Winter 2004 (12.4)
Cures through the Ages
Lion Hearts, Rhinoceros Horn and Wolf Paws
It's very important
to make the distinction between Folk Medicine and ancient professional
medicine. Folk medicine is treatment that is carried out by folk
practitioners, not doctors or professional healers. Secrets of
folk medicine are passed down from generation to generation,
from parents to children and then to their grandchildren. Folk
healers (shamans) have their own special knowledge and skills
in treating disease; they aren't graduates from universities
and they don't rely on textbooks or other written sources.
The professional medicine of medieval Azerbaijan was a scholarly
system that was studied in medieval universities (madrasa) and
based upon treatises by such erudite physicians as Avicenna (Ibn
Sina, 980 - 1037) and other prominent medieval doctors of the
Middle East. Their ideas were rooted in scientific observations
based on ancient Greek medicine set forth by Hippocrates and
Galen. Medicine of medieval Azerbaijan was similar to the Greek-Arabic
or Islamic medicine.
Professional doctors in those times were educated and wealthy.
They usually lived in cities. Some became famous as court physicians
in palaces of kings and governors. For example, the distinguished
physician Yusif Ibn Ismayil (also known as Ibn Kabir) was born
in the city of Khoy in Southern Azerbaijan (now Iran), but he
later left for Baghdad where he became a distinguished physician.
In 1311, he wrote The Baghdad Collection - one of the most famous
pharmaceutical books of the Muslim East - in which he cited Avicenna,
Razes (Razi), Galen and Hippocrates.
In contrast, common people of the Middle East, especially illiterate
peasants in villages, had no idea about Avicenna and Hippocrates.
Despite the fact that there were major hospitals in Tabriz, Ganja,
Shamakhi and other medieval cities of Azerbaijan, professional
medical care was not available in villages. Therefore, people
tried to benefit from the knowledge of folk medicine, which was
both widespread and inexpensive.
Left: Illustration of a pharmacist collecting
fruit from a balsam tree as painted in the 14th century medical
manuscript, Ikhtiyarati-Badii. Courtesy: Baku Institute of Manuscripts.
medicine treatment in Azerbaijan was called Turkahara (Turkic
treatment). This procedure was well known among Turkic tribes
living in the region of Azerbaijan. It consisted of various methods
including magic, medicinal plants, folk surgery and massage.
Evidence for Turkachara treatment in medieval Azerbaijani folklore
exists in various sources such as Kitabi Dada Gorgud (Book of
My Grandfather Gorgud). This oral epic predates its written form
of the 11th century and preserves traces of ancient Turkic folk
In Dada Gorgud, we read about the 40 shapely girls, who went
throughout the mountains to gather flowers which, in turn, were
soaked in milk and prepared as an unguent. The Azerbaijan folk
poetry genre known as "bayati" describes medicinal
herbs that were used by people in their daily lives. One of the
poems mentions a person who can't find "yarpiz" (pennyroyal,
water mint, Mentha pulegium). This leads us to conclude that
in earlier times these species of mint were used in folk medicine
to treat wounds. Modern field research also confirms that villagers
still use yarpiz as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic
remedy. In addition, this herb promotes digestion and is good
for the stomach. It also has the ability to draw pus from wounds.
Indeed, yarpiz was one of the most famous herbs of Azerbaijani
folk medicine. Mirza Fatali Akhundov, founder of Azerbaijani
drama (19th century), refers to yarpiz in his famous play, The
Story of Monsieur Jordan, a Doctor, and Darvish Mastali-Shah,
a Famous Magician (Hekayati Musyo Jordan Hakimi-Nabatat va Darvish
Mastali-Shah-Jadukuni Mashur). One of the characters, the French
botanist Monsieur Jordan visits the Karabakh region to study
local fauna. He discovers that yarpiz is very popular among the
local population. The Azerbaijan Film Studio produced a film
based on this play, "Darvish Explodes Paris" (Darvish
Parisi Dagidir) where the famous Russian actor Sergey Yurskiy
played Jordan. "It's 'yarpiz'," says an Azerbaijani,
stretching out his hand with the healing herb to the French botanist.
