Central Asian Contributions to the earlier phases of hospital building – Activity in Islam

by Aydin Sayili Published on: 3rd May 2005

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Modern hospials finds its origin in Islamic civilisation replacing institutions known for magic and religion with a science based tradition which took knowledge from various places including the Greeks, Egytptains, Indians and others.

The illustration of gate of Divrigi Dar al-shifa

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In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia scientific medicine lived side by side with religious and magical medicine. With the passage of time, scientific medicine made remarkable strides and the Greeks, in developing their scientific medicine, benefited greatly from the knowledge and experiences of Egyptian and Mesopotamian physicians.

Asklepion was the Greek temple of cures which was devoted to Apollo and Asklepios, the gods of healing. Treatment was brought about by priests in these institutions and the psychological aspect occupied a prominent place within it. They were places of miraculous cures yet ordinary physicians did not participate in any major way. Thus, although Greek philosophers were eminently successful in excluding magic from medicine, they could not extend their hegemony to the field of religious medicine and they could not dominate the procedures of cure exercised in the asklepia, where miraculous cures were supposed to be an almost daily occurrence.

With the beginning of Christianity the temples of cure did not wholly evaporate but belief in pagan gods gradually disappeared. Asklepios was abandoned together with the other gods and Christ became the true healer. Likewise, the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux gave their places to new patrons of the healing art. Apollo’s temple on the Palatine was demolished and out of the same stones, on the same site, was erected the first church consecrated to Sebastian, the Christian martyr and protector against the plague.

Some scholars have looked upon the Byzantine hospitals as the direct predecessors of the Islamic ones. Geographical considerations make this position seem reasonable, especially since hospitals such as that of Jerusalem lay within the territories annexed by the Arabs during the reign of the first four caliphs. But the main point of resemblance between the Byzantine and the Muslim hospitals is found in their charitable nature. However in this respect influence from Byzantium may not be considered to be essential. Moreover there are contrasting features between the two. For, contrary to the Islamic hospitals, the priest also seems to have had some role in the Byzantine hospitals in their curing of the sick.

Some of the differences between the pre-Islamic hospitals of Byzantium and the Islamic hospitals seem indeed to be very sharp. In Islam there were hospitals in the modern sense of the word, specialized establishments where the sick were treated and discharged at the termination of their treatment. The Byzantine hospitals had not reached this stage of specialization.

The Romans had hospitals setup especially for military purposes in addition to the valetudinaria of the slaves and the gladiators and there were also pre-Islamic hospitals in India. But perhaps the most important pre-Islamic hospital, available as a model for the early Islamic ones, was that of Jundisapur.

The humanitarian features of the Islamic medieval hospital must not be allowed to eclipse its high medical standing per se. The hospital, by the middle of the tenth century at least, was one of the high water marks of the Muslim civilization. The best available medical knowledge was put to practice within them and they had specialized physicians with special wards and organised staff members.

The first hospital built in Islam was in Damascus in the year 88 after the Hijra (AH), i.e. 706-707 CE. The founder was Walûd ibn Abdulmalik (705-715) – the sixth Umayyad caliph. This first Islamic hospital had been created for the purpose of curing the sick and giving care to those afflicted with chronic diseases and for looking after lepers, the blind and the poor. There was more than one physician employed at this hospital.

The construction of one other hospital in Umayyad times is reported; this was in Cairo. Our only source concerning its existence is in Ibn Duqmaq (d. 1406) and it contains no specific information concerning the nature and characteristic traits of this hospital.

I have not come across other examples of this nature in medieval Islam. Thus, though the medical aid station of Ibn Tulun does not seem to have served to establish a tradition in Islam, it serves to corroborate the existence of influences from Indian medicine upon the early hospitals of Islam. It also shows that there were Central Asian and, more specifically, Turkish contributions to the early hospital building activities of the Islamic World.

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