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Professional Medicine and Folk Healing in Medieval Azerbaijan



There were two kinds of medicine in ancient and medieval Azerbaijan - the professional and the folk medicine. It's very important to distinguish 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 get passed down from generation to generation, from parents to children and grandchildren. Folk healers (shamans) have their own special knowledge and skills in treating disease; they don't graduate from universities and they don't use 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 AD) 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-Arab or Islamic medicine.
Бакы, 1-2 феврал 2005
of the 1st National Conference Of The Azerbaijani Society
For The History Of Medicine
Baku, 1-2 Febuary 2005
целях защиты свежих ран от попадания на них болез-
нетворных микробов, следует тщательно промыть поврежден-
ные места мочой.
-Появившиеся у ногтей заусеници и наросты советовали
натирать кожей отлинявшей змеи.
-Боли в ушах у грудного ребенка можно устранить путем
закапывания в ушные раковины нескольких капель материн-
ского молока.
-При слабом зрении полезно есть в сыром виде печень
здоровых и только что зарезанных домашних животных.
- Для того, чтобы хилый и худой ребенок прибавил в весе,
необходимо каждый день давать ему пить натощак по утрам
давать одну пиалу медового шербета.
-При зобе следует наложить на горло компресс, приготов-
ленный из листьев капусты, опущенных перед этим в кипящую
-Для лечения ран человека, укушенного собакой готовят
смесь из кипяченой нефти с добавлением муки и прик-
ладывают ее к ране.
Farid Alakbarli,
Institute Of Manuscripts
Azerbaijani people have a rich and ancient tradition in the
field of medicine. There are numerous medicinal plants, minerals
and animal substances decribed in medieval Azerbaijan manu-
scripts on medicine and pharmacology that date back to the 9th-
18th centuries AD.
From these sources one may conclude that there were two
kinds of medicine in ancient and medieval Azerbaijan - the profes-
sional and the folk medicine. It's very important to distinguish
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 get pas-
sed down from generation to generation, from parents to children
and grandchildren. Folk healers (shamans) have their own special
knowledge and skills in treating disease; they don't graduate from
universities and they don't use 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 AD) and other prominent me-
dieval doctors of the Middle East. Their ideas were rooted in sci-
entific observations based on ancient Greek medicine set forth by
Hippocrates and Galen. Medicine of medieval Azerbaijan was sim-
ilar to the Greek-Arabic or Islamic medicine.
Professional doctors in those times were educated and
wealthy. They usually lived in cities. Some of them became famous
as court physicians in palaces of kings and governors. For exam-
ple, the distinguished physician Yusif Ibn Ismayil (also known as
Ibn Kabir) was born in the city of Khoy in the Southern Azerbaijan
(now Iran), but he later left for Baghdad where he became a dis-
tinguished physician. In 1311 AD, he wrote "The Baghdad Collec-
tion" - one of the most famous pharmaceutical books of the Muslim
East - in which he cited Avicenna, Razes (Razi), Galen and Hip-
In contrast, common people of the Middle East, especially illi-
terate peasants in villages, had no idea about Avicenna and Hip-
pocrates. Despite the fact that there were major hospitals in Tabriz,
Ganja, Shamakhi and other medieval cities of Azerbaijan, profes-
sional medical care was not available in villages. Therefore, peo-
ple tried to benefit from the knowledge of folk medicine, which was
both widespread and inexpensive.
MEDICAL MANUSCRIPTS. The Manuscript Institute is fortu-
nate to have some real treasures in their collection. For example,
they have one of the oldest copies of "Canon of Medicine" (1030)
by Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna (980-1037). It was
copied in 1142 about a hundred years after his death. Avicenna,
born in Bukhara (Uzbekistan), did much of his medical observation
later on in Persia. "Canon," an encyclopedic work in Arabic, is con-
sidered to be the single, most famous book in medical history-both
in the East and in the West.
Some of the most fundamental Azerbaijani works in the
Institute's medical collection include:
Mahmud Ibn Ilyas' 14th century work, entitled "About the
Science of Treatment" ("Quiyasiyya"), is a comprehensive, 1200-
page book describing fundamental ideas about medicine, symp-
toms and causes of specific diseases, and treatments. Ilyas gained
his experience while living in Tabriz and Shiraz, and traveling to
many different Eastern countries.
