Winter 2004 (12.4)


How to Cure a Bad Case of Nerves

Since childhood, I've heard so many stories about the unusual folk medicine treatment called "Childagh" (pronounced chil-DAGH), which many claim can reduce fear and repel the evil eye. In fact, there's a village outside of Baku - Mashtagha - that is famous for its cures using Childagh treatment. Many people visit these healers who are called "Childaghchi" (pronounced chil-dagh-CHI).

I've heard of cases where Childagh was used to cure people of nervous disorders. Some people who have been involved in serious traffic accidents were unable to relax and sleep until they were treated by the childaghchi. It's not just uneducated and illiterate people who seek such treatment. Highly educated people also visit these folk practitioners though they may not always admit it to their friends. Of course, some people are skeptical of such practices. But there are many Azerbaijanis who are curious about folk medicine, as well as mystical and other parapsychological phenomena.

Who are these people who practice Childagh? Some would suggest that they are somewhat like Chinese specialists who practice acupuncture. The basis for both treatments seems to be in stimulating nerve paths in the body.

Above: Dr. Farid Alakbarli, author of article, receiving Childagh treatment from Eldar
Alamdar in Mashtagha village of Baku.

Little is known about the history of this treatment in Azerbaijan. For example, nobody knows for sure when or where this method of treatment appeared here. Perhaps, it came from China during the Mongolian invasion in the 13th century. Over time, it has evolved into the practice as we know it today.

Since I am a medical historian, I decided to seek out a Childagh healer to try to understand more about this treatment. At the time, I really can't say that I was feeling particularly nervous in terms of my own health or that I really needed any treatment, though I had noticed that I had been a bit more tired than usual.

So, one day, I headed out to Mashtagha, this ancient settlement outside of Baku not far from the sea. It took me about 30 to 40 minutes to get there by bus. This little town is known for fortresses and various other architectural monuments that date back to the 12th century. However, in early years of the 20th century, these fortresses were destroyed. Not long ago, a modern mosque was constructed in Mashtagha. It lays claim to the tallest minaret in Azerbaijan. This important landmark can be seen in neighboring villages. Some scientists believe that the name "Mashtagha" derives from "maskata" - people known as "Maskuts" or Skythians who lived here 2.5 thousand years ago.

During the era of Shirvanshahs (9th - 16th centuries), Mashtagha was an important defense post. After the collapse of the Shirvan state and during the period of independent Baku khanate (prior to 1804), it was the second largest settlement in the region, after Baku. In fact, there have been times in history when the population of Mashtagha was even greater than Baku's. In the 18th century, the khans of Baku built summer residences and palaces in Mashtagha. Most townsmen were merchants, sailors, craftsmen and peasants. In addition to Azeri, some Mashtagha residents speak Tat, a language related to Persian. In Soviet times, Mashtagha became known for its large psychiatric clinic. In Baku folklore and slang "a Mashtagha" meant "somebody who was a bit crazy". With the extensive growth of Baku's population in the 19th ­20th century, Mashtagha lost its importance. Now, this town with its population of about 18,000 is dwarfed by Baku.

Upon arrival, I asked people that I met in the streets where I might find someone who could treat me with Childagh. I had not made any prior arrangements and was taking the chance that I could easily find someone. People immediately volunteered the names of various folk healers and pointed me in their direction.

I soon found myself walking down the lane towards one of those modest Absheron homes - the usual, one-story building with a flat roof and a little yard surrounded by a high stone wall. I knocked on an old wooden door. It took several minutes before anyone responded. Finally, someone came and unhooked the metal latch. The door opened. A young guy with a rather unexpressive face opened the door. It seemed he was tired of dealing with so many visitors every day. He directed me: "Take off your shoes and come in."

I stepped inside, took off my shoes and followed him into the living room. In old times, floors used to be entirely covered with carpets, and people walked around the house barefooted, or just wearing socks or a type of slippers, which go by a rather funny name - shap-shap - a name derived from the sound the slippers make when you walk. There were no shap-shaps awaiting me at the entrance. So I entered just wearing socks.

The room was dark. It had a low ceiling. Carpets hung from the walls, as is the tradition - a practice, which serves both to decorate the walls as well as to keep the house warm in winter. Here and there, "goz munjughu" (evil eyes) were hanging on the walls - those large amulets made of blue glass with a white stone in its center. They are supposed to ward off the evil eye. There were portraits of some of the Shiite imams, including Imam Ali along with images of imams who had died in Karbala [Iraq] many centuries ago. There was also a photo of Mecca.

