The Magic of Socotran Aloe

By Shireen Hamza

“The people of this island are without faith — and they are strong magicians. They originate from Greece.”


I had been flipping through Ikhtiyārāt-i Badī‘ī, a Persian pharmaceutical manuscript composed in the fourteenth century by Ḥājī Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār (d. 1404). The British Library has many surviving manuscripts of this text, including one copied by the author’s son.[1] I was looking through each of them to see whether they included any Arabic-Persian glossaries, for an ongoing project. I was stopped short by the sentence above.

It was part of an entry on aloes. I read the entry from the beginning:

Aloes are of three varieties: Socotran, Arabic and Samḥābī. The best variety is Socotran. Socotra is an island close to the shore of Yemen. It is forty leagues [long]. The people of this island are faithless and are strong magicians. Their origins are from Greece. Alexander sent them from Greece to this island in order to make aloe. Their women are even stronger magicians.

I was beginning to wonder what this had to do with aloes. Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār continued.

On whole, the situation is so extreme that if they have a conflict with another person, and that person is present — or if they even focus on their memory of the person’s face — and they put a glass of water before themselves and begin to do magic, a drop of blood eventually appears in the glass. Then, they put the glass on their liver, heart or lung. That person falls dead on the spot. And if one were to open the person’s belly, they would find no liver. People exaggerate about their magic to this extent. The best type of Socotran aloes are the color of liver, smell like marw (Maerua), and are full of leaves [with juice] similar to gum Arabic. If someone has pain, massaging [the afflicted area] with this will quickly bring relief. It has the color of saffron and emits the smell of goose fat.

With that, I was abruptly returned to the familiar land of medieval Islamic medicine. What had these magicians to do with aloe? Livers disappear from the victims of magical attacks and reappear as the color of the best aloes — perhaps referring to the color of the juice extracted from the plant’s leaves. But this seemed a happenstance juxtaposition; the author drew no correlation.

Arid landscape and blur sky. Plan with wide lower leaves that are brown. Several long, spiny flowers that are bright red (narrow) grow out of it.
Aloe Perryi in Socotra. Credit: photo by Todd Masilko, accessed at Flickr.


Ḥājī Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār’s narration of the history of this object is unusual, for this text and for pharmacopeia in general. The rest of the entry continues in the usual way — Arabic aloes are also called Yemeni and Adeni aloes; aloes are hot and dry to the second degree, though some say to the first and others to the third, and Jālīnūs (Galen) says dry to the third degree, hot to the first; aloe is among the most beneficial medicines for the stomach, and for treating swelling and pain; it is a purgative for yellow bile; it pulls excess moisture and phlegm from the head and joints; it clears obstructions from the liver; with age, it turns black and loses potency; and so on. This story of the island’s magicians seemed to belong more to another kind of book.

Indeed, this story appears often in Arabic literature. The earliest version is in “Accounts of China and India,” a travelogue by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī, likely written in the ninth century. Attesting to the wide renown of these aloes, al-Sīrāfī begins his description of Socotra as “the place where Socotran aloes grow.”[2] According to him, Aristotle had instructed Alexander the Great to find this island, expel its inhabitants and resettle it with Greeks who could guard the aloe and export it — because “no purgatives (ayārijāt) are complete without aloe.” He then explains how these Greeks eventually became Christian — and how their ancestors remained Christian in Socotra, living there among other peoples. Another famous traveler, al-Bīrūnī, included a brief mention of the story in a pharmaceutical text he wrote in the eleventh century — the closest precedent to Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār. By the thirteenth century, several well-known authors included some version of this story in their work, like Yāqūt in his geographical text, al-Qazwīnī in his  “Wonders of Creation,” and al-Nuwayrī in his lengthy encyclopedia. While Islamic literature is full of stories of Aristotle’s advice to Alexander, some scholars have argued that these authors drew on Greek accounts that don’t survive, and that the story spread further through The Alexander Romances.[3]

“Alexander Visits the Sage Plato in his Mountain Cave,” a painted folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi made in 1597-1598, likely in India. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār says nothing of Christianity on Socotra. al-Sīrāfī says nothing of magic. But a few pages later, Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār translates a lengthy aloe recipe by Ibn al-Bayṭār (d. 1248), originally in Arabic. This and other citations of Arabic medical texts suggest that Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār could read Arabic, and may have taken his account from any of the texts mentioned here. But why?

