Museum of Islamic Art
Hegira 3rd century / AD 9th century
Length 16.5 cm
A surgical scalpel with a long handle tends in a sharp blade; the blade is less thick and less narrow than the handle. Excavations which took place in the city of Fustat – the first capital of Islamic Egypt established by Amr ibn al-'As in the year AH 21 / AD 641 – revealed a large cache of surgical instruments, considered to be the oldest extant of their kind. This collection demonstrates Islamic Egypt's remarkable progress in the fields of medicine and surgery.
The Muslims excelled in the field of surgery from the early Islamic period. Historical sources and manuscripts provide information about the advancement of medical surgery in all parts of the Islamic world. Perhaps the doctor from al-Andalus, Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Zahrawi (AH 329–404 / AD 940–1013), is the most famous of the Muslim surgeons. He advised that surgeons should be familiar with anatomy and he emphasised the necessity of dissection as a means of acquiring knowledge of the human body, whereby the reasons for death could be ascertained and the benefits of seeing similar cases were exploited. Al-Zahrawi's most famous work is his encyclopaedia, Al-Tasrif liman 'ajaz 'an al-Taalif, which describes and illustrates more than 150 surgical instruments. When undertaking surgical operations Muslim surgeons took special care to sterilise the site of the operation; Al-Zahrawi demonstrated several ways to make a sterile environment in his encyclopaedia.
Surgical operations included the use of general anaesthesia. For example an anaesthetic sponge was used; soaked in hashish oil, opium, ray-grass, henbane and belladonna; it was then dried in the sun. When the time came it was moistened and placed on the nose of the patient where the tranquilizing substances were absorbed by the patient's tissues sending him into a deep sleep, thereby ensuring that the patient remained free from pain during surgery. Muslim surgeons used surgical thread made from animal gut such as cat gut. Al-Zahrawi taught his students how to sew up wounds with magical interior-stitching similar to that used in cosmetic surgery today. Al-Zahrawi's encyclopaedia covers cosmetic surgery, such as rectifying disfigurements to the lip, ear, nose, and he discusses surgery on the blood vessels. Muslim doctors practiced procedures of setting fractured bones and used splints and dressings for the treatment of fractured skulls, arms and shoulders. Perhaps the huge numbers of medical and surgical instruments extant demonstrate the extraordinary progress in the field of medicine and surgery in the Islamic world in the early period.
This scalpel, discovered in the city of Fustat among a large collection of surgical tools, is proof of the wide variety of tools used by Muslim physicians in treatment and surgery.
The dating of this scalpel is based on information available in historical sources which relates to progress in the fields of medicine and surgery in Egypt during the Abbasid period. Furthermore, by comparison; in analysing illustrations of surgical instruments in al-Zahrawi's encyclopaedia, al-Tasrif liman 'ajaz 'an al-Taalif along with other contemporary medical works, with the instrument seen here.
This object was discovered during the course of archaeological excavations, which took place at Fustat.
It is likely that the scalpel, along with the other surgical instruments discovered during archaeological excavations that took placed in the city of Fustat, were made in Egypt for there are no indications from the historical sources that instruments such as these were imported from outside the region. This is in addition to the fact that the fields of medicine and surgery flourished in Egypt during this period.
–––––––, Quand les sciences parlent arabe VIIIe-XVe ap. J.-C./IIe-IXe siècle H,exhibition catalogue,Cairo, 2003.
–––––––, “Catalogue Ishamat al-Hadara al-'Arabiya wa al-Islamiya fi al-'ulum al-Tibiya [Catalogue of the Contributions of Arab Civilization to the Medical Sciences]” Makhtutat Dar al-Kutub al-Masriya [Manuscripts of the Dar al-Kutub al-Masriiya], Cairo, 2002.
Sayour, S. A., “La Medicina en la Epoca Islamica”, Prisma, Magazine of the Ministry of Culture, Cairo, No. 12, 2001, p.49.
'Awad, H. A., “Al-Jiraha fi al-'asr al-Islami [Surgery in the Islamic Period]”, Majalat Dirasat al-Athariya al-Islamiya [Journal of Islamic Archaeological Studies], Vol. 3, Cairo, 1988.
Salah Sayour "Surgical scalpel" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2018. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;eg;Mus01;47;en
Prepared by: Salah SayourSalah Sayour
Salah Ahmad Sayour holds a BA in Islamic Antiquities, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University (1973) and is currently studying for an MA in the same field. In 1979 he had a four-month scholarship at Austrian museums to study museology. Preparing exhibitions for the Museum of Islamic Art's collections in the Arab World Institute, Paris and curating exhibitions held in host museums in the USA and Paris augmented his experience leading to his appointment as head of several sections at the Museum. He has written several articles on Islamic painting and arts for Prism Magazine published by the Ministry in different languages and has participated in preparing scientific texts for the catalogues for the Museum's exhibitions at home and abroad.
Copyedited by: Majd Musa
Translation by: Amal Sachedina (from the Arabic).
Translation copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: ET 87
Islamic Dynasties / Period
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Abbasids | Managing Prosperity
MWNF GalleriesScientific objects
DownloadAs PDF (including images) As Word (text only)