Searching Out Maimonides in Spain and Morocco

On a trip to Spain and Morocco, Eric Anderson, MD, searched out traces of Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides' life. Finding the statue in Cordoba proved easy, but the streets of Fes were more challenging.

Photography by the author

The Moors occupied Spain for more than 700 years. During that time Arab architecture and culture dominated the Iberian Peninsula with one benefit for medical knowledge: much that had been discovered by the great physicians of the Greek and Roman Empires was preserved by being translated into the Arab language. Medical knowledge that could easily have been lost in the intellectual wilderness of Europe’s Middle Ages owes much for its safeguarding to Arab doctors like the Persian physician Avicenna and the Arab surgeon Albucasis and, finally, the great Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides.

Medical school classes today are so intense students have no time, nor interest, in subjects that won’t keep them on track for immediate success in the most material of medical skills.

In fact author, Abraham Verghese, MD, parlayed the success of his brilliant book Cutting For Stone (and his subsequent comments that today’s medical students weren’t even being taught how to perform a proper physical examination) into a tenured professorship in Stanford University School of Medicine.

The necessity of staying focused in medical school dominated medical schools in Britain, too, even 60 years ago. I recall how little time we gave medical history in Edinburgh in med school from 1952 to 1958. The surgeon, Douglas Guthrie, MD, who taught the history course, also wrote A History of Medicine in 1945, reprinted 1946 and 1947. He may have felt that nothing new or special would happen after those dates. Perhaps so, but a dog-eared copy of his book has become one of my favorite medical books and has stimulated an interest in medical history.

Describing his book, Guthrie declared, “Geography is so closely related to history that a map is an essential complement to a work such as this.”

His map does demonstrate where the Western World believes the years of medical progress were in the Old World but Guthrie wasn’t so Eurocentric that he wouldn’t talk about the Arab world’s ability to fill the knowledge gap between Galen, who ran the gladiator school and clinic around the late AD 100s and the most important anatomist in history, Vesalius, whose Fabrica was published in 1543. It was based at last on human dissection and finally brought anatomy out of the dark ages.

Just as Galen preserved some of the work of Hippocrates so an erudite Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides upheld what was of value in Galen’s works.

Aphorisms according to Galen by Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides (1138-1204), embodied the best of Galen’s teachings. Nevertheless, most medical historians feel Galen’s anatomy, based as it was on the Macaque monkeys (misnamed the Barbary Apes), still found in significant numbers on Gibraltar, held back medical research for 1,200 years.

Maimonides was to be one of the most gifted of Jewish philosophers, scholars and physicians of his century. The most comprehensive online information about him is in the 2002 article by Professor Fred Rosner of Mount Sinai School of Medicine. In the 12th century Cordoba in Spain was an important center of learning with more than 200,000 books in its library and more than 50 hospitals in a city with a population of a million.

Just as some might say the artist van Gogh became more famous than others because of his tortured life, medical historians could say Maimonides became more celebrated because he was treated so badly as an individual yet still survived and succeeded in life. How badly? One of the family’s moves became necessary when their rabbi was beheaded for being a Jew!

Despite his religious differences, when Maimonides moved to Cairo he was appointed physician to Saladin, the Saracen leader who fought the crusaders so often. He understood the medicine of his times: that bites became poisoned, that rabies had a long incubation period, that physical and mental health were related, and that religion and medicine could be reconciled for the patient’s benefit. He felt surgical wounds should “be kept open.” A prodigious researcher and author he wrote 10 medical text books in his lifetime, many saving the thoughts of previous physicians whose knowledge would otherwise have been lost in the illiterate centuries of Europe.

I had some preliminary traveling to do before trying to understand Moses ben Maimon. It involved studying a tract on the wall of a medieval pharmacy in Leipzig and then visiting an Arab pharmacy in the old medical school city of Montpellier, France, before I was ready to look for the statue of him in Cordoba, the city in Spain where he was born.

Cordoba, Spain

This is easier than I expect. An optional Insight Vacations tour was available on our free day out of Seville, 90 minutes or so away. Its cost of €42 each was less expensive than a train ticket with the resultant cab fares at each end of the train journey.

Furthermore, seeing the Jewish Quarter and the statue was actually part of the Insight visit to the Mesquita, the 8th century mosque considered “one of the finest monuments” built by the Moors during their occupation of Spain. Cordoba, for a moment in time, was the most magnificent city in the world.

I surreptitiously ask the local guide hired by Insight to give me a heads-up warning when the statue is close so I can get a private photograph.

I could have done all this without a guide. Google has an excellent map showing the area and as it happens all I would have had to do is follow the guitar music that greets me as I round the corner.

Maimonides was about 10 when his family had to flee Cordoba due to religious persecution. He never returned, but the statue shows him as an older person, the dignified scholar he had become.

The family sailed to Morocco. The Arab ruler there was actually more tolerant of his countrymen who now occupied Spain. They ended up in Fes where he lived until the age of 27 when, again “doomed to banishment,” the family left Fes for Egypt in 1165.

Fes, Morocco

Google Maps suggested our hotel was just a mile from a local landmark, Café Clock, which was on the same street as the former home of Maimonides. The map made it look easy. The internet is wonderful. I found from the web that the owner of Café Clock was from Yorkshire in Northern England. He prepared a note for me written in Arabic introducing me to the person now living in that very home, as he wasn’t going to be in town the day of my visit.

The day before, we are wandering with a guide through the Medina, the warren of streets, alleys and shops of the original Old City and I am realizing the streets are not identified, not even in Arabic — the few signs are confusing and local merchants have no real knowledge of areas not near them.

I am not going to find my answer to what is now becoming close to an obsession. My Insight tour director arranges a personal guide to take me to the house.

He points out as we go along the university where Maimonides taught his students. We take a taxi from the entry gate we originally came in to a gate into the Old City that tourists don’t normally use. Off we go into a bewildering maze, a labyrinth of noise, smells, donkey traffic and hurrying people.

I hasten to catch up on my guide.

“If you get lost,” he says, “Do NOT try to find me. Stop moving. Stay where you are — and I will find you.”

He is serious. I pay attention.

Although he indicates that there is a sign for the alley Café Clock is on, I realize I never would have noticed it in all the activity. Here is the wall with the slate showing that the locally named Maimounite lived here and beyond the outer door, beside the stairs, sits a local kid unaware he is sitting on history.

He doesn’t look up and we leave.

My guide had brought a medical group here a few years ago, doctors who had been allowed into the home, but he tells me there is nothing of historical or photogenic interest inside.

We leave, passing a man on a donkey with a cell phone stuck to his ear, and take a cab back to our hotel.

“Taxis are cheap in Fes,” says my guide, “but remember if you ask your cab driver if he has a driving license and he says ‘Yes,’ he may mean he has a license to drive a donkey!”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.