Science and Technology in Ancient and Medieval Persia (Iran)

Throughout history, Iran was always a cradle of science, contributing to medicine, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Iran has made considerable advances in science and technology through education and training, despite international sanctions in almost all aspects of research during the past 30 years. In recent years, the growth in Iran’s scientific output is reported to be the fastest in the world.[1][2][3] Iran has made great strides in different sectors, including aerospace, nuclear science, medical development, as well as stem cell and cloning research.[4]

Omid satellite. Iran is the 9th country to put a domestically-built satellite into orbit using its own launcher and the sixth to send animals in space. / Photo by Martedanha, Wikimedia Commons

Throughout history, Iran was always a cradle of science, contributing to medicine, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. Trying to revive the golden time of Iranian science, Iran’s scientists now are cautiously reaching out to the world.

Science in Persia evolved in two main phases separated by the arrival and widespread adoption of Islam in the region.

References to scientific subjects such as natural science and mathematics occur in books written in the Pahlavi languages.

Ancient Technology in Iran

The Qanat (a water management system used for irrigation) originated in pre-Achaemenid Iran. The oldest and largest known qanat is in the Iranian city of Gonabad, which, after 2,700 years, still provides drinking and agricultural water to nearly 40,000 people.[5]

Iranian philosophers and inventors may have created the first batteries (sometimes known as the Baghdad Battery) in the Parthian or Sassanid eras. Some have suggested that the batteries may have been used medicinally. Other scientists believe the batteries were used for electroplating—transferring a thin layer of metal to another metal surface—a technique still used today and the focus of a common classroom experiment.[6]

Windwheels were developed by the Babylonians ca. 1700 BC to pump water for irrigation. In the 7th century, Iranians engineers in Greater Iran developed a more advanced wind-power machine, the windmill, building upon the basic model developed by the Babylonians.[7][8]


Manuscript of Abdolrahman Sufi’s Depiction of Celestial Constellations / Wikimedia Commons

The 9th century mathematician Muhammad Ibn Musa-al-Kharazmi created the Logarithm table, developed algebra and expanded upon Persian and Indian arithmetic systems. His writings were translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona under the title: De jebra et almucabola. Robert of Chester also translated it under the title Liber algebras et almucabala. The works of Kharazmi “exercised a profound influence on the development of mathematical thought in the medieval West”.[9]

The first five rows of Khayam-Pascal’s triangle

Other Iranian scientists included Abu Abbas Fazl Hatam, the Banu Musa brothers, Farahani, Omar Ibn Farakhan, Abu Zeid Ahmad Ibn Soheil Balkhi (9th century AD), Abul Vafa Bouzjani, Abu Jaafar Khan, Bijan Ibn Rostam Kouhi, Ahmad Ibn Abdul Jalil Qomi, Bu Nasr Araghi, Abu Reyhan Birooni, the noted Iranian poet Hakim Omar Khayyam Neishaburi, Qatan Marvazi, Massoudi Ghaznavi (13th century AD), Khajeh Nassireddin Tusi, and Ghiasseddin Jamshidi Kashani.


The practice and study of medicine in Iran has a long and prolific history. Situated at the crossroads of the East and West, Persia was often involved in developments in ancient Greek and Indian medicine; pre- and post-Islamic Iran have been involved in medicine as well.

For example, the first teaching hospital where medical students methodically practiced on patients under the supervision of physicians was the Academy of Gundishapur in the Persian Empire. Some experts go so far as to claim that: “to a very large extent, the credit for the whole hospital system must be given to Persia”.[10]

The idea of xenotransplantation dates to the days of Achaemenidae (the Achaemenian dynasty), as evidenced by engravings of many mythologic chimeras still present in Persepolis.[11]

From: Mansur ibn Ilyas: Tashrīḥ-e badan-e ensān. تشريح بدن انسان. Manuscript, ca. 1450, U.S. National Library of Medicine. / Wikimedia Commons

Several documents still exist from which the definitions and treatments of the headache in medieval Persia can be ascertained. These documents give detailed and precise clinical information on the different types of headaches. The medieval physicians listed various signs and symptoms, apparent causes, and hygienic and dietary rules for prevention of headaches. The medieval writings are both accurate and vivid, and they provide long lists of substances used in the treatment of headaches. Many of the approaches of physicians in medieval Persia are accepted today; however, still more of them could be of use to modern medicine.[12]

In the 10th century work of Shahnameh, Ferdowsi describes a Caesarean section performed on Rudabeh, during which a special wine agent was prepared by a Zoroastrian priest and used to produce unconsciousness for the operation.[13] Although largely mythical in content, the passage illustrates working knowledge of anesthesia in ancient Persia.

A 500-year-old Latin translation of the Canon of Medicine by Avicenna / Wikimedia Commons

Later in the 10th century, Abu Bakr Muhammad Bin Zakaria Razi is considered the founder of practical physics and the inventor of the special or net weight of matter. His student, Abu Bakr Joveini, wrote the first comprehensive medical book in the Persian language.

After the Islamic conquest of Iran, medicine continued to flourish with the rise of notables such as Rhazes and Haly Abbas, albeit Baghdad was the new cosmopolitan inheritor of Sassanid Jundishapur’s medical academy.

An idea of the number of medical works composed in Persian alone may be gathered from Adolf Fonahn’s Zur Quellenkunde der Persischen Medizin, published in Leipzig in 1910. The author enumerates over 400 works in the Persian language on medicine, excluding authors such as Avicenna, who wrote in Arabic. Author-historians Meyerhof, Casey Wood, and Hirschberg also have recorded the names of at least 80 oculists who contributed treatises on subjects related to ophthalmology from the beginning of 800 AD to the full flowering of Muslim medical literature in 1300 AD.

