‘1001 Inventions’ at the National Geographic Museum explores the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that admission is free on Dec. 22 and Jan 19. Admission for the exhibit is $8 for adults; $6 for students, military personnel and seniors; and $4 for children ages 5-12 except on Thrusday, when children get in free.


Isaiah Jones, 10, flaps his arms as he flies along with a video presentation about Abbas Ibn Firnas, an early experimenter with air travel, at the National Geographic exhibit “1001 Inventions: Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization.” (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)
November 23, 2012

When you enter the National Geographic exhibit “1001 Inventions,” it’s easy to feel as though you’re arriving in another world. Three golden doors greet you and invite you to explore a world that existed long ago in faraway countries from Spain to China. Exotic music created by a one-string instrument known as the rebab fills your ears.

But as you look closer, you find a world not so different from your own. The exhibition explores inventions from what is known as the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization, which dated from the seventh to 17th centuries. (Today we live in the 21st century.) You discover that many of the inventions are familiar, and some of them we still use today.

Play in the exhibit

Think of some simple things in your house, including soap, toothbrushes, pens and your parents’ coffee. These things date back hundreds of years. At the exhibit, stand in front of a computer screen, grab a joystick and move a little computerized man around his house. Can you find 13 things from this Muslim house of long ago that might well be in your home today? (Did you know that your mom’s high heels date back to 9th-century Spain? Shoemakers would fill a cushion under each heel with sand!)

After that, wander over to another screen and go on a long journey with Ibn Battuta, who was born in Morocco, a country in Northern Africa, and lived in the 14th century. (Try saying his name. It sounds a lot like it looks, just make sure you pronounce all the letters, even the three consonants in a row!) When he was 21, he embarked on a 75,000-mile journey, covering 44 countries in 29 years. (Wow! That’s a lot of travel!) The exhibit lets you help Battuta make decisions about what to trade and where to stay along the way.

Behind you, take a look at some English words that were born out of Arabic, a language that many of the Muslim inventors and scientists would have spoken. For example, “giraffe” comes from the Arabic word “zarafa” and “traffic” comes from the Arabic word “taraffafa,” which means “to walk along slowly together.” Cool, huh?


Lena Elamin, 10, listens to one of the presentations in the “1001 Inventions” exhibition at the National Geographic Museum. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)
Meet the inventors

As you walk around the exhibit, Muslim inventors will wave to you from television screens. They want you to come over and pick up the phone and listen to them. You will meet people such as Ibn Al-Haytham, who lived in the 11th century in Egypt. (His name sounds like ib-in-al-hi-thehm.) He disagreed with the idea at the time that people could see because their eyes shot out rays of light. (Wouldn’t that be cool?) Ibn Al-Haytham thought correctly that light entered the eye, allowing people see. This new way of thinking paved the way for future ideas about how eyes work.

Make sure you meet Abbas Ibn Firnas, too. He lived in ninth-century Spain. The story goes that he was the first person to try to fly, long before the Wright Brothers flew in 1903. Apparently, Abbas Ibn Firnas attached feathers and wings to his body and was able to fly — for a little bit, anyway. You can pretend to be Firnas by flapping your arms in front of a big screen and watching as a man on a glider flies up and down, depending on how fast you keep moving your arms.

There are many other inventors to meet and ideas to learn about at the exhibit. Hopefully you will walk away with a better understanding of a rich and ancient culture, one that gave rise to inventors, scientists and doctors. The message of the exhibition is that each lesson they learned has been built upon over time. That makes them important today, many years later.

Moira E. McLaughlin

If you go

Where: National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th Street NW.


Colleen Cather and her daughter Porter, 11, look at models of ships from the fleet of Zheng He, who led voyages from China in the 1400s. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

When: The exhibit runs through February 3 and is open every day, except Christmas, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On December 6 and 14, the last tickets will be sold at 4 p.m. and on December 24, the last tickets will be sold at 3 p.m.

How much? Kids are free every Thursday. Otherwise, $4 for kids ages 5-12; $8 for adults; and $6 for students, military personnel and seniors. For more information, call 202-857-7700 or go to events.nationalgeographic.com/events/exhibits. Call 202-857 -7281 or e-mail GroupSales@ngs.org to arrange free admission for school and youth groups.

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