Botanical view of the use of plants in medieval medicine in the Eastern Mediterranean according to the Cairo Genizah

In: Israel Journal of Plant Sciences

This article presents the medicinal plants that were used by the inhabitants of the medieval Eastern Mediterranean (mainly tenth to thirteenth centuries AD) and analyzes their geographical/phyto-botanical origin and their frequency of use at the medieval time. It also discusses various issues such as their historical trade and the continuation of their use in present-day Middle Eastern traditional medicine.

The Cairo Genizah is an historical source containing about 250,000 documents, found in a semi-archeological context (synagogue and graves). Since Cairo became the capital and consequently the economic and administrative center of the Muslim empire, the Jewish community had close connections with the Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa, Southern Europe, Sicily and India. Therefore, these highly valued documents record every aspect of life and reflect on the whole Mediterranean region and beyond.

The inventory of the practical materia medica was reconstructed thanks to hundreds of documents such as prescriptions, list of drugs, and medical letters. It consists of 278 drugs, 223 of which are of plant origin. Asian medicinal plants became highly used in medieval Mediterranean medicine; the vast majority of them are still sold in Middle Eastern markets, although not with the same importance. It is important to note that some of them are sold today mainly for their other uses as spices, perfumes, incense, etc.

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