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From Babylon to Baghdad: Toward a History of the Herbal in the Near East

Final Report Summary - FLORIENTAL (From Babylon to Baghdad: Toward a History of the Herbal in the Near East)

§ 8. Brief summary of the project.
An “herbal” is a kind of technical reference book providing a list of plants along with descriptions of their associated properties (therapeutic or otherwise). Studying the history of the herbal as a text type is an interesting, useful and enlightening exercise, since it is a kind of book that is well-known and used today, even at a popular level (many people not only have one or more herbals on the shelves of their home libraries, but also extensively use them), since this type of scholarly compendium has a very long history, especially in the ancient Near East, and finally, since several important chapters of that history are very little known (beyond a handful of specialists). These considerations make the study of the history of the herbal a promising test case in the study of knowledge transfer and the transmission of “scientific” ideas over the centuries and across cultures.
Why is the history (and especially the non-Western history) of the herbal so poorly known? For the simple reason that many important primary sources have never been published. There are good reasons for this neglect (for example, the fact that identifying the actual plants “hiding” behind the ancient plant names is often very difficult), the fact remains that little progress can ever hope to be made as long as historians and other scholars do not have ready access to the primary sources.
The purpose of the ERC Floriental project was to rectify this desideratum as much as possible. Most people, and indeed most authors, when they consider the history of the herbal dwell on two important chapters of its early history: those devoted to the contributions of ancient Greek authors (such as Theophrastes, Dioscorides, Galen, etc.) and to the consolidating work of scholars in the medieval Islamic world (such as Rhazes, Avicenna, etc.). Such attention to ancient Greek and to early and medieval Arabic herbals is fully justified, but it only provides a very partial picture. As far as we can tell, the earliest attempts at composing and transmitting to posterity written lists of plant names with their associated properties were not done in Greek, but many centuries earlier, in Mesopotamian cuneiform. Indeed, the herbal had an already long history of transmission and development in pre-Hellenistic Iraq, Iran, Syria and Anatolia, long before Theophrastes and Dioscorides. Moreover, often the (again important) work of Greek authors such as Galen did not reach the Arab world directly, but rather indirectly through the intermediary of Syriac translators, who, between the 6th-9th centuries CE translated many Greek medical works from Greek into Syriac, and only then (from the 8th century on) into Arabic.
The Floriental project was devoted to making these important primary sources (those in Mesopotamian cuneiform script on the one hand, and those in Syriac on the other) available to the public, often for the very first time. Like many long term projects, some of the initial goals of the project required modification over the years (as certain circumstances changed), but the central tasks remained the same: producing editions and English translations of these ancient sources. Especially important have been the Mesopotamian herbal compendium known as “Uruanna” of the 2nd-1st millennia BC, and the Syriac herbal writings and compilations of Sergius of Resh ‘Ayna (6th century) and Hunayn ibn Ishaq (9th century). Some new products, unforeseen during the initial elaboration of the project, emerged, such as the archeobotanical commentary on Hunayn’s treatise on foodstuffs. And, finally, an attempt was made to integrate these sources into a newer, better informed and more nuanced historical synthesis on the ancient history of the herbal as a type of scholarly compendium (with the participation of a selection of international experts in various chapters).