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Coptic Medicine - Coptic Wiki


The first evidence for Coptic medicine comes from Pachomius in the first half of the fourth century (Lefort, 1933, 87ff.). All other Coptic texts dealing with medicine are preserved in that date from the fifth to the twelfth centuries.

From the mid-nineteenth century on, Coptic medicine, evidence for which is available in a number of brief works dealing with diseases attested in the Coptic language, has been studied scientifically. The extant material in this area, however, is still so incomplete that a classification corresponding to that of Old Egyptian medicine has not been possible. The Coptic-Arab period is not included in this discussion.

Chronological Table of Ostraca and Papyri Dealing with Medicine

WM (Worrell, 1935): eight leaves of parchment c. 5/6 cent. PAGE NO. LINES PAGE NO. LINES

WM 1 19 34-38 16 27 207-210

2 19


17 27


3 20


18 27


4 20


19 27


5 23


20 188

a 1-10

6 24


21 188

a 11-b5

7 25


22 188

b 6-12

8 25


23 188

b 13-22

9 26


24 188

b 23-26

10 26


25 189

a 1-20

11 26


26 190

a 21-b15

12 26


27 189

b 16-25

13 26


28 193


14 26


29 193


15 27




KW (Till, 1949): papyrus c. 7/8 cent. CO (Crum, 1902): ostraca c. 7/8 cent. Ep (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1926): ostraca c. 7/8 cent. Hall (Hall, 1905): ostraca c. 7/8 cent. Saq (Excavations at Saqqara, 1909): leaves of parchment c. 7/8 cent. ZB (Zoega, 1903): leaves of parchment c. 8/9 cent. BA (Bouriant, 1888): leaf of parchment c. 9 cent. Ryl (Crum. 1909): leaves of parchment c. 9 cent.

Ch (Chassinat, 1921): large papyrus c. 9/10 cent. BKU (Ägyptische Urkunden, 1904): Coptic documents c. 996-1020

MK (Munier, 1918): paper c. 11/12 cent.

 TM (Turaev, 1902): paper c. 11/12 cent.

Primary Literature in Monastic Libraries

In monastic libraries we find evidence of first aid for the brothers, guests, and refugees: “Prescription book, simply named” (Bouriant, 1889), and other prescription books that show a great number of pages (Zoega, 1903, pp. 626-30). Skin diseases are mentioned, together with the prescriptions necessary for them. Impetigo and itching ailments are named and the following treatment recommended: swabbing with warm vinegar, attar of roses and water, or the juice of a sea leek (aloe) mixed with the contents of a melon (ZB 8 [for abbreviations see the chronological table below]). Another prescription called for the use of canine excreta, which was smeared on a bandage and applied to the psora scabs; guarantees were given that no irritation would ensue from such treatment (ZB 18). Leprosy (Kolta, 1982, pp. 58-63), efflorescence, and diseases of the liver (including jaundice) and of the kidneys are also mentioned in this book of prescriptions (ZB 28). Diseases in all parts of the body, including the genitals, are listed. Thus, for example, a prescription for treating pain in the breasts or the penis or the testicles recommends the application of breast milk to the affected part of the body. Fat or attar of roses also could be used (BA 3).

Literature of the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, Upper Egypt

A Coptic text on parchment from the fifth or sixth century was written by or for practicing doctors and dealt with various ailments: for instance, diseases of the spleen (WM 1, WM 29), and constipation, for which purgatives are recommended (WM 15, WM

25). This text also deals with illnesses of women and children, for instance, a painful uterine complaint (WM 6) and a prescription to treat the pain of a teething baby (WM 3). For adult toothache, it was recommended to rinse the mouth with warm asses’ milk (WM 13).

A few prescriptions took into consideration the treatment of wounds, for example, stanching of blood and relief of hemorrhages (WM 21, WM 23). Consideration was given to domestic hygiene in connection with elimination of vermin from houses (WM 7). In addition to the medical prescriptions from the Coptic material in the Vienna collection, which contains prescriptions for “palpitations” and sleeplessness (Till, 1949, pp. 43-49), there are references to podagra (gout), sleeplessness, palpitations, and also hemoptysis (Ägyptische Urkunden, 1904, pp. 24-31).

The Ninth and Tenth Centuries: Chassinat Papyrus

A collection of 237 prescriptions from the ninth-tenth centuries, published in 1921 by Emil Chassinat, contains unsystematically recorded prescriptions for various diseases but predominantly eye diseases, which have been the plague of Egypt for centuries. Among those mentioned are cataracts, shortsightedness, film on the eye (Till, 1951, p. 17, D.17), inflammation, abscesses, trichiasis, and cicatrized eyelids resulting from trachoma (Kolta, 1978, pp. 41-50). A number of prescriptions refer to tooth complaints (e.g., teeth with sore gums (CH 153), various stomach ailments, and even flatulence or attacks of worms, the recommended treatment for which consisted of powdered lettuce seeds in warm water (CH 11) in order to expel the worms. While Old Egyptian medicine (e.g., the Ebers papyrus and the Kahun papyrus) was concerned with medicine for women, the Chassinat papyrus contains only four prescriptions (CH 24, CH 123-25) for women who from a painful or tight uterus (Till, 1951, p. 27). Children’s medicine is rarely mentioned (CH 38, CH 230, CH 231).

Although diagnoses and clinical descriptions are not recorded in the Coptic literature, there are allusions to the wider sphere of Coptic medicine that included injuries and diseases of the various organs—head, brain, temples, eyes, ears, mouth, teeth, breasts, stomach, bowels, liver, kidneys, spleen, sexual organs, and skin—as well as pains in the extremities.

