The Jundishapur School: Its History, Structure, and Functions


Located in the region of Alam (modern Khuzistan), Jundishapur was founded by the Sassanid emperor Shahpur I in 260. This city was home to the Jundishapur school (madrasah), one of the most important science centers in history, that harmonized within itself classical Greek philosophy, Indian culture, and the Persian scientific heritage. This fact becomes clear when one looks at its rich curriculum, which ranges from medical science and pharmacology to philosophy. This complex consisted of several sections, such as a medical school (bimaristan), a pharmacology laboratory, a translation bureau, a library, and an observatory. It also had a deep influence on Islamic culture and civilization through its professors, who, in the early years of `Abbasid rule, began to settle in the capital city of Baghdad and eventually established a similar school modeled on their school in Jundishapur. From that point on, these professors made a significant contribution to Muslim medical science and philosophy.

The History of the Jundishapur School

There are different views as to when this school was established. While some scholars claim that it was built at the same time as the city, others assert that it was founded during the reign of Shahpur II. Although the existing evidence does not allow us to correlate the date of the school’s founding with that of the city, one can easily say that the scholarly activities for which Jundishapur was famous began at a very early time. As stated by Manfred Ulmann, Jundishapur’s population contained numerous Antiochan scholars and artisans, among them medical doctors and philosophers, as well as the captured Roman emperor Valerianus. Therefore, we can assume that Jundishapur entered upon a cultural and intellectual flowering, especially in the positive sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics), at that time.

Although Jundishapur had been acquainted with the positive sciences since its foundation, it only became known for its knowledge of them at a much later date. If we believe Ibn al-Nadim, we can say that the city became famous for medical sciences and philosophy only after Théodoros, the Greek philosopher and medical doctor, moved there. Théodoros, who was no ordinary physician, served as a royal doctor to Shahpur II and composed several books on medical sciences, one of which was eventually translated into Arabic. Shahpur II held Théodoros in respect, built a church for him in the city, and assigned some Christian captives to serve him.

Théodoros’ very scholarly pursuits provide grounds for the claim that the Jundishapur school was built at the time of Shahpur II. Among the scholars who share this opinion are the famous Orientalist George Sarton, Muhammad Muhammadi (who relied upon Sarton), and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.  Nasr claims that Shahpur II not only enlarged and adopted Jundishapur as his capital city, but that he also built therein a large school that included a medical school. Likewise, Nakhai claims that it took 7 years to build the school and that it was inaugurated by Shahpur II. Shortly after that event, about 5,000 students from Persia, Rome, Greece, Syria, Arabia, and India enrolled in the school, a development that transformed Jundishapur into an important regional center of medical science.

Although there is insufficient proof to support the above claims, the fact that the scholars who came from regions to the west during the reign of Khusraw I were settled in Jundishapur suggests that a school already existed in that city. If this were not the case, why would he settle them there? Settling these scholars in Jundishapur and having the city’s school rebuilt should have caused Khusraw I to be known as the school’s first builder.

Khusraw I’s interest in philosophy made him famous in the West. The scholars at the Academy of Athens made their way to Jundishapur after their academy was closed, in 529, by Emperor Justinian. Khusraw I welcomed such celebrated scholars and philosophers as Damascius, Siplicius, Eulamius, Priscianus, Isidore, Hermias, and Diogenes. After settling them in Jundishapur, he provided them with whatever they needed to continue their scholarly pursuits and teaching. These scholars reconstructed and revitalized the city’s schools and enjoyed great freedom in their studies. A champion of scholars, the emperor himself took a great interest in their activities and engaged in philosophical discussions and debates with them. Furthermore, he recorded both these discussions and the philosophers answers to his questions in many books, one of which was translated into Latin and incomplete translation of which has survived to our own time.

After defeating Justinian, Khusraw I, who followed Neoplatonic philosophy, stipulated in the peace treaty that all of the philosophers living in Jundishapur would be allowed to return to their homelands whenever they wished. Just after this agreement, the scholars taking refuge in Jundishapur availed themselves of this chance to go home. However, the students they had educated during their 4-year sojourn in Jundishapur ensured that the school would remain a hallmark of education.

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