The history of Islamic medicine has deep roots in Azerbaijan. Early man used herbs and vegetation in his first efforts to cure illnesses. The experience he gained during the centuries was passed down generation to generation and developed into folk medicine. With the appearance of writing, the development of oral and written branches of folk medicine became separated. Scientific medicine became based on the written word.
The rich flora of Azerbaijan has attracted the attention of doctors and scholars as well as the general public from ancient times. Many herbs were used for prophylaxis and treatment. Women naturally observed the special effects of fruit, vegetables and herbal teas in controlling coughing, bleeding, pain, diarrhea and many other conditions and diseases.
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.
Written medical history is usually traced to Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) (980-1037 AD) who was an influential philosopher-scientist in the region and who wrote two major works related to health. "Kitab Ash-Shifa" (Book of Healing) was a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopedia and the "Canon of Medicine" became known as one of the most famous books in the entire history of world medicine. Azerbaijan's Institute of Manuscripts has one of these rare "Canon" copies. It was Avicenna in the 11th century who observed "how mistaken modern medical men are to think that physicians before them knew nothing!
In fact almost all scholars, poets, and philosophers in the East wrote at least one work about medicine. Great emphasis was placed on prevention and prophylaxis. The famous poet, Nizami Ganjavi (12th century), discussed issues of health and folk medicine in his works. At the beginning of the 14th century, a Tabriz Medical Center, Darash-Shifa (House of Recovery) was well known throughout the entire East. In the 19th century there were Hasanbek Zardabi and Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1873) who used medicine as a basis for their philosophic ideas during a period when scientific medical thought was just developing. Of course, the lack of medical institutions and personnel gave people in rural areas little choice but to seek treatment from priests and other non-professionals.
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.
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.
The practice of aromatherapy is believed to date back several millennia to the Egyptians and Babylonians, who often took baths with aromatic herbs and other substances for hygienic and medicinal purposes. For instance, Egyptian queen Cleopatra was known to bathe regularly with rose petals.
In Azerbaijan as well, aromatherapy was once considered to be part of mainstream medicine. Medieval Azerbaijani doctors regularly prescribed essential oils and other fragrances for their patients. For example, a bath that smelled of roses - such as Cleopatra used to take - would have been prescribed for someone who was feeling melancholic or who had a headache.
Historian Farid Alakbarov specializes in studying ancient Azerbaijani manuscripts, including the medical texts that describe aromatherapy. These writings - which are only available in Arabic script - are housed at Baku's Manuscripts Institute. Here Farid shares his research on ancient and medieval beliefs about the healing power of scents.
In the ancient kingdoms of Manna (9th-7th centuries BC) and Atropatena (4th-1st centuries BC) - now situated in Southern Azerbaijan (Iran) - people believed that they had to be clean and beautiful in order to attain a higher spirituality. For these purposes, ancient Azerbaijanis used aromatic oils such as frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, rosemary, hyssop, cassia, cinnamon and spikenard.
Some fragrant herbs and trees served a religious purpose. For example, the cypress, with its fragrant needles, was known as the tree of the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster). The dispersion of oils was also thought to purify the air and provide protection from evil spirits.
According to ancient Turkic beliefs, all fragrant flowers were created by Tangry, the Supreme God of the Blue Sky. The Goddess of Grasses and Trees, Oleng, was his wife. Oleng was also considered to be the patroness of physicians. Each year, at the beginning of spring, the Turkic peoples held solemn festivals in honor of this goddess and burned fragrant herbs such as wormwood.
Ancient Turkic legends tell that the souls of all children arise inside flowers and are then moved to their mothers' bodies. In a 7th-century legend, the elder named Gorgud says: "I was created inside a flower...moved to my mother's body, and born with the assistance of the gray-eyed Angel."
Azerbaijanis treated diseases and injuries with aromatic substances. One scene describing such an occasion comes from the ancient Azerbaijani epic "Dada Gorgud" (Grandfather Gorgud), a compilation of legends that were set down in writing during the 11th century but contain stories that can be traced back to the 6th and 7th centuries. One of the scenes depicts how fragrant flowers were used to heal a lad who had been wounded: "Forty shapely girls ran, gathered flowers from the mountains, mixed them with mother's milk, rubbed this mixture on the wounds of the youth and left him with the healers." The flowers may have been spearmint and chamomile, which are known to have antiseptic and healing properties.
Aromatic plants weren't just for healing. For instance, as far back as the 4th century AD, the people in Caucasian Albania (now northern Azerbaijan) used the herb thyme as both a tonic and an aphrodisiac.
After Islamic invaders conquered the region in the 7th century, Azerbaijanis began studying the chemical properties of essential oils. They learned from the experience of Muslim alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (702-765) and other scholars who had helped to develop and refine the distillation process.
In those times, Azerbaijanis could easily have extracted rose oil and prepared rose water, substances that were very popular throughout the entire East. Other essential oils used by medieval Azerbaijanis were fennel, melissa (lemon balm), spearmint, nutmeg, dill, chamomile, cinnamon, lime, orange, bergamot, lemon, myrrh, coriander, black cumin, tarragon, birch, cedarwood, cypress and myrtle. According to existing Azerbaijani manuscripts, at least 60 plant species were used in aromatherapy at the time. Unlike today, even aromatic animal species were used. Our documents identify eight of them.
