29 April 2009

Science in the Persian empires

Why do the Persian empires rate so little mention in my history of Science and Civilization? This question had been in my mind for a long time. I had promised myself to clarify the issue but never got around to it.

Earlier this year I spent six weeks teaching oceanography in Iran and had the opportunity to visit several of its historic sites: Susa and Dur-Untash (Choghazanbil) of Elamite times and Cyrus' grave in Pasargadae and Persepolis of Achaemenian times.

The Elamite empire (c. 3000 – 559 BC) spanned the period before the onset of new science in Greece. Its achievements were comparable to those of its Mesopotamian neighbours. As pointed out in Lecture 2, Elam and Sumer both invented a script at about the same time. (Elam eventually abandoned its invention and took to the Sumerian writing.)

This was well understood; I had no problem with Elam. My feeling of uneasiness related to the Achaemenid empire (559 – 330 BC), which rose at the time when science made great progress in Greece. The Persian empire was not only one of the largest empires of ancient times, reaching as it did from Lybia in the west to Indian in the east, it was also governed by enlightened rulers. Its ceremonial capital Persepolis could match the best buildings of all other civilizations. Numerous documents from the construction period testify that Darius the Great (549 – 486 BC), the third of the Achaemenian kings, achieved this without the use of slave labour: All labourers were paid for their work; women often received higher wages than men and were entitled to paid maternity leave.

Why, then, does the Achaemenid empire not rate a more prominent mention in the history of science? The answer came to me when I studied its history, looking at the ruins of Persepolis. Cyrus the Great (died 530 BC) came from a nomadic tribe of goat and sheep herders. When he founded his empire he had no connection to scientific achievements. The situation can be compared with the beginning of the Islamic empires, which needed some 150 years to absorb the science of Greece and India before they could add to the science of others.

The Achaemenid empire did not have the time to reach that stage. It lasted only 230 years. In 330 BC Alexander the Great arrived with his army, looted its treasury and burned Persepolis to the ground.

From the cultural point of view, that a 26 year old orders the destruction of an awe-inspiring complex of magnificent buildings is hard to swallow. My Iranian colleague's response was: " But that is what they did in those days." He is of course right. But the issue may deserve a separate blog entry some day.

From the point of view of science history the result of Alexander's action was that the Achaemenid empire did not get its chance to contribute to the development of science. Persia had to wait another 500 years before the Sassanid empire (226 – 651) established the Academy of Gondeshapur and turned its hospital into a model for the world.


This is Persepolis today.



An artist's impression of the Hundred Column Hall.



Images from the documentary "Persepolis recreated", producers Farzin Rezaeian and Hossein Hazrati, director Farzin Rezaeian, Sunrise Visual Innovations Canada 2004.

No comments: