I’m gearing up for the Henna Con conference in California next week — I am, as always, so excited and honoured to be included as a presenter. I’ll be teaching four different classes: one on the ancient history of henna, one on henna in Judaism, one on henna and gender variance (including these dancers!), and one on henna in al-Andalus and the medieval Mediterranean.
In preparing for that last class, I came across this interesting image and I thought I’d share it! I’ll be using it in my presentation for sure. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about it, but I’ll try to provide as much context as I can here.
This document comes from the Cairo Geniza, a massive collection of Jewish documents of all kinds (letters, receipts, biblical texts, philosophy, poetry, community records) from the 9th-19th centuries, that was found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt. It was ‘discovered’ in the 1890s — people always knew it was there, but in the 1890s and 1900s Jewish scholars (first the Giblew sisters, and then Solomon Schechter) acquired the documents, took them from Cairo to their various universities, and began analyzing and publishing them. The Cairo Geniza is probably the most important Jewish discovery of modern times (alongside perhaps the Dead Sea Scrolls) and certainly in the field of medieval studies. All in all approximately 300,000 documents (many of them in fragments) have been identified; there are still thousands of documents that have not been catalogued or translated (see Hoffman and Cole 2011 for a popular introduction).
|Solomon Schechter cataloguing Geniza fragments at Cambridge, 1895|
What was a millennium of manuscripts doing abandoned in a synagogue? In Judaism, sacred texts (such as Torah scrolls, prayerbooks, etc.) are disposed of in a specific and respectful manner; they cannot be thrown out or burnt. While they are generally buried eventually, they are usually stored (temporarily) in a special storage space called a geniza; this can be as small as a box or as large as a whole room. In the Cairo Jewish community, two unusual things happened — first, the geniza was never ‘emptied,’ but they just kept adding to it; and second, they didn’t just use the geniza for sacred texts but for any text written in the Hebrew alphabet, which encompasses all sorts of ‘secular’ texts like economic documents, personal letters, etc. (and not just in Hebrew — the Hebrew alphabet was used to write a number of Jewish languages, including Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Persian, all of which were represented in the Cairo Geniza).
A lot of our knowledge about Jewish henna in the Middle Ages comes from documents from the Cairo Geniza — economic receipts show henna being traded around the Mediterranean, and rabbinic writings and wedding certificates provide some of the earliest evidence for a henna ceremony associated with marriage rituals.
This document (in the Geniza collection of the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester) appears to be from a medical thesaurus or encyclopedia; it consists of alphabetical entries of medicinal plants and minerals. As far as we can tell, 7 pages (double-sided) have survived, and another page which is possibly also from the same book but too faded to tell for sure (the reference numbers are A539 1-12, B3361 1-2, and B3362 1-2).
|Rylands Geniza Fragment A539-4|
Much of the writing has faded, but the entry headwords are still clear. The medical dictionary (materia medica) was a popular genre of writing in the medieval period; this specific document does not appear to be known from any other source and its author cannot be identified with certainty. The date and origin of this manuscript is not known but from the style of the script it appears to be from the 13th-14th century.
As (our) luck would have it, this particular page has preserved the entry for henna! The word ḥinna’ can be clearly read in Judeo-Arabic (a Jewish dialect of Arabic written in Hebrew letters). As is often the case with medieval medicine, especially in the Arabic-speaking world, it relies heavily on Greek medicine and so many of the other entries are Greek in origin; there are also some Persian terms. The other remaining pages of this document also mention: crayfish, meadow saffron, hyssop, cinnamon, black nightshade, radish, stone pine, aloe, mercury, almonds, frankincense, sulfur, and parsley.
|Close-up of above fragment, headword hinna ("henna")|
The rest of the entry, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to be readable — it would be interesting to add to our knowledge of medicinal henna use. Henna appears in other medical documents found in the Cairo Geniza: 3 prescriptions call for henna (to stop bleeding, in a plaster, and for unknown use), and in various materia medica, pharmacopoeias, and other medical fragments (Amar and Lev, 2008, pg. 184; Shivtiel and Niessen, 2006, pg. 95). Two fragments mention henna in recipes “to darken the hair,” along with fig leaves, barley water, beet leaves, dog rose, vinegar, jasmine, and other interesting ingredients (Isaacs, 1994, pp. 24, 67). Another fragment includes henna in a recipe for a dentifrice, an early kind of toothpaste — I wonder if it stained their teeth (Lev and Chipman, pg. 126)! Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and doctor, mentions henna as a beneficial compress for insect stings, and the oil (duhn al-ḥinna’) as having beneficial properties as well (Meyerhof, 1940, no. 107 and 149).
|Folio 37r of an illustrated Arabic translation|
of Dioscorides' De Materia Medica, 1083,
showing the entry on henna.
Currently in the Library of
the University of Leiden.
Henna was widely used in medieval Islamic medicine as well, and appears in numerous prescriptions and dictionaries, including those of major Muslim physicians like ibn Sina, ibn al-Qayyim, and al-Kindi (for examples, see Leiser and Khaledy 2004, pp. 68 and 72, and Amar and Lev, 2008, pg. 184). Henna also found its way into an Italian Christian medical compendium of the 11th century as a soothing ointment to apply after depilating (Green, 2002, pp. 114-115), and it appears in a Jewish medical list of a 13th-century Provençal French rabbi, Shem Tov ben Isaac (Bos et al., 2011, pg. 126); its medical use seems to have continued even after the Expulsion of 1492, appearing in a 17th-century Spanish pharmacological manuscript (Karbstein, 2002, pp. 64-65; see also Corriente, 2004, pp. 47-48).
This is just one small piece of the interesting ways that henna use in the medieval Mediterranean crosses borders and boundaries. For more about medieval henna use, you’ll have to come to my presentation! I look forward to seeing some of you at Henna Con.
Amar, Zohar, and Efraim Lev. 2008 Practical Materia Medica of the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean According to the Cairo Genizah. Leiden: Brill.
Bos, Gerrit, Martina Hussein, Guido Mensching, and Frank Savelsberg. 2011 Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov Ben Isaac of Tortosa, Sefer ha-Shimmush, Book 29. Leiden: Brill.
Corriente, Federico. 2004 “Notes on a Recent Edition of a Morisco Pharmacological Ms.” Suhayl, Vol. 4, pp. 45-86.
Green, Monica. 2002 The Trotula: an English translation of the medieval compendium of women's medicine. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hoffman, Adina, and Peter Cole. 2011 Sacred Trash: the lost and found world of the Cairo Geniza. New York: Schocken Books.
Isaacs, Haskell. 1994 Medical and Para-medical Manuscripts in the Cambridge Genizah Collections. Cambridge University Press.
Karbstein, Andreas. 2002 Die Namen der Heilmittel nach Buchstaben [The Names of the Remedies According to Letter]. Geneva: Droz.
Leiser, Gary, and Noury Al-Khaledy. 2004 Questions and Answers for Physicians: a medieval Arabic study manual by ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Sulami. Leiden: Brill.
Lev, Efraim, and Leigh Chipman. 2012 Medical Prescriptions in the Cambridge Genizah Collections: practical medicine and pharmacology in medieval Egypt. Leiden: Brill.
Meyerhof, Max. 1940 Un Glossaire de Matière Médicale de Maïmonide [A Glossary of Medical Material by Maimonides]. Cairo: Mémoires présentés à l’Institut d’Egypte 41.
Shivtiel, Avihai, and Friedrich Niessen. 2006 Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic Manuscripts in the Cambridge Genizah Collections. Cambridge University Press.