Bridging the gap, 540-760. Generations 428-439

Who carried the baton of learning between the end of the Academy in Athens (closed by the remorseless pressure of the Emperor Justinian around 530) and the founding of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad after 760? What happened to all the books, the scrolls, the papyri?

This is a large gap, of over 200 years. My proposed answer: it was the scholars of the church of the East in the Sasanian Empire. Known by Constantinople as the Nestorian church, it was the largest christian church in terms of geographical extent until the journeys by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It sent missions to India and China. Six hundred years later, Genghis Khan’s wife was a follower of the church of the East. It had schools in Nisibis (in present-day Turkey) and Gundeshapur, also spelt Gondi-Sapor, in present-day Iran. Almost nothing is written or known about them. What follows is the story as I have been able to piece it together.

The Roman emperor Justinian was a driven man. As well as recovering the provinces in north Africa from the Vandals and devastating large tracts of Italy, one of his first acts was to set up a commission to codify Roman law. This law was then used as a cudgel. The neoplatonic academy in Athens was notified first that divination was not permitted (presumably meaning Astrology and the study of the heavens). More decisively, in 529, a new law required that only those of the orthodox faith were permitted to teach or receive a stipend. Anyone who donated to or supported the academy was henceforth deemed to be breaking the law.

mosaic of Justinian I (Ravenna)

mosaic of Justinian I (Ravenna)

This is from a mosaic at the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, after his military campaign there.

This law was aimed at everyone who did not subscribe to the official Roman version of christianity: the orthodox church. There were many non-orthodox versions of christianity, as well as the church of the East. The new law applied to them as well as the Jews, Mithraists, and all  the rest of the panoply of belief systems that prevailed at the time. Government in the empire was devolved to local councils, who were responsible for implementing the law. Orthodox bishops had influence upon local government: they were exempt from taxes and were prosperous. The academy of Athens, that traced its inheritance (with some gaps) back to the time of Plato and Socrates, had no chance.

The scholars packed up and took their scrolls and papyri to the Sasanian Empire where the atmosphere was more open-minded and accepting of non-christian scholars, particularly the city of Nisibis. Nisibis housed a theological college of the church of the East, which had been re-founded in 489 after a previous Roman emperor had closed the school of Edessa just over the border in the Roman empire, on the grounds that it was espousing the wrong version of christianity. The languages were Greek and Syriac. It also housed a large jewish community. The scholars and teachers translated the classical Greek texts into Syriac, and looked to reconcile the works of Aristotle in particular with the old and new testaments of the bible. Their approach was literal and grammatical, in contrast to the allegorical approach of their rivals in Alexandria. This would suggest that, despite the destruction of the library of Alexandria, the tradition of scholarship continued there too. (The leader of the Athens school at the time of its closure, a man called Damascius, is said to have ended up in Alexandria.) However, the church in Alexandria adhered to another non-orthodox view of christianity, and so suffered at the hands of Constantinople.

The exiles from Athens were also invited to Gundeshapur, of which there is hardly a trace left. It was about four hundred miles east of the Sasanian capital Ctesiphon, near the ancient city of Susa. The tradition tells that whereas theological studies were centred in Nisibis, Gundeshapur was the location for secular studies. There was a teaching hospital, ‘bimaristan’ in Persian. Astronomy was studied. At Gundeshapur the translations were from Greek and Syriac into Pahlavi, the Persian language. As India is not too far away (comparatively speaking) and there were cultural links, I would expect that Indian mathematicians also visited. This was the high point of the Gupta Empire in India, and its mathematicians were renowned.

Some of the classical texts were taken to Constantinople, where they were safeguarded by civil servants. However, I can find no evidence that they were studied and commented on. The only use for them in subsequent centuries that I have come across was as a diplomatic gift. A copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest was presented to the court of the caliph in Baghdad at the end of the eighth century, and in the fifteenth Plato’s Timaeus, among other texts, made its way to Florence.

The evidence suggests that it was the Syriac-speaking scholars of the church of the East who transcribed and translated the texts. They studied them, valued them and pondered their meaning. And that is why, when the House of Wisdom was founded in Baghdad in the eighth century, the first translations of the classical Greek texts were from Syriac into Arabic. The head of the church of the East at the time, the katholikos Timothy, was a learned and influential figure in Baghdad.


