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These remedies have been pro-

vided by families in Saudi Arabia,

Written by Robert W. Lebling and Donna Pepperdine Bahrain, Yemen, Oman and the
Photographed by Donna Pepperdine United Arab Emirates, and repre-
Excerpted with permission from Natural Remedies of Arabia (ISBN 1-905299-02-8), sent past and present use of natu-
ral substances in folk healing.
published by Stacey International (London) and Al-Turath (Riyadh)
References to “provinces”
(e.g., Eastern Province, Central

Province) are to the provinces
hether you are in Doha, Dubai, Manama, Salalah, Jiddah or an of Saudi Arabia.
obscure country village, when you step into an herbal medicine The information presented
shop or wander through the traditional suqs (markets), you will is for educational purposes only
and should not be relied upon
find vendors of herbs, spices, bark, twigs, rocks and salt intended for the treatment of illnesses or
for culinary, cosmetic or medicinal purposes. other physical conditions.
As you gaze at the piles of twisted bark or the varied combinations of dried flowers, you
may wonder: What are these products? Where do they come from? How are they used locally?
These fascinating items whisper tales of the ancient trade routes, for many still come to Arabia from India, China, Indonesia, Egypt,
Syria and other exotic locations, and are distributed across the Peninsula through existing commercial networks. Others are harvested
locally, some under harsh desert conditions, and have their own fascinating stories to tell.
The people of the Arabian Peninsula have, for centuries, combined goods obtained by trade and barter with a prudent use of local
plants and have developed a rich heritage of folk medicine.
Many of the natural remedies presented here are the result of a questionnaire distributed throughout the Arabian Peninsula in early
2002. The questionnaire, printed in both Arabic and English, asked families to explain how they, as well as their mothers and grand-
mothers, use various herbs, spices and other substances in natural healing. It also requested specific remedies for conditions such as
headache, colds and coughs, sore throats, hair loss, general fatigue, childbirth and so on. We present their generous responses, which have
helped to unlock many of the mysteries of local medicinal herb shops and reveal unique insights into the natural remedies of Arabia.

12 Saudi Aramco World

ALUM ANISE of the toothbrush? One answer is the
miswak! A miswak (plural: masawik) is
Arabic: Shabba, Shabb; Other English: Arabic: Anisun, Yansun, Yansoon
Potassium Alum, Potash Alum Pimpinella anisum a fibrous stick prepared from the root
First-time visitors to Middle Eastern Umbelliferae/Apiaceae (Parsley Family) of the arak tree. It has antiseptic and
markets may be puzzled to see piles of From cookies to colds, this tiny, aro- astringent properties which help clean
stones displayed prominently among the matic, gray-brown seed—often called and protect the teeth and gums. A high-
herbs and spices. One of them is alum, aniseed—serves families across the quality miswak has a strong, pungent
a crystal-white mineral often imported Arabian Peninsula. Saudi merchants smell. It is pale yellow or cream in color.
from China. Alum is a compound of import much of their aniseed from It is moist and flexible.
several metals, including aluminum. It is Syria and India. Anise also grows The Prophet Mohammad, founder
an astringent, widely used in the Middle in Egypt, Cyprus, Crete and on the of Islam, recommended the miswak
East to control bleeding and to clean Eastern Mediterranean coast. to his followers. He used it to sweeten
and heal wounds. Shabba powder is his breath during fasting and
How to use: advised its use prior to prayer.
mixed with henna for skin decoration,
1) For tea, This practice is still popular in
and when applied to the underarms,
simmer one Arabia today.
it acts as a deodorant. Alum is not
teaspoon of The arak is a short evergreen
ingested, nor is it used in cooking.
aniseed in tree that grows in sandy and arid
Did you know? a cup of areas of the Middle East and
• In ancient Babylon, physicians used water for Africa. Sheep and goats like to
alum in a mouthwash, as a styptic, as about 10 nibble its leaves.
a pessary for menorrhagia, as a nasal minutes.
douche, and as a treatment for itchy Strain and How to use: Soak the root in
scabs, gonorrhea and purulent oph- drink; 2) Grind seeds to powder for use water for a few hours to soften the natu-
thalmia. Greek and then Arab medical in baking; 3) Chew the seeds to freshen ral fibers. Then scrape off five to 10
authorities continued these practices, the mouth and aid digestion. millimeters ( 1⁄4 – 1⁄2") of bark from the tip
and went on to use alum for the treat- and gently chew until fibers have sepa-
In the kitchen: Licorice-flavored aniseed rated and the root becomes brush-like.
ment of leprosy, bad gums, pustules
provides subtle flavor to cookies and Clean the teeth by rubbing the miswak
and ear trouble.
other sweets. up and down and sideways as you
• The alums are valuable in paper man-
ufacturing, textile dyeing, fireproofing, Remedies across Arabia: Anise is a pop- would a conventional plastic toothbrush.
water purification, and in medicine as ular folk medicine, with a long tradition When the fibers become overused, sim-
astringents, styptics and emetics. in Islamic pharmacology. It is used to ply cut off the tip of the miswak, scrape
• The Alum Mountain, in Bulahdelah, treat general abdominal pain, colic, off more bark and continue to use as
Australia, is the only known above- indigestion, menstrual cramping, coughs before. To retain freshness, keep miswak
ground outcrop of alum stone (alunite) and headaches. It is also believed to in the refrigerator or soak in water.
in the world. clean the urinary system and prevent Did you know?
inflammations. Anise has aromatic, • Arak roots contain triclosan, an effec-
diaphoretic, relaxant, stimulant, tonic, tive antibacterial used in modern
carminative and stomachic properties. toothpastes. Other ingredients include
Did you know? fluoride, vitamin C, alkaloids and
• Anise is sometimes confused with fen- small amounts of tannins and
nel (Foeniculum vulgare), particularly flavenoids.
the Iranian varieties, which are quite • A herbal
similar in appearance and flavor. toothpaste
• An oil distilled from anise is what with pure mis-
gives licorice candy its flavor. wak extract
• Anise is a key ingredient of supari, (made by a
• Using shabba deodorant stones is con- hygiene-prod-
the digestive spice mix served after
sidered safe and will not cause high a curry meal. ucts company
levels of aluminum in your system. in India) is
This is because potassium alum mole-
cules have a negative ionic charge,
ARAK currently mar-
keted in Saudi
and the aluminum is unable to pass
Arabic: Arak, Rak; Other English:
Toothbrush Tree, Mustard Tree, Saltbush Arabia and

