A scene from the daily life of Hadjin, probably in the late 19th century (Source: Missionary Church Archives, Bethel College Library, Mishawaka, IN.)

Hadjin - Folk Medicine

Author: Varty Keshishian, 15/12/2015 (Last modified: 15/12/2015), Translator: Simon Beugekian

Hadjin/Saimbeyli seen from the south west (Source: Hugo Grothe, Meine Voderasienexpedition 1906 und 1907, Band II, Leipzig, 1912)

Like in other Armenian communities, traditional or folk medicine was widely practiced in Hadjin. The practices and methods of this discipline had their roots deep in the history of the people and the city, harkening back to medieval Armenian medicine, which had later been influenced by the teachings of the Cilicia school of medicine. [1] Folk medicine in Hadjin comprised traditional and popular medications and medicinal mixtures, as well as home-grown medical theories, which included unique approaches, knowledge, and beliefs.

The mountainous climate of Hadjin, its wholesome weather, and its clean air and water were always huge advantages for the city, in terms of public health. Still, some ailments seem to have plagued the people of Hadjin on a more-or-less permanent basis. These included Malaria, Typhoid Fever, Yellow Fever, Dysentery, and other infectious diseases, which constantly hung over the population of the area like swords of Damocles. Generally, at any given time, the prevalence of these diseases was inversely proportional to the quality of medical knowledge and the currency of advanced medical techniques in Hadjin.

As in many other places at the time, when residents of Hadjin needed medical attention, their first resort was the traditional healer, often called the hakim. These hakims usually had a basic grasp of medicine, often had particular talents in diagnosing illnesses, and despite their limited knowledge of modern science, provided a crucial service to their communities. They were the guardians of the health and well-being of the residents of Hadjin and its environs, and for that reason, enjoyed great prominence within both the Armenian and Turkish communities.

Below is information regarding some of the most prominent practitioners of folk medicine in Hadjin:

The Tilisumian Family

According to Socrates Topalian, who was an apothecary in Hadjin writing much later, during the reign of Prince Divan (or Livan) Oghlu, who ruled Hadjin in the mid-1600s, the patriarch of the Tilisumian clan enjoyed great renown, throughout the area, as an expert healer. In fact, the family name originates from the Turkish term tilsim, meaning talisman or cure. [2]

According to Topalian, this family was in possession of at least five ancient, hand-written manuscripts that contained information regarding medications, hypnosis, esoterica, mathematics, and other sciences and arts. [3] Additionally, the family owned an old book of medical recipes, which included directions for creating more than 232 potions and medications. [4] This limited information that we are privy to indicates that the practice of medicine in Hadjin was firmly rooted in medieval knowledge and naturalistic healing. It is not difficult to deduce that the above-mentioned book of medical recipes was probably written in one of Cilicia’s famous monasteries. It is likely it was a copy of one of the works by Mkhitar Heratsi, the founder of Armenian classical medicine, who lived in the 12 century. Another possibility, even more plausible, is that it was a copy of one of the works of the 15 century doctor Amirtovlat Amassiatsi. His works enjoyed a wide circulation in Armenia, as well as outside of it.

It is notable that these manuscripts had been passed down from one generation of Tilisumians to the next, serving successive generations in their attempts to provide some form of health care for the people of the city. [5] Socrates Topalian asserts that not only did he lay eyes on these manuscripts, but was even given the permission to read them. According to him, the book of recipes that was in the hands of the Tilisumian family was, in the 1900s, sold to Stepan Agha Mankrian, one of the notable figures of Hadjin. The latter is said to have taken the tome with him when he was deported during the Genocide, and is known to have reached Hama with it, but the final fate of the book is unknown. [6]

Hadji Sahag Agha Balian

Hadji Sahag Agha Balian is one of the earliest traditional healers from Hadjin about whom we have information. He lived about 200 years ago, in the early 1800s, and he is said to have provided essential services for the people of the city. [7]