Writing from far-away Shiraz, Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār dismisses the magical abilities of Socotran people as exaggeration. But though he disagreed, he included the story as part of the information in circulation about Socotran aloe, for the sake of creating a comprehensive entry. This is why he also included contradictory accounts of the hotness and dryness of this aloe. But did he believe that Alexander’s ancient interest in Socotran aloe was additional proof of its continued superiority to other varieties of aloe?

Modern botanical research includes a survey of a plant’s history on earth, a legacy of early modern Natural History. The discipline of Natural History does not translate easily to sciences before the eighteenth century in any region.[4] But there are narrative “histories” of certain substances within texts of ṭibb, Arabic and Persian medicine, as well as in encyclopedia, lapidaries, bestiaries and other genres. Origin stories appear alongside the most practical of information.

Objects, and especially plants, are difficult to pin down — they feel unstable as we follow them through different periods, geographic contexts and even textual genres. I imagine that Zayn al-‘Aṭṭār may have felt the same way. Perhaps by whisking his reader onto the scene of an ancient conquest, he felt that his enthusiasm for the remedy would come with a strong recommendation.


The people of Socotra are currently struggling under very real conditions of occupation due to the ongoing war, cholera pandemic and COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen. If you can, please support the work of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation or comparable organizations.


[1] British Library India Office Islamic 3499

[2] Abu Zayd Al-Sirafi and Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga. (New York: NYU Press, 2014): 122-123

[3] Mikhail Bukharin, “The Mediterranean World and Socotra,” in Foreign Sailors on Socotra: The Inscriptions and Drawings from the Cave Hoq Ed. I. Strauch. (Hempen Verlag: Bremen, 2012): 494-531, at 504-505.

[4] Karen Reeds and Tomomi Kinukawa, “Medieval Natural History,” in Lindberg, David C., and Michael H. Shank. The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 2, Medieval Science. Ed. David Lindberg and Michale Shank. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013): 569-589.

Drinking the Ink of Prayer

By Genie Yoo  [1]

Sometimes historians dream of moments of recognition in the manuscripts they encounter. The act of reading or reciting, writing or copying, can trigger a distant memory, allowing one to draw a line connecting two seemingly unrelated points on the plane of history. I experienced something of this moment as I sat in the National Library of the Republic of Indonesia, reading an untitled and undated manuscript of Arabic prayers and their Malay prescriptions. That morning, Mas Bambang, a familiar face behind the counter, had handed me a manuscript labelled ML469. It was a prayer book, shorter and thinner than expected, and the first folio, glued tightly to the marbled cover, began with a list of recipes.

“For those who wish to memorize the Qur’an,” I copied into my notebook, “take ambergris, musk, and turmeric.” There was a hint of recognition in the order of these three ingredients, common since antiquity. “The three are to be moistened,” I copied, “to make the ink.” Suddenly, an inkling of recognition blended into memory. Two years prior, I had sat in Prof. Michael Laffan’s office in Princeton, reading out loud my transcription of the same lines from another manuscript, one which he had photographed in Simon’s Town, South Africa. “Write this prayer on a white bowl,” I wrote, “and drink for seven days.” I circled the Malay word for “bowl” (mangkung), a variation of its modern standardized form (mangkuk). Minute differences also beckon the memory. When I had given Michael a puzzled look about another variation of this term (mangku), he had pulled out the Wilkinson dictionary, an invitation to join the exercise of word hunting. Putting my pencil down, I gingerly flipped through the folios of ML469 until I arrived at the Arabic and saw that this copy of the prayer, too, like the one from Simon’s Town, was the prayer of ‘Akasa.

The earliest extant copy of Malay-language explications for the prayer of ‘Akasa in Europe is a late 16th c.-early 17th c. manuscript from the Scaliger Collection, initially mislabelled to be in the Turkish language. Or 247, Special Collections at the Leiden University Library.]

So began my fascination with two nearly identical copies of a Malay-language recipe for drinking the ink of prayer, now preserved in two manuscripts on opposite sides of the Indian Ocean: one in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the other in Simon’s Town, South Africa. While the former was a compilation of prayers in the same hand, its provenance an unmarked mystery, the latter was a shorter fragment copied into a communal notebook full of other recipe fragments. Variations between them left doubt as to their direct link in transmission; however, there were too many of the same lines in a string of recipes in the same order for the same prayer, to presume they were merely incidental. The question of a possible “original” seemed less relevant; they were likely copies of similar eighteenth-century copies circulating in the archipelago. What interested me more were the possibilities of bringing the two together into one frame: it allowed me to see that handwritten copies of similar prayer books circulated across vast distances and that prayers and their recipes for ritual use were copied, at times, in selective fragments.