By studying essential oils, medieval Azerbaijani doctors were able to expand their understanding of aromatherapy and its ability to cure disease. Specific oils were used to treat certain ailments. For instance, basil oil was believed to relax the muscles and have a calming effect. As an ointment, it could heal wounds, cuts and sores. Basil and camphor mixed with flour was used against scorpion bites, and bergamot root was known to alleviate insect bites and act as a repellent. According to the poets Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1203) and Mahammad Fuzuli (1495-1556), rose oil was used as a remedy for headaches and as a topical antiseptic. Mahammad Yusif Shirvani (18th century) recommended an unguent of cumin for sword wounds. Though the concept of antibiotics was not known at the time, physicians did use ointments of cumin, honey and raw onion juice as topical antiseptics.
We know that juniper oil was also used as an antiseptic because Haji Suleyman Iravani, a 17th-century Azerbaijani physician, recommends using ointment from juniper cones to heal wounds. Cypress was used as a strong diuretic for treating urinary disease. And for a person with a cold or a stuffy nose, doctors recommended inhaling the vapors from an infusion of thyme, peppermint or spearmint.
Not everyone could afford these treatments. While substances like violet oil and rose water were fairly inexpensive, imported essential oils were quite costly and only available to the wealthy. Rich people liked to dab themselves with aromatic ointments, substances that also functioned as a form of currency. Kings would barter and buy land, gold, slaves and wives with their crudely extracted oils.
Tenth-century writer Abu Ali Tanuhi observes that shahs and sultans possessed hundreds of jars of rare aromatic ointments in their treasure houses. Some of the ointments - which were worth their weight in gold - were brought from India, Egypt and Byzantium. Tanuhi writes of a miserly ruler who opened his jars, looked at his aromatic ointments with pride, then closed them again, explaining: "I can't bring myself to touch these treasures."
Animal substances like musk, castor and ambergris were particularly expensive, as they had to be imported from China, Russia, the Persian Gulf and India. Not only were these fragrances supposed to attract the female sex; they were also believed to have therapeutic properties.
A dab of ambergris - a gray, waxy substance from the intestinal canals of sperm whales - would strengthen the brain and heart, believed 17th-century physician Hasan ibn Riza Shirvani. This substance is often found floating in tropical seas; to reach Azerbaijan, it had to be imported from the coastal regions of the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The scent of musk, it was believed, would strengthen the heart and nerves and help to get rid of melancholy. To alleviate a headache, musk was mixed with saffron; a single drop on one nostril would be sufficient.
Castor, a substance secreted by male beavers to attract mates, often served as a substitute for musk. One or two drops of castor applied to the face and arms would make a person more appealing, it was believed. In 1311, Kabir Khoyi wrote that a bandage with a few drops of castor was good for treating headaches. Beverages containing castor and vinegar were also used to treat abdominal pain.
Fourteenth-century Azerbaijani scholar Yusif ibn Ismail Khoyi describes eight different methods for administering aromatherapy:
(1) Use a pillow filled with medicinal plants.
(2) Carry a small pouch filled with dried medicinal plants.
(3) Inhale the boiling decoctions of medicinal herbs.
(4) Inhale the scent of flowers in special gardens.
(5) Hang bunches of healing grasses inside the house.
(6) Breathe the odor of burned medicinal plants.
(7) Use an aromatic ointment.
(8) Take an aromatic bath.
Modern science has proved that bathing can release muscle tension, dilate blood vessels and slow the heart rate. Baths that contain essential oils are also beneficial. Aromatic baths treat many diseases, eliminate melancholy and nourish the skin and hair.
The earliest information about therapy with bathing and aromatic herbs is documented in the Indian Vedas in 1500 BC.
Of the various types of aromatherapy, aromatic ointments and baths were the most widely used in medieval times. In Eastern bathhouses, fragrant substances were often added directly to the bathwater.
For example, in the 17th century, Mu'min wrote that bathing in a decoction of pine needles was good for diseases of the uterus and rectum. Khoyi believed that laurel baths were effective against urinary disease.
Another method was to apply aromatic ointments to patients' bodies before or after bathing. For example, for a person who had bladder stones, a doctor would have recommended a post-bath massage with an ointment made of pine pitch, euphorbia juice and bdellium (a gum resin similar to myrrh).
Aromatic substances could also be breathed in during the bath. Usually, the patient would place himself near the fragrant fruit or perfume, such as camphor or musk. It was believed that these aromatic substances would strengthen the heart and act as a sedative.
The temperature of the water and the duration of the bath were also important to the treatment. "Hot water in a bath should not cover the patient's chest or heart," Ibn Sina (Avicenna) tells. Patients were supposed to bathe while the skin continued to redden and swell. They were advised to stop bathing once the skin turned pale.
According to Azerbaijani folk medicine, after a hot bath or nap, one should apply rose, narcissus or violet essential oils to the face and body. Eastern women especially liked these oils because they made the skin silky and soft.
Unfortunately, the use of aromatherapy is not widespread in Azerbaijan today - in fact, many Azerbaijani doctors have never even heard of the term. These practices are only followed on a small scale by folk healers, who rely on herbs like thyme, rose and lemon balm.
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A great many of the manuscripts related to aromatherapy that survived from the Middle Ages were destroyed during this past century. After the Bolsheviks captured Baku in 1920 and established the Soviet Union, Azerbaijanis were forced to forget their historical roots, religions, traditions and beliefs.