"What's 'yarpiz'? I don't know 'yarpiz'. It's Mentha pulegium!"
replied the botanist who preferred using Latin names for herbs.
Today, pennyroyal is used both in folk medicine, as well as in
cuisine. "Dovga", made from yogurt and greens such
as pennyroyal, is considered to be good for digestion and for
alleviating intestinal colic. Similar to peppermint, it is also
eaten as a fresh table green. Of course, not only is pennyroyal
used in Azerbaijani folk medicine, modern field research shows
that at least 800 species of herbs were used in folk medicine.
The most commonly used herb is thyme. The entire upper part of
this plant (stem, flowers and leaves) is widely used in both
folk medicine and cuisine. Dried thyme is sold in bazaars, markets
and pharmacy shops. People add it to their tea to treat intestinal
colic or indigestion. One tablespoon is infused in a glass of
hot water. People drink it three times a day prior to meals to
cure infectious diseases of stomach and intestines and to stimulate
the appetite. Thyme is used to flavor meat as well, especially
kababs. It adds aroma and aids digestion. It is also used in
the preparation of sharbats (fruit and herbal non-alcoholic refreshing
drink), which are good for digestion and to promote secretion
of gastric juices.
Since ancient times people have used the alcoholic extraction
of peppermint for external application. This extraction is called
"jovharnana" (sometimes, "nanajovhar" as
well) (peppermint essence). Jovharnana is used to massage the
belly when someone is experiencing intestinal colic. After the
massage, the person covers up with blankets. This remedy as an
analgesia to treat neuralgia. It is used to ease breathing of
those with colds and influenza. People pour jovharnana into a
spoon and heat it and inhale the extract as it evaporates. It
clears out stuffed noses and eases breathing.
People frequently use the peel of pomegranates for dyspepsia
and indigestion. It is a very strong remedy. The skin - either
fresh or dried - can be boiled in water and sipped throughout
the day. The taste is quite bitter so some people add sugar.
Unlike antibiotics, pomegranate skin has no side effects and
may be used in the treatment of little children.
Other frequently used herbs include chamomile (chobanyastighi),
which is used for infectious diseases, peppermint (nana) used
for abdominal colic and colds, and juniper cones (ardic qozalari)
for urinary infections.
Left: Courtesy: Institute of Manuscripts.
only were diseases treated by natural remedies (herbs, animals
and minerals), but they were also treated by such methods as
medical bloodletting (exsanguination), leeches and massage. Folk
doctors called "s\n\q[\" (fracture doctors) specialized
in the treatment of dislocations and fractures.
To alleviate severe pain in the extremities, compresses made
of the fat of sheep's tail were placed on the injured part. Usually,
these compresses were kept on throughout the night and removed
the next morning. As a result, pain and inflammation decreased
and the diseased joint had more flexibility.
In addition, fat from both the badger and fox was valued as a
potent remedy. Ointments from these fats were applied to painful
joints and bones. Sometimes, pepper, ginger or other spices were
added to the fat. For rapid recovery of broken bones, folk healers
recommended such food as "khash" and "kallapacha".
These are soups made from hooves and heads of sheep and cows
and are rich in nutrients as they contain connective tissues
vital for repairing damaged joints. Another group of folk healers
was called "chopchu". They were skillful in removing
any bones that got lodged in the throat.
Bloodletting or "hajamat" was carried out to let out
"the bad blood", stimulate the formation of new blood
and lower blood pressure. However, it was forbidden to carry
out bloodletting on small children or any person who had no appetite
or who was physically exhausted. Spring was considered the best
time for bloodletting. The practice was only rarely performed
in summer under dire, emergency situations.
Even today, when Azerbaijanis are in a bad mood, they often say:
"manim ganim garadir" ("my blood is black").
