The Shadow of Harran

In what is now southern Turkey stand the remnants of a city called Harran. Part of long ago Babylon, Harran was once the site of the Temple of the Moon god-Sin, one of seven temples in seven cities sacred to the seven classical planets.  Unlike the other great celestial temples, though, the Temple of the Moon in Harran continued to host astral rites long after the coming of Muhammed. From the 6th until the 11th centuries C.E., a wild Hermetic syncretism bloomed, tended carefully by a people who called Hermes their prophet, and themselves Sabians.

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While the Caliphates which enclosed it fought to extend the reach of Islam all over the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern worlds, the old ways persisted quietly in Harran.  The practice of even-then ancient Babylonian planetary rites melded and synergized with the mighty pagan inheritance of Hellenism, brought to Harran by Hermeticists and Neoplatonists exiled from the Byzantine empire for their apostasy.  For nearly half a millenia, this single settlement developed and maintained a unique synthesis of Neo-platonism, Hermeticism, Astrology, Alchemy and Babylonian astral magic.

Extant since at least the 19th century B.C.E., Harran has a long and storied history.  It spent much of the ensuing millennia in Assyrian hands before becoming part of the Neo Babylonian Empire.  Under the rule of the Neo-Babylonians it became a major center for the worship of the Moon god, Sin.  Control passed to the Persians, to the Greeks, to the Romans, and then to the Islamic Caliphate.

Though there is a wealth of historical fact surrounding Harran, the city is also host to legends. According to the Islamic historian Al-Masudi and the Christian historian Gregory Bar Hebraeus, Harran had reputedly been built by Cainan, an ancestor of the Biblical Abraham, who named it after his son- Harran.  According to the Book of Jubilees, Cainan found carved on the rocks an antediluvian inscription preserving the science of astrology.  This art was said to have been taught by the Watchers, the rebel angels of a time washed away.   The Sefer ha-Yashar, a Hebrew midrash, repeats this story.  These tales of astrological secrets carved into stone, and their location in Harran, is likely based on the existence of cuneiform tablets containing the elements of the Babylonian’s sophisticated astral omenology and records of their astronomical observations.

Older tales, such as those told in the Cave of Treasures, tell of Harran as the place where Tammuz, the Sumerian god of vegetation, was slain after being pursued there.  Tammuz, earlier called Dumuzi, was the consort of Inanna, and plays a key role in her most widely known myth- that of her descent into the underworld.  Tammuz’ death was ritually mourned throughout much of ancient Mesopotamia.  This yearly practice, which followed the summer solstice, was, however, continued in Harran until well into the 10th century C.E..

Jabir_ibn_HayyanThe Sabians of Harran played a crucial but often under-recognized role in the transmission and development of astrological, alchemical and magical traditions. Harran acted as a crucial bridge for the Hermetic arts and sciences, ferrying them from the decay of Byzantine Rome all the way to the shores of Medieval Europe half a millennia later.  Many all of the greatest Arabic astrologers, alchemists and magicians can be shown to have spent time in Harran.  Without them, astrology would not have survived the West’s dark ages, nor would the complexities of alchemy or the high cunning of astral sorceries have been passed on.

Harran hosted what were perhaps the sole inheritors and practitioners of Babylonian astral magic at a time when both the Christian and Islamic worlds were being steadily purged of them.  Yet the Sabians were not pagan fundamentalists.  Hellenistic influences abound in what record we have of the Sabians’ practice.  They embraced the metaphysics of Neo-Platonism, the experimental philosophy of Hermeticism and the science of Hellenistic astrology, forging a sophisticated framework for the Babylonian astral magick they inherited.  The Gayat Al Hakim, also called the Picatrix, a legendary planetary grimoire, emerged from this elegant syncretism, and may testify to its intricacies best.

Though Harran developed this synthesis for over half a millenia, researchers have been slow to uncover it.  Existing, as it did, in the midst of a period of unprecedented Islamic dominance over the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern worlds, the Sabians’ apostasy put them in danger repeatedly.  The Temple of the Moon faced persecution many times, suffering purges from the Byzantines in the West and the Caliphates in the East.

