Farid Alakbarli. Medical Manuscripts of Azerbaijan. Page 7.

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Various world religions have dietary laws, especially in terms of meat and wine. A Jew may observe the elaborate and stringent kosher system, a Catholic may choose not to eat meat on Fridays, and a Buddhist or Hindu may adhere to a vegetarian diet. Similarly, Islam has dietary codes that all believers are supposed to follow - in a nutshell: no pork, no alcohol and daily fasting during the holy month of Ramazan.

Although Azerbaijan is a very secular country, its Islamic background is beginning to show itself in Azerbaijani eating patterns. Islam reached Azerbaijan in the 7th century, when Arabian invaders imposed their religion on the region. In this new faith, foods like pork, shellfish, sturgeon and caviar were forbidden, and came to be known as "haram". Foods that were permitted - referred to as "halal" - had to be slaughtered in a specific way, with the animal turned toward Mecca and the name of Allah invoked. If the animal died in another fashion, it was also considered haram. Wine and other alcoholic beverages were also prohibited.

The relevant passage of the Koran reads:

"Forbidden to you (for food)
Are: Dead meat, blood,
The flesh of swine, and that
On which hath been invoked
The name of another than Allah;
That which hath been
Killed by strangling,
Or by a violent blow,
Or by a headlong fall,
Or being gored to death,
That which hath been (partly)
Eaten by a wild animal;
Unless ye are able
To slaughter it (in due form);
That which is sacrificed
On stone (altars);
(Forbidden) also is the division
(Of meat) by raffling
With arrows: that is impiety.
But if anyone is forced
By hunger, with no inclination
To transgress, Allah is
Indeed Oft-Forgiving,
Most Merciful."

[Source: Sura 5, al-Ma'idah (Meal), Ayah 3. Holy Qur'an. Text, translation and commentaries by Abdullah Yusif Ali. Amana Corporation, Brentwood, Maryland, 1989, pp. 244-245 (in English).]

"There is no greater virtue than reason and sobriety, nor any evil worse than recklessness and hard drinking," wrote Nasiraddin Tusi (1201-1274), the famous Azerbaijani scientist and founder of the Maragha observatory in Southern Azerbaijan (in present-day Iran). [83]

However, scholars of the Middle Ages recommended special kinds of wine for medical proposes. "Of course, the moderate use of wine is good for the stomach and other organs, but its overuse is harmful and dangerous. You repeatedly have observed drunken persons and have been correct in having an aversion to them," points out Ibn Sina (980-1137), more familiarly known as Avicenna in the West and father of the first comprehensive medical treatise, "Canon of Medicine." [1]

Wine-making in Azerbaijan dates back to ancient times. Various sorts of grapes have been cultivated throughout the Middle East since then. In the Khanlar district of the Azerbaijan Republic, for example, archeologists have found jars buried with the remains of wine dating back to the 2nd millennium BC. Assyrian cuneiform sources from the 7th century BC describe storehouses for wine in the Kingdom of Mannai, which was located in what is now Southern Azerbaijan. Sargon II, who ruled Assyria between 722-705 BC, once said: "When I was attacking my enemies...Ullusunu, the King of Mannai, supplied my troops with wheat and wine." [42]

According to the ancient Greek historian Strabo (born in 64/63 BC and died after 23 AD), people living in Northern Azerbaijan (Caucasian Albania at that time) cultivated such abundant crops of grapes that they were not able to harvest them. [74]

The medieval epic poem "Kitabi Dada Gorgud" (Book of Dada Gorgud), developed between the 7th-11th centuries AD, describes scenes of wine-making: "There are gardens in our mountains where branches of black grapes grow. We squeeze the juice from these grapes and make red wine. Those who drink this wine become drunk." [51]

Historical sources suggest that during the 13th-14th centuries the annual harvest of grapes from orc h a rds around Tabriz (Southern Azerbaijan) was about 150 tons. [42]

However, the medieval wines of Azerbaijan were not like contemporary wines. They were concentrated and sweet as honey. Usually, people of those times used concentrated, strong wines. It was impossible to drink pure wine because it was so thick. That's why people diluted it with water ("mey" in Azeri).

