Ancient Egyptian Science, Alchemy

In 389 A.D. the Serapion of Alexandria was destroyed, 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, finding 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.

When the Muslim State ruled Asia Minor, the Syrian scholars were patronized by the Caliphs, were employed in influential positions as physicians, astronomers, 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 are 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 Europe.

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 that 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, 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 neo platonic 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 also 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 neo platonic school of natural philosophy. In so far as the neo platonic 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 neo Platonists 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 detail.

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