A Medieval ‘First in Flight’ was an interdisciplinary project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It focused on ‘Abbas Ibn Firnas (d. 887 AD), a celebrated polymath of Córdoba, the capital of early Islamic Spain. ‘Abbas Ibn Firnas is best known for conducting an early experiment in human flight. We were pleased to carry out this research in North Carolina, the site of the Wright Brothers’ famous ‘First in Flight.’ By connecting the modern aviation milestone to a longer historical trajectory of interest in human flight, we presented our own example of how the spheres of art and science creatively intersect.
In keeping with the interdisciplinary intellectual culture of early Islamic courts, our group combined tools and perspectives from arts, humanities and the sciences to analyze accounts of the flight and its historical contexts. Our project was informed by the earliest Arabic texts and the material and historical evidence of the caliphal period (roughly 650-1250 AD), which is generally considered the ‘classical’ period of Islamic civilization. Nevertheless, our investigation was creative and exploratory. It is impossible to know what Ibn Firnas’ flight device really looked like, the materials from which it was made, and how it functioned. Instead, using the best historical evidence available to us from the period, we approached the flight as a framework to consider arts, social history, science and technology of Córdoba and other early Islamic courts. Our aim was imaginative interpretation and visualization that evokes the rich history and visual and material culture of Ibn Firnas’ time and place.