn was aware of European natural philosophy. He uses 'Alā' al-Dīn al-Mansūr's Shāhinshāhnāma to explore the cultural underpinnings of Taqī al-Dīn's work. Ben-Zaken finds elements [End Page 184] in this Persian chronicle that represent the presence of some European technologies, both in text and in images. He demonstrates that scientific development between the worlds of Tycho Brache and Taqī al-Dīn was not separate; rather, these projects developed "dialectically" (p. 46). Both Ottoman and European scientists shared a conceptual basis for their scientific culture, using astronomy to predict apocalyptic disaster for their opponents and scanning the skies in search of omens of their own success.

The second chapter, "Exchanging Heliocentrism for Ur-Text," connects Copernican cosmology and radical Hebraism. Ben-Zaken follows the Italian scholar Pietro della Valle on his quest for an ur-text of the Book of Job. New developments in European natural philosophy sent scholars like della Valle searching for uncorrupted texts of the Hebrew scriptures. Della Valle's quest brought him into deep contact with the Middle East, as he traveled through Constantinople, Egypt, Persia, and finally Goa. Aware of the theological debates that astronomical models and discoveries provoked, della Valle sought to recover this text in its pre-Second Temple Chaldean form. For della Valle and others, the ur-text of scripture could validate and augment the new cosmology. As Ben-Zaken wrote, "the reconciliation of Copernicanism with Holy Scripture involved a hermeneutic leap from accomodationism to radical Hebraism" (pp. 74-75).

Chapter 3, "Transcending Time in the Scribal East," explores the work of Joseph Solomon Delmedigo and particularly his Sefer Elim. Ben-Zaken contextualizes this work inside a world of text production and print culture. His discussion is informed by both the history of science and the history of the book, and it underscores the profound connections between the new cosmology and biblical hermeneutic: God revealed true knowledge of nature to Moses, and so the earliest manuscripts of the Hebrew scriptures must contain a revelation of natural philosophy. Ben-Zaken traces the development of Delmedigo's scientific thought, tracking his travels in...


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