About 10 years ago, the residents of the town of Shamakhi (about two hours north of Baku) unearthed a huge ancient ceramic jar with a thick syrup in it. They tasted the syrup and discovered that it was a very concentrated, fragrant wine. Wine made from grapes was called "sharab"; from other fruits (such as apples, pomegranates and mulberry), it was known as "nabiz". In addition, many types of wines were named "chakhir."

Historical sources have preserved the names of the wine brands used in Azerbaijan during the Middle Ages. They include: Reyhani, Jumhuri, Mishmish, Valani, Arastun, Handigun and Salmaveyh. None of these names are used today, having been replaced by brand names that include: Ipek Yolu, Tovuz, Yeddi Gozel, etc


During the Middle Ages consumption of wine was strictly prohibited by Islam; however, wine was used, especially by the ruling class. The famous writer and landowner from the southern coast of the Caspian, Keikavus Ibn Isgandar (10thcentury) wrote his son a letter: "I'm not telling you: 'Stop drinking wine,' because I know young people will not follow the advice of their elders. I was given the same advice, but didn't pay any attention to my own elders' words. Only now that I am 50 years old has God taken pity upon me so that I could quit drinking." [91]

In the Middle Ages, some representatives of the nobility in Azerbaijan used wine to alleviate tiredness and entertain their guests. In 1669, Muhammad Mu'min, Court Physician to Shah Suleyman Safavi, advised wealthy people in arranging healthy wine-feasts ("sharab majlisi"): "To entertain and alleviate physical tiredness, it is possible to arrange feasts and drink wine, but not more frequently than once or twice a month. However, you should take into account whether you were in good health or not. The feast should be arranged in a flowering garden amidst fragrant air and fountains. Invite musicians, singers and dancers. You should sit with clever, honest friends and listen to music, songs or poetry. Don't be boring and dull, entertain your friends by quoting poetry or telling interesting stories. When telling jokes, be careful not to offend anyone..." [60]


Wines were used for medical purposes as well. For example, Yusif Khoyi (1311) points out: "Small doses of medical wines strengthen the sense organs and the whole body. Medical wines treat melancholy, depression and bad moods. They decrease anger and nervousness, make humans more brave and generous and counter the effects of various poisons. Wines diluted with water are good against fever and cold." [89] Below are some examples of medical wines described in books written in the Middle Ages:

ROSE PETAL WINE. According to "Tibbname" (Book of Medicine, 18th century) rose petal wine was recommended against headaches, heart disease, stomach pain and fever. Recipe: Take 600 grams dried rose petals and tie in a little cloth pouch. Then place this pouch in a jar of 10 liters of grape juice and young wine. Cover the jar securely and keep in the shade for three months. Then filter the wine, pour it into another jar and store again. [72]

SALTY WINE. According to Hasan Ibn Reza Shirvani (17th century), this wine was used to treat chronic fever and constipation. It was also used as a diuretic, for the stomach, to alleviate pain in the joints and kidneys and to stimulate the appetite. It was especially recommended for elderly people. Recipe: Mix equal parts of sour grape juice with honey and 1/4 part of salt. Then pour the mixture into a jar and allow to mature for several months until the wine is ready.

CELERY-SEED WINE. Muhammad Mu'min (17th century) writes that this wine stimulates the appetite, is good for digestion and serves as a diuretic, eliminating waste substances. Recipe: Crush 260 grams of celery seeds, filter and place in a linen pouch inside a jar containing 1 liter of grape juice. Allow to mature for at least three months. [60]


Physicians of the Middle Ages used wines to treat various diseases [60]. Here are some examples of their recommendations:

MOUTH ULCERS. There is evidence that wine was used as an antiseptic. It was recommended to rinse the mouth with a strong, dry, sour-tasting wine. Both red and white sour wines were used. Treatment had to be continued for several days.

SORE THROAT. It was recommended to gargle with warm, sour, dry wine, preferably lemon, pomegranate, salty or quince medical wines. After gargling, no eating or drinking was permitted for about 20-30 minutes.

EAR INFLAMMATION. To treat pain and inflammation in children's ears, it was recommended to put a piece of cotton soaked in strong, old wine into the infected ear. It was believed that such treatment on a regular basis would heal the inflammation.

