Yemen’s lost Pre-Islam School of Medicine – Part III

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Inscriptions, Legends and Language-Part Three


In the previous part of this article, we listed a number of pre-Islamic physicians who were mentioned in early books, most of whom were Yemeni Christians.

  1. Al-Ḥarith bin Kalada al-Thaqafi (studied in Yemen), Christian.
  2. Al-Nadher bin al-Ḥarith, most likely Christian, like his father al-Ḥarith.
  3. Zuhair Bin Janab (Yemeni) was from Quda’a, .
  4. Ḍimād bin Tha’labah al-Azdi (Yemeni), religion unknown.
  5. Ibn Ḥuḏaym (Yemeni), religion unknown.
  6. Al-Shamardal al-Najrani (Priest) was from a Christian tribe.
  7. Al-Ḥarith bin Ka’b (Yemeni) was from a Christian tribe.
  8. Shaq Bin Anmār (of Yemen), religion unknown.
  9. Rabāḥ Bin Ajlah (Priest of Yamama), religion unknown.
  10.  Al-Ablaq al-Sa’di (Priest of Najd), religion unknown.
  11. Ibn Abi Ramtha al-Tamīmi was from Tamim, a tribe which some of its members converted to Christianity.
  12. Yazid bin Amr bin Wala’a al-Tamīmi (Abda ibn al-Ṭabīb al-Tamīmi), Christian.

Many of these physicians and healers were also priests, such as Shaq, al-Shamardal, Rabāḥ bin Ajla, and al-Ablaq al-Sa’di. Even al-Nadher bin al-Ḥarith was said to be a priest, or at least associated with priests.[1] There is a high possibility that there were other priests who were also physicians but were not mentioned except as priests, because Arabs at the time “often used physician, priest, and fortune teller interchangeably.”[2]

Unfortunately, sources do not provide enough information or allow for further research into the lives and practices of these physicians. However, the available information provides evidence that there was a relationship between the Arab Christians and early well-established medical symbols.

Perhaps the most prominent piece of evidence is illustrated in the picture below. It shows a statue found inside the inner wall of a temple in Yarīm, Raydān, the capital of the Himyarite Kingdom. The statue dates back to 450-55 AD, and on the upper corner of each side of the head there is an inscription that reads, ?? ?? (Wad Ab), a well-known talisman which means ‘Wad: The loving father’.

Photo: Dr Paul Yule, Heidelberg University

There is also a rose that resembles a cross on the figure’s , and in the right hand the figure is holding a stick with a cross. This masterpiece was discovered in Dhofar in 2005 by Dr Paul Yule from Heidelberg University. Based on this discovery, scholars believe Christianity extended beyond Najran into the urban areas of present-day Yemen.[3]

At first glance, it seems odd that a Christian cross meets a pagan talisman of the God Wad in a single artifact. However, it is possible that this is due to the manifest of the God Wad for early Yemenis. The name ‘Wad’ is derived from the same word, which means affection and love, and is often symbolized by a snake. The inscriptions indicate that worshippers would engrave the phrase ‘fatherly affection’, particularly on talismans that people carried for protection. Similarly, images of snakes were also often found in engravings.[4]

Christians in the region found in the God Wad a local image of Jesus, because Jesus in Christianity is love: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love, 1 John 4:8.” Arab Christians revered both the God Wad and Jesus, the symbol of the loving God in Christianity. This hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that the people who idolized the God Wad in Jahiliyyah were the sons of al-Farāfisa bin al-Aḥwaṣ, from the tribe of Kalb,[5] who were Christian.[6] The serpent played an important role in the Bible (Numbers 21:4-9), used by the devil as a tempter, but also in the myths of the region, as a symbol of fertility, life and recovery. Today the snake is seen as a symbol of medicine and hangs above every hospital and pharmacy. The figure of the snake was highly revered among the Christians of Najran, to the extent that it was incorporated into their kings’ titles. According to Islamic historians, “Each of them possessed the title of ‘Snake’. Among them ‘Najran Snake’, who was also a priest.”[7]

Bronze statue with a snake symbol representing the God Wud. Currently at Dhamar Museum (DhM 352) Image source

