Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula

Katarzyna Gromek

Winter in medieval al-Andalus varied from the rainy, foggy, and cool season in Córdoba to snowy freezing weather in regions at higher elevations. The winter dampness seemingly aggravated stomach ailments in the general population and caused excessive weakness among some of the elderly inhabitants.

Image 1. View of Old Town and the Mezquita de Cordoba, Córdoba Spain. Image credit – Julia Kostecka, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The famous physician from eleventh century Córdoba, Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī al-Ansari, also known as Al-Zahrawi or Abulcasis, included several recipes for fragrant remedies to treat winter ailments in his work on medicine, Kitāb al-Taṣrīf. The three recipes described below are included in volume nineteen, part one, which is dedicated to perfumery. There was little difference between fragrance and medication well into the early modern period, and pleasant odors were used both to treat diseases and to satisfy and stimulate the desire for luxury products.[1]

First, let us have a look at lakhlakhah, a moist compound paste used for rubbing on the body after bathing.[2] Abulcasis mentioned that this recipe was first recommended by Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (Mesue) for the treatment of patients suffering from a stomachache or from excessive cold in winter.

The ingredients, cloves, Ceylon cinnamon, nut grass, mastic resin, wormwood, Indian spikenard, agarwood, costus, sweet flag, and green cardamom, are crushed, ground to powder and sifted. Next, enough boiling water is poured over the aromatics to form a paste which is left to steep overnight. Then powdered saffron threads and lily ben (moringa) oil are mixed into the paste. The paste is worked into a flattened ball shape and fumigated with high-quality agarwood for several hours.

To scent the lakhlakhah paste, I set up an experimental apparatus for fumigation of compound fragrance ingredients, consisting of a pottery bowl, a pierced cast iron tray, a large ceramic pot that holds the aromatics for censing, and a source of heat. Apartment living requires some creative approach for the use of open fire, and the tea light candles with lead-free wicks are the best substitute for use of charcoal or hot ashes.

Image 2. Fumigation setup for the lakhlakhah paste.

I re-kneaded the paste every time I added fresh agarwood for fumigation. After twenty-four hours of censing, I formed smaller spheres from the paste, and continued fumigation for another twenty-four hours. [See: Video 1. Fumigation with agarwood]

 

This lakhlakhah is very soft and easy to rub on wet skin. I cannot vouch for its therapeutic properties, but the scent is definitively pleasant, very spicy and musky.

Image 3. Small lakhlakhah spheres after the fumigation process is finished.

Another concoction I attempted to recreate is muthallatheh, which reminds me of modern vapor rub.[3] First, I ground some saffron threads and soaked them overnight in musky rosewater which I distilled beforehand. The muskiness of the rosewater comes from the addition of crushed ambrette seeds (Abelmoschus moschatus), a plant-derived replacement for deer musk grains. Ground Borneo camphor from Dryobalanops aromatica was also added to the saffron soak. The next day, I crushed and ground costus, agarwood, and dark white sandalwood (sandalwood comes in several varieties of colors and odors depending on the tree types). These rare aromatics formed the base for muthallatheh. I mixed the prepared aromatics with the saffron and camphor infused rosewater and worked it into a paste which was spread in a thin layer on a ceramic plate. I dried it under the cover of loosely woven linen.

Image 4. Mixing the base aromatics with the rosewater infused with saffron and camphor, and the drying process.

Once dried, I ground the base again, mixed it with hot cooked honey (cooking honey removes water which prevents spoilage) and worked it into a thick paste. I shaped small spheres which were rolled in a mixture of ground saffron and camphor.

Image 5. Rolling the muthallatheh spheres in powdered saffron threads and Borneo camphor.

These fragrant spheres were used as a medicated incense preparation or smeared directly on the chest to aid breathing in case of congestion. They have a very pungent but pleasant odor, and it is easy to understand why they were used as a treatment for colds.

The third preparation is dharīrah, a scented powder that can be used as incense, sprinkled on the clothes and body, or kept in a sachet. This recipe is known as the recipe of Al-Jafarieh ( a place or personal name). Dharīrah was known to strengthen the body organs like the brain and heart.

I started by powdering, sieving, and mixing dried rose petals, agarwood, cloves, dark white sandalwood, Indian spikenard, nutmeg, and Borneo camphor. I sewed a bag from silk fabric (tightly woven Japanese silk works well for fine powders) and transferred the powder to it.

Image 6. Making the dharīrah powder bag.

The dharīrah needs to mature, and this is done by fumigation. The aromatic for censing in the summer was camphor, and in the winter it was deer musk grains. I splurged on this recipe and used a mixture of ambrette seeds and true deer musk grains (which are harvested from farmed male deer without killing the animals). Since the musk is quite sensitive to heat, it was placed on top of a little bowl placed upside down.

Image 7. Fumigation of the bag containing powdered aromatics.

I gently mixed the bag’s contents every three hours, for a total of twenty-four hours of fumigation. [See: Video 2. Fumigation of the dharīrah powder]

The odor is so intense that even if this silk bag is stored inside a closed plastic bag, it doesn’t prevent the scent from escaping. This scent brings me great joy, so most likely this was the beneficial property of dharīrah.

These fragrances were made as part of my ongoing project in experimental archaeology of fragrances, and as such, they have no known therapeutic properties. All effects as experienced by me and a group of my volunteer testers were subjective.


Katarzyna Gromek is a molecular biologist who studies bacterial proteins involved in regulation of cell cycle.

Her passion is experimental archaeology of beauty products. She is interested in how beauty products were made and used across time and cultures.  She recreates fragrances and cosmetics from Europe and Asia, from the Bronze Age to early seventeenth century. She sources her recipes from extant texts, ranging from materia medica works and cookbooks to “books of secrets” and analysis of bioorganic material from excavations.


[1] Hamerneh, Sami K. “The first known independent treatise on cosmetology in Spain.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 39(4) (1965):309-325.

[2] King, Anya. Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World. Leiden Boston: Brill, 2017, 272-283.

[3] Khatib, Chadi. “Aromatherapy rules as mentioned in the ancient Arabic manuscripts (Albucasis as example).”  Journal of Pharmaceutical Toxicology 1(1) (2018):1.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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