Category Archives: Iran
Over a thousand years ago, Nuh ibn Mansur, the reigning prince of the medieval city of Bukhara, fell badly ill. The doctors, unable to do anything for him, were forced to send for a young man named Ibn Sina, who was already renowned, despite his very young age, for his vast knowledge. The ruler was healed.
Ibn Sina was an 11th century Persian philosopher, physician, pharmacologist, scientist and poet, who exerted a profound impact on philosophy and medicine in Europe and the Islamic world. He was known to the Latin West as Avicenna.
Avicenna’s Canon of medicine, first translated from Arabic into Latin during the 12th century, was the most important medical reference book in the West until the 17th century, introducing technical medical terminology used for centuries afterwards.
Avicenna’s Canon established a tradition of scientific experimentation in physiology without which modern medicine as we know it would be inconceivable.
For example, his use of scientific principles to test the safety and effectiveness of medications forms the basis of contemporary pharmacology and clinical trials.
Avicenna has been in the news recently due to his work on contagions. He produced an early version of the germ theory of disease in the Canon where he also advocated quarantine to control the transmission of contagious diseases.
Uniquely, Avicenna is the rare philosopher who became as influential on a foreign philosophical culture as his own. He is regarded by some as the greatest medieval thinker.
Maverick and prodigious
He was born Abdallāh ibn Sīnā in 980AD in Bukhara, (present day Uzbekistan, then part of the Iranian Samanid empire). Avicenna was prodigious from youth, claiming in his autobiography to have mastered all known philosophy by 18.
Avicenna’s output was extraordinarily prolific. One estimate of his body of work counts 132 texts. These cover logic, natural philosophy, cosmology, metaphysics, psychology, geology, and more. Some of these texts he wrote while on horseback, travelling from one city to another!
His work was a virtuosic kind of encylopedism, gathering the various traditions of Greek late antiquity, the early Islamic period and Iranian civilisation into one rational knowledge system covering all of reality.
Avicenna’s texts were forged out of the colossal Graeco-Arabic translation movement that took place in medieval Baghdad. They then played a key role in the Arabic to Latin translation movement that brought Aristotle’s philosophy back, in a highly enriched manner, into Western thought.
This was a chapter in the story of large-scale transmission of knowledge from the Islamic world to Europe.
From the 12th century on, Avicenna shaped the thought of major European medieval thinkers. Thomas Aquinas’s writings feature hundreds of quotations from Avicenna regarding issues such as God’s providence. Aquinas also sought to refute some of Avicenna’s positions such as that which argued the world was eternal.
Book of Healing
Avicenna’s Kitāb al-shifā , The Book of Healing, was as influential in Latin as his medical Canon.
Divided into sections covering logic, science, mathematics and metaphysics, it produced highly influential theses on the distinction between essence and existence and the famous Flying Man thought experiment, which aims to establish how the soul is innately aware of itself.
A medical pioneer
Avicenna’s Canon brilliantly synthesises Islamic medicine with that of Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) and Galen (129 – 200 AD). There are also elements of ancient Persian, Mesopotamian and Indian medicine. This was supplemented by Avicenna’s extensive medical experiences.
In the Canon, Avicenna introduced diagnoses and treatments for illnesses unknown to the Greeks, being the first doctor to describe meningitis. He made new arguments for the use of anaesthetics, analgesics, and anti-inflammatory substances.
Looking forward to modern notions of disease prevention, Avicenna proposed adjustments in diet and physical exercise could heal or prevent illnesses.
Avicenna’s detailed descriptions of capillary flow and arterial and ventricular contractions in the cardiovascular system (the blood and circulatory system) assisted the Arab-Syrian polymath Ibn al Nafis (1213-1288), who became the first physician to describe the blood’s pulmonary circulation, the movement of blood from the heart to the lungs and back again to the heart.
This happened in 1242, centuries before scientist William Harvey arrived at the same conclusion in 17th century England.
Another innovative aspect of Avicenna’s Canon is its exploration of how our body’s well-being depends on the state of our mind, and the interaction between the heart’s health and our emotional life.
This connection has been seen in the last few months, with doctors describing increases in heart damage due to the psycho-emotional pressures of the pandemic.
