very much part of the international scene. They send performers to the
religious and art festivals all over including Hagia Sophia, the oldest
standing grand church that still exists (built in 360 and converted into
a mosque after the fall of Constantinople). The Sassanian translation movement
was part of their attempt to remain and be active in this climax of international
cultural exchange. It was used to widen their horizon and at the same time
introduce Iranian culture, art and ideology to the other nations and therefore
expand Iranian cultural influence.
The conquest of
Islam in the 7th century transformed every aspect of life in the region.
For the first time since Alexander the Great lands as far as Egypt and
the fertile crescent were united with Persia and parts of India politically,
administratively, and most important economically. Under the banner of
Islam the political division of the Near East between east and west ceased
to exist. Goods and raw materials moved back and forth. Trade expanded
and the introduction of sophisticated paper industry by Chinese traders
created a boom in the book industry, however there were setbacks. Performing
arts were banned and theaters closed down. Women were excluded from public
domain and visual arts suffered because of religious restriction i.e. human
and other living forms could not be portrayed or sculptured.
regarded all knowledge as sacred; Umar (the second Caliph) believed no
knowledge was knowledge unless it originated in Quran. This was his motto
when he ordered the burning and destruction of the famous Library and museum
of Alexandria. Built by the Greek rulers of Egypt in the second century
BC, the library for almost a millennium endured ravages of time, wars,
fires and looting. Many times damaged, it was rebuilt, restocked and was
functional till the last minute. It was finally destroyed by Amrou ibn
el-Ass, the conqueror of Syria and Egypt by direct order of Umar in 7th
century. The Imperial library at Ctesiphon had the same fate; the whole
city was totally destroyed and never rose again. The destruction of such
major libraries with the compulsory use of Arabic as the only language
made it clear to the scholars and intellectuals that all pre-Islamic knowledge
and national identities were in danger of total destruction and they had
to be preserved.
Massive and heroic
efforts were made and the result was the formation of a dynamic and significant
translation movement for almost two hundred years
till 10th century.
The movement started in Damascus in Umayyad times and flourished in Abbasid
Baghdad (754 AD). All major Greek Syriac Persian and some Indian texts
were translated into Arabic and Neo Persian. Pre-Abbasid translations from
Pahlavi included major religious literary and historical texts. The source
books that were used by Ferdowsi in compiling Shahnameh were saved around
this time. Greek and Indian texts translated into Pahlavi were re-translated
into Arabic and Neo Persian. Ibn-al-Muqaffa (Roozbeh) is the best-known
Iranian translator of this period. He was accused of being a Zandaqa (heretic)
and was murdered. Popular Manichean and other religious texts were also
With the Abbasid
the translation of scientific texts was added. Nawbakht the court astrologer
and his son Abu Sahl and other colleagues al-Farazi and Umar al-Tabari
and many others sponsored by the Barmakid family (the chief ministers to
the early Abbasids who were murdered later) translated and promoted Pahlavi
texts into Arabic and Neo-Persian. They were all Iranians and aimed
to incorporate Sassanian culture into Abbasid ideology and guarantee the
continuity of the Iranian heritage. Christian and Jewish learned families
of Sassanian Persia such as Bukhtishu and Hunyan families were also great
translators of Syriac Greek Pahlavi and other texts into Arabic. Both families
had served at Gundishapur University for generations and were instrumental
in founding the Adudi Hospital and Medical School in Baghdad.
Baghdad a suburb
of Ctesiphon was chosen as the site of the New Abbasid capital (Baghdad
is a Persian name and means god given, it was founded in 762 by al-Mansur).
The Royal library was based on the Sassanian model and was called the house
of knowledge (Bayt al-Hikmat). Even at Caliph Mamun's time when the persecution
of Iranian elements had started, the director of the library was the great
Persian nationalist and Pahlavi expert, Musa al-Sahl ibn-Harun (9th century).
The famed Iranian mathematician and astronomer Musa al-Khwarizmi was employed
full time by the library at this time. Ibn-an-Nadim the author of the Fihrist
(the index) and the most famous associate of the library listed all the
books and their origins in his famous index. A great part of the index
has survived and is a valuable source of information.
The movement ended
by 10th century for a number of reasons. It had lost its sponsors and relevance.
The Muslim schools were fully established and were dominated by the fundamentalists
where political ideology emphasized fate over reason. The Hellenistic cultures
of Egypt, Syria and the Holy Land with its' Greek and Syriac elements and
the Byzantine (Turkey) did not survive. They lost their language and their
magnificent culture and ancient heritage. Today we know them as Arabs or
Turks and it is only recently with the advent of modern historical studies
and Archaeology that their rich heritage is being re-discovered. The Greek
philosophy and the secular sciences translated made their way into the
Western Europe, revived such sciences and played a significant role in
the formation of one of the most important secular ideological movement
in Europe, i.e. the Renaissance.