History of Science and Technology in Islam

Potassium Nitrate in Arabic and Latin Sources


This paper discusses the various names that were given to potassium nitrate in Arabic, and the equivalent words that were used in Latin. In investigating this subject the following question was posed: what were the names of potassium nitrate in Arabic before the word barud became common?  Because the term barud was applied in Arabic to potassium nitrate in the thirteenth century, some historians of science and technology assumed that familiarity with potassium nitrate in Arabic chemistry and alchemy dates from the thirteenth century only.[1]

For a listing of some of the major Arabic word in this article, click here.

Potassium nitrate is a resource that was always available in natural deposits.  Its existence could not have passed unnoticed as in the case of other materials found in nature. It should have been utilized to meet the various needs of societies across history. Hence, its applications as a viable substance, as a medicine, as a raw material for industry or in warfare in some form or another, were readily discernable.

The difficulty arose in labelling this and other compounds long before the establishment of the science of chemistry. For example, in the Arabic language, minerals found in nature, including potassium nitrate, were collectively designated under nebulous and all encompassing categories such as salts, boraces, alums or stones, among other misnomers. The difficulty is compounded when different authors classify a certain material under different categories; hence the same material shows up with different labels.  Furthermore, treatises that were derived from different sources used to label identical materials differently in the same collated work.[2]

The insignificance of the names that are given to potassium nitrate was explained expressively in The Natural History of Nitre of W. Clark (1670) where he says: “ Nitrum, (nitron in Greek) or Nitre, is also called Sal-nitri, or salt-nitre, from its likeness to salt, and Sal-petrae, or Salt-petre, from its shooting on walls, and is also called by other various and aenigmatical names, It is no matter by what name it is called, so we agree about the thing.“ [3] The same author describes the confusion that was still existing in his time (1670) in differentiating similar materials: “The experienced Druggist shall not more accurately discover a sophisticated Drug from a real, than our Nitrarian may distinguish between Nitre and salt, Allum or Vitriol, which are so like one to another, and may be mistaken by a superficial observer.” [4]

Boraces and Natrun in Arabic and Latin

Without getting confused in the maze of discussions that took place about what the word nitrum indicated at the time of Pliny and before,[5] we know from Arabic and Latin literature of the medieval period that the word natrun or nitrun in Arabic and nitrum, nitro or nitri in Latin used to be applied to a group of salts, like potassium nitrates or sodium carbonates, that are characterized by general similarities.[6] The development of the use of both the Arabic word natrun and its Latin equivalents went in a parallel path throughout the following centuries.

The word natrun in Arabic has been applied down to the advent of the twentieth century, to denote potassium nitrate more than sodium carbonate as will be apparent from this article. It did not become restricted to denote sodium carbonates until recently following the later restrictive usage of the word natron in European languages, to denote sodium carbonate. But as late as 1902 an article in al-Mashriq about minerals in the Ottoman Empire gave the following statement: “the salt of barud or natrun is classified among the boraces, and it is mined extensively in Qunya” [7]

In the early stages of Latin alchemy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when Arabic alchemy was being introduced into Europe, the word nitrum or sal nitrum in Latin was used to denote the Arabic word natrun when Arabic works were translated into Latin. And as in Arabic, the word in Latin could then mean more than one kind of nitrum. So both the Arabic natrun and the Latin nitrum could refer to potassium nitrate, among other things.

A search for the word natron as sodium carbonate in European alchemical literature prior to the seventeenth century revealed the absence of this word. The etymology of natron in the English language indicates that it was introduced in 1684 only.[8]

Edelard of Bath (d 1150 AD), considered to be one of the most prominent scientific individuals in the Latin west, was among the first translators of Arabic manuscripts into Latin. He mastered the Arabic language during his stay in Syria, and then travelled to Spain where he edited or re-wrote Mappae Clavicula in which he utilized recipes consisting of words having Arabic roots.  Edelard states that, Nitrum est sal qui nascitur in terra fiet in laminas in tempore cavatur, which is a description that applies to Potassium Nitrate[9]

Michael Scot (1180?-1236?) was translating from Arabic in Toledo in 1217, and after 1227 was court astrologer and philosopher to Frederick II at Palermo. In the Cambridge manuscript of De Alkimia, attributed to Scot, three kinds of nitrum are given. “Sal nitrum de puncta is said to come from India, and Alexandria. It is tested by putting it on burning coals, and if it does not decrepitate or make a noise it is good. There is also a foliated Sal nitrum somewhat long and thick with a taste something like vinegar when touched with the tongue and not salty, and it makes a flame over a fire.  It is mentioned in some books that it is the best for making mercury malleable, and changes copper into the best gold. It is found in Spain and is exported from Aleppo. A third kind is nitrum depilatum, from Hungary and Barbary. It cleans dried pork.” [10] Partington says: “There is little doubt that the salnitrum foliatum is saltpetre.” [11]

The foliated sal nitrum as described by Michael Scot has been described at earlier dates by several Arabic authors. In the Canon (Al Qanun) of Ibn Sina (d. 428/1036) we find under article natrun: “It is the Armenian buraq and was discussed in the chapter of the letter b.”[12]  Then under article buraq we read: “It can be burnt on top of live fire on a porcelain dish. The best kind is the Armenian, the light, the foliated, the brittle, the spongy, the white, the rosy and the farfiri” [13]

Al Biruni (973-1048) in Kitab al-saydana fi al-tibb in article buraq says: “in Greek it is aphinatrun[14] and in Syriac it is nitra[15]. “The best quality is the Armenian that is light and foliated, having leaves. It crumbles easily with a farfiri colour; it resembles foam and has a burning taste.”[16] In the same article al-Biruni says that the foam of natrun is said to be the Armenian buraq.

Ibn al-Baytar gives similar statements. When discussing buraq he says: “ as to that which is called aphruntun[17] which means foam of natrun it is alleged by some people to be the Armenian buraq, the best quality of which is very light with leaves and crumbles easily; it resembles farfir in colour; and is like foam and has a burning taste,” [18]

In the Lexicon of Alchemy of Martinus Rulandus that appeared in 1612 A.D., Armenian buraq was defined as saltpetre.[19] In the same Lexicon, aphronitrum is defined as froth of saltpetre or wall-salt.[20] In Lemery’s  Cours de Chymie,[21] it is stated that saltpetre was called aphronitrum by the ancients.

 In “De Compositione Alchemiae” or “De Re Metallica”.[22] Which is the text of the dialogue between Morienus and Khalid ibn Yazid (see below) the Latin text says:[23]Sal annatron id est sal nitri.” The seventeenth century English translation of this sentence says: “with salt Annatron, that is with salt peter “, the translator substituted sal nitri for salt peter. The use of the word saltpetre instead of sal nitri was a later development adopted by the moderns according to Biringuccio (d c. 1539). [24] Although not much in use,[25] the word anatron has entered the English language dictionaries where it can denote either native carbonate of soda, i.e. natron, or saltpeter. [26]

The following definitions from the Lexicon of Alchemy of Rulandus illustrate the relationship between the Arabic words natrun and buraq and their Latin equivalents:

Nataron or Natron - i.e. Nitre.[27]

Nitrum - Nitre[28]

Nitrum, Baurach, Rock Salt, Saltpetre, Nitre.[29] Nitre is manufactured in several ways – in stables, ancient dormitories, in rocks, cellars, walls, and other such places, as well as in old and disused sand-pits.

