Aga Khan Museum’s collection includes an Arabic folio of the famous De Materia Medica

De Materia Medica
De Materia Medica, Spain, 12th-13th century

The medicine of medieval Islamic civilization was built primarily on Greek medicine, particularly the writing of Hippocrates (460-375 BC), a physician who is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine, and Galen (130 AD-200 AD), a prominent physician, surgeon and philosopher.

Greek knowledge was a trampoline for the vigorous scientific activity in Islamic civilizations. Islamic scientists and philosophers were engaged not only in preservation of the knowledge of the past, but also in advancing it, formulating new discoveries and making significant contributions to medicine and other fields.

AKM_Folio
Image: Aga Khan Museum

One of the earliest scientific manuscripts to be translated from Greek to Arabic was Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica (“On Medical Material”) as it is called in Latin. Pedanius Dioscorides (40 AD – 90 AD), a Greek physician who resided in Rome, wrote his treatise on medicinal plants in the first century. This treatise was a compendium of all the materia medica then known from Greek medicine and other sources, describing some 600 plants and their possible medical uses. The manuscript was translated into Arabic in Baghdad in the ninth century and became the foremost classical source of modern botanical terminology. The original Greek manuscript, which was copied in at least seven languages, served as the primary text of pharmacology until the end of the fifteenth century.

The folio here is from a rare dispersed thirteenth-century Arabic copy of the text, in which are depicted various medicinal herbs and roots. The page also shows a single-stemmed plant with red spiky blossoms, and the text states that this medicinal plant is used in the treatment of skin disorders including pustules, itching and ulcers.

References:
Pedanius Dioscorides, Encyclopaedia Britannica
Aga Khan Museum Online Gallery

Research by Nimira Dewji

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