Ourfa – Folk Medicine

Author: Adom H. Boudjikanian, 02/03/17 (Last modified 02/03/17) - Translator: Hrant Gadarigian 

Beliefs, and, in turn, their miraculous cures, are a part of folk medicine. In this respect, Ourfa can be regarded as one of those places from where we have inherited, from the first years of Christianity, a history of miraculous cures.

According to tradition, the celebrity of Jesus Christ reached the ears of King Abgar of Edessa (the historical name of Ourfa), whose family line is said to have been linked to the Arsacids through marriage. This king, who ruled Edessa, suffered from leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae). Abgar corresponds with Jesus, asking him to seek refuge in Edessa and to cure him. At the time, Jesus was being persecuted in Jerusalem. Jesus refuses the request because he had to complete his mission. However, Jesus sends Abgar his living image; his Shroud. After the resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle Thaddeus comes to Edessa. He cures King Abgar and spreads Christianity throughout the land. [1]

This traditional tale, related to medicine in Ourfa, is one of the oldest stories known to us.

King Abgar of Edessa - image detail (Source: Rev. Ohan Gaidzakian, Illustrated Armenia and the Armenians, Boston, 1898)

Data on the state of health and folk medicine in Ourfa

The province (sanjak) of Ourfa is located in the northern temperate zone of Mesopotamia. Ourfa, the province’s most important city, is located 500 meters above sea level, endowing it with a relatively temperate climate. [2]

Ourfa enjoys all four seasons of the year. Snowfall is plentiful in winter. During summer days, an extremely dry heat beats down, followed by cool nights when residents either sleep on the roofs of their homes or in their gardens. [3] This lifestyle probably endowed Ourfa residents (Armenian, Arab, Turk, Kurd, Assyrian and Jew) with a degree of wellbeing by increasing their immunity. In the spring, the Ourfa market would overflow with madzoun (yogurt), butter, cheese and oil. In the autumn, household storerooms would be full of sweets, wheat and cracked wheat. This latter grain was an essential ingredient in chi keofteh, borani (ragout), and lkhlkhoun keofteh, dishes greatly loved by the dedicated meat eaters of Ourfa. [5]

A scene from the market of Ourfa, ca 1919-1920 (Source: Photograph by Father Gabriel Bretocq. Archives départementales de l’Eure. Fonds Gabriel Bretocq)

Brief Overview of Ourfa

The city had a large number of two-story stone houses. Drinking water was provided by neighborhood reservoirs (kastel). Water for home use (laundry, washing, etc.) was drawn from wells. Homes in the Armenian quarter of town had no running water until 1886. Given the lack of any functioning municipal government, the health situation was far from admirable. Streets were narrow and the sewer system spotty. Even though the Armenian quarter enjoyed a high elevation, making it airy and relatively healthy, we don’t know the degree to which residents were safe from contagious diseases. Aram Sahagian, in his history of Ourfa, has nothing to specific to say on the matter, nor is there any information on child maladies, mortality rates or the traditional multiple births in Armenian families. [6]

The Ourfa mosque and Abraham’s lake, ca 1919-1920 (Source: photograph by Father Gabriel Bretocq, Archives départementales de l’Eure. Fonds Gabriel Bretocq)

Pilgrimage Sites

In addition to the summer festivities that took place in the gardens near the town, there were two main resort sites were people would gather for merrymaking – the small lakes of Ayn-el-Zalikha and Hayr (Father) Abraham. While teeming with fish, fishing was banned because the two sites bore a religious significance. It was said that fire-worshippers had persecuted Father Abraham, had captured him, and decided to sacrifice him to their idols. The incident is said to have taken place in front of the Ourfa castle, near the lake. The pagans build a sacrificial altar and try to burn Father Abraham atop a fire made of tree branches. A lightning bolt strikes from the heavens, hitting a nearby tree. Catch fire, the tree shots off sparks that hit the ground. Water starts flowing from the spot. The tree, even though struck by lightning, retains its foliage. That miraculous tree is called ‘burnt tree’. [7]

The area around Father Abraham’s lake becomes a pilgrimage site for Christians and Muslims. The pilgrims had a custom of tying beads and colorful strips of clothing on the branches of the ‘burnt tree’. Evidently, pilgrims visited the site in expectation of miraculous cures.