through cell walls. other countries

• Bauxite, the ore from which alum is
Salvadora persica L.; Salvadoraceae
Have you ever wondered how people of the region.
drawn, can be purified and converted • Other natural
cleaned their teeth before the invention
directly into alum. toothbrush

September/October 2006 13
sources, when arak is not available, than the resin, because it is normally tree, but does not have a woody trunk
include the peelo tree, the olive tree, blended with rice flour. The resin should or boughs. It springs from an under-
the bitam tree, the walnut tree, the be fried in hot oil before using. A pea- ground rhizome to form a false trunk
neem tree or any bitter tree that is not sized quantity is enough to flavor a three to six meters (10–20') high and
harmful or poisonous in any way! large pot of lentils or vegetables. Store is crowned with a rosette of 10–20
asafetida in an air-tight container. beautiful, oblong banana leaves.
ASAFETIDA Remedies across Arabia: Asafetida is
History credits Arab traders with
giving the banana its popular name.
Arabic: Haltita, Hiltit; Other English: available in Middle Eastern herb shops
Asafoetida, Giant Fennel, Devil’s Dung, Although there are several hundred
and can be purchased in lump resin or
Stinking Gum, Food of the Gods varieties which differ in taste, color,
powdered form.
Ferula assa-foetida or F. asafoetida; form and size, Arab traders noted that
Umbelliferae/Apiaceae (Parsley Family) Did you know? bananas growing in Africa and Asia
• Alexander the Great is credited with were small, about the size of a man’s
When the doorbell rang, Khalid
knew that his grandmother had arrived carrying asafetida west in the fourth finger, and so called them banan, which
with her infamous family remedy: the century BC, following his expeditions means “fingertips” in Arabic. “Banana”
foul-smelling gum resin of the asafetida into the Persian Empire (modern is the singular form.
plant. His mind raced to find an excuse, Afghanistan). Bananas are rich in potassium,
• The famous ancient Roman gourmet riboflavin, niacin and dietary fiber.
any excuse, to avoid taking it. He felt
uncertain that the effort required to Apicius (first century) used asafetida They also contain vitamins A and C
swallow the bitter substance was worth in over half of his recipes. and some calcium and iron. Bananas
• The British explorer Charles Doughty, are a quick source of energy.
the cure. Yet he knew his grandmother
would be firm. Her words still echoed who traveled throughout Arabia in the
How to use: In banana-producing coun-
to him from times of past sickness: mid-19th century, called asafetida “a
tries, vegetables and spices are some-
“You know, Khalid, asafetida has been drug which the Arabs have in sover-
times wrapped in banana leaves and
used for ages as an effective medicine eign estimation.”
• Asafetida is native to Iran and western
then steamed. Banana leaves are used
in the Arab as serving plates, as tablecloths and as
world. It Afghanistan.
• Modern herbalists regard asafetida as
barriers between a wood fire and a pot.
works They are even used for thatching roofs
mainly to a sedative, antispasmodic and circula-
and making rope.
improve the tory agent. It is also known to relieve
digestive sys- intestinal and stomach upsets. In the kitchen: Bananas can be eaten
• Asafetida is much used in the Ayur- fresh or dried. The dried fruit can be
tem, but it’s
also used vedic tradition and is also popular in ground into a nutritious banana flour.
as a pain- Indian vegetarian cooking. A very old and traditional breakfast
• Al-Kindi, an Islamic scholar of the in Makkah is omelet with banana.
reliever, a
cough medi- ninth century, used asafetida to Masoub, also featuring the banana,
cine and a blood thinner. We’ll use it to counter phlegm and treat sore throat, is currently a popular Hijazi breakfast
treat your upset stomach.” Khalid had tooth pain, rheumatism and nervous dish. Kanafa with banana is a delicious
no choice but to agree—and he soon conditions, and also as an aphrodisiac. dessert.
• Asafetida gets its name from the
felt better. In Saudi Arabia today, fami- Remedies across Arabia: For diarrhea,
lies still turn to asafetida as a “last- Persian aza, for mastic or resin, and
use cornstarch and water; yogurt; tea
resort” treatment for coughs, colds, the Latin foetidus, for stinking.
leaves; mashed potatoes; bananas.
fevers and stomach discomfort. It is not
the most popular home remedy; parents BANANA Did you know?
• Hundreds of banana varieties thrive
must coach their children to hold their Arabic: Mauz
nose and swallow quickly in order to Musa sapientum; Musaceae in the tropics. Bananas grow in Egypt,
tolerate the strong smell and bitter taste. (Banana Family) Yemen, Oman and other Arab coun-
The banana plant is the world’s tries. In the Nile River, near Luxor,
How to use: 1) Melt in hot water and Egypt, local boats sail to Gazirat al-
largest herb. It is often mistaken for a
drink; 2) Grind or crush the lump resin Mauz (“Banana Island”),
into powder or melt it in liquid and use where visitors can sample
sparingly as a cooking spice. fruits from a large banana
In the kitchen: Despite its sulfurous orchard.
• The banana has been culti-
smell, asafetida, when cooked, imparts
a surprisingly pleasant flavor to many vated in India for at least
foods. In Indian cuisine, it is a substi- 4000 years. Bananas are
tute for onion or garlic. Use in small widely used in Indian folk
amounts. The powdered form is milder medicine for the treatment
of diabetes mellitus.

