Introduction

The Eastern region of the Mediterranean (Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine) contains at least 3600 plant species of which about 800 are mentioned in medieval medical books for their use as medicinal herbs or botanical pesticides. Recent ethnopharmacological studies have demonstrated that more than 450 medicinal plants are still employed in treating human diseases and are sold or traded in marketplaces in the Mediterranean region and internationally. Usually, herbal-based remedies are administered by practitioners in a standard decoction prepared by boiling plant parts in hot water, infusion in water or oil, or inhalation of essential oils. Other forms of administration include juice, syrup, roasted material, fresh salad or fruit, macerated plant parts, oil, milky sap, poultice, and paste.

Growing public interest in herbal-based remedies is supported by the belief that they are prepared according to the principles of Greco-Arab and Islamic medicine. As a result, many purveyors and institutions of Arab–Islamic herbal medicine are named after the famous scholars Avicenna, Rhazes, Ibn al-Baitar, Al-Zahrawi, or Al-Antaki. Parallel to the increase in the use and popularity of herbal-based therapies, there has been much recent research into the efficacy, the safety, and the practice of medicinal plants, particularly in the Middle East. Some of these plant species have been investigated and their bioactive ingredients extracted to treat various human diseases. In this regard, researchers have published numerous articles and review papers in peer-reviewed journals on this subject.

These articles highlight the importance of traditional Arab-Islamic medicine and indicate that the eastern region of the Mediterranean is distinguished from other regions by a rich inventory of herbal-based medicines. As a result, several herbal-based preparations have been tested in cooperation with physicians and have started to be routinely prescribed in Europe and in Mediterranean countries.

Ethnopharmacological studies conducted by different groups in the Middle East support the necessity of proper handling of herbal medicine, which requires both national regulation and licensing in order to ensure the supply of appropriate and safe products. Today there are increasing efforts toward the preservation of medicinal plant resources through an increasing emphasis on conservation by way of botanical gardens, greenhouses, herbariums, tissue culture propagation, and seed banks. In addition, several national and international conferences on the current state of research and practice of herbal medicine were organized during the last few years. For instance, in 2007 the authors of this book organized the first regional conference on Arab-Islamic medicine in Amman, Jordan. The conference was designed for research scientists, local and regional traditional healers, international pharmaceutical and medical research companies, medical doctors, ethnopharmacologists, and other parties interested in the study of traditional Arabic and Islamic medicine. Discussions touched on the historical and cultural aspects of Arab-Islamic medicine and its contribution to modern medicine and to human well-being. The latest scientific research on medicinal and aromatic plants, pharmaceutical research, clinical trials, and international legislation and intellectual property rights on Arab-Islamic medicinal plants of the region were also discussed. The conference highlighted the importance of exploring the economically sustainable aspects of Arab-Islamic medical heritage and encouraged investment to develop pharmaceutical products based on this medical system.

On the basis of the results obtained in our recent survey and other ethnopharmacological potential studies, this chapter provides an overview of the herbal remedies in the Mediterranean. The impact that Arab herbal medicine has on providing general health care for the people in the Mediterranean is also discussed.