This is a bit of a sketchy story. An important link in the chain of human learning has hardly been investigated, so far as I can tell.

Entering late antiquity, 540-600. Generations 428-430

Many people alive in this time felt that something was coming to an end. A monk called Gregory, who went on to become pope in 590, wrote that the world ‘was growing old and hoary, hastening to its approaching death’.

He had good reason to say so. These were troubled times.

The latest set of troubles began in the year 536. From Ireland across to China, cold weather and crop failures were reported. It was a year without a summer. The historian Procopius, based in Constantinople, wrote: “during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness… and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear”.

Evidence from ice cores says that it was caused by a volcano – and more to were to follow in the next five years.

Another source of trouble was the continuing migrations. The changing climate wasn’t a cause of the migrations, but may have exacerbated them. The edges of the Roman Empire – the rivers Danube and Rhine in central Europe, for example, had long been a fragile membrane, with the Empire in the settled agricultural lands surrounding the Mediterranean, and the more mobile alliances of peoples living on the less cultivatable land beyond. The peoples living just beyond the border were traditionally paid to stay put, but that system had already broken down. A couple of centuries previously the groups living beyond the frontier had found out how to work around the Roman policy of divide and rule. They formed alliances, too large for the Roman army to easily defeat, and then either invaded or negotiated a settlement of land within the Empire itself.

And the migrants kept on coming. Around 540 it was the Avars, originating from the Eurasian steppe. They moved into the Hungarian plain in particular, and in so doing displaced the Lombards who were the current occupants. The Lombards then moved south and invaded northern Italy. This region was already suffering from Justinian’s brutal recovery of it from the previous wave of invasions (by the ostrogoths), and so had nothing left to resist the next set of incomers. The Lombards moved in and used it as a base for further expansion. Part of northern Italy is still known as Lombardy.

And it got worse. Like the Mongols seven hundred years later, the Avars brought the bubonic plague. It reached Europe and the Mediterranean in 541, and was devastating. The creaking bureaucracies of the Roman Empire based in Constantinople and the Sasanian Empire based in Ctesiphon had to cope with a reduction in tax revenues resulting from the loss of up to a third of the populations. The revenues that were used to pay the armies were reduced, and consequently so were troop numbers.

The economic basis of the Roman and Persian empires was agricultural surplus. The estates produced more food than the inhabitants could eat, and paid taxes to the central administration in Constantinople or Ctesiphon. The richest agricultural region was in the middle east, between the two empires. So it made sense to concentrate what was left of the armies there. This was a period of continual war between Constantinople and Ctesiphon, to gain control of the near east from Anatolia to Mesopotamia. Sometimes the Persians took control, at others the Romans. The conflict must have been a drain on resources and difficult to sustain with everything else that was going on.

One of the other things that was going on was endless argument among christians. Christianity had been the official religion of the Roman Empire since 313, but that was a mixed blessing to most christians, as there were many versions of their faith. Empires, it would seem, are not good with ambiguity. So the continual arguments about the nature of Jesus (for example, was he a human like the rest of us, or divine and co-eternal with God, or both?) were not welcome. Anyone who strayed from the official view of the Roman church (that Jesus incarnated in a physical body but was also divine) was deemed a heretic.

Pope Gregory adhered to a strand of christianity that had more successfully integrated into the Roman church. The happiest period of his life, he said, was when he could shut all the troubles out and get on with being a monk. He followed in the footsteps of Benedict of Nursia, who died around 545. Benedict had pursued the ascetic strand of christianity and formalised it into a rule, which he applied in his new monastery at Monte Cassino in the south of Italy. His rule book had 73 chapters, covering the varieties of monasticism, the authority of the abbot, how to manage the day-to-day life of the monastery, even down to what the monks should wear in bed. Each monastery was a self-contained unit, answerable to its abbot.

