Farid Alakbarli. Medical Manuscripts of Azerbaijan. Page 6.

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Medieval medical manuscripts [38, 60] contain detailed descriptions of various foodstuffs. For example:

BRAIN. This product is difficult to digest, but very nutritious. It strengthens the body. Its side effects are neutralized by unripe grape juice. Brain of wild birds is the best one. The product is good against nervous diseases, it strengthens the brain, intensifies libido - in particular, the brain of sparrow.

LIVER. The best kind of liver is that of hen and duck; liver of young gout is placed second. But this product is difficult to digest and can cause different dysfunction of stomach and bowels, which can be neutralized by vinegar and unripe grape juice (abgora). Liver can be applied against eye diseases, for treatment of persons with nearsightedness as well as those who can't see in the dark. Inhalation with steams of boiling liver soup is good against these diseases. Consumption of liver is useful for internal organs, including heart and brain, and intensifies libido. This meal is very nutritious.

LUNGS. The best lungs are those received from lambs and young goats. The product is not very nutritious, but with some medical properties. Lungs are good against heart diseases and blood diseases such as leukemia and bloodlessness. Lungs make blood more liquid. The product is useful for those with thrombosis. Its side effects are neutralized by vinegar and unripe grape juice. Rational nutrition contributes to healthy way of life. It reduces the risk of cancer, cardiovascular problems and other diseases. Modern scientists have developed a code of rules of rational nutrition. However, concepts of healthy lifestyle came into existence many centuries ago. Azerbaijan has rich and ancient traditions in this field. The concept of rational nutrition was initially worked out by medieval (9-18th centuries) Azerbaijani physicians and dietitians.

The concept was developed based on idea of non-waste usage and rational consumption of food products. All the parts of plant and animal products were used to prepare meal and medicines. Such an approach allowed minimizing the amount of waste and achieving the effective use of natural food sources. The study of medieval Azerbaijan manuscripts has revealed 104 dishes, the preparation of which required 200 plant and 50 animal species.

Traditional dishes were used in three different ways: selective, limited and compensative. Speculations on their possible applications are as follows:

- selective - selection of meals with consideration of such factors as age, sex, psycho-physiological and health status, occupation, and season;

- limited - limited consumption of animal fats and salt, and maximum consumption of plant oil, vegetables and fruits;

- compensative - neutralization of negative effects of a product by consuming it with others.

It is noteworthy that the medieval physicians through empirical analysis came to the same conclusion as the present day nutritionists.

According to the first (selective) method, dishes were selected with consideration of such factors as age, sex, temperament, health status, occupation and season. For example, there were individual diets for pregnant women, children, adults, elder and ill persons. In addition, some kinds of poisonous, toxic or useless products were excluded from a human diet. Some of these substances were used as remedies in treatment of various diseases. Among them we should piont out such animal products as meat of fox and hyena, the liver and gall bladder of bear, feathers and crop of birds, hair, skin and bones of different animals, a horn of deer and rhinoceros, gland secrets of beaver and musk-deer, stones generated in the stomach of wild goats and other ungulate (hooved) animals, etc.

According to the limited method, each edible product is healthful only in the designated quantity and proportion.

AVOID FATTY MEAT. Physicians of the Middle Ages were insistently against excessive use of animal fats, suet and fatty meat. Muhammad Mu'min (17th century) wrote: "Animal fat is bad for digestion, it may cause sickness and vomiting. Therefore, as far as possible, animal fat should be substituted for vegetable oil." The author noted that regular over-use of animal fat may cause stupefaction, poor memory, myocardial infarction, poor eyesight, epilepsy, etc.

Physicians of those times had no idea about cholesterol and its harmful influence on human organism, but through empirical analysis they drew conclusions similar to modern scientific concepts. [60]

Nevertheless, fatty meat must be consumed, but in moderate. Animal fat is necessary for normal functioning of brain, heart, reproductive organs, etc. To lower the fat's negative effects, the third compensative method was applied. This method postulated that the negative effects of some foods may be compensated by the use of other ones. In particular, medieval physicians employed compensative approach to neutralize the animal fat's harmful influence on a human's organism.

