Fragments of the Treatise on Plants by Dioscorides


The Greek physician Dioscorides lived in the first century AD during the reign of the Emperor Nero. Dioscorides’s five-volume treatise Perì üles iatrichès, commonly known in Latin as De materia medica (Of medical substances), is considered the most important medical manual and pharmacopeia of ancient Greece and Rome. It was highly regarded in the Middle Ages in both the Western and Arab worlds. It covers the therapeutic effectiveness of natural substances of animal, vegetable, and mineral origin. The manuscript presented here preserves fragments of an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’s work. The work is known in Arabic under various titles, including Kitāb al-ḥashāʼish (The book of plants), Kitāb al-maqālāt al-khams (The five-essay book), or simply, as in this manuscript, Kitāb Disqūrīdis (Dioscorides’s book). The first Arabic translation of Dioscorides’s work was made by Istafan ibn Basil (Stephanos Basilos) and enhanced by his famed mentor Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-ʻIbadi (circa 809–73), who was tasked by Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun to head the historic Bayt al-Hikmah (The House of Wisdom) in Baghdad. This manuscript was most likely copied in Upper Mesopotamia in the 12th century. The work is written in a beautiful naskhi script on parchment. It contains entries from all five books, beginning with plant-based ointments (Book I), and ending with wines and mineral-based potions (Book V). Folio 19 verso gives the name of Hisham ibn Musa ibn Yusuf as the scribe or, possibly, the translator. His title is given as al-masīḥī al-mutaṭabbib, suggesting he was a Christian herbalist. The manuscript is held in the National Library of France, together with two other, similar Arabic manuscripts on Dioscorides. The version preserved here differs from both. A printed text in French at the beginning, which dates from 1909, is a commentary on the colorful illustrations of plants and creatures in the manuscript. It is followed by handwritten notes comparing the differences in Arabic text in each translation, and enumerating the entries of plants and substances included in Dioscorides’s work.

Last updated: April 3, 2018