By Jeff Provine
Taqi al-Din Muhammad ibn Ma'ruf was a Polymath active in the Ottoman Empire during the late 16th century, he built an observatory in Istanbul where he observed the Great Comet of 1577 and described a steam turbine with the practical application of rotating a spit in 1551. Murad III, his patron, tore down his observatory in 1580 for unclear reasons with Taqi al-Din dying five years later in Istanbul.
Ahmad al-Mansur was a rival of Murad III, the Sultan of Morocco from 1578 to 1603 and self proclaimed Caliph of Africa. He is well know for being a man of profound Islamic learning and a lover of scholarly discussions. He also was a man of huge ambitions, who created great sugar slave plantations in the Sus Valley and demanded the vassalage of the Sub-Saharan Empires to supply that land with slaves. The sugar was then traded with the English and their Barbary Company for guns, which he famously used to destroy three Empires, the Portuguese (by killing their King which meant the Spanish King took their throne) and both the Songhai and Mali Empires of modern day Mali. As previously discussed, he also openly talked about his ambitions to capture the Spanish Sugar Islands in the Caribbean and thus gain a monopoly over the sugar trade. He died of the plague in 1603 with his empire wracked by rebellions and famines and the subsequent civil war between his sons marked the permanent decline of Moroccan fortunes.
But what if, after falling out with Murad III, Taqi al-Din had fled to the other great Muslim patron of science? Morocco was a place going through vast upheaval as its economy was changed to fund its monarchs' ambitions, with local farmers having their lands taken off them to make way for the plantations. It was ripe for an economic revolution.
One such scenario is written below.
After decades of a life dedicated to science, Taqi al-Din found his career derailed by politics. He had studied endlessly in Syria and Egypt, collecting friendships with others who were interested in natural philosophy. These relationships gave him access to some of the leading private libraries in the world as scholars shared with one another and brought Taqi al-Din into a rapport of the governor of Egypt Samiz al Pasha, whose clock collection was a marvel of advanced mechanics. In 1570, 44-year-old Taqi al-Din arrived in Istanbul with enough clout that, following death of the head Ottoman astronomer the next year, Taqi al-Din became the empire’s official timekeeper and recorder of astronomical observations.
Taqi al-Din dedicated his work to improving observations he had made in Egypt and drafting new records using the towers of Istanbul. The physical limitations prompted him to appeal to the court for a new observatory. It was fully completed in 1579 and became the greatest center for astronomical research in the world, but imperial edict ordered it demolished just a few months later in 1580. Historians disagree on the reason with some pointing to Taqi al-Din falling out of favor after stating that the Comet of 1577 was to be a sign of great success for the empire when the year proved one of bitter plague. Others suggested the tower was seen as a decadent waste while military spending needed to be kept high. Still others say that religious leaders pressured the sultan to put Taqi al-Din on trial for heresy and cutting back the astronomer’s efforts was a way to spare his life.
Whatever the reason, Taqi al-Din felt that his life in Istanbul had ended and sought a new life at another court: that of Ahmad al-Mansur in Morocco. Ahmad al-Mansur had travelled a good deal as a young man, as he tried to avoid his older brother to ensure he could not be seen as a threat to be removed. While in the protective Ottoman Empire, Ahmad al-Mansur studied voraciously, consuming every subject scholars could teach him. In 1578, Ahmad al-Mansur’s brother died while his army was defeating the Portuguese at the Battle of Alacer Quibir. Ahmad al-Mansur, who took the credit for that victory, took over as as the new sultan and established himself by taking an aggressive stance against Portugal on ransoms for prisoners from their defeat. Flush with gold, Ahmad al-Mansur began construction projects such as the El Badi Palace and deepened a military alliance with England, exchanging valuable saltpeter for naval-grade timber.
Ahmad al-Mansur welcomed Taqi al-Din, although he was slow to set him to astronomical work that might be seen as thieving from the Ottomans. al-Mansur was angered that Ottoman books had portrayed him as a Vassal, rather than an equal, and wished to prove otherwise but he also knew that the Saadi dynasty of which he was a part had only maintained independence by careful diplomacy, and Morocco was hardly in a military position to face invaders from the east with Spain and Portugal just on the north side of Gibraltar. Instead, Ahmad al-Mansur turned Taqi al-Din to some of his earlier work with mechanics, specifically the movement of water for irrigation in the dry nation. Soon Moroccans began drilling wells and raising water from unheard of depths, expanding farmland and flocks to great wealth and compensating the family farmers that the Saadi Sultans had been dispossessing of land with new farms.
Taqi al-Din also furthered his research on self-moving machines. In Egypt in 1551, he had designed a spit that rotated itself using steam from the fire below. After further years of studying steam pressure, he created a specialized solar-driven furnace that could turn seawater into steam to push a ship in the notoriously windless doldrums and horse latitudes. Ahmad al-Mansur kept the device a military secret, and Moroccan ships became feared for their uncanny speed. While there was no official Moroccan Navy. exiled Moriscos (or Islamic converts to Christianity) expelled from Spain had often taken to piracy upon arriving in Morocco and these pirates suddenly found themselves armed and equipped by the Sultan. They outpaced the Portuguese merchants so regularly that rumors began to spread of captured djinn being somehow driving the ships. Superstition and sheer velocity devastated the Portuguese trade with India, which ultimately became a monopoly for Morocco and its allies in England.
With his country’s wealth blossoming, Ahmad al-Mansur worked to expand his rule. In 1590, his forces marched into the divided Songhai Empire south of the Sahara, seizing powerful centers of trade like Timbuktu and Gao. The enormous distance across difficult terrain caused new problems for Saadi rule, which quickly faced an expensive occupation, and Ahmad al-Mansur set Taqi al-Din to task resolving it. His solution was to construct and maintain a smooth roadway that could support wheeled vehicles rather than the journey being limited to camel caravans. The work fascinated him with self-propelled vehicles, drawing him back to steam-driven engines powered by water pulled from deeply drilled wells. Many of his designs would be put into action after his death in 1601.
After Taqi al-Din 's passing Ahmad al-Mansur invested the wealth he had won by conquering the salt and gold mines of Mali into attracting new mechanically-minded individuals for his court, famously bribing Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont to leave Spain after being granted a patent by the crown for his steam-powered water pumps in 1606. The Spaniard applied his steam-powered water pumps to work in the burgeoning iron and coal mines in Morocco and the expanded gold mines along the Niger River. Shortly before Ahmad al-Mansur’s passing in 1616, Italian Giovanni Branca arrived with a notebook of potential mechanical devices for automating numerous tasks and was awarded a role that would lead to Morocco’s position as the leader of manufacturing in the world.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, Morocco would be one of the leading powers of the world. Ahmad al-Mansur’s descendants made real his dream of Muslim colonies in the Americas by seizing Brazil and much of South America east of the Andes from Portugal and, later, Spain. Moroccan trade eastward blocked the efforts of Christian settlements in Africa and India, both of which adopted Islam in their urban centers, following the familiar pattern of Islam being spread by Traders that happened in Indonesia and East Africa. The Moroccan-English Alliance also supported the surprising growth of Islam in England, leading to the chaos of the Religious Wars well into the eighteenth century. Although its empire has broken into more of an economic commonwealth today, Morocco continues to serve as the technological research center of the world, dispatching aid to less advanced northerly nations.