COMBINE MEET WITH VEGETABLES AND FRUITS. Medieval authors wrote that fatty meat should be consumed with vinegar, lemon, pomegranate juices, vegetables, fruits and various species. Sour seasonings, such as pomegranate, lemon, unripe grape juices, vinegar and various spices, such as fennel, saffron, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, etc. stimulate extraction of gastric juice and facilitate digestion.

At the same time vegetables and fruits contain many food fibers, which neutralize harmful effects of animal fats. Such a practice is still in force in modern Azerbaijan and dishes cooked from fatty meat are served with different species of green vegetables (onion, garlic, tarragon, basilica, parsley, coriander, garden cress, etc.) and fruits. Contemporary studies confirm that vegetable food fibers neutralize negative effects of cholesterol.

Traditionally, lean meat of young lambs, kids, calves, poultry (mainly hens, ducks and gooses) is preferable one in Azerbaijan. It is believed that the quality of old animal meat is low. This meat is tougher because it contains much more connective tissue, tendons and pellicles. Such meat is less nutritious and gives more waste matter.

Authors of the Middle Ages observed that fowl and meat of domestic animals is of higher quality than that of wild animals and birds. The meat of gazelle was considered as the best kind of the animal game. The meat of pheasant, partridge and francolin (turaj) was considered as the best kind of the bird game.

According to modern investigations fish is one of the most valuable and nutritious foodstuffs. Muhammad Huseyn Khan (18th century) wrote: "Fish is more useful than meat, but fish meat must be fresh. If this meat is left for one day without special storage and processing (e.g. salting), it may lose its quality. Fish meat is very delicate and rapidly goes bad." [58]

Dishes cooked from diff e rent fish traditionally take an important place in the national Azeri cuisine. Modern investigations show that vegetables and fruits contain many microelements including magnesium, iron, sodium, potassium, etc., as well as various vitamins. Medieval scientists had no knowledge about these substances, but based on clinical experience they drew conclusions similar to modern scientific ideas. For example, Ibn Kabir Khoyi (14th century) wrote: "Apples strengthen heart, stomach, liver, intestine and stimulate appetite. Apples are very useful in treatment of heavy breathing and tachycardia. They re f resh brain and strengthen its efficiency..." [58]

Fruits, vegetables, various wild medicinal plants and products prepared from them - jams, juices, sherbets, wines, dried fruits, spices, etc. - take an important place in the national Azeri cuisine. In particular, hot dishes are served with various vegetables, fruits, greens and spices. Descriptions of healing properties of some national dishes are given below:

DUSHBARA. A kind of farinaceous food, looks like a soup with small meat dumplings. It is good against cough, ache and tickling of throat, cold, diseases of bowels and urinary bladder. Dushbara prepared from barley flour is also used against fever and tuberculosis. It is recommended to eat dushbara with vinegar, sumac or with yogurt mixed with chopped garlic.

KEBAB. This is a piece of meat (usually, mutton) roasted on spit. This food promotes creation of good blood, and stimulates appetite and libido. It is recommended to eat kebab with such seasonings as sumac, fresh coriander and other vegetables and fruits. Don't drink cold water after kebab.

KHASH. Sticky, rich soup from a sheep or cow legs. This dish is good against fractures of bones, hemorrhoids, cold, tuberculosis, physical exhaustion. It is difficult for digestion. Therefore, it is recommended to eat khash with vinegar, pomegranate juice, spices and other seasonings.

KUKU. It is an omelet with greens and meat. This food strengthens the organism and stimulates libido, particularly, if is eaten with cinnamon and fried onion. Kuku is comparatively difficult to digest. Therefore, it is recommended to eat kuku with iskanjabin (the mixture of honey and vinegar).


Longevity is the cherished dream of every human being. What, one may ask, is the actual age limitation for human beings? Are there limits? Is it possible to secure an active, creative life for 100 years? Of course. But what about 150 years? Again, the answer is "yes".

