Monday, September 12, 2011

Persia's Renaissance Man

Once a millennium or so, certain civilizations produce a genius who is so far ahead of his era I have to wonder whether time travel is possible after all. Fifteenth-century Italy produced Leonardo da Vinci, whose agile mind still impresses us five hundred years after his death. Eleventh-century Persia had its own Renaissance man in the form of Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina, a mouthful of a name that is thankfully often shortened to Ibn Sina or Abu Ali Sina. In the West, he is known by the Latinized version of his name: Avicenna.

Born in 980 A.D. in Afshana, a village near Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan (but part of the Persian Empire at the time), Avicenna had a thirst for knowledge that quickly outstripped the capabilities of his many tutors. He memorized the Koran by the age of 10, an accomplishment that earned him the title of Hafez (just like the great Persian poet of the same name).

Avicenna began studying medicine at the age of 16 and became a practicing physician at 18. His medical skill drew the attention of Nooh ibn Mansoor, the emir of the Persian Samanid Dynasty (whose capital was Bukhara). The emir suffered from a mysterious illness that baffled the royal physicians but proved to be no match for Avicenna’s skills. As payment for his successful services, the young doctor would accept no reward except access to the emir’s vast royal library. For a man with Avicenna’s insatiable curiosity, a library was worth far more than all the emir’s gold.

Trouble came in 999 when Turkish invaders booted the Samanids out of Bukhara, and Avicenna had to flee. He embarked on a series of wanderings through the Persian Empire that lasted the rest of his life. After short stays in various towns such as Nishapur (Eastern Iran), Merv (Turkmenistan), Gorgan (near the Caspian Sea), and Rey (just south of Tehran), he ended up for a longer period in Hamadan, where he became the court physician to the local ruler.

When political turmoil forced Avicenna to pack his bags once again, he fled to Isfahan and took another job as court physician. This nomadic life in no way interfered with Avicenna’s scholarship, for he wrote over 450 books, only half of which have survived. They cover a wide range of subjects, including geology, astronomy, mathematics, psychology, physics, and music. (Avicenna believed that music was conducive to healing.) As well as a scientist, he was an accomplished poet, writing in both Arabic and his native Persian.

The two works that form Avicenna’s greatest legacy are the Book of Healing, a scientific encyclopedia that covers logic as well as a range of medical and natural sciences, and the Canon of Medicine, a compendium of all medical knowledge available during Avicenna’s time, augmented by his own observations. The Canon, a huge, million-word volume, was used as a medical textbook at European universities for 700 years.

The Canon of Medicine in Persian
Due to these two impressive books, begun in Hamadan and completed in Isfahan, Avicenna is often called the “father of modern medicine.” In fact much of his approach to medicine, as documented in the Canon, would be familiar to us today. He recognized the contagious nature of certain illnesses, such as tuberculosis, and introduced the concept of quarantine to halt the spread of infectious disease. He discovered that alcohol kills germs and devised experimentation rules that still form the basis for clinical drug trials today (including the need to test new drugs on humans and not just animals). Avicenna also believed in the mind-body connection, hence his interest in the healing power of music.

Avicenna died of an intestinal disease in 1037 on a return trip to Hamadan, where he is buried. Iranians today view him as something of a national icon and one of the greatest Persians in history, a status I was able to observe first hand on a visit to Avicenna’s tomb several years ago. We arrived on a religious Shi’ite holiday (the birthday of the 12th Imam), and the place was packed with Iranian tourists—entire families with children in tow. As the kiddies raced around the oddly shaped tower that sits atop the tomb, their parents unpacked picnic lunches and prepared to make a day of it.

Inside the mausoleum, the tone was reverent as people spoke in hushed tones and quietly read the inscriptions bordering the great man’s tombstone.

In addition to the tower (built in 1954 but modeled on a similar structure from Avicenna’s time), the complex includes a museum, a library, and an exhibit of medicinal herbs documented in the Canon of Medicine.

So the next time you pat antiseptic on a scrape or put on calming music to smooth away the day’s stress, think of all we owe to the inquiring mind of Persia’s Renaissance man.

And if you’d like to hear Avicenna speak about his life and work, check out this video where he reaches out to us over the space of a thousand years (as interpreted by the actor, Roger Worrod):


  1. Thanks for stopping by, Kenda! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. This was so interesting, I has no idea, someone so long ago had so much insight into medicine we still use today. The little video was great. Thanks!

  3. Glad you enjoyed the post. I had the same reaction when researching this piece. I'd love the travel back in time and meet the guy!

  4. For those who can read french, there is a great novel about Ibn Sina written by Gilbert Sinoué: «Avicenne ou La route d'Ispahan».

    While I am here, taking the time to post a comment, I want to thank you for your great blog. With every new entry, I get the urge to go out there and travel to a new destination, and read more because there is so much to learn, wether through fiction or non-fiction. Bravo to all four!

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Juliette! I'm so glad you are enjoying the blog and getting inspired to travel. I would love to read that novel about Avicenna. Unfortunately, my French extends only far enough to understand the title. I'll look for an English or German translation. Thanks for the tip!

  6. Heidi, I did the math--this guy died pretty young (by today's standards, anyway) for someone so talented and accomplished and in so many fields. It would be a feat even today, with all the resources we have and the ease of getting around. And he managed to do this during civil strife. Absolutely incredible.

    And Miss Juliette, your comment made our day! Thanks for your kind words. :)

  7. Supriya, I imaging Avicenna must have been a driven man to accomplish so much in a short lifetime. He had a turbulent life in so many ways.

  8. Heidi - welcome to 'The Places In Between' :-) kind regards, Roger Worrod: (film & theatre) (audio)

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Roger. I enjoyed your performance as Ibn Sina. :)