Hadji Krikor Agha Balian

The son of Haji Sahag Agha Balian, he was born in Hadjin, circa 1818. In Hadjin and the environs, he was known by the name of Hadji Balents. [8] He received his elementary education under the tutelage of a teacher named Dumanian. From very early on, he displayed an insatiable curiosity toward the world around him, particularly toward flora, herbs, and flowers. Eventually, thanks to his dedication and his sharp mind, he was able to collect a trove of information regarding the medicinal properties of different herbs and plants. Once he gained enough experience, he began putting the knowledge he had acquired to use, serving the people and treating their illnesses. Socrates Topalian asserts that Hadji Balents often made use of the book of medical recipes mentioned above, which was in the hands of the Tilisumian family. [9]

This renowned healer, it seems, was in possession of only a few token medical instruments. Dr. Hagop Redjebian, who was Hadjin’s first proper, accredited doctor, upon his return to Hadjin from America in 1888, as a token of his respect for Hadji Balents, gifted him a selection of modern medical instruments. [10] It is also said that that Dr. Redjebian, upon his return from America, was summoned to appear before Hadji Belents, who said to him “You have earned your many stripes, now let me give you another one,” and taught him how to cure Syphilis, [11] an act that was later to prove a great boon for the people of Hadjin, as Dr. Redjebian saved many lived using the techniques he had learned from Hadji Balents.

Hadjin, circa 1910. Only Stepan and Osanna Arslanian have been identified (standing, first two from the right). The couple survived the Armenian Genocide. The rest of the family was killed (Source: Armen Arslanian family collection)

Hadji Balents had several rooms in his house that he used as a makeshift clinic, and where he examined and treated his patients. His reputation as a skilled and apt healer was widespread, and patients came to him not only from Hadjin and its environs, but from as far as Adana and Sivas/Sepasdia. As for Hadjin itself, there was not a family or household in the city that did not immediately seek his advice whenever ill health threatened. [12]

Hadji Balents was self-educated, but he was by no means uneducated. Using medieval manuscripts and manuals as his springboard, he was able to achieve substantial successes in the field of medicine. He was able to discover cures for many illnesses, using herbs and other substances at his disposal. For example, he developed a method for forcing the passing of kidney stones using dried and powdered chicken tripe. [13]

Hadji Balents’s cure for Syphilis was also developed using information he gained from the book of medical recipes at his disposal. His method was based on what we now call pharmacology, herbal medicine, as well as nutritional science, and resulted in him creating a potion that was a mixture of mercury and several herbs. Beside this potion, he also prescribed a strict dietary regimen to his patients suffering from Syphilis. They were only to eat unsalted yeast bread (sourdough bread) and vegetable soup for forty days. It is said that he cured many who suffered from this dreadful disease using his methods. [14] Syphilis was widespread at the time, including in Hadjin, and it is easy to imagine why finding a way to treat it was one of the primary priorities of the area’s healers and doctors.

Hadji Balents also practiced dentistry. He owned two forceps used to extract teeth, and to soothe tooth pain, he prescribed mint, cloves, cinnamon, and opium. [15]

Source: Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (Matenadaran), number 6594, 17th and 18th centuries, Stella Verdanian, History of Armenian Medicine, from Prehistory to Present Day, Yerevan, 2000, page 200.

Cerrah Shekerdemian/Shekherdemian

Shekerdemian was one of unique figures in the history of medicine in Hadjin. He had specialized as a surgeon, and was called cerrah/djerrah (“Surgeon” in Turkish) for that reason. [16] He was a contemporary of Hadji Balents, and it is thought that his renown was equal to the latter’s. Neither had any formal education, but both were able to compete with doctors who had received diplomas from universities, thanks to their years of experience and their innate talent. [17]

It is said that once, when Ottoman force returned from one of their habitual military campaigns, a potent strain of Syphilis was so widespread within their ranks that high-ranking Turkish and European doctors were unable to confront the epidemic. As a last resort, the government appealed to Cerrah Shekerdemian, who, within weeks, was able to put an end to the disease and cure the soldiers who had contracted it. [18]

Illustrated manuscript, 1682 (Source: Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts - Matenadaran)