Sal Nitri [30]- Saltpetre, smelted out of earth which has been drenched in urine – for example, such earth as forms the floors of stables.

In Al-Madkhal al-ta`limi (Instructive Introduction) and in Kitab al-Asrar (The Book of Secrets), Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (Rhazes) (d. 925 AD) mentions that Goldsmiths’ Borax is white and is similar to al-sabkha (al-shiha) [31]which is found at the feet of walls.[32] The same description appears in the Karshuni manuscript (written in Arabic with Syriac script), which belongs to the period ninth to eleventh century according to Berthelot and Duval[33]. Duval translated al-shiha which is found at the feet of walls as saltpeter. [34]  

The Karshuni manuscript classifies natrun under the salts also. It says that “Salt consists of seven varieties, namely, 1) salt for food, 2) salt of goldsmiths , 3) Andarani salt, 4) naphtha and natrun salt, 5) Khurasani salt, 6) Indian salt, and 7) natrun which is the nitra salt.

It is obvious that the two kinds of natrun listed here, namely, in items (4) and (7) denote two different kinds of salts, one of which, the Syriac word nitra salt denotes potassium nitrate. Duval translated nitra salt as sel de nitre. [35] 

Liber Lumen Luminum (Light of Lights), of al-Razi that exists in Latin and which is devoted mainly to salts and alums, was translated by Gerard of Cremona.[36]  Lacinius published extracts from this work. The salts mentioned in this extract are: Salt armoniac; sal gemme; saltpetre, common salt and salt alchali.[37]

Use of Natrun as a flux in metallurgy

Potassium nitrate was used since the early days of alchemy and until later centuries as a fluxing material in the roasting of ores and the melting of metals. This becomes evident from a study of the sixteenth century books on metallurgy and alchemy. From De Re Matallica of Agricola (d. 1555), from Pirotechnia of Biringuccio (d c. 1539) and from the Treatise on Ores and Assaying of Lazarus Ercker (d.1593), we learn that saltpetre was an important fluxing material in the melting and smelting operations of metals.[38]

In assaying copper ores Agricola writes: “ If, however, it is less rich, a stony lump results, with which the copper is intermixed; this lump is again roasted, crushed, and after adding stones which easily melt and saltpetre, it is again melted in another crucible, and there settles in the bottom of the crucible a button of pure copper”.[39]

In assaying iron ore, Agricola says that the ore is burned, crushed, washed and dried. Then a magnet is laid over the concentrates and the iron particles are colleted in a crucible. “These particles are heated in the crucible with saltpetre until they melt, and an iron button is melted out of them”.[40]

In Ercker’s book the use of saltpetre as a fluxing material is mentioned in several places. In describing a flux for brittle silver we read: “silver may also be made malleable by a flux that purifies metals greatly. Take sal alkali, saltpetry salt [41], crude argol [42], and saltpetre, of each as much as the other, calcine them, then dissolve the mixture in warm water, pass it through a piece of felt, let it coagulate, and the flux will be ready.” [43]

The book describes the flux for use in assaying copper ores. “Take two parts of argol and one part of saltpetre, grind them separately, and then mix them. Put the mixture in unglazed pot and then toss in a piece of glowing charcoal. This will start a fire in the pot; let it burn until it stops by itself. When the pot has cooled, the flux is ready. Take it out of the pot, remove the charcoal, and, after grinding it, store the flux in some warm spot; thus it will keep.” [44]

The practice of using potassium nitrate as a fluxing material continued in Latin alchemy till later centuries. Newton (last quarter of seventeenth century) in his alchemical treatises gave details of processes in which he used nitre or saltpeter as a fluxing material. In his treatise The Key (Clavis),[45] he describes the preparation of the antimony metal by heating antimony sulphide with iron and with nitre as a flux:

- “Make the regulus by casting in nitre bit by bit; cast in between three and four ounces of nitre so that the matter may flow.”

- “Little nails may be used and especially the ends of those broken from horse-shoes. Let the fire be strong so that the matter may flow [like water], which is easily done. When it flows, cast in a spoonful of nitre, and when that nitre has been destroyed by the fire, cast in another. Continue that process until you have cast in three or four ounces.”

- “Beat the regulus and add to it two, or at most 2½, ounces of nitre. Grind the regulus and the nitre together completely and melt again.

Newton recommends grinding the regulus a third and a fourth time adding nitre each time. Then he says: “In the last three fusions the regulus must be beaten, and ground and mixed with nitre. Some cast the nitre into the crucible, but this is not recommended. You will see that the regulus mixed with nitre in this way flows easily with it.” [46]

It is interesting to know that Nicolas Lemery in his Cours de Chymie, published in 1675, i.e. at the same time when Newton was writing his treatises, gave a chapter in his book on “Regule d’Antimoine avec le Mars”, in which he describes a procedure similar to that of Newton.[47]

In the seventeenth century the nomenclature was not the same as it is now. The name antimony was applied by Newton to the stibnite ore (ithmid in Arabic), while the term regulus or regulus of antimony indicated the antimony metal.

Let us now give citations from the earlier Arabic and Latin treatises on Alchemy.

As mentioned above, one of the earliest treatises on alchemy to be translated from Arabic into Latin was the dialogue that took place between Morienus and Khalid ibn Yazid (d. c. 90 / 708). Robert of Chester (Robertus Castrensis) finished translating it on February 11, 1144. This work is entitled De Compositione Alchemiae or De Re Metallica.[48]

In the English translation translation we read [49]: “for ye wisemen have thus said of this: Now we have taken away ye blackness, and have fixed ye whiteness with salt Anatron, yt. is, with salt peter, and almizader[50] whose Complexion is Could and drye.” Then we read: “first there is blackness, then followeth whiteness with salt Anatron”

The use of natrun together with salammoniac (nushadir) in the preparation of metals, such as whitening as mentioned above, was a common practice in Arabic alchemy.

In his work, The Book of Seventy (Kitab al-Sab`in), and in the Book of Twenty Articles (Kitab Al-Jumal al-`ishrin), Jabir ibn Hayyan (d. c. 815) gave a number of chemical recipes in which he uses al-natrun as a flux for melting. Here are examples:

In Kitab al Naqd on iron (Mars) that is book thirty-four of the Book of Seventy, we read about the istinzal of iron (purification by melting in a descendary apparatus). Iron is first roasted with yellow arsenic (zarnikh asfar) several times. Then “it is crushed and mixed with one third of its weight of natrun and kneaded with oil and melted, and it will descend as white as silver” [51] (see Appendix A below for the Arabic text).

Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187) translated the Book of Seventy into Latin. The corresponding Latin text to the Arabic one reads in part:  “Deinde tere ipsum cum triplo sui de nitro. Et sperge cum oleo et distilla Argentum liquefactende.”[52] Thus in the twelfth century’s translation of Jabir’s work the word natrun was translated as nitro.