Gregory turned his own family estate into a monastery – which for me is a clue as to what was going on. This was a continuation of the Roman economic model, of an estate providing an agricultural surplus. The estate was no longer the property of one aristocratic family, but was a monastery ruled by an abbot (or abbess). When times grew hard in the territories around Rome as the Lombards ventured further south, Gregory could call on the surplus from the monasteries to feed the displaced people. His success in doing so led to the foundation of the Papal States, a swathe across central Italy ruled directly by the papacy for the next 1400 years.

Gregory is also the source of one of the best-remembered bad puns from late antiquity. The story goes that he saw some blond slaves in the slave market in Rome. On enquiring where they were from, he was told they were Angles. ‘Not Angles but angels’, he is said to have replied. Gregory sent one of his monks, by the name of Augustine, to the land of the Angles to convert the pagans. Augustine set up his first monastery in Canterbury. Perhaps that set the stamp for christianity in England – the monastic system. And maybe that is why, a millennium later, Henry VIII targeted the monasteries. They followed the Roman model, owned large tracts of rich agricultural land across the country and did not answer to the king.


Emperor Justinian also had the basilica of Hagia Sofia built in this period, after its predecessor was burned down in riots. Later it was converted to a mosque, but the original structure is still there.

The Qur’an, a personal view. Generations 431-432, 600-632

For an outsider like me, it is very easy to bounce off the Qur’an. It took a few readings before I could start to see the brilliance in it.

It is not a historical document. It has very little external contemporary reference. And when there is external reference, it is often hard to say for sure what is being talked about. For example, there are a few mentions of a Holy Mosque, but no description of where it is. There are frequent mentions of believers and unbelievers, but it offers no guidance on how to distinguish them. There are lots of references to characters from the bible, both the old and new testaments.

For me, the best way in to getting a sense of it was to imagine it as the experience of one man, Muhammad. Perhaps the nearest equivalent would be a stream-of-consciousness recitation. Once I started to get into it, I could see that the intensity must have been almost unbearable. Of course he had to recite, to talk it out. No wonder he repeated himself. He had to find the words to clothe what he was experiencing. Because it kept on coming.

For me now, the Qur’an gives expression to what it was like to be the first Believer. Muhammad experienced something so clearly. He could see that the thing he was experiencing was not being felt in this way by anyone else he knew. He knew it was not meant for him alone. At times it comes out like a cry: ‘Do you not see? Will you now begin to understand?’

The nearest equivalent he could find was in the bible, in the experiences of the old testament prophets, particularly Abraham, Noah and Moses. He also refers to Jesus, Mary and Zachariah from the new testament. But again, he does not merely repeat their stories. He finds the common themes from the place he himself is in. That common experience becomes incorporated into the intense outpouring that we can now read in the suras of the Qur’an.

One of the common features is that each of the people he mentions was confronted by the reality of their God. They were forced into a situation where they had to take a position. Each one chose to act against the conventional wisdom of their time and had to deal with the consequences of that. By reciting from his own experience and referring to his predecessors in this way, Muhammad legitimises the human’s self-responsibility – a responsibility which overrides traditional allegiances to one’s family or wider group. It is up to each human to decide what is important to them – and accept the consequences of their decision.

This, in my view, is a major stepping-stone in the human story.


One of the oldest manuscripts of the Qur’an, dated to the 7th or 8th century.

There are a few pieces of writing that are intimately tied up with the story of a language. In Spanish, it would be Tirant Lo Blanch by Joanot Martorell and Don Quixote by Manuel Cervantes. In Italian two candidates also spring to mind: Dante’s Divine Comedy and The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. In English it would be Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays. But none of these come close to the impact of the Qur’an on the arabic language.

Prior to the time of the Qur’an there were a few inscriptions in arabic, but nothing else. Within a century it was the official language of an empire and within two centuries it was the international language of learning, to be superseded by scholar’s latin around the year 1200.


Another early qur’anic manuscript, found in a mosque in Sanaa in Yemen in 1972.

Believers and emigrants. 620-680, generations 432-434

This period was world-changing. It saw the appearance of a new idea, a new frequency in human affairs. The effects can be traced through to the leap in learning that happened in Baghdad a century later, to the Medieval enlightenment in Europe a couple of centuries after that, to the Renaissance in Italy, to the Enlightenment, to the industrial revolution and so to today.

And it started with one man – Muhammad.

