Articles in this series:
Series: Preserving History
How to Preserve Your Culture
Ethiopia is in many ways remarkable in possessing lands of greatly varying altitude, and hence of widely differing climate. Traditionally the areas of differing altitude in which these lands were situated were known as Qolla, or Lowlands, Dega, or Lands of Considerable Elevation, and Wayna Dega, literally “Grape Highlands”, or lands of intermediary elevation.
Temperature, Rainfall and Climate
Temperature and rainfall also varied very greatly. The country thus included cold mountains, in some places at times covered with snow, and torrid lowlands, some of which constituted some of the hottest places on earth. Great differences in rainfall also occurred, and manifested themselves in desert conditions at one extreme, and tropical jungle at the other.
Such differences of elevation, and climate, in rainfall as well as in temperature, were of immense importance. They led to a remarkably wide variety of vegetation of all kinds, including trees, shrubs, and other plants of medicinal value.
The number, and variety, of such medicinal plants enabled the people of Ethiopia, the inheritors of a long-established civilisation, to develop, over the centuries, a very sophisticated knowledge of herbal medicine. This enabled them to conquer the diseases, epidemic as well as endemic, with which they were afflicted.
A Written Language
Ethiopia was also unusual on the African continent south of the Sahara in possessing a written language: Ge‘ez, which can be traced back to before the Christian era.
Ge‘ez literature, which was written on parchment, was for the most part Biblical, or at least Christian in character. There was, however, also a sizable amount of writing on secular themes, such as the royal chronicles, works on philosophy, computation of calendar information, legal texts, and – what we are concerned with today: medical text-books.
Medical Textbooks, and Their Age
We do not know when the Ethiopians began to record their medical knowledge in writing. Medical texts were not treated with the same reverence as religious works, and were therefore less often housed in church or monastic libraries, where they would have been well preserved. Medical textbooks were instead often kept in the possession of individual practitioners, who used them for their medical purposes, and were not so interested in their conservation.
The earliest Ethiopian medical texts known to us date back to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. It may well, however, be the case that such works are copies of much older texts, no longer extant, which were worn out in use, or otherwise destroyed. The works from which they were copied could have been many centuries older, and may have dated perhaps from perhaps the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, or even earlier.
Ethiopian medical texts are of immense historical importance, not only for the understanding of Ethiopian medical history, but also in that they embody a vast store of medical information. Much of this can be of practical importance for the present day.
Traditional medicine has an advantage over modern medicine imported from abroad in that it is often better understood, and appreciated, by the rural population. Traditional medicine is also substantially cheaper, and, no less important, less of a burden on the country’s balance of foreign exchange.
Supplemented by Foreign Writings
The information recorded in the Ethiopian medical text-books can to some extent be confirmed, as well as supplemented, by the writings of innumerable foreign travellers, who have over the years written many valuable accounts of the country’s medical practices. Such records date back to the writings of the early sixteenth century Portuguese traveller Fransisco Alvares, and also include accounts by many nineteenth and early twentieth century foreign century observers, French, German, Italian, and others. Some of them were trained doctors, surgeons, or other medical observers.
Such foreign literature cannot be ignored: it contains for example accounts of such traditional practices as bleeding and cupping, as well as bone-setting, surgical operations, and the use of thermal water, none of which figure at all in the Ethiopian medical textbooks.
Several of the more important Ethiopian medical text-books have been published abroad during the present century, together with French, Italian, English or other foreign translations, as well as a considerable amount of annotation. Such annotation is of immense medical, and other scholarly, importance, for it often identifies, at least tentatively, the scientific, or Latin botanical names of the plants mentioned in the texts.
Such published texts, translations and annotations are in fact so important that it is impossible to do any serious research in the investigation of traditional Ethiopian medicine, or on traditional Ethiopian plants, without familiarising oneself with such literature: to mention but two examples Marcel Griaule’s Le livre de recettes d’un dabtara abyssin (Paris, 1930), and our old friend Stefan Strelcyn’s two volume Medecine et plantes d’Ethiopie (Warsaw, 1968, Naples, 1973).
Strelcyn’s researches, though extensive and of major scholarly importance, by no means of course mark the end of such research, but in a sense only a good beginning. It is imperative that further medical texts be identified, published, translated, and annotated. We need a series of new monographs, on the lines of Strelcyn’s work.
Medical Textbooks, and Traditional Practitioners
The publication of further Ethiopian medical texts must be complimented by the recording of medical information from traditional medical practitioners, large numbers of whom are still alive and kicking, as the English phrase goes. Such research and publication should be important in supplementing the information included in the written texts, as well as in confirming the data included therein.
It this connection it is worthy of note that traditional Ethiopian medicine forms part of a long-established tradition. This is evident from the fact that our documentation reveals that the medicinal properties of certain plants have been known in Ethiopia for centuries, and that many medical prescriptions can be seen to have been used for generations.
Monographs and/or Journal
We should be thinking in terms of the publication of an on-going series of monographs on the work of present-day traditional practitioners, or else of a regular Journal, in which traditional medical prescriptions can be published on a regular or irregular basis.
Such publications could well be the responsibility of the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity, the Association of Traditional Ethiopian Medical Practitioners, and/or the University Medical Faculties.
Medicinal Botanical Gardens
And, while we are at it, why don’t we establish a botanical garden of traditional plants, perhaps somewhat like the Chelsea Physics Garden, in London. And why not have smaller botanical gardens attached to schools (and perhaps also Government office compounds) all over the country?
In that way Ethiopia’s youth, as well as the urban population, will be familiarised with the medical side of their country’s cultural heritage.
All this may also contribute to health!