The Ayedjian Family

In the beginning of the 1800s, the first man to begin selling medical instruments in Hadjin was Mikayel Agha Ayedjian, whose business was taken over, after his passing, by his son Kalousd Agha and grandson Mikayel Agha. [19] One of the many people who has preserved the history of Hadjin, H. Boghosian, states that in 1897, when he arrived in Hadjin, Mikayel Agha, the younger, and his son, Setrak Agha, were still running the business, and were prospering as a result of their profits. A separate branch of the family, according to Reverend Misak Ayedjian, also sold medications and medicinal potions. [20]

Illustrated manuscript, 1682 (Source: Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts - Matenadaran)

***

Like in most parts of historic Armenia, aside from the relatively formalized forms of medicine, there were many ancillary traditional healers working in Hadjin. Many of these traditional healers passed down their skills from one generation of their families to the next. Some of them included:

Midwives

In Hadjin, women who helped other women deliver their children were an important part of society, and were called Ebes. In the early 1900s, some of most renowned midwives of the city included Mayom Daldemiants, Moughol Hashoug Ghemeliants, Mayram Bidinian, Dirouhi Salmanian, Mother Sarah Kouyoumdjian, and Hadji Moughol Moutafian (née Ketefian). [21]

A scene from the daily life of Hadjin

A scene from the daily life of Hadjin. Photograph probably taken in the late 19th century (Source: Missionary Church Archives, Bethel College Library, Mishawaka, IN. Courtesy of Rosemary Russell and Kevin Blowers)

Bonesetters (senekjis/çıkıkçı)

Bonesetting is a unique type of traditional medical practice. There were many senekdjis/çıkıkçıs in Hadjin, specializing in healing broken bones. Among the most renowned were Sarkis Djeredjian, Hadji Avak Balabanian, Hovhanness Sevghenian, and Mother Tshkhuyn Bedrosian (née Meneshian). [22]

Water Treatments

A traditional type of medical practice involved springs that had been considered sacred since pagan times, and whose waters had been ascribed curative properties. Later, many of these springs were found to be beneficial for people suffering from different types of diseases, due to the composition of their waters. For example, people who suffered from skin diseases bathed in mineral springs, and they reaped the benefits of the minerals in the water.

There were many of these mineral hot springs near the villages of Keotun and Panlek, at a distance of two-and-a-half hours from Hadjin. [23] These mineral springs had been known ever since the days of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, when Armenian kings had established colonies and hamlets near the springs for lepers and those who suffered from other similar diseases. [24] This is reflected in the names of the villages. In the local dialect, Keotun (Keshoutyun, “evil” in Armenian) denoted terrible diseases, and Panlek was the locals’ way of saying Paghnik, Armenian for “bathroom.” Unfortunately, in subsequent years, these springs dried up, leaving ugly scars across the landscape.

Residents of Hadjin suffering from skin diseases often made journeys all the way to Zeytun, to make use of the mineral springs there, as well as to drink the water of many clear springs in that area. [25] The mineral springs near Zeytun were known not only for curing skin diseases, but also for relieving symptoms associated with issues of the stomach, the liver, and of menstrual cycles.

Documents surviving from medieval times indicate that since then, many in the Hadjin area believed that a cold bath could relieve symptoms of Malaria. [26]

Additionally, the Saint Krikor Spring, located in the western side of the town, was known for the healing properties of its waters. There was a widespread belief that the waters of this and many other springs were particularly potent in the month of May. And so, every year in May, scores of unmarried women and young brides would bathe in the waters of the Saint Krikor, believing the waters made them more fecund. [27]

On the southeastern side of town, at the top of a hill, was the Saint Sarkis Sanctuary. There stood a lonely tree, with hundreds of pieces of cloth tied to its branches. Pilgrims had tied those pieces of cloth to the branches, believing that their acts would prevent Malaria and fevers. [28]

Hadjin/Saimbeyli (Source: Ferdinand Brockes, Quer durch Klein-Asien, Gütersloh, 1900)

Other Medical Customs and Treatments

Syphilis

Methods to treat Syphilis:

-The root of an herb called Cheop Ichi or Chapartna was boiled in water, and the resulting tincture was given to the patient. Additionally, the patient would fast, eating nothing but unsalted bread infused with the juice of Cheop Ichi. [29]

-A specified amount of Mercury was added to yogurt, and the resulting mixture was fed to the patient during meal times. [30] From ancient times, Mercury was known both for its healing and toxic properties. This chemical element was present in many traditional panaceas and preventive tinctures, in several cultures across the world, and was also used as an antibiotic agent. The healers of Hadjin made generous use of it.

