Ancient use (4200 BCE - 800 CE)
At least 17 finds of Papaver somniferum from Neolithic settlements have been reported throughout Switzerland, Germany, and Spain, including the placement of large numbers of poppy seed capsules at a burial site (the "Cueva de los Murciélagos", or "Bat cave," in Spain), which have been carbon-14 dated to 4200 BCE Numerous finds of Papaver somniferum or Papaver setigerum from Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements have also been reported.
The first known cultivation of opium poppies was in Mesopotamia, approximately 3400 BCE, by Sumerians, who called the plant "Hul Gil" ("joy plant"). Tablets found at Nippur, a Sumerian spiritual center south of Baghdad, described the collection of poppy juice in the morning and its use in production of opium. Cultivation continued in the Middle East by the Assyrians, who also collected poppy juice in the morning after scoring the pods with an iron scoop; they called the juice aratpa-pal, possibly the root of Papaver. Opium production continued under the Babylonians.
Opium was used with poison hemlock to put people quickly and painlessly to death, but it was also used in medicine.
In Egypt, the Ebers Papyrus, ca. 1500 BCE, describes a way to "stop a crying child" using grains of the poppy-plant strained to a pulp. Spongia somnifera, sponges soaked in opium, were used during surgery. The Egyptians cultivated opium thebaicum in famous poppy fields around 1300 BCE.
Opium was traded from Egypt by the Phoenicians and Minoans to destinations around the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece, Carthage, and Europe. By 1100 BCE, opium was cultivated on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where surgical-quality knives were used to score the poppy pods, and opium was cultivated, traded, and smoked. Opium was also mentioned after the Persian conquest of Assyria and Babylonia in the 6-th century BCE
From the earliest finds, opium has appeared to have ritual significance, and anthropologists have speculated that ancient priests may have used the drug as a proof of healing power. In Egypt, the use of opium was generally restricted to priests, magicians, and warriors, its invention credited to Thoth, and it was said to have been given by Isis to Ra as treatment for a headache. A figure of the Minoan "goddess of the narcotics", wearing a crown of three opium poppies, ca. 1300 BCE, was recovered from the Sanctuary of Gazi, Crete, together with a simple smoking apparatus.
The Greek gods Hypnos (Sleep), Nyx (Night), and Thanatos (Death) were depicted wreathed in poppies or holding poppies. Poppies also frequently adorned statues of Apollo, Asklepios, Pluto, Demeter, Aphrodite, Kybele and Isis, symbolizing nocturnal oblivion.
Islamic Societies (500-1500 CE)
As the power of the Roman Empire declined, the lands to the south, and east of the Mediterranean sea became incorporated into the Islamic Empire, which assembled the finest libraries and the most skilled physicians of the era. Many Muslims believe that the hadith of al-Bukhari prohibits every intoxicating substance as haraam, but the use of intoxicants in medicine has been widely permitted by Scholars, even though it is prohibited under Islamic Law.
Dioscorides' 5-volume "De Materia Medica", the precursor of pharmacopoeias, remained in use (with some improvements in Arabic versions) from the 1st to 16th centuries and described opium and the wide range of uses prevalent in the ancient world.
Somewhere between 400 and 1200 CE, Arab traders introduced opium to China.
The Persian physician Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (Rhazes) (845-930 CE) maintained a laboratory and school in Baghdad, and was a student and critic of Galen, made use of opium in anesthesia and recommended its use for the treatment of melancholy in "Fi ma-yahdara al-tabib (In the Absence of a Physician"), a home medical manual directed toward ordinary citizens for self-treatment, if a doctor was not available.
The renowned Andalusian ophthalmologic surgeon Abu al-Qasim Ammar (936-1013 CE) relied on opium and mandrake as surgical anaesthetics and wrote a treatise, "al-Tasrif", that influenced medical thought well into the 16-th century.
