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Civilization in Ancient Egypt was not only the pyramids and tombs, but it involved all aspects of human life. Health and wellbeing was one of the most cared arts by the pharaohs. Both the physicians and magicians participated in the field of medical care. From holistic view they conceived health and sickness as an unceasing fight between good and evil. Most of the complementary medicine modalities were originated from ancient Egyptians. One of these modalities is herbal medicine, which is the subject we are going to spot light on in this review. Our comments depended on what Ancient Egyptians recorded in their medical papyri.
Journal of Medicinal Plants Research Vol. 4(2), pp. 082-086, 18 January, 2010
Available online at
ISSN 1996-0875© 2010 Academic Journals
Herbal medicine in ancient Egypt
N. H. Aboelsoud
Department of Complementary Medicine Researches and Applications National Research Center- Cairo, Egypt.
Accepted 8 December, 2009
Civilization in Ancient Egypt was not only the pyramids and tombs, but it involved all aspects of human
life. Health and wellbeing was one of the most cared arts by the pharaohs. Both the physicians and
magicians participated in the field of medical care. From holistic view they conceived health and
sickness as an unceasing fight between good and evil. Most of the complementary medicine modalities
were originated from ancient Egyptians. One of these modalities is herbal medicine, which is the
subject we are going to spot light on in this review. Our comments depended on what Ancient
Egyptians recorded in their medical papyri.
Key words: Ebers papyrus, medicinal plants, remedies, prescriptions, ancient Egypt.
Not all of Egyptian medicine was based on wishful
thinking, much was the result of experimentation and
observation, and physical means supplemented the
magical ones. Apart from spiritual healing and herbal
medicine, Ancient Egyptians practiced massage and
manipulation and made extensive use of therapeutic
herbs and foods, but surgery was only rarely part of their
treatments (Zucconi, 2007).
According to Herodotus there was a high degree of
specialization among physicians (Halioua et al., 2005).
The Egyptians were advanced medical practitioners for
their time. They were masters of human anatomy and
healing mostly due to the extensive mummification
ceremonies. This involved removing most of the internal
organs including the brain, lungs, pancreas, liver, spleen,
heart and intestine (Millet et al., 1980).
To some extent, they had a basic knowledge of organ
functions within the human body. Their great knowledge
of anatomy, as well as (in the later dynasties) the
crossover of knowledge between the Greeks and other
culture areas, led to an extensive knowledge of the
functioning of the organs, and branched into many other
medical practices. Herodotus and Pliny were among
Greek scholars, who got benefit from this cross over and
further contributed to the ancient and modern medical
records, reached from the time of Ancient Egypt and into
the modern era (Sanders, 1963).
Ancient Egyptians were as equally familiar with phar-
macy as they were with medicine. According to historical
records, Ancient Egyptians involved in the medical and
pharmaceutical profession used to recite certain incan-
tations while preparing or administering medications.
They were also familiar with drug preparation from plants
and herbs such as cumin, fennel, caraway, aloe, saf-
flower, glue, pomegranates, castor and linseed oil. Other
drugs were made of mineral substances such as copper
salts, plain salt and lead. Eggs, liver, hairs, milk, animal
horns and fat, honey and wax were also used in drug
preparation (Rosen, 1979).
In this review we spot some light on Ancient Egyptian
medicine particularly herbal remedies and prescriptions
to prove that they are in fact the basis of our natural
A few papyri have survived, from which we can learn
about Egyptian medicine (Nunn, 1996):
- The Edwin Smith Papyrus describing surgical diagnosis
and treatments,
- The Ebers Papyrus on ophthalmology, diseases of the
digestive system, the head, the skin and specific mala-
dies, a compilation of earlier works that contains a large
number of prescriptions and recipes,
- The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus,
- The Berlin Medical Papyrus,
- The London Medical Papyrus.
- The Hearst Medical Papyrus repeats many of the
recipes found in the Ebers Papyrus.
