Capsula Eburnea: Epistle from Hippocrates's Tomb


This short work consists of a collection of 25 maxims attributed to Hippocrates (circa 460−circa 377 BC). The maxims are exclusively concerned with the prognosis of patients who are terminally ill. The standard form for the maxim consists of a symptom, followed by the time (in days) to the patient's death, followed by a secondary symptom affirming the case. The 14th maxim, for instance, reads as follows: “If there appears behind the left ear a black pustule, then the patient will die in 24 days as counted from the beginning of his malady, and the sign for this is that at the beginning of his sickness he greatly craves cold water.” The text includes an explanation as to the title of the work, al-Risālah al-qabrīyah (Capsula Eburnea: Epistle from Hippocrates’s grave). It states “this is because it was found inside the tomb of Hippocrates, as is related from Galen, that he went to the land in which the tomb of Hippocrates was located, and he begged the sultan to allow him to open the grave, so he did, and [Galen] opened the grave and found these maxims and so removed them and published them by virtue of their abundant utility.” Capsula eburnea (ivory box or chest) refers to the container in the tomb of Hippocrates in which the original manuscript was reportedly found and then presumably transmitted from the Islamic to the Latin world. Despite the variation in the titles of the Arabic works belonging to this genre, the number 25 appears to be the canonical number of maxims. The work is undated but the manuscript is bound with an 1826 edition of Ḥudūd al-Amrāḍ (Definitions of illnesses) by Muhammad Akbar ʻUrf Muhammad Arzani and was likely made around the same time. That the work was produced for a Persian-speaking audience is indicated by the colophon, and by a number of interlinear glosses, both in Persian.

Associated Name

Attributed Name

Date Created


Title in Original Language

الرسالة القبرية


Type of Item

Physical Description

228 x 137 millimeters



  1. A.Z. Iskandar, A Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts on Medicine and Science in the Wellcome Historical Medical Library (London: Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1967).

Last updated: May 26, 2017