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.

Turkachara-Turkic Healing

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.

Folk 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 medicine.

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.

Folk Surgery

Left: Courtesy: Institute of Manuscripts.

Not 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 diseases.

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 - perfumer.

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.

Childagh-Nerve Remedy
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 cigarette.

Magical Foods
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 all night".

Rhinoceros Horn
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.

Legless Toads
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.

Wolf Claws
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 ointment.

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.

Fortune Tellers
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 and also for more than 30 articles published in Azerbaijan International magazine. Contact him:

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