Azerbaijan has one of the highest rates of longevity in the world. In the 1981 census, Azerbaijan recorded 14,486 people aged 100 or older. In other words, 48.3 people per 100,000 inhabitants. Even though longevity is mostly determined by heredity, diet definitely plays a role in achieving this goal. What do centenarians eat in Azerbaijan? Does their diet correlate with what modern science knows about health and longevity?

Contemporary dietitians would cry out: "They eat too much animal fat!" Indeed, many Azerbaijanis are fond of lamb, mutton and sheep fat, but in rural areas where most of these long-lived people reside, meat is eaten no more often than once or twice a week. The main source of animal fat in rural centenarians’ diets is not derived from meat but rather from dairy products.

The typical diet of Azerbaijani villagers consists primarily of eggs, cheese, butter, yogurt, milk, curds (shor), sour cream, bread, various vegetables, fruits and herbs. They are used to eating soup made of yogurt and greens (dovgha) along with various soups made with beans, peas and grains. In the olden days, people who enjoyed longevity did not eat very much bread or products made of flour.


Historically, Azerbaijanis eat fairly large amounts of animal fat, which is considered by modern scientists to be the "No. 1 Killer." Why then has this slayer not visited upon the centenarians from villages of the Lerik district in Azerbaijan, where quite a number of residents live beyond 120 years old?

Animal fat is fairly harmless to Azerbaijanis because they follow nutritional guidelines set forth by the physicians of medieval Azerbaijan who insisted that there is no such thing as completely healthy or unhealthy foodstuffs. Rather, these properties are determined a great deal by the quantity that is consumed and the way food is combined. For example, according to the "Book of Medicine" (Tibbnama, 1712) you can consume animal fat, but you shouldn't overdo it, and you must counter the effects of fat by eating fresh vegetables and greens like spinach, celery, dill, onions, spring onions, coriander, mint, basil, tarragon and parsley. [72]

Modern scientists confirm that the food fibers contained in green vegetables and herbs decrease the assimilation of fats in the stomach. According to modern scientific medicine, animal fat, in fact, must be consumed (though in moderation), as it is necessary for creating hormones and promoting the normal functioning of the liver, heart and brain. If we examine the teeth of a human being, we notice that they contain features typical to both carnivorous and herbivorous beings.

This fact proves that our early ancestors ate meat, and that the human organism is historically adapted to the consumption of animal fat. However, along with meat, early humans ate large amounts of vegetables and fruits. Medieval Azerbaijani physicians proposed the same approach: Don't eat just meat. Don't eat just vegetables. Eat both and combine them correctly! As opposed to one-sided theories of the modern day, such as vegetarianism, the medieval approach is based on their observation of the biological nature of the human being.

A high level of animal fat consumption is not just limited to longevity in Azerbaijan. Fifteen years ago, correspondents from the Russian magazine "Vokrug Sveta" (Around the World) interviewed elderly people in Abkhazia and questioned them about their diet. It turned out that most of the centenarians enjoyed fatty meat, preferably lamb. As distinct from Azerbaijanis, Georgians drank wine every day even at the age of 100. However, most people who enjoy longevity in the Caucasus don't eat very much meat in the first place, and they habitually consume large amounts of yogurt as well as vegetables and fruits to neutralize the negative effects of animal fat.

In addition to yogurt and garlic, it is also possible to counter the negative effect of fats with liberal amounts of raw onion, lemon juice, pomegranate juice and with the traditional burgundy - colored, sour spice known as sumag. These all work to promote digestion and break up the fat.


Even though Azerbaijani cuisine is rich in sweets, traditionally, Azerbaijanis didn't overuse them. When preparing national sweets like pakhlava, shakarbura and halva, they preferred honey over sugar. For example, the Azerbaijani scientist Yusif Khoyi in his "Baghdad's Collection" (1311) recommends preparing jams and sweets with honey. [89] Modern science has established that honey contains vitamins, ferments and is considerably healthier than sugar. According to Professor M. Sultanov, the regular use of honey and the avoidance of sugar contribute to health and long life. [77]

Professor John Yudkin of London University points out: "Not fat, but sugar leads to coronary heart disease - the sugar that you pour in coffee or tea, or eat with cakes, sweets or chocolate." [77]

Sugar, if used excessively, turns to fat and cholesterol in the organism. Previously, poor people in the rural areas of Azerbaijan considered sugar as a delicacy and used it only on rare occasions. The standard fare for peasants included dairy products and herbs, not sweets. As for rich people, they preferred honey.

