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The Sabians of Harran

By Kemal Menemencioglu

This Article was written for and published in the bilingual Turkish
magazine Consensus.

When we mention Anatolian civilizations

very few of us think of Harran. The city
of Harran is virtually a forgotten spot in
the geography of Anatolia. Whereas in
reality, it is a place of great importance
having a very significant role in the
development of civilization. It may
surprise you to know that a 11,500-
year-old temple was discovered in
Göbeklitepe, and a 13,500-year-old
statue, the world’s oldest, was
discovered during an excavation in
Balıklıgöl. Assistant Professor A. Cihat
The World's Oldest Statue
Kürkçüoglu of Harran University claims
that the history of civilization began in the Urfa (a city just 45
kilometers from Harran). When we consider that civilization began in
Egypt in Mesopotamia roughly 5,000 years ago we can have an idea
on how these archeological finds have rocked the foundations of our
understanding of history.

The city of Harran was believed to have been founded in 2000 B.C. as
a merchant outpost of Ur. The name "Harran-U" means "caravan" or
"crossroad" in Sumerian and Akkadian. The Bible records that
Abraham stayed in Harran after leaving Ur, which some claim was
actually Urfa. Though there are claims that Harran got its name from
Haran the brother of Abraham. Other than the similarity of name this
is not substantiated. Furthermore, we learn that Terah, the father of
Abraham and Haran died and was buried in Haran, and that a branch
of the family remained there. Later Abraham sent a servant to Harran
to obtain a wife for his son Isaac.

Though Harran, once a fabulous city, is now in ruins, we are told that
not only was this city built over an area where the first world's cities
with the first temples rose, and where agriculture was first started, but
hosted perhaps the world's oldest university in the world. Many
philosophers, scientists, such as Al-Battanai, who calculated the
distance from the Earth to the Moon, Thabit ibn Qurrah, who translated
Greek classics and scientific works into Arabic, and wrote on
mathematics and astronomy, and the physicist and chemist Jabir ibn
Hayyan to name just a few of the figures who rose to prominence in
the Harran school.

At a time when Christianity

was rapidly spreading
throughout the known world.
Harran became the last pagan
enclave, and as the the seats
of learning in Alexandria fell
in the wake of the new
religion, and the Academies
and schools of philosophy
were closed down,
philosophers sought refuge in
Harran, where their books
and teachings were
preserved. Later many of
them were translated into
Arabic. Some by the so called
"Sabians of Harran", ushering
a golden age in the Islamic
world. Later these works were
to make their way into
Europe, directly resulting in
the Renaissance along with
those works that were
preserved in monasteries.
Furthermore such
underground movements as
the Rosicrucians that fought
Ruins of the Harran University destroyed in 1251
for the reformation of state
institutions, religion and science claimed their source of knowledge
from the mysterious Damkar, believed to be a Sabian center of
learning. The secular, democratic and humanistic principles of the
modern world are due to such struggles which have taken centuries.

The first church and the first Mosque in Anatolia was built there, but
the Harranians were famed as Sabians, "Star Worshippers." Both
Jewish and Islamic sources claim that Abraham was himself a star
worshiper, and there is a mutually story told that after contemplating
the setting of Sun and the Moon, he came to the conclusion that there
must be one God. There was a great temple dedicated to the moon
god Sin at Harran, and it is claimed that Harran was one of seven cities
each of which was dedicated to one of the seven planets. Such a
system of astrolatry could be the oldest religion of man. Ancient
structures like Stonehenge and the pyramids are known to be
constructed on the basis of very fine astronomical calculations such
planetary and stellar movements, seasons and eclipse. It is also the
source for astrology which seeks to establish a unity between the
greater phenomenon in the macrocosmos, and the lesser phenomenon
in the microcosmos (man).

In 639 A.D. Harran came under Islamic rule The Caliph Marwan (744-
750 AD) moved to Harran and brought the Umayyad Empire from
Damascus to Harran. In 830 A.D. It is said that the Caliph al-Ma'mum
while passing through Harran during an expedition to Byzantium,
asked the Harranians what religion they belonged to. They said, "We
are Harranians," and made it clear that they were neither Muslims,
Christians or Jews, the Caliph said that was not good
enough, they had to be either Muslims, Jews, Christians or
Sabians, as only these are lawfully "People of the Book"
according to the Koran. The Caliph continued on his journey and said
they when he got back, they better convert to one these or it would be
lawful to shed the blood of idolaters. After consultations the anxious
Harranians were advised by someone clever to say "We are Sabians,"
and thereby the Pagan "Sabians" were able to continue their faith
undisturbed until in 1251, when Harran was destroyed by a Mongol

The Harranian school drew from many resources, they had their roots
in Chaldea and schools of the Magi; they harbored priceless Greek
scrolls and which would have otherwise may have been lost. They
were influenced by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They revered
Hermes Trismegistus as theri prophet and the Corpus Hermeticum as
their holy book. Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be an ancient
great Egyptain sage, perhaps Imhotep, who as the founder of writing
and the author of many books on science, medicine, theology, ethics,
astrology, alchemy and magic. In the Hermeticum we have his
teaching in the form of mystic visions, He has been equated with the
Greek god Hermes, and the Egyptian god Thoth or Tehuti, but the
Hermeticum portrays a divinely inspired teacher. He has also been
equated with Enoch in the Bible, and Idris in the Koran. Through the
Hermeticum's monotheistic teachings, the Harranians where able to
claim themselves as one of the "People" of the book, though Sabian
more to

Ruins of the Harran University destroyed in 1251

Mandaians of Iraq, who are followers of John the Baptist.

Seven years after the conquest of Constantinople in 1460, the ruler of

Florence, Cosimo de' Medici obtained a rare manuscript. This was but
one of many that made its way to the West from Byzantium after its
fall. Medici immediately told Marsilio Ficino to delay his translation of
Plato and to begin translating this new manuscript without delay. This
manuscript was the Corpus Hermeticum, which may have been passed
into Byzantine hands from Harran. The work had wide influence. There
was even a suggestion that it should be placed into the Bible. However,
eventually the interest died down when it was claimed that the
Hermeticum, which was written in Greek, was a recent work influenced
by Christianity and Neo-Platonism. However this did not stop the
spread of various Hermetic movements. Today, with the discovery of a
Hermetic text in Nag Hamada, scholarship is confirming an Egyptian
root for the Corpus Hermeticum.

It is interesting that Hermeticism as a cult of knowledge was upheld in

Harran, which as a cultural crossroad has embodied many different
scientific and spiritual enrichments. Could Harran be the last inheritor
of a lost knowledge thqt at one time was spread throughout the world?
It is known that the Sabians played a part in Ataturk's theory of a
Solar Cult in the ancient world and it is believed to be the source of
Islamic practices such as the structures ans timing of fasting and
prayers. For instance, the numbers 19 and 99 which play such a
prominent role in Islam are the number of years when the solar and
lunar calendars coincide.