The snake was a symbol of protection and health for ancient people, because they had observed the periodic skin shedding of snakes, and believed that this process was a constant renewal of life. It symbolized that snakes could live forever, and could not die except in the case of injury.[8] Al-Jahiz recounted the belief: “They claim that a snake is immortal, and only dies in the case of an accident.”[9] In Arabic ‘Ḥaya’ is another word for snake and means ‘alive’. Dr Mohamed Agina also believes that perhaps Eve, ‘Ḥawa’ in Arabic, was then derived from the same root.[10]

Here we have a set of symbols: the Christian cross, with a clear relationship to healing, the snake, and the symbolism of protection, which leads us to the symbolism of the snake in the ancient world. An interpretation can be found in ancient Egypt, in the gods of protection,  ‘Wadjet’ the patron and protector of Egypt, whose symbol is a snake. The influence of ancient Egypt on ancient Yemen becomes evident in the discovery of mummies in the region, some which date back to 3000 BC.

The ancient Yemenis seem to have drawn some of their knowledge from medical knowledge in ancient Egypt. Archeologists were able to locate the wooden tomb of a Yemeni man called Zaid El Zaid in Giza, Egypt, dating back to 264 BC. The inscriptions describe him as a trader who imported perfume to Egyptian temples.[11] Excavators in Yemen were also able to locate some Egyptian antiquities in the country. One of these findings includes a small engraved stone plate, dating back to the fifth century BC,[12] depicting a man standing with a cobra snake in the lead. In addition, a bronze statue of the Sphinx, dating back to the period between the second and third centuries BC, was found in Jabal al-Oud.

As for the Greeks, they knew the snake and ‘Wadjet’ under the name ‘Buto’, and also appear to have had contact with ancient Yemen. On the Greek island of Delos, archeologists found a cylindrical altar that can be traced back to ancient Yemen. The altar dates back to the second half of the second century BC, and explicitly mentions the God ‘Wad’. Another inscription which mentions a Hadrami merchant named Ghlmb was found on the same island.[13] Given these traces, it is no surprise that the Humorism reached ancient Yemen.

Artwork by Abeer al-Hadrami

Traces of language

In pre-Islamic times physicians were called ‘Aasi’.[14] The first mention of this term, according to the Doha Historical Dictionary, goes back to Suba’i ibn al-Ḥarith the Himyarite, who lived in 538 AD.[15] The second appears in a poem by the Yemeni poet al-Murqqash the Elder around 549 AD.[16] Later the term also appears in a verse by the poet al-Ḥuṭay’ah, who witnessed the arrival of Islam.[17]

It is important to note that the first appearance of the term was in the words of Suba’i ibn al-Ḥarith the Himyarite, who lived a century before Hijrah; that is, before the language of the early people of Yemen disappeared. The verse by al-Marqash al-Akbar was also from around the same period, and according to Ibn Qutayba al-Dinouri, al-Marqash “wrote in Himyaritic”.[18]

Returning to Himyaritic inscriptions, the word ‘Asi’ was found in several inscriptions, the most important being the inscription known as ‘Fortress of al Ghurab’ (CIH 621), which dates back to 525 AD. The term is written as ‘Seo’ ???, meaning found or seen. Similarly, it was also found in the inscription (JA651), meaning ‘bring, find, see’,[19] and the word ‘Aasi’ is still used in some Yemeni regions.[20] Other derivative meanings of the term ‘Aasi’ in Yemeni inscriptions include find, bring or provide, send, pass on, messenger[21] or envoy. All these meanings connote the role of a priest, who brings, provides and passes on unseen or divine knowledge, and is the messenger of God. Along those lines, it appears that this semantic overlap is due to the overlap between the role of fortune tellers, priests and physicians.

Arab linguists explain the etymology of the word ‘Aasi’ from the Arabic word ‘Asa’, which means grief and sadness, meaning that a physician provides comfort to the patient from their illness. ,[22] and at the same time to the wife of the Pharaoh of Egypt, ‘Asiya’ as she is referred to in Tafsir and Hadith sources, despite the fact that she is not mentioned in the Quran, and her name may mean ‘caring for Pharaoh’. Relying on hypothesis in tracing the etymology of words, whether Arabic or non-Arabic, is common among Arab linguists, which leaves the origin of the word open to interpretation, especially since the word ‘Asi’ is mentioned in ancient inscriptions.

