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Tracing the footsteps of historical Cairo's lost icons: Ibn Al-Nafis, the Syrian Polymath

The second in a series exploring Cairo's medieval history as a vital global centre of science and learning traces the life of pioneering physicist Ibn Al-Nafis

Mohammed El-Razzaz, Monday 6 Aug 2012
Syrian Stamp featuring Ibn al-Nafis
(Photo: By Mohammed Elrazzaz)
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As with the first article of this series, we again stroll the streets of Fatimid Cairo, this time in the footsteps of another genius who revolutionised medicine. To do this, we head straight to one of the most awe-inspiring areas of the city: a part of al-Nahaseen formerly known as Bayn al-Qasrayn.

It was in the tenth century that the area acquired its name, Bayn al-Qasrayn, thanks to two Fatimid palaces erected for Al-Muizz and, years later, his son, Al-Aziz. The area as we see it today is predominantly a Mamluk creation (13th and 14th centuries). The skyscape is dominated by the minarets of Qalawun and Barquq, with that of Al-Nasser Ibn Qalawun in between. Remains of the Madrasa of Al-Zahir Baybars is dwarfed by an imposing complex across the street: The Complex of Al-Mansur Qalawun.

When Ibn Al-Nafis arrived in Cairo, none of these monuments were yet there. Egypt was under the Ayyubids, and he would see the Mamluks take over in 1250, establishing themselves as the new ruling dynasty. In Syria, where he was born, Ibn Al-Nafis studied fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and later dedicated himself to medicine and excelled in it tremendously.

The historian Ibn Abi Usaibiyya was one of his colleagues at Al-Bimaristan Al-Nuri (Hospital of Nur al-Din Ibn Zanki) in Damascus, and was impressed by his exceptional talent. In his book ‘Tabaqaat Al-Atibba’ Abi Usaibiyya asserted that Ibn Al-Nafis “cured many chronically ill patients after they had despaired and after their doctors had given up hope. They were healed thanks to the unusual medicine that he prescribed and the swift manoeuvres that he mastered.”

Ibn Al-Nafis travelled to Egypt around the year 1236. He would spend the rest of his life there, a life marked by great contributions to human knowledge through his work and his prolific writing. After serving as the private physician of the Mamluk Sultan Al-Zahir Baybars, he was later  appointed ‘Physician-in-Chief’ at the legendary Al-Bimaritan Al-Mansuri (Hospital of Al-Mansur Qalawun), as well as Qalawun’s private physician. What remains today of that Bimaristan?

At Al-Bimaristan Al-Mansuri

Anyone visiting Bimaristan Qalawnu (Al-Mansuri) today is likely to leave disappointed. First, very little is left of the ancient majesty that Ibn Battuta once hailed. He wrote, "One cannot possibly describe the splendour of this Bimaristan (Al-Mansuri), with its countless utilities and medicines. Over 1000 dinars are spent on running it daily." Now, most of the Bimaristan has been demolished or recycled into other buildings.

Second, the relics are eclipsed by the magnificence of the Mausoleum and other parts of the complex. Moreover, the significance and the history of the site are not explained with plaques or signs. It takes a lot of imagination for an uninformed visitor to imagine how this institution once functioned.

A detailed description comes from Al-Maqrizi's Al-Khitat wal-Athar, which explains that the Bimaristan had two large partitions, one for men and the other for women. Different sections accommodated patients suffering from different diseases, while other sections were dedicated to cooking for the patients, preparing medicines for them, and even entertaining them through live music.

The Sultan himself, upon inaugurating the Bimaristan, announced that its duty was “to serve the ill and the poor, men and women, until they recover” and that “it is at the service of the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor, the prince and the slave, the citizen and the traveller, all free of any charge, only for the sake of Allah.”

Further testimonies come from Al-Qalqashandi. In his book Subh Al-Aasha he confirms that “This is a unique Bimaristan that has no parallel in the whole world.” In his book Tashrif Al-Anam, Ibn Abd Al-Zahir concurs: “No king ever managed to build something like this throughout history.”

A legacy ‘made in Egypt’

It was at this Bimaristan, in the heart of Cairo, where Ibn Al-Nafis watched over his patients and lectured to students of medicine. It was here also that he perfected his methods and compiled his experience in what would be one of the most important books in the history of Medicine since Galen, a prominent Greek physician and philosopher who lived in the second century. Ibn Al-Nafis' work Al-Shamil fi Al-Tibb (The Comprehensive Work on the Art of Medicine), an encyclopedia that earned him the title of ‘The Second Avicenna’ (The Second Ibn Sina).

Ibn Al-Nafis is famous worldwide as a physician, and most of his books on the subject were written in Egypt. Furthermore, it was in Egypt that he made his groundbreaking discovery of the pulmonary circulation some 370 years before William Harvey. He formulated his discovery in a commentary that he wrote on Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine.

In the streets and the institutions of Islamic Cairo, Ibn Al-Nafis mingled with many scholars and intellectuals, which further broadened his horizon and enriched his knowledge in several fields. Faithful to the zeitgeist of his age, he mastered medicine, jurisprudence and grammar, and wrote about almost everything from nutrition to philosophy and logic.

The dedication of Ibn Al-Nafis to science and his relation to the Al-Bimaristan Al-Mansuri where he worked transcended his own death. As Ibn Taghribirdi tells us in his Al-Nujum Al-Zahira, “he died having bequeathed his house, his belongings and everything he owned to the Bimaristan.” 

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