medicine, manuscript, Egypt, Hippocrates, Catherine, monastery, library, text, writing, palimpsest

Hippocratic Medical Recipe Lost in a Famous Egyptian Monastery Finally Comes to Light


The library at St. Catherine's Monastery is considered one of the most important for ancient texts. New research examining a manuscript from the 6th century shows that it is not just the visible writing that holds value, but also the letters hidden underneath them. A copy of a medical recipe linked to the father of Western medicine, Hippocrates, is just one text that was waiting centuries to be uncovered.

The manuscript containing the recipe has been dated to the 5th or 6th century AD, so it is not an original created by the famed Greek physician Hippocrates; it is just a copy created after his death. Nonetheless, a researcher with the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) told Asharq Al-Awsat the document also holds value for its age, stating that the text "will be enlisted among the oldest and the most important manuscripts in the world.”

The recovered manuscript.

The recovered manuscript. (Ahram Online)

The nature of the remedy has yet to be provided, however it was found alongside drawings of herbs and three other medical recipes written by an anonymous author. Helmy El-Namnam, the Egyptian culture minister, asserted that the presence of these texts contained within the manuscript provides evidence for the leading position Egyptians had in science.

The identified manuscript is one example of the 130 known palimpsests held within the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery. Palimpsests are examples of manuscript pages which have text scraped or washed off them so that they can be reused for another document. In this case, the pages were made of leather. Ahmed Al-Nimer, supervisor of Coptic archaeology documentation at the ministry, explained to Ahram Online that the early text was erased “due to the high cost of leather at that time.”

National Geographic reports that the text was erased in the Middle Ages to make space for Bible text known as the “Sinaitic manuscript.” It was only thanks to the ongoing partnership between St. Catherine's Monastery and the EMEL that the medical texts were discovered.

Example of a palimpsest. The lower text is from the 6th century (Codex Guelferbytanus 64 Weissenburgensis, folio 92 verso), it contains the text of Luke 1:6-13; the upper text is from the 13th century - Isidore of Seville's "Origines" 8.10.2-8.11.4.

Example of a palimpsest. The lower text is from the 6th century (Codex Guelferbytanus 64 Weissenburgensis, folio 92 verso), it contains the text of Luke 1:6-13; the upper text is from the 13th century - Isidore of Seville's "Origines" 8.10.2-8.11.4. (Public Domain)

EMEL used spectral imaging to reveal the text written by scholars interested in preserving Hippocrates’ medical knowledge into the 6th century. Spectral imaging allows experts to see images and text that is not visible with the naked eye.

EMEL also recognizes that there is a great possibility for more major discoveries lost within the pages of manuscripts held in the oldest monastery in the world.

According to Asharq Al-Awsat, the library at St. Catherine's Monastery holds thousands of manuscripts written in Arabic, Greek, Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian, and Syriac languages, as well as decrees created by Muslim caliphates. Many of the texts are considered rare.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. (Berthold Werner/CC BY SA 3.0)

Although St. Catherine's Monastery is now considered a Byzantine era treasure for Egypt, it only survives today due to on an ancient and controversial agreement. As Ancient Origins writer Dhwty explains:

“According to tradition, the monks at St. Catherine’s Monastery had requested the protection of the Prophet Muhammad himself. The Prophet, who is said to have regarded Christians as brothers in faith, accepted their request favorably.
A controversial document, known as the Actiname (‘Holy Testament’) was signed by the Prophet himself in 623 AD. According to this document, the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery were granted exemption from taxes and military service. Additionally, Muslims were called upon to protect the monastery and provide the monks with every help. As a gesture of reciprocity, during the Fatimid period, the monks allowed the conversion of a crusader church within the monastery walls into a mosque.”

The Patent of Mohammed Granted to the Holy Monastery of Sinai, Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt.

The Patent of Mohammed Granted to the Holy Monastery of Sinai, Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt. (Public Domain)

The monastery has been on the UNESCO world heritage list since 2002 and also a popular tourist attraction.

Top Image: Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai. (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0) A page of ancient writing. (Public Domain)

By Alicia McDermott

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