A similar process is given in maqala thirteen of the Book of Twenty Articles (Kitab Al-Jumal al-`ishrin) [53]: “As for iron, take one ratl from it and throw on it one ratl of yellow zarnikh (arsenic). Roast it in a hard fire after it was made into filings. Take it out after one night and throw on it half a ratl of yellow zarnikh then return it to roasting. Do this twice. Take it out and throw on it one ratl of red zarnikh and roast for the third time, Then take it out and purify its blackness by the descendory process. The descendory process is done by grinding with it one quarter of its weight of natrun, knead it with little oil and place it in but-bar-but and cover it...You descend it several times until it descends white and pure, better than silver in whiteness.”

In Liber Sacerdotum, which is a medieval Latin translation of an Arabic work, we find a similar process: “De preparando ferro quoddam secretum”. The text that follows resembles that of Jabir in the Book of Seventy and in the Book of Twenty Articles. Here also, the corresponding Latin word to natrun is given as nitro .[54]

We find a similar description for the treatment of iron in Chapter XIV of Jabir’s (Geber) Latin work De Inventione Veritatis.[55] Russell’s English translation of the Latin text runs thus: “Prepare Mars thus: Grind one pound of the Filings thereof, with half a pound of Arsnick sublimed. Imbibe the Mixture with the Water of Salt-peter, and Salt-Alkali, reiterating this Imbibition thrice; then make it flow with violent Fire, and you will have your iron white.” [56]

This description of the treatment of iron in De Inventione Veritatis is analogous to the text in the Book of Seventy and the Book of Twenty Articles, and the corresponding Latin word for natrun is salis petrae (salt-peter).[57] 

In Kitab al-Layla on copper (Venus) which is book thirty-six of the Seventy Books it is mentioned that in one treatment, burnt copper or rusakhtaj (copper scale) is taken. It is heated and quenched in good pure oil, then heated and quenched many times. Then “it is crushed, placed in but-bar-but (descendary vessel) and melted with natrun or other softening material and it will descend like gold.” [58]

In Kitab al-Ghasl on lavation of bodies and souls and which is book sixty one of the Seventy Books we read about the treatment of copper. Take one hundred dirhams of copper, forty dirhams of zarnikh (arsenic) and ten dirhams of sulphur and grind, “then beat al-zuhra (venus) into thin discs like dirhams, place it in a small pot and roast it and copper will become easy to crush. Crush it in a golden mortar and pan it off with water then throw on it salt and grind it and wash it. Then take it and grind it with natrun and oil, melt it and it will descend like silver in colour.” [59]

In the Latin translation of Kitab al-Ghasl of the Book of Seventy by Gerard of Cremona the last sentence of the “Ablutio Veneris “ says: “ Tere ipsum cum nitro et oleo et fac ipsum descendere in botum barbotum. Et descendet colore Argenti.” [60]

In De Inventione Veritatis (Chapter XV) of Jabir (Geber), one description of the treatment of copper (Venus) reads thus: “Venus thus calcined, grind, 1 lib. of it with four Ounces of Arsnick sublimed, and imbibe the Mixture three or four times with the Water of Lithargiry,[61] and reduce the whole with Salt-Peter, and Oyl of Tartar; and you will find the Body of Venus white and splendid, fit for receiving the Medicine.”[62]

This description of the treatment of copper (Venus) in De Inventione Veritatis is analogous to the two descriptions quoted from the Book of Seventy. Again, the corresponding Latin word for natrun is nitro and salis petrae; (salt-peter in the English translation).[63] 

Jabir’s (Geber’s) Latin De Inventione Veritatis appeared in the latter part of the thirteenth century. It was thought until now that similar processes in which saltpetre was used, never appeared before in Arabic. This gave rise to the doubtful conclusion by some historians of science that Geber was not the Arabic Jabir, and that saltpetre was known for the first time in the thirteenth century in the Latin West when the Geber’s Latin works first appeared.  

Al-Razi gave another analogous description for the treatment of iron in Al-Madkhal al-Ta`limi: “Take filings of iron, as much as you want, and having thrown on them one quarter their weight of powdered red zarnikh, stir (the mixture up). Then put it in a bag (surrah), and after luting it with good clay, place it in a hot tannur (oven). Afterwards take it out, and weigh it. Then throw upon it one-sixth of its weight of natrun, and add olive oil to the mixture”.

In al-Razi’s other works Kitab al- Asrar and in Kitab sirr al-asrar we find numerous other recipes describing the treatment and preparation of iron and copper in which natrun is used.[64]

We find the same practice also in al-Razi’s Liber Lumen Luminum (Light of Lights), where it is mentioned: “Take equal amounts of salt armoniac, saltpetre, and borax; pound together, dissolve in a little wine, and let it dry, This will render the silver malleable”[65]

A similar description for the treatment of iron occurs in the Arabic Karshuni manuscript. It says that after treating the iron filings with red and yellow arsenic take it out when it becomes cold; wash it with water and salt. When it is dried, mix it with one-sixth its weight of natrun kneaded with oil. Then it is melted and subjected to the process of istinzal in the but-bar-but [66]

More similar citations can be given illustrating the use of natrun as a fluxing agent in early Arabic Alchemy. [67] This practice continued in later centuries as well, and we find numerous similar recipes in the works of Al-Jildaki and later alchemists.[68]

While discussing the use of potassium nitrate as a fluxing agent for metals, it may be relevant to mention here the use of this material in the refining of gold. Al-Hamdani (c.251/865-313/925) in his book Kitab al-Jawharatayn al-`Atiqatayn describes a refining cementation process for gold called ta`riq (sweating). Ta`riq, he says, is a slight cooking which removes impurities and makes gold more malleable under the hammer.  The usual drugs used are white vitriol or alum, salt, and yellow bricks, all ground.  He says:

“If the ta`riq does not affect the gold, either because of its nature, the inadequacy of fuel or because of the burning of the drug and the fineness of raw gold, so that the gold bars become dry, then they (i.e. gold refiners) will heat the bars and bury them either in the salt of earth which is found at the feet of walls (milah al turab alladhi yakun fi usul al hitan)[69] or in salt and vitriol.”

From the above citations we conclude that both in Latin and Arabic alchemical literature down to the seventeenth century, potassium nitrate was used as a fluxing agent in the smelting, melting and the refining operations of some metals. The Arabic words natrun and al-milh alladhi yakun fi usul al-hitan (wall salt), and the Latin words nitrum (nitre) and salis petrae (saltpetre) indicated potassium nitrate in these operations.

Natrun in the preparation of nitric acid and aqua regia:

Having established that the Arabic natrun and the Latin nitrum denoted frequently potassium nitrate in Arabic and Latin alchemy, we can look into some recipes involving the production of nitric acid and aqua regia before the thirteenth century.