The fragment in Simon’s Town was distinctive. The hand that wrote it, Michael assured me, had belonged to the famous eighteenth-century figure Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abd al-Salam, known as Tuan Guru (lit. “Master Teacher”). He was a nobleman from the eastern island of Tidore whom administrators of the Dutch East India Company had exiled to their Cape colony in 1780, just before the beginning of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. As Dr. Saarah Jappie has written, Tuan Guru’s fame is linked to his founding of the first Islamic school or madrasah in Cape Town in 1793.[2] There, he taught a diverse community of Muslim students and championed the rote-learning system in Malay and Arabic, which later madrasah teachers continued in Afrikaans.[3] Memory was essential to practicing the faith of Islam through recitation; and perhaps teaching how to commit something to heart, to preserve it within the body, inspired more than mnemonic instruction.

“For those who wish to memorize the Qur’an,” Tuan Guru had copied into the untitled notebook, “take ambergris, musk, and turmeric.” The handwriting is identical to a Qur’an Tuan Guru had copied from memory on Robben Island, now preserved at the Auwal Mosque (lit. “First Mosque,” est. 1794). “The three are to be mixed,” he wrote, “on a Friday night to make the ink.” The other manuscript had not mentioned the day and time for making the ink. If context can fill the gap, it may be noteworthy that Tuan Guru’s madrasah also functioned as the community’s first mosque, where followers of the faith congregated on Fridays, the sacred day of worship. “Write onto a white bowl this prayer,” he continued to copy, “and drink for seven days.” To write and to drink—the recipe called for a ritual assimilation of two common physical acts of learning in Islamic education.[4] Using the ink and the bowl to write and to drink, one was to absorb into the body the power of prayer, as a supplicatory means to achieve the memorization of the sacred Word.

Did Tuan Guru copy this recipe for his students in the context of the madrasah? He wrote it into a communal book full of other recipe fragments in different hands, for instance, of writing a talisman for healing. Copying it ensured that the prayer would again be copied then imbibed. The book was instructional, and the recipe meant to be used, preserved, and transmitted through the act of copying, not only on paper but also in the body. Can the manuscript in South Africa reveal something about the manuscript in Indonesia and vice versa? While the two raise more questions than answers, they also open up ways to reflect on the link between memory and the physical acts that aid it, whether in the secular context of a library or in the sacred context of a madrasah. They allow us to see the point where the plane of memory intersects with that of history, in the past and in the present.


Genie Yoo is a PhD Candidate in History at Princeton University. She specializes in the early modern and modern history of Southeast Asia and works at the intersection of science, medicine, religion, and empire. This blogpost is based on chapter two of her dissertation-in-progress, titled “Mediating Islands: Ambon Across the Ages.”


[1] My gratitude to Dr. Saarah Jappie and Michael Laffan.

[2] Saarah Jappie, “From the Madrasah to the Museum: the Social Life of the “Kietaabs” of Cape Town,” History in Africa 38 (2011): 375-376.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Prof. Rudolph T. Ware III writes about the epistemology of embodiment in Islamic pedagogy, particularly in the context of West Africa. See Rudolph T. Ware III, The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Colouring metals in the Far East

By Agnese Benzonelli

How far can someone go in the name of research? In my case quite a long way. For a month, I loosely taped tiny plates of metal to my hands and woke up every morning with green stains on them. I was investigating craft recipes employed in the far East since the fourteenth Century to create coloured metal and alloys used for beautiful small artefacts. Whereas Western taste preferred the natural colour and the polished lustre of metals, the Eastern preference was to use the process of chemical patination, where different chemicals react with the surface of copper and copper alloys to form new coloured compounds.

Fig.1: Left: a tsuba (handguard of Japanese sword) made of shakudo and gold; BM-TS244. Right: a Chinese gu-tong box; BM-1992,1109.2. Photos made by A. Benzonelli.

The Japanese created a whole class of coloured alloys, called irogane. They added small amounts of different elements to the copper and simmered it in a solution containing copper salts, alum, vinegar and other ingredients, to form coloured patinas on the surface. The most beautiful patina, shakudo, was made with copper and gold and achieved a deep blue-black colour. Combining a variety of alloy compositions and solution ingredients, they were able to create hues ranging from pale brown to black. Inlaying different irogane, gold, silver, and lacquers, they were able to create small artefacts and swords fittings with complex and visually impressive designs and patterns.

Fig.2: Picture of the 13 Japanese solutions created and tested taken from Japanese recipes reported in Eastern books.

