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Nisibis known today as Nusaybin, Nṣībīn, نصيبين

GPS Location: 37.067023° 41.219740°

The history of this city goes back to 900 BC when it was part of the Aramean kingdom captured by the Assyrian king Adad-Nirari II, and then fully annexed into the Meso-Assyrian Empire. It appears in the Assyrian Eponum list as a provincial seat of government.

It passed into Babylonian control, then Persian, and then under Alexander the Great. The Seleucids refounded the city as Antiochia Mygdonia (Greek: Ἀντιόχεια τῆς Μυγδονίας). Like many other cities where Roman and Parthian powers confronted one another, Nisibis was often taken and retaken. The last battle between Rome and Parthia was fought in the vicinity of the city in 217.

The Sassanid Shapur I conquered Nisibis but was driven out, and then returned in the 260s. In 298, by a treaty with Narseh, the province of Nisibis was acquired by the Roman Empire. Sozomen writes that when the inhabitants of Nisibis asked for help because the Persians were about to invade the Roman territories and attack them, Emperor Julian refused to assist them because they were Christianized, and he told them that he would not help them if they did not return to paganism.

In 363 Nisibis was ceded to the Sassanian Empire after the defeat of Julian. Before that time the population of the town was forced by the Roman authorities to leave Nisibis and move to Amida. Emperor Jovian allowed them only three days for the evacuation. Historian Ammianus Marcellinus was an eyewitness and condemns Emperor Jovian for giving up the fortified town without a fight.

According to Al-Tabari, some 12,000 Persians of good lineage from Istakhr, Isfahan, and other regions settled at Nisibis in the fourth century, and their descendants were still there at the beginning of the seventh century. (Ṭabari, I, p. 843; tr., V, pp. 62-63; Dinavari, p. 50)

The School of Nisibis, founded at the introduction of Christianity into the city by ethnic Assyrians of the Assyrian Church of the East, was closed when the province was ceded to the Persians. Ephrem the Syrian, an Assyrian poet, commentator, preacher and defender of orthodoxy, joined the general exodus of Christians and reestablished the school on more securely Roman soil at Edessa. In the fifth century, the school became a center of Nestorian Christianity, and was closed down by Archbishop Cyrus in 489. The expelled masters and pupils withdrew once more, back to Nisibis, under the care of Barsauma, who had been trained at Edessa, under the patronage of Narses, who established the statutes of the new school. Various notable religious leaders have been associated with the school over the centuries.

The city was taken without resistance by the forces of the Rashidun Caliphate under Umar in 639 or 640 AD. Under early Islamic rule, the city served as a local administrative centre. In 717, it was struck by an earthquake and in 927 it was raided by the Qarmatians. Nisibis was captured in 942 by the Byzantine Empire but was subsequently recaptured by the Hamdanid dynasty. It was attacked by the Byzantines once again in 972. Following the Hamdanids, the city was administered by Marwanids and Uqaylids.

From its inception, the city was an important trade center for trade going north and south as well as east and west. Trade from as far away as India passed through Nisibis on its way to Europe. As a result, a group of Nabataean merchants move in, near to Nisibis so they could market goods from other places, as well as deal in the goods passing through the city.

Our research focuses on a native of Nisibis, Severus Sebokht (Classical Syriac: ܣܘܪܘܣ ܣܝܒܘܟܬ‎), also known as Seboukt of Nisibis. He was a Syrian scholar as well as a bishop who was born in Nisibis, Syria in 575 and died in 667. Although little is known about his early life, he was one of the leading figures in Syria in the 7th century. He taught at the Theological School of Nisibis, but in 612, he left that post because of a doctrinal dispute with the Syriac Church of the East, while he was a member of the Syriac Orthodox Church. He remained a resident of the monastery of Qenneshre, which was situated near the banks of the Euphrates, and focused on academic studies. One of his student, Jacob of Edessa (d. 708), was the major representative of “Christian Hellenism”. Along with religion, he was also a teacher of the philosophy of Aristotle. In 638, he wrote a major treatise on syllogisms. He also translated into Syriac the commentaries on Aristotle of Paul the Persian. During this time, the monastery of Qenneshre became the chief seat of Greek learning in western Syria.