Once established as part of the Umayyad Caliphate, the Harranians were forced to find a place in an Islamic world.  At that time it was permissible not be Muslim- a people living within the boundary of the Caliphate had merely to declare their faith and pay the accompanying tax.   Yet the faith declared had to be one of those listed in the Qu’ran.

The Harranians identified Hermes as their prophet.  Hermes was at that time syncretized with Idris, a Qu’ranic prophet, as their own.  Intriguingly, Idris was also identified with the Biblical Enoch and said, like him, to have ascended to heaven without dying.  Their prophet declared, the Sabians of Harran were thus an entire people dedicated to Hermeticism, perhaps the only one in the world’s history.

Though they found the name of a prophet to shield, the Sabians of Harran were nonetheless a religious minority in the midst of a great empire.  It is therefore of little surprise that there is little testimony by the Harranians as to their own practices.  Instead it is from the works of those who were known to have studied in Harran and the first hand accounts of other visitors that speak to us about the ways of this strange Hermetic settlement.  Many Arabic astrologers mention the Sabians, and several of that period’s giants, such as Abu Mashar, are known to have spent time in Harran.  The magical theory of the Sabians can be shown to have had a massive influence on through Al Kindi, whose work “On Stellar Rays” influenced magicians for a millennia after his death, among them the influential Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and the glorious heretic Marcello Ficino.   In alchemy, Jābir ibn Hayyān was known to have spent time among the Sabians, and his work displays the unique fusion of astrology, Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, Aristotelianism and Galenic medicine developed in Harran.  Jabir’s work hugely influential work spawned a plague of pseudonymous books, and more than 3000 texts have come to be attributed to him.

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From the present we can see only the shadows the great and strange works of the Sabians cast on the walls of history, for though Harran had endured since the 2nd millennia B.C.E., the 2nd millennia of the Common Era was not so kind.  In 1032-33, the Temple of the Moon and much of the urban population was destroyed in rural uprising.  The temple was rebuilt in 1060, but to serve as a military fortress.  Finally, in the 1260’s, the city was annihilated by Mongols, and what little of the population remained were relocated in 1271.

Though the import of the Harranian synthesis is clear, we have few of their own words by which we can know them, for what words we do have come from the reports of others about them.  One exception to this Thābit ibn Qurraa Sabian, a Sabian Hermeticist responsible for translating a great many Greek texts and known for his original work in mathematics and astronomy.   Gregory Bar Hebraeus, a 13th century high official in the Syriac Orthodox church, quotes from the righteous prose of  Thābit ibn Qurraa’s writings:

“Although many have been subjugated to error by means of torture, our fathers, by the hand of God, have endured and spoken valiantly, and this Blessed City has never been defiled with the error of Nazareth.  We are the heirs and the transmitters to our heirs of heathenism, which is honored gloriously in this world.  Lucky is he who bears the burden with a sure hope for the sake of heathenism.  Who has made the world to be inhabited and filled it with cities except the good men and kings of heathenism?  Who has constructed harbors and canals?  Who has made manifest the occult sciences?  On whom has dawned the divinity which gives divinations and teaches the knowledge of future events except the wise men of the heathen?  It is they who have pointed out all these things, and have made to arise the medicine of souls, and have made to shine forth their redemption; and it is they also who have made to arise the medicine for bodies.  They have filled the world with the correctness of modes of life and with the wisdom which is the beginning of excellence.  Without these

of heathenism the world would be an empty and needy place, and it would have been enveloped in sheer want and misery.”

About Austin Coppock

Austin Coppock is a writer, consulting astrologer and independent researcher. He holds Bachelor’s degrees in Social Science and Philosophy from Antioch College. He is the author of hundreds of articles on astrology, one of which will be appearing in Clavis Journal, volume 2, Astrological Almanacs for 2011, 2012 and 2013, as well as a forthcoming title from Three Hands Press. His work explores the practical and historical connections between astrological and magical traditions. His website can be found at austincoppock.com.

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