However, in order to get a sense of what was going on at the time, we need to remove several layers of padding and interpretation. Most of what was written about Muhammad was put to pen over a century later. My experience tells me that old people’s memories are sometimes unreliable, and even more so when we are dealing with memories of memories from a century or more before.

There are two documents from the arabic-speaking world that can be dated to the period in question: the charter of Medina and the Qur’an. They seem a sensible place to start.

The Qur’an is not a historical document. It is a series of revelations, of perceptions, insights about the human situation and its relationship with God. It has very little reference to external events.


Pages from the Qur’an, written during or shortly after Muhammad’s lifetime, recently discovered in Birmingham University. Image taken at Birmingham Museum, UK

The charter of Medina is the treaty document between the the emigrants (referred to as the Quraysh) and the inhabitants of the oasis of Yathrib, henceforth known as Medina. The original has been lost but there are several copies, all similar enough to suggest that they come from one source document.

The first paragraph reads:

“This is a document from Muhammad, the Prophet, governing the relation between the Believers from among the Qurayshites and Yathribites  and those who followed them and joined them and struggled with them. They form one and the same community as against the rest of men.”

Taking these two documents as our main reference brings up some difficult issues. I’ll start with what is for me the most difficult.

There is no mention of Mecca in the charter of Medina. In fact, there is no mention of where the Quraysh emigrated from. In the Qur’an there is one mention of the ‘hollow’ or valley of Mecca, as follows:

“It is He who restrained their hands from you, and your hands from them, in the hollow of Mecca, after that He made you victors over them. God sees the things you do.” (sura 48)

This would suggest that there was a valley of Mecca in which a conflict took place which was won by Muhammad, and whose aftermath was not as violent as it could have been.

Further, there is no mention of Mecca in any other contemporary, non-arabic document. In fact, there is as much evidence that Muhammad lived in Mecca as there is that St Peter lived in Rome six centuries previously. This does not invalidate or diminish the immensity of Muhammad’s achievement. It suggests to me that maybe some later commentators had an interest in locating Muhammad’s origins in the heartlands of the arabian desert, far away from the contaminating influences of Constantinople and Ctesiphon to the north. Almost as if they wanted to emphasise how what Muhammad brought was entirely new.

Which raises a question: where did the Quraysh emigrate from? The Qur’an mentions olives (which only grew in the Mediterranean). It mentions herding of animals and growing of crops, activities more associated with the fertile regions to the north or south of the arabian desert.

Maybe in the end it doesn’t matter where they emigrated from.

A second difficulty is about the term ‘believers’. The word ‘believer’ occurs more than ‘muslim’ in both the charter of Medina and the Qur’an. ‘Believers’ is a much broader term than muslims, encompassing those who believe in God (Allah in arabic) and who adhere to the earlier revelations from God – the old and new Testaments – or the latest one, the Qur’an. The charter of Medina makes it clear that the jews and muslims are distinct, with different religious practices. But they are all part of the community of Believers, the ummah.

This perception is confirmed by archaeological evidence. Several christian churches built in the period in question have been excavated. One in Jerusalem had an altar facing east and a prayer niche, a mihrab, facing south. So the different varieties of believers clearly saw no problem in performing their separate religious practices in the same space. When Damascus was taken over by the arab army, the church of St John was divided into two, so that the muslims could pray in one section and the christians in the other.

Nowadays, we are trained to think in categories: muslim, jew, hindu, buddhist, humanist, and so on. But the seventh century was a time when every valley, each village, each tribe had its own practices. Zorastrianism blended into hinduism and buddhism in the east, towards India. There were jewish christians and christian jews. Diversity was the norm. What Muhammad did with the charter of Medina was reach for an overarching criterion, the ummah that was higher than tribal obligation or religious practice and included all believers under its cover. The Qur’an also contains this view. Diversity of expression is not a problem so long as the core principles are agreed to.

This may help to explain another archaeological mystery. The arab conquests are almost invisible in the archaeological record. Usually when there is an invasion there is a layer of burning. Caesarea was burnt and Alexandria didn’t fare too well, but otherwise there is almost nothing. And that would make sense if the inhabitants of the conquered territories were believers, whose belief systems were regarded as legitimate by the invaders. It would have been in their interest to welcome the invaders. The non-orthodox varieties of christianity, such as the Copts in Egypt, were oppressed by Constantinople. The arrival of the arabs, fellow believers, may have been a welcome relief. It also explains why there was no particular push for conversion by the invaders. Why should they? All were believers.

