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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is a little-known piece of history that Saddam Hussein was a great fan of ancient Mesopotamian literature. His enthusiasm for epics written in cuneiform – the world’s oldest known form of writing – can be seen in his own efforts at writing political romance novels and poetry. Hussein’s first novel, Zabibah and the King, blended the Epic of Gilgamesh with the 1001 Nights, and was adapted into a television series and a musical.
Indeed, the Iraqi dictator was said to be so immersed in his novel-writing that he left much of the military strategising to his sons leading up to the 2003 war. He continued writing in prison, using a card table as a writing desk. This example from the modern genre of “dictator literature” provides an unusual insight into the diverse reception of cuneiform literature in the modern day.
The decipherment of cuneiform in the late 18th century, a tale of academic virtuosity and daring, revealed a “forgotten age” and challenged the traditional, biblical view of history. One scholar was even put on trial for heresy for the wonders he uncovered in the translated script.
For over 3,000 years, cuneiform was the primary language of communication throughout the Ancient Near East (roughly corresponding to the Middle East today) and into parts of the Mediterranean. The dominance of the cuneiform writing style in antiquity has led scholars to refer to it as “the script of the first half of the known history of the world”. Yet it disappeared from use and understanding by 400 CE, and the processes and causes of the script’s vanishing act remain somewhat enigmatic.
Cuneiform is composed of wedge-shaped characters and was written on clay tablets (often likened to marks made by a chicken scratching in the mud). Unlike other ancient writing media, such as the papyri or leather scrolls used in Ancient Greece and Rome, cuneiform tablets survive in great abundance. Hundreds of thousands of tablets have been recovered from ruined Mesopotamian cities.
The discoveries yielded from the recovery of cuneiform writing continue to unfold in unexpected and exciting ways. In August this year, mathematicians at an Australian university made international headlines with their discovery involving a 3,700-year-old clay tablet containing a trigonometric table. The researchers said the cuneiform table reveals a sophisticated understanding of trigonometry — in some ways more advanced than in modern-day mathematics!
Lost in translation
It is difficult to overstate the influence of cuneiform literature in the ancient world. Many languages throughout a vast geographical span over thousands of years were written in cuneiform, including Sumerian, Hittite, Hurrian and Akkadian. Among these, Akkadian (an early cognate of Hebrew and Arabic) became the lingua franca of the Near East, including Egypt, during the Late Bronze Age.
Cuneiform was used to preserve the official royal correspondences between leaders of empires, but also simple transactions and record-keeping that were part of daily life. Over time, the skill of writing moved outside the main institutions of cities, such as temples and scribal schools, into the hands of citizens, as well as into private homes.
Despite its dominance in antiquity, the use of cuneiform ceased entirely at some point between the first and third centuries CE. The great empires of the Ancient Near East experienced a long decline over many centuries, which ultimately resulted in the loss of Egyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform as written languages.
Cuneiform’s sphere of influence shrank after the sixth century BCE, before vanishing entirely. The disappearance of cuneiform accompanied, and likely facilitated, the loss of Mesopotamian cultural traditions from the ancient and modern worlds.
There are several schools of thought surrounding the disappearance of cuneiform, including competition with alphabetic languages (where letters correspond to sounds) such as Aramaic and Greek, and the decline of writing traditions. However, the process of the transition from cuneiform to alphabet is yet to be clearly understood.
Deciphering the code
The resurrection of cuneiform writing systems was described by legendary Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer as an “eloquent and magnificent achievement of 19th century scholarship and humanism”.
In the 15th century, cuneiform inscriptions were observed in Persepolis (in modern-day Iran). The script’s patterned dashes were not immediately recognised as writing. The name “cuneiform” (a Latin-based word meaning “wedge-shaped”) was given to the undeciphered writings by Oxford professor Thomas Hyde in 1700.
Hyde viewed the cuneiform markings as decorative rather than conveying language — a widely held view in academic circles of the 18th century. Despite some efforts to popularise the name “arrow writing”, “cuneiform” gained general acceptance. Yet cuneiform remained cryptic, and its ancient masterpieces buried and inscrutable.
The modern-day decipherment of cuneiform owes a great debt to the rulers of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, who reigned in what is modern-day Iran in the first millennium BCE. These rulers made cuneiform inscriptions recording their achievements.
The most important of these inscriptions for the decipherment of cuneiform was the Behistun inscription, which recorded the same message in three languages: Persian, Elamite and Akkadian. This trilingual inscription was carved into the face of a cliff in Behistun in what is now western Iran.
