Beginning in the 8th century, a series of enlightened caliphs began to commission translations of important texts from Persian and Greek into Arabic, laying the groundwork for a period of unprecedented intellectual activity in the Middle East. Geniuses such as the physicist Ibn al-Haytham and the philosopher Ibn Sina did much to influence Europe's own Renaissance, seven centuries later.
Although occasionally bogged down in historiographic debate, Jim Al-Khalili's book is a superb read full of fascinating pen portraits. We learn of the Berber polymath Ibn Firnas, who "at the age of 65 ... built a rudimentary hang-glider and launched himself from the steep side of a mountain". Eat that, Leonardo.