14 Saudi Aramco World

BLACK SEED dissolve kidney stones; and increase
intelligence. Black seed is used to beau-
second year, producing small white
and apple-green flowers and fruit.
Arabic: Habba Souda, Habbat al-Barakah;
Other English: Fennel Flower, Black Cumin tify skin, nourish hair and stimulate The fruit, commonly called seeds, can
Nigella sativa; Ranunculaceae hair growth. be separated from the plant when ripe
(Buttercup Family) and then dried in the sun.
Did you know?
Native to the Mediterranean and • Most experts believe the word
• Black seed was found in Tutankhamen’s
grown throughout the Middle East and caraway comes originally from the
tomb. This suggests that black seed
parts of Asia, Nigella sativa Greek word karon, which means
had an important role in ancient
is cultivated for its cumin! Caraway and cumin seeds
Egypt, since it was customary to place
seeds, which are are very similar in appearance. Arabic
in tombs items needed for the afterlife.
known as the • In the Old Testament, the prophet
borrowed the word as karawiya,
“seeds of bless- which medieval Latin transformed into
Isaiah contrasts Nigella (black cumin)
ing.” For the carui or carvi (as in Carum carvi).
with wheat. (See Isaiah 28: 25, 27.)
Arabs, black seed
is not only a food
but also a valued
Arabic: Karawya, Karawiya Arabic: Hal, Hail; Other English:
traditional medicine
Carum carvi; Umbelliferae/Apiaceae Cardamom, Lesser Cardamom,
that has long been used
(Parsley Family) Small Cardamom, Malabar Cardamom
to treat such ailments as
Some botanists say that caraway is
Elettaria cardamomum; Zingiberaceae
asthma, flatulence, polio, kidney
the world’s oldest known herb. It is
(Ginger Family)
stones, abdominal pain and so on. It Imagine an ancient trade caravan
mentioned in the Bible and other
has served as an important health and moving slowly up the Frankincense
ancient texts, and has
beauty aid for thousands of years. Trail in western Arabia toward the
been found in
According to tradition, the Prophet Mediterranean. The spices and aromat-
European archeo-
Muhammad described black seed as a ics burdening the camels could be from
logical excava-
cure for every disease except death. The Yemen, East Africa, India or distant
tions dating back
great physician Ibn Sina (980–1037), China. Although anticipating lucrative
8000 years. In
better known as Avicenna, stated that exchanges with merchants of the
the spice markets
black seed works as an expectorant, Mediterranean, caravaners also stop in
of Arabia, caraway
stimulates the body’s energy and helps villages along the way where both vil-
can be found along-
overcome fatigue and dispiritedness. lagers and Bedouins are eager to barter.
side her sister spices of
Exchanging goat meat, fresh produce
How to use: 1) Eat black seeds plain; 2) anise (yansoon), fennel (shamr) and
or woven baskets, the local tradesmen
Eat a teaspoon of black seed mixed with cumin (kamun). You need only ask
obtain the cardamom necessary to
honey; 3) Boil black seed with water. for karawiya (from which we get the
flavor traditional Arabic coffee.
Strain and drink; 4) Heat black seed and English word caraway) to take some
warm milk until it just begins to boil. home. Caraway is grown throughout
Remove from heat. Cool, then drink; Europe, the Mediterranean area, North
5) Grind black seed and swallow it with Africa, Asia and North America.
water or milk; 6) Sprinkle on bread
Did you know?
and pastries; 7) Burn black seed with • Caraway seed is the spice which gives
bukhoor (incense) for a pleasant scent.
rye bread its characteristic flavor.
In the kitchen: Black seed is aromatic • Caraway is important in Tunisian cui-
with a slight peppery flavor. It is one sine and is sometimes an ingredient
of the distinct flavors of Arab pastries. of harissa, a fiery North African condi-
It is often sprinkled on breads and ment made from dried hot peppers.
cheese. It is heated with milk for fla- • Caraway leaves may be used as a herb
vor. It is eaten ground with honey or in salads and as a garnish, while its
with cakes and pastries. seeds may be used as a spice in breads,
cheese spreads, pastas and vegetable
Remedies across Arabia: In Arabia,
and fruit dishes.
black seed remains a traditional remedy
• Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the Native to India and Sri Lanka,
for asthma, coughs, stomach aches,
first century, recommended oil of car- cardamom is a well-loved spice in the
abdominal pain, colic, general fatigue,
away be rubbed into skin to improve Arabian Peninsula. Arab coffee is heavily
rheumatism, mouth and larynx diseases,
a pale girl’s complexion. flavored with it. In fact, cardamom is a
skin diseases and cancer. It is also
• Caraway is a biennial. It grows as a valuable ingredient in Middle Eastern
believed to strengthen a mother after
small green plant the first year and cuisine: in beverages, sweets, pastries
childbirth; stimulate menstruation, uri-
then up to 60 centimeters (2') tall the and main dishes.
nation and liver functions; aid digestion;

