Herbalism of the Middle East: Maghreb and the Golden Age of Islamic Medicine (8th – 14th Centuries)

Middle Eastern Herbalism

A Working Document



Lady Esa is not a doctor, and the information presented here is for academic purposes only.

This class will be a departure from the British Isles, into the Middle East.  What a big change!  I also foresee a departure from my usual themes of women’s work into a more patriarchal medicine tradition, coming from what I know of medieval Islamic and Arabic cultures.

Maghribi Track: Pennsic University 2017

The Maghreb represents the Berber lands of northwestern Africa west of Egypt; also known to Europeans as the Barbary States.  This region includes the Atlas Mountains and coastal plains of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.  The people, the Maghrebis, were commonly known as Moors.  Some definitions of the region include Moorish Spain.   The Sahara Desert created a natural boundary, and contributed to the isolation of the Maghrebi people.

satellite image of north africa with modern borders

Setting a medieval stage, the Berbers inhabited the region beginning no later than 10,000BC (probably earlier).  Despite relative isolation, between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert, Magrebi people had established trade with Mediterranean countries going all the way back to Carthage (Phoenicians, 1st millenium BC, who some of you might remember from Sunday School and the Old Testament).  This region became a border of the Roman empire, endured the invasion of Barbarians (Vandal Kingdom), later Byzantine rule under Emperor Justinian, and eventually, Arab control.

The Arab presence and the establishment of Islamic Berber kingdoms, and their subsequent expansion, set the stage for the trans-Saharan trade routes.  Arab languages spread, and existed along side- not replacing- Berber.  (Arab Islamic control and influence takes us through to the end of the medieval period, when the region came under Ottoman control).

The trans-Saharan trade, in the middle ages linked to the Mediterranean region, is most written about for the trade of gold, salt, and slaves.  Here, we discuss herbs.

ca. 1400 map of trade routes connecting Arabia, Mediterranean, Europe, Maghreb, and the Niger basin. (The modern territory of Niger is highlighted in yellow)

There were three particularly noteworthy routes passing through this region.

The Darb el-Arbain trade route in the eastern part of the region, from Kharga oasis and Asyut (Egypt) to Nubia was well established for the trade of spices and plants, among other things.   This particular route became known as the Forty Days Road after it was described by Herodotus as the road traversed in forty days, and it came under Roman control during the time of the Empire for its importance.

The Ghadames Road in the western part of the region traversed north from the Niger River at Gao to Ghat, Ghadames (southwest Libya), and ended at Tripoli.

The Garamantean Road, aka. the Bilma Trail, was went south of the desert near Murzuk (Libya), then turned north and passed between Alhaggar and the Tibesti Mountains, passed through the Kawar oasis and the sand dunes of Bilma (known for rock salt mining), and ended in the savannah north of Lake Chad.  This route was primarily used for slaves and ivory, and does not appear to have been important for the trade of herbs and spices.

1. Herbs of the Near East: An Index (*Maghribi emphasis)

Black Seed*

Nigella sativa, common healing herb of the Islamic world.  Black seed has a deep history of medicinal use that dates back 3000 years, and gained popularity after being referenced by the Prophet Muhammad.  Mentioned in Galen and Hippocrates.  Colloquially known as “the cure of the Prophet.”

“Use this Black Seed consistently, in light of the fact that it is a cure for each sickness, with the exception of death.” (Hadith)

Gharli: soninke: sharite, shea butter*

According to Ibn Battuta, the Shea tree is found in the West African Savannah where the women collect the nuts, prepare and sell the oil.  “If clarified, native-prepared shea butter can be used quite acceptably for European cooking”…. “to pomade the hair and to make soap.” (Hamdun, pg. 84)


Frankincense is a resin, not an herb, but a discussion of middle eastern herbalism would be incomplete without it.  Also called olibanum, this resin is primarily aromatic, used in perfumes and incense. This resin comes from trees in the Boswellia genus, and the Burseraceae family; most commonly the Boswellia sacra, B. bhaw-dajiana, B.carterii, B. frereana, B. serratta, B. thurifera from India, B. papyrifera.  In Ayurveda, frankincense is used to treat arthritis.  It is also used within traditional medicine for digestive and skin ailments.


