Zohar Amar is a Professor in the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology and Director of the Unit on the History of Medicine at Bar-Ilan University, Israel who has written extensively on the identification and movement of plants in the pre-modern world, including a study attempting to identify all of the flora in the Bible. Efraim Lev is a Professor in the Department of Israel Studies and Head of The Interdisciplinary Center for the Broader Application of Genizah Research at the University of Haifa, Israel who focuses more specifically on the history of medieval materia medica. Together Amar and Lev have produced a study of the impact on medieval Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and European medicine of drugs introduced to those regions following the Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries. The two have collaborated in research and writing for several years, and they laid the groundwork for this study in a series of joint publications on subjects included in this volume. Arabian Drugs in Early Medieval Mediterranean Medicine will be an essential resource for years to come. Its descriptions of new medicinal substances traveling from East to West now provide the growing number of scholars from a variety of fields interested in the history of materia medica with introductions to the origins, movements, uses, and even physical appearances of those substances.
Amar and Lev have divided their work into four chapters of unequal length. In the first chapter, which also serves as an introduction, they briefly trace the geopolitical effects of the Islamic conquests, adduce a positive attitude on the part of the Arabs toward the scientific traditions they encountered, and argue for the preeminence of Greek science within the melting pot of Greek, Persian, and Indian traditions that the Arabs absorbed and built upon. They then devote the majority of this chapter to the commercial aspects of Islamic political unification, including: the history of trade with “India” (which for ancient and medieval merchants often included all of south and east Asia and the islands of the Indian Ocean); descriptions of the major transcontinental trade routes and centers; and introductions to the groups of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traders who conducted the East-West exchanges. The professional and personal activities of those merchants come to life through the application of Cairo Genizah documents to their careers.
In the second chapter, the team present their thesis and methodology. In his 1983 book Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World, Andrew Watson argued that the Islamic conquests initiated an agricultural revolution by creating opportunities and incentives for the movement of plant species across Asia to the Mediterranean, where they were perceived as new. Amar and Lev ascribe to a limited form of this thesis as the context in which the introduction of new medicinal substances took place, and the core of their project is a catalogue of those substances together with analyses of their historical impact. In their words, “The main goal of our present research is … to reconstruct as complete a list as possible of all the ‘new’ medicinal substances that were more widely distributed than in the pre-Islamic period; to study the contribution and influence of these substances on the theoretical and practical medieval medical legacy; to understand how, and to what extent, these substances merge with the development and distribution of ‘new’ technologies and industries that evolved in the Middle Ages such as textiles and paper, and with the new trends, demands and fashions regarding perfumes, ornaments and foodstuffs; to trace the main routes of trade in these substances in the new ‘Arab space’; and to assess the actual relevance that should be ascribed to the Greek and Indian legacies in the formation of Arab medicine and pharmacology” (48-49).
The methodology that Amar and Lev employ to determine which medicinal substances were distributed by traders traveling across the Islamic Empire involves six historical and scientific criteria designed to distinguish substances widely known in the ancient world from those that were new or relatively new to westerners in the Middle Ages. While they describe substances that meet all or most of these criteria as “Arabian,” Amar and Lev do not use this term in the sense that these substances all derived from the Arabian Peninsula, were developed by Arabs, or were traded exclusively by that people group; rather, they mean that the introduction of these substances to the Mediterranean world and adjacent regions was made possible by the economic activity of the Arabian Empire. Their extensive experience with the Hebrew and Aramaic as well as the Greek and Latin sources for ancient pharmacology uniquely qualifies this team to distinguish the many substances that were new to the West in this period from those that had long been widely known.
Chapter three forms the heart of the book: it is made up of 33 individual entries for new drugs and related substances, and it is as long as the other three chapters combined. The chapter is entitled “‘Arabian’ Substances” rather than “‘Arabian’ Drugs” because, in addition to drugs more narrowly conceived, Amar and Lev also discuss spices, industrial substances, perfumes and incenses, and gemstones. Use of the word “drugs” in the book title is nevertheless appropriate, since materia medica were broadly conceived in the pre-modern world, with even non-consumables like gemstones playing roles in physical health and well-being. The entry for each substance includes its English, Arabic, and scientific names, a physical description, its phyto-geographical distribution, an analysis of its origin, evidence of its trade and anecdotes about it, and its medicinal qualities. Most entries are also accompanied by high-quality color plates showing the substances in their raw and refined forms. Readers interested in, for example, myrobalan, nutmeg, dragon's blood, or turmeric can simply turn to the appropriate entry to find a concise “biography” of the substance in question.
In their brief final chapter Amar and Lev return to the question of the relative influence of Greek and Indian medicine on Arab medicine. Despite the wealth of “Indian” drugs their book documents, they conclude that the Indian medical tradition had much less impact on Arabian medicine than the Greek medical tradition, which had already been accommodated to a monotheistic faith by Christian authors. Many of the most popular medicinal substances of the Middle Ages were the “new” ones from “India,” yet Arabian physicians consistently analyzed those substances according to the Greek medical categories of nature and degree, describing them as hot, cold, dry, or moist and understanding their effects in those terms. Amar and Lev conclude that Arab medicine tended to incorporate “the practical aspects of both Indian and Persian medicine into the Galenic frame” (234).
There are some limitations to this book. First, it requires more careful copyediting. Second, the final chapter is exceedingly brief, while the authors clearly have more to say about this body of research. Third, the notes and bibliography could be made more accessible. The authors have documented their arguments extensively, with nearly 1500 endnotes for fewer than 240 pages of text. Yet very few of these notes do more than refer to a single source without comment. Fewer consolidated notes that also contextualize the sources would benefit the reader unfamiliar with Arabic texts. A division of the bibliography into primary and secondary sources would likewise be helpful in a book making use of more languages than most. Finally, while the authors have already divided their index into English, Arabic, and scientific names, the wide geographic extent of their research also makes an index of place names desirable. These, however, are changes that can be made to future editions of a book whose usefulness makes such editions highly desirable.