Academy of Gundishapur

Monday, November 9, 2009

Compiled By: Firouzeh Mirrazavi 

The ancient Iranian city of Gundishapur, located in the country's southern province of Khuzestan, was founded in 271 BCE by the Sassanid king, Shapour I.

The ninth king of the Sassanid Empire, Shapour II, chose the city as his capital and built the world's oldest known medical center, which also included a university and a library with an estimated 400,000 books.

The name Gundishapur comes from the Persian language word Gund-dez-i Shapur (the Military fortress of Shapour). It has been argued that Gundishapur might have had a Parthian antecedent. But many scholars believe Shapour I son of King Ardeshir (Artaxexes) to have founded the city after defeating The Roman army led by Valerian.

Gundishapur is particularly thought to have had a significant role in establishing the institution of the teaching hospital for the first time. According to the Christian writer Georgy Zeidan, by the orders of Khosrow 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.

The Academy of Gundishapur was a renowned academy of learning in the city of Gundishapur during late antiquity, the intellectual center of the Sassanid empire. It offered training in medicine, philosophy, theology and science. The faculty was versed not only in the Zoroastrian and Persian traditions, but in Greek and Indian learning as well. According to The Cambridge History of Iran, it was the most important medical center of the ancient world (defined as Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Near East) during the 6th and 7th centuries. George Ghevarghese Joseph, in his Crest of the Peacock confirms that Gundishapur also had a pivotal role in the history of mathematics.

Gundishapur hospital became the most important medical center during the 6th and 7th centuries and attracted many distinguished scientists from Greece, Egypt, India, and Rome.

Khosrow Anushiravan, who ascended the throne in 531 CE, added an observatory and a school of sciences to the Gundishapur complex, where they taught medicine, anatomy, dentistry, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, military commandership, architecture, craftsmanship, agriculture and irrigation, and geometry.

Scholars and graduates were later appointed to important governmental positions, and physicians needed a license to practice medicine.

The Sassanid king also set up some organizations to administrate the affairs of physicians, test them and grant them their academic degrees.

Historical sources indicate that newly graduated doctors would take special exams in order to obtain the right to practice.

Anushiravan organized the world's first medical symposium in Ctesiphon in 550 CE, in which hundreds of physicians and religious figures from different countries participated.

Some five thousand students were studying at Gundishapur during the reign of Anushiravan, with five hundred scholars teaching in different scientific fields.

Students were initially taught in Greek or Syriac but later, during the sixth century CE, the Pahlavi language was also added to the curriculum.

The king was able to mix eastern and western sciences of the time by inviting numerous Greek and Roman physicians to teach and conduct research at Gundishapur.

Anushiravan welcomed the Nestorian physicians and Greek philosophers of the famous School of Edessa after it was closed by the order of the Byzantine emperor.

He also dispatched the famous Iranian physician Borzouyeh to India to learn the traditional healing techniques of the country and invite Indian scholars to Gundishapur.

Borzouyeh is said to have returned with numerous medical and scientific books along with herbal plants, chess, and a number of Indian doctors.

Anushiravan arranged panel discussion sessions among prominent physicians to create a better ground for the exchange of skills and experiences.

At Gundishapur students were trained, the ill were cured, and medical books were gathered, translated and compiled, to be used as scientific references for a long time thereafter.

In addition to systemizing medical treatment and knowledge, the scholars of the academy also transformed medical education; rather than apprenticing with just one physician, medical students were required to work in the hospital under the supervision of the whole medical faculty. There is even evidence that graduates had to pass exams in order to practice as accredited Gundishapur physicians (as recorded in an Arabic text, the Tarikhu l-Ħikama).

The Sassanid dynasty fell to Muslim Arab armies in 638 AD. The academy survived the change of rulers and persisted for several centuries as a Muslim institute of higher learning. It was later rivaled by an institute established at the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. In 832 AD, Caliph al-Ma'mūn founded the famous Baytu l-Hikma, the House of Wisdom. There the methods of Gundishapur were emulated; indeed, the House of Wisdom was staffed with graduates of the older Academy of Gundishapur. It is believed that the House of Wisdom was disbanded under Al-Mutawakkil, Al-Ma'mūn's successor. However, by that time the intellectual center of the Abbasid Caliphate had definitively shifted to Baghdad, as henceforth there are few references in contemporary literature to universities or hospitals at Gundishapur.

The significance of the center gradually declined. According to LeStrange's 1905 compendium of Arab geographers, The Lands of the Eastern Caliphate, the 10th century writer Muqaddasi described Gundishapur as falling into ruins (LeStrange, 1905, p. 238).

Although the original Gundishapur complex has fallen in ruins, students at the nearby Gundishapur University of Medical Sciences quench their thirst for knowledge in the spirit of those who once brought the center to its glory.

Under the Pahlavi dynasty, the heritage of Gundishapur was memorialized by the founding of the Jondishapour University and its twin institution Jondishapur University of Medical Sciences, near the city of Ahvaz in 1959.

The latter-day Jondishapour University of Medical Sciences was founded and named after its Sassanid predecessor, by its founder and first Chancellor, Dr. Mohammad Kar, Father of Cyrus Kar, in Ahvaz in 1959.

Jondishapur University was renamed to Shahid Chamran University of Ahvaz in 1981 in honor of Mostafa Chamran. It has been renamed again as Ahvaz Jundishapur University of Medical Sciences recently.

The first woman ever to be appointed as vice-chancellor in a university in Iran, Dr. Tal'at Basāri, was appointed at this university in the mid 1960s, and starting 1968, plans for the modern campus were designed by famed architect Kamran Diba.
Ancient Gundishapur is also slated for an archaeological investigation. Experts from the Archaeological Research Center of Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago planed to start excavations in early 2006.

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