Azerbaijani scholar Yusif ibn Ismayil Khoyi (also known as Ibn
Kabir) worked as a doctor in the palaces of the Arabian caliphs in
Baghdad. He is known for his comprehensive pharmacology writ-
ten in Arabic in 1311. Several thousand medicinal herbs are iden-
tified in "The Necessary Things For a Doctor So As Not To
Increase His Ignorance" ("Ma la yasa al-tabib jahlahu"), often re-
ferred to by its shortened title "Baghdad Collection" ("Jami-al-
Mir Muhammad Momin, a palace physician for Suleyman
Safavi, wrote many informative works in Persian including "Tohfat
al-Mominin" (1669). This encyclopedic work includes the names of
more than 4,000 herbs, animals, minerals and other ingredients
used in medicine. Momin describes the name of each herb, its
specific features, where it can be collected, other regions where it
is available, and its names in other languages, such as in Chinese
or Hindi dialects. The Institution owns 33 complete manuscripts
and 4 fragmentary copies of this work.
Muhammad Yusif Shirvani's "Tibbname" ("Book of Medicine")
was written in Azeri in 1712. A palace physician for the Shirvan
Shahs, Shirvani recommends using natural materials to treat sym-
ptoms, such as rubbing a piece of lemon peel against your neck
when tired. Shirvani also describes more complicated drugs, as
well as uses for "non-indigenous" plants in the region such as po-
tatoes and sunflowers.
In the 13th century, Nasreddin Tusi wrote an extremely
enlightening book entitled "Mineral Cures" ("Tansukh Name")
which identifies the symptoms of a disease and possible treat-
ments via minerals. These are identified by color, as well as region.
UNIQUE MANUSCRIPTS. During our research at the
Institute of Manuscripts, we have uncovered several other rare me-
dical manuscripts that had long been forgotten. These texts were
not included in the treasury of books related to Azerbaijan's histo-
ry. We included them in the scientific literature of Azerbaijan. One
such text is "Mualijati-munfarida" (Treatment of Separate
Medicines) by 18th-century physician Abulhasan Maraghai. In his
book, Maraghai describes the treatment methods that were used
for all of the commonly known diseases of his time. The title
"Separate Medicines" refers to simple medicines that are com-
prised of only use one compound.
Similarly, 17th-century physician Murtuza Gulu Shamlu wrote
the book "Khirga" (Apparel of the Sufi) to describe how to treat
reproductive disorders. A "khirga" is a humble cloak that was worn
by traveling dervishes. Shamlu was the only medieval Azerbaijani
author to devote much discussion to this topic (although such bo-
oks in neighboring Muslim countries were quite common). We
have also discovered two Persian medical manuscripts that are not
known to exist anywhere else in the world: "Arvah al-ajsad" (Souls
of Bodies) by Kamaladdin Kashani (possibly 14th century) and
"Zakhira-i Nizamshahi" by Rustam Jurjani (13th century). Both
texts are very extensive books on pharmacology, with hundreds of
formulas and descriptions of plants. "Zakhira-i Nizamshai" imitates
the well-known Eastern pharmaceutical book "Zakhira-i Kraraz-
mshahi" (12th century).
MEDIEVAL PHARMACOLOGY. Medieval doctors prescribed
a wide variety of medicines made from plants, animals and miner-
als. In our research, we have identified 724 plants, 115 minerals
and 150 animals that were once used for medicinal purposes in
Azerbaijan. Of these, 256 species of medicinal herbs had com-
pletely been forgotten. We have also identified 866 types of com-
plex medicines, such as tablets, pills and syrups, and described
their medical properties.
The identified 724 species of plants belong to four sections
(Equisetopsida, Polypodiopsida, Gnetopsida, Pinopsida,
Monocotyledones, Dicotyledones) and 143 families. Of the 724
species of plants described in medieval sources, 422 species
(58.3%) belong to indigenous plants and occur in the territory of
modern Azerbaijan Republic. Comparative analysis shows that
only 166 of them are currently being used in modern phytotherapy
of Azerbaijan. It must be noted that 60 of mentioned species are
known as plants of folk medicine, whereas the 106 species are cur-
rently being used in scientific medicine of Azerbaijan.