- The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden
contains a number of spells for treating physical ailments
Thanks to the medical papyri, we know of many of the
Ancient Egyptian treatments and prescriptions for
diseases. They call for the treatment of many disorders
and the use of a variety of substances, plant, animal,
mineral, as well as the droppings and urine of a number
of animals. They knew how to use suppositories, herbal
dressings and enemas and widely used castor oil (Majno,
A great deal of our knowledge of Ancient Egyptian
medicine comes from the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the
Ebers Papyrus and the Kahun Papyrus. The Edwin Smith
Papyrus (Breasted, 1930) and the Ebers Papyrus (Bryan,
1930) date from the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries
BCE. These manuscripts are believed to be derived from
earlier sources. They contain recipes and spells for the
treatment of a great variety of diseases or symptoms.
They discuss the diagnosis of diseases and provide infor-
mation of an anatomy. They detail the Ancient Egyptian
concept of medicine, anatomy, and physiology .The
Kahun Papyrus (Ghalioungui, 1975) is a gynecological
text that deals with topics such as the reproductive
organs, conception, testing for pregnancy, birth, and con-
traception. Among those materials prescribed for
contraception are crocodile dung, honey, and sour milk
(Rosalie and Patricia, 2008).
Among the common everyday complaints were stomach
upsets, bowel trouble and headaches which could go
away probably mostly untreated, even if the physicians
could offer remedies. The common cold had a special
remedy, the milk of a mother who has given birth to a
boy, was probably as effective as anything we have got
today (Jean-Claude, 1979).
Bilharziasis (schistosomiasis) - a disease difficult not to
contract in a country flooded for months every year - a
common cause of anemia, female infertility, a debilitating
loss of resistance to other diseases and subsequent
death. The Ebers Papyrus addresses some of the
symptoms of the disease and in two columns discusses
treatment and prevention of bleeding in the urinal tract
(haematuria). The Hearst Papyrus cites antimony
disulfide as a remedy (Hamed, 2009).
Insect borne diseases like malaria and trachoma were
endemic; plagues spread along the trade routes and a
number of epidemics reported in Egyptian documents are
thought by some to have been outbreaks of bubonic
plague. Mosquitoes also spread filarial worms which
caused the disfiguring elephantiasis. Smallpox, measles,
and cholera were easily propagated in the relatively
densely populated Nile valley, where practically the whole
population lived within a narrow strip of land, sometimes
only a few hundred meters wide, along the river
Aboelsoud 083
(Sandison, 1980).
Herbs played a major part in Egyptian medicine. The
plant medicines mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus for
instance include opium, cannabis, myrrh, frankincense,
fennel, cassia, senna, thyme, henna, juniper, aloe,
linseed and castor oil - though some of the translations
are less than certain. Cloves of garlic have been found in
Egyptian burial sites, including the tomb of Tutankhamen
and in the sacred underground temple of the bulls at
Saqqara. Many herbs were steeped in wine, which was
then drunk as an oral medicine (Patrick et al., 2009).
Egyptians thought garlic and onions aided endurance,
and consumed large quantities of them. Raw garlic was
routinely given to asthmatics and to those suffering with
bronchial-pulmonary complaints. Onions helped against
problems of the digestive System.
Garlic was an important healing agent then just as it
still is to the modern Egyptian and to most of the peoples
in the Mediterranean area: Fresh cloves are peeled,
mashed and macerated in a mixture of vinegar and
water. This can be used to gargle and rinse the mouth, or
taken internally to treat sore throats and toothache.
Another way to take garlic both for prevention as well as
treatment is to macerate several cloves of mashed garlic
in olive oil. Applied as an external liniment or taken
internally it is beneficial for bronchial and lung complaints
including colds. A freshly peeled clove of raw garlic
wrapped in muslin or cheesecloth and pinned to the
undergarment is hoped to protect against infectious
diseases such as colds and influenza (Kathryn, 1999).
Coriander, C. Sativum was considered to have cooling,
stimulant, carminative and digestive properties. Both the
seeds and the plant were used as a spice in cooking to
prevent and eliminate flatulence; they were also taken as
a tea for stomach and all kinds of urinary complaints in-
cluding cystitis. Coriander leaves were commonly added
fresh to spicy foods to moderate their irritating effects.
