Harran, once known as Carrhae, is a dusty town in southeastern Turkey, on the border with Syria, a location that has existed as an uninterrupted human settlement since the Neolithic period. It was part of the northernmost region of Mesopotamia at the time of the Assyrian Empire, and for centuries it served as a cultural hinge between the Byzantine and the Islamic world, in addition to having been an important commercial exchange point and forced passage of caravans of camels loaded with merchandise. However, its main virtue is to have served as cultural and religious capital of the Sabians, the last pagans of the Middle East. This mysterious people spoke Syriac as their native language, adored the stars and gave birth to some of the greatest mathematicians and astrologers of the high Middle Ages among its conical houses.
A famous story tells us that the Muslim caliph al-Ma’mun (786-833) went through Harran with his army towards a campaign. Observing the Sabians had seven temples dedicated to the worship of planets and luminaries, warned them that if they had not yet converted to Islam or to any of the monotheistic religions tolerated by the Qur’an by the time he returns from war, then he would destroy them. Concerned about this terrible threat, the Sabians sent emissaries to Baghdad to consult with Muslim jurists, learning that Koranic law endured the faithful of three religions, apart from the Islamic ones: the Jews, the Christians and the Sabians. Of course, nobody knew in all the Earth who the sacred book referred to with this last denomination. Neither fools nor careless, the inhabitants of Harran decided to identify themselves as Sabians, claiming that their founding prophet had been Hermes, the same one that Muslims call Idris and the Jews Enoch. On the other hand his sacred book, they explained, was the Corpus Hermeticum, next to Plato’s dialogues which they also held in high esteem. They would roll back their religion to such remote times that it preceded Patriarch Abraham, called Ibrahim by the Arabs.
Fortunately for the Sabians, the Caliph did not return alive from that military campaign, but the encounter with his threats had allowed them to find a Koranic excuse to continue existing under a disguise. In practice, the Sabian religion was a polytheistic astral cult, a direct heir to the astrolatry of Babylon, who after the conquests of Alexander the Great had become Hellenized enough to mix easily with hermetic and platonic ideas. That Greek substrate gave their wisdom a certain tone of universality, along with a more refined philosophical discourse. The lunar god Sin was the protector of Harran, and possessed the most colorful and prominent temple of the seven buildings. They offered sacrifices and prayers amid the thick smoke of incense and burning myrrh.
We know that there were two different groups of Sabians. There were the pagans of the popular cult, quite superstitious and rudimentary, who surely did not distinguish themselves much from the polytheists that Mohammed had expelled from around Mecca a few centuries earlier. On the other side were the learned Sabians, a small group of scholars, astrologers, mathematicians, translators and physicians such as Thabit Ibn Qurra (826-901). Their wisdom reached such a level that they were appointed as advisors to the rulers of the Abbasid Caliphate and illustrious members of the House of Wisdom of Baghdad (Beit al-Hikma).
One of the last among these great sages was Al-Battani (858-929), to whom we owe the calculation of the tropic year with stunning precision for the time: 365 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes and 24 seconds, with an error of only 2 minutes and 22 seconds. Al-Battani ended giving up to surrounding pressures and converted to Islam, like many of the Sabians after him. It is known that this people maintained their astral religion until the beginning of the 11th century, when the latter embraced the faith of their Arab neighbors or died. To them we owe, among other things, the survival of hermetic texts, both philosophical and technical. They also made the first translations from Greek and Syriac to the Arabic language of numerous texts by Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. Harran served as a temporary refuge to Damascius, Simplicius and five other Neoplatonic philosophers who had been fleeing from Athens after the definitive closure of the Platonic Academy, a closing forced by the sad edict of Justinian I, Christian emperor of Byzantium. Thus the small city became the nostalgic scene of the last Greek pagans and their heirs, the last Mesopotamian pagans.
It seemed right to honor them with these few lines, since I owe them so much. The image shows part of the archaeological site of Harran, with the arch and walls in ruins of what was a mosque built in medieval times. In the background the so-called “astrologers’ tower”, probably an old minaret. Of the seven temples to the planets there are only a few foundations that, after the destruction propitiated by the Muslims, were used as a base to erect the walls of an Islamic university, now also disappeared.