Sunday, October 21, 2007
Here is some more of Fjordman's speculations concerning the reason for failure of the Scientific Revolution in the Islamic lands (his version of "What Went Wrong") -- and its 'retardation' in the west. Can we really take this sort of reasoning seriously? For example:
The reason why the Christian West for centuries didn't have easy access to the Classical learning of the Christian East was because Muslims and Jihad had made the Mediterranean unsafe. It has to be the height of absurdity to block access to something and then take credit for transmitting it, yet that is precisely what Arabs do. As stronger states slowly grew up in the West, regular contact with their Eastern cousins was gradually re-established, starting with the Italian city-states. And as soon as direct contact was established, Western Europeans gained access to the original Greco-Roman manuscripts preserved in Constantinople.
Firstly, can we really believe that the physics of Newton or the steam engine of James Watt were inevitable children of Aristotelian logic? Newtonian physics owes a tiny bit to Pythogoras, but nothing to Aristotle certainly. The modern atom, which devolved from the rediscovered ideas of Democritus, was still well in the future when the steam engine was invented. Second, let's face facts. Charlemagne, mentioned below in this context, was illiterate. If he got an Aristotelian manuscript, he would not know which end was right side up. The classical wisdom of the ancients was burned and pillaged by Fjordman's Teutonic and Gothic and Vandal kinfolk. There is a reason why it is called "vandalism." Whatever was left, was systematically suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church. Ancient manuscripts that were not burned were "recycled" for pious purposes such as copying over the Nicene creed or a book of hours, or a hymn to Mary Mother of God.
This is part II, or Islam and the Greek returns, as it were. Part 1 is here:
the Greeks and the Scientific Revolution, part 2
The Song dynasty, from the tenth to the thirteenth century, was arguably the most dynamic period in Chinese history. Although printing "was invented by Buddhist monks in China, and at first benefited Buddhism, by the middle of the tenth century printers were turning out innumerable copies of the classical Confucian corpus."
According to Shaffer, "The origin of the civil service examination system in China can be traced back to the Han dynasty, but in the Song dynasty government-administered examinations became the most important route to political power in China. For almost a thousand years (except the early period of Mongol rule), China was governed by men who had come to power simply because they had done exceedingly well in examinations on the Neo-Confucian canon. At any one time thousands of students were studying for the exams, and thousands of inexpensive books were required. Without printing, such a system would not have been possible."
As she explains, "China developed the world's largest and most technologically sophisticated merchant marine and navy." The Chinese "could have made the arduous journey around the tip of Africa and sail into Portuguese ports; however, they had no reason to do so. Although the Western European economy was prospering, it offered nothing that China could not acquire much closer to home at much less cost."
In contrast, the Portuguese, the Spanish and other Europeans were trying to reach the Spice Islands, what is now Indonesia. "It was this spice market that lured Columbus westward from Spain and drew Vasco da Gama around Africa and across the Indian Ocean." In Shaffer's view, technologies such as gunpowder and the compass had a different impact in China than they had in Europe, and it is "unfair to ask why the Chinese did not accidentally bump into the Western Hemisphere while sailing east across the Pacific to find the wool markets of Spain."
Yes, Asia was the most prosperous region on the planet at this time. Europeans embarked on their Age of Exploration of the seas precisely out of a desire to reach the wealthy Asian lands (and bypass Muslim middlemen), which is why Christopher Columbus and his men mistakenly believed they had arrived in India when they reached the Americas. Asians did not possess a similar desire to reach Europe. But this still doesn't explain why the Chinese didn't embark on the final and most crucial stage of the Industrial Revolution in the West: Harnessing the force of steam and the use of fossil fuels to build stronger, more efficient machinery, faster ships and eventually railways, cars and airplanes.
Printing and literacy greatly expanded during Song times; the world's first printed paper money (bank notes) was introduced and a system of canals and roads was built, all facilitating an unprecedented population growth. Iron smelting and the use of coal multiplied several times over as China reached a stage sometimes called "proto-industrial." And yet China produced no Thomas Savery, Thomas Newcomen or James Watt to develop successful steam engines, nor a George Stephenson to build railway lines or a Karl Benz to make the first gasoline-powered automobile. Although experiments with flying had been undertaken in many nations around the world, the airplane was made possible only with the invention of modern engines, which is why China didn't produce the Wright brothers.