Cumin, Cumin cyminum is an umbelliferous herb
indigenous to Egypt. The seeds were considered to be a
stimulant and effective against flatulence. They were
often used together with coriander for flavouring. Cumin
powder mixed with some wheat flour as a binder and a
little water was applied to relieve the pain of any aching
or arthritic joints. Powdered cumin mixed with grease or
lard was inserted as an anal suppository to disperse heat
from the anus and stop itching (Zucconi, 2007).
Leaves from many plants, such as willow, sycamore,
acacia or the ym-tree, were used in poultices and the like.
Tannic Acid derived from acacia seeds commonly helped
for cooling the vessels and heal burns. Castor oil, figs
and dates, were used as laxatives. Tape worms, were
dealt with by an infusion of pomegranate root in water,
which was strained and drunk. The alkaloids contained in
it paralyzed the worms' nervous system, and they relin-
084 J. Med. Plant. Res.
quished their hold. Ulcers were treated with yeast, as
were stomach ailments (Majno, 1975).
Some of the medicines were made from plant materials
imported from abroad. Mandrake, introduced from
Canaan and grown locally since the New Kingdom, was
thought to be an aphrodisiac and, mixed with alcohol,
induced unconsciousness. Cedar oil, an antisep-
tic, originated in the Levant. The Persian henna was
grown in Egypt since the Middle Kingdom, and was used
against hair loss. They treated catarrh with aloe which
came from eastern Africa. Frankincense, containing tetra-
hydro-cannabinol and used like hashish as pain killer,
was imported from Punt (Rosen, 1979).
Minerals and animal products were used too. Honey
and grease formed part of many wound treatments,
mother's milk was occasionally given against viral
diseases like the common cold, fresh meat laid on open
wounds and sprains, and animal dung was thought to be
effective at times. Lead-based chemicals like carbonates
and acetates were popular for their therapeutic proper-
ties. Malachite used as an eye-liner also had therapeutic
value. In a country where eye infections were endemic,
the effects of its germicidal qualities were
appreciated (Andreas et al., 1995).
It is interesting to note that ancient Egyptian chemists
invented some other drugs, commonly known as house-
hold drugs (pesticides), meant to eliminate domestic
pests. A popular recipe for pest control was to spray the
house with nitron water and firewood coal, mixed with
ground “pipit " plant. Goose fat was used to protect
against fly bites and fresh oil to cure mosquito bites.
Other interesting recipes were made to control reptiles
and rodents. For example, a dried fish or a piece of nitron
placed at the entrance of a serpent’s hole, will keep it
inside. A piece of cat fat spread around the house will
keep rats away (Sauneron, 1958).
Dozens of drugs for each disease are used by the
Pharaohs. During the Modern Kingdom, medical prescrip-
tions were so varied that dozens of them were available
for certain diseases. A physician has to choose the most
effective medication, based on prescribed criteria. Some
drugs were rapid-acting, while others were slow-acting.
Some drugs were exclusively applicable during specific
seasons. For example, there was an eye medication that
was exclusively used during the first two months of
winter; another during the third and fourth months, while
a third was applicable all the year round (Halioua et al.,
Medications for all age groups are noticed in their
pharmacy. In deciding a specific drug for a patient, a
physician normally had to take into account the age of the
patient. For treating patients suffering from retention of
urine, an adult was given a mixture of water, ale sedi-
ments, green dates and some other vegetables, while a
child was given an old piece of papyrus soaked in oil
applied as a hot band around his stomach. While
preparing drugs, chemists had to take into consideration
patient’s age. Ancient Egyptian physician noted that If the
young patient is mature enough, he can take tablets, but
if he is still in diapers (an infant), tablets should be
dissolved into wet nurse’s milk (Jean-Claude, 1979).
A kind of what is called today Quality Control Test was
done after preparing a drug; a chemist had to test its
quality. Some drugs derived their fame from the fact that
it cured a reputed figure of the time. For example, a
specific eye ointment was highly popular with ancient
Egyptians, simply because it cured one of their kings.
Certain drugs were particularly popular as a universal
remedy for all diseases, because they were thought to be
made by a deity that’s to say “Godly Medications ". Of
these, they believed that god of the sun Ra’, who in his
old age suffered from several diseases, made drugs to
cure all men.
