Technical Arts Related To Alchemy in Old Egypt

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Professor of Chemistry at Faculty of Science-University of Cairo Giza-Egypt and director of Science Heritage Center
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Alexandria-Egypt and Early Alchemists


1-When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 33 B.C. and his general Ptolemy became
King of Egypt, the Greek city of Alexandria was founded, and soon became not only the
most important city of Egypt, but through the foundation of schools and the
accumulation of libraries became the acknowledged center of the intellectual world.

2-The collection of manuscripts is estimated at from 400,00 to 500,000 works. Scholars
from all parts of the then civilized world thronged there to take advantage of its
books and its teachers. The culture which developed was a blending of Greek, Egyptian,
Chaldean, Hebrew and Persian influences. Greek philosophy, Egyptian arts, Chaldean and
Persian mysticism met and gave rise to strange combinations not always conducive to
improvement upon the relative clarity of the Greek foundation.

3-As the power of Rome grew, Greek and Egyptian power declined. Egypt became a Roman
province in 80 B. C. A fire, started, it is recorded, from ships burning in the
harbor during Caesar's conquest of Alexandria, burned an important part of the
collection of manuscripts of the Alexandria libraries.

4-Under the Roman Empire, Alexandria, however, still exerted great influence and in the
reign of Augustus was a metropolis second only to Rome itself, but in the succeeding
centuries when Rome was suffering from internal disintegration and the Roman Empire was
crumbling from successful barbarian invasions; Alexandrian culture also yielded to the
general demoralization.

5-In the third century, the conditions throughout the Empire were such as to justify
the statement of competent critic—"In the tempest of anarchy during the third century
A.D. the civilization of the ancient world suffered final collapse. The supremacy of
mind and of scientific knowledge won by the Greeks in the third centur B.C. yielded to
the reign of ignorance and superstition in these social disasters of the third century

Alexandrian Alchemical Mystics

In the light of present knowledge, it was in the period of the first to the third
centuries that the mystical cult which cultivated the fantastic ideas of that kind of
chemical philosophy which later came to be called alchemy, first developed. The
beginning seems to have been the development of a secret cult of Alexandrian mystics
bound by oath never to reveal to the uninitiated the mysterious knowledge which they
claimed to have. That the members of the cult were originally of the Egyptian
priesthood or foreign scholars initiated by them, seems probable, for Egyptian deities
or mythological personages are prominent as authorities in their writings. That the
cult was of comparatively late development is evidenced by the prominence of Persian,
and Hebrew authorities which were also frequently cited in their early writings. All
this points to the cosmopolitan influence of the Alexandrian schools the melting pots
of Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, Persian and Chaldean philosophies, sciences, religions and
superstitions. The universal sway of the Roman power and the pax Romana had also the
effect of spreading the various cultures and national religions, but at the same time
of weakening their authority.

In the early centuries of our era, Rome and Athens contained temples of Egyptian Isis,
and shrines to Mithra, the Persian sun god, were frequent in Greek and Roman cities,
symptoms of a decline in the power of the ancient religions in the centers of
civilization under the Empire.

Fate of Alexandria University

There was rising the new and at first persecuted sect of Christians destined soon to
supplant the old faiths. Reconized and protected early in the fourth century under the
Emperor Constantine, the new sect as it gained influnce waged war upon the schools of
ancient pagan philosophies.
In 389 A.D. the Serapion of Alexandria was destrosyed, and its library destroyed or
scattered under an edict of Theodosius calling for the destruction of all paean temples
within the Empire, an order executed with much severity and cruelty. In the same year,
Zeno, Emperor of the East, closed the important school at Edessa and its Nestorian
teachers were banished, findingg refuse in Asia. The Museum of Alexandria, a real
university, still maintained a precarious existence until 415 when in riots incited by
the Christians, the last remnants of Alexandrian schools of philosophy and science were
swept away and the last notable teacher and philosopher of that school, Hypatia(370 -
415) fell a victim to the violence of the mob.
Hypatia (

