Thursday, July 12, 2012

Medicine in the Ancient World

Column Base with Symbol of Asklepios
One of the sites that I visited in Turkey last month was the city of Pergamum, one of the seven churches from the book of Revelation. Most will know Pergamum as the place where "where Satan lives," a possible allusion to either the temple to Zeus that was located there or the temple to Caesar Augustus. But many will not know about the other, less infamous reason Pergamum was so well-known in Asia Minor and beyond.

Pergamum was the site of an ancient healing center, what we call today a hospital. But in antiquity, unlike today, science and religion were not separate. They were closely linked since the god of healing was Asklepios and the the ancient "hospital" was the temple to Asklepios where the priests cum doctors worked. Many people don't realize it, but the modern symbol for medicine, the snakes on the staff, has nothing to do with Numbers 21 story of  Moses and the snakes in the wilderness. The symbol is that of Asklepios.

The Asklepion at Pergamum was so well-known in the ancient world that a famous second century doctor named Galen moved there to study and work and developed many of his ideas about the human anatomy there. We still have many of his writings today.

While in Turkey we also had the chance to have dinner with Sarah Yeomans who teaches at the University of West Virginia and is a  speleologist,  which means she is an expert on ancient caves and sewers. Over at the Biblical Archaeology Blog Sarah has a good article explaining medicine in the ancient world. I suspect her connection with Asklepios and medicine is due to the Asklepion at Pergamum having a long underground tunnel that channeled water used for the healing process. It is an interesting article.

Tunnel at Pergamum Asklepion leading from the spring to the "hospital"

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating - and fantastic timing. I was just pondering yesterday matthew 4-5, the fact that Jesus was doing all kinds of healing right before the sermon on the mount. I was prompted to ask, "what about this experience of healing people led him to want to preach to his disciples about blessed are the..." ?