The truth is that the ancient Egyptian priests and
doctors originally made those Godly Medications. One of
these was composed of honey, wax and a collection of
14 botanical substances mixed together in equal mea-
sures. Of this mixture an adhesive plaster that cured all
bodily maladies was made. However, in recognition of the
effectiveness of these drugs and in honor of the deities,
Egyptian physicians attributed them to the gods (Zucconi,
Medical prescriptions were written with high skill. A pre-
scription usually began with a description of the medicine,
e.g., " Medicine to discharge blood out of wounds",
followed by ingredients and measures used in addition to
method of preparation and usage whether in tablet form ,
ointment or by inhaling (Silverburg ,1966).
Below is a small list of the herbs used in some
prescriptions (retrieved from Crystallinks website):
- Acacia (acacia nilotica) - vermifuge eases diarrhea and
internal bleeding, also used to treat skin diseases.
- Aloe vera - worms, relieves headaches, soothes chest
pains, burns, ulcers and for skin disease and allergies.
- Basil (ocimum basilicum) - excellent for heart.
- Balsam Apple (malus sylvestris) or Apple of Jerusalem -
laxative, skin allergies, soothes headaches, gums and
teeth, for asthma, liver stimulant, weak digestion.
- Bayberry (Myrica cerifera) – stops diarrhea, soothes
ulcers, shrinks hemorrhoids, repels flies.
- Belladonna - pain reliever; camphor tree - reduces
fevers, soothes gums, soothes epilepsy.
- Caraway (Carum carvi; Umbelliferae) - soothes
flatulence, digestive, breath freshener.
- Cardamom (Eletarria cardamomum; Zingiberacae) -
Used as a spice in foods, digestive, soothes flatulence.
- Colchicum (Citrullus colocynthus) - also known as
"Meadow Saffron", soothes rheumatism, reduces
- Common Juniper tree (Juniperis phonecia; Juniperus
drupacea) - digestive, soothes chest pains, soothes
stomach cramps.
- Cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba; Piperaceae) - urinary
tract infections, larynx and throat infections, gum ulcers
and infections, soothe headaches.
- Dill (Anethum graveolens) - soothes flatulence, relieves
dyspepsia, laxative and diuretic properties.
- Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) - respiratory
disorders, cleanses the stomach, calms the liver, soothes
pancreas, reduces swelling.
- Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) - throat and larynx
infections, stops bleeding, cuts phlegm, asthma, stops
- Garlic (Allium sativa) - gives vitality, soothes flatulence
and aids digestion, mild laxative, shrinks hemorrhoids,
rids body of "spirits" (during the building of the Pyramids,
the workers were given garlic daily to give them the
vitality and strength to carry on and perform well).
-Henna (Lawsomia inermis) - astringent, stops diarrhea,
close open wounds (and used as a dye).
- Honey was widely used, a natural antibiotic and used to
dress wounds and as a base for healing unguants, as
was castor oil, coriander, beer and other foods.
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra - mild laxative, expels
phlegm, soothes liver, pancreas and chest and
respiratory problems.
- Mustard (Sinapis alba) - induces vomiting, relieves
chest pains.
- Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) - stops diarrhea, relives
headaches, soothes gums, toothaches and backaches.
- Onion (Allium cepa) - diuretic, induces perspiration,
prevents colds, soothes sciatica, relieves pains and other
cardiovascular problems.
- Parsley (Apium petroselinum) - diuretic.
- Mint (Mentha piperita) - soothes flatulence, aids
digestion, stops vomiting, breath freshener.
- Sandalwood (Santallum albus) - aids digestion, stops
diarrhea, soothes headaches and gout.
- Sesame (Sesamum indicum) - soothes asthma.
- Tamarind (Tamarindus indica) - laxative.
- Thyme (Thymus/Thimbra) - pain reliever.
- Tumeric (Curcumae longa) - closes open wounds (also
was used to dye skin and cloth).
- Poppy (Papaver somniferum) - relieves insomnia and
headaches, anesthetic, soothes respiratory problems,
relieves pain.