In old days, black blood was considered the reason why people
experienced bad moods (melancholy). Specialists identified scores
of veins, each of which they thought was responsible for specific
In addition to doctors, barbers were also involved in medical
practices. Not only did they cut and shave hair, but they performed
medical practices such as bloodletting, extracting of teeth and
use of leeches. Also taking baths was considered to be very effective
for healing. Traditionally, Azerbaijanis visited the Turkish
bath, the "hamam" several times each week. In the "hamam",
services were available from a barber, masseur and pharmacist
In Azerbaijan, various folk sports are used to promote health.
The most popular include weightlifting, horse riding and national
wrestling (gulash). Horse riding was used in the treatment of
arthritis, atrophy of muscles, heart diseases, and nerve disorders.
The unique folk practice of shadow boxing (kolga doyushu) "the
fight with one's own shadow", is when a wrestler stands
opposite his own shadow as cast against wall and pretends to
be fighting against it. This provides exercise for the arms and
releases tension in various muscles in the legs. Such therapy
was used to strengthen muscles that were atrophying.
Shadow boxing was known to be widespread in Azerbaijan during
the 9 - 10th centuries. The exercise came here from India. It
is described in the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina (980 - 1037)
as well as in Kitabi-Tibb (14th century) and other medieval Azeri
manuscripts of medicine. It was a folk medical exercise, and
later was adopted by professional medieval doctors. The Azerbaijan
Association of Medical Historians has prepared a guidebook on
healing exercises of those times.
On the Absheron peninsula, there are still folk healers named
"childaghchi" ("spot burners") who treat
nervous diseases and remove tiredness by applying heat to certain
spots on the forehead, arms and legs. Childagh is still practiced
in Mashtagha, one of the villages in the suburbs of Baku. Many
people still seek out this treatment.
The art of Childagh is quite unique although it has not been
thoroughly investigated. It is not known when Childagh was introduced
into this region or from where it originated. It seems to be
a modified form of Chinese reflexology replacing needles with
cauterization (burning). Perhaps this art came to Azerbaijan
from China during the Mongolian invasion of the 13th century
when many features of Chinese culture and medicine were brought
to Azerbaijan. The Mongolian rulers of the Elkhanid Dynasty who
ruled in Azerbaijan favored Chinese such traditions.
Childagh has not been found to be documented in the ancient medical
manuscripts of Azerbaijan or surrounding Muslim regions. However,
Ibn Sina does mention in his Canon that some nervous diseases
were treated by burning three points on the forehead. Sharafaddin
Hakim, a Turkish physician of the 15th century, also describes
this treatment in his book of surgery, which is now preserved
in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. This book provides sketches
showing this treatment. We see how a physician burning the points
on a patient's forehead with a metallic stick - like implement.
In childagh as practiced in Azerbaijan today, the healer uses
a cigar made of wormwood. Chinese also use this same type of
Healing by magic was also an essential part of folk medicine
in Azerbaijan. Beginning in ancient times, shamans ("gams"
in ancient Turkic) from Oguz tribes who inhabited Azerbaijan
used various magical songs, music and verbal formulas to stave
off evil spirits. They used various parts of animals in this
process. Vestiges of these practices are evident in Azerbaijan
even today, even though Islam severely criticizes such beliefs
and considers them to be superstitious.
For example, some people believe that if a childless woman eats
fried rooster genitals, she will become pregnant. According to
another folk belief, the eyes of an owl work well for both inability
to sleep, as well as an excessive desire to sleep. This folk
idea is described in the medieval book, Tibbname (Book of Medicine)
of 1712: "It is necessary to remove both eyes of an owl
and put them in a bowl with water. A heavy eye will sink, a light
eye will float on the water's surface. If a person suffering
from insomnia swallows the heavy eye, he will fall into a sound
sleep. However, if he consumes the lighter eye, he will not sleep
It is believed that if one eats the heart of a lion that he will
be brave and recover from such conditions such as depression,
bad mood and nervousness. Even today, Azerbaijanis have an expression
to describe such a courageous person. They say: "Did you
eat a lion's heart?" (Shir urayi yemisan?). It's impossible
to find any lions' hearts in Azerbaijan today because they all
became extinct in the 16th century.