Alexandria In Times Of Muslims

When the Muslim State ruled Asia Minor, the Syrian scholars were patronized by the
Caliphs, were employed in influential positions as physicians, as tronomers,
mathematicians, engineers, etc., and the Syrian manuscripts of Greek and Alexandrian
authors were translated into Arabian. The early Muslim culture was more hospitable to
these ancient sciences and philosophies than the early Christian, and thus Arabians
became in medieval times the best trained scholars in mathematics astronomy, medicine
and chemistry. As the wave of Muslim culture in the seventh and eighth centuries
swept over Egypt and Morocco to Spain, Spain became the seat of a high degree of Muslim
culture which endured until the final expulsion of the Moors in 1492 put an end to the
Muslim rule in Western Europe. From Spain, however, the classical culture preserved by
Syrian scholars and by them transmitted to Arab scholars, found its way to Europe, and
Arabian mathematicians, physicians, alchemists, were held in high esteem as scientific
experts. Arabian translations, elaborations and commentaries from ancient Greek and
Greek-Egyptian authors received from Syrian versions and finally translated into Latin
in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, became the great authorities in natural
science. So completely had the original Greek writings disappeared from sight in the
middle ages of Europe that later centuries quite generally assumed that the Arabians
were originators of very much that they had acquired and transmitted from original
Greek and Alexandrian writers through Syrian and Arabic translations. Particularly was
that true in the field of chemical knowledge, though modern research has made it
clearer that the additions in that domain to the knowledge possessed by Alexandrian
writers of the third and fourth centuries is of very subordinate significance. In the
history of chemical science in Europe, Arabian influence is of importance because it
was through this channel that interest in the science was again introduced to Latinized

The Earliest Alchemical Writers In Alexandria

At about the beginning of our era, it was in Alexandria, so far as we can ascertain,
that that phase of chemical activity and speculation which we call alchemy originated.
The earliest alchemical writers whose writings have been in part at least preserved to
us were manifestly Alexandrian Greek-Egyptians. They wrote in Greek and their writings
contain allusions and traditions connecting with the ancient Greek philosophy of
nature, with Plato and Aristotle, but also allusions and ideas related to Persian and
Egyptian culture. In so far as these writings contain references to the devices and
methods of experimental chemistry, these earl alchemists allude to just such practical
operations as we have seen in the Egyptian papyri from Thebes (see Part 2 Lyeden and
Stokohlom Manuscripts in this site), although they are rarely so definite and clear as
the latter descriptions and directions, and are mingled with a confused mass of obscure
allegorical narratives and descriptions. These find their analogies in the fantastic
notions of the later Alexandrian neoplatonic philosophers and related mystical cults
belonging to the transition period of the fall of the Egyptian and Greek culture and
the rise of the Christian philosophy with its mixture of traditions and ideas from many
different ancient cults and religions.
Internal and external evidence are to the effect that the phase of chemical activity
and interest which so long held the stage not only in Europe but in Arabia and Asia,
spreading even to India and China, had its origin in the practices of the metal workers
of Egypt (see Part 1 of this section) and in the theories of matter and its possible
changes as developed in the neoplatonic school of natural philosophy.
In so far as the neoplatonic philosophy as applied to alchemy possessed a basis in
ancient Greek philosophy, it was based mainly upon Plato's conceptions as formulated in
his work entitled "Timaeus."
This metaphysical physical science of Plato, imaginative and fantastic in itself,
became even less logical and more fantastic by the elaborations and interpretations of
the later neoplatonists who "based their philosophy on revelations of Deity and they
found those in the religious traditions and rites of all nations."
As the Timaeus of Plato appears to have furnished the more fundamental concepts which
dominated the ideas of matter and its changes to the early and later alchemists, it
will be of help in understanding some of these ideas if this work is explained in some
In the form of dialogue, though substantially a monologue, Timaeus is represented as
explaining to Socrates his formulation of the generation and development of the
physical universe.