We have already mentioned the Liber Luminis luminum[70], that is usually attributed to al-Razi, and which was published in a book on the life and legend of Michael Scot (d. 1235), on the assumption that it was one of Scot’s works. The text gives a recipe for the preparation of nitric acid or aqua regia, by distilling a mixture of sal nitrum, sal ammoniac and vitriol. The Latin text runs thus:

M. cum sossile et nitro salso ana in aqua resolutis ac coagulatis es ad naturam lune reduxi. R. vitrioli romani Libra 1.  salis nitri libra 1 . salis armoniaci 3 . 3 . hec omnia comisce in unum terendo et pone in curcubita cum  alembico et quod distillaverit serva et pone cum m. crudo ita quod in 3 aque fundatur super mediam libram m. in una ampulla et pone in cineribus bene clausam et da lentum ignem per unam diem et postea  invenies m. in aquam  purissmam.[71]

Adam McLean contributed the following translation:[72]

“This text indicates that 'M' (usually a contraction for mercury in alchemical texts) must first be purified by being placed with 'sossile' and spirit of Nitre. ['Sossile' I do not  recognise].

When you perform a recipe, grinding together 1 pound of vitriol with 1 pound of nitre and 3 pounds of sal ammoniac, which you then heat in a flask and distill off a water.
Then you are to place the purified 'M' (mercury) from your first stage and place this in a flask with three more parts of this acid distillate. The flask should be well sealed and heated gently for a day. After this you should find mercury in this most pure water. “ [73]

On this recipe McLean comments that “this will produce a rather potent acid, indeed a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids - that is aqua regia - possibly with some sulphuric acid also as an impurity”. Partington also says that this recipe gives apparently nitric acid or aqua regia.[74]

There are Arabic texts using the word natrun in the preparation of nitric acid and aqua regia which date from before the thirteenth century.

One of these recipes describe the solution of sulphur with acids, and is given in kitab al-mumarasa (the book of practice) that forms book sixty-five of the Book of Seventy by Jabir ibn Hayyan (d.c. 815). The ingredients in the recipe are: rice vinegar, yellow arsenic (zarnikh asfar), natrun, alkali salt, live nura (unslaked lime), eggshells, and purified salammoniac. The process, which involves distillation, produces aqua regia that is strong enough to put the sulphur into solution.[75]

Holmyard in commenting about the recipe for nitric acid in Geber’s De inventione veritatis (Invention of Verity), says: “The preparation of nitric acid, which is given in chapter xxiii, I have recently come across in a Cairo manuscript (the Royal Library) of a work ascribed to Jabir.” [76]  Holmyard says that the manuscript in question is The Chest of Wisdom (Sunduq al-Hikma) in Cairo.[77] The writer of this article was able to obtain a copy of this manuscript.[78] It is a collection of treatises that carry the title of Sunduq al-Hikma. The first treatise is Sunduq al-Hikma proper and is ascribed to Jabir. The style of writing raises some doubt about this. One of the treatises in the collection carry the tile Kitab al-iqtisad al-hadi ila al-rashad which gives recipes attributed to Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi The recipes start at folio 56b and end on folio 69a. Between these we read on folio 62a the following recipe:

“Take the water of eggs, [of] one hundred eggs, and one quarter of one ratl from salammoniac (nushadir), and two natrun, and Yamani alum (shabb) two qaflas [79]. Bury this [mixture] in dung for seven days then take it out and distil it twice using the qar` (cucurbit) and ambiq. This distilled water is suitable for zarnikh, sulphur and mercury” (See Appendix A below for the Arabic text).

In an Arabic treatise, Ta`widh al-Hakim, published in part by Ruska,[80] we read a description of the preparation of aqua regia which is called al-ma’ al-ilahi (the divine water) or ma’ al-hayat (the water of life). This treatise gives the recipes that were allegedly practiced by al-Hakim (d. 411/1021) following the recipes that were used by Al Mu`izz (d. 365/975)[81]. The recipes are traced back to Ja`far al-Sadiq (d.148/765) in the works ascribed to him.[82]  Ruska raised doubts about the date of authorship. He gave two dates between which he thinks that the Ta`widh was written; these are 1021 A.D and the date of copying the manuscript in Shawwal 682 (early 1283). This last date is improbable as it is extremely unlikely that the scribe who copied several alchemical treatises in one collection should be considered as their author.

The ingredients are natrun, alum, the viriol of Cyprus, and sal ammoniac.

The recipe starts with a description of the preparation of natrun water by solution.

“Dissolve one hundred mithqals of natrun by any solution method you choose; but the solution in wetness is the quickest.[83] Pound the natrun and put it in a porcelain pot (kuz) having holes in its bottom. Place the perforated pot over a China cup. Stretch on the top of the China cup a wet linen cloth. You should have wetted the natrun with a little fresh water so that it will adhere to the perforated pot. Place the cup and the pot in the wetness well. The natrun that will be dissolved by the wetness of the well will trickle into the cup through the holes of the pot.

Description of the wetness well: Dig in the ground a well two dhira` (ells) in depth, wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. Put sand at the bottom. Fill the well with water and leave it until the water saturates the sand and the soil of the well so that the sand becomes like mud. The well should be in a location immune from winds and not exposed to direct sun. Immerse the cup and the pot in the sand. Place at the top of the well a porcelain plate or closure and on top of that spread plenty of sand. The natrun will dissolve in two weeks or it may dissolve in ten days and it will descend in solution to the lower cup.

Weigh from this [natrun water] one hundred dirhams, and throw in it ten dirhams of alum, ten of salammoniac (nushadir) and five dirhams of qalqatar which is zaj (vitriol) available in Damascus, yellow in colour which has veins if broken. It is used by dyers in Syria and is imported from the island of Cyprus. After you throw the mixture in the natrun water leave the whole for two days and two nights and distil in a cucurbit (qar`) and alembic (inbiq). Take what is distilled and it will be clear and white as tears” (see Appendix A below for the Arabic text).

The above recipes for the preparation of nitric acid and aqua regia are similar to the Latin ones in De inventione veritatis (Invention of Verity) of Jabir (Geber). In Chap XXIII on solutive waters we read the following:

“First R of Vitriol of Cyprus, lib. 1. of Salt-peter, lib. ff. and of Jamenous Allum one fourth part; extract the Water with Redness of the Alembeck (for it is very solutive) and use it before alleadged Chapters. This is also made much more acute, if in it you shall dissolve a fourth part of Salammoniac, because that dissolves Gold, Sulphur, and Silver.” [84]

Further we read:

“Our other Philosophical Cerative Water, is this: R Oil distilled from the Whites of Eggs, grind it with half so much of Salt-peter, and of Salammoniac, equal parts, and it will be very good.” [85]

The Latin recipe of Liber Luminis luminum, and the various Arabic recipes that were cited, all of them antedate the appearance of Jabir’s (Geber’s) De inventione veritatis in Latin at the end of the thirteenth century in which the  recipe for nitric acid was given. And contrary to the common belief that was prevalent until now, it is evident that Geber’s Latin recipes of the thirteenth century were not the first ones to describe the preparation of nitric acid.

Al-Shiha that is found at the feet of Walls or milh al-ha’it (wall salt)

We have mentioned above, in discussing the classifications of al-Razi and the Karshuni MS, that Al-Shiha that is found at the feet of walls denoted potassium nitrate.

When discussing the refining of gold, we mentioned also that al-Hamdani who was contemporary with al-Razi used a similar expression: milah al turab alladhi yakun fi usul al-hitan (earth salt that is found at the feet of walls) to denote potassium nitrate.

