Medicines at Ottoman Empire: Pills & potions
ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
These miniatures show the herbs, their preparations and treatment of people at the time of the Ottoman.Our ancestors somehow survived in spite of treatments that we today know are palliatives or barbarically inhuman and useless. Over the centuries, the “doctor” might have been an elderly woman with a vast collection of herbs or knowledge or perhaps the tribe’s shaman. It was the ancient Greeks that gave medicine as we know it to the world and the doctors of the Islamic world through their writing and the training of generation after generation of doctors.
Although there were physicians looking after the sultan and his family from the time of Orhan, it was only in the reign of Bayezid II that a chief physician was named. The first one was apparently İzmitli Mehmed Muhyiddin Efendi (d. 1504-05). Among the many aspects of medicine that Muhyiddin Efendi was responsible for was the pharmacies at the palace and the production of medicines. Actually, the entire health institution throughout the Ottoman Empire was looked after by the chief physician who was based at Topkapi Palace although his first concern was the sultan and the palace personnel.
The main pharmacy at Topkapı Palace was in a building called the Başlale Kulesi (Chief Tutor’s Tower) or the Başhekim Kulesi (Chief Physician’s Tower). This was both an office and a pharmacy. In the latter, a pharmacist would prepare the medicines in accordance with the prescription of the chief physician. In addition to medicines for illnesses, other potions and mixtures were prepared to strengthen the body and increase appetite.
Documents show what went into various medicines which would be prepared in the Helvahane, located in the palace’s second courtyard with the kitchens. These documents were collected in a book between 1608 and 1767, a copy of which still exists at the palace.
The pharmacists were known to have kept certain remedies on hand for common complaints. Teas, chamomile, linden, jasmine, violet and others were readily available even if a person became ill during the night. As well cochineal, castor oil, laudanum and such medicines were kept in a special cabinet and who took what was noted down by the chief physician, a practice that provided researchers with so much material today. These medicines were for fevers, headaches, stomachaches, general malaise, skin conditions, insomnia and aching joints and could be stored for a long period of time.
Of all the mixtures, the most important seems to have been Tiryak al-Faruq (Faruq’s Antidote). It was very valuable and had to be prepared with painstaking care by the chief physician. With its 40 different active ingredients, it was very useful in treating poisoning and poisonous bites from snakes and insects. It had to age for six months before it could be given and the longer it matured, the more valuable it became. Another valuable medicine was Tiryak al-Arbaa, the ingredients of which included bay seeds, gentian, gum myrrh and birthwort. These would be ground and put through a sieve and mixed with honey.
Syrups formed another important part of the Ottoman medical arsenal. They were often made from fruits such as pomegranates and tamarinds or from flowers such as rose and violet. They were used in a variety of illnesses ranging from fever to tuberculosis and even malaria.
The pastes were also an integral part of the chief physician’s medicines. These were called “macun” or “mesir” and contained many different ingredients. A company in the İzmir area recently announced it was attempting to make the mesir paste more palatable to children. (Turkish friends however laughed on hearing this since they call it “Turkish Viagra.”) The pastes were most often used for strengthening the body and contained herbs which would be mixed or boiled with honey.
Ointments were also prepared especially for burns and skin disease. Among the many preparations was something called black paste which was made of beeswax, olive oil and tar. It hardly sounds tempting.