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By: A.I. Makki

  Gold has different meaning for different people. For a prospector looking for the yellow metal, it is the dream of a lifetime. To the rich woman, an ornament of gold is a beautiful thing to be worn and displayed in front of admiring friends. For the economists, gold is the basis of stability in money and world trade, and is largely responsible for the prosperity of nations of the world. To the businessman, it is assurance for his success in all his enterprises. Gold makes the greedy commit violent crimes in the process of acquiring it. Its possession makes people haughty, proud and dignified. It has the power to dispel gloom and sadness. It processes the ability to seduce the most powerful, beautiful and influential people to its side. For some, gold ensures domestic bliss and harmony in the house. However, it cannot be useful in need except when it is spent.

  Gold may not be the most expensive among all the metals - uranium, platinum and many jewels are worth more in the market place - but it has been considered as the finest form of wealth, worth acquiring since ancient times. It can easily be converted to money in any part of the world and can also be exchanged as payment for goods and services.

  For the scientist, gold is a noble metal, which is numbered 79 in the periodic table, with an atomic weight of 197.2 and a melting point of 1063 degrees Celsius. Its boiling point is reached at 2600 degrees Celsius. It is a durable metal that withstands corrosion. In its natural state gold is fairly soft, ductile and easily malleable. It can be hammered into very thin sheets, or drawn into extremely thin wires. These properties in gold have made it a useful metal to the jewelers, goldsmiths and the metallurgists. However, gold is always brought into practical use as an alloy, by mixing it in varying percentages, usually with copper, as it is too soft to be used in its original form.

  Gold has always held an important place in legend and history. Its universal demand, acceptability and rarity made the ancient people think of other means to acquire gold. It is for this reason they thought of other ways and means to acquire it - by turning other base metals into gold. These people were called alchemists and their "science" started early in the city of Alexandria, in Egypt during the first century after Christ.

  The alchemists, who came after them, were influenced by the words of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle in 400 CE who said that all substances on earth were primarily made up of four basic elements. They were water, fire, air, and earth. According to his theory, all substances present in the earth were different from one another only because they had different proportions of these elements in them. If this was so, reasoned the alchemists, one substance can easily be turned into another by altering its elemental make-up.

  This feat turned out to be anything but simple. But, hundreds of years his thoughts persisted among sensible people who believed in it. The science of alchemy was studied with vigor, and its study became a mixture of practical experiments using different substances combined with some far-out mystical ideas. Some alchemists believed in a substance called as the "Philosopher's Stone" that could change any metal into gold. They searched everywhere for it, but in vain. In order to keep their findings and experiments a secret, the alchemists developed a whole system of odd symbols and notations, which only they could understand. After a while, the symbols got so complicated that one alchemist could not read another's manuscript.

  From Egypt, alchemy has spread into Europe and was studied in different centers of world civilization. From the Greek-speaking world, the study of alchemy was carried into Syria and Persia. After the rise of Islam, the learned men in the Arab world soon translated the Greek texts and gave them to the Arabic speaking world. The Arabs became enthusiastic alchemists. During the rule of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad, great works of literature and science could hardly be translated quickly enough to quench the thirst of learning that had developed among the Arabs. After 900 CE, the Arab world witnessed a great deal of activity in the development of the science of alchemy, and in the process, developed a respectable reputation for themselves as chemists among the scholars of the Medieval Western world.

  One of the first Arabs to take an interest in alchemy was Khalid ibn Yazid ibn Mu'awiya (635-704 CE) who had many translations made of Greek alchemical writings. He is also believed to be the author of several books on alchemy, but none of them are extant. However, other Arab alchemists quote his writings on this subject in several books written on alchemy.

  With the help of the knowledge gained from the Greeks and the Egyptians books on alchemy, the Arab alchemists soon started carrying out original research and began to write books of their own making several important contributions to the science of alchemy that enabled others to establish a smooth transition from alchemy to the science of chemistry on the sure ground of a true scientific method. 

  One of the earliest descriptions of the work done by Arab alchemists is found in "Kitab al-Fihrist," an encyclopedia written by an Arab named Al-Nadim in 988 CE. In this encyclopedia, there is a section on alchemy, which makes a mention on the origins of this science, and lists the names of prominent Greek and alchemists of the ancient times. Among the Arabs, we find the names of Khalid ibn Yazid, Jabir ibn Hayyan, Dhu'n-Nun the Egyptian, Ar-Razi and ibn Wahshiyya mentioned here.

  Another important source is the critical account of Arab alchemy given by the great Arab historian - the author of "Muqaddimah" - and philosopher Ibn Khaldun (d: 1406 CE). In the Prolegomena or "Foreword," he is severely critical of the science of alchemy and doubts the integrity and the intelligence of all those who pursued, practiced and studied alchemy. Earlier to him, Ibn Sina had vehemently opposed the study of alchemy. But, these criticisms only spurred the Arab alchemists to greater efforts to do experimental work and modify their theories on alchemy. If the criticisms had been accepted, and the pursuit of the transmutation of metals abandoned, it is possible that the development of modern chemistry would have been severely retarded.