According to al-Kutubi (about 1311 A.D.) in his work ma la ysa`u  al-tabiba jahluhu (what a physician cannot afford to ignore), barud or potassium nitrate was called milh al-ha’it (salt of wall) by the common people of Iraq.  “It is the salt that creeps on old walls, and they collect it.” [86]

The term milh al hayt (salt of the wall) was listed in the Karshuni manuscript among the artificial or prepared salts (manufactured), since it was to be collected and treated. The seven artificial salts are:

 “1-The al-qali (alkaline) salt; 2- The nura (lime) salt; 3- The bawl (urine) salt; 4- al-sha`r (hair) salt; 5- The wood ashes salt, which is sabarzaj; 6- milh al hayt (wall salt); 7- al-tinkar salt. All these salts are used for whitening; they clean the dirt and remove blackness, and are utilized in dissolving bodies and spirits. These are their actions.” [87]

The practice used in Iraq in the ninth and tenth centuries for scraping milh al-ha’it (wall-salt or saltpetre) from walls was described in numerous works in Europe in much later centuries. These works describe the construction and operation of nitre beds and the scraping of saltpetre from walls built especially for the purpose of growing saltpetre.[88]

The flowers of Asyus Stone, the Salt of Asyus Stone and the Salt of Stone

Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248) defines asyus thus:  “Ancient physicians of Egypt call it China snow (thalj al-Sin), and it is known as barud by the common people and the physicians of al-Maghrib.” [89]

And then he defines barud thus: “It is the flowers of asyus stone.” [90]

Further, thalj sini (Chinese snow) is defined as: “It is al-barud that is known as the flowers of asyus stone” [91]

Also hajar asyus (stone of asyus) is defined as: “It is al-barud... and the people of Egypt know it as the snow of China.” [92]

As mentioned above, Al-Kutubi described potassium nitrate as the salt that creeps on old walls. In his definition of barud he says: “barud is the name that denotes the flower of asyus.“ [93]

The extent to which the term asyus was prevalent in the Islamic lands is not clear. However, it seems that this terminology was used in certain regions. For instance, Dawud Al-Antaki (d.1599), who was born in Antioch and lived part of his life in Anatolia, Damascus and Cairo, reported in his book al- Tadhkira under item barud, the following: “it is called in our country (`indana), ashush and milh sini (Chinese salt)” [94]. It is apparent that ashush is a distortion of the term asyus. When he says “in our country” he means in the region of Antioch in north-west Syria, where Al- Antaki had lived most of his life.

The expression milh hajar asyus (salt of asyus stone) becomes milh al-hajar (salt of stone) when dropping the word asyus. We actually find in some treatises that potassium nitrate or barud was described as milh al-hijara (salt of stones). [95] This is a synonym for the word saltpetre (salt of stone or salt of rock) in its different forms in Latin and Western languages.

Konrad Kyeser (d. c. 1405) used the word assio (assionis) for saltpetre in his book Bellifortis, which is a manuscript on warfare. In a recipe for nitric acid or aqua regia, he specifies distilling Roman Vitriol with permisce Assionis or with sal armoniacum (sal ammoniac) mixed with permisce Assionis.[96] The important aspect in Bellifortis is that the term “Permisce Assionis” is used in lieu of saltpetre or sal nitrum. Partington says that Keyeser gave illustrations of incendiary arrows and a rocket, apparently from an Arabic manuscript since the man in the illustration has Arabic dress.[97]

But the use of the term asyus in Arabic or Assio or Asius in Latin, to denote potassium nitrate did not receive wide acceptance, neither in Arabic nor in Latin. A vague connection between nitrum and “Asian rock or Lapis Asius” is expressed in the Lexicon of Rolandus when discussing nitrum: “There is also that Nitre which is called Spumous, and is Aphronitrum, Saltpetre, the spume of Nitre, and a true species of Nitre. It has affinities with the flower of the Asian rock or stone, referred to by Dioscorides.” [98]


The results that were given above and which proved that potassium nitrates were known and were used in Arabic and Latin alchemy before the terms saltpetre and barud became common, diminish the importance of the dates that were considered by historians of science as land marks in the history of chemistry. The date 1240 A.D. when Ibn al-Baytar mentioned the word Barud, and the date of the first appearance of Jabir’s (Geber’s) Latin work De inventione veritatis at the end of the thirteenth century, with a recipe for nitric acid, are no longer critical dates in the history of science as we were traditionally taught.

Although the date when the word barud first appeared is not so critical now, yet it is still of interest to study the history of the word.  Until recently, Ibn al-Baytar was considered to be the first to mention the word barud in 1240. But there are indications in the literature that the word was mentioned earlier.

Al-Jawbari, Abdul Rahim ibn `Umar al-Dimashqi, wrote al-mukhtar fi kashf al-asrar wa hatk al-astar in which he warned the general public against trickery in all forms. He says in his book that he met in Egypt in 617/1219-20 Shaykh Abdul Samad the skilled manjaniq maker. This indicates that Al-Jawbari probably wrote his book between 1220 and 1222 since he presented it to the last Artuqid ruler of Amid, al-Sultan Al-Mas`ud Rukn al-Din Mawdud (ruled 1222-1231), who was deposed by al-Malik al-Kamil (ruled 1218-1238), the Ayyubid Sultan. In al-mukhtar the word barud occurred at least four times as barud thalji (snow like barud) and milh al barud (salt of barud).[99]

We have already mentioned the Karshuni Arabic manuscript that was compiled between the ninth and eleventh centuries according to Berthelot and Duval. If we accept these date limits then it antedates the work of Ibn al-Baytar. And even if we consider von Lippmann’s doubts about the dates, the Karshuni manuscript was based on material that was long established in the area before the thirteenth century as we can infer also from Al-Jawbari’s work. There are several recipes in the Karshuni manuscript that use the word barud. Here are two:

“ Item 174 - For a violent fusion – two parts pure alum; 2 burnt copper, two barud [100]; one black [vitriol][101]; two tutiya [102]; one honey; let the work be done in an enamelled glass ware (zujaja khazafiyya), [one adds] raisins and one [olive] oil; and begin work.

Item 175 – Alkali from wild rue (harmal); borax (buraq) from alkali, sal ammoniac (nushadir) from sawad [103]; pure alum from its stony minerals; barud is taken from its sources; mercury is extracted from its red ores; the two stones of arsenic from metal ores; [the two stones extracted from pyrites with a colour of fire are also employed] [104].”

From Ibn al-Baytar, we learn that in North Africa the term barud was widespread among both the general public and the physicians before he published his book in 1240. Since it requires a considerable length of time for a term to be adopted by the public, it may be concluded that the word barud was prevalent before 1240 by several decades; and one can safely assume that the word was used in al-Maghrib at least in the second half of the twelfth century. 

