The word alembic comes from the Greek ambix, meaning pot or cup. Over the centuries, the Arabic language adopted the word and turned it into al – imbiq, eventually giving it the meaning of a vessel for distilling.
The story of the alembic still began with an advanced and highly organised ancient civilisation: that of Mesopotamia. In Tepe Gawra, in the upper valley of the Tigris and 20 km east of Mosul (Iraq), fragments of a rudimentary alembic dating from about the 2nd century BC were found, while another one, also dating from about the 2nd century BC, was found in an area corresponding to the present-day Pakistan.
The first alembic made must have been very simple: a pot for distilling, also called a cucurbit, was placed over the fire, surmounted by a dome called a capital or helmet. Connected to this was a spout used to condense the vapours generated by the heat.
The Mesopotamian civilisation knew the art of distilling, but the first historically recorded alembic is mentioned in a manuscript in the St. Mark’s Library, Venice. This alembic takes the name of Egypt’s Cleopatra, who described it in the 2nd century BC, and is known by the name of Cleopatra’s Chrysopoeia. It was most probably used to make balsams and essences.