As the Dark Ages swept across Europe, the use of medicinal plants and fragrant oils fell under the shackles of the Church. But in the East, aromatherapy survived. Avicenna, The Inventor of distillation. A History Of Aromatherapy.
In the Middle East many plants had special significance. The rose was the beloved flower of Islam, believed to have been formed from the tears of Mohammed as he ascended to heaven.1 While Europe endured the Dark Ages and the Church restricted the use of aromatics to religion and ritual, in the East aromatherapy continued to flourish.
The Arabs picked up aromatherapy where it had trailed off in Europe, translating great works such as those by Dioscorides and Galen into Arabic and starting ‘a purely Islamic body of knowledge’.1 New methods and approaches for using aromatic plants were developed, some of which are still in use today such as distillation – the main method of extracting essential oils from plant material.
The Inventor Of Distillation
The Persian-born physician Avicenna (980-1037 AD), or Ibn-Sina, is considered the inventor of distillation. However, some argue that he merely refined a process that had been in use for centuries – Pakistan’s Taxila Museum displays a 5000-year old terracotta ‘still’ found at the foot of the Himalayas.2
However, Avicenna conceived the coiled cooling pipe that greatly improved the condensation of steam and collection evaporated essence. He was also a prolific scholar and authored more than 200 books in his lifetime. His greatest work was the five-volume Canon of Medicine, which was a bible to the medical community for around 700 years, and his influence continues today:
‘Avicenna wrote an entire book on cardiac drugs … Some of his prescriptions are still used today. The basic preparations used were raw silk … mint, basil, ruby (stone) and aromatic oil … [He] was the first person in antiquity to point out the role of emotions [in health].’3
The Perfume Trade
Through distillation, precious fragrant oils were extracted from plants in the East and the perfumes of Arabia soon became famous throughout the known world. The Middle East played an important role in keeping the herbal traditions of the ancient world alive. The West did not rediscover this knowledge until the Crusades. And when aromatherapy did return to Europe it returned to countries now rife with filth and plague.
In other parts of the world herbs and flowers continued to hold special significance in cultures, traditions and beliefs. Much folklore sprung up around their origins and use. In Ayurvedic medicine, rosemary was thought to bring energy and joy. In China the mandarin became a symbol of good luck and it is still used during Chinese New Year celebrations.