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Ancient Medical Secrets of the Cairo Genizah

Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

Thanks to medieval Egyptian packrats and one modern Israeli researcher, we’re tapping in to ancient medical secrets

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

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What do you do when you have a headache? What about a cut that won’t heal, or an itch that won’t go away?

A thousand years ago, there were no drugstores to buy pills and creams. How did people treat their aches and pains? And how were doctors able to help them?

Thanks to medieval Egyptian packrats and one modern Israeli researcher, we are learning the answers to these questions. That’s because the Jewish community of Fustat, an old Egyptian capital close to Cairo, saved its written records in the attic of the historic Ben Ezra Synagogue, a collection now called the “Cairo Genizah.”


Holy Words

Used siddurim, Chumashim, and other sifrei kodesh are never thrown away, since they contain the name of Hashem. Seforim are either buried or stored in a repository called a genizah (ge-NEEZ-a).

For unknown reasons, the Jews of Fustat — where the Rambam spent the last 40 years of his life — extended this practice to include poetry, marriage and divorce documents, business contracts, and more, including medical prescriptions. All these documents are preserved in the Cairo Genizah.

That makes the Cairo Genizah a treasury of medieval medical information. Professor Efraim Lev of the University of Haifa rummages daily through digital copies of the documents from the attic, uncovering lost prescriptions and studying ancient medical practices. Lev first encountered the Genizah while studying medieval medicine and realized that there was lots it could teach us, even a thousand years later.


Becoming a Doctor

For most of us, what comes to mind when we think about medieval medicine are plagues, leeches, and bleeding treatments. These were all common in Europe even into the 18th century. But farther south, as Lev and others have discovered in the Genizah records, things were more enlightened. Although science was crude by today’s standards, between the years 900 CE and 1200 CE, when most Genizah documents were written, medicine was a very respected profession in the area around the Mediterranean.


There were no medical schools in those days. Instead, doctors learned from older doctors, as well as from books giving advice about how to treat patients, including what herbs and other ingredients they recommended for prescriptions. Much knowledge came from older Greek books that were translated into Arabic and occasionally updated. The Rambam himself wrote at least ten books about medicine, demonstrating his vast knowledge of ancient and medieval medical medicine. When doctors finished their studies, the older doctor would give them a medical license. Just like today, however, governments would keep an eye on who was giving out medical licenses and not allow a doctor to practice unless they approved.

Unfortunately, little is known about how and where the Rambam himself studied medicine. Most people assume he learned most of what he knew from Greek and Arabic traditions while he lived in Spain. Although he wasn’t in Fustat for long, his practice grew quickly. He served as the personal physician of the Sultan, a full-time job, and also saw other patients for hours every day. At one point, he wrote to a friend, “I converse with and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue, and when night falls I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak.” His reputation was so great that during his lifetime, he is thought to have received an invitation from Richard the Lionheart, king of England, to become his personal physician. He declined the offer. (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 711

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