King Abgar’s mountain, located in the southwestern side of Ourfa, was a similar site. According to tradition, the king’s tomb was to be found in a large cave in the mountain. Pilgrims would visit the site on the first day of June to offer prayers, followed by feasting and merrymaking. [8] We’ve already mentioned the tradition as to how King Abgar was cured of his leprosy. Thus, we can conclude that pilgrims visited the king’s tomb expecting an amelioration of whatever ailed them.

Ourfa Armenians: Trades and Crafts

Aram Sahagian lists seventeen trades. [9] Looking back today, one wouldn’t expect there to be an understanding of illnesses associated with workshop employment or long-term treatment. However, a few of these seventeen trades (masonry, stonecutting in the nearby quarries, operating a gristmill, and ironmongery), can cause physical injuries, especially to the bones, muscles and joints. To cope with such injuries, there were professional bonesetters (kurukdji), both men and women, in Ourfa. Of these, Sahagian mentions the names of Nour Oudoghents Mariam and Ghazar. They would treat bruises and contusions, and set dislocated arm and leg bones. [10]

Ourfa: Ailments and Folk Remedies

It’s important to know that Ourfa residents paid scant attention to minor maladies and discomforts. An Ourfa resident believed that a shot of oghi (homemade vodka) and some chi keofteh would get those with a fever up on their feet the next day.

Ourfa residents, however, were terrified of the following three ailments:

Eye Pain (Achki Tsav)

This was the most widespread malady, especially cropping up during the summer months. [11] The causes were noted as blazing sunshine, dust, fruit juices, and a general lack of sanitary conditions. From this, we can infer that the ailment was conjunctivitis/red eye. Patients waiting to be treated would form a queue outside the healer’s door. That person was usually a woman. There is no information as to the treatment methods used, which sometimes caused blindness. Nevertheless, the number of those seeking treatment from folk healers dropped when the German Hospital opened its doors in Ourfa in the second half of the 19th century. 

Pleurisy (Goghadab)

This malady was the cause of many deaths year-round. [12] Sahagian does not list the causes of the disease. It may have been due, like pneumonia, to an irritated respiratory tract. The folk remedy was to either bleed the patient, using a barber’s razor or leeches, or to employ the method of cupping (shisheh kashel).

Leishmaniasis/Bouton d’Alep (Avour Hanel)

These are ulcer-like wounds appearing on the patient’s skin, mouth and nose. A person can only have one bout of the disease during their lifetime. [13] The disease is caused by protozoan parasites and spread by the bite of the female sand-fly (genus Phlebotomus).  The scientific name of the disease is cutaneous Leishmaniasis. [14] These flies flourish in the swampy areas of Syria and Iraq.

The pharmacist Abraham Attarian during a check-up with the sick orphans at the dispensary of the German Mission in Ourfa (Source: Der Christliche Orient, Mai 1900, Verlag der Deutschen Orient-Mission, Berlin)

Ourfa: Folk Doctors and Other Folk Remedies

Ishuneh Bakh Minas

Minas was an Ourfa native. In 1895, he applied to the Marash Theological School but was turned down. He returned to Ourfa and started to work as a folk doctor. It was said that he cured tuberculosis patients by using a nargileh (hookah) tube to extract the disease-causing bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis-aka Bacilles de Koch) from their chests. [15] Bakh Minas is also said to have performed brain surgery. He authored several medical guides (hekimaran). [16]

Snake and Scorpion Bite Healers (Absoun unoghner, absounvadzner)

We have no information as to the treatment they used. These individuals were also known as snake charmers (otsahman), because they could coax snakes from their lairs and pocket them. One of these famous individuals was Indjo Parar. [17]

Miracle Worker Der Melkon

Ourfa residents, Turk or Armenian, testified regarding the powers of Der Melkon. Abdul Rahman, a coffeemaker who worked near Father Abraham’s aqueduct, claimed to have seen Der Melkon praying, while standing on his cassock atop the water. It was said that he could pass through closed doors or that he could open them without a key. What interests us here, is that many Ourfa residents believed that this ‘holy man’ could cure untreatable diseases. [18]

The pharmacy of the German Mission in Ourfa. Abraham Attarian, the head pharmacist, is seen in the center (killed in 1915) (Source: Der Christliche Orient, April 1905, Verlag der Deutschen Orient-Mission, Grosslichferfelde West)

Conclusion

There isn’t much information available regarding folk medicine as practiced in Ourfa. The main source, a two-page summary, appears in Aram Sahagian’s book Mythical Ourfa and Her Offspring [in Armenian]. We only have some abridged, insufficient, descriptions about eye pain, pleurisy, Leishmaniasis and snake bites, and, about infectious diseases, pneumonia. We know nothing about other communicable and child maladies such as burns, skin and digestive tract disorders and physical aches and pains.

