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Persien, das Land und Seine Bewohner; Ethnograpische Schilderungen[i]

















About the Author:[ii]   
Jakob Eduard Polak - Austrian physician; born 1818 at Gross-Morzin, Bohemia; died Oct. 7, 1891; studied at Prague and Vienna (M.D.). About 1851, when an envoy of the Persian government went to Vienna to engage teachers for the military school at Teheran, then about to be organized, Polak presented himself as a candidate. He arrived in the Persian capital in 1851, much impaired in health by the long voyage; and, pending the organization of the school, studied the language of the country.

In spite of the many obstacles which he encountered—particularly the defective state of medical science, which was not then taught in class, and the Islamic prohibition against the dissection of bodies—Polak soon achieved a reputation in Persia, and enjoyed the especial confidence of Shah Nasir-ed-Din. At first he lectured in French, with the aid of an interpreter; but after a year he was able to lecture in Persian, and later published in Persian a work on anatomy. He compiled also a medical dictionary in Persian, Arabic, and Latin, in order to provide a system of terminology. Finally he founded a state surgical clinic containing sixty beds. A serious illness in 1855 obliged him to give up his professional work; but he continued his literary activity.

As physician to the shah, Polak occupied a high position. About 1861 he returned to Vienna, and whenever the shah visited Austria Polak greeted him at the frontier. His "Persien, das Land und Seine Bewohner; Ethnograpische Schilderungen," appeared at Leipzig in 1865.

About the Book:
His book ‘Persien, das Land und Seine Bewohner; Ethnograpische Schilderungen[iii] (Briefly - Iran and Iranians)  published in German in 1865 contains interesting facts and perspective on the lives of 19th century Iranians.  Although Dr. Polak does not seem to have had much grounding in Zoroastrianism, his research into Iranian culture ultimately took him there.  He provides informative perspective on Zarathushtrian thought and norms. 

Based on the statistics he produces in his books of the patients he had treated and his direct references, it appear Dr. Polak did not meet any living Zarathushtis in Iran during his tenure there.  He seems to have made serious effort to research circumstances surrounding the livelihood of Zarathushtis of Iran and reports interesting facts about them in his book.

In Chapter 4 of his book, under the title “Farming and Animal Domestication” he ponders the question of how is that more than 1/3 the population of 19th century Iran live as nomads.  This question puzzles him, since it is a well known fact, a point Dr. Polak alludes to in his book, that Ancient Iran (exemplified by Sassanian Iran) was a land fully settled with many cities and untold number of villages.  Where one village ended another one started.  [The one exception was the traveling musician-entertainers (the forefathers of European gypsies) who were brought in from India by the mandate of  King Behram Gur in an effort to increase the level of happiness for his people.]

Jakob Polak analyzes this question and comes up with the following conclusion as to what transpired that caused such a drastic change.  He observes:      “Zarathushtra’s teaching that prevailed in Iran until the introduction of Islam, very wisely emphasized agriculture above other industries.  The result being that ancient Iranians, despite the arid climate and low rain drop in their land came up with an extensive system of irrigation that resulted in precious and scarce water being tapped and used for agriculture all over their land.  They also took great care with growing vegetation and trees. Trees and vegetation absorb humidity from the air and  prevent the earth from losing its vitality.  Clean water being so critical to growing vegetation, and Zarathushtra considers keeping the water pure and in circulation, and taking care of trees, vegetation, and the nature a religious duty of all.” 

”The third necessary component for growing vegetation is the life giving rays of Sun and Fire, an element whose care is much emphasized in the Zoroastrian religion.  The Zoroastrian calendar is very much in harmony with nature, as evidenced by the first day of their year being the day of rejuvenation of nature, and every day of their calendar being dedicated to one of the Izads or live-giving attributes of existence.”

Dr. Polak goes on to say. “Islam on the other hand has a totally different outlook. It is true that prophet Mohamed recommended to his followers the use of fresh water for performing their religious rituals (Vossu, ghosel),  however, Islamic rules permit the use of any kind of water, even still water and water from swaps infected and polluted.  Emphasize on keeping waters pure, respecting harmony with nature gets no accord from Islam.   Once the Iranians lost the old belief in caring for waters and environment, the live sustaining clean water and vegetation did not receive the care it needed, and deforestation of Iran in post-Islamic epoch got underway. Many of the elaborate system of underground water aqueducts   ancient Iranians had devised for agricultural use, went out of commission due to lack of care, and what had been fertile agricultural land turned into deserts.”

“In step with introduction of Islam, the nomadic and tent-dwelling way of live was introduced into Iran by the conquering Arabs which unfortunately took hold.”

Ferdowsi the great Iranian poet-patriot summarizes facts surrounding the above unfortunate transformation in one of his couplets in the context of the Last Letter of Rustam Farrokhzad[iv] to his brother that is believed to have been written three days before the fate making battle of Qadisiyyah between Imperial Sassanian army and Arab forces waging the banner of Islam broke out.

“Keshavarz Ganji Shavad, bee honar
   Najat o’ bozorgy neyaid bekar”

‘The farmer turns into a war monger loses useful skills
   Upkeep of ancestral norms, and nobility will no longer be valued.’

Dr. Polak who seems to have been absorbed into his Iranian studies, returned to Iran once more in 1882 and finally settled in Vienna where he engaged in teaching Persian language/literature rather than practicing medicine.  

During his tenure in Iran, he performed the first ever biopsy in Iran’s recent history on a European who had died of suspicious causes.  He also brought and introduced  sugar-beet seeds for the first time into Iran.

In explaining that in writing the book he preferred to rely on his own observations/findings than to use other references, he borrows a couplet from the Iranian poet, Saeedi to make a poignant point to Iranians.[v]

“Kohan jameh khish pirastan
   Beh az jameh auriit khastan”

“Renovating your ancient cover is better
   than borrowing from your current cover”

[i] This article was produced and posted on Oct. 15, 2004
[ii] Biographical information produced by Isidore Sinder, and Emil Jelinek is reproduced courtesy of JewishEncyclopedia.com
[iii] A Persian translation of the book rendered by Kaikavous Jehandari was published by Kharazmi Press in Tehran, 1982
[iv]  Spahbod Rustam Farrukh-Hormazd
[v] When he first arrived in Iran, Dr. Polak would communicate with Iranians in French.  However, in time he gained mastery of Persian language and literature so much so that when he returned to Australia and settled in Vienna, he engaged in teaching Persian language and literature rather than practice of medicine.

He represented that Farsi (Persian) being of Indo-Germanic family of languages, makes its learning simple for German speaking people.