Lee Lawrence remembers when she was first awestruck by the astrolabe, an exquisite medieval device for star mapping that aided astronomers, travelers and, later, Muslims orienting their prayers toward Makkah.

Meandering through the Institut du Monde Arabe, in Paris, Lawrence, a freelance writer, focused on art and religion, and a longtime AramcoWorld contributor, stumbled upon the glinting gold instruments encased in plexiglass.

Watching a video, she was baffled by the blend of simplicity, complexity and personalization in a tool whose first iterations were crafted more than 2,000 years ago.

“I thought, ‘I get it,’ but then the video ended, and I thought, ‘I don’t remember a thing,’” Lawrence says. “It was like reading [Stephen] Hawking: You can follow it as you read it; then you put down the book, and you think, ‘Well, what was that again?’”

In 2019, AramcoWorld editors gave her the space to get acquainted in a rare first-person article "Astrolabe Tech Made...Not So Easy" (complete with her video and an in-depth comic strip) tracking her journey to make an astrolabe and put it to use with the help of a Harvard astronomer. That was not a new topic but nevertheless an important one for AramcoWorld, as it had published “The Astrolabe: A User’s Guide” in 2007 and highlighted the navigating tool numerous times in the past.

It was one of many stories in which Lawrence, who has just wrapped up a series on innovation for the magazine, would observe that progress is less of a steady march and more of a winding path.

In its 75-year history, AramcoWorld has always sought to surface current scholars, experts and institutions pushing the boundaries of present-day knowledge while paying homage to historical figures and writings that paved their way.

The sensibility was present even in its earliest days when the magazine remained inwardly focused and still highlighted the processes behind finding and extracting oil. A 1964 issue offers a glimpse at how the magazine balanced the modern with the distant past: A profile of a Saudi driller is followed by stories on chemistry equipment still in use after 3,500 years and traditional oil-lamp designs that have endured across the centuries.

A May/June 1964 story highlights how chemistry got its start in the Middle East 3,500 years ago.
Above A May/June 1964 story highlights how chemistry got its start in the Middle East 3,500 years ago. Below, left to right, in the same issue the cover story focused on training drilling engineers with innovations in drilling; and AramcoWorld dedicated its entire May/June 1982 issue to “Science: The Islamic Legacy,” including chapters on “Science in the Golden Age” and “Science in al-Andalus.” The May/June 1997 cover story “The Arab Roots of European Medicine” tells how scientific and medical practices from the East illuminated the European Dark Ages.

In the same issue the cover story focused on training drilling engineers with innovations in drilling.
And AramcoWorld dedicated its entire May/June 1982 issue to “Science: The Islamic Legacy,” including chapters on “Science in the Golden Age” and “Science in al-Andalus.”
The May/June 1997 cover story “The Arab Roots of European Medicine” tells how scientific and medical practices from the East illuminated the European Dark Ages.

Over the decades the articles have delved into the Islamic origins of medicine, modern pharmacies and hospitals, challenging long-accepted narratives through in-depth historical examinations. An example in the 2020s was “Disease Detectives of Lebanon,” where the magazine highlighted those finding cures for infectious diseases while dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.

In a world that increasingly revels in the new, glorifying risk-taking entrepreneurs and technologists, Lawrence says it’s helpful to remember that their work sits on top of more prosaic discoveries now seen simply as infrastructure.

“Building on work and knowledge that came before is not a linear process, and innovation often comes from questioning aspects of that received knowledge,” Lawrence says.

Her work has often delved into topics that seem mundane but reveal complex histories that, in many cases, are still being written. Her exploration of kohl, the ancient Egyptian eyeliner, showed how the pharaohs were ahead of their time despite lacking the clarity of molecular chemistry.

Lawrence has also looked at how discoveries of far-off galaxies using today’s most advanced telescopes would have appealed to Muslim astronomers of antiquity, like Ibn al-Haytham, who used mathematics and observation to question whether light emanated from the eyes. His theory that it actually worked the opposite way changed how later generations saw the world.

Most recently, Lawrence examined how art historians and preservationists are reexamining the intentions of those who carved reliefs into the mountains of Iraq as many as 2,500 years ago.

“One of my mantras in researching is that nothing is ever wasted; if you look down in history, this knowledge isn’t wasted—it turns into something else,” Lawrence says.

For Alok Kumar, co-author of “A History of Science in World Cultures: Voices of Knowledge,” institutional knowledge is analogous to human memory—an essential element that disseminates through culture and scientific knowledge.

“Intellect in the absence of memory is not enough for a human being to function,” he says, and “learning is always cumulative—the more you know, the easier it becomes to learn things.”

The same is true across time and geography, where cultures have not only passed down knowledge among their own but have often shared their methods for making sense of the world with other tribes and peoples through movement and commerce.

“Every time we get involved in a trade, we share the best that we have, and we want to get the best that the other culture has,” Kumar says.