For thousands of years, human beings were limited by their ability to harness muscle power, of men and animals. This was later supplemented with windmills, watermills and similar inventions, which could be important, but in a limited fashion. The harnessing of steam power for engines and machinery was a revolution which provided the basis for enormous improvements in output and efficiency. For some reason, China never did take this final step, and although the country remained prosperous for centuries, later dynasties never quite matched the dynamism under Song times. Emphasis was on cultural continuity, and China experienced no great cultural flowing or event similar to the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment in Europe. China was in its own eyes the Middle Kingdom. It had some annoying barbarians at its frontiers, but no immediate neighbors to rival its size and power, and thus little incentive for improvement. The result was relative (though not necessarily absolute) scientific stagnation. China could afford to grow self-satisfied, and she did. In contrast, Europeans, who were divided into numerous smaller states in a constant state of rivalry instead of one, large unified state, had stronger incentives for innovation, including in weapons technology.
The Mongol invasion, which ended the Song dynasty, is sometimes blamed for this loss of impetus. After the conquest of Beijing in 1215 the soil was greasy with human fat for months. According to Genghis Khan, "The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters." He believed in practicing what you preach. DNA studies indicate that he may have as many as 16 million descendants living today.
The Mongols were notorious for their brutality, but they had a particular dislike for Muslims. Hulagu Khan led the Mongol forces as they completely destroyed Baghdad in 1258, thus ending what remained of the Abbasid Caliphate. The Christian community was largely spared, allegedly thanks to the intercession of Hulagu's Nestorian Christian wife.
The irony is that many Mongols soon adopted Islam as their preferred creed. Maybe the warlike nature of this religion appealed to them. It is possible to make a comparison between Muhammad and Genghis Khan. Temüjin, who gained the title Khan when he founded the Mongol Empire in 1206, did believe he had received a divine mandate to conquer the world, and he created an impressive military force out of nothing by uniting scattered tribes and directing their aggressive energies outwards. He created a Mongolian nation where no nation had existed before, similar to what Muhammad did with the Arabs. The difference is that the Mongols didn't establish a religion of their own throughout their empire which outlasted their rule. We should probably be grateful for that, otherwise the Organization of the Mongolian Conference would be the largest voting bloc at the United Nations today, our schools would teach us about the glories of Mongol science and tolerance and our media would constantly warn us against the dangers of Genghisophobia.
In Europe, the Mongol conquests had the most lasting impact in the Ukraine and Russia. The city of Kiev was devastated while a new Russian state slowly grew out of Moscow. Ivan the Great in the 1400s expanded the Russian state and defeated the Tatar yoke, as the now Islamized Turko-Mongols of the Golden Horde were called. The Mongols invaded Eastern Europe and in the course of a few years attacked Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Serbia. They had reached as far as Vienna in 1241 when the Great Khan suddenly died and the commanders had to return to elect a new leader.
The Black Death, the great Eurasian plague pandemic, swept from Central Asia along the Silk Road through the Mongol Empire, reaching the Mediterranean and the Middle East in the 1340s. The disease, which killed at least a third of the population and more than 70% in some regions, probably reached Europe after the Golden Horde used biological warfare during a siege of the Black Sea port of Caffa, catapulting plague-infested corpses into the city. It was then carried to the European continent with fleeing Genoese traders. The Mongols thus didn't invade Western Europe, but at least they gave us the plague.
Many historians place great macrohistorical importance on the Mongol conquest. It certainly had a disruptive impact, and the trail of devastation it left behind severely depopulated regions from China and Korea via Iran and Iraq to Eastern Europe. It ended the dynamic Song dynasty, yet even before the Mongol conquest, there were few indications that a development towards modern machinery was about to take place in China. Japan, which has always learned a lot from China, escaped unscathed. A series of typhoons, dubbed kamikaze or "divine wind" by the Japanese, saved the country from the Mongol fleets in 1274 and 1281, but they, too, didn't develop a fully fledged industry until they adopted a Western model during the Meiji Restoration in the late nineteenth century.
