Spotlight on: camphor

The Arabic name of this aromatic, kāfūr (كافور) goes back to the Middle Persian kāpūr, which, itself has Aramaic and Akkadian antecedents. It refers to the resin extracted from the evergreen camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora; Laurus camphora L.) native to East Asia (China, Japan), or from a tree (Dryobalanops camphor) grown in Borneo. The latter was considered to be much stronger and thus of better quality.

There is no evidence that camphor was known in Greek and Roman Antiquity, and it first appeared in the Mediterranean basin as a medicinal spice in the sixth century CE. Camphor was used in perfumes and as an aromatic in pre-Islamic (Sassanid) Persia, where it was also employed as an embalming agent.

It was clearly known in pre-Islamic Arabia as well since according to the Qur’ān (76:5), “the Righteous will drink of a cup of wine mixed with camphor”. The historian al-Mas’ūdī (d. 956) traced its origin to India, while Marco Polo found that the best camphor came from Fansur in Sumatra which was sold for its weight in gold. Arab merchants brought it to the Mediterranean where it was traded between Egypt, Sicily and the Maghrib.

In cooking, it was called for in a number of savouries as well as sweets, and often in conjunction with musk. It was – and still is – used extensively in perfumes, though Ibn Sīnā warned that regular use makes the hair grey.

Medicinally, it was used for a wide range of applications, with al-Kindī (9th c.), for instance, using it for swollen liver, complaints of the larynx, and inflammations of the mucous membrane in the mouth. It is reported how the physician Ibn Butlān (11th c.) once cleared a woman’s catarrh by stuffing her hair with camphor. Camphor was also prescribed in a compress against fevers or headaches. However, it was said to cause insomnia, generate kidney and bladder stones, as well as being an anaphrodisiac (i.e. it suppresses libido).

camphor in al-Ghafiqi’s herbal (12th c.), Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University
camphor in the Latin translation of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwim al-sihha (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

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