Text by the “Father of Medicine” Hippocrates Discovered in Egypt

St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, Egypt. Photo by Berthold Werner, via Wikimedia Commons

The physician of Classical Greece, Hippocrates of Kos is well-known as the “father of medicine” and perhaps even more famous for the Hippocratic Oath, but few people probably know that his medical knowledge has survived from ancient times to the present through manuscripts.

The hand-copied texts preserved the “medical recipes” that Hippocrates, his colleagues and students used to treat their patients. During the renovations at the world’s oldest continuously running library at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, monks claimed to have found a 6th century recipe by Hippocrates and archaeologists who examined the text believe it to be authentic, as reported in National Geographic. The announcement of the discovery was made by officials from both the Egyptian and Greek governments, who worked with researchers from Greece.

The researchers attribute the recipe to Hippocrates’s work of the 5th and 4th century BC and the manuscript also contains three recipes with illustrations of herbs that were created by an anonymous scholar centuries ago. One of the library’s notable Sinai Palimpsests, it was made from a stretched leather that was difficult and costly to produce in the past. The original text was often erased or written over with a new manuscript so palimpsests can include multiple handwritten texts from different time periods. As National geographic reported, the recently found Hippocratic medicinal recipe had a second layer of Bible text known as the “Sinaitic manuscript” written over the original copy.

A bust of Hippocrates, engraving by Peter Paul Rubens. Photo: Public domain

Researchers at the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL), which has an ongoing partnership with St. Catherine’s Monastery, examined the text.

The technology used by EMEL, spectral imaging allows researchers to read palimpsests by revealing the text hidden beneath the second layer of text in the manuscript, which cannot be viewed with the naked eye.

National Geographic quoted Michael Phelps, a researcher at the EMEL from his interview with Egyptian newspaper Asharq Al-Aswat, “The manuscript, which contains three medical texts, will be enlisted among the oldest and the most important manuscripts in the world.”

St. Catherine’s Monastery has 130 known palimpsests in its collection with most of the subject matter of the erased text beneath the visible writing still a mystery.

The monastery is located in South Sinai, a remote region on a peninsula in northeast Egypt which first became a site for hermits and scholars in the 3rd or 4th centuries. Monks have inhabited the area since the church and the monastery were built in the 6th century. The few monks at St. Catherine’s Monastery today continue to live and work and observe their faith and practices much like they did over a thousand years ago.

The library at St. Catherine’s Monastery is a world treasure and estimates of its holdings are 3,300 manuscripts mostly written in Greek along with texts written in Aramaic, Georgian, Arabic, and Latin also found, as reported in National Geographic.

Born on the island of Kos in about 460 BC, Hippocrates founded the Hippocratic School of Medicine and is credited with major advancements in the systematic study of clinical medicine, for summarizing medical knowledge from previous schools of medicine, and for prescribing practices for physicians through the writings in the Hippocratic Corpus and other works, as noted in History of Medicine by Fielding H. Garrison.

The Asclepeion in Kos, the healing temple, sacred to the god Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, where Hippocrates received his medical training, is a popular tourist attraction.