Alchemy in the Middle East

I have always been fascinated by the history of alchemy, especially in connection to the Middle East: from its conception, its development from Ancient Egyptian times, to the early Islamic world and finally its decline in the 12th century onwards. What has particularly amused me, in my studies of alchemy, has been people’s ideas of the science which focuses primarily on an archaic image of magic and potions. A time in which wizards and practisers’ of magic would toil over bubbling cauldrons, in an attempt to change metals of lesser value into precious gold, while living in secrecy.

This, however, is a rather misconceived image. Although, there were a minority of alchemists who stirred their cauldrons, the reality is very different. For instance, many alchemists were also infamous scientists and respected theologians, who are still respected today in the East and the West. And, although, alchemy can involve transmutation: the change from one substance into another, it is not the sole purpose of alchemy, with transmuting only representing a small segment of the science.

The word “Alchemy” roughly translates into “Chemistry” in Arabic: its origins springing from the word “Al-kimya”.1 Some believe that “Kimya”, comes from the archaic Egyptian word “Kemi”2 meaning black. However, others believes it’s originates from ancient Greek, from the word “Khymeia” meaning “fusion”: referring to the Ancient Greeks practice of chemical transmutation. Alchemy itself is composed of many different sciences such as chemistry, physics, metallurgy and even astrology. In many ways, alchemy is a way of understanding the natural world around us: from both a scientific and mystical view.

Alchemy’s history in the Middle East

Alchemy can trace its history as far back as Ancient Egypt and the worshiping of ancient Egyptian Gods. The Egyptian god Djehuty, has been attributed with the creation of Ancient Egyptian alchemy through the god’s composition of the Emerald Tablets. The Emerald Tablets were a set of mythical texts, which were believed to contain occult knowledge; such as secret formulas for alchemical transmutation. Alchemy in Egypt played a major role in everyday life, and especially with the cult of the dead and mummification, all forms of Egyptian alchemy.

However, it is the development of the art of alchemy in the early Islamic world, which has fascinated me the most, especially since learning more about orthodox Islam, which forbids many alchemic practices. Through the spread of Islam in 7th and 8th centuries, the early Islamic community quickly absorbed other local traditions and cultures including alchemic practice.

From the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s (ruled from 284 AD-305 AD) a tradition of destroying science, especially alchemic text had been popular and so by the time the early Islamic Caliphs conquered Egypt, the majority of alchemic documents had long since been destroyed. However, of those that did survive, such as: “Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis”4; (an alchemical text containing recipes for dyes, procedures for cleaning gems) were primarily of Greek origin or from the Ptolemaic period.

Upon the Arabs conquest of Egypt, Islamic scholars dedicated vast amounts of time translating Egyptian and Greek manuscripts; stimulating a new scientific curiosity which, in turn, promoted learning and education in alchemy and the other sciences, spreading a tradition throughout the empire and a legacy for science throughout the world. The epitome of alchemic tradition in the Middle East had begun.

Baghdad: the centre of the World

Baghdad, today still recovering from years of war and suppression, was once the Abbasid capital of the Islamic Empire and considered the centre for intellectualism and scientific development throughout the world. Baghdad, as a centre of learning, was affirmed with the foundation of the institute known as “Bayt al-Hikmah Bayr”, or “The House of Wisdom”: a library built for the institute to store rich texts from preceding scientists, mathematicians and alchemists to be used by the city’s intelligentsia. This golden age of learning in Baghdad (751 AD to 1300 AD5), saw the city become a haven for alchemists such as Jabir ibn Hayyan, (721 AD – 815 AD).

Jabir ibn Hayyan, (better know in the West as “Geber”), was one of the most famous scientists and alchemists in Medieval Middle East, with his major contributions leading to developments in astronomy, chemistry and alchemy. His many writings are compiled in works such as the “Book of Mercury” and the “Book of Concentration”.

Jabir ibn Hayyan developed the theory that all metals contain some amount of Sulphur and Mercury. Each metal with a different ratio: this was known as the “sulphur-mercury theory”.

Jabir ibn Hayyan also built upon a Greek theory that was widely accepted by Islam. It stated that there were 4 natural “qualities” in the world: Earth, Water, Fire and Air. When 2 of these qualities were combined with a substance, it automatically created a compound. Jabir ibn Hayyan, although approved of this theory, perceived it as too vague and impractical. Jabir ibn Hayyan aimed to build upon this theory with his own ideas, in an attempt to make the theory more credible. He believed that there were 2 gaseous exhalations: “earthy smoke” and “watery vapour”. When these 2 exhalations were trapped within the ground, they were automatically converted into either sulphur or mercury. The sulphur and mercury then combined to form metals. Jabir ibn Hayyan believed the reason that there were many different metals was because of the imbalanced ratio of mercury and sulphur upon combination.

Jabir ibn Hayyan also believed that if the ratio was balanced, pure metals, such as gold could be created. This paved the way for other alchemists to develop and experiment with transmutation theories, while also contributing to alchemy’s modern day image of wizardry, bubbling cauldrons and a lust for gold.

Thanks to modern chemistry, we now know that metals are not composed of sulphur and mercury, and that Jabir ibn Hayyan’s sulphur-mercury theory was fundamentally flawed. Despite this, Jabir ibn Hayyan’s theories, which were based on extensive research and experimentation, led to a large amount of detailed study, knowledge and evidence available to later scientists.

As well as Jabir ibn Hayyan, during this period saw the rise of other notable alchemists, including Ibn Sina (980 AD – 1037 AD) and Muhammad ibn Zakariya al Razi (865 AD – 925 AD), who all contributed to the development of alchemy within the Islamic Empire.

But it is Jabir ibn Hayyan, who stands out as one of the great Middle Eastern alchemists of his time, his commitment to the artificial ‘Creation of Life’ through his takwin theory, is a reflection of alchemy in Islam, and throughout the golden period of Islamic rule.

The end of Alchemy in the Islamic World

Under the rule of Harun al-Rashid, the “Bayt al-Hikmah”6, was formed in Baghdad to promote continued study of alchemic thought7 and other forms of science. However, the institute was destroyed in the 13th century, resulting in the decline of alchemy in the Middle East and throughout the world. Like many events of destruction during this period, this was due to the with the arrival of the Mongols8. With the destruction of Baghdad’s libraries, which held a vast resource of alchemic and scientific knowledge, and the change in Islamic thought, resulting in the closing of the gates of ijtihad, also brought to an end of any official development of alchemy in the Middle East. The golden age of Islam, and the traditions of practical alchemy were over.

Alchemy and its importance to the development of Islamic sciences and to modern science, is often forgotten today. And unfortunately, it may always retain the image of the Alchemist peering over his cauldron attempting to change a substance into precious gold, however the great contributions of Jabir ibn Hayyan, Ibn Sina and al Razi to alchemy and to science as a whole, will always be valued by the scientific community.

1 McLean, Adam. Alchemy in Islamic Times. (1996). return to main text
2 McLean, Adam. Alchemy in Islamic Times. (1996). return to main text
3 McLean, Adam. Alchemy in Islamic Times. (1996). return to main text
4 Encyclo. Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis. (2012). return to main text
5 Elbahnasawy, Reda. Islamic Golden Age. (2010). return to main text
6 McLean, Adam. History of Islamic Science 2. (1996). return to main text
7 Inner Garden, House of Wisdom. (2010). return to main text
8 Antioch Gate: The Islamic Golden Age. The Abbasids, the Islamic Golden Age & the House of Wisdom. (2006). return to main text
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