Of Severus Sebokht’s astronomical and geographical works there are a few fragments in a manuscript now in the British Museum. (14, 538, pp. 153-155) These fragments consider such questions as whether the heaven surrounds the earth in the form of a wheel or of a sphere; the habitable and uninhabitable portions of the earth; the measurement of the heaven, the earth, and the space between them; and the motion of the sun and the moon. His treatise on the plane astrolabe was published with a French translation by M. F. Nau in the Journal Asiatique, series 9, volume 13. Sebokht also wrote a short treatise on eclipses, in which he ridicules the then accepted belief in a celestial dragon as the cause of all such phenomena. (See Notes d’Astronome Syrienne, Journal Asiatique, series 10, vol. 16, 1910.

But the most interesting of Sebokht’s writings for the student of history is undoubtedly a fragment of a manuscript (Ms., Syriac, Paris No. 346) published by M. F. Nau, in the Journal Asiatique (series 10, volume 16, page 225) in which he directly refers to the Hindu numerals. He seems to have been hurt by the arrogance of certain Greek scholars who looked down on the Syrians, and in defending the latter he claims for them the invention of astronomy. He asserts the fact that the Greeks were merely the pupils of the Chaldeans of Babylon, and he claims that these same Chaldeans were the very Syrians whom his opponents condemn. He closes his argument by saying that science is universal and is accessible to any nation or to any individual who takes the pains to search for it. It is not therefore a monopoly of the Greeks, but is international.

It is in this connection that he mentions the Hindus by way of illustration, using the following words: “ I will omit all discussion of the science of the Hindus, a people not the same as the Syrians; their subtle discoveries in this science of astronomy, discoveries that are more ingenious than those of the Greeks and the Babylonians; their valuable methods of calculation; and their computing that surpasses description. I wish only to say that this computation is done by means of nine signs. If those who believe, because they speak Greek, that they have reached the limits of science should know these things they would be convinced that there are also others who know something.” This fragment clearly shows that not only did Sebokht know something of the numerals, but that he understood their full significance, and may even have known the zero as Rabbi ben Esra did, in spite of the fact that he, too, speaks of nine numerals. There are two questions that may immediately arise: (1) How could Sebokht have obtained any information about the Hindu numerals? and (2) What are the chances that Sebokht was instrumental in introducing the numerals to the Arabian scholars?

The first of these questions may be answered very easily. Nisibis, the place where Severus lived, was the chief city (see Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography) of Mygdonia, a small district in the northeast part of Mesopotamia. It was situated in a rich and fruitful country, was long the center of a very extensive trade, and was the great northern emporium for the merchandise of the east and the west. Since the exchange of goods is always accompanied by the exchange of ideas, it is only reasonable to surmise that the different systems of numeration were known in Nisibis, where they could hardly escape the attention of a man like Sebokht, who would surely have been looking for just such information.

The second question is more difficult to answer. It may be said, however, that the weight of the evidence is in favor of Sebokht’s work being at least one of the agencies by means of which the knowledge of the numerals was transmitted to the Arabs. He was the head of his convent and occupied a commanding position in the literature of his country. He had many pupils, one of whom, Athanasius of Balad, (W. Wright, Short History of Syriae Literature, pp. 154-155) was the patriarch of the Jacobites, while such others as Jacob of Edessa (Ibid., pp. 141-154) and probably George, Bishop of the Arab Tribes,( Ibid., pp. 156-159; M. F. Nau in the Journal Asiatique, series 10, vol. 16) were well known as translators and polygraphers. We may be certain that the knowledge of the numerals possessed on the banks of the Euphrates by Severus was transmitted by him to his numerous pupils and through them to other scholars all over Syria. Since we know that Syrian scholars were employed by the caliphs as translators and educators, (Ernest Kenan, Islamisme et la science, p. 9) it would be only natural that these Syrians should impart to the Arabs, among other facts relating to the sciences, the knowledge of the Hindu numerals.