According to recipes from the "Tibbnama", all kinds of Azerbaijani halva should be prepared on the basis of honey. Therefore, the harmful influence of "the white killer" that we struggle against in modern society was avoided. [72] Modern man might think: "Why buy expensive honey, when it's possible to substitute sugar that is much cheaper?"

Unfortunately, most of the national desserts in modern Azerbaijan are based on sugar now. But in the long run, such economics are injurious to human health. Muhammad Husein-khan (18th century) also points out that the regular consumption of honey diluted with water prolongs human life. Nevertheless, even though honey is better than sugar, it should not be overused.


Since antiquity it was believed that regular consumption of yogurt is the secret to longevity, as it promotes digestion and rejuvenates the organism. The "Tibbnama" recommends adding yogurt to cooked dishes. [72]

To promote digestion of meat, it was suggested to serve it with yogurt sprinkled with mint. If you eat yogurt on its own, add chopped garlic. In Azerbaijan, a popular drink (ayran) is made by diluting salted yogurt with water. This drink is known to lower blood pressure and treat diarrhea. The word "yogurt" itself is of Turkic (Azerbaijani and Turkish) origin and derived from the verb "yogurmak" - "to knead." The medical effect of yogurt is explained by the fact that it contains useful micro-organisms such as lactobacteria. Since the accumulation of waste

substances in the in inflammation of the bowels is harmful to all organs of an organism, normal digestion of food contributes to a healthy and long life. Modern scientists in Japan have also established that regular consumption of yogurt protects the organism from the injurious influence of radioactive rays and prevents the development of cancer.


The healing properties of garlic are often mentioned in books by numerous ancient authors throughout the region – in Azerbaijan, Arabia, Persia, Tibet and China. According to the "Tibbnama", regular consumption of garlic prevents gray hair, strengthens memory and eyesight and is good for the heart. [72] In Tibet, an herbal potion of garlic and spirits was known as an "elixir of youth." In Azerbaijan, physicians used infusions of garlic and saffron in their spirits. Modern scientists confirm that the regular consumption of garlic lowers the level of cholesterol in the organism and improves the circulation of blood. As a result, all organs are well supplied with blood. For example, a proper supply of blood to the head prevents hair from graying, refreshes the face and improves memory. When blood is able to circulate well in the heart vessels, it prevents myocardial infarction.

Azerbaijanis have combined these two foods - garlic and yogurt - which are typical to diets of people who enjoy the benefits of long life. They chop garlic and add it to yogurt in a dish called "sarimsagli gatig" (yogurt with garlic). The "Tibbnama" also suggests mixing garlic with yogurt. This combination is used as a condiment with dishes made of flour or meat, such as dolma of grape leaves (stuffed grape leaves), khash, khingal and others.


The excessive use of bread so typical to modern Azerbaijan cuisine can be traced to the influence of Russian cuisine. In the past Azerbaijanis did not overuse bread and flour products. They never had what might be called a cult of bread. Pilaf was never eaten along with bread because rice was considered to be a substitute for wheat. But these days, many people eat pilaf with bread, and also with national dishes made with dough, such as khingal, gurza, arishta, dushbara, umaj and others.

Physicians of medieval Azerbaijan didn't recommend eating much bread, especially on hot summer days. Modern investigations prove that overuse of bread, desserts and carbohydrates promotes the creation of cholesterol in the organism and leads to coronary disease and obesity. They concluded that overuse of bread is more dangerous than the regular consumption of animal fat.

Note that the national Azerbaijani bread (chorak) does not resemble Russian bread: it is a thin, flat bread, not a round loaf. Another national substitution for bread is lavash, a paperthin bread - neither of these two types is very heavy to digest when eaten in moderation.


Since antiquity, Azerbaijanis have been convinced that saffron and licorice prolong life, refresh the skin and face, and promote health for the liver, heart and kidneys. In addition, persons of longevity traditionally consume large amounts of vegetables and fruits, including apples.