September/October 2006 15
How to use: 1) Bruise cardamom pods
until partially open; remove cardamom
CAMOMILE Did you know?
• In 1656, John Parkinson wrote,
Arabic: Babunaj, Babunij;
seeds from their pods; gently bruise Other English: Chamomile “Camomill is put to divers and sundry
seeds or dry-fry over gentle heat to German Chamomile: Matricaria uses, both for pleasure and profit, both
release their flavor; or 2) Grind seeds recutita, Matricaria chamomilla for the sick and the sound, in bathing
into powder. Saudi Chamomile: Matricaria aurea; to comfort and strengthen the sound
Asteraceae (Aster Family) and to ease pains in the diseased.”
In the kitchen: Cardamom is a vital
One thing every Bedouin, villager • Al-Kindi used camomile in a strong
ingredient in Arabian coffee making. Its
and city dweller can tell you is that dressing for the spleen and in an appli-
flavor can be added to the beverage by
camomile tea is relaxing and aids cation to relax the liver and stomach.
grinding cardamom pods and adding
digestion. Along with this fact comes • Camomile tea is used in the Levant to
the powdered cardamom to already
the widespread belief that the best strengthen a mother after childbirth.
brewed coffee. Cloves, saffron, sugar,
babunaj comes from the north. As a • Camomile is used in perfumes, soaps,
nakhwa (See page 19.) or rose water are
result, packaged herbal teas from Syria bath oils, skin-care products and in
also sometimes added for flavor. “Sweet
and Jordan are popular supermarket shampoos to add luster to blonde hair.
coffee,” which doesn’t contain any cof-
items. These medicinal teas feature • With a reputation as a mild bleach,
fee at all, is a traditional drink from the
camomile but may also contain corian- camomile has been used to lighten
Hijaz. It is a wonderful, warm beverage
der, black seed, anise, rose, lemon blonde hair by pouring two cups
with a pleasant cardamom flavor. It
balm, hibiscus, thyme or sage. of boiling water over a handful of
is served on special occasions such
camomile flowers and infusing for 30
as graduation day, which is the day How to use: Use the flower heads to minutes. After shampooing the hair,
students receive their grade cards. brew a medicinal tea. rinse several times with this camomile
Remedies across Arabia: A member In the kitchen: Many families keep infusion while it is still warm. It is a
of the ginger family, cardamom is a camomile readily available. To make very pleasant hair rinse.
carminative and a stimulant. It warms camomile tea, boil water and then
the body and helps relieve indigestion
and gas.
pour one cup of the water over four
teaspoons of dried flowers. Infuse for
Arabic: Khiyar
Did you know? five to 10 minutes and then strain. Cucumis sativus; Cucurbitaceae
• Cardamom is one of the most expen- Add honey for a sweeter taste and (Gourd Family)
sive spices in the world. This is drink the tea warm. Cucumbers are produced on
because each individual fruit pod Remedies across Arabia: Camomile small farms throughout the Arabian
containing the desired seed spice is a valued nervine, carminative and Peninsula and sold in local fruit and
must be harvested from its flower general tonic. Camomile tea is well- vegetable markets. Cucumbers have
stalk by hand. Flower stalks must be known for settling the stomach and long been known in eastern and west-
carefully examined and re-examined aiding digestion after a meal. It is also ern traditional medicine as one of the
as the fruit pods develop at different relaxing and can help promote sleep best natural diuretics. The effect is in
rates. Harvested while
still green and firm,
the pods are then dried
and sold.
• About 1000 years ago,
the Vikings discovered
cardamom in their explo-
rations and conquests
around the Mediterranean.
They introduced this spice
to Scandinavia, where
it is still used extensively
in baking spiced cakes
and breads.
• Cardamom was one of
the most popular Oriental
spices in ancient Roman
• Ground cardamom can
soften a plastic spoon left
in it for several days.