Moreover, even if Western Europe escaped the Mongols, we should remember that Western Europeans had recently experienced centuries of political disintegration and population decline, longer than in any period in Chinese history for several thousand years. Europe also had to face a much more prolonged assault by Islam. Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne in his work Mohammed and Charlemagne asserted that the definitive break between the Classical world and the Middle Ages in the West was not the downfall of the Western Roman Empire following the partition in 395, but the Islamic conquests in the seventh century.
In Pirenne's view, although the Germanic tribes caused imperial authority to collapse in the fifth century, Western Europe was not totally cut off from the Eastern Roman Empire. The Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum or "Our Sea" as the Romans called it, still remained a Christian lake. This changed decisively during the seventh century when North Africa came under Islamic rule, as did the Iberian Peninsula. Although the Arab conquest was halted by the forces of Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in France in 732, arguably the most important battle in Western history, Islamic attacks continued for centuries since Jihad is a permanent obligation and should be carried out on regular intervals. Jihad piracy, slave trade and looting across the Mediterranean accompanied by inland raids, occasionally as far north as the Alps in Switzerland, made normal communication between the Christian West and the Christian East extremely difficult. In fact, Jihad piracy and slavery from North Africa remained a serious threat to Europeans for more than a thousand years, even into the nineteenth century. As historian Ibn Khaldun, a devout Muslim and therefore anti-Christian, proclaimed: "The Christian could no longer float a plank upon the sea."
This was certainly true in the West, though the Byzantines still held their ground in the Aegean Sea. The Eastern Roman Empire was attacked by Arab Muslims in the 630s and quickly lost Syria, Palestine and Egypt, but managed to survive. Only a few years earlier the official language had been changed from Latin to Greek. It is custom to call the remaining, smaller and Hellenized state the Byzantine Empire.
The Carolingian Empire, named after Charles Martel (Carolus in Latin), was the "scaffold of the Middle Ages." Although it didn't survive for long, the structures put in place by Charles Martel and his grandson Charlemagne were to shape Western Europe for centuries. While civilization in Europe had always been centered on the Mediterranean, the center of power in the West was now north of the Alps. The Carolingian capital was established in Aachen in present-day Germany, as Muslims made access to the sea difficult. Charlemagne held his imperial coronation by Pope Leo III in Saint Peter's Basilica in the year 800, yet already in the year 846 Muslims sacked Rome and stole every piece of gold and silver in Saint Peter's. Arabs also occupied Sicily for several centuries, and attacked Naples, Capua, Calabria and Sardinia repeatedly. As Pirenne says, "the coast from the Gulf of Lyons and the Riviera to the mouth of the Tiber, ravaged by war and the pirates, whom the Christians, having no fleet, were powerless to resist, was now merely a solitude and a prey to piracy. The ports and the cities were deserted. The link with the Orient was severed, and there was no communication with the Saracen [Muslim] coasts. There was nothing but death. The Carolingian Empire presented the most striking contrast with the Byzantine. It was purely an inland power, for it had no outlets. The Mediterranean territories, formerly the most active portions of the Empire, which supported the life of the whole, were now the poorest, the most desolate, the most constantly menaced. For the first time in history the axis of Occidental civilization was displaced towards the North, and for many centuries it remained between the Seine and the Rhine. And the Germanic peoples, which had hitherto played only the negative part of destroyers, were now called upon to play a positive part in the reconstruction of European civilization."
Pirenne's thesis has been debated for generations, and new archaeological evidence has been uncovered since it was published in the 1930s. I personally think he underestimated the extent to which civilization collapsed in the West after the Germanic raids, but he is right that the Mediterranean was still open for communication, and that this changed dramatically after the Arab conquest. Though contacts between the Byzantines and Western Europe were limited during this time period, we should remember that they were never zero. Findings from Viking graves indicate that there was trade between the Baltic Sea and Constantinople even at this point, but trade was greatly diminished compared to what it had been previously.