The same argument can be made from reading the front page of Al-furusiyyah wa al-manasib al-harbiyya (The Book of Horsemanship and Weapons of War) of Najm al-Din Hasan al-Rammah (d.695/1295). This book was written between 1270 and 1280 and it was the first book in any language to discuss potassium nitrate and the use of barud in gunpowder and in military applications. The front page states that the book was written as:

 “Instructions by the eminent master (ustadh) Najm al-Din Hasan Al-Rammah, as handed down to him by his father and his forefathers, the masters (al-ustadhin) in this art, and by those learned elders and masters from among their circles, may God be pleased with them all” [105]  

It is unmistakable from this statement that Al-Rammah was not the inventor of all the recipes on barud and gunpowder but that he had inherited this knowledge from his father and forefathers, the masters in this art, and from the masters who befriended them. The detailed information and the elaborate designs recorded in his book support the statement in the front page that this knowledge was handed down to him from generations past.  If we go back only to the generation of his grandfather, as the first of his forefathers, then we end up at the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth as the date when barud, as an ingredient for gunpowder, became prevalent in Syria where Al-Rammah was practicing his military art.

Other terms for potassium nitrate


In the Persian dictionary, Burhan Qati`, compiled in 1651 by Muhammad Al-Tabrizi the term shura in Persian is barud. [106] In modern Persian dictionaries shura is potassium nitrate. We find the word in Arabic alchemical treatises. In Sunduq al-Hikma, attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan, shura is listed among the pseudonyms that are given to the Stone (al-Hajar). [107] In distilling the Stone (al-Hajar), the distillates are called also by various pseudonyms  ma’ shuri (water of shura)


Shuraj is the older word for shura.[108] Dozy defined it as nitre.[109] In 869 A.D., the rebellion of the Zanj slaves took place in Basra against the Abbasid Caliph. These slaves were employed in the Shuraj industry on the lower Euphrates. Some modern historians interpreted Shuraj as saltpetre.[110] The word for saltpetre in the late Sanskrit is shoraka which is taken from Shuraj.[111]


Ibn al-Baytar gave a definition for Suraj and based his description of it on Dioscorides and Galen. It is a kind of foamy salt or flowers formed on rocks near the sea. [112]

Milh al-Dabbaghin (tanners salt)

Milh al-dabbaghinn (tanners salt) according to Ibn al-Baytar, is suraj.[113] Dozy also defined milh al-dabbaghin as nitre.[114]

Shabb Yamani -  misnomer for potassium nitrate

Some physicians were not able to differentiate potassium nitrates from other chemicals. We have a case here where Ibn Bakhtawayh, the physician, in his book Al-Muqaddimat (composed in 420/1029), described the freezing of water at any season by using potassium nitrate, confusing it with Shabb Yamani (Yamani Alum). Ibn Abi Usaybi`a (1203-1270), gave this information in his book `Uyun al anba’. He says:

“ He (i.e. Ibn Bakhtawayh) claimed that one takes one ratl of choice Yamani Alum, place it inside a new earthenware pot and grind it well into a fine powder; add to it six ratls of pure water; place the pot inside a tannur (oven) that is sealed with clay, until two thirds of the mixture evaporates. The remaining one third of the mixture will become thick. Place it inside a bottle and seal its aperture securely. If you desire to use it [to make ice], then get a new thaljiyya (vessel for making ice) in which you put pure water, Add to the pure water ten mithqals (ounces) of the already prepared alum water.  Let it set for one hour; it will turn into ice.”[115]

Von Kremer, and Fisher, confirmed independently that the Shabb Yamani in this case is in reality potassium nitrate, which has the property of lowering the temperature of water.[116] In the period during which Ibn-Bakhtawayh had lived, namely the tenth/eleventh century of our era, an author identified potassium nitrate by one of several labels, depending on what he thinks. It is of importance to note that as early as the tenth/eleventh century Ibn Bakhtawayh had described a process of purifying potassium nitrates by dissolving its basic components in water, and evaporating the excess water. A small amount was then taken from this concentrated substance and dissolved in the water that is to be cooled.




[1] Partington, J. R., A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder, W. Heffer & Sons, Cambridge, 1960,  reprinted  by John Hopkins University, 1999. In various places Partington gives in his book sweeping questionable statements. These are some examples: on page 22 he says, “The first definite mention of saltpetre in an Arabic work is that in Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248)”; on the same page he translates the Latin sentence “sal anatron id est sal nitri” by assuming that the word sal anatron is soda, reversing thus the real meaning of the sentence; on page 304 he says, “buraq meaning soda”, which is incorrect also.

The general notion that saltpetre was not known till the thirteenth century in Arabic alchemy and chemistry is reflected in other works on the history of chemistry. Thus R. Multhauf in The Origins of Chemistry, London, 1966, says on p. 27, “ Saltpetre, which does not appear to have been known either to Arabic or European chemists prior to the thirteenth century A.D., is found by Levey in the Nippur medical tablet of about 1100 B.C.“  This is curious, since the use of saltpetre is acknowledged to have taken place in ancient Babylon while in Arabic and Latin chemistry it is claimed to have been known only in the thirteenth century A.D.

[2]  Such as in the Karshuni manuscript. See below.

[3] Clark, W., Natural History of Nitre, London, 1670, pp. 1-2.

[4] Clark, op. cit. p. 7

[5] This discussion was taking place in the 17th century and it continued until recently. Clark op.cit, pp. 12-15 discusses this question and concludes that potassium nitrate was known under the word nitrum since the time of Pliny and before. See also p 36 of the same work.

[6] Singer, C. et al., A History of Technology, vol. II,  Oxford, 1957, pp 370-371

[7] Yasu’i, Louis Sheikho, article on mineral mines in the Ottoman Empire (in Arabic), Al-Mashriq, vol. v, issue number 17, 1902, p. 775.

[8] See The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, and the Merriam – Webster Collegiate Dictionary, under natron.

[9] Partington, op. cit., p. 303.

[10] Partington, p. 88. For the Latin text see Wood Brown, An Enquiry into the Life and Legend of Michael Scot, Edinburgh, 1897, p. 247. See also S. H. Thomson, The Texts of Michael Scot’s Ars Alchemie, Osiris, 1935, vol. 5, pp. 523-559, the three kinds of nitre are given on page 535.

[11] Partington, op. cit., p. 88

[12] Ibn Sina, Al-Qanun fi al-tibb, vol. I, Bulaq edition, 1877, offset printings in Baghdad and Beirut,  p. 376

[13] Ibn Sina, p.267

[14]  Obviously this is aphronitrum 

[15] Duval translated nitra into saltpetre, see Berthelot and Duval below.

[16] Al -Biruni, Kitab al-saydana fi al-tibb, ed. Abbas Zaryab, Tehran, 1371, pp 606-607

[17]  Obviously this is aphronitrum 

[18] Ibn al-Baytar, `Abdullah b. Ahmad al-Andalusi, Al-Jami` li Mufradat al-Adwiya wa al-Aghdhiya, vol I, Beirut, p. 125.

[19] Martinus Rulandus, A Lexicon of Alchemy, translated by A. E. Waite, reprinted by Kessinger Publishing Company, original Latin edition appeared in 1612, p. 70, item, Baurac.

[20] Rulandus, op. cit., p.32

[21] Cours de chymie contenant la manière de faire les opérations qui sont en usage dans la médecine par une méthode facile, avec des raisonnements sur chaque opérations... par Nicolas Lemery, Paris, Ed. Baron, Théodore,.. d'Houry, fils, Paris, 1757, pp. 168-169.