16 Saudi Aramco World

the seeds, which are rich in sulfur, sili- • The cucumber is a fruit because it closer to autumn, whereas a darker
con and potassium. contains the seeds to reproduce. color is harvested closer to spring.
Cucumbers originated in Asia, prob- Botanically speaking, a fruit is the • Although the frankincense gathering
ably in India, and spread into Europe mature ovary of a plant, such as a season lasts from May through mid-
about 3000 years ago. Today Indian cucumber, apple, melon or tomato. September, the product is available
medicine prescribes cucumber juice for • Cucumbers, along with squash, year-round in traditional local markets
an array of ailments, including constipa- melons and pumpkins, belong to of the Middle East.
tion, stomach disorders, urinary prob- the group of vegetables known as • Due to unique climatic conditions, the
lems, rheumatism and even cholera. cucurbits, or vine crops. best frankincense is produced by trees
growing in the mountainous Dhofar
How to use: 1) Slice or finely chop the
cucumber to add to salads; 2) Slice, FRANKINCENSE region of Oman. In addition to Oman,
frankincense today is grown in Yemen,
grate or mash the cucumber for use Arabic: Luban; Other English: Olibanum,
Oil of Lebanon Ethiopia, Somalia and India.
in skin-care applications.
Boswellia sacra or B. carteri or • In the days of the pharaohs, frankin-
In the kitchen: Middle Eastern cuisine B. thurifera; Burseraceae (Frankincense cense trees were imported into Egypt,
would not be the same without the and Myrrh Family) where they were grown for the gum,
cucumber. Traditional salads, such as Frankincense is crystallized tree which was burned in religious rituals.
fattoush and tabbouleh, call for this fruit sap—a hardened gum or resin exuded • Tenth-century Persian physician Ibn
by a small tree that grows in the coastal Sina (known to the West as Avicenna)
regions of the southern Arabian Penin- recommended using frankincense in
sula and nearby coastal East Africa. In treatments for tumors, ulcers, vomit-
ancient times, frankincense was a pre- ing, dysentery and fever.
cious commodity, sometimes more • Frankincense today remains an ingre-
valuable than gold. Merchants brought dient in various incense mixtures
this treasure to the great civilization burned in rituals of the Roman
centers of Europe and Western Asia by Catholic and Orthodox churches.
sea and by a land trail through Yemen • Western herbalists regard frankincense
and up the Arabian Red Sea coast to essential oil as an anti-inflammatory,
the Levant. In Saudi Arabia and other antiseptic and astringent, and say it is
Gulf countries, frankincense is used as useful as a uterine tonic during preg-
posing as a vegetable, as does the popu- incense today, though not in religious nancy and labor.
lar yogurt and cucumber salad, which ceremonies. • Charred frankincense has been used
complements and cools rice and meat to make kohl, the black powder tradi-
dishes. Sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, How to use: 1) Chew as a gum. This tionally used by women in the Middle
drizzled with lemon juice and garnished is a popular use as frankincense has a East to paint their eyelids.
with fresh mint and parsley, form the mild, pleasant taste and helps to elimi-
renowned cucumber and tomato salad.
Arranged decoratively on a serving plate,
nate bad breath. 2) Suck on a granule
to relieve nausea; 3) Soak frankincense
granules in water and drink the strained
Arabic: Thum, Thoom
it is a simple yet healthy choice. Allium sativum; Alliaceae (Onion Family)
liquid; 4) Burn as incense for a pleasant
Remedies across Arabia: Suparna Botanist David Hooper, in his sur-
scent or waft on clothing.
Trikha, one of India’s leading natural vey of useful plants in Iran and Iraq in
beauty experts, advised that the juice Did you know? the 1930’s, observed that garlic was the
made from cucumber skin can be a • Frankincense comes in five main col- potherb par excellence of the East—not
soothing lotion and skin cleanser. She ors: white, pale lemon, pale amber, only was it used in a dizzying array of
also suggested grating cucumber and pale green and dark amber. The color culinary dishes, but it also aided diges-
massaging the pulp into the skin and of the gum resin is influenced by its tion and was a gastric stimulant. If
leaving it to dry. Splashing fresh water harvest time. A whiter gum is collected anything, Hooper’s comment was an
and gently wiping the face after 10 understatement. We now know garlic
minutes or so is a good way to slow has a wealth of other medicinal proper-
the advance of wrinkles. Additionally, ties to complement its enduring value as
cucumber slices are put on swollen eyes, a cooking herb.
to reduce the swelling. Garlic, a bulbous perennial, proba-

bly originated in Central Asia, the only

Did you know? place where it grows wild. (There are
• Cucumbers were a popular food in
other plants in other lands referred to
ancient Rome, and historian Pliny as “wild garlic”; they are part of the
the Elder reports that the Emperor Allium genus but are not true garlic,
Tiberius ate large quantities. A. sativum. Garlic has edible flowers

