How the Armenian physician Amirdovlat Amasiatsi served at the court of Mehmed the Conqueror

“If a physician does not understand the nature of the disease, he should not use medicines, so as not to tarnish his name. And if he is not knowledgeable, it is better not to call him to the patient and not to respect him as a doctor,” – said the medieval Asclepius (physician) Amirdovlat Amasiatsi. About how Armenian physicians lived and practiced in the 15th century is told by Kari Amirkhanyan.

In the Cilician Armenian state (11th–14th centuries), medicine and healthcare were considered a matter of state importance. Hospitals, which previously operated only in monasteries and were subordinate to the clergy, in the Cilician kingdom, came under the care of the state. Higher medical schools operated at the hospitals, where young specialists were trained.

With the fall of the Cilician Kingdom, Armenia was deprived for a long time of the opportunity to develop its science – many scientists were forced to emigrate to European countries, continue their work, and lay the foundations of European scientific thought.

The 15th century is one of the darkest epochs in the history of the Armenian people. The country had not yet managed to heal the wounds inflicted by the invasion of Timur’s hordes (late 14th – early 15th centuries), as it became the arena for the rivalry of two warlike tribes, Kara-Koyunlu and Ak-Koyunlu (“Black and White Sheep”). However, despite such a difficult time for Armenia, a free creative thought pulsed within the walls of monasteries and a number of academies built in the Middle Ages.

For example, the Tatev Higher School continued to study and develop questions of natural science, philosophy, and medicine. Famous scientists stood out: Ovanes Vorotnetsi, Grigor Tatevatsi, Matevos Jugaetsi. Along with the Tatev School, creative activity was manifested by the representatives of the Amasyan and Sebastyan schools, where a special place was given to the medical business. It is with these medical schools that the name of the future physician (medical scientist) Amirdovlat Amasiatsi, who left behind colossal works of great significance in almost all major branches of medieval medicine (anatomy, pathology, hygiene, pharmacy, surgery, and pharmacognosy), is connected. Moreover, his interests were not limited to medicine, many of his works were devoted to philosophy, astronomy, zoology, geography, and mineralogy.

Years of Wandering

Amirdovlat was born in the late 1420s into an Armenian family in the territory of the Ottoman Empire, in the ancient city of Amasya — once the capital of the Kingdom of Pontus. Having received his education, he left his family home and set off on a journey. Perhaps the policy of forced resettlements carried out by the Ottoman sultans forced the young scientist and doctor to leave his homeland. Or perhaps the reason for his departure from alma mater was a thirst for knowledge? Who knows, the evidence of that time conceals this fact. It is known only that he traveled extensively throughout the empire, from Iran and Armenia to the Balkans, and, finding himself in Constantinople in the 1450s, completed his education under the guidance of experienced doctors, earning the academic degree of “Master of Medicine.”

At that time, the Turkish Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror ruled in Constantinople. He was known to the world as a cruel despot, but at the same time, he was a mature statesman who managed to create his own code of laws, “Kanun-name.” History also doesn’t hide the fact that being a patron of art, he had a profound understanding of it.

When word spread in Constantinople about the healing abilities of the Armenian physician Amirdovlat Amasiatsi, who managed in a short time not only to write his first work “Teachings of Medicine” but also to translate it into Turkish, Mehmed II immediately took an interest in him. He summoned the Armenian doctor to the palace and talked with him for a long time. Not a day passed when, to everyone’s surprise, the Turkish sultan appointed the Christian doctor as his chief surgeon-ophthalmologist. It is obvious that such a rapid appointment of a foreigner at the court of a Muslim ruler could not fail to provoke envy and intrigue among the sultan’s entourage. Eventually, the detractors got their way: Amirdovlat was banished from the court and condemned to a decade of wandering.

However, this exile did not break the free spirit of the learned doctor — the years of wandering enriched him with the beneficial experience of a practicing physician and also expanded his knowledge of medicinal plants in the countries where fate had thrown him. During these years, he thoroughly studied and classified the medicinal herbs of the Balkan Peninsula, Asia Minor, Armenia, and Iran.

The Black Death, Field Trials, and Service as the Chief Physician

Amasiatsi was destined to be back in the Sultan’s palace again. In 1466, Mehmed II ordered to find and bring the Armenian doctor to him. The reason was the plague epidemic ravaging the Balkans. The Turkish sultan, frightened by the Black Death, remembered his fallen physician and quickly reinstated him in his former status as the Chief Physician. Amirdovlat, without rest, provided medical assistance to the sick in the epicenter of the epidemic, later describing these events in his work “Benefit of Medicine.”

It is known that during his years of service at the Sultan’s court, which from then on openly patronized its foreign physician, Amasiatsi wrote several books on medicine, among them his famous work “Unnecessary for the Ignorant.”

Return to Homeland and the School of Doctors of the Sebastia Tradition

In the last years of his life, Amirdovlat Amasiatsi, leaving Constantinople, returned to his homeland, to Amasya, where he died in December 1496, surrounded by his devoted students.

His numerous pupils, not only individuals but also the whole school of Sebastia doctors, continued the work of their teacher, studying and copying his works in the field of pharmacy and especially phytotherapy.