The word ‘Asi’ was found in a Thamudic inscription in northern Saudi Arabia as a verb meaning treating, healing.[24] The word ‘Asi’ also found in a Nabataean inscription in the city of al-Hijr, spelled as “‘Asya” ’ meaning physician, as a single masculine name. Dr Kaufman believes that the word is borrowed from Akkadian,[25] since the word ‘A-zu’ in Sumerian means a physician or chief physician.[26]

As for Ancient Egypt, the word that describes a male physician is ‘swnw’ ???? and a female physician is ‘swnwt’. This discovery was revealed in a book by Frans Jonckheere published after his death in 1958, where he also describes its association with fortune-telling and magic.[27] Some researchers believe that it was pronounced ‘Sino’ in relation to the word in the Coptic language Ⲥⲏⲓⲛⲓ (Sæini).[28]

Artwork by Abeer al-Hadrami

Jonckheere’s book compiles a long list of Egyptian physicians, two of whose names end with the word ‘Asi’, physician (Nakht Haj Asi) and dentist (Nefrert Asi),[29] and it is well known that the ancient Egyptian physicians “spread to neighboring countries.”[30]

In fact, the main goddess in Egypt (Eset or Aset), who the Greeks know as Isis, was described in ancient Egyptian texts as ‘swnw’, that is, a physician,[31] and according to Egyptian myth she taught men the art of healing diseases.[32] The name Eset resembles the name Asiya. Especially as Eset was the wife of the god Osiris, just as Asiya was the wife of the Pharaoh, and one legend tells the story of Eset finding her child, whom she loved and cared for, in a coffin in the Nile Delta.[33]

There is a similarity that cannot be overlooked between the story of the Asiya finding the sarcophagus which contained Moses the child, and the story of Eset, with some differences in the details of the story between the Old Testament and Surat Taha in the Quran.[34] If we are able to prove that the early Arabic name for physician (Aasi) has its roots in the name of goddess (Eset=Isis), then we have further evidence of the arrival of Egyptian medicine and its influences to the Arabian Peninsula.

To conclude this series, the practice of medicine in ancient Yemen did not stop in the classical era, but rather reverted to practices of sorcery, until Christianity arrived and was able to revive it again. Early Christian cities in Yemen became centers for medical education. Later, the arrival of Islam interrupted the development of this practice due to its fight against magic and sorcery, which were closely intertwined with medical practices at the time. Additionally, religious conflict between Islam and Christianity created a barrier to learning medicine for a long time, a period that did not end until the Abbasid era.[35]


Altar of Hadrami Merchant in Egypt (RES 3427) Image source
Bronze statue with a snake symbol representing the God Wud. Currently at Dhamar Museum (DhM 352) Image source


Hadrami Inscription in Greece (RES 3952) Image free from copyright
Inscription of snake symbol for protection at one of the entrances of Fort Rada’am in Hamdan Image credit: Abdul Karim al-Razihi, October 2018





Mohammed Atbuosh is a young Yemeni scholar interested in philosophy and Islamic thought.




[1] Abu al-Faraj Ibn al-Ibri. Tarikh Mukhtasar al-Duwal, 158; Ibn Juljul, 167

[2] Al-Khattabi. Ma’alem as-Sunan, 4/229

[3] Yule, Paul. Himyar: Spätantike im Jemen/Late Antique Yemen (Aichwald: Linden Soft, 2007).

[4] al-Garoo, Asmahan Saeed. Dirasat fi al-Tarikh al-ḥaḍari lil Yaman al-Qadīm, 133.

[5] Ibn Habib. Kitab al-Mahbar (Beirut: Dar al-Afaq al-Jadida), 316; Yaqut al-Hamawi. Mujam al-Buldan, 5/367.

[6] Ibn al-Kalbi, 2/567.

[7] Jawad Ali, 6/226.