Later on, Chinese craftspeople imported the technique from Japan, possibly through travellers or trying to copy the Japanese artefacts, and, from the Ming period (1368-1644), they used it to colour ink or tobacco boxes. In contrast to the Japanese irogane, the Chinese would patinate a gold-silver alloy only, which resulted in a dark colour similar to that of shakudo, which they called gu-tong. In both cases, the precious metal content was 1-3%, a larger amount would not affect the final patina colour.

There’s not a lot known about the two different recipes the Chinese craftsmen employed to produce their patinas. However, we do know that one process they utilised was similar to that used by the Japanese to produce the irogane,butwe have no precise recipes for the solutions. Another involved handling the metal until the perspiration from their hands corroded the surface.

Creating and play with metal colours has always fascinated me. Why using gold and silver to achieve that dark colour, instead of cheaper alternatives? What was the role of the different ingredients used in the recipes? Could sweat really be used as a patinating solution? Why did Japanese recipes tell not add precious metals to bronze (copper alloyed with tin) but only to pure copper? Could it be confirmed through scientific analysis that the technology was really transmitted from the Japanese to the Chinese culture? To find answers, I needed to conduct a systematic experimental research which could explain the reasons behind the technological choices of Japanese and Chinese craftsmen.

 I reproduced a series of alloys with tin, gold and silver, which I then patinated, following the recipes for shakudo and gu-tong from available texts. These are not numerous, as the recipes were mainly kept as secret and passed from father to son. We have city records, information sheets given by dealers and, in Japan, technical texts on metal working. I analysed the resulting patinas with techniques borrowed from modern material science, and used the experimental data as reference for the interpretation of historical patinated artefacts in museum collections.

I found that, for both the Japanese and Chinese recipes, the presence of gold in the alloy did, in fact, change the colour of the final patinas, which resulted in a better, more uniform and darker hue. I also noted how parameters such as the fine grade of surface polishing prior to the patination, the use of tin-free alloys, the selection of copper acetate as a main ingredient and the addition of vinegar are all processes and actions that led to a reduced patina growth. And as it turned out, sweat was indeed an effective patinating solution in the Chinese patination (as it can be noticed by the green corrosion products left on the hands), but the presence of gold in the alloy composition is nonetheless essential to obtain a dark hue, not achieved in gold-free alloys. Sweat is a slightly acidic solution, similar to that of used by Japanese craftsmen, essential to create a coloured copper oxide on the surface in just 48 hours of handling. Similarly, in both technologies cleaning of the alloy before or after the procedure suggested in Japanese texts and the abrasive action of the hands in the Chinese method are both similar and crucial steps in the patination process. I concluded from these findings that a dark patina was not the only feature that the craftsmen of both cultures had been striving for. They also seemed to be after a shiny appearance, given by the metallic lustre coming from the alloy.

Fig. 3: Alloys of different compositions patinated with Chinese patination.

In combining experimental and historical observations I gained an understanding of the intentions behind the technological choices made by the Japanese and Chinese artisans. My analysis confirmed the deliberate nature of these choices made to achieve dark and shiny blue-black colours otherwise impossible. This confirmed the importance of colour as a driver of these artisanal processes, and supports the idea that the knowledge was transmitted between the two cultures.

Was it worth in the end – the green hands and other discomforts suffered in the name of research? It was the first study to provide a scientific basis to our knowledge of the methods and choices made by those people, the ingredients they employed in making dark patinated artefacts, and contributed to our pool of knowledge of the artisanal methods and practices described in historical sources. So yes, it definitely was, and I would definitively do it again.

Announcing… a new journal!!!

By Dorothy Cashman

The European Journal of Food, Drink and Society is now live! It is hosted at the Arrow website, which has some other great journals. But please come check out the page for the journal for details on our aims and submission process.

We see this journal as an exciting new critical and interdisciplinary space where scholars can debate and progress research on the study of food and drink, whether from global or local levels. As editors, we each approach the subject area from our own academic perspectives. We strongly believe that our ability to appreciate the reach of research related to food, drink and society across disciplines is intrinsic to (and reflected in) the stimulating publications that we have been witness to over the last several decades.

We believe that this journal will add to that conversation, and want you to come be a part of it. 

From the outset, we have been encouraged by people’s interest in our project; this is manifest in the wonderful editorial board supporting us in this venture.

Dear academic and independent researchers… for that paper that you are working on right now, we are here and welcome your submissions.    

Editorial note: The Recipes Project is excited to welcome EJFDS to the wider community of food scholarship. Congratulations!

Image Credit: The Newberry Library Postcard Sender.