When one traces back far enough, many of the mathematical innovations credited to the Islamic Golden Age between the eighth and 12th centuries are a product of such exchange, Kumar wrote in a 2017 article for AramcoWorld, “Islamic Science’s India Connection.” The concept of zero and algebraic formulas originated under Islamic rule, but only after being translated by various scholars into Arabic and Persian from Sanskrit.

“The science revolution was a result of the mathematical revolution that happened in India and traveled to the Middle East. We never talk about that,” he says.

This is one example of why it is important to revisit the origin stories of transformative innovations, Kumar adds. When fresh research in art, history and archeology emerges, new narratives have a chance to sprout. That’s where AramcoWorld, a publication Kumar has read for more than four decades, has played a key role, he says. It has helped bring to light connections between past and modern worlds with clarity and esthetic appeal that academic journals don’t often possess, he says.

Upon reflection, travel writer and longtime AramcoWorld contributor Matthew Teller says most of his stories in some way have illustrated a blend of traditional methods and cutting-edge solutions.

His first contribution 15 years ago focused on four countries’ collaborative efforts to bring Arabian (white) oryx, a type of antelope, back from the edge of extinction.

The past and present, Teller has discovered time and again, exist on a continuum where traditional solutions, painstakingly developed and passed down over generations in one geography, can now be augmented by the compendium of knowledge instantly accessible via the internet.

Visiting 10 oryx sanctuaries across four countries was just one situation in which Teller witnessed how environmental awareness was manifesting in the Islamic world to dramatic effect. In Riyadh in 2010, he profiled the restoration of Wadi Hanifah, a valley that had become a dumping ground in the modern capital city.

“They turned it around. It’s now this green ribbon winding through the middle of Riyadh,” Teller said.

In a 2020 story on the installation of solar arrays on mosques, Teller witnessed how longtime institutions in Islamic communities in the United Kingdom, Jordan, Morocco, Indonesia and beyond were becoming outposts in today’s fight against changing climate in the story "Green Mosques Gernerate Positive Energy."

“Seeing how communities based at mosques, big and small, shared goals for renewable energy solutions in different contexts across the world helped me understand the importance of that cross-fertilization of ideas between tradition and advanced technology,” says Teller.

Alan Mammoser, who writes about energy and utilities in the Middle East out of Dubai, has observed in AramcoWorld’s pages how the region embraces futurism without throwing out principles that have stood the test of time.

Mammoser traveled in 2017 for AramcoWorld to Masdar City, an Abu Dhabi development that constituted an early attempt to carve out a carbon-neutral community—all in an emirate whose wealth is almost entirely predicated on petroleum.

In an explicit nod to traditional building practices, the architects installed a massive metal version of a traditional barjeel, or wind tower, on site. Ubiquitous historically, from Shibam’s mud-tower cities in Yemen to the streets of old Cairo, barjeels work by capturing the wind at the top of a dwelling and circulating it down into the living quarters.    

For AramcoWorld it has been essential to highlight the innovative architecture in various articles in the past decades as reflected in stories such as “Windmills from Jiddah to Yorkshire” (1980) and “Keeping Cool” (1995).

Masdar’s designs also harnessed the sun’s rays for photovoltaic energy while incorporating design choices like narrow sikkak and latticed mashrabiya to keep dwellings and streets cool.

“It’s not really a romantic or nostalgic association with the past,” Mammoser says of the retention of these elements. “I think it just makes good energy and economic sense. Those traditional design methods still work in this region.”

Modern-day developments promising new models of sustainability, like Dubai’s Expo City that Mammoser profiled in 2017, show that while it may sound like a paradox, oil-rich economies are pushing the limits on green technology—and not because these countries pine for the days of camel caravans and dhows (regional boat) powered by wind. He says renewables are not only clean and economical for locals, but they represent the next frontier of technological development for locales fixed on the future.

Nader El-Bizri, dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, said that modern-day powerhouses like Riyadh, Dubai and Doha conceive themselves as global cities fueled by know-how from around the world, similar to the way centers of Islamic civilization in antiquity, like Damascus, Baghdad and Alexandria, thrived on overland trade, the translation and sharing of ancient texts, and the accumulation of massive libraries that served as nodes of knowledge in their day.

“It is the coming-together of these elements of capital and energy and trade and even some forms of urban politics that allow new cities to emerge,” says El-Bizri, an expert on al-Haytham, who helped provide some historical perspective in Lawrence’s research on intergalactic telescopes.

Whether building a city or crafting the “analog computer” of the astrolabe out of paper or wood, Lawrence has learned that invention always has a mother—whether necessity or curiosity—no matter where along the historical continuum it lies.

“Nothing is in a vacuum. You go back to who you think is the point of origin, and that person is resting on huge bodies of knowledge.”

AramcoWorld — Reflections of Knowledge illustration