Tuberculosis

The most widely used treatment for Tuberculosis was the milk of a female donkey, which was given to the patient for 40 days. After 40 days, three pups were slaughtered, their meat cooked, and fed to the patient. It was thought that if, after eating the dog’s meat, the patient vomited, the disease had been cured. [31]

Stomach and Kidney Ailments

To treat these ailments, tinctures imbued with mallows, nettles, ebbe keomedji, and mint were used. [32] This herb called ebbe keomedji (ebe gümeci) was held in such high regard by the people that they even sang about it:

Haydin toplayalım ebe gümeci,
Hastalara şifa ebe gümeci,
Dertlilere derman ebe gümeci.
[33]

Translation:

Come, let’s gather ebe gümeci
A cure for the sick, ebe gümeci
A remedy for the ill, ebe gümeci

Difficulty Urinating

Tea infused with fresh parsley leaves was given to the patient, or water boiled with barley grains. [34]

Throat Pain

To treat throat pain, inflamed tonsils, or sores deep in the mouth, healers ground to powder the droppings of a white dog, blue stones, and Cordovan leather. Then, they mixed the powders while applying heat. The powder was mixed in a liquid, and the patient was made to drink the powder through straws. [35]

Cleaning the Blood

To cleanse a patient’s circulatory system, healers often prescribed beer. Alternatively, they applied leeches to the patients’ bodies, or bled them through the neck or back. [36]

Red Rashes

To remove red rashes or abscesses, healers boiled water with flax, and gave the resulting tincture to their patients to drink. [37]

Pimples or Blisters

To remove pimples or blisters, healers soaked towels in tinctures of boiled water and flax seeds, and cleaned the pimples or blisters with the towels. Then, they melted beeswax infused with olive oil over the affected area, and bandaged it. [38]

Traumatic Injuries

In the case of a person falling from a tree or any other height and losing consciousness, healers wrapped the patient in the skin of a newly slaughtered sheep or goat, provided that the skin was still warm. In case of internal bleeding, the patient was made to drink a mixture of must and oil that had been heated up. [39]

Fractures

In case of fractured or broken bones, an herb called Kushdje was ground and mixed with egg yolk, and the mixture was spread onto a cloth, which was then wrapped around the affected area. Prior to this treatment, it was still necessary to forcibly and manually realign the bones. [40]

Mashed raisins were also used, as well as raw meat, both of which would be wrapped around the broken bone. [41]

Frost Bite

If a patient was frost-bitten or otherwise suffering from hypothermia, he or she would be laid down in manure (probably human). Alternatively, healers would wrap the affected area with manure. [42]

Baldness

To treat baldness, healers would first shave off all of the patient’s hair, then would wash the scalp with urine. Finally, they would make a paste out of melted tar, and cover the patient’s head with the paste. The process would be repeated three times, after which hair would begin growing anew. [43]

Hemorrhoids

To treat hemorrhoids, healers would grind acorns into a powder, mix that powder with boiled eggs, and feed the mixture to patients. [44]

Mouth Sores

To treat mouth sores, healers would mash and heat up bits of fine sheep or goat leather, mix it with garlic and tobacco ash, and apply the resulting mixture to the affected area. Alternatively, they would prepare a mixture of boiled water and Sumac, which the patient would gargle. [45]

Toothaches

To treat toothaches, healers would boil lentils, and would have the patients breathe in the steam, or would recommend gargling a mixture of Arak and clove extract. Another treatment included applying tobacco leaves to the affected area, or simply inhaling tobacco smoke. [46]

Eye Pain

To treat eye pain, healers would mix egg white with bits of Cordovan leather, spread the resulting mixture on blue cloth, and tie the cloth around the eye. Alternatively, they would drip breast milk from a woman nursing a female infant into the eye. [47] There were also other treatments, such as rubbing spit into the eye, and applying a red tomato to the eye. If the patient suffered from trachoma, healers would grin a blue stone called Keok Tashe, and would rub the resulting powder to the back to the eyelids. [48]

