When the classical academies at Athens and Alexandria were closed down under Christian rule, Harran’s world famous center of learning became a refuge for scholars from across the ancient world with over 8,000 students gathering here.
Harran University was the first Islamic institution of its kind, and a world-renowned center of learning in the ancient world. Even after the Islamic conquest, Harran was home to an amorphous, syncretistic, and decidedly non-pious intellectual environment, regarded with disdain by the good Christians of Edessa, who derided the city as “Hellenopolis.” But it was this syncretistic atmosphere that proved key to Harran’s greatness, providing a fertile ground for the intellectual and religious traditions that were elsewhere rejected as heresies. Thus, when the Athenian academy was abolished in 529 CE, Harran University became a refuge for classical philosophers, astrologers, and mathematicians from across the ancient world. The University was a key locus in the transmission and preservation of classical Greek learning, whose texts were translated into Syriac and then Arabic.
It was perhaps this intellectual abundance that led Harran’s Muslim rulers to countenance the strange religious practices of Harran’s people, and to extend to them the tolerance usually reserved for “people of the book” (Jews and Christians). In the tenth century, a Christian chronicler named Bar Hebraeus wrote, with no small degree of wonder, that the city’s Muslim governor,
“permitted the pagans of Harran to perform their mysteries openly, and at length they arrived at such a pitch of boldness that they decked out an ox in costly apparel, and gave him a crown of flowers, and they hung little bells on his horns, and they walked him around the bazaars while men sang songs and played pipes; and in this manner they offered him up as a sacrifice to their gods.”
In permitting such displays of popular piety, Harran’s Muslim governors also fostered the conditions under which classical science and philosophy could flow into Islamic thought. Indeed, the University reached its zenith under Muslim rule during the 8th and 9th centuries, when it produced such eminent scholars as Thabit ibn Qurra (a renowned mathematician, astronomer, and translator) and al-Battani (the first to calculate the distance between the earth and the moon).