Also a resin, myrrh was a common trade item along the eastern routes.  Myrrh resin comes from trees of the Commiphora genus, commonly cultivated in Yemen, Somalia, and Ethiopia, in particular (the Mediterranean region and Arabian peninsula in general).  Myrrh can be used as an oral antiseptic, the oil is infused into wound ointments, and can be applied to irritated skin, wounds, and bruises.  Myrrh is antiseptic and tonic, commonly used in Ayurvedic, Unani, and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Cassia / Senna 

Cassia is a broud category of spices from the ground bark of a variety of evergreen trees, including Cinnamonum cassia, C. burmanni, and C. loureiroi (cinnamon species), Osmanthus fragrans (sweet olive), and the Senna varieties: Senna obtusifolia and S. artemisiodes.  Used as a cosmetic pigment for skin and hair (henna), this herb is also a digestive stimulant.

Laurel family (Lauraceae)

The Laurel family of herbs (including True Laurel, Sweet Bay, and Grecian Laurel) are utilized for their culinary and aromatic qualities.  These leaves are evergreen and native to the Mediterranean region and southeastern Asia. Hydrosols from the Laurus nobilis are astringent, and can be used in wound care, including rashes and histamine skin reactions (hives, rashes, poison ivy, stinging nettles, etc).

Poppy (Opium)

Poppy seeds harvested from the Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) are utilized for culinary and medicinal uses.  The unripe poppy seed pods (not the seeds) carry the highest concentration of opium alkaloids, but all parts of the plant will carry some trace.


Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), also called stinking nightshade, was historically used as an anesthetic (as well as psychoactive properties- but that’s my witchcraft class).  The plant originated in the Arab world and Asia, and is documented as far back as ancient Greece where it was used as a sedative and analgesic (once again, also utilized for psychoactive properties as used by the oracles in the Temple of Apollo).


Hemlock refers to plants of the Apiaceae family, specifically the two species of A. conium, known as “poison hemlock.”  Also members of the Apiacea family are celery, parsley, and carrots.

Black Nightshade

Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) originated in southeastern Europe and Asia, later to be introduced to many new environments, including making it all the way to the New World.  Black Nightshade was documented in ancient Greece for medicinal uses, which extended throughout the Middle Ages. Black nightshade is a soporific (induces sleep), analgesic, sedative, and narcotic.   Some period documents may refer to Black Nightshade as Petty Morel, often used for sores and dropsy (inflammation and fluid retention of the soft tissue).  Ayurveda used black nightshade to treat dysentery, ulcers, and, other digestive ailments, as well as skin ailments, fevers, asthma, and tuberculosis, and as a laxative.

Lettuce Seeds

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) originating in Ancient Egypt who cultivated this weed into a usable crop.  This new crop produced seeds that were pressed into oil.  Period sources referencing lettuce abound, including ancient and medieval herbals, Hildegard in particular.  Lettuce is a narcotic, also called “sleepwort” in Anglo-Saxon references, so much so that the juice of the stems gained the nomer “lettuce opium.” In Middle Eastern medicine specifically, this herb was utilized for the treatment of typhoid, rheumatism, coughs, and mental instabilities.


2. Their Uses:

a.) Medicinal

Early Greek influences

Dioscorides in Arabic

Pedanius Dioscorides (b. 40, d.90 AD) was a Greek physician and botanist, and author of De Materia Medica, a 5 volume herbal medicine text.  Dioscorides also served as a medic in the Roman army.  This impressive medical text describes approximately 600 plant, animal, and mineral substances and the over 1,000 medicines that can be made from them.  De Materia Medica was translated into Arabic during the Middle Ages (date unknown at this time).

