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Translation Movements in Iran; Sassanian Era, to Year 2000, Expansion, Preservation and Modernization
(Continued from page one)
By Massoume Price


Sassanian were 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.

Zoroastrian ideology 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 translated.

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.

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