One prescription lists all the diseases of the head, the temples, and the brain that cause pain (Crum, 1909, no. 107). Another prescribes opium, milk, and calf’s fat, which should be warmed and placed, a drop at a time, into the painful ear (CH 114). A patient with a toothache ought to rinse the mouth with a small amount of warm asses’ milk (WM 13). Weak or painful breasts should be smeared with breast milk (BA 3) or rubbed with a mixture of starch, pig fat, and attar of roses (BA 4).

One text records the diseases of the swollen stomach, which emits black bile, leaving it sore (CH 70). Diseases of the sexual organs are also mentioned. The penis and the testicles can be infected with disease (BA 3). Problems with the uterus are described as follows: it can hurt and also can be tight (CH 125).

In addition to descriptions of pains in the extremities—the hand, the foot, or the knee—a number of Coptic medicinal texts found here (as in the finds from the monastic library) deal with skin complaints—for instance, psora scabies of various kinds: the prurient (CH 127 and ZB 13), the wild (ZB 16), and the water psora (ZB 14). The papules are also described in great detail (CH 163), and prurigo is mentioned (ZB 29). There are also prurigo blisters (CH 219, ZB 27). Till thinks these refer to shingles (Till, 1951, p. 32, Q 23).

Leprosy was recognized in the Coptic period. A prescription names a medicine for “all diseases of leprosy” (ZB 28). A mummy dating back to the sixth century has extremities that show signs of lepra mutilans (Kolta, 1982, pp. 58-63). In direct contrast with Old Egyptian medicine, surgical operations and surgical instruments are described only to a very limited extent. The sole mention of an instrument is in circumcision or the pulling of a tooth by means of a pair of tongs or an iron instrument (CH 151).

Among psychic disorders only sleeplessness (BKU 2) and possession are referred to (BKU 8 and 12). Therapeutic measures are given for ophthalmological and skin complaints, as well as the treatment of open wounds. Ointments, powders, plasters, baths, eye drops, tablets, and fumigations were prescribed.

Medical Profession and Nursing

The hierarchy of Coptic doctors was not as clearly demarcated as among the ancient Egyptians, and there were no specialists for particular diseases. Occasionally fields of activity are given; for instance, doctor and chiropractor (Coptic MSS in the Bodleian Library, P 32), as well as veterinarian (“doctor for horses”; Crum, 1939, p. 342b). There were “teaching doctors” or “masters” as well as “medical practitioners,” and uppermost in the medical hierarchy was the “senior physician.”

That there were doctors of both sexes is made clear by one text that mentions a woman doctor who performed her rounds in the monastic communities (Leipoldt, 1908-1913, vol. 4, 161, 6). Such descriptions of attendance on patients in the monastery furnish us with the evidence we have for the fourth-fifth centuries, the precursors of hospitals. The monastic rules of Pachomius provide an insight into the nursing duties, especially as they affected the conduct of patients: (1) it was customary for the patient to lie down on a bed; (2) no one was allowed to oil a patient or to bathe him without explicit permission; (3) when a brother suffered an injury and did not go to bed, but wandered about looking for a hospital garment or some oil, the hospital manager had to go to the place of the community (a sort of dispensary) and fetch what was necessary.

A report by Apa Shenute on the siege of the present-day city of QUS in Upper Egypt describes the nursing practice in the in the middle of the fifth century (Leipoldt, 1908-1913, Vol. 3, p. 69).

The medical literature of the ancient and of the Copts was transmitted anonymously. Medical texts are found on leaves of parchment, on ostraca, and on monastery walls (Thompson in Quibell, Excavations at Saqqara, Vol. 3, 1909, p. 57, no. 103). In recent times it has been established that the medical literature of the ancient did not come to an abrupt end, but resurfaced in a number of instructions in the collection of prescriptions in the Coptic language. This has been recognized in the work of Sigerist (1963, p. 329) and Grapow (see Deines, Grapow, and Westendorf, Vol. 2, 5, n. 3).


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  • Bouriant, U. “Fragment d’un livre de médecin en copte thébain.” Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, Comptes rendus 1887, ser. 4, 15 (1888):319-20, 374-79.
  • . Notes de voyage.” Recueil de travaux 11 (1889):135. Chassinat, E. Un papyrus medical copte. Mémoires Publiés par les Membres de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale du Caire. Cairo, 1921.
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  • . Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the Collection of the John Rylands Library Manchester. Manchester, 1909.
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  • . “Die Lepra im alten Ägypten in der koptischen Zeit.” In Aussatz-Lepra-Hansen-Krankheit. Menschheitsproblem im Wandel. Katalog der Ausstellung im Deutschen Museum, pp. 58-Munich, 1982.
  • . “Neue Ergebnisse zur Medizin der Kopten.” Sudhoffs Archiv 68 (1984):157-72. Discusses recent developments in the investigation of Coptic medicine.
  • Lefort, L. T. Pachomii sahidice scriptae. Paris, 1933.
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  • Quibell, J. E. Excavations at Saqqara (1905-6), (1906-7), (1907-8), (1908-9, 1909-10). 4 vols. Cairo, 1907-13. The Coptic inscriptions ed. Sir Herbert Thompson.
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  • . Die Arzneikunde der Kopten. Berlin, 1951.
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  • Zoega, G. Catalogus codicorum manuscriptorum, qui in Museo Borgiano Velitris adservantur. Leipzig, 1903. Reprint of 1810 edition.