September/October 2006 17
but it is primarily Did you know? Remedies across Arabia:
grown for its • The Greek historian Hero- • Although it doesn’t taste very good
bulbs, each of dotus, during a tour of Egypt, because it is so bitter, myrrh is used
which contains reported seeing an inscription to alleviate inflammation in the body.
12 to 20 cloves. on the Great Pyramid at Giza • Myrrh water is an excellent mouth-
Garlic has that recorded the quantities wash and is helpful for mouth sores or
been cul- of radishes, onions and garlic blisters, sore throats, bronchial conges-
tivated by consumed by the laborers tion and other conditions requiring an
humans who constructed it. antiseptic astringent.
from time • According to tradition, the Prophet • For burns, soak myrrh in a small
immemorial. Muhammad recommended garlic, amount of water. It is put on burns
Hundreds of applied topically, to remedy viper bites to reduce scars and to help in quickly
varieties have and scorpion stings. healing wounds and to remove warts.
spread out from • Al-Kindi, the medieval Arab physician, (Southern Province)
Asia to encompass used garlic in a drug for treating ear- • In the past, myrrh oil was wiped
the globe. aches and other diseases of the ear. on a new baby’s navel. (Bahrain)
• Despite garlic’s known antibiotic • Myrrh is very good to have if you
How to use: 1) Crush, chop or use
activity, and despite Internet rumors have external cuts. It makes them
garlic cloves whole to flavor dishes;
to the contrary, there have been no get better quickly. (Central Province)
2) Bake, roast or grill a bulb of garlic.
scientific studies showing garlic has • We use myrrh for so many uses, for
When softened, squeeze out the pulp
any effect against anthrax. example to treat sores, appendicitis
from the individual cloves to eat;
pain after operation, boils, stomach
3) Mash the softened pulp of baked
garlic to form a smooth paste and MYRRH aches and the colon. Soak myrrh
stones in water. Then place the water
use it in soups, sauces and dips. Arabic: Murr, Murrah
Commiphora myrrha or C. molmol or on the area of pain for boils, or
Alternatively, grind fresh garlic to
Balsamodendron myrrha; Burseraceae drink it. (Central Province)
a paste with a mortar and pestle.
(Frankincense and Myrrh Family) • Myrrh is used to help healing of
In the kitchen: Garlic is a much appre- Myrrh is collected from the stems of wounds, minor burns and wounds
ciated ingredient in both hummus bi bushy shrubs found growing in south- of simple surgical operations.
tahina (chickpea and sesame puree) ern Arabia and Somalia. A granular (Southern Province)
and baba ghannouj (eggplant and secretion exits the stem through natural Did you know?
sesame puree), two popular dips with fissures, or cuts, as a pale yellow liquid. • Ancient Egyptians wore unguent
Arab bread. It then hardens to a reddish-brown cones saturated with myrrh, marjo-
When frying, use enough olive oil mass. It can be found in different sizes ram, sweet flag or lotus. They put the
or butter to coat the pan and stir often. in the marketplace, most pieces being cones on their heads in the morning,
Garlic burns quickly if cooked over the size of large marbles or walnuts. and as the day grew hot, the cones
high heat. The word myrrh means “bitter” in would slowly melt, running down
Store garlic in a cool, dark pantry. Arabic. Myrrh is one of the best anti- the body, keeping the skin moist and
Garlic stored in the refrigerator quickly septics known, an astringent and a repelling insects throughout the day.
dries out and rots. stimulant. • Myrrh is an oil referenced through-
Remedies across Arabia: How to use: 1) Soak myrrh granules out the Old and New Testaments.
• Use garlic for ant bites. (Northern The Arabian people used it for many
in water for two to three days and
Province) then drink the strained liquid; skin conditions, such as wrinkled,
• Use a clove of garlic to relieve the pain chapped and cracked skin. It has
2) Swallow small granules like pills;
of a bee sting. (United Arab Emirates) 3) Burn as incense. one of the highest levels of sesquiter-
• Use an ointment made of ground gar- penes, a class of compounds that has
lic on a wound even if it hurts, since direct effects on the hypothal-
this prevents gangrene. Also, you can amus, pituitary and amyg-
clean wounds by mixing ground gar- dala, the seat of our emotions.
lic in warm water and washing the Myrrh is widely used today
wound with it to kill the microbes. in oral hygiene products.
(Eastern Province) • The Muslim physician al-Razi
• Rub a raw garlic clove on the spot (Rhazes), perhaps the greatest
where a scorpion stings you, and it of all medieval clinicians, used
will heal. (Eastern Province) myrrh to treat ailments of the
• My grandmother used garlic to kill kidneys and bladder, to dissi-
warts and prevent them from reap- pate swellings in the stomach
pearing. (Bahrain) and for colic.

18 Saudi Aramco World

• In Egypt today, traditional medicine Did you know? unguent distilled from petroleum and
practitioners use myrrh as a stimulant, • Like black seed (Nigella sativa), then purified—is sometimes used in
expectorant, antispasmodic, emmena- nakhwa is a popular ingredient in bakery products as a release agent.
gogue, antiputrescent and astringent. many herbal medicinal blends. Petrolatum meets modern US Food and
It is also used to treat dental caries • The ancient Sumerians described Drug Administration requirements
and inflamed gums. nakhwa as a “plant of the mountain.” for medicinal, cosmetic-formula and
• Myrrh is a fixative, meaning it • Nakhwa is grown in Pakistan, animal-feed use, and is also approved
increases the longevity of the aroma Afghanistan, Iran, India and Egypt. for direct contact with food.
of any fragrance it is combined with • Though more commonly cultivated
Remedies across Arabia: Descriptions
but doesn’t dominate or overpower today in Asia, nakhwa is actually of
of petroleum’s healing powers date from
that fragrance. African origin, and some Arabs call
2000 years ago, although its traditional
• Scientific tests have shown myrrh to it “Ethiopian cumin” (al-kammun
medicinal use is probably much older.
possess significant antibacterial and al-habashi).
Oil-and-water baths were supposed to
anti-inflammatory properties. • Al-Kindi (ca. 800–870) used nakhwa
strengthen the body. Ointments of bitu-
in a preparation for hemorrhoids.
men and other chemicals were often
NAKHWA • Nakhwa seeds yield 40 to 55 percent
thymol, a valuable crystalline phenol
applied to sores or broken bones. Other
Arabic: Nakhwa, Nankha or Nanakhwah; petroleum preparations acted as anti-
Hindi: Ajwain or Ajowan; extracted for medicinal purposes.
dotes to poison, fumigants, disinfectants
Other English: Bishop’s-Weed In the West, thymol is used in some
or laxatives.
Trachyspermum ammi, Carum ajowan, cough medicines.
The Book of the Powers of
Carum copticum, Ammi copticum Remedies, a medical text prepared by
Umbelliferae/Apiaceae PETROLEUM Masarjawah, a prominent physician
(Carrot/Celery/Parsley Family) Arabic: Naft, Batrul living in Basra, Iraq, during the sev-
Although few people are aware of it enth century, described the benefits
today, petroleum was once considered of ingesting oil for fighting disease
an effective natural remedy not only in and infection. Masarjawah wrote:
the Middle East but in many parts of “Warm naphtha, especially water-
the world. Oil upwellings and gas vents white naphtha, when ingested in
were known anciently in present-day small doses, is excellent for suppress-
Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, ing cough, for asthma, bladder dis-
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Natural comfort and arthritis.”
deposits of thickened petroleum (also The All-Encompassing Dictionary
called “bitumen”) seeped from open- states, “The best grade of naphtha is the
ings on land or floated to the surface water-white. It is a good solvent, a dilu-
of lakes. It was easy to gather and was ent and an expectorant. Taken internally,
used as a building material, waterproof- it relieves cramps and aches of the belly,
ing material, lubricant, adhesive, medi- and, when applied topically, it can
cine, fuel, illuminant and fumigant, and soothe skin rashes and infections.”
Used as medicine by the ancient even as a weapon. Vicks VapoRub, a nasal decongestant,