So when did it change? When did islam separate out? When did the community of believers split into distinct religions? The evidence says this was the achievement of the ummayad caliph abd-al Malik.  Abd-al Malik preferred the word ‘muslim’ to ‘believer’. Muhammad’s name was not written down (in anything that has been recovered from the time) from when he died in 632 or thereabouts until abd-al Malik had it put on the coinage fifty years later. When the Dome of the Rock was built in Jerusalem in 691, phrases from the Qur’an were selected to emphasise the distinctness of islam from christianity – that muslims do not accept the idea of the trinity, for example.

And so humanity had another established religion.

An accidental empire. 680-740, generations 435-437.

During Mohammed’s lifetime the Arabian peninsula was united into a single polity. After he died in 632 the expansion of arab-controlled land accelerated. The rate of expansion was astounding and unprecedented. The latest dynasty of the Persian empire, the Sasanian dynasty, had the misfortune that its capital, Ctesiphon, was not easily defensible against the arab armies. After losing a battle against the invaders in 636, the Sasanian royal family abandoned Ctesiphon. Once the capital was gone, the rest of the empire could be picked off bit by bit. The arabs repeatedly attempted to take Constantinople too, but failed. Emperor Constantine had chosen a defensible location three centuries previously, on a promontory encircled by the Bosphorus. So the Roman empire, although dramatically reduced in size, was not wiped from the map in the way that the Sasanian one was, and its rump continued to be administered from Constantinople.

Within fifty years of Mohammed’s death the Umayyad dynasty was established in Damascus. From this base it controlled the whole of the ex-Persian empire as far as China, a large part of the Roman empire (Anatolia, the eastern Mediterranean, north Africa) and, by the year 720, most of the Iberian peninsula. The map of the world had changed, irrevocably.

The Umayyads appointed arab governors to each region, who collected taxes and sent them back to Damascus. There was a vigorous slave trade. It was said that after the defeat of the Visigoths in southern Spain, 30,000 blond Visigothic slaves were on sale in the slave markets of Damascus. This was beginning to look more like an empire than a religious arising. The arab elite grew rich.

Tensions began to show. The arab rulers came from the desert of Arabia. Hitherto, their main contact with the empires administered from Constantinople and Ctesiphon had been as traders and raiders: people on the move, not city-dwellers. There were not many of them: they were a tiny minority in their vast unexpected empire. They did not have the infrastructure or the traditions to manage it. How to administer these lands and retain their distinctive identity?

One way was not to move into the pre-existing cities. In Mesopotamia the arabs set up encampments, which became garrison towns in Kufa and Basra. In Egypt they set up a semi-permanent camp on the banks of the Nile at Fustat, which is now a suburb of Cairo. They left the Roman and Sasanian administrative structures in place and almost untouched. For those living in the villages of the new empire, the regime change must have been hardly noticeable. The fact that the annually-collected taxes now went to Damascus instead of Constantinople or Ctesiphon probably didn’t impinge. Otherwise, life continued unchanged.

However, there was unrest. There were repeated uprisings all over the new empire. The arabs came with a powerful new religion and a book which proclaimed a bright future for the Believers. The book seemed to say that bloodlines and tribal loyalties were secondary to what a person chose to believe. For an open-minded, thinking person this appeared to offer a way out of their current situation . It was possible to be a part of this powerful wave that had swept over the world, simply by declaring one’s adherence to the new religion. But it didn’t work out like that in practice. When several hundred escaped slaves moved to Basra and Kufa and declared themselves to be muslims, the governor had them arrested, branded and sent back to their masters. Evidently, in this new world some were more equal than others.

The pervasiveness of slavery may have been an escape-valve. The slave trade was a fact of life, seen as a necessary evil. Attempts had been made since ancient times to regulate it, but never to outlaw it. This posed new dilemmas for the arab rulers. What was the legal status of the offspring of an arab father and his non-arab slave? Could they become a muslim? Over the years a complicated hierarchy emerged. A person with two arab parents was at the top of the tree, followed by one with one arab parent, and so on. There was movement between the categories. For example, the general who led the conquest of Spain in 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, was probably an ex-slave. Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq) is named after him.

