First Iranian Academic Site: Jundishapur


M. Saadat Noury
by M. Saadat Noury

Many Western literatures, regrettably, refer to either Bologna University in Bologna (Italy) or Al-Azhar University in Cairo (Egypt) as one of the oldest university establishments in the world. A thorough historical research, however, indicates that the first global university was possibly founded in the city of Jundishapur in the present-day province of Khuzestan, southwest of Iran, and not far from the Karun River.

As far as the History of Civilization is concerned there were three main Civilizations in the ancient world. Those three were Mesopotamian, Hellenic-Roman, and Persian Civilizations: Mesopotamian Civilization began with the Sumerian city-states 3500 BC, which developed the cuneiform writing. Elements of the civilization were transmitted to neighboring and conquering states and peoples, including Assyria, Babylonia, Elam, and Mittanni. After sixth century BC, Mesopotamian civilization collapsed and it was dominated by Hellenic-Roman and Persian Civilizations. Hellenic-Roman civilization emerged around the Aegean after the Greek dark ages. Greek settlement around the Mediterranean and Black seas, and Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire in the fourth century, spread Hellenic civilization around the Mediterranean, where non-Greek peoples, including the Romans, absorbed it. The Roman Empire adopted Christianity after the fourth century, and it collapsed around the western Mediterranean during the sixth century. Persian Civilization developed on the plateau of Iran after 1000 BC and Included Median, Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanian empires and their culture combined Mesopotamian and Indo-European elements. Iranian religions were distinct, and included Zoroastrianism, Magism, Mithraism, and Manichaeanism. Iran dominated much of western and central Asia from 600 BC to Islamic conquest after 636 AD.

During Sassanians, Jundishapur was one of seven major cities in the Khuzestan province of the Persian Empire. The name Jondishapur comes from the Persian word Jund-dez-i Shapur, the Military fortress of Shapur, and many researchers documented that Shapur I (241-272) son of the King Ardeshir founded the city after defeating The Roman army led by Valerian. Shapur II (310-379) made Jondishapour his capital. The exact date of the establishment of Jundishapur University is unknown. Some evidences indicate that the Academy of Jundishapur was founded in 566 AD during Sassanians and it was under the rule of Khosrow Anushiravan (531-579) that the institution reached its peak. It is documented that Khusrow Anushiravan was remarkably eager for the science and medicine and he therefore invited a very large group of scholars and physicians to his capital. It was by his decree that the famous physician Borzouyeh was given a mission to go to India to gather the best minds and sources of knowledge of the day. (Borzouyeh is famous for having translated the ancient text of Panchatantra from Sanskrit into Persian, naming it Kelileh-o-Demneh). Upon these efforts, Jundishapur University became an important center of medicine, science and philosophy of the ancient world. Some sources even write of special exams performed to permit newly graduated doctors to practice. In specific, the book Tarikh-e Hikamat gives a description of such an event; perhaps the first event of its kind in its day. It was here that every known book on medicine was gathered, translated, and compiled, making Jondishapur a key center of transmission of ancient medical knowledge to the new world. Jundishapur is particularly thought to have had a significant role in establishing the institution of the hospital (in Persian: Bimarestan), and teaching hospital for the first time. According to the Christian writer Georgy Zeidan, by the orders of Khusrow Anushiravan an institution was established to methodically care for the sick and ill while simultaneously training the students of medicine of the school by hiring physicians and scholars from Greece and India. During the early days of Islam, the medical school and hospital of Jondishapur was a central point of science, particularly medicine, shelter Iranian, Indian, Roman and Greek physicians active in both theoretical and practical aspects. It is even said that prophet Mohammed's personal physician was a graduate of Jundishapur.