The floor was covered with Oriental carpets. They looked quite old to me with their faded colors of wool that had been dyed from natural plants.

As it was really quite dark, it took me awhile before I could discern a woman, perhaps in her late 60s, sitting on her knees on the floor in a corner of the room. She wore a dark print dress and her head was covered with a scarf (chador) of the same fabric.

A large candle was the only source of light in the room. According to ancient rituals, Childagh practitioners don't use electric lights when treating patients. Gradually as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I could make out the woman's rather stern brown complexioned face with its many deep wrinkles.

There were three other visitors in the room as well - a woman with her two children. One child had both eyes covered with a bandage. Perhaps, the child was blind; I wasn't sure. The mother offered a few bills to the young man who had let me in at the door. He took the money, spit on his fingers, counted the bills and tucked them into his pocket. Then, the mother took her children and left. I remained alone in the presence of the Childagh healer - just me and her son.

Left: Childagh cigarettes made of dried wormwood leaves. Photo: Farid Alakbarli.

The woman looked at me with her wide, hypnotic eyes and beckoned: "Come closer, my son!" In her hands, she held what seemed to be a very large cigar. It was lit and the burning herbs gave off a pleasant aroma. I knew that the cigarette was not made of tobacco. It was a special cigar, the primary tool used in this healing procedure of Childagh.

The situation fascinated me even though I already knew what to expect. In medical terms, this process is known as "cauterization"; that is, "burning". The cigarette was made from the aromatic herb called wormwood of the Absinthian species. I knew that she would lightly touch the cigarette to certain nerve endings over my body. Many people recognize the effectiveness of Childagh to treat excessive fear and stress. I was eager to learn what I could about this treatment. I explained to her that I was a scientist and hoped that she would help me understand the healing process.

She readily offered to help me but asked me not to reveal her real name. "Many people don't believe in Childagh," she explained. "Don't use my name or my healing power might be diminished if people start to criticize me and speak badly of me". So for the sake of this article, let me proceed by giving her the name, Masma Nana (Grandmother Masma).

"How did you learn this treatment? Who was your teacher?" I wondered.

She removed the chewing gum from her mouth and replied: "Childagh is sacred knowledge passed down from generation to generation. I was born into a family of Seyids, who are direct descendents of Prophet Mahammad. Many people in Mashtagha village immigrated here from Arabia. That's why our skin is darker and our hair kinky."

I wondered if her treatment differed from those of other Childaghchis. She insisted that she alone had the "Dragon's Eye." She got up and went over to a large old chest, opened it and took out a small amulet with Arabic inscription. She explained that it had been made of clay taken from the grave of Mir Movsum Agha, the most prominent saint of the Absheron Peninsula. [Mir Movsum is sometimes known as the "At Agha", which literally means "Flesh Man" because of the physical condition of his decalcified bones. During his lifetime, people came to him for healing. He died in 1950 and recently a large mausoleum has been erected in Shuvalan village to his memory. Hundreds of people flock every day to visit his grave inside the mausoleum.]

Masma Nana went on. "We call this amulet 'Ajdaha gozu' (Dragon's eye). If women make a wish it will come true if they look at this amulet and repeat this prayer:

May there be a wall.
May there be a wall.
With nails on four sides.
This is the sword of Ali in my hands.
May Allah be my support.

Masma Nana went on to describe that there were no other amulets like hers. She had organized to sell photos of it, insisting that the photo was as effective as the real thing if it were displayed on a golden plate, a crystal teacup, or worn around someone's neck.

I asked her permission to take a photo of the amulet. She consented. Of course, I knew that magic cannot treat or fulfill wishes. But such amulets provide important resources from the scientific point of view to study belief systems represented in Azerbaijani folklore and mythology.

Masma Nana told me that the special prayers and incantations that accompany Childagh were sacred formulas that enabled her to treat conditions such as fear, anxiety, panic and stress-related symptoms. "With them, we are able to ward off evil and malicious forces. Come closer to me, I will treat you!"

