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  • 12/21/2011

Astrology & Astronomy in Iran and Ancient Mesopotamia

part 3


By this time the dominance of religious concepts hindered new methods and modes of thought for understanding nature. The Greeks introduced the next major change. They launched new ideas that revolutionized science in general including astronomy and astrology. Empiricism and experimentation were encouraged and metaphysical basis of natural phenomenon was rejected. They adopted Babylonian, Egyptian and Persian knowledge, mixed it with Greek thought, developed it and through the medium of Greek made them universal.


The Egyptian contribution to astronomy/astrology was immense. The latter Hellenistic (Greek) astrologers of Egypt attribute the root of their discipline to Nechepso and Petosiris, an Egyptian pharaoh and his high priest.

 By the 1st century BC the entire apparatus of horoscopic astrology was in place and the language of Egyptian astrology had become Greek. The famed Greek astrologer, Valens traveled throughout Egypt and studied with at least a few living teachers of the old traditions and recorded his observations. Originally the astrology texts were written in Coptic, the last form of ancient Egyptian, but no clear reference to any has survived. The Hellenistic Egypt systematized the omen materials of the earlier Babylonian astrologers. Many astrological methods, such as the use of 12 houses, lots and aspects were developed at this time and spread throughout the area by the Greek writers. By the 2nd century BC the Greek scientist Hipparchus developed the mathematical astronomy that was given its final form by Ptolemy in the second century AD. Ptolemy’s work in turn influenced all astrological/astronomical works until the advent of new sciences, including Islamic celestial concepts and astronomical studies of the Middle Ages.

After 126 BC, the Parthians, raised against the Seleucids, the Greek successors to Alexander the Great, and re-conquered most of the Persian Empire. The Parthians were hostile to the Greeks (and later the Romans) and effectively cut off communication between the main body of Hellenistic peoples and Persians plus the Bactrian Greeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This created a new school of astronomy/astrology independent from the Greek and Egyptian traditions. There are no material left from this time but its impact on Indian and Hebrew astrology has left its mark. There are fragments in Hebrew astrology that are unlike the Hellenistic astrology that was emerging at the same time. The emphasis of Light and Dark recalls the Zoroastrian religion and the impact of Persian astrology. One can compare such literature to similar material at the end of the Indian astrological classic, Parashara’s Hora Sastra. This omen-like material of reading bodily characteristics as personality or morality traits seems to have also been influenced by the Persian astrology. There are also similarities between the Indian and the Persian astrological history/narrative. This is the account of dynastic history in terms of cyclical periods of varying lengths of time governed by the stars and planets. Many stories from the Sasanian period  in books such as, Karnameh Ardeshir Papakan and Shahnameh contain such dynastic history and more were produced after the Arab conquest (Abu Sahl’s Kitab an-Nahmutan). However, despite hostility by the Parthians, Greek sciences, arts and philosophy remained and with the coming of the Sasanian rulers they reached a new peak and advances were made in the field.

The Sasanian Empire of Persia (226-642), with its state religion of Zoroastrianism, saw itself as heir to the legendary Achaemenid dynasty and their civilization, and developed an ideology and culture to reflect and promote this image. An imposing succession of Sasanian emperors actively engaged in collecting, recording and editing the historical and religious records of their civilization and the neighboring countries. According to Dinkard, the Zoroastrian canon in Pahlavi, Book IV, "all knowledge and sciences was received by Zoroaster from Ahura Mazda and transmitted through Avesta. Destruction of Persia by Alexander dispersed the texts throughout the world. The Greeks, the Egyptians derived all their knowledge and science from these dispersed texts. Subsequently Sasanian emperors took it upon themselves to collect all these texts from all over". The sources name, Byzantium, India and China as the main centers where book collecting was taking place.

Such activities reached their peak at the time of Khusrau I (Anoshirvan, (531-578). Greek Philosophers, Syriac speaking Christians and Nestorians fleeing persecution by the Byzantines (Orthodox Christians of Constantinople) were received by Anoshirvan and were commissioned to translate Greek and Syriac texts into Pahlavi.

 Paul the Persian dedicated Works of logic to the king. The Greek philosopher Priscianus Lydus wrote a book in response to the king’s questions on a number of subjects in Aristotelian physics, theory of the soul, meteorology and biology. Dinkard itself shows familiarity with all these topics, especially Aristotelian physics. Books in medicine, Ptolemy’s Almagest (A collection of mathematical anthology) and other works in astronomy, Aristotle’s Organon and a number of texts in crafts and skills were translated from Greek sources. Indian scientific material in astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine were also translated into Pahlavi. The Book of Nativities (Kitab al-Mawalid) was a five part astronomical work that was translated from Pahlavi into Arabic in 750. It was ascribed to Zoroaster and according to the Iranian historian Sa’id ibn-Khurasan-Khurreh, "it was translated by Mahankard, an Iranian scholar from among the books of Zoroaster".

Other Links:

Haft Keshvar (7 Countries)-part 1    

History of Ancient Medicine in Mesopotamia & Iran-part 1   

Iran, a Brief History (part 1)     

A – Z of Iran History (A)   

History of Ancient Medicine in Mesopotamia & Iran-part 2   

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