At the height of the Roman Empire, spice traders from the area around present-day Saudi Arabia supplied Roman dinner tables with pepper, cinnamon, and cloves in return for gold. As the power of the empire began to wane, the Arabs began to incorporate the teachings of the great Greek and Roman physicians and herbalists into their culture. From the founding of Islam in the 6th century, the Arabic world became the center of scientific and medical knowledge. By the 9th century, surgical hospitals had been built in Baghdad, as well as pharmacies that dispensed herbal medicines.
Arab physicians used hollow needles to deliver medicines and administered herbal anesthetics. The most important Arabic herbalist and physician was Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Sina (980–1037), known to the Western world as Avicenna. His Canon of Medicine became the definitive tome on herbal medicine in the Arab world, and its influence spread through Europe as Crusaders carried it back to their home countries from the Middle East; it was widely utilized as a standard medical text until the 18th century.
As early as the 7th century, Arab alchemists had developed a process for distilling rose oil, which was used to purify mosques, infuse prayer beads with fragrance, sprinkle guests as they entered houses, and flavor everything from sherbet to candy. They isolated the essential oils of other herbs, too, and through this work, aromatherapy developed as a popular medical treatment. During the Middle Ages, much of the Arab world used aromatic baths, powders, and salves to cure a variety of ills. Arabic science and herbal medicine remained highly influential throughout the Western world for hundreds of years.
The history of herbs in Europe is a grand collage of plants and traditions from all over the world. Europeans have always imported ideas about herbal medicine, cosmetics, gardening, cooking, and the plants themselves from Asia, Africa, the islands of the Pacific, and the shores of the New World. Today, travelers to Europe are as likely to stumble upon an Ayurvedic bookstore or Japanese garden as they are a French perfumery or Italian spice shop. Europe is also home to some of the world’s most famous and sought-after indigenous herbs, including lavender, oregano, rosemary, and bay.