Aboelsoud 085
Egyptian physicians were much sought after in the
Ancient World, despite the fact that little was added to the
canon of knowledge after the First Intermediate Period
(about 2000 BCE). Ramses II sent physicians to the king
of Hatti and many rulers, the Persian
Achaemenids among them, had Egyptian doctors in
attendance. Their treatments were based on
examination, followed by diagnosis. Descriptions of the
examination - the most exacting part of a physician's job -
are lengthier than both the diagnosis and the
recommended treatment (cf. the Edwin Smith Surgical
Papyrus) (Breasted, 1930).
The reliance on magic and faith may well have retarded
the development of more rational views of the causes of
diseases and their cures. On the other hand, the strong
belief of the patient in the divine origins of the cure may
well have been a large part in its effectiveness, and in the
absence of anything better often the only support a
physician could give the natural healing processes
(Zucconi, 2007).
Egyptian theories and practices influenced the Greeks,
who furnished many of the physicians in the Roman
Empire, and through them Arab and European medical
thinking for centuries to come (Sanders, 1963).
If you had to be ill in ancient times, the best place to do
so would probably have been Egypt. The Ancient
Egyptians were quite advanced in their diagnoses and
treatments of various illnesses .Their advancements in
ancient medical techniques were quite extraordinary,
considering the lack of “modern” facilities, sterilization,
sanitation, and researching capabilities.
Along with their strong faith in their gods, the Ancient
Egyptians used their knowledge of the human anatomy
and the natural world around them to treat a number of
ailments and disorders effectively. Their knowledge and
research is impressive still today, and their work paved
the way for the study of modern medicine. The remedies
used by Ancient Egyptian physicians came mostly from
nature especially medicinal herbs.
We can surely say that Ancient Egyptians put the
bases for natural healings. Still, there is a lot of secretes
among pharaohs life and their civilization that going more
deep and deep trying to solve their puzzles and secrets
will help a lot who are encouraging now the voice of back
to nature.
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... 6 They described and formulated herbal drugs by a specialized priest. 7,8 Now a day, the world is facing many challenges from the rapidly growing population and deficiency in the required needs to infectious diseases such as hepatitis A, B, and C, human immune deficiency, influenza, dengue, and CORONA viruses. Hepatitis A virus is among the pathogens that find their way into the human system through ingestion of contaminated food and an unhygienic lifestyle. ...
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Folk Egyptian medicine considered from the most important source of the use of wild plants in medication. Wild plants are considered a perfect source of natural compounds that have been used as antimicrobial andante virus activities. Aims and Objective: The aim of the current study was to investigate the effect of the commonly used wild plants in the treatment of jaundice and they effect on HAV. This article provides much-needed insight into the effect of wild plants on the hepatitis A virus to shed more light on the important subject, which is unfortunately poorly investigated. Materials and Methods: In this investigation, the aqueous plant extracts of twenty-five wild Egyptian species, 16 perennials, and 9 annuals; three concentrations, 1%, 3% & 5%; were tested for HAV replication by using PA and PCR techniques. Questionnaires and interviews with Bedouins have been carried to know the most used species in the treatment of jaundice, and the usage values were calculated. Those species were collected from their habitats, rare ones purchased and reviewed their identifications and used in this work. Fecal and blood samples were taken from 9-10Y old patients, 35 girls and 25 boys.
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The use of plants with psychoactive properties by ancient communities has been confirmed in numerous archaeological studies conducted in almost every place on earth. Many tribes used their own characteristic psychoactive potions and, according to researchers, their use fostered the integration of the members of a given community, facilitated their existence in an occupied area and could be of significant importance for its survival. Around the psychoactive plants and toxic secretions of some species of fauna a conglomerate of myths, cults and the properties attributed to them has developed. Permanent traces of their presence remain in both non-material and material culture. The aim of this article is to present the representations of psychoactive substances in the beliefs of ancient communities, their occurrence in myths, rock or sepulchral art, and to discuss the reasons for their use during rituals. The article presents also the main causes of the diffusion of the use of psychoactive plants from the sacred to the profane sphere.
