Armenian Scientists In The Byzantine Empire

The university in the Magnaura Palace in Constantinople reopened in the 9th century has been a remarkable phenomenon in the scientific life of Byzantium. The patron of the university was Vard Mamikonyan, brother of queen Irina. Byzantine Emperor Michael III (of Armenian descent) has appointed Vard the head of the Byzantine government.

As historian Theophanes writes, “Vard focused his attention on external sciences and made it so that scientific knowledge could flourish in Magnaura.”

Byzantine scholar Charles Dill has praised the role of this educational center. “The University of Constantinople, which was reopened at the Magnaura Palace on the initiative of the Armenian Vard Patrick under the leadership of Levon of Thessaloniki (Leo the Mathematician, also an Armenian), has become a wonderful center of culture.”

Leo the Mathematician, the first rector of the university, was the nephew of the Constantinople Patriarch Hovhannes Grammatik (also John Grammatik, Հովհաննես Քերական).

Levon was well-aware of philosophy, mathematics, applied mechanics, geometry, and astronomy. Among his students were Patriarch Photios, creator of the Slavic alphabet Konstantin (or Cyril), Komitas Grammatik, and other famous scientists and statesmen.

Levon also authored a light and sound alert system through which notifications about events in neighboring countries (in particular, in the Arab Caliphate) would be transmitted. More precisely, it involved burning bonfires lit one after another over vast distances, allowing to alert distant regions of approaching enemy forces.

At high altitudes, with a 10-15-kilometer interval, military posts were established to ensure the operation of this alert system and allow information to reach its addressee. Smoke and fire were used during day and night respectively.

Konstantin Bagryanorodny covered this system in his book “On the ceremonies of the Byzantine court”: “The light telegraph of Leo the Mathematician, which was a system of signal towers, allowed to transmit messages from the border with the Caliphate to Constantinople within an hour (which was very important in the conditions of constant Arab raids on the empire).”

Thanks to his knowledge of mechanics, Levon the Mathematician also invented, manufactured, and presented to the Byzantine court “unusual birds and animals”. These were automatic machines that adorned the reception hall of the Grand Palace (the residence of Byzantine emperors).

The wonderful mechanisms – statues of growling lions, singing and fluttering birds, and other mechanical figures – were set in motion by water and were supposed to amaze foreign ambassadors, affirming the power of Byzantium.

Byzantine researcher Lipschitz wrote: “The lions would growl, and the birds would sing in different voices…”

As doctor of mathematical sciences G. B. Petrosyan wrote, “Levon achieved significant success in the field of mechanics and acoustics using the most accurate (refined) calculations.”

Arshaluis Zurabyan

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