[22] Holmyard, “A Romance of Chemistry”, a series of articles that appeared in Chemistry and Industry, Part I, Jan. 23, 1925, pp.75-77; Part II, Jan. 30, pp.106-108; part III, March 13, 1925, pp.272-276; Part IV, March 20, 1925, pp. 300-301; Part V (printed IV by error), March 27, 1925, pp.327-328. In this series of articles Holmyard published the full text of the seventeenth century English translation of Ye Booke of Allchimye, (Sloane MS. 3697), see also Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vol.II, Columbia University Press, Fourth Printing, 1947, p. 215. I found that the translation of Lee Stavenhagen, A Testament of Alchemy, The University Press of New England, 1974, to be inferior to the one published by Holmyard. Recently (2002), Adam McLean published the English translation of Sloane MS. 3697 after modernising its English, see below.

[23] Morienus, in Manget, Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa, Geneva, 1702, I, p.514

[24] Biringuccio, Vannoccio, Pirotechnia, translated by Cyril S. Smith and Martha T. Gnudi, New York, 1959, p. 111.

[25] The Book of the Composition of Alchemy, edited by Adam McLean, Glasgow, 2002, p.22.

[26] Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, Version published 1913.               

[27] Rulandus, p.238

[28] Rulandus, p. 240

[29] Rulandus, pp. 238-239

[30] Rulandus,  p.283

[31] This word occurred as al-sabkha and as al-shiha in the various texts.

[32] Al-Razi, Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Zakariyya  b. Yahya, Kitab al-Asrar wa Sirr al Asrar, ed. Muhammad Taqi Danishpazhuh, Tehran, 1343(1964), p. 6

[33] Berthelot, M.and R. Duval, La Chimie au Moyen Age, vol. II, Paris, 1893.  p. XII. The Karshuni MS was published in Syriac script, with a translation into French by Duval. The Karshuni Arabic text was converted into Arabic script in Aleppo by the Rev. Father Bar§um on the request of the author of the present paper. The Arabic text in Arabic script is still in MS form. 

[34] Berthelot and Duval, 1893, p. 145

[35] Berthelot and Duval p. 163. See also the text above, where it was mentioned that al-Biruni correlated between the words buraq, aphronitrum with the Syriac word nitra.

[36] McVaugh, Michael, A List of Translations Made From Arabic into Latin in the Twelfth Century – Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187), Chapter 7 in  A Source Book in Medieval Science, edited by Edward Grant, Harvard University Press, 1974, p. 35-38. Thorndike (vol.1, p. 670) thought that it might have been translated by Michael Scot.

[37] Peter Bonus of Ferrara, The New Pearl of Great Price, Kessinger, Montana, USA. The “Extracts Made by Laciniius from the Lights of Lights by Rhasis” is given on pages 363-388; for salts see pp. 367-370.

[38] De Re Metallica, by Georgius Agricola, Translated by Herbert Hoover and Lou Hoover, Dover, New York, 1950; Pirotechnia, by Vannoccio Biringuccio, op. cit...(for references to saltpetre as a fluxing material in Pirotechnia see pages 136, 194, 296, 213); The Treatise on Ores and Assaying by Lazarus Ercker was translated from the German Edition of 1580 by Anneliese Grunhaldt and Cyril Stanley Smith, The University of Chicago Press, 1951.

[39] Agricola, p. 245. It must be noted that Agricola used the word halnitrum i.e. sal nitrum and not saltpetre. The translators (Hoover and Hoover), substituted the word saltpetre for halnitrum. The words nitrum or sal nitrum or sal nitri, etc. were replaced by saltpetre by several translators and publishers starting with the appearance of book printing in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This was unfortunate because this substitution had made it extremely difficult to know the exact terms used by the original authors. It made it also difficult to know the history of the development in the use of the different terms.

[40] Agricola, op. cit., p. 247

[41] Ercker defines this as an incrustation on saltpetre vats capable of being refined to give a table salt. P. 34, pp. 307-308

[42] Crude tartar.

[43] Erckert, op. cit.,  p. 81

[44] Erckert, op. cit.,  p. 207

[45]  Keynes MS18. The Latin text and English translation were given in The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, by B. J. T. Dobbs, CUP, 1975, pp.251-255.

[46] Dobbs op. cit. p. 254

[47] Lemery, Nicolas, Cours de Chymie, Paris, 1675, pp.182-184

[48] For Holmyard’s articles giving text of seventeenth century English translation see note above. McLean published this same translation, see above note.

[49] ye=the; yt.= that;

[50] Al-mizader = Al-nushadir (ammonium chloride) according to Holmyard.

[51] Jabir ibn Hayyan, Kitab al-sab`in, a facsimile edition produced by the Institute for the History of Arabic -Islamic Science, Frankfurt, edited by Fuat Sezgin,1986, from  MS Huseyin Chelebi 743, Bursa, Turkey,  p. 205. The text can be read as three times..

[52] The Latin translation of the Book of Seventy by Gerard of Cremona was published by M. Berthelot on the basis of BN manuscript number 7156; in Archeologie et histoire des sciences, Paris, 1906, reprint 1968. p.347. Sections of the Latin text from Berthelot’s book were quoted by Stapleton, H. E., Azo, R. F. & Husain, M. H. “Chemistry in `Iraq and Persia in the tenth century A.D.”, Asiatic Society of Bengal Mem., Vol 8, 1927, pp. 315-418

[53] Kitab Al Jumal al-`ishrin,  MS Huseyin Chelebi 743, Bursa, Turkey, p. 489, Maqala 13.

[54] Stpleton et al.p.355. The Latin text "De preparando  quoddam ferro secretum.” is reproduced from Berthelot: La Chimie, I. p. 198, quoting from Biblio. Nat. Ms. lat. No. 6514.

[55]  The Alchemical Works of Geber, translated into English by Richard Russell in 1678, Introduction by E.J. Holmyard, re-printed by Samuel Weiser, 1994. p. 215

[56] Russell’s translation, op cit.

[57] Stapleton et al. cited the Latin text of the Preparation of Mars where the word salt petrae occurs. And since Stapleton noticed the proximity of the Latin text to the Arabic texts of Jabir and Al-Razi he thought that the Latin translation of the Arabic word natrun into salt petrae was incorrect. Stapleton, among some others, held the fixed idea that the Arabic word natrun is not salt petrae.  In the same footnote he says that an unknown mediaeval Latin writer published De Inventione Veritatis under the name of Geber. We notice here a clear contradiction: Stapleton says on the one hand that the word natrun was translated [from Arabic] into salt petrae wrongly, and at the same time he ascribes De Inventione Veritatis to an unknown Latin writer.

[58] Jabir, Kitab al-sab`in, op. cit. p.196.

[59] Jabir, Kitab al-sab`in, op. cit. p. 329

[60] Berthelot, M. Archeologie et histoire des sciences, op. cit p. 359

[61] Lithargiry = litharge, lead monoxide.

[62] Russell, op. cit. p.215

[63] It must be noted in passing that it is probable by devoted and concerted research to relate parts of the contents of Geber’s (or Jabir’s) Latin texts to analogous texts in Jabir’s Arabic works. There is still the possibility also of finding some of the lost Arabic originals of the Latin texts. .

[64] al-Razi  K. al-asrar wa sirr al-asrar, op. cit, p. 135 and several other pages.