However, there have been occasions when people have gone to the
Baku Zoo and tried to persuade personnel to sell various animal
parts: snake skins, wolf paws, camel fur, rhinoceros excrement,
and even elephant urine. Tahir Aydinov, head of the Terrarium
Section at the zoo says that he is tired of explaining that the
zoo is not a shop where animal parts are sold for medicinal purposes.
He sometimes jokes that he should produce magical amulets from
the animals in order to support the zoo financially during these
years of difficult economical conditions.
Such a situation is described in Magsud Ibrahimbeyov's short
story, "The Horn of Rhinoceros". The protagonist of
the story, an elderly person decides to marry a young girl. He
discovers an ancient book with a folk recipe describing how to
make himself appear younger and healthier. One of magical ingredients
was powder from the horn of rhinoceros. So he goes to the zoo
at night with the intention to saw off a horn of a rhinoceros.
However, he is suddenly attacked by a kiwi bird, which made such
a noisy racket that the perpetrator gets arrested by the police.
Another belief is associated with toads. It is believed that
if a person is suffering from jaundice and tears off the legs
of a toad and hangs it around his neck, he will soon recover.
The story is told how some children once visited someone who
had a rare collection of exotic toads from Brazil. When the children
were left alone, they pulled off the legs from the expensive
toads that were kept in the terrarium. It turns out that the
brother of one of the children was suffering from jaundice, and
the boys had decided to help him by providing him with legless
toads. The naturalist was horrified: his valuable collection
was totally destroyed.
Hedgehogs are extremely popular in Azerbaijani folk medicine.
It is believed that the fried meat of hedgehog cures female infertility.
So many hedgehogs have become victims of this superstition.
The wolf is considered a sacred ancestor or totem of Turkic tribes.
Many beliefs are associated with this animal. All of them date
to Pre-Islamic times though they still live on in folk belief
today despite the negative attitude of Islam towards such "pagan
ideas". All parts of the wolf are believed to produce positive
medical effects. For example, the wolf's claws are considered
the best medicine against male impotence. It was recommended
to carry claws to increase potency. Another belief advised soaking
the claws in oil for a long time and then using this oil as an
Magic and Religion
Some healing practices are related to Islam as well as folk magic.
For example, according to the Tibbname, if one reads the Sura
of Fatiha from the Koran every morning and then trims his eyebrows
with a comb, he never will die of plague. Another belief advises
that bad memory can be treated by writing down the Fatiha on
a big piece of sugar and then eating it on an empty stomach.
All such recommendations are held in disdain by Islam and have
nothing to do with religion nor with traditional medicine of
medieval Azerbaijan. However, such beliefs continue to persist.
Azerbaijan has its share of extrasensors who are convinced that
they have the ability to treat others with the help of words,
suggestions or bio-energy. Many extrasensors are folk healers
and have no medical diploma. Sometimes they mix their practice
with Islam and magic, meaning that they make a diagnosis based
randomly selecting texts in the Koran along with amulets and
magical formulas. One of Azerbaijan's most famous extrasensors
Tofig Dadashov claims to be able to treat diseases by drawing
upon his telepathic skills.
There are also fortunetellers and magicians who claim to have
the ability to remove evil eye with the help of black and white
magic. Therapy with massage and chiropractice is less widespread
now in comparison to a few decades ago, but they continue to
be practiced. Throughout Azerbaijan there are centers where Tibetan,
Indian and Chinese folk medicine is used to treat those in need
of medical assistance and cures.
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
AZER.com and also AZERI.org for more than 30 articles
published in Azerbaijan International magazine. Contact him:
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