Nestorian medical centres at Edessa, Nisbis, Jundeshapur & Baghdad
Nestor was Archbishop of Constantinople from 428 to 431. He and his followers, driven out of Constantinople in 431 for their heretical views, founded many schools and monasteries in Persian territory. They are now remembered for their translation of Greek and Latin philosophical texts into Persian and Syriac. Prominent among their monasteries was a medical school at Edessa (an early centre of Syriac Christianity), founded in the 4th century and a model for the later medical school at Salerno. Dissolved in 489 the Nestorian teachers from Edessa moved first to Nisibis then to Jundashapur in Persia about 800 km away and here, supported by the Persian Emperor, a medical school and hospital were built, acting as an intellectual hub for Greek, Jewish, Persian (Zoroastrian) and Hindu ideas, all centred on the Syriac language and training physicians that would go out into the Islamic world.
Syrians had quickly accepted Christianity helping to spread the gospel in Asia Minor, Egypt and Mesopotamia. They translated the Old Testament and were interested in Greek partly so that they could study a Greek translation of the Old Testament that had been produced in Alexandria from a slightly different Hebrew text. In this way Nestorians were a connecting link between Greek and Arabic medicine.
Plato’s Academy in Athens had persisted until closed by Emperor Justinian in 529, the Neo-Platonist students fleeing to Jundeshapur establishing a philosophical tradition of thought that would influence Islamic thought.
The main sects of Islam had emerged within the first century after Muhammad (c. 570-632 CE), Sunnis maintaining that all caliphs were his spiritual successors while Shias favoured a line of succession through his cousin Ali (some Shias accepted only the first 5-7 caliphs as legitimate, others the first 12).
An Islamic Golden Age of learning began when its capital was transferred from Damascus (capital during the Umayyad Caliphate of 661 to 750) to Baghdad in the 760s, a circular fortified city. Around 850 CE mathematician al-Khwarizm (source of the word algorithm) and his students combined Euclidian and Hindu maths in the development of algebra and trigonometry, linear and quadratic equations, geometric solutions, along with tables of sines, tangents and cotangents. Prominent among the Baghdad court physicians was Persian Abū Bakr Muhammad Zakariyyā Rāzī (854–925 CE) a polymath and teacher regarded as a major figure in the history of medicine whose enduring and original work was known across Europe and Asia for centuries. Baghdad was for a while the world’s largest city (ranked with Delhi, Beijing, and Constantinople), a flourishing trade centre and capital of the Abbasid dynasty in the 10th century with a royal observatory and magnificent gardens and palaces spreading outside the city walls and across the Tigris river along with its libraries and bazaars.
In 711 there was a division of the Caliphate between Baghdad and Cordoba when Moorish armies captured Cordoba in Spain and academic study returned in an Islamic intellectual Renaissance. One early indication of this was a medicinal treatise on Hippocrates in 718 (now held in the Laurentian Medici Library in Florence) by Ahmed Ben Ibrahim, physician to Caliph Yazid II.
Caliph Abd al-Rahman I of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus (a dynasty that ruled the greater part of Iberia for nearly three centuries) was the first Emir of Cordoba from 755-788. He established a Botanic garden in Cordoba and encouraged the collection of seed from Syria and other parts of Asia. It was in these gardens where the first date palm was grown in Spain.
By 950 Cordoba had become one of the most populous cities in the world, renowned for its universities, libraries, medical schools, vineyards, orchards, gardens and commerce before its role was taken over by Seville. During this period new crops were introduced and distributed through Muslim gardens managed by leading physicians like Ibn Bassal (fl. 11th century) of Toledo and Seville, and Ibn al-Wafid (997-c.1074) of Toledo.
The school at Jundeshapur had flourished for 300 years before it and its teachers moved to Baghdad, a new centre of learning, when Persia was the victim of an Arab conquest. The Abbasid Caliphs supported the work of the school.
The significance of the Syrian Nestorians of Baghdad is their fascination with Greek science. Translation of old manuscripts into Syriac and Arabic that had begun in Jundeshapur continued in Baghdad in the 9th century, ancient Greek learning being then passed on to Arab scholars.
From the mid 7th century enlightened and tolerant Islamic leaders, who were also in control of the world’s major trade routes, initiated a revival of philosophy and science.