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An Ancient Egyptian Herbal.

Plants played an important role in the daily life of the ancient Egyptians. In a lengthy introduction the author describes their many uses. She brings alive the splendor of the ancient Egyptian garden, immortalized in colorful wall paintings and lively clay models. Then follows a detailed description of bouquets, garlands, and collars made of floral material. As we can judge from literary and pictorial sources, the numbers of bouquets used in temple services, festivities and funerals are impressive. The Egyptians adored flowers not only for their beauty, but also for sacred and symbolic qualities. Certain plants were believed to. have repelling properties for insects and rodents or were used to leave a pleasant smell in the rooms after fumigating. Others were sources of dye. Ancient Egyptian cooking is also discussed; inasmuch as no ancient Egyptian cookbooks survived, we get a taste of ancient Egyptian food from recipes written by classical authors. Perfumes and cosmetics, many of them manufactured on the basis of herbal material, were highly in demand in ancient Egypt. We are provided with authentic recipes of oils, unguents, perfumes and even depilatory creams. The introduction ends with a short overview of ancient Egyptian medicine.

The herbal contains a selection of herbs and trees available to the ancient Egyptians, including native as well as imported plants. For each plant a detailed discussion of its properties and its use is given. The main criterion for including a species is its record in ancient Egyptian texts, in texts from contemporary neighboring civilizations, in treatises by classical authors or in the medical works of the Copts. References to archaeological finds of plant material and to pictorial sources are illustrative, but not exhaustive. The plants are alphabetically ordered and are named, if possible, in Latin, English, ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Greek, and modern Egyptian Arabic. The author sometimes unambiguously identifies an ancient Egyptian plant name, although there still is discussion among Egyptologists about its exact meaning (e.g., nsti p. 68, h syt p. 81, smsmt p. 82, mhmh P. 137).

When discussing the different uses of a plant, the author does not distinguish distinct chronological periods, thus emphasizing the idea that herbal practices and medicine rest on a long tradition. References are made to traditional Islamic medicine, to observations by Prospero Alpini, a Venetian physician who sojourned in Egypt in the 16th century, and to uses of herbs in the first half of the 20th century in Egypt. It might have been interesting to complete this knowledge with the recently published Medicinal Plants of North Africa, written by the Egyptian biologist Loutfy Boulos (Algonac, 1983).

The investigation of ancient Egyptian pictorial and textual sources is not without problems, as can be concluded from the last part of the book. When depicting a plant or floral motif the artist was more concerned in representing the idea of a plant or a tree than in the botanical exactness of his work. Furthermore, the correct identification of all Egyptian plant names is far from complete. The author argues for a profound study of unknown ancient Egyptian plant names used in medicine and plants mentioned in medicinal texts from neighboring regions or in texts from later periods. Moreover, linguistic studies are necessary to compare ancient Egyptian words with Coptic names and with Egyptian names mentioned by the classical authors. A list of Egyptian plant names quoted by Dioscorides, together with their Latin translation, based on a 17th-century translation, and corresponding English names, are provided. The book concludes with a bibliography and an elaborate index.

This ancient Egyptian herbal is a pleasing and well written overview of the use of herbs and spices in the ancient Egyptian civilization. Many fine illustrations are found throughout the book. It provides a wealth of knowledge, especially for the reader who is not familiar with Egyptological publications.
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Author:Moens, Marie-Francine
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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