Greeks and Arabs, nakhwa is still con- cough suppressant and topical analgesic,
How to use: The All-Encompassing
sidered a natural remedy. You can buy contains petrolatum, and other salves,
Dictionary (Al-Qamus al-Muhit), writ-
the aromatic seeds as well as a distillate. suppositories and cosmetic products also
ten in Makkah in the 15th century by
How to use: 1) Release the aroma of the Abu Tahir al-Fayruzabadi, a scholar of benefit from the consistency contributed
seeds before use by rubbing between Persian descent, reveals that oil was by petrolatums.
your fingertips, crushing with a mortar commonly sold Did you know?
and pestle or gently stirring while as medicine and • Akkadian clay tablets from about
warming in a frying pan; 2) Use seeds as a fuel for 2200 BC referred to crude oil as
whole or grind them into powder form. lighting, and naptu, from which derives the
that it was used root of the Arabic naft.
In the kitchen: Nakhwa is sometimes
as an incendiary • William Rockefeller, father of
added to traditional Arab coffee. In
in a type of mili- John D. Rockefeller, sold bottles
addition to providing a unique flavor, it
tary flame of raw petroleum to country folk
is believed to soften the impact of coffee
thrower. as a cure for cancer.
on the stomach and reduce the effects
of caffeine. In fact, some people across In the kitchen: • Petroleum is used today in homeo-
Arabia drink nakhwa as a substitute for Petrolatum—a pathic medicine to treat motion
Arab coffee to totally eliminate negative neutral, odor- sickness, eczema and other skin
coffee effects. less, tasteless problems, nausea and diarrhea.

September/October 2006 19
POMEGRANATE Did you know?
• Pomegranate seeds are rich in vitamin
British Isles, saffron was brought back
to England by the crusaders of the 13th
Arabic: Rumman
Punica granatum; C and are a good source of dietary century. Historically, saffron has been
Lythraceae/ fiber. used for medicine, perfume, dye and
Punicaceae • Commercially produced pomegranate as a cooking spice.
While native syrup is called grenadine.
How to use: The stigmas produce a
to Iran and its • The Romans called the pomegranate
bright yellow or orange color when
neighboring fruit punicum, the Latin name for
added to water. If a recipe requires
countries, the Carthage, because they believed that
ground saffron, one can crush or grind
pomegranate the best pomegranates came from
it to a powder. Be sure it is evenly dis-
was cultivated there.
tributed when added to the recipe.
in ancient times • The Spanish name for the pomegran-
Sifting the ground saffron with the
all around the ate is granada, and its fruit appears
dry ingredients is one way to insure
Mediterranean and on Granada’s city seal.
a good mix.
throughout the Arabian Peninsula. It • Pomegranate is believed to be the inspi-
If using whole saffron threads, soak
is a deciduous tree or large shrub that ration for the hand-tossed explosive
them for about 10 minutes in a warm
produces excellent fruit under semiarid called a grenade. When a pomegranate
liquid required by the recipe, such as
conditions. is dropped on a hard surface, it bursts
milk, water or broth. The color and fla-
and seeds are tossed everywhere. The
How to use: 1) Eat the fleshy seeds to vor of the stigmas will be released into
military borrowed the modern French
enjoy a delicious, slightly tart flavor; the liquid. A pinch of saffron to a cup
name for the fruit, grenade.
2) Dry the seeds and use in cooking; of liquid yields enough color and flavor
for about half a kilo (1 lb) of rice. A
3) Extract the juice from the seeds for
a refreshing drink or as a flavoring
SAFFRON little saffron goes a long way.
agent in cooking; 4) Dry the outer
Arabic: Za’faran, Za’fran
Crocus sativus; Iridaceae (Iris Family) In the kitchen: Saffron can add taste
peelings and crush them for culinary, and color to breads, chicken and rice
Saffron refers to the dried, red
cosmetic or medicinal purposes. 5) dishes.
stigmas collected from the flowers of
Boil pomegranate peelings in water,
Crocus sativus. Its high price is better Did you know?
then strain and drink the liquid; if
understood when we learn that some • Comparing the beauty of his beloved
more concentrated, the liquid can be
75,000 flowers are required to make to a garden, Solomon (The Song of
used as a dye for clothes; 6) Dry the
one pound of dried saffron. Commercial Solomon 4:14 in the Old Testament)
peelings, then grind and mix with
henna to make it darker and provide lists saffron, cin-
skin nourishment. namon, frankin-
cense and myrrh
In the kitchen: Pomegranate seeds as some of the
have a sweet-sour taste. Crushed or plants cultivated
whole, they often garnish salads, in this metaphor.
couscous, hummus and other Middle We sense the
Eastern dishes. Dried pomegranate magnitude of
seeds and pomegranate syrup are also his admiration
popular in cooking. Pomegranate juice because these
is a refreshing drink on hot summer plant products
days. Pomegranate juice stains indeli- commanded very
bly, so it’s wise to wear protective high prices in
clothing when cooking with it. ancient markets.
Remedies across Arabia: Powdered • Today, saffron
pomegranate peelings are used on remains the
burns and to treat infection on exter- most expensive
nal cuts and wounds. Soaked pome- producers of saffron today include spice in the entire world.
granate peelings are used for sore Spain, Iran and India. Native to the • Scholars studying frescoes at Thera,
throats, stomach aches and indiges- Middle East, saffron was introduced a Greek island in the Aegean, believe
tion. To treat indigestion, pomegranate to Europe by the Muslim Arabs and the wall paintings (dating from 1500
peelings are dried, then boiled, and the Berbers of northwest Africa, who con- or 1600 BC) depict a goddess presid-
water drunk. Rose water can be added quered most of Spain in the eighth cen- ing over the manufacture and use of
for flavor. Pomegranate soaked in tury. From Spain, known as al-Andalus a drug from the saffron flower. This
boiled water is used with honey for to the Arabs, saffron was carried to suggests that saffron has been used
heart trouble. Italy and France, where it became popu- as a medicine for at least 3500 years.
lar. Although not completely new to the