Galen in Arabic  

Galen serves as a pillar of the limited documentation we have available on medicine and herbalism in antiquity.  Aelius Galenus, or Claudius Galenus, was born September 129 AD and died c. 200-216AD.  He was a Greek physician, surgeon, and philospher during Roman rule.  Galen’s extensive research led to the established fields of both antatomy and pathology.  According to sources, it is only the Arabic translations of his work that survived until today (1929, M. Meyerhof).  Arabic translations of Galen may have been available to Islamic physicians as early as the 7th century , where they likely existed first in Persian or Syrian (Fuat Sezgin, 1970). According to Princeton University Press (2001,European Knowledge and its Ambitions 1500-1700) Galen was first translated into Arabic by the Syrian Christian Hunayn ibn Ishaq between 830 AD and 870 AD.

The Golden Age of Islam: The 8th-13th Centuries

The Islamic Golden Age saw a surge in every form of art and science, but here we will focus on medicine as it utilized plant materials.

Poppy (papaver somniferum) and hemp (cannabis sativa) were significant for their advancement in medicine.  Hemp was brought into Islamic Arabia via India, with heavy influence from Greek texts, likely Dioscorides (Hamarneh, 1972), where it was a treatment for earaches.

From 800 to 1000 AD, poppy (opiates) was used strictly for medicinal purposes, albeit in seemingly high doses.  It was known to have been prescribed to treat pain caused by gallbladders tones, as a fever reducer, for indigestion, eye pain, headaches, tooth pain, pleurisy (inflammation and fluid retention in the chest and lungs), and as a sleep aid.  Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari  (Persian Muslim physician, b. ca.800-830 ,d. ca. 850-870 ) writes that concentrations made from the leaves of the poppy plant were lethal and should be classified as poison (Hamarneh).

Islamic medicine was leaps and bounds ahead the use of antiseptics.  These medieval Islamic practitioners had documented knowledge about the use of antisepsis to prevent infection in surgery and in procedures involving sick patients.  Examples of this knowledge in practice included washing the patient before and after medical procedures using rose oil, wine mixed with rose oil, salt water, or vinegar and water (Pormann, , 2007), and the pioneering use of  mercuric chloride (yes, you heard right… mercury) to disinfect wounds (Fraise et. al., 2007).  For antiseptic, antibiotic, and antimicrobial properties, the following herbs were utilized: black seed, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, laurel family herbs.  As mentioned, poppy/opium was used for pain management, as well as other herbs including henbane, hemlock, soporific black nightshade, and lettuce seeds.

Also ahead of its time, Islamic medicine may have made use of anesthesia.  The pain management herbs mentioned above, particularly opiates, were observed to cause drowsiness and induce sleep.  These characteristics may have been applied to surgery, pioneering the practice of using anesthesia to prevent loss of consciousness before/during an operation.  This particular use of these drugs is conjecture on the part of many scholars in Islamic history.

The apothecary- or pharmacist- became its own established profession separate from physicians in 9th century Islamic culture. Pharmacy was seen as “an aid [to medicine] rather than a servant” -Shapur ibn Sahl (d. 869 AD).

Shapur ibn Sahl was a Persian Christian physician from the Academy of Gundisphapur who  authored the first independent text on pharmacy (“antidotes”) “Aqrabadhin,” a 22 volume text.  This text remained an authority on pharmacy well into the 20th century.

Female Practitioners

Not surprising, female practitioners were sought out in the areas of gynecology and obstetrics, for the sake of decency and modesty (Pormann, 2009).  Two noteworthy female physicians from the ibn Zuhr family are documented to have served the Almohad 12 century ruler Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al’Mansur (NIH-NLM, 1998).  The first documented female surgeon appears in illustrations in the 1465 text, Cerrahiyyetu’l-Haniyya, or, “Imperial Surgery” by Turkish Physician Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu (Shatzmiller, 1994).