ANEMIA. According to "Tibbname" (Book of Medicine, 1712) anyone suffering from anemia should eat more meat and nutritious foods and drink sweet red wine. It was believed that red wine was transformed into blood in the organism. [72] Modern scientists have since confirmed that moderate use of port (sweet red wine) is good in treating anemia. Azerbaijani ports such as Kurdamir, Gizil Sharbat and Mil are sometimes used to treat anemia in Azerbaijan.

FLATULENCE AND GAS. To prevent indigestion and flatulence, it was recommended to drink some wine prior to eating. Medical wine of bitter wormwood resembling the modern absinthe (liqueur of wormwood) was used as a remedy against flatulence.

FROSTBITE. On cold days, it was recommended to drink wine instead of water before leaving home. Ibn Sina (980-1037) writes that medical wine to which the herb "ferula" (fennel family) had been added would effectively heat up the body. [1]

FEVER. To treat fever brought on by malaria, Muhammad Husein Khan (18th century) advised the use of so-called Spicy Wine. In addition, rose petal wine and Arastun wine were considered effective treatment against various kinds of fevers. [58]

LACK OF APPETITE. To stimulate the appetite, it was recommended to drink some spicy wine, especially with honey. Fragrant wine was believed to stimulate the creation of gastric juice, which facilitates the digestion of food. The wine brand named Reihani was used to stimulate the appetite as well. [60]

Medical wines were not necessarily alcoholic beverages, but resembled more the modern herbal infusions, such as valerian or mint infusions, based on spirits that are sold in modern drugstores. In general, medical wines that were once quite prevalent in Azerbaijan are mostly forgotten today.

However, I'm convinced that it is possible to revive them and, after carrying out necessary scientific studies and trials, to incorporate them into modern valid medical practice.


Don't talk with your mouth full." "Don't stuff yourself." "Don't put your elbows on the table." Most everyone has heard these admonitions at one time or another during childhood. But what about hundreds of years ago? Did these same rules apply?

In Azerbaijan, several medieval writers addressed the issue of proper table manners, telling their readers exactly what they should and should not do. Some of the rules were very practical, along the lines of, "Don't bite off more than you can chew." Hosts also received lessons on the proper way to entertain their guests - basically, as lavishly as possible.

In all of these works, the overarching theme is the importance of showing hospitality and respect to other people. Since eating is a social activity, "table manners" are a reflection of how one treats others. No matter what century you're in, table manners serve as a gauge of one's social graces and upbringing.

"Don't eat foods that you dislike or hate," writes Sultan Giyasaddin, one of several medieval thinkers who gave advice on eating and etiquette. Perhaps we can still learn from his 14th-century words of wisdom: "Be calm while you eat; don't be in a hurry. After eating, don't do any hard work or work that you hate." [76]

Similarly, Muhammad Azam Khan (18th century)\ recommends dining in a calm, comfortable environment: "For the dining room, it is necessary to arrange a comfortable, clean place with some decorations and fragrant odors. While eating, maintain an atmosphere of calmness, rest and satisfaction. Don't digress from eating; think only about the food you eat. Take food in small portions or sips, so it can be slowly digested. Avoid negative emotions like anger, irritation and dissatisfaction." [57]

In "Kitab al-Buhala" (The Book About Misers), the Arabian writer Abu Osman al-Jahiz (775-868 AD) uses humor to target those with impolite table manners [7]. He lists various breaches of etiquette: ”The Dragger drags out pieces of food from the pan and eats them before they are completely cooked. The Dipper dips pieces of bread in the pan to wipe up all of the juices, leaving his table companions without any oil. The Swallower takes a handful of pilaf, stuffs it down his throat and swallowswithout chewing. The Sucker taps the meat bones against a plate to extract the marrow and then sucks it down with a loud noise. The Shaker shakes his hands after washing them, splashing water on his companions. The Removertakes out the soft part of the bread loaf and eats it, leaving the crust for his companions. The Talker talks while he eats, even though there is still food in his mouth. The Choker is in such a hurry that he puts large pieces of food in his mouth and almost chokes on them. He often has to wash his food down with water. The Licker pokes his finger in the soup or sauce that has been prepared for everyone, then licks it. The Gnawer gnaws on bones at the table, just like an animal.” [7]

