The Rauwolff herbarium (1573-1575): useful plants in 16th century Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon.


Historical plant collections not only represent physical evidence of species’ occurrence at a particular time and place, they also shed light on the scientific interest of colonial powers and their search for economically promising plants during the last centuries. The treasure room of Naturalis houses a large bound book, containing some 200 dried plant specimens, collected by the German doctor and botanist Leonhard Rauwolff in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Palestina from 1573 to 1574. On his long journey by horseback, camel and boat from Aleppo to Bagdad, Rauwolff described the natural vegetation along the Euphrates River, the vegetables and fruits grown in gardens and sold in city Bazars, and the spices and medicines transported by “Greeks, Armenians, Georgians, Arabians, Persians and Indians, which come and go daily with their caravans”. Although Rauwolff's travel account of his trip to the "Levant and Mesopotamia" became a bestseller, the herbarium and the associated, handwritten information on local plant names and uses has never been thoroughly studied.
To capture the scientific value of the Rauwolff herbarium, we will identify all its specimens and translate the accompanying German texts. How do the plant species in the Rauwolff herbarium match with his botanical drawings and travel account? Are local names and plant uses documented in 1574 by Rauwolff still known in the Near East today? We expect that medicinal plants preserved in the herbarium are not represented as botanical drawings or discussed in the travel account, as they were collected for secret, commercial purposes. We further hypothesize that the ethnobotanical knowledge for cultivated species still exists in the Near East, but for the wild species it is probably lost. We will test our hypothesis by studying recent literature on plant use in the Near East.
Once the plants are properly identified, the texts translated, and the digital images published online, this project will disclose a nearly 500-year old scientific masterpiece to botanists, historians of science, agriculture and pharmacy, ethnobotanists and historians of the Near East.
In a time when Syria’s cultural artefacts are rapidly being destroyed, we feel the moral duty to make this unique cultural and natural history object digitally available to the public: not only to the scientific world, but also to the citizens of Syria and their diaspora. Ethnobotanical fieldwork will not be possible for the coming years in this region. The plant names and uses in the Rauwolff collections represent a multicultural society that no longer exists in Syria or its surroundings. This project will reveal a hidden part of the natural and cultural history of the Near East.
To study the plants, vernacular names and uses in this unique ethnobotanical treasure, we would like to invite Dr. Abdolbaset Ghorbani Dahaneh, an Iranian ethnobotanist from Turkmen descent. He has ample research experience in ethnobotany in the Near East, an impressive publication record, and is fluent in German, Arab, Turkish, English and Persian. Dr. Ghorbani works currently at Uppsala University in a research project on Iranian orchid conservation.


Project number


Main applicant

Prof. dr. T.R. van Andel

Affiliated with

Naturalis Biodiversity Center


01/09/2016 to 04/09/2017