"Don't be afraid, it won't hurt you!" she said calmly. I approached and sat before her on the carpet. Her son stood in front of her, holding a large, shining knife in his hands. I didn't understand why he needed a knife, as I had never heard of Childagh being performed with a knife. I'll admit I became a bit suspicious. But everything became clear when Masma Nana took a freshly rolled cigarette from her pocket. This cigarette was filled with dry wormwood leaves. Her son took it, cut off the tip with his knife, and lit it. The fragrant smell soon dispersed through the room.

Masma Nana asked me to lift up my shirt and roll up my sleeves. Then, her brown wrinkled face took on the appearance of a ritualized mask much like you would expect of a shaman in some rainforest. She pressed the cigarette directly against my skin, at specific points on my forehead, arms, elbows, chest, stomach and feet. Her movements were extremely quick. She pressed the cigarette against my skin for a mere split second. I felt only a slight burning sensation.

During the entire process, she was totally focused, serious and silent except for the ritualistic prayers that she repeated - none of which I understood. They sounded to me like nonsense words - a combination of meaningless syllables. I don't know what language she was using. It wasn't Arabic, Persian or Azeri - all of which I know. Perhaps, I'm wrong. Maybe, it really was an unknown secret language.

And that was it! It was all over in about 3 to 5 minutes. I asked how much I owed for the treatment. She told me "one Shirvan" (10,000 manats). It was a very reasonable charge - about $2. I paid her son and left.

Just recently as I was working on this article, I decided to go again to Mastagha and see what else I could learn about Childagh practitioners. I quickly found another one, who I learned is the most famous one in all of Mashtagha.

Eldar Alamdar lives in the similar two-storied house, one of the rooms has been allocated for the treatment of men; the other, for women. I entered the room for men. It was a small modest room. Its floor was covered with carpets. There was a table with the wormwood cigarettes.

Alamdar says that his family has been practicing Childagh for four generations. The men treat men and women treat women. All members of the family are Childagchi with the exception of a cousin by the name of Aghasalim Childagh who sings "meykhana" (like rap).

I asked Eldar how many Childagchi live in Mashtagha. He noted that there were many people who claimed to be Childagh practitioners but that they really don't know all the secrets of this art, which is held by his family. None of these people are real Childagchi, according to Eldar.

Eldar does not believe that Childagh originated in China. He considers it to be sacred knowledge, related to Islam and Koran. He told me that many medical doctors send their patients to him to treat for stress and nervousness.
Only people who really don't know the power of Childagh think that it can only be used to deal with cases of fear and stress according to Eldar. He is convinced that this treatment tones up entire organism and facilitates more energy. Eldar tried to convince me that Childagh is even better than acupuncture.

I wanted to compare Eldar's treatment with the earlier treatment that Masma Nana had given me. I asked Eldear how much it would cost me. He appeared offended by my question.

"We never ask a specific sum as we serve God. Money is not important for us. Everyone donates as much as he wants. You don't even have to pay at all, if you are not satisfied with the results of the treatment."

I told Eldar that I was a medical researcher and had come to learn more about his method. Then, I sat down on the nearby bench and Eldar quickly performed the Childagh treatment on me, touching certain points on my skin with a special cigarette. There were no differences with the séance of Masma nana.

I offered 10,000 to him. However, Eldar categorically refused my money. "Hide your money!" he insisted. "It would be a shame to take it. You're a scientist, a researcher. Scholars are divine people. They serve the Truth and increase knowledge in the world. How can I take money from you?"

All my attempts to pay him failed. In the end, I thanked him and left. Despite how skeptical I had been about such practices having any therapeutic value, I noticed that my mood did change and, indeed, I was feeling much more energetic. It led me to believe that Childagh really had the possibility of producing therapeutic results despite the fact that I cannot explain it scientifically. I'm convinced that something really does work with Childagh and it's not just auto-suggestive. Its power is definitely related to a specific form of reflex therapy or reflexology. Future investigations may determine what mechanism really is at work in this treatment that folks claim is so effective.

Dr. Farid Alakbarli works at the Institute of Manuscripts in Baku, serving as Chair of the Department of Information and Translation. He holds doctorates in Historical Sciences and biology. His specialty is History of Medicine, which he researches from medieval Azerbaijani manuscripts in the Arabic script. Search "Farid Alakbarov" at and also for more than 30 articles published in Azerbaijan International. Contact him:

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