İnsanlık, tarımın yaygınlaşmasından sonra oluşan yerleşik hayat ile öncelikle şehirleşme sonrasında devletleşme aşamalarına geçerek tarihindeki en büyük değişimi gerçekleştirmiştir. Nil’in öngörülebilen bir zaman diliminde taşması ile nehrin vadisi ve deltasında doğal olarak tarım için müsait alanlar oluşmuştur. Bu alanlarda yaklaşık sekiz bin yıldır devam eden tarımsal üretim, kadim Mısır medeniyetinin ortaya çıkmasına yol açmıştır. Tarımın yapıldığı diğer coğrafyalar ile kıyaslandığında en az emekle en fazla ürünün alındığı Mısır’da birbiri ardına güçlü hanedanlıklar kurulmuştur. Bu çalışma, Eski Mısır'daki tarımsal üretimin gerçekleştirilmesi, kontrolü ve artırımı için yapılan düzenlemeler ile Mısır’daki hanedanlıkların en temel gelir kaynağını oluşturan tarımsal vergilendirme sisteminin binyıllar boyunca sürdürdüğü gelişimi ortaya koymayı amaçlamaktadır.
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Seminal works on ancient Egyptian medicine tend to treat the field as distinct from religious practices, often fixating on the medical papyri as exemplifying either rational or magical treatments. Refocusing the study towards the ancient Egyptian conceptions of physiology and disease etiology shows that their medical practices integrated religious concepts such as maat (balance) and heka (power). Therapeutic measures and titles for healers, swnw, wab priest, and sau, further underscored the physical interchange between the mortal and divine worlds for the ancient Egyptians.
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Chemical analyses of ancient organics absorbed into pottery jars from the beginning of advanced ancient Egyptian culture, ca. 3150 B.C., and continuing for millennia have revealed that a range of natural products--specifically, herbs and tree resins--were dispensed by grape wine. These findings provide chemical evidence for ancient Egyptian organic medicinal remedies, previously only ambiguously documented in medical papyri dating back to ca. 1850 B.C. They illustrate how humans around the world, probably for millions of years, have exploited their natural environments for effective plant remedies, whose active compounds have recently begun to be isolated by modern analytical techniques.
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We report on the morphological and trace element findings of several internal organs from an Egyptian mummy approximately dating from the year 950 B.C. according to 14C-analysis. By use of a multidisciplinary approach we succeeded in discovering evidence for severe and presumably recurrent pulmonary bleeding during life. This was suggested by the finding of massive haemosiderin deposits in the lung and a selectively and markedly elevated level of iron in trace element analysis of the lung tissue. Furthermore, we observed an enhanced deposition of birefringent particles in the lung tissue, without significant fibrosis. The histological analysis of liver, stomach and intestine confirmed the macroscopic organ diagnoses without evidence of any major pathological processes. In addition, analysis for various drugs revealed a significant deposition of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), nicotine and cocaine in several organs of the mummy. The concentration profiles additionally provide evidence for a preferential inhalation of THC, while nicotine and cocaine containing drugs seem to have been consumed orally.
Egyptian mummies have always aroused popular and scientific interest; however, most modern studies, although significantly increased in number and range, have been published in specialist journals. Now, this unique book, written by a long-established team of scientists based at the University of Manchester (England), brings this exciting, cross-disciplinary area of research to a wider readership. Its main aim is to show how this team's multidisciplinary, investigative methods and the unique resource of the Egyptian Mummy Tissue Bank are being used for the new major international investigations of disease evolution and ancient Egyptian pharmacy and pharmacology. It also assesses the current status of palaeopathology and ancient DNA research, and treatments available for conserving mummified remains. Descriptions of the historical development of Egyptian mummifications and medicine and detailed references to previous scientific investigations provide the context for firsthand accounts of cutting-edge research by prominent specialists in this field, demonstrating how these techniques can contribute to a new perspective on Egyptology.
Diseases in Ancient Egypt, in Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures Une recette égyptienne de collyre, BIFAO 57
  • Sandison
Sandison AT (1980). Diseases in Ancient Egypt, in Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures (eds.) Aiden and Eve Cockburn (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge) Sauneron S (1958). Une recette égyptienne de collyre, BIFAO 57. p.158