This topic segues nicely into the concept of Prophetic Medicine, “al-tibba alnabawi,” or “the medicine of the Prophet.”  This doctrine provides the justification that men may treat women, and women may treat men, even if in doing so they expose the patients’ genitals within the necessary practice of medical treatment (Pormann, 2009).

The Travels of Ibn Battuta

“Ten days after our arrival we ate [—–] a porridge made from a thing like colocasia called qafi, to them it is preferable over the rest of the food.  The following morning we all became ill.  We were six in number and one died.  I went to Morning Prayer and fainted during it.  I asked one of the Egyptians for a laxative medicine.  He brought me something called baidar, made from plant roots, mixed it with aniseed and sugar and beat it up in water.  I drank it and vomited up what I had eaten with a lot of bile.  And God preserved me from destruction, but I was sick for two months.” (speaking of travels in Malli, Hamdun and King, pg. 44)

Editor’s Note: The qalqas: colocia, coco-yam, or similar root had likely not been cooked long enough.  Many roots and grains are poisonous when under cooked.  

“There are also so many lice in it that people put strings around their necks in which there is mercury which kills the lice.”

b.) Cosmetic

Henna for skin adornment and hair coloring

c.) Culinary


Strictly speaking, spices are not herbs.  In my mundane apprenticeship within traditional herbalism, spices are only included if they are used for medicinal purposes.  A very strict definition of herbalism would exclude spices altogether.  I would like to include some information on the spice trade of the near east because it is so fascinating, and many spices were indeed used medicinally, but I also don’t want this to become a class on the spice trade 🙂

Spice Trade: Pre- 13th century

Spice Route: the primary routes facilitating contact and trade between the cultures of continental EurAsia.  Spices were primarily from South Asia and transported both over land and over sea.

Incense Route: Under Arab control, frankincense, myrrh, spices, gold, ivory, pearls, gems, and textiles traveled west from Africa, India, and the Far East.  Frankincense and Myrrh, sourced from trees exclusively cultivated trees in southern Arabia, Ethiopia, and Somalia, were of great interest to the Roman world and the Mediterranean.  The Incense Route began in Shabwah in Hadhramaut, the easternmost kingdom of southern Arabia, ending in the Gaza port on the Mediterranean Sea, located north of the Sinai Peninsula.  By land, the camel caravan crossed the Arabian Desserts and passed through the ports along the coast of southern Arabia, the western edge of Arabia’s central desert about 100 miles inland from the Red Sea coast, creating a network of trade and culture exchange called “Arabia Felix;” named by Greco-Roman geographers.  We believe Strabo once stated that the caravan traffic was as great as that of an army on the move.  Pliny the Elder noted that the route was made up of 65 stages divided by halts for the camels.  The Nabateans (Kingdom of Petra) and the Arabs profited greatly from this trade route.

(2000, Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

*THANKS to Tala for the awesome references!

I had taken a few A&S classes at Pennsic hoping to get some leads on period sources, and was disappointed that the classes I attended did not have period references to support their curriculum (the henna class in particular was a completely modern class on how to use commercially sourced henna to dye hair).

Sources Cited

(in order of appearance)  Period sources in purple

Dioscorides (50-70 AD), De Materia Medica Galen, the writings of c. 162-216 AD*

*I have no clue how to properly cite Galen, so here is what you need to know: his writings are ubiquitously available in various translations and even scholarly websites for free (such as universities).  He was a practicing physician in Rome after 162 AD so it is a safe bet, I think, to attribute his writings to sometime between 162AD and when he died.  Everett, Nicholas (2012). “The Alphabet of Galen: Pharmacy from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. A Critical Edition of the Latin Text with English Translation and Commentary by Nicholas Everett,” University of Toronto Press; isbn: 978-0-8020-9550-3 (modern text consulted)M. Meyerhof (1929), Autobiographische Bruchstücke Galens aus arabischen Quellen = Fragments of Galen’s autobiography from Arabic sources. Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin 22, P. 72–86Fuat Sezgin (1970). Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums Bd. III: Medizin – Pharmazie – Zoologie – Tierheilkunde = History of the Arabic literature Vol. III: Medicine – Pharmacology – Veterinary Medicine. Leiden: E. J. Brill. pp. 68–140.

