Did You Know?: Silk Roads Exchange and the Development of the Medical Sciences

CC BY Wellcome Collection / Canon of Medicine, Al-Qanun Fi-al-Tibb. Binding board of manuscript of Avicenna's Canon.

When Islam expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula to the Iranian Plateau, parts of Central Asia, and North Africa in the late 7th century CE, its growth coincided with a golden age of scholarship across the sciences focused in centres such as Baghdad and Cairo. During this time Muslim scholars made major advances in the medical sciences that built on the knowledge of previous civilizations, such as Greece, Ancient Mesopotamia and Iran, whilst at the same time incorporating medical knowledge from other regions which reached the Islamic world via the Silk Roads.

Not only did medicines, and the raw materials used to produce them, travel across the Silk Roads, but so too did knowledge concerning wider medical practices. In particular many medicinal substances were collected from China and the Indian Subcontinent. In the Iranian plateau and other parts of Western Asia, including what is today Iraq, Silk Roads exchange greatly contributed to an environment in which knowledge from all over the world was exchanged, translated into Arabic and then synthesised.

During the mediaeval or ‘post-classical era’ (500-1450 CE), scholars made large contributions to the fields of medicine, pharmacology and veterinary science. Scholars from this period include Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037 CE), who is often described as the father of early modern medicine, the polymath Al-Biruni (973-1050 CE), and the botanist and pharmacist Ibn al-Baitar (1197-1248 CE). The movement of people and knowledge across the Silk Roads facilitated the widespread translation of work from other parts of the world into Arabic, making a broad array of scholarship accessible to these polymaths. As such, Islamic medicine synthesised existing medical knowledge, such as that developed in ancient Greece and Rome, and combined this with knowledge from other regions of the world such as China and the Indian subcontinent.

Despite describing many Chinese medicines in his work ‘Collections of Simple Drugs and Foodstuffs’, the well-known botanist, Ibn al-Baitar, who travelled as far as the Anatolian plateau collecting plants, did not travel to China. Instead, many of the plants he described reached him via the flow of commercial and cultural exchanges along the Silk Roads. Similarly, Avicenna, incorporated knowledge of Chinese medicines into his works, writing about the compound ‘suk’ which was thought to treat heart palpitations and protect the liver from damage.

Furthermore, a number of Arabic works, such as Al-Tabari’s encyclopaedia Firdaws al-hikma (Paradise of Wisdom), discussed in detail systems of medicine from the Indian Subcontinent. As was common for academic works of the time, his work dealt not only with medical topics but also with philosophy, meteorology, zoology and astronomy. Within medicine it covered such areas as the history and purpose of medical science, the qualifications required for a medical student and the measures to be taken for the preservation of health including the avoidance of toxic substances. Numerous elements of al-Tabari’s work were derived from the careful study of Indian medicine.  

Using information, translations, and materials from various regions across the Silk Roads, scholars compiled pluralistic collections of medical knowledge. It is a testament to the exchanges these routes facilitated that considerable amounts of information reached scholars, who had never been to China or the Indian Subcontinent.


See Also

Silk Roads Exchanges in Chinese Gastronomy

Mathematical Sciences along the Silk Roads

The Role of Women in Central Asian Nomadic Society

Ancient Trading Centres in the Malay Peninsula

Sri Lankan Harbour Cities and the Maritime Silk Roads

The Use of the Malay Language in Coastal Javanese Literature

The Evolution of the Arabic Language in the Silk Roads


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