From Warriors to Guardians,
the Assyrians and their Role in
the History of Medicine
Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 06:53 PM CT
Ho, Assyrian! The rod of my anger, and the staff in their hand is my indignation
(Isaiah 10:5). Their arrows are sharp and their bows are bent, their
horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind
(Isaiah 5:28).1 Those were the Assyrians as pictured in the Old
Scripture! With their having ruled the entire Middle East for many centuries
Assyrians had excelled not only in war but also in peace. Many of their
discoveries and inventions are still alive today, speaking for one of the
greatest civilizations ever known.
And the pride of Assyria shall cease (Zechariah 10:11).1
And so the Assyrian star dwindled down, and their glory perished as they lost
their empire in 612 BC.
Centuries went by before we hear again about the Assyrians. During the first and
the second centuries after Christ Assyrians lived in small principalities in
northern Mesopotamia. One of them was Osrhoene with “Edessa” being the capital.
During his reign, Abgar Oukama sent a letter to Jesus asking him to come to
Edessa and cure him, the king, of a fatal disease.2 Jesus replied:
† Thou art fortunate, thou who believest in me, not having seen me. For it
is written of me that those who see me do not believe in me, but those who do
not see me, believe in me. As to your asking me to come to you, the work for
which I was sent is about to be accomplished and I am to return to my father who
sent me. After I have ascended to him I shall send you one of my disciples who
will cure your sickness and will convert you and those about you to life
eternal. The city shall be blessed and no enemy shall prevail against it.
This legend of Abgar states that Addai, one of the seventy apostles, was sent by
the disciple Judas Thomas, who healed Abgar and as a result of this miracle and
his preaching converted Edessa to Christianity in 32 AD, and built a church from
the money which king Abgar gave him. This was the era for a new role played by
the Assyrians, in religion, medicine and science, as they accepted Christianity.
You may ask, like many others, why the Assyrians? This is not difficult to
understand if we look at some of the attributes the Assyrians had at that time,
some of which follow.3
The unique geographical location of the Assyrians enabled them to come into
contact with several great cultures: the Greeks in the north, the Romans in the
west, the Egyptians in the south, and the Persians in the East.
The Assyrians played a very active part in the early diffusion of Christianity
throughout Asia Minor, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. As a result of presence of two
separate Old Testament canons in Hebrew and Greek, a cause of bitter argument
and controversy, the Assyrian scholars applied themselves diligently to the
study of Greek so that they can read at first hand the Septuagint version of the
Old Testament completed in Alexandria in 132 BC by a group of 70 Alexandrian
Jews who had forgotten their Aramaic vernacular. The Assyrians were the first
who translated the Old Testament form the Hebrew into their own vernacular, the
Syriac, in what has ever
since been known as the
The Assyrians became familiar with the Greek language and by it Greek science,
Greek medicine and Greek literature; this is an important factor in the role
they played in history of medicine.
The establishment of the great school of Edessa. The interest of the early
Assyrian church fathers in the Greek version of the Scriptures and the resulting
contacts with the Greek scholars created an atmosphere of study and
investigation in Edessa and Nisibis. When the Romans gave up Nisibis to the
Persians, a large number of the rich and learned Assyrians migrated to Edessa.
They established the school of Edessa in 363-364 AD. In this school theology was
the major subject, but medicine was growing as a study, and rapidly coming to
the fore in the attention it attracted.4 Affiliated with the school,
a large hospital was built for clinical instruction.
The Catholic Church, through the council of Ephesus in 431, had deposed
Nestorios, the patriarch of the Assyrian church, because of what was considered
a heretical doctrine consisting in his denial of the complete mergence of the
divine and human natures in the person of Christ. He asserted that Mary, the
mother of Christ, should not be called the mother of God. His followers, the
Assyrians, were since called the Nestorians. This Christian sect played a
profound role in the history of medicine.
Because of their continuous teachings at the school of Edessa, Emperor
Zeno, at the instigation of Bishop Cyrus of Alexandria, abolished the
school.5 The teachers and disciples were convicted of heresy, and
expelled from Edessa. Their school was turned into a new orthodox church
given the significant name of Our Lady, Mother of God!
The outcome was tremendous. The Nestorian heresy was one of the great
centrifugal forces caused by theological hatred. It pushed Christianity across
mountains and deserts as far as China, and thus became a very important link
between East and west.6 The zealots became missionaries, and many of
the teachers turned into a more profitable intellectual activity, the study and
practice of medicine.
