History of Science and Technology in Islam

A Brief Note

Reflux Distillation in Jabir’s Alchemy In the eighth century

We quite often encounter in Jabir ibn Hayyan’s alchemical works descriptions of distillation methods. We take these as for granted. Jabir refers in some of his descriptions to distillation by using myrtle rods or bamboo rods. Readers did not try to investigate these distillations assuming that they refer to non-physical mystical alchemical matters.

I was wondering for some time about Jabir’s distillations through myrtle and bamboo rods and I venture to give here these distillations their true physical explanation.

What made readers abstain from giving Jabir’s distillation through bamboo or myrtle rods their true explanation is that the concept of reflux distillation or rectification is a modern one and readers did not dare to go back to the era of Jabir to interpret his bamboo and myrtle distillations as a an early form of the modern methods of reflux or rectifications.

In this brief note we mention only very few of Jabir’s descriptions of distillation through myrtle and bamboo rods. We give only some of the descriptions in the Book of Seventy. See the facsimile copy of MS. Huseyin Celebi No 743 published in 1986 by Fuat Sezgin pp.33- 34 , 54, 222 , 223, 232. 233 and 238 – 239. We shall give here the description from Kitab al-Muna in the Book of Seventy, pp. 33-34:

" ثم ا صبب الماء الذي قطرته ثلاث مرات وهو الماء الاول فاصببه في القرعة واجعل في القرعة من قضبان الخيزران ثلاث قضبان او اربع بقدر ما يسع الثقب الذي بين القرعتين ولتكن القضبان مشدودة محشي بينها مشاقة او خرق حتى لا يخرج البخار إلا من القضبان فقط فاعرف ذلك. ثم ركب عليها انبيقا ؛ وأوقد عليها باليبوسة وعلق القابلة ثم اوقد حتى يقطر الماء كله من القضبان الى الانبيق ويجري الى القابلة فإذا قطر كله فاجمعه فهذا يجزيه والجيد ان يكون هذا التقطير لهذا الماء في هذه الالة والقضبان ثلاث مرات فانه كلما قطر كان اجود له لأنه كلما قطر صفا وكلما صفا كان اجود لانا انما نقطره لكي يصفو من كدره وأوساخه فهذا قصدنا."

“Then pour the water that you have distilled three times previously which is the First Water, inside the cucurpit. Insert in the cucurbit three or four rods of bamboo according to the size of the aperture between the two cucurbits. Let the rods be tightened by cramming in between wads of linen, cotton or rags so that vapours cannot exit except from between the rods, know this. Then place on it an alembic. Heat by dry fire until all water had been distilled through the rods into the alembic and flows to the qabila. When all of it had been distilled collect it and this will be adequate; but the better procedure is to distill this water using the same distillation apparatus with rods three times since it becomes purer with each distillation and it becomes of purer in quality. When it becomes purer it becomes better since our purpose is to purify it from its turbidity and dirt. “


We meet here a reflux distillation using a single sieve tray made from bamboo rods. The vapours should pass through the rods only. And since this is very early reflux equipment, the desired purity will not be achieved by a single distillation only; hence Jabir is suggesting the repetition of the procedure three times. This can be equivalent to using a reflux apparatus with three sieve trays.

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