Another area addressed by the Umayyads was the coinage. In the early years of Umayyad rule the empire continued using the Sasanian and Roman currencies. This meant that, long after the arabs had taken control, images of the Roman Emperor were still on each coin in the purses of the traders of Alexandria and Damascus. In the 680’s the Umayyad emperor had his own coins made, with his image, modelled on the Roman solidus minted in Constantinople.


Here is a coin from 693, showing an image of the caliph Abd-al Malik. Courtesy Muslim Heritage

Whereas the Roman Emperor’s solidus had his image on one side and the christian cross on the obverse, Abd-al Malik’s dinar had an image of himself holding a sword on one side and the symbol shown here on the back of the coin. Evidently the muslim prohibition of depicting the human form had not yet kicked in. His image was encircled by the testimony of Islam written in Arabic: “In the name of God, there is no deity but God; He is One; Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Interestingly, Abd-al Malik had grown up in Medina, the final home of the Prophet and base for an uprising against Umayyad rule on the grounds that it was not following the way of the Believers. By placing the Testimony of Islam on his coins, maybe Abd-al Malik was nailing his colours to the mast.

In Abd-al Malik’s next minting, in 697, there were no images.


These coins were made compulsory throughout the empire. Persian and Roman coins were melted down and restamped, on pain of death. The language of the administration was declared to be arabic rather than greek or persian as it had been. The conquered territories began the process of cohering into a single entity, the dar al-islam, the abode of islam.

The people of the Book

Mesopotamia, known since ancient times as the Fertile Crescent, is rich in more ways than food production. For centuries it has been a place where learned people inquired into the nature of reality. It was a place of rich and fertile exchange of ideas.

But first, some background. To the west of this region was a great empire, referred to in our history books as the Byzantine Empire. But the word ‘Byzantine’ fell out of use in 330 C.E. When the Roman Empire was divided into a western and eastern half, the emperor Constantine established the capital of the empire of the east in the city of Byzantium in 324 and changed its name to Constantinople in the year 330.

Over the following centuries the western half of the Roman Empire disintegrated under repeated invasions from the north. The eastern half continued for another thousand years. The inhabitants of the empire ruled from Constantinople, which included the Balkans, modern-day Turkey, the eastern Mediterranean and parts of north Africa, referred to themselves as Romans.

Constantine also adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire. Over the following generations scholars argued and agonised over the nature of Jesus. Was he human or divine, or both at once? Could a person so influential, so world-changing, have been a mere mortal like the rest of us? And if he was divine, what was the nature of Mary, his mother? They held councils to debate the question and came up with an official doctrine. Those who did not subscribe to the official view were declared heretics.

Many of those so-called heretics moved to Mesopotamia and joined the church of the East. The orthodox christians back in Constantinople disparagingly referred to them as Nestorians. The name stuck. That is the name used for the church of the East in my history books 1500 years later. (Nestorius was a bishop in Constantinople who had disagreed with the establishment over the term ‘Mother of God’ for Mary. His ideas were more welcome in the church of the East, but it was already in existence when he arrived.)

Byzantine, Nestorian … the third misrepresentation is ‘Zoroastrian’. This word was first used in the nineteenth century, to describe a set of beliefs prevalent in Persia since ancient times. This religion was traditionally founded by a man called Zoroaster, or Zarathustra who lived around 1000 BCE. Its heartlands were the mountains of Persia through to Khorasan in the north and east as far as India. Each region, each mountain valley had its own version of it. Further east, it contained elements of the Vedas. Shiva was incorporated into the belief systems, for example. Some adherents were vegetarians and pacifists who abhorred the unnecessary taking of life. In some regions polyandry was practised. This last appalled the incoming arabs, who described it as ‘wife-sharing’. To the west, it rubbed up against the values of the christians and jews (who themselves could not be separated into distinct categories as they are today. There were jewish christians and christian jews).

