The earliest dynasties of Egypt date back to the second half of the fourth millennium BC. Ancient Egyptians used spices and herbs to provide nutritional benefits. Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt (c. 1458 BC) sent six Egyptian ships to the Land of Punt (on the eastern coast of Africa) to buy such goods. Hieroglyphs show ships laden with goods and cedar tree plants docked in the port of Egypt. Cedar plants from Eastern Africa were highly valued, and the Queen commissioned ships to bring them to Egypt and plant them locally.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have discovered evidence of the use of coriander, garlic, cassia, myrrh, frankincense, and salt in ancient Egypt from 3500 BC onwards. Hieroglyphs show pyramid workers eating onions and garlic, which was thought to give them additional strength and prevent digestive ailments. Pharaonic Egyptians used anise, marjoram, fenugreek, mustard, cumin, fennel, salt, dill, sesame, nutmeg, and coriander. The concept of an afterlife after death was an
important belief of ancient Egyptians. Preserving the dead through mummification was common among the rich and mighty. Mummification involves desiccating the body with salt after disemboweling it. The cavity was then filled with sweet-smelling myrrh.

The Greek historian Herodotus (484 BC-425 BC) described the mummification processes in Egypt. Jars filled with spices, herbs, and valuables were buried in the tomb with the dead because it was thought that the dead person should have the best things available for use in the afterlife. Herbs, trees, and spices were among the most valuable commodities of that time. A mural on the temple walls of Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut (1458 BC) depicts sacks of frankincense.

Ancient Egypt was the most advanced society with the most renowned physicians. Anyone with the means in the second millennium BC or later could come to Egypt for treatment. This type of travel is not very different from today’s medical tourism. There was intense interaction between the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Scholars from Greece would often visit Egypt to learn about their medicinal practices. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of Egypt: “The practice of medicine is very specialized among them. Each physician treats just one disease. The country is full of physicians; some treat the eye, some the teeth, some of what belongs to the abdomen and others internal diseases” (Histories 2, 84). Imhotep, regarded as the earliest Egyptian herbal physician, was revered by the Egyptians and Greeks as a god of medicine. Trade between the ancient Indians and Egyptians dates back to at least the third century BC.

Egyptian texts contain many references to herbs, including frankincense, myrrh, cedar, balsam, pine, myrtle, benzoin, labdanum, mastic, juniper berry, cardamom, and calamus. Many of these herbs were ingredients in Kyphi (known as Kapet in ancient Egypt), an antiseptic, perfumed substance used extensively in ancient Egyptian temples and the homes of the rich. Papyrus Harris, written during the reign of Rameses IV (c. 1155– 1149 BC), contains a recipe for Kyphi. According to
the Ebers papyrus, Kyphi, was sprinkled liberally in the tombs of pharaohs to be enjoyed in the afterlife.

Many Egyptian papyri have survived and are valuable resources about Egyptian medicine and the importance of herbs ( These include the Edwin Smith papyrus; Kahun Gynaecological papyrus; Berlin Medical papyrus; London Medical papyrus; Hearst Medical papyrus (which contains many of the same recipes as those in the Ebers papyrus); and the Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden. The oldest papyrus, the Ebers papyrus, dates back to 1550 BC. The Ebers papyrus discusses medicinal herbs from ancient Egyptian doctors dating back to 3400 BC. Ebers was a German Egyptologist and novelist who purchased the ancient papyrus record in 1873. The papyrus, which resides at the University of Leipzig in Germany, lists 876 herbs and 500 plants. Exorcisms, spells, and herbal remedies were the main tools for healing.

Incantations and prayers (particularly to Sekhmet, the goddess of healing) played important roles. The wearing of amulets and the importance of diet were emphasized: herbs alleviated pain only, whereas magic cured. The Ebers papyrus states, “Magic is effective together with medicine. Medicine is effective together with magic.” It mentions opium, cannabis, myrrh, frankincense, fennel, cassia, senna, thyme, henna, juniper, aloe, linseed, and castor oil. Many, like castor and juniper, were locally available; others were imported from Africa and Asia (e.g., mandrake, cedar oil, henna, aloe, and frankincense). The Greeks and Romans translated Egyptian texts into their languages. Over the centuries, Greek and Roman texts became the basis of Arabic and European medical texts.

Read my book on the use of herbs in the Bible

Holy Herbs; Modern Connections to Ancient Plants

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