Assyrian Medicine

The first half of the first millennium BCE witnessed an explosion in the number of written sources. Most scientific texts by this time had undergone a process of canonisation, with the same highly structured compendiums being in use over a large geographical area. This process also included texts from the 'diagnostic-prognostic' branch of Mesopotamian medicine – a catalogue with manuscripts from Kalhu (Nimrud) and Babylon even names the scholar, Esagil-kīn-apli, who was responsible for the editorial work that has led to the serialisation of these texts in the middle of the eleventh century BCE.

As for the therapeutic sources that reflect a more practical side of Mesopotamian medicine, the first structured compendiums sharing approximately the same characteristic features appeared several hundred years later and never reached the level of canonisation as their 'diagnostic-prognostic' counterparts. This was roughly the time when the Neo-Assyrian Empire reached its largest extent – from Egypt in the West to the peaks of the Zagros Mountains in the East. As an important consequence, experts could travel a much larger area, collecting remedies from all around the empire that had been available before only for small circles of medical practitioners. This was an era of accumulating knowledge, the traces of which are still preserved by the fragmentary therapeutic treatises excavated among the ruins of archives and libraries that once stood in the big Assyrian capitals of Ashur (Qual'at Sherqat), Kalhu (Nimrud) and Nineveh (Mosul), as well as in smaller administrative centres, such as Huzirina (Sultantepe).

The therapeutic texts from the different cities share several characteristic features, one of which is the use of a highly specialised technical language. The straightforward syllabic orthography of the Old Babylonian period has been replaced by an encrypted terminology that mostly employed ideograms or rare syllabic values of cuneiform signs. In addition, the Neo-Assyrian therapeutic texts still preserve some simplicium recipes, with a single drug used for a single disease, but it is much more common in these texts to provide various combinations of drugs as part of the remedy.

The structural outline of the therapeutic texts also seems to be the same in that they employ the characteristic 'from-head-to-toe' sequence – the subsequent treatises within a series are arranged according to the discussed body part, starting with the medical recipes concerning the diseases of the head and moving down until they reach the diseases of the feet and legs. It is the length, as well as the level of detail and comprehensiveness, where the main difference lies between versions of the therapeutic series. In this respect, the series from the royal capital Nineveh (Mosul) represents the culmination of the long therapeutic tradition that started more than a thousand years before with the first Sumerian recipes.

This series, now conventionally called the 'Nineveh Medical Encyclopaedia', is a single highly-structured compilation of medical-therapeutic knowledge with twelve interconnected treatises. Each treatise centres on the disease complex of individual parts of the human body. The body parts and their illnesses, as well as the corresponding treatments are discussed in great detail in this series, since almost all twelve treatises consist of more than one tablet or, as they are now called, 'chapter'. The Encyclopaedia's first treatise is five chapters long and is devoted to head diseases in general. This is followed by several treatises discussing illnesses of specific parts of the head, such as the eyes (four chapters), the ears (one chapter), the neck (six chapters), the nose (one chapter), and the teeth (two chapters). Then, the text turns to the remaining parts of the body, with six chapters devoted to diseases of the lungs and respiratory tract. The digestive tract is dealt with in five chapters. It is followed directly by a long and, unfortunately, very fragmentary twin treatise called 'epigastrium-abdomen'. Moving downwards, the Encyclopaedia includes two treatises, which collect therapies for diseases infecting the renal-urinary (three chapters) and the rectal-intestinal tract (five chapters) of the body. Finally, the legs and feet are the topic of a treatise with four chapters, which also concludes the Encyclopaedia as a whole.

The Nineveh Medical Encyclopaedia was huge, with each chapter containing at least 250 lines, making a total of more than 10,000 lines of text. At that time, there was only one place where it was possible to compose such an elaborate medical handbook – in the library of the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal. Fascinated by all kinds of scholarly activity, Ashurbanipal wanted to create a library to contain all knowledge. He commissioned specialists to collect texts concerned with medicine from all around the empire and bring this material to his capital Nineveh. There, scribes produced a medical dictionary that today represents the world's first standardised, structured and systematised handbook on therapeutic medicine.

Krisztian Simko

Krisztian Simko, 'Assyrian Medicine', The Nineveh Medical Project, The Nineveh Medical Project, Department of the Middle East, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, 2022 []

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Released under a Creative Commons BY-SA license, 2013.