[8] Frazer, James. Folklore in the Old Testament. Trans. by Nabila Ibrahim, (Cairo:Dar al-Ma‘arif), 123

[9] al-Jahiz, 4/318

[10] Agina, Mohamed. Mawsuat Asatir al-Arab, 1/345

[11] al-Garoo, 82

[12] Ibid, 84

[13] Ibid, 86

[14] ‘Al-Aasi: healer’. First found 365 BH/268 BC (Doha Historical Dictionary:

[15] Abu Ali al-Qali. al-Amali = Shuthur al-Amali = al-Nawader. (Dar al-Kotob al-Masrya, Second Edition, 1926), 1/92

[16] Sadir, Karin. Diwan al-Marqashayn. (Beirut: Dar al-Sadir, First Edition 1998), 81.

[17] Ibn as-Sikkit. Diwan al-Khateya. Edited by Mohammad Taha al-Khanji. (Cairo, 1987), 87.

[18] Ibn Qutaiba. al-Dinawari. Kitab al-Shi‘r wal-Shu‘ara.(Cairo: Dar al-Hadith), 1/206.

[19] Aleryani, Mutahar. “Min al-Mufradat al-Yamania al-Khassa.“ al-Iklil Journal, No.2, Fall 1980; also see al-Raydan Journal, No.2, p34.

[20] Aleryani, Mutahar, al-Mujam al-Yamani fi al-Luqah wal-Turath. 35-37. The word ’Jaza‘a’ in Yemeni colloquial means ‘to pass by’.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Abu Ali al-Qali. al-Maqsour wal-Mamdud. (Cairo: al-Khaniji, First Edition, 1999), 421.

[23] سليمان بن عبد الرحمن الذيب، الذييب، نقوش ثمودية جديدة، (الرياض: مكتبة الملك فهد الوطنية، 2003) ص75.

[24] Sulayman Ibn Abd al-Rahman Dhuyayb. A New Thamidic inscriptions. (Riyadh: King Fahd National Library, 2003), 75.

[25] Sulayman Ibn Abd al-Rahman Dhuyayb. al-Mujam al-Nabati. (Riyadh, First Edition, 2000), 30.

[26] al-Jibouri, Yasin. Qamous al-Lugha al-Akkdiyah (Dictionary of Akkadian Language), 64.

[27] Nunn, John F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. (University of Oklahoma Press 1996), 115–120.

[28] Daglio, Cristiano. al-Tibb and al-Faraena (La medicina dei faraon), Trans. by Ibtisam Muhammad Abdul Majid (General Egyptian Book Authority, Second Edition, 2013), 62.

[29] Kamal, Hassan. al-Tibb al-Masri al-Qadim. (General Egyptian Book Authority, Third Edition, 1998), p41, lines 10 and 25.

[30] Ghalioungui, Paul. al-Tibb and Qudamaa al-Masriyeen (Medicine in Ancient Egypt). Published al-Nahda al-Masriya as part of Tarikh al-Hadara al-Masreya l‘ Nokhba min al-Ulama, 1/525.

[31] Lang, Philippa. Medicine and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt. (Leiden: Brill , 2013), 59.

[32] al-Sawah, Firas. Mawsuat Tarikh al-Adyan, 2/51.

[33] Ibid.

[34] The similarities between the legend of Eset and the story of Moses can be found, according to some  accounts, in the story of Asya exposing the child Moses to fire to prove that he was a normal child (Tafsir Ibn Katheer, 6/212). The story is absent in the Old Testament but is mentioned in the Book of Exodus (Sefer haYashar (Midrash), Book of Exodus: 25 – 26). For Arabic translation see: Ibish, Ahmed, al-Talmud (Dar Qutaiba, 2006), p163-164. This story can be compared to Eset performing a magical ritual to cleanse the body of the mortal child by exposing him to the fire of eternity (Sawah, 2/51). The origin of the story can be found in Plutarch‘s, Moralia: Volume V, 26. On Isis and Osiris (Loeb Classical Library Edition, 1936), 41.

[35] For further reading, please see Atbuosh, Mohammed. al-Fikr al-Sihri fil Islam. (Dar al-Rafidain, 2019), 253-289.

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