The Persian physician Abū ‘Alī al-Husayn ibn Sina (Avicenna) described opium as the most powerful of the stupefacients, by comparison with mandrake and other highly effective herbs, in "The Canon of Medicine". This classic text was translated into Latin in 1175 and later into many other languages and remained authoritative into the 17-th century.
Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu used opium in the 14-th century Ottoman Empire to treat migraine headaches, sciatica, and other painful ailments.
Reintroduction to Western medicine
Opium became stigmatized in Europe during the Inquisition as a Middle Eastern influence and became a taboo subject in Europe from approximately 1300 to 1500 CE. Manuscripts of Pseudo-Apuleius's 5-th-century work from the 10-th and 11-th centuries refer to the use of wild poppy Papaver agreste or Papaver rhoeas (identified as Papaver silvaticum) instead of Papaver somniferum for inducing sleep and relieving pain.
The use of Paracelsus' laudanum was introduced to Western medicine in 1527, when Philip Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, better known by the name Paracelsus, returned from his wanderings in Arabia with a famous sword, within the pommel of which he kept "Stones of Immortality" compounded from opium thebaicum, citrus juice, and "quintessence of gold." The name "Paracelsus" was a pseudonym signifying him the equal or better of Aulus Cornelius Celsus, whose text, which described the use of opium or a similar preparation, had recently been translated and reintroduced to medieval Europe.
"The Canon of Medicine", the standard medical textbook that Paracelsus burned in a public bonfire 3 weeks after being appointed professor at the University of Basel, also described the use of opium, though many Latin translations were of poor quality. Laudanum was originally the 16-th-century term for a medicine associated with a particular physician that was widely well-regarded, but became standardized as "tincture of opium," a solution of opium in ethyl alcohol, which Paracelsus has been credited with developing. During his lifetime, Paracelsus was viewed as an adventurer who challenged the theories and mercenary motives of contemporary medicine with dangerous chemical therapies, but his therapies marked a turning point in Western medicine.
In the 17-th century laudanum was recommended for pain, sleeplessness, and diarrhea by Thomas Sydenham, the renowned "father of English medicine" or "English Hippocrates," to whom is attributed the quote: "Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium."
Use of opium as a cure-all was reflected in the formulation of mithridatium described in the 1728 Chambers "Cyclopedia", which included true opium in the mixture. Subsequently, laudanum became the basis of many popular patent medicines of the nineteenth century.
The standard medical use of opium persisted well into the 19-th century. U.S. president William Henry Harrison was treated with opium in 1841, and in the American Civil War, the Union Army used 2.8 million ounces of opium tincture and powder and about 500,000 opium pills. During this time of popularity, users called opium "God's Own Medicine".
The most important reason for the increase in opiate consumption in the US during the 19th century was the prescribing and dispensing of legal opiates by physicians and pharmacist to women with ”female problems” (mostly to relieve painful menstruation. Between 150,000 and 200,000 opiate addicts lived in the United States in the late 19th century and between 2/3 and 3/4 of these addicts were women.
Recreational use in Islamic societies
In Islamic societies, opium is said to have been used for recreational purposes from the 14-th century onwards. Testimonies of historians, diplomats, religious scholars, intellectuals and travellers, Ottoman and European, confirm that, from the 16th to the 19th century, Anatolian opium was eaten in Constantinople as much as it was exported to Europe.
From eating it, dervishes drew ecstasy, soldiers courage, dignitaries and people bliss and voluptuousness. It is not only to the pleasures of coffee and tulips that the Ottomans initiated Europe. It was also Turkey which, long before China, supplied the West with opium. In his "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater" (1821, p. 188), it is still about Ottoman, not Chinese, addicts that Thomas de Quincey writes: "I question whether any Turk, of all that ever entered the paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure I had".
Extensive textual and pictural sources also show that poppy cultivation and opium consumption were widespread in Safavid Iran and Moghol India. Modern day Iran has the largest number of opium smokers in the world.