The reason why the Christian West for centuries didn't have easy access to the Classical learning of the Christian East was because Muslims and Jihad had made the Mediterranean unsafe. It has to be the height of absurdity to block access to something and then take credit for transmitting it, yet that is precisely what Arabs do. As stronger states slowly grew up in the West, regular contact with their Eastern cousins was gradually re-established, starting with the Italian city-states. And as soon as direct contact was established, Western Europeans gained access to the original Greco-Roman manuscripts preserved in Constantinople. They didn't need to rely on limited translations in Arabic, which were anyway made from the same Byzantine manuscripts in the first place, and frequently by Christians. Moreover, Muslims have spent more than one thousand years systematically wiping out Greek culture in the Mediterranean region, a process which continues at Cyprus even into the twenty-first century, which makes it patently ridiculous when they now brag about how much we owe them for their efforts at "preserving the Greek heritage." The efforts of Arabs are, in my view, as overrated as those by the Byzantine Empire are underrated.
John Argyropoulos, who was born in 1415 in Constantinople and died in 1487 in Italy, was a Byzantine expert on Greek history who played an important role in the revival of Classical learning in the West. He lectured at the universities of Florence and Rome. Among his students was Lorenzo the Magnificent from the influential Medici family, who sponsored Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and others. Sandro Botticelli was working under the patronage of the Medicis when he in the 1480s painted The Birth of Venus. Pagan motifs inspired by the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome were widely popular at this time. Apparently, Leonardo da Vinci, too, attended the lectures of Argyropoulos. The universal genius was passionately interested in Classical learning, perhaps especially in science and mechanical engineering, a field in which he created numerous inventions. He was certainly familiar with the Ten Books on Architecture by the Roman engineer Vitruvius, the only major work on architecture and technology to survive from the Greco-Roman world, which was also a vital inspiration for Renaissance architects Brunelleschi and Alberti. Leonardo's famous drawing the Vitruvian Man was inspired by Vitruvius' writings about architecture and its relations to the proportions of the human body.
In the words of Deno Geanakoplos, Professor of Byzantine History, "We know that until the ninth century the patron saint of Venice was not Mark but the Greek Theodore, and that in the eleventh century Byzantine workmen were summoned by the Doge in order to embellish, perhaps entirely to construct, the church of St. Mark. Venetian-Byzantine contacts became more frequent in the twelfth century as a result of the growth of the large Venetian commercial colony in Constantinople." These contacts continued to grow during the High Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, and "In the half century or so before Constantinople's fall in 1453, a gradually increasing number of refugees from the East poured into the West. Venice, as lord of important territories in the Greek East, especially the island of Crete, and as the chief port of debarkation in Italy, received the major part of these refugees. This stream quickened rapidly after 1453."
He stresses that it is a mistake to believe that all Greek texts were transported out after the fall of Constantinople. Most of the refugees fleeing the Turkish Jihad could carry few possessions with them. The process of transferring Classical knowledge to the West took generations, even centuries, but was now greatly aided by Johannes Gutenberg's movable type printing press, introduced around the year 1450 in Mainz, Germany.
It was a major stroke of historical luck – a religious person would probably say divine providence - that printing was reinvented in Europe at exactly the same time as the last vestige of the ancient Roman Empire fell to Muslims. The texts that had been preserved by the Byzantines for a thousand years after Rome collapsed could now be rescued forever instead of quietly disappearing. This ensured that the Renaissance marked a permanent infusion of Greco-Roman knowledge into Western thought, not just a temporary one.
As historian Elizabeth L. Eisenstein says in her celebrated book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: "The classical editions, dictionaries, grammar and reference guides issued from print shops made it possible to achieve an unprecedented mastery of Alexandrian learning even while laying the basis for a new kind of permanent Greek revival in the West. (...) We now tend to take for granted that the study of Greek would continue to flourish after the main Greek manuscript centers had fallen into alien hands and hence fail to appreciate how remarkable it was to find that Homer and Plato had not been buried anew but had, on the contrary, been disinterred forever more. Surely Ottoman advances would have been catastrophic before the advent of printing. Texts and scholars scattered in nearby regions might have prolonged the study of Greek but only in a temporary way."
