Ibn al-Baytar: The forgotten botanist of 12th century
When a body of scientific work survives three centuries before being overshadowed by newer discoveries, it does earn the right to be marked as a magnum opus. Very few today may have heard of a book titled Kitab al-Jami li-Mufradat al-Adwiya wa-l-Aghdhiya. In simple English ‘Compendium on Simple Medicaments and Foods’. But between the 13th and the 16th century, this encyclopedic work was a must-read for botanists around the world.
It was compiled by a botanist named Ziya Al-Din Abu Muḥammad Abdllah Ibn Aḥmad al-Malaqi. More commonly known as Ibn al-Baytar. It is an encyclopedia of 14 thousand plants and vegetables and their medicinal values in detail. Out of these medicinal properties of a stunning 200 items, i.e. plants and veggies, were discovered by Ibn al-Baytar for the first time.
As for the rest, he added greatly to what was already known in the field of medicinal botany. The compilation refers to over 150 previous Arab botanists and 20 earlier Greek scientists. Its tremendous value can be gauged from the fact that the opus was translated into Latin as late as 1758, indicating that it was still worthwhile to study the book.
Birth and education of Ibn al-Baytar
Ibn al-Baytar was born CE 1197 in the Andalusian city of Malaga under the Almohad Caliphate. The name ibn al-Baytar itself indicates that his father was a veterinarian. Al-Baytar got his training in botany from an early age under the tutelage of a renowned Malagan botanist Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati. After initial academic training, both of them made arduous field trips across Andalusia collecting samples of medicinal plants. Al-Nabati was known particularly for empirical studies of the medicinal qualities of various plants, dismissing myths and hearsays.
His disciple, therefore, also laid great importance on methodical research into botany. Which was indeed at a nascent stage during the early 13th century. Around 1224 Al-Baytar became the chief herbalist of the Ayyubid Sultan al-Kamil. He passed away in Damascus in 1248.
Books by Ibn al-Baytar
Besides the one mentioned above, al-Baytar produced yet another encyclopedia. Kitab al-Mughni fi al-Adwiya al-Murfada, or the encyclopedia of Islamic medicine. This encyclopedia offers medicinal plants for a number of diseases of the head, ears, and eyes. Spread over 20 chapters dealing with various diseases, this book enlists a vast number of drugs with their medicinal properties.
Among his other major books are, Maqala fi al-Laymun. Or in English, Treatise on the Lemon and Tafsir Kitab Diyasquridus, a commentary on the first four books of Materia Medica authored by Dioscorides. The seminal monograph on the properties of lemon was translated into Latin by Andrea Alpago of Venice in 1593. as Ebn Bitar de malis limonis (Venice 1593).
Al-Baytar didn’t restrict his field studies to Andalusia, but from 1219 visited far-off places including Constantinople, Tunis, Tripoli, Barka, and Adalia and collected rare medicinal plant specimens. His contribution to the “Golden period of the Arab science”, from the 9th to the 13th century was seminal.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)