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Catalogue: Alchemy

Blue arrow pointing to the rightA Note on Alchemy

The Arabic word al-kimiya’, from which we derive the word alchemy, was used for both chemistry and alchemy, and no clear distinction was made between the two activities. A wide range of chemical processes was undertaken by both the alchemist and the druggist, including distillation, calcination, evaporation, crystallization, sublimation, filtration, ceration, and amalgamation. Distillation was one of the most important processes in Islamic chemical technology, being employed for medicinal, technological and industrial purposes, including the preparation of mineral acids and the distillation of perfumes, rose-water, and essential oils.

Alchemical literature is primarily concerned with the behaviour of substances when subjected to various procedures or combined with other substances, and often employs allegorical and cryptic statements, with references to various occult and astrological principles. In contrast, the drug literature and other writings concerned with chemical technology (the making of perfumes or inks or crude petroleum, for example) focus upon the production of a product that is profitable and immediately useful, with little discussion of theoretical matters.

Considerable attention is given in the alchemical literature to aurifaction - that is, the production of gold or silver from base metals. Numerous recipes and procedures are described in the alchemical literature. One or more substances were to be treated by roasting, calcination or amalgamation, and then another substance known as the 'philosopher's stone' or the 'elixir' was applied to the materials that were to be transmuted, employing involved chemical processes. Often instructions were given that this process was to be carried out only under specified planetary influences.

Alchemical concepts and techniques were also applied to medicine, with the idea of producing a substance that would induce longevity or preserve youth.

A number of Hellenistic Greek texts on alchemy (composed from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD) were translated into Arabic, and a considerable number of Greek authorities are cited in Arabic alchemical literature. Aristotle formulated some ideas which, though not actually alchemical, were later incorporated into the alchemical tradition, and for that reason he figures as one of the earliest Greek authorities, as does also Plato, though neither were in fact alchemists. Some of the authorities cited are of legendary proportion, such as Hirmis. Others are important historical figures, such as Zosimos of Panopolis, who, around 300 AD, composed a Greek encyclopaedia of alchemy.

In addition to Greek writings on alchemy, Islamic authors on the topic were also influenced by certain ideas imported from China (probably along with paper-making) where alchemy had existed since the 4th century BC.

The most important name in Islamic alchemy is that of Jābir ibn ayyān, and NLM possesses copies of 25 different treatises attributed to him. The library also has treatises associated with Aristotle, Plato, Hirmīs, Zosimos, and another Greek authority Agathodaimon. The early Muslim authority Khālid ibn Yazīd is represented by two small tracts, while there are three alchemical treatises by the physician al-Rāzī (d. 925), one of which is a unqiue copy. Two 12th-century Arabic alchemical writers (al-al-ughrā’ī and Abū al-Qāsim Muammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh al-Anārī) are also represented. NLM has copies of three alchemical treatises by the leading 14th-century authority al-Jaldakī, as well as a treatise by an unidentified writer by the name of Amad ibn ‘Imād al-Dīn. Eight anonymous alchemical tracts round out the collection at NLM.

For alchemy in medieval Islam, see Manfred Ullmann, 'Kimiya' [alchemy]' in EI (2nd ed.), volume 5, pp. 110-115; Georges C. Anawati, 'Arabic Alchemy' in Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, ed. by Roshdi Rashed (London: Routledge, 1996), volume 3, pp. 853-85; Donald R. Hill, 'The literature of Arabic alchemy' in Religion, Learning and Science in the 'Abbasid Period, ed. M.J.L. Young, J.D. Latham, and R.B. Serjeant (Cambridge: Camridge University Press, 1990), pp. 328-43; and Donald R. Hill, Islamic Science and Engineering (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), pp. 76-91; and Ullmann, Natur.

See also, Ingolf Vereno, Studien zum ältesten alchemistischen Schrifttum. Auf der Grundlage zweier erstmals edierter arabischer Hermetica [Islamkundliche Untersuchungen, 155] (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1992) and the essay book review in Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften, vol. 12 (1998), pp. 350-367.

Also of interest are Robert Halleux, 'The reception of Arabic alchemy in the West' in Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, ed. by Roshdi Rashed (London: Routledge, 1996), volume 3, pp. 886-902; J. Needham, 'The elixir concept and chemical medicine in East and West', Journal of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, vol. 2, 1974; and William R. Newman, The 'Summa Perfectionis' of Pseudo-Geber: A Critical Edition, Translation, and Study [Collection de Travaux de l'Academie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences, 35] (Leiden: Brill, 1991).

For alchemical equipment, see Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald R. Hill, Islamic Technology: An illustrated history (Paris: Unesco and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 133-51, and E Savage-Smith, 'Glass alchemical equipment' in Francis Maddison and Emilie Savage-Smith, Science, Tools & Magic [The Nasser D. Khalili Coll. of Islamic Art, vol. XII] (London: Azimuth Editions and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 48-57.

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