8. The Neolithic Expansion

8.7 Gun powder

The evolvement of efficient weapons relying on chemical ingenuity and allowing remote combat progressed along two lines: naphtha and saltpeter.

Naphtha was used very early in the East for warfare purposes. The formula was refined by the addition of bitumen, resins, oils and greases, and this formula entered into the possession of the Greeks in the year 674 AD. The Greeks utilized this weapon abundantly during wars against Islam and their survival was in part due to this incendiary weapon, i.e. the “Greek Fire”.

Gunpowder is a mixture of saltpeter and sulfur. It is most likely that the leprosy of house-walls mentioned in the Leviticus (XIV, 34-53) was saltpeter (KNO3) efflorescence. The destruction of the “unclean” houses and walls is evidence that this salt was not used in the Near East in ancient times. The Byzantines could have discovered explosive powder based on saltpeter as early as 668 AD. The Byzantine Marcus Greacus made a description of it in 850 AD. It does not seem that the Byzantines exploited it to devise guns.

The Chinese knew fusing powder (saltpeter) since 85 BC. Thousand years elapsed before the Chinese used gunpowder (sulfur added to saltpeter) for war in 1161 AD. This knowledge was not refined enough to save them from the impending Mongolic invasion.

Military technology played a vital role in the external affairs of the Arabs. Military treatises containing rich material on chemical technology were composed, by necessity for the military character of the Mamluk leadership, and to confront the Crusaders and the Mongols. A treatise of the 12th century reveals that the Arabs knew steel for swords, military fires made of alcohol and petroleum (i.e. Greek fire) and fire-resistant coatings. No mention was made of gunpowder. The Arabs first added saltpeter to the Greek Fire for higher efficiency, then refined the saltpeter and came up with gunpowder by the addition of sulfur, but too late to protect them from the nomadic invasion initiated in 1219. Gunpowder was used in 1260 at the battle of Ayn Jalut against the Tartars of Hulagu, to frighten the horses. The second use of gunpowder was made in 1273 by the Sultan Abou-Youssouf, at the siege of Sidjilmesa. The powder is mentioned at the end of the 13th century (Al-Rammah). A clear method for the purification of saltpeter by solution and crystallization is given.

A treatise dated 14th century notes that the Franks did not know flammable oils nor gunpowder. The Latins had no “Greek Fire” at their disposition, probably because they had no sources of naphtha. The description of gunpowder made by Marcus Greacus apparently fell into the hands of the monk Roger Bacon, who describes the powder in 1242 (De Mirabili Potestate Artis et Naturae). He does not, however, describe how saltpeter is made. The mention of gunpowder necessarily involves the knowledge of saltpeter. The process of fabrication of saltpeter is elaborate. It usually starts from calcium nitrate (Ca (NO3) 2) obtained as efflorescence on cellars and similar walls. It can also be prepared from the decay of organic matter such as animal bones or oak ashes, in the presence of lye or lime (potassium and sodium carbonates, K2CO3 and Na2CO3). After decomposition, the calcium nitrate that has been formed is collected in a solution of water that percolates through the mixture. This solution of calcium nitrate is further treated with lye (K2CO3), forming calcium carbonate and saltpeter (KNO3). The insoluble calcium carbonate precipitates and is eliminated while the soluble saltpeter is crystallized out of the solution by evaporating the water through boiling.

One supposes that the addition of sulfur to saltpeter in order to obtain gunpowder was made by the monk Berchtoldus Niger. The West soon started making guns and refining the guns so as to make them more maneuverable. The first use of guns directed against soldiers was at the battle of Crecy, in 1346.

The rise of Western Man was reached by the refinement of gunpowder and the development of portable weapons. This was combined with the invention of a type of boat that exploited the power of wind with greater efficacy than dhows, drakkars and junks, that sailed before the wind: caravels and galleons were the second invention on which the expansion of Western Man was based. This last invention was made on the shores of the Atlantic (Portuguese, Spaniards, English and Dutch 23) and embodies a spirit that is radically different from that of other civilizations. The West slowly abandoned the institution of slavery 24 and started to think of ways to exploit other forms of energy.


23. The French and Venice remained for a long time faithful to galeras.

24. Except Venice, so long under the influence of the Byzantines. The 750,000 slaves of Saudi Arabia were officially freed in 1962 only. They are still there and known as “Yemenite workers”. Slaves could still be had in Brazil in 1984, at the price of 450 dollars a head.

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