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History of Ancient Medicine in Mesopotamia & Iran

part 2


A Medicine Prescription


Razi Book on Medicine for Mansur I  

While many of the basic tenants of medicine, such as bandaging and the collection of medical texts began in Mesopotamia, other cultures developed these practices independently. In Mesopotamia many of the ancient techniques became extinct after surviving for thousands of years. It was the Egyptian medicine that seems to have had the most lasting influence on the later development of medicine, through the Greeks. In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian and traveler Herodotus commented on current medical practices in Egypt; "the art of healing is with them divided up, so that each physician treats one ailment and no more. Egypt is full of physicians, some treating diseases of the eyes, others the head, others the teeth, others the stomach and others unspecified diseases".

The ancient Egyptian texts of the Old Kingdom (2,635-2,155 BC) contain at least 50 physicians, mainly from their names on the individual tombs. The later periods also give detailed information about physicians and their practice. Although most physicians were men, female physicians existed as well. The title ‘Lady Director of Lady Physicians’ proves the existence of a group of women who practiced as doctors. Physicians were literate, some were scribes and others were priests at the same time. Most inherited the profession from their fathers but needed to be trained in the field. The profession was organized hierarchically with the Chief Physician at the top and the lesser titles following, such as Master of Physicians, Director of Physicians, Inspector of Physicians, Plain Physicians and auxiliaries such as Bandage personnel, etc.

Texts deal with diagnosis, treatments and prescriptions. Surgery and mummification processes that were used by the ancient Egyptians still amaze modern experts. All the major and common diseases are known and treated. Ailments are attributed to spirits, ghosts and revenge by gods and goddesses. Texts dealing with gynecology cover fertility, sterility, pregnancy, contraception and abortion. Women were tested to decide whether they could conceive or not. However, the Egyptians were behind Babylonian doctors who had gone further and designed the first pregnancy tests known in history. This test involved placing in the women’s vagina a tampon impregnated with the juice of various plants in a solution of alum. This was left in position either overnight or for three days. Pregnancy or non-pregnancy was indicated by color changes between red and green. The test used the pH value of the woman’s secretions in her vagina to determine her pregnancy status.

Rational thinking and sound medical observation were used alongside magic and sorcery. Magic was based on the assumption that an object with certain qualities, or an action of a certain kind, could be used to create sympathetic action (healing) or to repel something evil.

Magical elements were included in medical texts and were added to the prescriptions and medicines appropriate for the treatment of diseases. Some conditions like sterility and impotence in men used magic extensively while other easier ailments relied mainly on medicinal treatments. The heart was extensively studied with arteries; however, it is not clear if they fully understood the circulation of blood. In fact, the heart was considered to be the organ of reason instead of the brain, although this later organ was extensively studied as well. Anatomy was well understood and dissection was a common procedure.

There are many medical papyri providing detailed descriptions of surgical procedures and other topics related to medicine. The collections are massive and medical knowledge is organized and detailed. Such organization of knowledge is a prerequisite for major advances in science. Indeed Greeks made extensive use of Egyptian science and medicine and created their own school of medicine that dominated the ancient civilizations for centuries to come. By the time Hippocrates began his scientific medicine in his native city Cos, the city was already the headquarters of the Asclepiadae, a professional association of physicians under the patronage of Asclepius, the god of healing. These practitioners were familiar with Mesopotamian and Egyptian medical knowledge and used such texts extensively. However, the Greeks based their medicine on empirical knowledge and separated the supernatural from scientific information.

The first major Iranian dynasty the Achaemenids (550 BC) promoted the development of culture and science extensively. The great scholars such as the philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, the Babylonian astronomer Kidinnu and even the historian Herodotus were Persian subjects. The ancient cultures of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Elamites and others continued to exist and develop. Babylonian physicians were all over the territories and served all people including Persians. Xenophon relates that when the Greek soldiers who served under Cyrus the younger passed through the territory of Babylonia, they found sufficient number of physicians””even in the villages””to treat the wounded warriors. Texts describe how physicians used medicine, prayers and magic. They would often model images of evil spirits out of clay and shatter them, in order to restore the ill to health.

The Achaemenids made Babylon one of their major capitals and extensively used the texts at the temple libraries. The library and museum at the Persepolis was built to rival the Babylonian archives famous in the ancient world.

The Greek and Egyptian physicians were invited to join the Achaemenid court and served the royal household. Persians also adopted the tradition of paying the physicians according to their rank and gender.

 The archives at Persepolis indicate that physicians and midwives who delivered boys were paid double the amount they got when the baby delivered was a girl. The records do not indicate severe punishments if the sick person died, as was the case under Hammurabi. Texts also show lists of plants, herbs and other substances used for medicinal purposes. Drugs are taken internally; mercury, antimony, arsenic, sulfur and animal fats were also prescribed. All are basically the same as the Babylonian medicine and prescriptions.

Source: iranian websites

Other Links:

Jade in Iran (part 3)

Jade in Iran (part 4)

History of Iranian-Georgian Reations (part 1)

History of Iranian-Georgian Reations (part 2)

History of Iranian-Georgian Reations (part 3)

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