20 Saudi Aramco World

THYME herbs that have more flavor dried
than fresh. Others are rosemary and
• The US Patent and Trademark Office
in 2001 rejected six attempts to
Arabic: Za‘tar, Sa‘tar, Hasha’
Thymus vulgaris; Lamiaceae oregano. patent the medicinal properties of
(Mint Family) turmeric. The office said turmeric is
When dining in the Middle East, TURMERIC a centuries-old Indian discovery and
cannot be patented.
it is customary to dip bread in olive Arabic: Kurkum
oil and then in za‘tar for a delicious Curcuma longa, C. domestica;
taste. Although Zingiberaceae (Ginger Family) WALNUT BARK
za‘tar is the word Often called “Indian saffron,” tur- Arabic: Deerum
for thyme in the meric rhizome was one of the ancient Juglans spp.; Juglandaceae (Walnut Family)
Arabic language, trade products brought by sea from A container filled with thin bark
it is also a term India. Today turmeric is widely used strips folded up and tied into bundles
which describes as a spice, cosmetic and dyestuff, and is another curiosity at a traditional
a Middle Eastern remains part of traditional medicine market. Although not widely used
spice blend of from Egypt to Iran. nowadays, it is a reminder of the tradi-
powdered dried tional self-reliance and ingenuity of peo-
How to use:
thyme, sumac and sesame seeds. Each ples of the Arabian Peninsula during
1) Slice, grate,
region makes za‘tar a little differently. times of more limited resources.
chop or grind
How to use: 1) Use fresh green thyme turmeric to a How to use: 1) Chew the end of the
leaves when called for in recipes; 2) paste with other bark until soft; 2) Rub the bark vigor-
Use dried thyme leaves as part of the ingredients. Then ously on lips for a natural dark brown
aromatic spice blend called za‘tar; use it as you lipstick; 3) Use the bark as a toothbrush
3) Sprinkle za‘tar (fresh thyme or the would fresh gin- to clean teeth and gums.
spice blend) on meatballs or vegetables; ger root; 2) Grind
Remedies across Arabia: The bark of the
4) Use the za‘tar spice blend with olive dried turmeric
walnut tree is astringent and cleansing.
oil as a dip for bread. into powder; 3) Use whole pieces of
It strengthens the gums and acts as an
dried turmeric in pickling.
In the kitchen: Flat breads with top- anti-inflammatory. It has been used to
pings of melted cheese and za‘tar, labna In the kitchen: Slicing a piece of treat gum disease.
and za‘tar, or za‘tar alone are unspeak- turmeric rhizome reveals the deep
Did you know?
ably delicious. Store za‘tar in an airtight yellow color used to brighten curry • Pliny reported that walnut trees were
container away from direct light. powders and a variety of foods. When
introduced into Italy from Persia, and
coloring rice dishes, it is also some-
Remedies across Arabia: A general Varro, who was born in 116 BC, men-
times a substitute for saffron. But it is
remedy for colds, flu, fevers, coughs tioned that walnut trees were growing
easier to buy ready-ground turmeric
and bronchitis is to take four to five in Italy during his lifetime.
than to grind it yourself. Wear rubber • Walnut bark is a traditional source of
cups of thyme tea a day. Thyme is
gloves when handling fresh turmeric

antiseptic, antispasmodic and antifun- yellow-brown dye.

to avoid staining your hands.
gal. It is also an expectorant and ver-
mifuge (worm expeller). Did you know?
• In Indian cuisine, turmeric is an ingre-
Did you know?
dient of virtually all curry powders.
• Five millennia ago, the Sumerians
• Because turmeric is an edible coloring,
used thyme as an antiseptic.
the food industry uses it to color
• The ancient Egyptians employed
mustard, butter, cheese and liqueurs.
thyme as an ingredient in the mum-
• Turmeric is used to dye cotton and silk.
mification process.
• Al-Kindi used turmeric in a medicine
• The Arab philosopher-scientist
for throat and mouth pustules, and in
al-Kindi (800–870) used thyme in
a dentifrice to strengthen the gums.
a medicine to treat a bacterial infec-
tion or rash called St. Anthony’s
Robert Lebling is a writer/editor and communications specialist. He heads Saudi Aramco’s
Fire (erysipelas).
electronic publishing team and its international media relations group in Dhahran. He stud-
• The Islamic physician al-Razi
ied politics and anthropology at Princeton. He has lived in Egypt, Lebanon and the UK, and
(865–925) regarded thyme as an worked as a journalist in the Middle East and in Washington, D.C. His Web site address is
appetite enhancer, stomach purifier
and treatment for flatulence. Donna Pepperdine is an ESL instructor with a special interest in literacy, culture and health
• Thyme is widely grown commercially education. As a master herbalist, she has focused much of her research on natural health
for its leaves and essential oils. solutions within the context of the Saudi family. Donna has lived in the Middle East 10 years.
• Thyme is one of a small number of Her Web site address is

September/October 2006 21