Detailing the successes of King Darius I of Persia, the Behistun inscription was inscribed on rock some 100 metres off the ground around 520 BCE. In 1835, Henry Creswicke Rawlinson was training troops of the Shah of Iran when he encountered the inscription. In order to reach the writings and transcribe them, Rawlinson needed to dangle from the cliffs, or to stand on the very top rung of a long ladder. From these precarious positions, he copied as much of the inscription as possible.
A “Kurdish boy”, whose name seems to be lost to history, assisted the daring endeavour. The boy was said to have used pegs dug into the rock wall as anchors to swing across the cliffs and reach the most inaccessible parts of the writing. Returning home, Rawlinson began working to unlock the secret of the lost script, perhaps with his pet lion cub by his side.
Of the three languages, the Old Persian was the first to be decoded by Rawlinson. Scholars working on deciphering the script gained a sense of the chronological placement of the inscription and recognised some repeated signs, thereby gleaning something of the content and structure of the writings.
The presence of king lists in the Behistun inscription, which could be compared with lists in Herodotus’ Histories, provided a point of reference for deciphering the signs. Other Greek historians, and the Bible, were also consulted in the process. Through the contributions of a number of scholars in the first half of the 19th century, cuneiform slowly began to reveal its secrets.
The significance of the Behistun inscription in the translation of cuneiform is often likened to the importance of the Rosetta Stone for deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. In recent years, the inscription has been the focus of restorative efforts, after sustaining various types of damage — notably when Allied troops used the inscription for target practice during World War II. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As the deciphering went on, divisions developed in the academic community over whether efforts to unravel cuneiform had proven successful. Part of the controversy stemmed from the extreme intricacy of the writing system. Cuneiform languages are made up of a collection of signs, and the meaning of these signs shows a great deal of variety.
In the Akkadian language, for example, a cuneiform sign may have a phonetic value — but not always the same phonetic value — or it may be a logogram, symbolising a word (such as “temple”), or a determinative sign, such as for a place or an occupation. This gives the translation of cuneiform a puzzle-like quality. The translator must select the value of the sign that appears best suited to the context.
Some scholars probably had sensible reasons for questioning the deciphering of cuneiform. Others held the inaccurate view that ancient Assyrians would have lacked the capacity to comprehend such a difficult writing system. To resolve the controversy, the British scientist W.H. Fox Talbot suggested a kind of cuneiform competition.
The British Royal Asiatic Society held the contest in 1857. Four scholars – Fox Talbot, Rawlinson and a Dr Hincks and a Dr Oppert – made unique translations of a single, previously unseen, cuneiform inscription. Each scholar then sent their translation in strict confidence to the society for comparison. After opening the sealed letters and examining the four translations, the society decided that the similarities between them were sufficiently compelling to declare cuneiform deciphered.
The rediscovery of cuneiform literature was not without further controversy. Fierce debates were conducted in eloquent handwritten letters over who had contributed to the discovery and decipherment of texts, and who deserved credit for the achievement.
As well as this, the content of the literature caused friction in the academic communities of the 19th century. Prior to the rediscovery of cuneiform, the most prominent source for the Ancient Near East was the Hebrew Bible. The ability of cuneiform literature to provide a new perspective on the rich history of Egypt and Mesopotamia was embraced by many, but viewed with suspicion by others. For some, the translation of the long-forgotten writings raised the possibility of conflict between cuneiform sources and biblical literature.
Perhaps one of the most overt examples of these tensions in scholarly circles can be seen in the career of Nathaniel Schmidt from Colgate University. Schmidt was tried for heresy in 1895, due to the view that many of his translations of cuneiform appeared contrary to biblical traditions. He was dismissed from his position at Colgate in 1896. Following his dismissal, the eminent scholar was recruited by Cornell University (his controversial departure from Cornell made his appointment something of a “bargain”), where he taught Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Coptic, Syriac and many other ancient languages.
From cuneiform to the stars
The recovery of cuneiform has provided access to an embarrassment of textual riches, including hundreds of thousands of legal and economic records, magico-medical texts, omens and prophecies, wisdom literature and lullabies.
Cuneiform has also aided scientific mysteries. Babylonian records of a solar eclipse, written in cuneiform, have helped astronomers figure out how much Earth’s rotation has slowed.
The decipherment of the cuneiform script has reopened a timeless dialogue beyond ancient and modern civilisations, providing continued opportunities to better understand the world around us, and beyond.
Note: This essay contains details from the article “Comparative Translations”, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 18, 1861. My grateful thanks to the Royal Asiatic Society for generously allowing access to their collection.