The Azerbaijani physician Yusif Ibn Ismayil Khoyi (1311) wrote that if eaten regularly, apples rejuvenate the organism, strengthening the heart, stomach, liver, intestine and stimulating the appetite. Regular use of apples prevents heavy breathing and excessive heart-beat in elderly persons.

Apples refresh the brain and strengthen its efficiency [89]. Fruits, vegetables, various wild medicinal plants and products prepared from them - jams, juices, sherbets, wines, dried fruits and spices - all play an important role in Azerbaijan's national cuisine. In particular, hot dishes are combined with various vegetables, fruits, greens and spices.

Modern investigations show that vegetables and fruits contain many micro-elements, vitamins and fibers that neutralize cholesterol. Of course, scientists in the Middle Ages had no knowledge about these substances, but based on close observation, they drew similar conclusions that are being confirmed by modern scientific research.


Various fruits including mulberry are widely used in medicine. In Baku, mulberry trees can be found in parks and lining streets and boulevards. It's one of the favorite fruits. This sweet, juicy berry is by no means a newcomer to Azerbaijan. By the Middle Ages, there were already many different types of mulberries in the region, including varieties like aghtut, khartut, chardagli, shahtut, bidana, kharji (seedless), Shirvani, Tehrani and garatut. There are three main species of mulberries - white, red and black - all of them widely cultivated throughout Azerbaijan. The white mulberry in particular grows in the forests stretched along the Kur, Araz and Samur rivers.

To pick mulberries, a person - often a young boy - climbs the tree and shakes the branches, causing the fruit to drop onto a cloth or plastic sheet below. The berries are very delicate and therefore need to be handled carefully so that they don't break open - the stain won't wash out. Azerbaijanis don't grow mulberry trees just for their fruit, however. In the summer, residents in the villages around Baku used to sit and drink tea or play nard (backgammon) in the cool shade of mulberry trees. There's a square in the Old City (Ichari Shahar) that takes its name after the tree. Even a song has been written about the mulberry tree.

Today, mulberry trees (most frequently those bearing black fruit) line the streets of Baku and lend shade to courtyards. In the countryside, mulberry trees are often found in orchards and courtyards, along with a variety of other fruit trees like cherry, fig, pomegranate, apricot, apple and pear.

Originally, male (fruitless) mulberry trees were planted along the streets and in the parks of Baku in order to provide shade and decoration. But somehow it happened that some female trees got planted as well. When their fruit becomes ripe each June, it tends to drop to the ground and stain the sidewalks.

That's how you know it's mulberry season in Azerbaijan - that and kids' faces stained with the dark purple juice. When mulberries are no longer in season, Azerbaijanis still enjoy eating them in the form of mulberry syrup concentrates known as "doshab" and "bakmaz". To make the syrup, mulberry juice is boiled until it has a consistency that's much like honey.

While this syrup makes a tasty sweet, it is also used as a medicine to protect against diseases of the liver, gall bladder and heart. To treat gallbladder infections, one is supposed to drink 2 tablespoons of bakmaz dissolved in half a glass of water, then lie down in bed on his or her right side. The treatment should be taken on an empty stomach, half an hour before breakfast. Bakmaz is used to treat sore throats as well.

In 1836, Abbasgulu Agha Bakikhanov, a famous scholar and son of Baku's last khan, sent several bottles of bakmaz to his friend Dmitry Bibikov, who headed the Department of Foreign Trade in Russia. Bakikhanov wrote: "Dear Sir...According to my promise, I am sending you a box of bottled syrups. Two of them are of mulberry, one of quince, and the smaller one, sour plum (goyam)... Mulberry syrup is good for use against throat pain. Apply the syrup on the throat externally, cover with a cloth and keep this compress on all night. You can also drink the mulberry syrup a little bit at a time or mix it with soup. Quince syrup is good for a weak stomach and strengthens it, whereas sour plum syrup adds a cooling sourness to foods. If you would like, I could send you more syrups." [17]

Tut araghi, a potent liqueur (vodka) made from mulberry juice, is another mulberry product that's very popular – not only Azerbaijan, but also in Georgia and Armenia. It's one of the national Azerbaijani versions of vodka. Another type is zogal araghi (vodka made of cornelian cherry). Some people believe that small doses of these drinks protect against diseases of the stomach and heart.


