West Asian Science - History of Science
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West Asian Science

Orion
The constellation Orion

May 2016 - From the Stone Age through the Islamic empires, great scientific discoveries have streamed out of West Asia. West Asia is where farming first got started, and the sailboat. Pottery was first made in West Asia, and the first system of writing was developed in Sumer, including the first way to write down numbers. People in Sumer named the planets after their gods: Marduk (Jupiter), Ishtar (Venus), Ninurta (Saturn), Nabu (Mercury), and Nergal (Mars). They first (that we know of) observed the way the planets moved, and were able to predict what the planets would do next. They used this information to invent the signs of the zodiac and cast horoscopes. Today we know that the future can't really be predicted by horoscopes, or by the signs of the zodiac, but what the Sumerians learned about the movement of the planets is still important to astronomers today.

The Sumerians also developed the way we tell time today. In ancient Sumeria they thought there was something special about the number 12 (because that was the number of phases of the moon in one year), and about the number 60 (because it was 5 times 12). So they divided the day up into two sets of twelve hours, 24 hours, and they divided each hour into 60 minutes, and each minute into 60 seconds. We still use these divisions today.

The Sumerians also pioneered the use of bronze, a mixture of tin and copper which was the first metal to be used for tools. A thousand years later, also in West Asia, the Hittites were the first to figure out how people could make tools out of iron. Around the same time, in Syria and Phoenicia to the south, the alphabet was first invented. The Phoenicians may also have been the first people to burn the inside of their wooden water barrels into charcoal. The charcoal layer acted as a water filter and kept water cleaner on board ships for long trips. And the Phoenicians and Syrians figured out how to make glass, an important export for West Asia.

After the Hittites, the Assyrians may have invented the screw pump (often called Archimedes' screw), which lifts water from one level up to another level and is very useful for irrigation. Assryian kings may have used the screw pump to water the plants of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world.

The Persians, around 500 BC, were the first to build a long straight road 1000 miles long across their empire, the King's Road. When West Asia was conquered by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, it came under Greek rule, and during this Hellenistic period many West Asian cities had famous schools and were a flourishing source of new scientific ideas. It was in this period that parchment (sheep skins) was first developed as a writing surface, and that many of the first serious research libraries were developed. In Pontus, near the Black Sea, Heraclides showed that the earth turned on its axis, and that Mercury and Venus went around the sun. The Phoenicians also developed glass-blowing about this time.

Under Parthian and Sassanian rule, the kings encouraged the collection of as much scientific knowledge as possible. They established universities first at Nisibis (in the 400s AD) and then at Gondishapur (in the 500s AD), where Iranian scholars collected books from the Roman Empire, India, and China. Sassanian scientists also worked on astronomy, drawing up more complete tables to predict how the planets and stars would move (or appear to move) in the future. West Asian doctors used a lot of medicines imported from India like sandalwood (from the Arabic word "sandal" from the Sanskrit word "chandan") and camphor (from the Arabic word "kafur", from the Sanskrit word "kapur"). At Gondishapur, they opened one of the world's first hospitals and made doctors train there in a medical school, instead of apprenticing to one particular doctor.

At the same time, West Asians under Roman rule made other contributions. The doctor Galen of Pergamum (in modern Turkey) spread Egyptian doctors' ideas that the heart pushed blood around the body, and that nerves controlled movement. Phoenician ship-builders also developed better ships and better sails, and mold-made glass, pottery and oil lamps. But with the coming of Islam and the decline of the Buddhist universities in India and the University of Alexandria in Egypt, Baghdad became a big center of learning, and produced many more major scientific advances.

Learn by doing: identify the major constellations
More about West Asian math

Bibliography and further reading about West Asian science:

West Asian Numbers
West Asian Mathematics
Central Asian Science
Islamic Science
More about West Asia
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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Now that the weather's nice, try some of these outdoor activities! How about bicycle polo, or archery for a Medieval Islam day? Or kite flying or making a compass for a day in Medieval China? How about making a shaduf for a day in Ancient Egypt? Holding an Ancient Greek Olympic Games or a medieval European tournament? Building a Native American wickiup?