[65] Peter Bonus, op. cit., p. 368. As mentioned above, the Liber luminis luminum attributed to al-Razi was translated from Arabic by Gerard of Cremona. (See McVaugh, op.cit. p.38). A treatise of a similar title is attributed to Michael Scot (See Thorndike, op. cit.  vol II, p.308). It was printed by Brown in 1897 as part of a work on Michael Scot. But Thorndike presumed that it is the same as the Lumen luminum ascribed to Rasis in BN 6517. In MS Riccardian 118, folios 35v-37v the following text appears: “Incipit liber luminis luminum translatus a magistro michaele scoot philosopho.” implying that Michael Scot was not the author. (Thorndike vol II p. 308).

[66] The Karshuni MS item 33, see Berthelot and Duval, op. cit..

[67] As in the treatise of Salim al-Harrani Kitab al-Shawahid li al-hajar al-wahid British Library ADD 23418, fol.124b.  Salim was a contemporary of al-Ma’mun and was in charge of Bayt al-Hikma. About Salim, see Sezgin, F. Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums,  vol. IV , Brill, 1971, p. 272.

[68] See for example British Library MS ADD 22756, folio 114b, where we find a description of the use of natrun in the melting of iron filings.

[69] Al-Hamdani, al-Hasan ibn Ahmad, Kitab al-Jawharatayn al-`atiqatayn min al-safra’ wa al-bayda’, Arabic text edited and translated into German by Christopher Toll, Uppsala, 1968; San`a’  Arabic edition,1985. p. 132.

[70] See the footnote above on Liber Luminis luminum.

[71] Brown, G. Wood, op. cit. p. 268.

[72] See the Alchemy Web Site http://www.levity.com/alchemy/home.html for the archives of the Alchemy Academy Discussion Group moderated by Adam McLean.

[73] Adam McLean comments on the action of the resulting acid on mercury as follows: We should expect some of the mercury to have dissolved in the acid. Although mercury is not attacked by hydrochloric acid it will readily dissolve in Nitric acid.  I am not quite sure if aqua regia, which is not merely a mixture of the two acids but has a special chemical structure, will readily dissolve Mercury.

[74] Partington, op. cit., p. 87.

[75] Jabir ibn Hayyan, Kitab al-Sab`in, op. cit. pp. 341-343.

[76] Holmyard , in Science Progress, vol. 19, Jan. 1925, pp.425-426

[77] Holmyard , Alchemy, Dover edition, p. 8; Sunduq al-Hikma is MS. 303,  at Dar al Kutub, Cairo,  folios 1b-24b, (See Sezgin GAS, vol.iv, p.265.)

[78] Courtesy of Mr. Mahmud Amin al-`Alim, Cairo.

[79] Qafla is a measure of weight. In the Arabic dictionaries we read: dirham qafla. It seems that qafla is dirham.

[80] Julius Ruska, Arabische Alchimisten, reprint in 1967 of the original work of 1924, pp. 115-116

[81] Al-Hakim (386-411/996-1021), sixth Fatimid caliph; Al-Mu`izz (341-65/953-75), the fourth Fatimid caliph.

[82] Sezgin op. cit., Vol IV,  p.293-294

[83] Solution in wetness is a standard method that was described by al-Razi in K. al-asrar, op. cit. p.80. Solution of salts was a step preceding distillation for producing acids p.77

[84] Russell, The Alchemical Works of Geber, op. cit.,  pp. 223-224

[85] Russell, op. cit, p.224.

[86] Al-Kutubi, Yusuf ibn Isma`il, ma la ysa`u al tabiba jahluhu, MS Ahmadiyya 1262, folios 17b and 36b

[87] Berthelot and Duval, op. cit., the Karsh´ni manuscript, article 74 , p. 163-164

[88] Partington, op. cit., p. 315 and p. 319.

[89] Ibn al-Baytar,  op. cit, vol. I, p.41

[90] Ibn al-Baytar,  op. cit.vol. I, p. 114

[91] Ibn al-Baytar,  op. cit. vol. I, p. 206

[92] Ibn al-Baytar,  op. cit., vol. I, p. 264

[93] Al-Kutubi, op. cit.

[94] Al-Antaki Dawud ibn `Umar, Tadhkirat uli al-albab, vol. 1, Cairo, 1356 H/1937 A.D., p. 62.

[95] Anonymous, an Arabic military treatise containing, among other things, numerous formulations of gunpowder. MS Bashir Agha 411.

[96] Partington, op. cit., p. 150. Partington quotes Romocki in this case. Von Romocki, Geschichte der Explosivstoffe, 1895, I, pp. 133-78

[97] Partington, pp. 147-148

[98] Rolandus, Lexicon, p. 239.

[99] Al-Jawbari, Abdul Rahim ibn `Umar al-Dimashqi, al-mukhtar fi kashf al-asrar wa hatk al-astar, Damascus, 1302/1884, pp. 22; 26; 118.

[100] The word barud came in the Arabic text, but Duval translated barud into natron, [Berthelot and Duval, op. cit.,p. 187], which means sodium carbonate in modern European languages. This is a gross error with no explanation.

[101] The word vitriol was added in Duval’s translation, p. 187. Words between square brackets are added by Duval to the French translation.

[102] translated as antimony by Duval.

[103] Translated as soot (suie) by Duval.

[104] Berthelot and Duval, op. cit., articles 174 and 175, p. 197. This is Duval’s translation of an obscure Arabic text. The Arabic of these two items are rather poor.

[105] Al-Rammah, Najm al-Din Hasan, Al-Furusiyya wa al-manasib al-harbiyya edited with analytical introductory chapters by Ahmad Y. al-Hassan, Aleppo, 1998, p.63

[106] Tabrizi,  Burhan qati`, edited by Muhammad Mu`in, Tehran, 1951, p. 216 and p. 1308.

[107] Sunduq al-hikma, MS. Dar al-Kutub, Cairo 311, fol. 26b.

[108] Colin, G. S. in EI, item Barud.

[109] Dozy, R. Supplement aux dictionnaires arabes, vol. I. Re-printed by Libraire du Liban, 1968, p. 801.

[110] Hitti, Philip, History of the Arabs, Macmillan, 1970, p.468; also R. A. Nicholson, Literary History of the Arabs, London, 1907, p. 273. Forbes in Studies in Ancient Technology, (Brill, 1965, volume III, p. 188), says that saltpetre was known and was used in ancient Mesopotamia. It was obtained as an efflorescence of the soil in certain places where organic matter decayed. It was collected and treated to obtain the crystals of saltpetre. See also Martin Levey.  It seems that this ancient practice in these lands continued into Islamic times.

[111] Partington, op. cit., p. 215

[112] Ibn al-Baytar, op. cit., vol II, p.56.

[113] Ibn al-Baytar. Vol II, p. 458.

[114] Dozy op.cit. vol.. II, p. 618 and vol. I, p. 801.

[115] Ibn Abi Usaybi`a ,`Uyun al-anba’ fi tabaqat al- atibba’, ed. Nizar Rida, Beirut, 1965, p. 124.

[116] Partington, pp. 311-312, and note 191, p. 335.


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