Aside from the aforementioned, two other medical works attracted great attention in medieval Europe, namely Abu Mansur Muwaffaq’s Materia Medica, written around 950 AD, and the illustrated Anatomy of Mansur ibn Muhammad, written in 1396 AD.

Modern academic medicine began in Iran when Joseph Cochran established a medical college in Urmia in 1878. Cochran is often credited for founding Iran’s “first contemporary medical college”.[14] The website of Urmia University credits Cochran for “lowering the infant mortality rate in the region”[15] and for founding one of Iran’s first modern hospitals (Westminster Hospital) in Urmia.

Iran started contributing to modern medical research late in 20th century. Most publications were from pharmacology and pharmacy labs located at a few top universities, most notably Tehran University of Medical Sciences. Ahmad Reza Dehpour and Abbas Shafiee were among the most prolific scientists in that era. Research programs in immunology, parasitology, pathology, medical genetics, and public health were also established in late 20th century. In 21st century, we witnessed a huge surge in the number of publications in medical journals by Iranian scientists on nearly all areas in basic and clinical medicine. Interdisciplinary research were introduced during 2000s and dual degree programs including Medicine/Science, Medicine/Engineering and Medicine/Public health programs were founded. Alireza Mashaghi was one of the main figures behind the development of interdisciplinary research and education in Iran.


An 18th century Persian astrolabe / Photo by Andrew Dunn, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Wikimedia Commons

In 1000 AD, Biruni wrote an astronomical encyclopaedia that discussed the possibility that the earth might rotate around the sun. This was before Tycho Brahe drew the first maps of the sky, using stylized animals to depict the constellations.

In the tenth century, the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi cast his eyes upwards to the awning of stars overhead and was the first to record a galaxy outside our own. Gazing at the Andromeda galaxy he called it a “little cloud” – an apt description of the slightly wispy appearance of our galactic neighbour.[16]


Tusi believed that a body of matter is able to change but is not able to disappear entirely. He wrote “a body of matter cannot disappear completely. It only changes its form, condition, composition, color, and other properties, and turns into a different complex or elementary matter”. Five hundred years later, Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765) and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) created the law of conservation of mass, setting down this same idea.[17] However, it should be noted that Tusi argued for evolution within a firmly Islamic context—he did not, like Darwin, draw materialist conclusions from his theories. Moreover, unlike Darwin, he was arguing hypothetically: he did not attempt to provide empirical data for his theories. Nonetheless his arguments, which in some ways prefigure natural selection, are still considered remarkably ‘advanced’ for their time.

Jaber Ibn Hayyan, the famous Iranian chemist who died in 804 at Tous in Khorasan, was the father of a number of discoveries recorded in an encyclopaedia and of many treatises covering two thousand topics, and these became the bible of European chemists of the 18th century, particularly of Lavoisier. These works had a variety of uses including tinctures and their applications in tanning and textiles; distillations of plants and flowers; the origin of perfumes; therapeutic pharmacy, and gunpowder, a powerful military instrument possessed by Islam long before the West. Jabir ibn Hayyan, is widely regarded as the founder of chemistry, inventing many of the basic processes and equipment still used by chemists today such as distillation.[16]


Kamal al-Din al-Farisi’s autograph manuscript in Optics, Tanqih al-Manazir, 1309 A.D., Adilnor Collection / Wikimedia Commons

Biruni was the first scientist to formally propose that the speed of light is finite, before Galileo tried to experimentally prove this.

Kamal al-Din Al-Farisi (1267–1318) born in Tabriz, Iran, is known for giving the first mathematically satisfactory explanation of the rainbow. He verified this through extensive experimentation using a transparent sphere filled with water and a camera obscura.


  1. Andy Coghlan. “Iran is top of the world in science growth”New Scientist. Retrieved 2 April 2016.
  2. “Archived copy” (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 July 2011. Retrieved 21 October 2011.
  3. [1]
  4. “Iran’s science progress fastest in world: Canadian report”. 19 February 2010. Retrieved 21 October 2011.
  5. Ward English, Paul (21 June 1968). “The Origin and Spread of Qanats in the Old World”. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society112 (3): 170–181. JSTOR 986162.
  6. “Riddle of ‘Baghdad’s batteries'”BBC News. 27 February 2003. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
  7. “Intute: Science, Engineering and Technology”. Retrieved 21 October 2011.
  8. “Internet Archive Wayback Machine”. 27 October 2009. Archived from the original on 27 October 2009. Retrieved 7 February 2012.
  9. Hill, Donald. Islamic Science and Engineering. 1993. Edinburgh University Press.
  10. C. Elgood. A Medical history of Persia. Cambridge Univ. Press. p. 173
  11. Transplantation Activities in Iran, Behrooz Broumand
  12. Gorji A, Khaleghi Ghadiri M (December 2002). “History of headache in medieval Persian medicine”. Lancet Neurology1 (8): 510–5. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(02)00226-0. PMID 12849336.
  13. Edward Granville Browne. Islamic Medicine, Goodword Books, 2002.
  14. “Archives Of Iranian Medicine”. 18 August 1905. Retrieved 21 October 2011.
  15. “Introduction to Urmia University”. Archived from the original on 8 June 2007.
  16. Gemson, Claire (13 October 2007). “1,001 inventions mark Islam’s role in science”The Scotsman. Edinburgh, UK.
  17. “9.2 A 13th-Century Darwin? – Tusi’s Views on Evolution – Farid Alakbarov”. Retrieved 21 October 2011.

Originally published by Wikipedia, 07.28.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.