Healing Traditions from Ancient Egypt & The Middle East

The Middle East offers a rich legacy of healing traditions. The first ever recorded use of herbs was noted by the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus in 1500 B.C., and remains the oldest surviving record of herbal therapies to date. The ancient Egyptians were shaman-physicians who believed disease resulted from supernatural forces. Further, they were skilled surgeons with in-depth knowledge of anatomy due to their mummification and embalming practices. During mummification, they removed the brain, lungs, pancreas, liver, spleen, heart and intestines. They understood the functions of these organs with the exception of the heart and brain (which they believed had opposite functions, similar to the Chinese belief).

Ancient Egyptians strongly believed in the power of body purification for health. Bathing rituals, shaving one’s head, and the restriction of impure foods (like raw fish) were employed as health maintenance techniques and to prevent parasite infection. Dream interpretation was used to find the cause and cures for an illness. Faith healing and magic were the main medicines of the era. However, the Egyptian healing compendium consisted of a wide variety of plant, animal and mineral based remedies, including yeast which was recommended for digestive problems and ulcers.

While there were no medical schools in ancient Egypt, physicians received years of training at the temples. Their specialities included dealing with problems of infertility, contraception and difficult childbirth. Travelling Greek scholars, including Pliny and Herodotus, studied their medical practices and knowledge of anatomy, and incorporated their use in the modern era.

The Development of Unani Medicine

The Arabs were renowned pharmacists and herbalists, highly adept at medicinal herb blending. They were also avid traders, introducing Middle Eastern spices like nutmeg, saffron, and cloves into Europe and Asia. Arab traditions were brought into Europe after the fall of Rome during the Arab invasions and the rise of Islam.

In the 7th century, the Arab physician, Avicenna, expanded upon Galen’s humoral theory of the body and the works of Hippocrates. His book, The Canon of Medicine, was the most important work of the time. Avicenna viewed disease as an imbalance of the bodily humours rather than the result of supernatural phenomenon. Avicenna felt that Allah created four basic types of people who could be characterized according to the humours: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. With roots in Ayurveda, an individual was thought to possess elements of each humour, with one humour playing the predominant role. A person’s primary humour was used not only to determine the best modes of healing, but also the best job choices and relationships.

Avicenna’s great works led to development of Unani medicine, still widely practiced in the Arab world and India. Unani medicine relied on detailed patient evaluation, including pulse diagnosis. The air and one’s breathing; food; exercise and rest; sleep and wakefulness; digestion and elimination; and a person’s emotional state were considered key factors in health and disease. The stomach was considered the source of most disease, and utmost importance was placed on proper diet and improved digestion.

The ancient Arab pharmacopeia was extensive, with notes on plant origins, properties and preparation methods.  Arab pharmacists were highly regarded in their society, and were licensed and monitored by the state. They were familiar with an abundance of herbal medicines like senna, sandalwood, camphor, myrrh, cloves and tamarind. They paid close attention to the importance of palatability, introducing novel preparations techniques as herbal syrups and juleps. Further, they employed rose or orange water as pleasant tasting bases for herbal medicines.

Arabian hospitals (called bimaristans) and pharmacies were unsurpassed for their level of care and expertise. By the 11th century, the Arab world offered travelling clinics and dispensaries for those who were too ill to travel. Hospital care was free to everyone and medical salaries were fixed by the state. The Arabs even developed first aid centers for the wartime wounded, and provided specialized medical care for prisoners. Arab physicians also championed the theory of infections, leading to development of quarantines as a way to limit the spread of disease. Their great accomplishments and contributions to modern medicine, especially to hospital care, cannot be understated.

To Life-long health,

Linda Page