Most of species (150 spp. or 36.4%) was used externally as
antiseptics for ulcers, furuncles, scabies, mange and other skin
diseases. This group includes such drugs as leaves of oleander
(Nerium oleander L.), juices of onion (Allium cepa L.), ramsons
(Allium ursinum L., A.victoriale L.) and garlic (Allium sativum L.).
The mentioned plants were used for preparing unguents, powders
and different medical forms that were applied externally. The sec-
ond group contains plant species applied to diseases of kidney and
urinary bladder (92 spp. or 23%). For example, corn camomile
(Anthemis arvensis L.), dog-rose (Rosa canina L.), blackberry
(Rubus fruticosus L.), etc. The plants of third group were used
against various diseases of liver and bile duct. In medieval sources
most of them were designated as cholagogues. This group
includes spearmint (Mentha spicata L.), dandelion (Taraxacum
officinale Wigg.), saffron (Crocus sativus L.), barberries (Berberis
vulgaris L.), etc. Many herbs were used against other diseases.
TURKECHARA-TURKIC HEALING. As distinct from profes-
sional medieval healing (Islamic or Greek-Arabic medicine), the
folk treatment in Azerbaijan was named Turkehara (Turkic treat-
ment). This procedure was well known among Turkic tribes living
in the region of Azerbaijan. It consisted of various methods includ-
ing magic, medicinal plants, folk surgery and massage. Evidence
for Turkechara 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 were then
immersed in milk and used as an unguent. Azerbaijan folk poetry
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 that this species of
mint was used in folk medicine to treat wounds. Modern field re-
search also confirms that villagers still use yarpiz as an analgesic,
anti-inflammatory and antiseptic remedy. In addition, this herb pro-
motes digestion and is good for the stomach. It also has the abili-
ty 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
"Messier Jordan and Darvish Mastali Shah" (Msyo Jordan ve
darvish Mastali shah" in Azeri) One of characters, the French
botanist Messier Jordan visits the Karabakh region to study local
flora. He discovers that yarpiz is very popular among the local pop-
ulation. The Azerbaijan Film Studio produced the film "Darvish
Explodes Paris" ("Darvish Parisi Dagidir" in Azeri) based on this
play, where the famous Russian actor Sergey Yurskiy played Jor-
dan. "It's yarpiz," says an Azerbaijani, stretching his hand with the
healing herb to the French botanist. "What's 'yarpiz'? I don't know
"yarpiz" replied the botanist who preferred using Latin names for
Today, pennyroyal is used both in folk medicine, as well as in
cuisine. "Dovga", made from yogurt and greens such as penny-
royal, is good for digestion and alleviates 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. Some examples include chamomile, which was used
against infectious diseases, peppermint used for abdominal colic
and cold, and juniper cones used against urinary infections.
The famous herb is thyme ("kakotu" or "kaklikotu" in Azeri).
This upper part of this herb (stem, flowers and leaves) is widely us-
ed both in folk medicine and culinary. The fragrant dried thyme is
sold in Bazars, markets and pharmacy shops. People infuse it in
teapots and drink against intestinal colic and indigestion. One
tablespoon of thyme is infused in a glass of hot water and people
drink it three times per day before eating to cure infectious dis-
eases of stomach and intestines and provoke appetite. Thyme is
used as a food addition as well. To improve digestion people sprin-
kle food the powder of dried thyme. Thyme is used also in prepa-
ration of aromatized tea and sharbats (refreshments), which are
good for digestion and promote secretion of gastric juice.
Since ancient times, people widely use the alcoholic extrac-
tion of peppermint for external application. In Azeri this extraction
is named "jovharnana" ("the peppermint essence") Jovharnane is
used for massage of belly in intestinal colic. After massage, belly
is covered with blankets. This remedy is applied against neuralgia
as an analgesic medicine. To ease breath in cold and influenza,
people pour some jovharnana in a spoon and fire it. When the spir-
ituous extraction is burned out, people breath its smoke as inhala-
tion. It cleans the stuffed nose and ease breathing.
People widely use the skin of pomegranate against dyspep-
sia. Many people keep the skin of eaten pomegranates for treat-
ment purposes. It is very strong remedy especially against disas-
ter. The fresh or dried skin is boiled in water and drunk by little
gulps during the day. The taste is bitter and some people add su-
gar to this remedy. As distinct from many antibiotics, the pome-
granate skin had no side effects and may be used in treatment of
little children.