According to Deno Geanakoplos, in the late fifteenth century "only one city in Italy, Venice, could fulfil all the complex requirements of a Greek press. Venice possessed a class sufficiently wealthy to buy, and the leisure to read, the printed classics. Venice was less subject to papal pressures than other Italian cities. Important too in [printer] Aldus' thinking must have been Venetian possession of the precious collection of Greek manuscripts bequeathed by Bessarion — manuscripts which could serve as paradigms for his books. And hardly less significant for him must have been the presence in Venice of a large, thriving Greek community. (…) By the time of Aldus' death in 1515, his press had given to the world practically all the major Greek authors of classical antiquity."
Historian Bernard Lewis writes in his book What Went Wrong?: "In the vast bibliography of works translated in the Middle Ages from Greek into Arabic, we find no poets, no dramatists, not even historians. These were not useful and they were of no interest; they did not figure in the translation programs. This was clearly a cultural rejection: you take what is useful from the infidel; but you don't need to look at his absurd ideas or to try and understand his inferior literature, or to study his meaningless history."
Muslims who wanted translations of Greek or other non-Islamic works were primarily concerned with topics of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. As Lewis says, they usually ignored playwrights and dramatists such as Sophocles and Euripides, historians such as Thucydides and Herodotus and poets such as Homer. This entire corpus of literature could only be saved from the Greek originals preserved in Constantinople. Moreover, in addition to being selective about Greek works, Muslims showed little interest in Latin writers, for instance Cicero. There was thus a large body of Greco-Roman learning and valuable literature that was never available in Arabic in the first place.
It is true that a number of Greek works were translated to Arabic, especially in the ninth century when a group called Mu'tazilites attempted, without lasting success, to reconcile Islamic with logic. As Ibn Warraq writes about them:
"However, it is clear now that the Mu'tazilites were first and foremost Muslims, living in the circle of Islamic ideas, and were motivated by religious concerns. There was no sign of absolute liberated thinking, or a desire, as [Hungarian orientalist] Goldziher put it, 'to throw off chafing shackles, to the detriment of the rigorously orthodox view of life.' Furthermore, far from being 'liberal,' they turned out to be exceedingly intolerant, and were involved in the Mihna, the Muslim Inquisition under the Abbasids. However, the Mu'tazilites are important for having introduced Greek philosophical ideas into the discussion of Islamic dogmas."
According to writer
Patrick Poole, "Western Christianity's rational tradition developed
in the Medieval era precisely as a result of the outright rejection
of the irrationalism inherent in Islamic philosophy, not the embracing
of it." As he states, "a rationalist philosophy had begun to develop
under the Mu'tazilite school of interpretation, which advocated for a
created, as opposed to an uncreated, Quran. But Caliph al-Mutawakkil
[reign 847-861] condemned the Mu'tazilite school, which opened the door
for the rival Ash'arite interpretation, founded by al-Ash'ari (d. 935),
to eventually take preeminence within Sunni Islam." Rationalism also
faced an uphill battle because of the view of Allah as an unpredictable
and whimsical deity, since "only Allah truly acts with real effect; all
seemingly natural observances of causation are merely manifestations of
Allah's habits, for Allah simultaneously creates both the cause and the
effect according to his arbitrary will. This view is best expressed by
one of the Islamic philosophers cited by [Tariq] Ramadan, al-Ghazali
(1059-1111), in his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers."
The Caliph al-Ma'mun (reign 813 - 833), who was influenced by the Mu'tazilite movement, created the House of Wisdom, a library and translation office. The Baghdad-centered Abbasid dynasty, which replaced the Damascus-centered Umayyad dynasty in 750, was closer to Persian culture and was probably inspired by the Sassanid practice of translating works and creating great libraries. Alkindus (Al-Kindi) was appointed to participate in the undertaking. Philosophical and scientific texts were translated into Arabic from Persian and Indian (Sanskrit) sources, but above all from Greek ones. Great efforts were made to collect and buy important Greek works and manuscripts from the Byzantines and have them translated.
