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Amongst many other accomplishments, the Egyptians were adept in working metals and minerals.The monumental grandeur of the Pyramids and the exquisite workmanship of the golden mask of Tutankhamen are among the supreme cultural icons of the ancient world.

The archetypal figure of Hermes Trismegistos - 'thrice-great Hermes', the patron of alchemy and other hermetic arts and sciences - combines the attributes of the Egyptian god Thoth with those of Hermes, his nearest Greek equivalent.

On the Mediterranean coast of Africa near the Nile delta, the Graeco-Egyptian city of Alexandria grew to become the cultural hub of the Hellenistic world, the centre of many branches of learning and the meeting-place of eastern, western and old Egyptian creeds and practices.

The dialogue between King Khalid and the sage Marianus quoted above comes from one of the first alchemical treatises to be translated from Arabic into Latin.

During the 13th century, European adepts began writing original alchemical works instead of merely adapting Arabic and Greek texts.

It is difficult, however, to think of a modern equivalent to a question like 'Will I attain the Philosopher's Stone?

' It is a sharp reminder that Lilly's world was not like our own in every respect.

According to one version of its etymology, our word 'alchemy' comes from the Arabic al-kimiya, which in turn is said to be derived from the ancient Egyptian kme - a reference both to the fertile 'black earth' of the Nile valley and to the dark, primal matter which the alchemist sought to bring to perfection.

Like astrology, knowledge of alchemy filtered into medieval Europe through Moorish centres of learning in Spain.

They had copies of the mysterious images from the Book of Abraham painted onto an arch in the Churchyard of the Holy Innocents in Paris, which remained until the middle of the 18th century.

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