FOLK SURGERY. Not only were diseases treated by natu-
ral remedies (herbs, animals and minerals), but they were also tre-
ated by such methods as medical bloodletting (exsanguination), le-
eches and massage. Folk doctors called "sinikhchi" (fracture doc-
tors) specialized in the treatment of dislocations and fractures. To
alleviate severe pain in extremities, they would make compresses
using the fat of sheep's tail and placing it on the injured part.
Usually, 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 because they contain connective tissues vital for
repairing damaged joints. Another group of folk healers was called
"chopchu". They were adept at removing any bone that got stuck
in the throat.
BLOODLETTING. Bloodletting or "hajamat" was carried out
to let out "the bad blood", activate the formation of new blood and
lower blood pressure. However, it was forbidden to carry out blood-
letting 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 un-
der dire, emergency situations.
Even today, Azerbaijanis when they are in a bad mood, often
say: "мяним ганым гарадыр" ("my blood is black"). In old days,
"black blood" was considered the reason why people experienced
bad moods (melancholy). Specialists identified scores of veins, ea-
ch 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 of-
ten were available from barber, masseur and pharmacist-perfumer.
peninsula, there are still folk healers named "childagchi" ("spot bur-
ners") who treat nervous diseases and remove tiredness by apply-
ing heat to certain spots on the forehead, arms and legs. Childag
is still practiced in Mastaghi, one of the villages in the suburbs of
Baku. Many people still seek out this treatment.
The art of Childag is quite unique although it has not been
thoroughly investigated. It is not known when Childag began to ap-
pear in this region or from where it originated. It seems to be a
modified form of Chinese reflexology replacing needles with cau-
terization (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 ru-
led in Azerbaijan favored Chinese culture and traditions.
Childag 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 pre-
served 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 an metal stick-like imple-
ment. In Childag as practiced in Azerbaijan today, the healer uses
a cigarette made of wormwood. Chinese also use this same type
of cigarette.
FOLK MEDICINE AND MAGIC. Healing by magic was an es-
sential part of the folk medicine in Azerbaijan. Beginning in very
ancient times, shamans ("gams" in ancient Turkic) of the Oguz
tribes, which inhabited Azerbaijan used various magical songs,
music and verbal formulas to stave off evil spirits from the sick.
They used various part of animals in this process. This practice re-
mains in Azerbaijan even today, even though Islam severely criti-
cizes 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 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 go to sound sleep. However, but if he consu-
mes the lighter eye, he will not sleep all night".
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 expres-
sion to describe a courageous person. They say: "Did you eat a
lion's heart?" (“Шир цряйини йемисян?” in Azeri). It's not easy to find
a lion's heart in Azerbaijan today because they became extinct in
the 16th century.
However, there have been occasions when people went to
the Baku Zoo and tried to persuade the personnel to sell various
animal parts: snake skins, wolf claws, camel fur, rhinoceros excre-
ment, and even elephant urine. Tahir Aydinov, head of the Ter-rar-
ium section at the zoo says that he is tired of explaining that the
zoo is not a shop in which to sell animal parts to use as medicine.
He sometimes jokes that he should produce magical amulets from
the animals in order to support the zoo during these years of diffi-
cult economical conditions.
Such a situation is described in Magsud Ibrahimbeyov's short
story, "The Horn of the Rhinoceros". The hero of the story, an eld-
erly person decides to marry a young girl. He found an ancient
book with a folk recipe of how to make himself appear younger and
healthier. One of magical ingredients was powder from the horn of
rhinoceros. The hero goes to the zoo at night intending to saw off
the horn of a rhinoceros. But he was suddenly attacked by a kiwi
bird, which made such a noisy racket that the perpetrator was
arrested by the police.
Hedgehogs are extremely popular in Azerbaijani folk medi-
cine. It is believed that the fried meat of hedgehog cures female
infertility. So many hedgehogs have become victims of this super-
stition. 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
despite the negative attitude of Islam towards such "pagan ideas".
All parts of the wolf were 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.
Some healing practices are related to Islam on the one hand and
folk magic on the other - a mixture of folk belief with religion. For exam-
ple, according to the Tibbname (1712 AD), if one read 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 in the folk beliefs
about medicine and religion. Combination of medicine, magic and reli-
gion was typical to many ancient cultures, including Ancient Egypt and
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