Joint Pain/Arthritis

Healers in Hadjin had a unique way of treating joint pain. They would first make a small cut in the affected area, place a chickpea on the resulting wound, and then apply the herb called Kerk Siner (Djevakhod in Armenian) to the area before wrapping the joint. The wound would become infected, and would begin producing yellow puss. The bandage would be changed several times a day.  After some time, the infection would recede and the wound would cease from producing puss. At this point, the healers considered the patient to be cured. [49]

Ear Pain

To treat ear pain, healers would use olive oil. Alternatively, they would take a newborn mouse, and boil it in oil until its carcass molted. The resulting mixture would be dripped into the hurting ear. [50]

Chest Congestion

To relieve chest congestion, healers would use cupping therapy, and then would rub the area with Arak. [51]

Intestinal Worms

To treat intestinal worms, especially Taenia, healers would use prescribe copious amounts of pumpkin seeds in the mornings, on empty stomachs. For smaller, more common worms, patients were told to eat a flower called partridges’ shoes, which had a sour taste. [52]

Poisoning

In cases of poisoning, patients were made to drink milk or yogurt, or tea infused with mint and other herbs. [53]

Scorpion Stings

To treat scorpion stings, healers would mix garlic in yogurt, and apply the resulting potion to the affected area. [54]

Abdominal Pain

To treat abdominal pain, healers would use dry cupping therapy, or would heat up bricks and apply them to the abdomen. [55]

Spinal and Shoulder Pain

To treat pain in the spine or the shoulders, the patient would be asked to lie flat on the floor, and then the healer would tread upon their back, massaging their muscles. [56]

Fear and Phobias

To treat abnormal fear or phobias, healers would wash the stone called Penzehir (bezoar), and then have the patient drink that water. Also, healers prescribed swallowing a pigeon’s heart to counteract fear. [57]

Headaches

There were many cures for headaches. Women would often dye their hair with henna extract. Other treatments included soaking the feet in a bucket of hot water and mustard seeds, and rubbing the forehead with Arak. [58]

Common Colds

Patients suffering from colds would be made to sweat. Healers would spread mustard on towels and use these towels to induce sweating. The belief was that profuse sweating would eliminate any foreign agents in the body. [59]

Fleas

To treat head fleas, healers would rub the hair and the scalp with kerosene. [60]

Skin Sores

To treat skin sores or rashes, patients were advised to bathe with mulberry juice or water containing ash. [61]

Finger Lacerations

In case of a cut to the finger, salt was applied to the wound. Alternatively, urinating on the wound was also a common practice. [62]

Infected Finger Lacerations

In case of cuts to the finger that later become infected or develop gangrene, healers would tie the tongue of a calf or cow to the affected area. [63]

Head Lacerations

A cut on the head was treated by tying onion and garlic to the affected area. [64]

Diphtheria

To treat diphtheria, healers would mash dog testicles and wrap the paste around the throat. [65]

Enlarged or Infected Thyroid Glands (Struma or Scrofula)

To treat issues of the thyroid, healers often advised wearing amber around the neck. [66]

Armenian Prayer Scroll or Amulet, Constantinople, 1655

Armenian Prayer Scroll or Amulet, Constantinople, 1655. Selection of prayers, St Sarkis on horseback (Source: British Library Or. MS 14028)

Customs and Superstitions

Some beliefs and behaviors related to health were so deeply rooted among the population, that over time, they were transformed into traditions and rituals. We must understand that the people of Hadjin, during these years, still held syncretic religious beliefs, influenced greatly by local, ancestral, pagan traditions. Thus, the practice of medicine combined rudimentary science, folklore, prayers, and dietary regimens. In fact, many of these traditional forms of medical care have survived into modern times.

For instance, the people of Hadjin put great faith in curses and amulets. Many thought that keeping amulets under their pillows at night would protect them from evil eyes and evil forces. [67] Although many of these beliefs may seem foolish now, at least some of the amulets they used, to this day, have proponents. One such example was their use of Serpentine stones (Lapis Ophites), which were prescribed to prevent headaches, epilepsy, and many other disorders.