In the book How Greek Science Passed to
De Lacy O'Leary states that "Aristotelian study proper began with
Abu Yusuf Ya'qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (d. after 873), commonly known as
'the Philosopher of the Arabs.' It is significant that almost all the
great scientists and philosophers of the Arabs were classed as
Aristotelians tracing their intellectual descent from al-Kindi and
In 431 Nestorius, a Christian Patriarch, was expelled from Constantinople for heresy. The so-called Assyrian Church of the East thus split from the Byzantine Church. Their followers found a new home in the Syriac-speaking world and were welcomed in the Sassanid Persian Empire, the rival of Byzantium. They brought with them a collection of Greek texts, among them medical works of Galen and Hippocrates. It was these texts, aided by other manuscripts acquired and bought from Constantinople later, which provided the basis for translations of Greek texts into Arabic. The followers of this Eastern church, usually called Nestorians in the West, had communities spread out across much of Iraq, Iran and Central Asia, and were respected for their medical skills.
According to scholar Thomas T. Allsen, "Nestorians in the East were closely associated with the medical profession. A considerable body of Syriac medical literature, some in the original and some in translation, has been recovered in central Asia. This is hardly surprising, because Eastern Christians were an important fixture in West Asian medicine." Western medicine in Yuan (Mongol ruled) China, often characterized as "Muslim," was almost always in the hands of Nestorians, a situation that Western travelers found worthy of note.
Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. It was once the lingua franca of the Middle East and was widely used among Christians and also Arabs and to some extent Persians. It had a major impact on the development of Arabic, which later replaced it following the Islamic conquests. The Nabataeans, a Semitic people associated with the famous rock city of Petra close to the Dead Sea in present-day Jordan, were greatly influenced by Aramaic, and the Arabic alphabet developed out of their alphabet. The most unorthodox scholars even suggest that the Islamic religion itself may have developed closer to this region, at the northern fringes of Arabia, than around Mecca in central Arabia.
Some researchers believe that Syriac, or Syro-Aramaic, was also the root of the Koran. When it was composed, Arabic was not fully developed as a written language. Syriac, however, was widely used in the region at the time. Ibn Warraq estimates that up to 20% of the Koran is incomprehensible even to educated Arabs because segments of it were originally written in another, related language before Muhammad was born. A German professor of ancient Semitic and Arabic languages writes about the subject under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg. If you believe Luxenberg, the chapters or suras of the Koran usually ascribed to the Mecca period, which are also the most tolerant and non-violent ones as opposed to the much harsher and more violent chapters from Medina, are not "Islamic" at all, but Christian:
"In its origin, the Koran is a Syro-Aramaic liturgical book, with hymns and extracts from Scriptures which might have been used in sacred Christian services. (…) Its socio-political sections, which are not especially related to the original Koran, were added later in Medina. At its beginning, the Koran was not conceived as the foundation of a new religion. It presupposes belief in the Scriptures, and thus functioned merely as an inroad into Arabic society."
It is easy to track how Arabic translations of Greek texts from Byzantine manuscripts, often done by Christians, made their way from the Islamic East and ended up in the Iberian Peninsula in the Islamic West, where some of them were translated by Christians, for instance in the multilingual city of Toledo in central Spain, back to Latin. It is thus true that some Greek texts were reintroduced in the West via Arabic, sometimes passing via Syriac or Hebrew along the way, but this was always based, in the end, on manuscripts from the Byzantine Empire.
The work led by Johannitius in Baghdad preserved via the Arabic translation some of Galen's works lost in the Greek original. The Greek physician Galen worked in the second century A.D., systematized medical knowledge in the Greco-Roman world and supplied this with his own research. He lamented the fact that he couldn't perform dissection of human corpses, but this wasn't allowed during Roman times so he based his studies of human anatomy on dissections of animals such as dogs, apes and pigs. This is funny if you are familiar with the low status dogs, apes and pigs have in Islam, and know that all subsequent medicine in the Muslim world was inspired by Galen. Since dissection of human corpses was taboo in the Islamic world, too, Galen's errors remained unchallenged for centuries, until the Renaissance in Christian Europe. Leonardo da Vinci made numerous accurate anatomical drawings but didn't share this knowledge much at his time. The final breakthrough came with the anatomist Andreas Vesalius from Brussels, who published his book On the Workings of the Human Body in 1543 based on observation through autopsy. He is considered the father of modern anatomy in the Western world.
Fjordman is a noted Norwegian blogger who has written for many conservative web sites. He used to have his own Fjordman Blog in the past, but it is no longer active.
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