Azerbaijanis have found many uses for other parts of the mulberry tree, such as boiling the roots to make black dye and making the wood into furniture and musical instruments. But by far, the mulberry tree's most significant impact in Azerbaijan has been on its silk industry.

Leaves from white mulberry trees are used to feed silkworms in order to make the product that gave the Silk Road its name. Azerbaijan's Shirvan region started becoming known for its silk industry as early as the 9th century. By the 11th and 12th centuries, the silk produced in Shirvan was already famous throughout Russia and Western Europe. Silk cloth was exported to Italy by Venetian and Genoese merchants who maintained commercial offices along the shores of the Caspian.

In 1293, Marco Polo himself wrote that the Genoese ships were engaged in the silk business in the Caspian region. He writes: "Shirvan dwellers make golden and silk clothes. You can't find such beautiful things anywhere else." [42] Similarly, Adam Olearius, a traveler who visited Shirvan in the 17th century, wrote that Azerbaijan produced up to 2.5 million kg of silk cloth each year. In the town of Shaki alone, 14,000 families were engaged in silkworm breeding and produced approximately 15,000 poods (240 tons) of raw silk each year. Part of this silk thread was exported; the other part was woven and dyed in local factories. [42]

During the Soviet period, leaders like Brezhnev wanted to substitute cotton for the silk industry in Azerbaijan. Even so, Shaki kept its thriving silk industry, employing thousands of people up until the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Regular consumption of tea is another main characteristic of people who en-joy long life in Azerbaijan. According to Muhammad Husein-khan (18th century), tea is a healthier beverage than coffee. He points out that: "Tea is a diuretic. It alleviates headaches caused by spasms and cold. In addition, tea cleanses the blood, stomach and brain and refreshes the face. If used moderately, it can treat rapid heartbeat, facilitate regular breathing and is good for the heart. This drink eases melancholy, sorrow and bad spirits." [59]

Modern investigations prove that tea promotes longevity. It contains caffeine, which stimulates the nervous system, and theophylline, which enlarges blood vessels, eliminates spasms and improves the function of the heart. It also contains tannins, which strengthen blood vessels and prevent bleeding. As distinct from coffee, tea not only does not increase the risk of the myocardial infarction but even lowers it, because theophylline enlarges the blood vessels of the heart.

However, one should avoid drinking tea on an empty stomach and should not drink it very hot. Milk neutralizes the negative effects of caffeine. Even though tea mixed with milk is considered to be healthier, it is not popular in Azerbaijan. Tea is historically cultivated in the Lankaran district of Azerbaijan, which curiously enough, is a region known for its longevity.


Although the famous Azerbaijani Oil Baron Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev (1823 -1924) enjoyed a very long life span, most elderly people in Azerbaijan are not so well off. When analyzing their diet, we see that they eat relatively cheap foods: eggs, yogurt, vegetables, fruits and beans. In addition, most of them don't overeat. Nor are they overweight because they are involved with hard physical labor.

In the past, those who enjoyed long life in our country rarely consumed the expensive dishes of our national cuisine, except on special occasions. Baked goods, kababs, pilaf seasoned with meat and dried fruits were usually reserved for the New Year celebration (Novruz), Muslim religious festivals (such as Gurban Bayram) and wedding celebrations.

During the 19th century, even wealthy landowners didn't eat sweets and meat every day because it was considered to be harmful.

Most people in Azerbaijan who enjoy the benefits of longevity actually know nothing about cholesterol, carbohydrates or vegetarianism. They simply maintain the nutritional practices of their fathers and grandfathers, who lived to be more than 100 years old. This reality would seem to prove that Azerbaijan's traditional diet, which has been tried and tested over centuries and millennia, is at least equal to modern theories of healthy nutrition, and may even be superior.

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© Farid Alakbarli, 2006. // "Elm" History & Heritage Website // Each quotation should be provided with full reference to the author.