Avicenna’s advocacy for an interrelated, organic and systems-based understanding of health gives his thought universal, ongoing relevance.
It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering.
The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond.
The direct legacy of the ancient Iranians can be found across the Middle East, the Caucasus and Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.
In the 6th century BC, Iran was home to the first world empire. The Achaemenids ruled a multicultural superpower that stretched to Egypt and Asia Minor in the west and India and Pakistan in the east. They were the power by which all other ancient empires measured themselves. Their cultural homeland was in the Fars province of modern Iran. The word Persian is the name for the Iranian people based on the home region of the Achaemenids – Pars.
Some of the richest and most beautiful of the archaeological and historical heritage in Iran remains there. This includes Parsgardae, the first Achaemenid dynastic capital where King Cyrus(c. 590-529BC) laid down the foundations of law and the first declaration of universal rights while ruling over a vast array of citizens and cultures.
Nearby is the magnificent site of Persepolis, the great palace of the Achaemenid kings and hub of government and administration. Architecturally stunning, it is decorated with relief sculptures that still today leave a visitor in awe.
Seleucid and Parthian Iran
When the Achaemenids fell to the armies of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, what followed was great upheaval and also one of the most extraordinary moments in human history. The mixing of Persian and eastern Mediterranean cultures created the Hellenistic Age. The Macedonian King Seleucus (died 281BC) and his Persian wife Apame ruled a hybrid kingdom that mixed Greek, Persian, Jewish, Bactrian, Armenian, Sogdian and Aramaean cultures and religions.
With new cities, religions and cultures, this melting pot encouraged the rise of a thriving connectivity that linked urban centres in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Syria (where many of the Hellenistic sites (such as Apamea) have been devastated in recent years by war and looting). The great city of Seleucia-on-Tigris/Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad on the Tigris river in modern Iraq, became the western capital and centre for learning, culture and power for a thousand years.
Hellenistic rulers gave way to Parthian kings in the 2nd century BC and the region was ruled by the Arsacid dynasty whose homeland, around Nisa, was the northern region of the Iranian world. The Parthian Empire witnessed growing connectivity between east and west and increasing traffic along the silk routes. Their control of this trade led to conflict with the Romans who reached east to grasp some of the resulting spoils.
It was also a time of religious transition that not only witnessed the rise of Buddhism, but also a thriving Zoroastrian religion that intersected with Judaism and developing Christianity. In the biblical story of the birth of Christ, who were the three kings – the Magi with their gifts for Jesus – but Persian priests from Iran coming to the side of child messiah, astronomers following the comet.
The last great ancient kingdom of the Iranians was the Sasanian empire based around a dynasty that rose out of the final years of the Arsacid rule in the 3rd century AD. The Sasanians ruled a massive geopolitical entity from 224-751AD. They were builders of cities and frontiers across the empire including the enormous Gorgan wall. This frontier wall stretched 195km from the Caspian Sea to the mountains in Turkmenistan and was built in the 5th century AD to protect the Iranian agricultural heartland from northern invaders like the Huns.
The wall is a fired-brick engineering marvel with a complex network of water canals running the whole length. It once stood across the plain with more than 30 forts manned by tens of thousands of soldiers.
The Sasanians were the final pre-Islamic dynasty of Iran. In the 7th century AD the armies of the Rashidun caliphs conquered the Sasanian empire, bringing with them Islam and absorbing much of the culture and ideas of the ancient Iranian world. This fusion led to a flowering of early medieval Islam and, of the 22 cultural heritage sites in Iran that are recognised by UNESCO, the 9th century Masjed-e Jāmé in Isfahan is one of the most stunningly beautiful and stylistically influential mosques ever built.
This was a thriving period of scientific, artistic and literary output. Rich with poetry that told of the ancient Iranian past in medieval courts where bards sang of great deeds. These are stories that we now believe reached the far west of Europe in the early medieval period possibly through the crusades and can only emphasise the long reach of the cultures of ancient and medieval Iran.
Iranian cultural heritage has no one geographic or cultural home, its roots belong to all of us and speak of the vast influence that the Iranians have had on the creation of the world we live in today. Iran’s past could never be wiped off the cultural map of the world for it is embedded in our very humanity.