  The last authority on the subject of alchemy and the Arab alchemists is Haji Khalifa, a Turkish writer of the seventeenth century. In his great work "Kashfu'l-Zunun," he gives a list of all the Arab, Persians and Turkish alchemists and the books authored by them. In his book, he honors the legacy of the early Arab alchemists, and severely criticizes the works of some others. From this account, one can gain a complete range of knowledge that was known to the Arab alchemists until that time and many of the books mentioned by him are still in existence with the modern scholars studying but a few among them.

  The greatest among the early Arab alchemists was Jabir ibn Hayyan who lived in the eighth century CE. He is believed to be a student of Khalid ibn Yazid. His fame was such that with the passage of time, his books on alchemy - translated into Latin - reached the Medieval European scholars, who spelled his name as Geber. The European scholars considered him as a scholar far ahead of his age in the knowledge of chemical sciences - a fame that would last until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

  Among the few writings of Jabir that have been translated we find that he was greatly influenced by the ideas of Aristotle and agreed with him on his theory of four elements and the unity of matter. This idea was, however, developed in many different ways by Jabir and many additional theories and hypotheses were suggested. According to him, fire was hot and moist, and the earth is cold and dry. These elements combine in rocks in various proportions and produce metals of which the most perfect state was represented by gold.

  Jabir believed that all metals belonged to one species. Other metals failed to reach the perfect state of gold because of certain 'accidental' qualities during their formation. These imperfections could be removed by 'proper' treatment. He believed that the imperfect metals were similar to a man suffering from an 'illness,' like the illness in a person is treated by administering an appropriate drug, the sick man would soon regain his normal state of health.

  Explaining his theory further, Jabir believed that all metals had external and internal pair of qualities. Thus, we have gold, which was hot and moist from outside, but cold and dry from inside. Likewise, silver was cold and dry from outside, but hot and moist from inside. In order to bring about a transmutation from silver into gold, it was necessary for an alchemist to alter the proportion of heat, moisture, cold, and dryness present in a metal. The baseness of a metal had to be altered by an "elixir." Jabir greatly developed on this theory the idea of a "supreme elixir," which would be the 'medicine' of metals and invented his 'method of balance' (miz'an), which was a very systematic way of tackling the problem of transmutation.

  Some alchemists believed that there was no single substance, which would be enough to make one supreme elixir. For this reason, they theorized the need for making two elixirs, a red one to convert silver into gold, and a white one to convert the remaining metals into silver. They believed that only a minute portion of this elixir was enough to convert an unlimited amount of imperfect metal into gold by setting a never-ending, catalytic chain-reaction.

  After Jabir, the name of Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (864-923 CE) stands out as a hardheaded practical man of science. He was the first person to compile an encyclopedia in the Arab world, in every branch of science and philosophy. His 'Book of Secrets' divides chemical substances into well-marked classes: spirits, metallic bodies, stones, vitriols, boraxes and salts. In his book he describes the equipment needed to study alchemy, including apparatus for distillations, sublimations and furnaces. He discusses the chemical operations required for the preparation of ammonia and strong acids. He describes calcinations, dissolutions and combustions and finally in obscure terms the process of making elixirs for the conversion of lesser metals into gold.

  Among the other Arab alchemists of repute are the names of Abu'l Hasan Ali al-Andalusi, the author of "Shudhur adh-Dhahab" (d: 1197), Abu'l Qasim Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Iraqi (thirteenth century), Abdullah ibn Ali al-Kahshani (thirteenth century) who wrote several alchemical treatises including the book "Knowledge acquired concerning the cultivation of Gold" on which Izz ad-Din Aidmar ibn Ali al-Jidalki (d; 1360 CE), wrote a commentary "Nihayat al-Talab" running into several thousand pages.

  The Arab alchemists passed on to the Western world not only their chemical knowledge of metallic compounds but also practical experiments conducted in their efforts to transmute base metals into gold. It is clear from the few translations that have been done on the works of the Arab alchemists that they knew about aqua regia and the use of hydrostatic balance for weighing metals and also the methods of determining their specific gravity. They also passed to the Western world the Greek lore of four elements, and other advances made by the Arab alchemists in the study of alchemy. The Latin translation of their works was a revelation to the Western world whose pharmacy and metallurgy consisted only of the simplest poundings, straining, boiling and melting.

  The works of the Arab alchemists did not enable other scientists to convert base metals into gold, but the scientific advances made by them in the study of alchemy set the Western world firmly on the road of transition to the study of modern chemistry. The real treasure that had been discovered by the Arab alchemists was that they had laid firmly the foundations to the science of modern chemistry.

  Nonetheless, the changing of lead into gold remains what it was centuries ago-an unrealized dream!


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