It is interesting to note that Bzhshkapt wrote his works not only for specialists but also for his students. That is why he expressed his thoughts not in literary Old Armenian, but, following the tradition coming from Mkhitar Heratsi, in the vernacular of his time. In doing so, Amasiatsi interjected into his works fragments of small poems, quatrains, and aphorisms, “to be understood by all.”

In addition to Armenian and Turkish, Amasiatsi was also fluent in Greek, Arabic, Persian, and Latin. Hence, he was familiar with both European and Middle Eastern medical sources.

How the Bzhshkapt from Amasya Discovered Psychosomatics in the 15th Century

Summarizing the experience of medieval Armenian doctors (Yeznik Koghbatsi, David Anhaght, Anania Shirakatsi, Grigor Magistros, Mkhitar Heratsi), Amasiatsi made real discoveries in the field of clinical medicine and especially medicinal therapy of a number of diseases — allergies, infectious diseases, neuropsychiatric ailments, eye diseases, tumors.

In his works, the Armenian doctor detailed the clinic of neuropsychiatric diseases: brain tumors, migraines, meningitis, hypertension, atherosclerosis, stroke, paralysis, convulsions, epilepsy, schizophrenia. Moreover, he developed a system of comprehensive treatment, including medicinal, dietary, and psychotherapeutic methods.

Interestingly, the Armenian Bzhshkapt thoroughly studied and outlined the nature of the impact of emotions on a person’s physical health. And this has become the direction of medicine that is now called psychosomatics!

And moreover, Amasiatsi paid great attention to the moral character of the doctor. Following Hippocrates, he highlighted such qualities of a doctor as neatness, aversion to vice, contempt for money, denial of fear, multiplication of knowledge.

He also assigned a big role to family doctors and advocated for confidentiality. He compared doctors with priests, believing that “as sins are told to a priest during confession, so doctors need to be told all about the disease, without hiding anything.” For the medieval Eastern society, when an outsider, and a man moreover, could not be initiated into the family affairs, such an approach was more than liberal.

Although Amasiatsi mainly practiced surgery and especially ophthalmology, he still preferred traditional treatment methods.

“Unnecessary for the Ignorant” — the most famous work of Amirdovlat Amasiatsi — was written over four years. It’s a kind of encyclopedic dictionary, summarizing the author’s many years of research in the fields of medicine, medicinal botany, zoology, mineralogy, and geography. It provides extensive information about medicinal substances of plant, animal, and inorganic origin, their physicochemical and pharmacological properties, therapeutic spectrum of actions.

In total, references to 50 sources are presented, and 3754 plant names are mentioned, arranged in the order of the Armenian alphabet.

Fragments from the book “Unnecessary for the Ignorant”

“Milk warms the body and strengthens the brain. It is beneficial for eczema and itching, increases sexual power. And milk with honey helps with intestinal ulcers… Sour milk quenches thirst and neutralizes the harmful effects of poisons.” Amasiatsi recommended drinking no more than 175 g of milk at a time and washing it down with honey water.

Amirdovlat recommended eating watermelon with vinegar honey for bladder treatment, and for colds, he advised applying melon rind to the forehead, believed that “melon cleanses purulent discharges, makes the face shiny, cures vitiligo and ringworm”. He advised using melon seeds as a laxative, tumor treatment, liver cleansing, kidneys, considered melon seeds to be an extremely effective means of enhancing male potency.

He also considered bananas to be a remedy. “A ripe banana clears congestion of the throat and chest, is good for the kidneys, opens up urinary pathways, and eliminates urinary retention and burning during urination, enhances sexual desire, makes the milk of nursing women abundant. But if you eat a lot, it will cause a blockage of the liver and increase the secretion of yellow bile and mucus, as well as cause a feeling of heaviness in the stomach. It is better to eat it before meals, and then wash it down with vinegar honey.”

Amasiatsi wrote that “sour orange juice rinses the stomach, stimulates appetite, removes small and large worms, helps with bone pain”, and “oil of peels together with gum cures ringworm”, but considered an orange “harmful for the chest and nerves, but the harmful effect of an orange is eliminated by honey and dates”. He believed that “crushed orange pulp with wine helps with all poisonings.”

Amirdovlat Amasiatsi also describes in detail the healing properties of pomegranate: “The bark of sour pomegranate helps with tumors if you make a poultice. And if you boil it and make an enema with white barley flour and chamomile decoction, it will help with intestinal ulcers… rinsing with a decoction of the bark will strengthen the gums.”

The Bzhshkapt attached great importance to garden parsley, which “eases breathing and soothes headaches. Helps with breast tumor. Expels winds (gases), urine. Dissolves stones and helps with kidney disease.” Parsley also helps with insect bites. And yet, the medieval doctor warned that although garden parsley is beneficial for the stomach, it is dangerous for a pregnant woman, and “if she eats a lot of parsley, she will miscarry.”

Many Armenian medical dictionaries of the XVII-XVIII centuries were created under the influence of the work “Unnecessary for the Ignorant”.

The Institute of Ancient Manuscripts Matenadaran named after St. Mesrop Mashtots keeps 20 copies from this book and about the same number in the libraries of the Armenian Mekhitarist congregation in Venice and Vienna, the Paris National Library, the British Museum Library, and other foreign collections.

This book was destined for a long life, it turned out to be “necessary” not only for the contemporaries of Amasiatsi but also for subsequent generations of doctors.

Journalist Kari Amirhanyan (Yerevan) specially for the Armenian Museum of Moscow

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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