Princeton University Press 2001, European Knowledge and its Ambitions 1500-1700

Hamarneh, Sami (July 1972). “Pharmacy in medieval Islam and the history of drug addiction” (PDF). Medical History. 16 (3): 226–237. Retrieved 22 Aug 2016.

Pormann, Peter (2007). Medieval Islamic Medicine. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. pp. 115–138.

Fraise, Adam P.; Lambert, Peter A.; Maillard, Jean-Yves, eds. (2007). Principles and Practice of Disinfection, Preservation and Sterilization. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons. p. 4. ISBN 0-470-75506-7.

Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari  (Persian Muslim physician, b. ca.800-830 ,d. ca. 850-870 ), the writings of   *look for link to his original writings/early translations

The Medical Formulary or Aqrabadhin of Al-Kindi, (ca. pre-869 AD),  full text for download via the United States National Library of Medicine here.

Pormann, Peter (2009). “The Art of Medicine: Female Patients and Practitioners in Medieval Islam” (PDF). Perspectives. 373: 1598–1599. Retrieved 22 Aug 2016.

US National Library of Medicine (1998) “Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts: The Art as a Profession”. (web article)  United States National Library of Medicine. 15 April 1998

Shatzmiller, Mya (1994). Labour in the Medieval Islamic World. p. 353.  *this source discusses female midwives and wet nurses in medieval Islam*

Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu (1465),  Cerrahiyyetu’l-Haniyya (“Imperial Surgery”)

read more on this medieval medicinal manuscript here.

Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/trade/hd_trade.htm (October 2000)

Gibb, H.A.R.; Beckingham, C.F. trans. and eds. (1994). The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, A.D. 1325–1354 (Volume 4). London: Hakluyt Society. pp. 948–949. ISBN 978-0-904180-37-4.

Shaw, Ian (2002). The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 61. ISBN 0-500-05074-0.

Hamdun, Said and Noel King (2005). Ibn Battuta in Black Africa (ISBN: 978-1558763364)

Barbara G. Aston, James A. Harrell, Ian Shaw (2000). Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw editors. “Stone”, in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge, 5-77, pp. 46-47. Also note: Barbara G. Aston (1994). “Ancient Egyptian Stone Vessels”, Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 5, Heidelberg, pp. 23-26. 


Jobbins, Jenny. “The 40 days’ nightmare”, in Al-Ahram, 13–19 November 2003, Issue No. 664. Published in Cairo, Egypt.

Smith, Dr. Stuart Tyson. Nubia: History, University of California Santa Barbara, Department of Anthropology, <http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/faculty/stsmith/research/nubia_history.html>.

Burr, J. Millard and Robert O. Collins, Darfur: The Long Road to Disaster, Markus Wiener Publishers: Princeton, 2006, ISBN 1-55876-405-4, pp. 6-7.

Shillington (1995). Page 46.

Daniels, Charles (1970). The Garamantes of Southern Libya. Oleander, North Harrow, Middlesex. Page 22.

Further Reading

The Writings of Hippocrates and Galen, available online at:   http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hippocrates-the-writings-of-hippocrates-and-galen

Translations and modern publications of Dioscorides: 

  • De Materia Medica: Being an Herbal with many other medicinal materials, translated by Tess Anne Osbaldeston (2000). Ibidis Press: Johannesburg.
  • De Materia Medica, translated by Lily Y. Beck (2005). Hildesheim: Olms-Weidman.
  • The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides … Englished by John Goodyer A. D. 1655, edited by R.T. Gunter (1933).
  • De Materia medica : libri V Eiusdem de Venenis Libri duo. Interprete Iano Antonio Saraceno Lugdunaeo, Medico, translated by Janus Antonius Saracenus (1598).