Following the closing of the school in Edessa, many theologians, under the
leadership of Bar Soma, the deposed head of the school, went back to Nisibis in
Persian territory and established a new school there. Many others accepted the
asylum status offered by the Sassanian king Kobad, and migrated to Jundi Shapor
in southwest Persia, an established See for a Nestorian bishop. They brought
with them Syriac translations of the Greek medical works of Hippocrates, Galen
and Aristole. Thus the first Persian medical school was established under
Nestorian inspiration and management.3, 7, 8
The greatest impetus to the school was given by king Nushirwan the just. He gave
the teachers every advantage and encouragement and increased the prestige of the
school by welcoming the Greek neo-platonists from the school of Athens when it
was closed. During his reign, Jundi Shapor became the greatest intellectual
center of the time. Within its walls, Greek, Jewish, Nestorian, Persian and
Hindu thought and experience were freely exchanged. The Nestorian teachers were
the most prominent as teaching was done largely in Syriac.3
Opposite to the school a famous hospital was built, Bimaristan, a Persian name
used subsequently for all the great hospitals in Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo,
which the Arabs copied from this model in Jundi Shapor. Describing the school of
medicine and its hospital in Jundi Shapor, Ibn-al-Qifti says:9
They made rapid progress in the science, developed new methods in the treatment
of disease along pharmacological lines, to the point that their therapy was
judged superior to that of the Greek and the Hindus. Furthermore these
physicians adopted the scientific methods of other peoples and modified them by
their own discoveries. They elaborated medical laws and recorded the work that
had been developed.
During several centuries the school and Bimaristan of Jundi Shapor held first
place in the world of medicine and science. It was from among their students
that Persia, Iraq, and Syria recruited their physicians. Pupils from all
nationalities gathered in Jundi Shapor for instruction. Furthermore the Islamic
conquerors did not hesitate to call into service the physicians trained in this
The trust confided in the school of Jundi Shapor and its graduates was deserved
primarily for its eminence and the renown of the faculty and the ability of its
graduates, who attended the Prophet and the subsequent Moslem Caliphs for
centuries to come. Nestorians were given a special favor in the eyes of the
Prophet and his succeeding Caliphs as they denied Mary being the mother of God
in accordance with the Qu’ran, as best depicted in the Sura of “Unity”… “Lam
Yalid Wa Lam Yulad” meaning He (Allah) begets not, nor is he begotten. This
Sura, in the eyes of Moslems, separates Nestorians from other Christian
From this Assyrian Nestorian community educated and wise in the medical science
of that era above all others, the nascent and virile Arabs eagerly sought their
earliest and their later training in Greek and Galenic medicine and rekindled
that torch of ancient learning with the whirlwind of their newly awakened
interest and enthusiasm for learning.3
The school of Jundi Shapor graduated a long line of distinguished physicians.3,7
The family of Bakhtishu and the Meshus, to mention only two, who moved to
Baghdad, to Damascus, and to Cairo where they organized famous hospitals modeled
after their hospital in Jundi Shapor. The monograph of Dr. Ahmad Issa Bey on the
hospitals of the Islamic period is the most surprising and illuminating
exposition and proof that Arabian medicine made full use of the lore handed down
through the Nestorians.7,10 This is a detailed account of these
hospitals, their buildings, and their teaching clinics with inpatient and
outpatient departments, providing different services, medical, surgical,
Orthopedics and Ophthalmology, all copies of the famous Nestorian hospital in
No nation in existence today has given so much to the history of humanity yet
has received so little like the Assyrians. Driven out of their homeland, more
than 4 million Assyrians today live in more than 30 countries around the globe
with no hope to redeem their history, identity and their intellectual
achievements, which others claim as their own, but according to the
word of God11:
Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people and
Assyria the work of my hands and Israel my heritage
- George M. Lamsa. Holy Bible (Peshitta). HarperSanFrancisco, San
- Eusebius. The Legend of Abgar. Historia Ecclesiastica, Dorset Press, New
York, 1965. I: Chapt.13.
- Allen Whipple. Role of The Nestorians As The Connecting Link Between
Greek and Arabic Medicine. Ann of Medical History-New Series: 2: 313-323,
- Garrison, FH. History of Medicine. W.B. Sanders, Philadelphia, 1929.
- Assemani GS. Bibliotheca Orientalis. Sacrae Congregatio de Propaganda
Fide, Rome, 1719-28.
- Sarton, GE. Introduction to The History of Science. Williams and Wilkins,
Baltimore, 1927. I: 477.
- Whipple, AO. The Role of the Nestorians and Moslems in The History of
Medicine. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1967. pp. 14-19.
- 8.Elgood, C. A Medical History of Persia and The Eastern Caliphate.
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1951. pp. 34-57.
- 9.Ibn-al-Qifti. Tarikh al-Hukama. Maktaba al-Muthana, Baghdad, 1969. pp.
- 10.Ahmed Issa Bey. Histories des Bimaristans a l’Epoque Islamique. Cairo,
- 11.Booko, J (Rev.). Assyria The Forgotten Nation in Prophecy. Michigan,
1993. pp. 73-81.
The American Surgeon October 2002
Vol.68 pp 927-929