Another traditional custom was the slaughtering of domestic animals (such as bucks, calves, sheep, or roosters), which the locals thought would ward off diseases, cure disorders, or simply express the individual’s gratitude for being healthy. This tradition, too, had its roots in pagan times. [68] Similarly, the residents of Hadjin, like most of their contemporaries, believed in the power of pilgrimages. Hadjin and its environs were dotted with churches, cathedrals, shrines, and sacred sanctuaries. Some of the most popular were – the Saint Sarkis Sanctuary, the Saint Hagop Monastery, the Saint Garabed Shrine in Chatakh, the Shrine of Saint Varvar in Keded, as well as the Saint Garabed Monastery of Efkere. [69]

Additionally, the people of Hadjin put great faith in the Nareg, the classical Armenian prayer book compiled by Gregory of Nareg. There was a custom of reciting the Nareg to prevent and treat illnesses. The Nareg was also often placed under the pillow of the sick, in the belief that this contact would promote healing. [70]

Dentistry

Like in the rest of the Ottoman Empire, dentistry, in Hadjin, was still in its primitive infancy at the turn of the 20th century. It is important to note that the first accredited dentist stepped foot in Hadjin in the 1900s, but then quickly had to return to Ayntab, because his practice in Hadjin failed to draw customers. [71]

Dentistry at this time was less of a medical science and more of an imprecise craft. Usually, the city barber was responsible for dealing with dental issues. Generally, people only needed his services when the pain became too unbearable, at which point, the barber would use an unwieldy forceps to extract the guilty tooth. There were some primitive cures for toothaches, such as applying warm dough to the gum, chewing tobacco leaves, or gargling the mouth with Arak. [72]

Locals in Hadjin who practiced dentistry included Berber (“Barber” in Turkish) Panos, and the Berber Sarkis brothers, as well as Doldoy. All of these men were well-known within the city, and served its residents over a long period of time both as barbers and dentists. [73]

  • [1] The reference here is not to a particular school, but to the general practice of medicine in the Cilicia area that dates back to the Middle Ages.
  • [2] Boghosian, H., Hadjini Enthanour Badmutyune yev Sherchaga Kozan-Daghi Hye Kyughere (The General History of Hadjin and the Surrounding Armenian Villages of Kozan-Dagh), Los Angeles, 1942, p. 229
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid, pp. 229-230.
  • [5] Ibid, p. 230.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid, p. 231.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Ibid., p. 230.
  • [16] Ibid, p. 231.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] Ibid., p. 232.
  • [20] Ibid.
  • [21] Ibid., p. 228.
  • [22] Ibid., pp. 228-229.
  • [23] Ibid., p. 228.
  • [24] Ibid.
  • [25] Ibid.
  • [26] Ibid., p. 224.
  • [27] Ibid., p. 223.
  • [28] Ibid., p. 224.
  • [29] Ibid.
  • [30] Ibid.
  • [31] Ibid., pp. 224-225.
  • [32] Ibid., p. 225.
  • [33] Ibid., 225.
  • [34] Ibid.
  • [35] Ibid.
  • [36] Ibid.
  • [37] Ibid.
  • [38] Ibid.
  • [39] Ibid.
  • [40] Ibid.
  • [41] Ibid.
  • [42] Ibid., p. 226.
  • [43] Ibid.
  • [44] Ibid.
  • [45] Ibid.
  • [46] Ibid.
  • [47] Ibid.
  • [48] Ibid.
  • [49] Ibid.
  • [50] Ibid.
  • [51] Ibid., pp. 226-227.
  • [52] Ibid., p. 227.
  • [53] Ibid.
  • [54] Ibid.
  • [55] Ibid.
  • [56] Ibid.
  • [57] Ibid.
  • [58] Ibid.
  • [59] Ibid.
  • [60] Ibid.
  • [61] Ibid., p. 228
  • [62] Ibid.
  • [63] Ibid.
  • [64] Ibid.
  • [65] Ibid.
  • [66] Ibid.
  • [67] Ibid., p. 224.
  • [68] Ibid., p. 223.
  • [69] Ibid.
  • [70] Ibid., p. 224.
  • [71] Ibid., p. 233.
  • [72] Ibid., p. 232.
  • [73] Ibid., p. 233.