The surrender of the Persian Empire to Arab forces in 638 brought the gradual decline of academic activities in Jundishapur. The Arab conquest of Egypt, Syria, and Turkey also introduced many changes. The destruction of major cities, libraries, and eventual closure of educational institutions in the long run stalled development of science and technology except for the first 300 years. The destruction of such major centers of learning with the compulsory use of Arabic made it clear to the scholars and intellectuals that all pre-Islamic knowledge and national identities were in danger of total obliteration and they had to be preserved. Massive and heroic efforts were made to save the ancient knowledge. 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 of Syria in Umayyad times (661-750 AD) and flourished in Abbasid Baghdad (750-1258 AD). All major Greek, Syrian, Persian and some Indian texts were translated into Arabic and Persian. This is the period that the Baghdad school was established. The first generations of the Baghdad school were all in fact graduates and scholars of Jundishapur. The famous House of Wisdom under Harun of Abbasid dynasty is also thought to have been the immediate successor of Jondishapur. Nawbakht, the court astrologer, and his son Abu Sahl and other colleagues sponsored by the Barmakid family (the chief ministers to the early Abbasids who were murdered later) translated and promoted Pahlavi texts into Arabic and 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 Sassanians such as Bukhtishu and Hunyan families were also great translators of Syrian, Greek, Persian and other texts into Arabic. Both families had served at Jundishapur University for generations and were instrumental in founding the Adudi Hospital and Medical School in Baghdad. 

Epilogue 1: Between 1954 and 1959 and under the Pahlavi dynasty, the heritage of Jundishapur was memorialized by the founding of the Jundishapour University and its twin institution Jondishapur University of Medical Sciences, near the city of Ahvaz, the capital of the Khuzestan Province. The first woman ever to be appointed as vice-chancellor in a university in Iran, Dr Talat Basari, was appointed at this university in the mid 1960s, and starting 1968, plans for the modern campus were designed by the prominent Iranian architect Kamran Diba.
In 1981, Jundishapur University was renamed as Shahid Chamran University of Ahvaz in honor of Mostafa Chamran who was the then commander in chief of a battalion stationed on the Jundishapur University campus. The university was closed in those days due to the war conditions in the area. In 1986, the Schools of Medicine, Health, Dental, Nursing, and Pharmacy separated off into an independent Ahvaz Jundishapur University of Medical Sciences, operated under the supervision of the new Ministry of Health and Medical Education.

Epilogue 2: Here is the Persian text of a poem on Jundishapur as composed by this author: 

جند یشا پور

ا ی ‌تو شهر جند شا پور ، جا یگا ه علم و فن / ای که دانشگا ه ‌تو ، یا د آ ور فر کهن
پیشتاز _ دانش و فرهنگ _ عهد _ باستان/ ساختی مردان دانشور، به یکجا انجمن
ساحت _ ‌تو ، سنگر _ارزنده ی جهد و تلاش/داشتی ازهند و یونان عا لما نی رایزن
تربیت دادی ‌پزشکان ، حا‌ذق ونیکوسر شت/ملجا ئی بودی برای درد مندان مرد و زن
مرکز_ ا سناد و آ رشیو _ زمانه بوده ای/ شهر‌ت ‌تو، قرن ها در عا لمی، پر‌تو فکن
یورش بیگا نگا ن، هر چند گاه دادت رکود/خوش که فا ئق آمدی برصد گزند وبس فتن
جا ودانه‌ ما ند گاری ‌تو ، به تاریخ جها ن/ ا ی ‌تو شهرجند شا پور، جا یگا ه علم و فن
دکتر منوچهر سعادت نوری

Britannica Online Encyclopedia (2009): Online Article on Al-Azhar University.
Elgood, C. (1951): A Medical History of Persia, ed., Cambridge University Press.
Frye, R. N. (1963): The Heritage of Persia: The pre-Islamic History of One of the World's Great Civilizations, ed., World Publish. Com., New York. 
Frye, R. N. (1993): The Golden Age of Persia, ed., Weidenfeld, London.
History World Net (2009): Online Article on the History of Civilization.
Hopkins, E. D. C. (2009): Online Article on Parthia in the News-2005 (in reference to the name Jundishapur).
Price, M. (2001): Online Article on Astrology & Astronomy in Iran and Ancient Mesopotamia.
Saadat Nouri, H. (1984): The Itinerary of General Sir Percy Sykes (in Persian: Safar Nameh-e Sykes), ed., Loheh Press, Tehran, Iran.
Saadat Noury, M. (2009): Various Articles on Persian Culture and the History of Iran.
University of Bologna English Website (2009): Online Note on Our History.
Various Sources (2009): Notes and Articles on the Persian Empire and Jundishapur.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2009): Online Articles on Gundeshapur and Shahid Chamran University of Ahvaz (in Persian and in English).



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