Did Abbas Ibn Firnas Make History’s First Flight?

May 9, 2022 0 comments

Just outside Baghdad International Airport there is a statue of a man wearing a turban with feathered wings strapped over his arms, about to jump from a high pedestal. The statue is identified as Abbbas Ibn Firnas, the father of aviation. But who was Abbbas Ibn Firnas?

The statue of Abbas ibn Firnas near Baghdad International Airport. Photo: BaghdadiHistory

Abbbas Ibn Firnas was born in the year 810 in Izn-Rand Onda, which was part of the Al-Andalusia Caliphate of Cordova. Located in today’s Ronda, Spain, Al-Andalusia was a great center of learning in the Muslim world for engineers, architects and scientists. Young Abbas studied medicine and astrology but was more interested in engineering and making his own inventions. Abbas Ibn Firnas designed a water clock, devised a means of manufacturing colorless glass, invented various glass planispheres, made corrective lenses called “reading stones”, built a planetarium, and developed a process for cutting rock crystal that allowed Spain to cease exporting quartz to Egypt to be cut. He also liked poetry and music.

The story goes that in 852, Firnas witnessed a daredevil named Armen Firman climb atop a minaret of the grand mosque in Qurtuba, wearing a contraption fabricated out of a wooden frame and silk, and jump. Firman’s intention, like in the Greek story of Icarus and his father, was to fly. Instead, he plummeted straight down. Fortunately, the wing-like device broke his fall and Armen got away with only minor injuries.

Abbas ibn Firnas.

Abbas Firnas was impressed by Firman’s jump. Twenty three years later, in 875, at the fairly advanced age of seventy, Firnas made his own flying machine out of a bamboo frame covered with silk cloth with actual eagle feathers sewed to it. Wearing the pair of wings, Firnas climbed the hills of Jabal Al-'Arus and jumped off a cliff. According to witnesses, Firnas glided down gracefully and was reportedly airborne for as many as ten minutes.

As Firnas came down into his final descent, he realized that his design lacked a tail without which he was unable to control his landing. Firnas hit the ground hard and seriously injured himself. He lived another twelve years after his harrowing experience.

While Abbas Firnas’s story is inspiring, there is only one historical account of Firnas’s alleged flight, written not by a contemporary historian in Firnas’s time, but an Algerian historian named Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari, a full seven centuries after the supposed events. Maqqari’s description of Firnas included the following:

Among other very curious experiments which he made, one is his trying to fly. He covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but, in alighting again on the place whence he had started, his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one.

Al-Maqqari does not cite any source for the details of the reputed flight, though he does claim that one verse in a ninth-century Arab poem is actually an allusion to Firnas's flight. The poem was written by Mu'min ibn Said, a court poet of Córdoba under Muhammad I (circa 886), who was acquainted with and usually critical of Ibn Firnas. The pertinent verse runs: “He flew faster than the phoenix in his flight when he dressed his body in the feathers of a vulture.” Surprisingly, no other contemporary sources refer to the event.

It’s hard to trust a source written 750 years after the event, and it is astonishing that, if indeed several eye-witness recorded Firnas’s flight, we find no mention of it outside of Al-Maqqari.

Furthermore, the story about Firnas witnessing Armen Firman twenty years prior and being inspired by the daredevil did not originally occur in Al-Maqqari’s description. Some believe that Abbas Firnas and Armen Firman were not two different persons but the same. The names along with the date and details of his flight may have been mistranslated and confused in secondary writings.

Given the flimsy evidence, it’s hard to tell whether or not Abbas Firnas flew successfully. Muslim scholars certainly seem to believe he did. Firnas’s name appears in the names of bridges, hills, parks, avenues and airlines, especially in Berber countries. There is even a crater on the moon named after Abbas ibn Firnas.

# Abbas ibn Firnas, The Engines of Our Ingenuity
# Lynn White, Jr., Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition, Jstor


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