It was in astronomical matters, however, that Severus was preeminent. Syrian astronomy was predominantly Ptolemaic, and Severus himself stands as an important figure in passing on Greek astronomical knowledge to Syrian scholars and thence to Islamic civilization. He was familiar with Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, and there is some indication that he translated the Almagest into Syriac. Severus was an important link in the transmission of the Greek tradition of the astrolabe to the east. In several passages in his astronomical works, he positions himself firmly on the side of scientific methodology and opposes speculative astrology. Severus made two major contributions to astronomy. The first, a Treatise on the Astrolabe, is based on a lost work by Theon of Alexandria, the contents of which Severus preserved in his own work.

Written in 660, it is in two parts. The first is a general description, including information about the following basic elements of the instrument – the disks, the spider, the diopter, the zones, and related aspects of the physical and mechanical parts. Instructions on its actual use comprise the second part of the work, divided into 25 chapters, of which two (12, 20) are missing. These chapters cover all the applications of the instrument – determining the hour of the day and night (1–3), finding the longitude of the Sun, Moon, and planets and the latitude of the Moon (4–6),checking the instrument (7–8), ascertaining the rising and setting times of various signs (9–10, 25)and the length of daylight during the course of the year (11), locating the geographical longitude and latitude of cities and establishing the differences of local noons (13–15), fixing the ascensions on the right sphere (16), finding latitudes of the observer and of each climate (17–18), estimating the longitude and latitude of stars and their first and last visibility (19, 21), observing the ecliptic and the declination of the Sun (22–23), and recognizing the five zones on the celestial and terrestrial spheres (24).

Severus’s other astronomical work (generally entitled Treatise on the Constellations ) was written in 660, subsequent to that on the astrolabe. Eighteen original chapters are extant. The work begins with five chapters forming a scientific critique of astrological and poetic claims about the origins and significance of the constellations. In them, Severus shows that the figures of the constellations are not arranged in the heavens through natural means but rather are a result of human imagination. Importantly, Chapter 4 features extracts from the Phaenomena of Aratus concerning many of the constellations. The remaining 13 chapters (6–18) are devoted to a scientific analysis of the heavens and the Earth. Here Severus enumerates the 46 constellations and their noteworthy stars and explains their various motions and their rising and settings. He also discusses the celestial geography of the Milky Way and the ten “circles” of the heavens, including the tropics, the equator, the meridian, the horizon, and the ecliptic. Three chapters (14–16) examine extensively the seven climatic zones, their location and extent, their relationship to the Sun, and the length of the days and nights in each, the latter in accordance with Ptolemy’s Handy Tables. In the final two chapters, Severus treats the extent of the Earth and the sky and considers the populated and uninhabited regions of the Earth. In 665, Severus appended to this work nine additional chapters, designed to answer a variety of astronomical, cosmological, and mathematical questions posed by Basil of Cyprus, a visiting cleric. Included are treatments of the conjunctions of planets and of various points about climatic zones, the astrolabe, the determination of the date of Easter in April 665, and the date of the birth of Christ.

I created this article as part of my private research, to demonstrate that the Eastern Churches were not only interested in science, astronomy and mathematics, but that the church and its schools were principle methods of dispensing this knowledge throughout the Middle East during the early days of Islam.

Dan Gibson

Note: A great deal of this paper was adapted from “New Light on our Numerals. By Mr. Jekuthial Ginsburg, 1917, and also from: Severus Sebokht [Sebokt, Sebukht, Seboht], by John M. McMahon (

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