People and Topics of Further interest:

-Averroes and Avicenna, and other Spanish/Moorish philosophers and physicians

-Paracelsus, Father of Toxicology

-Abu Bakr Muhammed ibn Zakkariyah al-Razi

Book- Brother Cadeael’s Herb Garden – An Illustrated Companion to Medieval Plants and their Uses. It’s not Middle Eastern specific, but might be of use.

Muslim Heritage Website on Botany, Herbals, and Medicine in the Islamic World:

 Abstract: Botany, Herbals and Healing In Islamic Science and Medicine | Muslim Heritage

By: The Editorial Team. The scholars of Islamic culture worked extensively in the combined fields of botany, herbals and healing. Several scholars contributed to the knowledge of plants, their diseases and the methods of growth.


 I hope to add some information later on medieval use of henna, which I understand to be predominantly attributed to the Jewish culture of the near east.

Sources (still vetting) on Henna in the middle ages via this cool blog post that I found:

Abrahams, Israel. 1896 Jewish Life in the Middle Ages.

Amar, Zohar, and Efraim Lev. 2008 Practical materia medica of the medieval eastern Mediterranean according to the Cairo Genizah.

Ben Sasson, Menahem. 1999 Yehudei Sitzilia 825-1068: te‘udot umeqorot [The Jews of Sicily, 825-1068: documents and sources].

Broadhurst, Ronald. 1950 The travels of Ibn Jubayr, being the chronicle of a mediaeval Spanish Moor concerning his journey to the Egypt of Saladin, the holy cities of Arabia, Baghdad the city of the caliphs, the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Norman kingdom of Sicily.

Glick, Thomas. 2005 Islamic and Christian Spain in the early Middle Ages.

Goitein, Shlomo. 1967 A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, vols. I-IV.

Green, Monica. 2002 The Trotula: an English translation of the medieval compendium of women’s medicine.

Harvey, John. 1992 Garden Plants of Moorish Spain: a fresh look. Garden History, Vol. 20, No. 1

Lea, Henry. 1968 The Moriscos of Spain: their conversion and expulsion.

Mentré, Mireille. 1996 Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Spain [originally Le Peinture Mozarabe, trans. by Jenifer Wakelyn].

Molina, Mauricio. 2010 Frame drums in the medieval Iberian Peninsula.

Murray, Stephen, and Will Roscoe. 1997 Islamic Homosexualities: culture, history, and literature.

Perles, Joseph. 1875. Jewish Marriage in Post-Biblical Times: a study in archaeology. In Hebrew Characteristics: Miscellaneous papers translated from the German. New York: Jewish Publication Society. Originally published in 1860:Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthums.

Rosen, Tova. 2003 Unveiling Eve: reading gender in medieval Hebrew literature.

Roth, Norman. 2003 Medieval Jewish Civilization: an encyclopedia.

Roth, Norman. 2005 Daily Life of the Jews in the Middle Ages.

Scheindlin, Raymond. 1999 Wine, Women, and Death: medieval Hebrew poems on the good life.

Schippers, Arie. 1994 Spanish Hebrew Poetry and the Arab Literary Tradition: Arabic themes in Hebrew Andalusian poetry.

Simonsohn, Shlomo. 1997 The Jews in Sicily: 383-1300.

Williams, John. 1977 Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination. New York: George Braziller.

Permissions and copyright:  

Please feel free to utilize the research and sources compiled here.  The text you are reading was written by Yours Truly, and I have many hours of work put into compiling these sources in an organized and user-friendly scheme, so please be cool and cite me as your source.  I’m sure you were going to do that, anyway, since it’s the ethical thing to do.  K, Thanks 🙂 


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