Here are some of the ideas proposed in the manuscript of Kutadgu Bilik (Sacred Knowledge) by Yusif Balasagunlu of the 11th century:

”When you choose a cook, make sure he is both honest and experienced in preparing meals. If he's dishonest, your food will stick in your throat and your stomach. When you hire someone to make beverages, make sure he has a good knowledge of herbs and is able to treat both constipation and diarrhea. Know when to eat food hot and when to eat it cold. When you're hot, eat cold; when you're cold, eat hot. When you're young, your blood is hot anyway, so drink and eat a lot of cold stuff. When you're over 40, eat and drink both cold and hot. When you're over 60, you need both hot food and hot beverages to chase away the cold.

Be modest. Don't feel obliged to accept every invitation. When you're a guest at someone's house, control your mouth and stomach: don't be a slave to them. Don't eat too much as it will cause constipation and you will feel sick and be in a bad mood. Eat slowly, chew thoroughly. Eat with your right hand. Don't be the first to reach for the food if there are older people present. Don't touch food that is in front of others. Don't gather all the food close to your own plate. Despite how hungry you may be, eat in accordance with others. If they eat little, you do the same.

Enjoy your food and make sure the hosts know that you appreciate their time and effort. When you invite guests, make sure everybody eats well. Make sure you serve a lot to drink as it facilitates digestion. Serve fruit both dried and fresh at the end of your meal. Don't forget to give your guests presents of expensive fabric [probably silk]. Distribute them equally so no one gets offended.” [90]

In "Akhlag-i-Nasiri" (The Moral of Nasir), famous scholart Nasraddin Tusi (1201-1274) also has a few words to say about proper table manners: "First of all, wash your hands and teeth. Don't eat until the host joins you. While eating, don't soil your face and clothes. Carefully pick up the food with three fingers. Don't open your mouth too wide. Don't lick your fingers. Don't study the dishes too closely, and don't smell them when choosing what to eat. Don't stare at the other guests while they are eating.

"If there are tasty or rare dishes, don't eat all of them; kindly invite your table companions to share these dishes as well. Don't reach to take dishes from the other corner of the tablespread. Don't spit food out onto the plate or tablecloth. If you find a bone or hair in your dish, remove it inconspicuously so you don't ruin anyone else's appetite. Don't use a toothpick when you are eating with other people.

"When you are full and satisfied, don't stand up right away; wait for your friends to finish as well. After eating, wash your hands, mouth, lips and teeth and carefully clean under your fingernails. Then dry your face and hands with a towel." [83]

Another bit of advice for hosts: it is impossible to feed your guests too much. Take for instance the splendid feasts thrown by Shah Khosrov, as described in Nizami Ganjavi's (1141-1203) poem "Khosrov and Shirin". No doubt the poet got carried away and exaggerated a bit.

From morning to evening he held feasts,
Dishes were set forth in deep plates, wine - in bowls.
The feast-table stretched for miles,
He fed a fly with a buffalo's portion,
A mosquito - with an elephant's.
Due to the abundance of dishes,
Guests didn't know what they ate.
Veal, lamb, birds and fish!
I don't know how much - as much as you wish!
Every morning, Khosrov would eat kabab;
Powdered pearl was added to every piece.
The pearl was bought for 10 manns (30kg) of gold.
From a merchant of Oman,
I have heard that such a pearl
Removes excessive moisture from an organism.
He ordered an oven to be made of silver,
Taxes were collected from the entire province.
Inside this oven servants put 10-15 manns of
fragrant aloe Instead of firewood.
A whole foal (deer) was roasted in the oven,
Prepared as Khosrov's food.
Roasted horsemeat was placed on a golden tray
Weighing 1,700 miscals (8kg).
He nibbled several small pieces,
With a taste of pistachio or sugar jelly.
Then he looked over the guests gathered in the palace,
And presented the golden tray and silver oven
with all its dishes
To the first person he happened to glance upon." [61]

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