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. So far as I have been able to establish, at least in part 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.

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’.