Around the same time that the christians were arguing in Constantinople, the scholars of this Persian religion living in the Fertile Crescent decided to transcribe their sacred tradition, recited from generation to generation for over a millennium or more. The book they compiled is known as the Avesta.

The Jews who were living in Mesopotamia already had a book: the Torah, the first five books of the bible. However, it would seem that they also joined in the discussions. While the Avesta was being put together, the Jewish rabbis compiled the Talmud, a set of commentaries on the Torah, often in response to issues raised by the mowbeds, the priests of the Avesta.

These were the three ‘religions of the book’. They shared many beliefs and values. For all of them, history has a beginning, and therefore also an end. The belief systems in India, further to the east, do not have this concept but rather one of endless cycles. There is a belief in one god (although the mowbeds who compiled the Avesta might say two: Ahura Mazda, the lord of light and Ahriman, the principle of evil or darkness). There was the concept of saviours, (prophets in Judaism) who brought new revelations to the human race. Zoroaster and Jesus were saviours. The three wise men who came from the east to visit the infant Jesus were magi, followers of Zoroaster. Some remembered Alexander the Great as a saviour. There were other, lesser saviours too. Later, some saw Abu Muslim, who was the focus of the overthrow of the arab Umayyad dynasty as a saviour.

This is the context in which the new religion of the Arabs arrived. It also had a prophet (Mohammed), a book (the Qur’an) and a timescale: the unbelievers had ‘an evil cradling’ awaiting them, whereas believers could look forward to dwelling in gardens underneath which rivers flow (phrases repeated many times in the Qur’an). And it most decisively had one god, recognised to be the same as  the god of the jews and the christians. By 800 CE the arabs living in the Fertile Crescent had also compiled their commentaries, collections of sayings of Mohammed not included in the Qur’an. These are known as the hadiths. The extent to which the hadiths were influenced by the ideas of the bishops, rabbis and mowbeds, exponents of the other religions of the book living in the same region, is too contentious to even start to explore.


The founding of Baghdad. 760-820, generations 439-441

The caliph chose the location, thirty miles upstream from the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, on the banks of the Tigris at the narrowest point between it and the Euphrates. Three astrologers,  an ex-Jew from Basra, an ex-Zoroastrian and a muslim, selected the date to start construction: 30th July 762. Three years later it was deemed officially finished, and forty years later it was the most populous city on the planet.

The layout of the central citadel was a perfect circle, as Persian capitals had been (including Ctesiphon before the arab armies destroyed it a century previously). To the locals this must have been, to all intents and purposes, the next incarnation of the Persian Empire.

There were two crucial differences, however. The man living with his harem in the citadel was not a shah but a caliph. And he adhered to the new religion of the arabs rather than the one that had dominated Persia for the previous two thousand years: zoroastrianism. He was a muslim, and as caliph he was the official successor of the Prophet who had died six generations earlier, in the year 632.

This meant that the zoroastrian priests were without a job. They had two thousand years’ worth of learning to draw on, and almost nobody to pass it on to. It wasn’t obligatory to convert to islam, but your career prospects at court probably got a boost if you did.

The muslims continued the Persian dedication to learning, however, and even expanded it. Under the Sassanid Empire (which fell to the arabs in 638) the main seat of learning had been the academy of Gundeshapur, a few hundred miles to the east. The caliph in Baghdad indicated that he was interested in promoting scholarship. Scholars from Gundeshapur relocated to Baghdad.

middle east 765 ad

Not only zoroastrians came to Baghdad. The largest christian church in the world at the time (in terms of geographical extent) had centres in Nisibis, a few hundred miles to the north, Merv in Khorasan to the east, and Gundeshapur. A century or so earlier the church in Constantinople started enforcing its orthodoxy more rigorously, and many christians moved to join the church of the East, whose headquarters were then in the sassanid capital of Ctesiphon. When the arabs sacked Ctesiphon in 641 the catholicos (equivalent of the pope in the latin roman church) moved north, nearer to Nisibis. Once Baghdad was established, the Church of the East relocated its headquarters there. In 780 the catholicos Timothy I was invited to meet the caliph, maybe because he had translated Aristotle’s ‘Topics’ into arabic, and maybe because the caliph wanted to discuss religion with him. Thus began a sometimes mutually profitable and sometimes uneasy relationship between the Church of the East and the caliphate that continued for several hundred years. In the good times christians were viziers, doctors and translators. In the bad times they were persecuted.

