John Freely takes on a subject he clearly already knows a lot about, having written books on Istanbul, Turkey, Crete, and a good portion of Asia Minor. In Aladdin’s Lamp he goes into extreme detail in revealing how we are today able to enjoy the Greek classics of Plato, Homer, and many others. While the book at times takes on an almost classroom-like routine with chapter after chapter, throwing more information in an almost dry, regurgitative sense; Aladdin’s Lamp is nevertheless an interesting book into the history of the classics and how they survived.
Freely begins at the beginning, perhaps going on for a little too long, but clearly relishing in telling the reader about some of the great works of the Greeks, with the likes of Archimedes, Plato, and Pythagoras, and what it is they found out in a time when science was a barely flourishing discipline. While on the one hand these were some amazing people who were able to come up with standards of architecture, and a surprisingly close approximation of the circumference of the Earth, Freely needs to get on with the reason for writing this book, and not give us a history lesson on Ancient Greece.
The first third of the book done, Freely finally goes into the next chapter of the Islamic world, how Baghdad was a paradise of the world that flourished with culture and literature. It was because of a number of circumstances, and the constant mixing of peoples with trade from throughout the Western World, that these sacred texts were first preserved after the fall of the Rome and then the Byzantine world, and eventually translated.
While the information may be overbearing at times and Freely lacks in a certain storytelling quality of making the book as enjoyable as some other works of nonfiction, Aladdin’s Lamp does provide insight into the turbulent times of the early Middle Ages, when civilizations and countries rose and fell within the blink of an eye, while culture and literature and science was kept – at times in secret – to be read and enjoyed by future generations.
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Originally written on June 15th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.