In general, folk medicine relies on herbs and plants. We have no information in this regard as well, despite the fact that, according to Mustafa Aslan, Ourfa was rich in botanicals. Aslan lists 41 medicinal herbs, of which 27 grew wild. [19].

The German Hospital in Ourfa was founded by Deutsche Orient Mission, a German missionary organization, at the initiative of Dr. Johannes Lepsius. Three Swiss doctors worked at the hospital, one of whom was the missionary Jakob Künzler. Most of the staff was composed of Armenian nurses, pharmacists and doctors. [19] It was probably due to the hospital’s operation that local Armenians were relatively well informed as to western “orthodox” medicine as compared to their compatriots living in nearby regions. Was this the reason, perhaps, that folk medicine did not play that great a role in the local society? Or, maybe, it’s just because Ourfa chronicler Aram Sahagian didn’t devote that many pages to it in his book, leaving us none the wiser.

The Armenian and Assyrian nurses of the German Mission's dispensary in Ourfa (Source: Der Christliche Orient, Juni 1912, Verlag der Deutschen Orient-Mission, Potsdam)
In the courtyard of the German Mission's dispensary in Ourfa (Source: Der Christliche Orient, April 1905, Verlag der Deutschen Orient-Mission, Grosslichferferlde West)
In the dispensary of the German Mission in Ourfa (Source: Der Christliche Orient, Juli 1905, Verlag der Deutschen Orient-Mission, Grosslichferferlde West)
The pharmacy of the German Mission in Ourfa (Source: Der Christliche Orient, Juni 1912, Verlag der Deutschen Orient-Mission, Potsdam)
Jakob Künzler, the Swiss missionary, using electroshock therapy (it was believed to be a new way of treating patients) on an Arab patient in the Ourfa dispensary (Source: Der Christliche Orient, April 1903, Verlag der Deutschen Orient-Mission, Berlin)
In the courtyard of the German Mission's dispensary in Ourfa (Source: Johannes Lepsius, Jahrbuch der Deutschen Orient-Mission, 1903, Berlin)
The pharmacy of the German Mission in Ourfa. Jakob Künzler is standing in the center, Abraham Attarian is on the right (Source: Johannes Lepsius, Jahrbuch der Deutschen Orient-Mission, 1903, Berlin)
  • [1] S.M. Dzotsigian, Western Armenian World [in Armenian], Printers A. H. Leylegian, New York, pp. 148-150; R. H. Hewsen, "Armenia on the Tigris: the vilayet of Diarbekir and the sanjak of Urfa", [in Armenian]; Tigranakert/Diarbekir and Edessa/Urfa, Richard Hovannisian (ed.), Mazda publishers, California, 2006.
  • [2] Aram Sahagian, Mythical Ourfa and Her Offspring, 2nd edition, published by Young Armenians of Ourfa Union, Aleppo, 2011, p. 589.  
  • [3] Ibid, p. 591.
  • [4] Ibid, pp. 622-623։
  • [5] Referring to the fact that residents of Perri (Dersim region) were mostly meat eaters, Kevork Yerevanian writes that “life expectancy in Perri did not exceed 45 years”. (Kevork S. Yerevanian, History of Armenians in Charsanjak [in Armenian], G. Donigian Publishing House, Beirut, 1956).
  • [6] Sahagian, Mythical Ourfa, pp. 591-592.
  • [7] Ibid. pp. 5923-595.
  • [8] Ibid, pp. 597-598.
  • [9] Ibid, pp. 602-610.
  • [10] Ibid, p. 646.  
  • [11] Ibid, p. 644.
  • [12] Ibid, p. 645.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Robert Porter, Justin Kaplan, Barbara Homeier, Merck Manual, Home health handbook, Wiley and sons, 2009, pp. 1217-1218.
  • [15] Tuberculose: www.infirmiers.com/pdf/tuberculose.pdf
  • [16] Sahagian, Mythical Ourfa, pp. 645-646.
  • [17] Ibid, p. 646.
  • [18] Ibid, p. 647.
  • [19] Mustafa Aslan, Plants used for medical purposes in Sanliurfa-Turkiye, KSUDoga Bil. Derg., J. Nat. Sci. 16(4), 2013, pp. 28-35.