But on the whole the Church of the East thrived in the new abbasid empire as it had done with the sassanids. It already had missions further east, beyond the muslim empire into India and China. These were consolidated and confirmed. Five hundred years later, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, the christian residents were spared from the slaughter because the khan’s wife and mother were both christians, members of the Church of the East.

The jews were there too, as they had been since the Babylonian captivity a thousand years before. When they had the chance to return to their homeland, many opted to stay in Mesopotamia. In the towns of Sura and Pumbedita, both on the Euphrates River, the definitive version of the Talmud, the commentary on jewish law, had been compiled, completed a century earlier.

The arabs, adherents of the newest religion in the region, were based at Kufa and Basra. In this period the arabic equivalent of the Talmud, the Hadiths, were compiled in these towns.

History books often aim for a tidy storyline, one that is simple, accessible and reasonable. But as each of us knows from our own experience, real-life events are not so tidy. I wonder how much, at the time, people saw a clear distinction between adherents of these four and the other religions swirling around the area. Other religions included the Manicheans (whom the arab scholars decided were not ‘people of the book’ and so liable to persecution), the Sabians (mentioned in the Qur’an but even a century after it had been written, it was forgotten who exactly they were), as well as other gnostic sects and Buddhists and Hindus from further east. Another important centre of learning at this time was Harran, not far from Nisibis. In order to escape the fate of the Manicheans, the inhabitants of Harran declared themselves to be the descendants of the Sabians.

How much did these educated people interact and influence each other? How many under-employed zoroastrian priests, jewish rabbis or christians offered a hand to encode the sayings of the prophet? Sura is only a few miles downstream from Kufa, after all.

Here is an example of the confusion. The abbasids had defeated the ummayads, the previous dynasty, around 750 with the help of a remarkable man. The man’s real name is not known, but he called himself Muslim abu Muslim ibn Muslim: Muslim, son of muslim and father of muslim. A pretty clear statement of one’s credentials, one would have thought. He launched his campaign in the town of Merv in Khorasan, a campaign to overthrow the ummayads and set a member of the Prophet’s family as caliph. The best candidate they had was a descendant of the Prophet’s uncle Abbas. Hence the abbasids.

Once installed, the new abbasid caliph had his own agenda, which did not include Abu Muslim. He invited him to dinner, and had him killed. This was not well received back in Khorasan. Several further insurrections against the abbasids were brutally put down by the caliphs’ armies.

But here is the curious bit. The rebellions were led by self-declared zoroastrians, who claimed loyalty to or discipleship from Abu Muslim. Our tidy narrative of different religions starts to feel somewhat frayed. If you want to investigate this further, two of those rebels were Babak Khoramdin and al-Muqanna.

One fact is indisputable however: Baghdad prospered. The translation movement, with help from scholars from all of the cities named here, went into a higher gear. The golden age of islam took off.

It must have been an exciting place to be. A delegation from India (maybe via Gundeshapur) brought their latest cutting-edge mathematics, systematised a century previously by the great mathematician Brahmagupta. This included the concept of zero as well as the decimal system of nine numbers and the sine function. The numbering system currently in use in this world was the Babylonian one of base-60, which lives on in our measurement of seconds, minutes and the degrees of a circle.

The Indians also brought the game of chess, which was then adapted to local tastes. Chess pieces look as they do today because they were depersonalised to avoid muslim sensitivities about depictions of the human form. The word ‘checkmate’ comes from the Persian ‘shah-mat’, ‘the king is dead’.

The first home-grown scientist of the golden age was Jabir ibn Hayyan, remembered as Geber the Alchemist, the founder of the science of chemistry. He probably lived in Kufa and almost certainly spent time in the new Baghdad. He wrote prolifically. He developed theories of what matter is made of, partly based on received learning and part on his own researches. He advocated experimentation as a way to learning. However, much of his writing was so obscure that the word ‘gibberish’ was coined a few centuries later, meaning ‘as impenetrable as the works of Jabir’.