Prof. Zohar Amar: Ancient Health Remedies

Modern medicine relies on ancient sources as well as traditional health remedies. However as time goes by, these health remedies are slowly disappearing, and along with them – a grand tradition of healing and a nurturing way of life. Prof. Zohar Amar of the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology has been amassing and examining these ancient remedies for two decades, thus preserving this extensive knowledge for generations to come.

Prof. Zohar Amar has explored old markets and spice stands in Israel and abroad, and conducted thousands of interviews in an attempt to study and document the secret of ancient folk medicine still used in traditionally ethnic communities in Israel. The diverse remedies are detailed in manuscripts of ancient Greek and Roman healers, and medieval Arab doctors. Contemporary use of these methods, mainly among communities that were influenced by Arab culture, is at the heart of his fascinating research.

It seems that modern medicine’s inability to treat certain ailments has generated renewed interest in folk medicine. Prof. Amar notes the example of modern medicine’s attempt at dealing with age-related memory loss: “A few years ago, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef quoted in one of his speeches the famous medieval proverb which states, ‘repeat your studies over and over, and you won’t need Baladur’. Baladur (Marking- Nut Tree) is a plant believed to improve memory, but has life-threatening side effects. In other words, the old saying suggests that you review repetitively in order to sharpen your memory, so much so that you won’t need this plant which can be hazardous. Rabbi Ovadia reminded people of this plant and its special qualities, and they asked me to help them locate it.” And thanks to modern medicine’s growing interest in age-related cognitive decline, it is now possible to purchase an extract of this plant, which is produced in Israel from the plant imported from India, based on ancient prescriptions publicized by Prof. Zohar Amar.

Some of the traditional medicinal remedies, adds Prof. Amar, come from animals. One of the most popular ones, which has been copied and even fraudulently produced today, is the Scincidae Saknakur (Sandfish) powder. “This remedy is mentioned as early as the first century by Greek physician Dioscorides as well as by Maimonides. According to ancient transcripts, the Scincidae was dried and ground, and the powder was used to treat impotence. During one of the surveys that I conducted in Jerusalem’s Old City, I stumbled upon an Arab student who was looking to buy Saknakur. He told me that he had heard about it from family elders and he decided to try it. The fact that these remedies are noted in ancient literature renders them all the more credible.

Almost all plants have some sort of medicinal quality,” says Prof. Amar, “Even ‘bad’ plants have healing properties. One such plant is the Small Nettle (Urtica urens). After cooking it, it no longer stings and its juice can be used to help cure urinary tract infections and kidney stones.”

Various types of health remedies are sold in most alternative medicine stores. Still there are some which are chiefly used by a certain community. “In one store in southern Tel Aviv, which was owned by Jews of Persian descent, my eyes caught sight of a jar marked ‘Trangenbin.’ This name was familiar to me from the writings of Maimonides and Ibn Ezra, and moreover, there’s a Karaite tradition that links this name to the story of the manna that the Children of Israel ate in the desert.

“Trangebin are sugary granules that crystallize on branches of the prickly plant by the name of ‘Haga’ (Camelthorn Manna). The sugar is gathered in a laborious process and has different uses in folk medicine. Is this indeed the manna, which the Children of Israel gathered in the desert? Highly questionable. But in any case, the discovery in the Tel Aviv shop brought me back in time to the Sephardic sages and closed a 1000-year gap.” The price of the herb is especially high, since it is imported from Persia to Israel in an arduous roundabout way. Among Persian Jewry, Prof. Zohar studied and found that they make use of it as a gentle laxative for babies, and that it’s sufficient to place a morsel under the tongue for it to act.

Prof. Zohar also makes note of the plants Senna, Citrullus colocynthis and Cassia fistula (used by Maimonides to treat the chronic constipation of Saladin’s son). “All three act similarly and the difference lies in the recommended dosage.”

From the Pharaohs to IDF Soldiers

These remedies cross cultures and time, and the study of the various medicinal traditions shows that there are more similarities than differences. This is how Prof. Amar learned about the Yemenite tradition of “Mummia”, which he recognized from the ancient scriptures as a treatment for mending bones, in particular for limbs that can’t be put in a cast. “This medicine originates from the Egyptian mummies,” explains Prof. Amar. “During the mummification process the Egyptians used an essence which today we call ‘bitumen’ – a type of medicinal tar. They added to this various other elements which slowed down the disintegration of the remains; such as myrrh, frankincense, lye, acacia gum and cedar oil.

Egyptian pyramid robbers sold mummy parts soaked in these good remedies. This form of commerce crossed borders into Europe, and questions arose in Jewish Halakhic literature: Are we allowed to derive benefit from the dead? Are we allowed to use mummies? And so we learn that our people were no strangers to this trade and these products. There are many other indications even from Jerusalem, and there were some rabbis who objected to the use of these body parts as a folk remedy.”

Prof. Amar managed to get his hands on the last mummy part sold in the Jerusalem markets. Later he received a sample of mummy materials from an old Yemenite healer – a black mineral mined in the Sanaa region. After lab work, Prof. Amar found that the Jerusalem mummy was partly made of organic substances saturated in various remedies.

The mummy medicine was known among other communities in the Persian Gulf and in Russia. They would also produce it from local minerals. This treatment has been rejuvenated in the modern age and today is sold in the form of extracts and capsules. One day, my son, without knowing anything about these treatments, asked me to get him a healing substance by the name of “mummy” for him and his friends who serve in an IDF combat unit. They were told that it was good for stress fractures and minor fractures. This was how I discovered that the ancient Egyptian remedy made its way to the IDF.”

Ethiopian Remedy

A unique study conducted by Prof. Amar and researcher Dikla Danino focused on traditional Ethiopian remedies in Israel, and was published in the book Ethiopia in Israel – Medicine and Traditional Remedies of the Ethiopian Community. The book presents unique documentation of ancient Ethiopian medicine, which is at risk of extinction due to the modernization of this community.

The study spanned several years, and included a trip to Ethiopia and numerous interviews with Ethiopian elders in Israel. During the study Amar collected hundreds of samples, mostly plant- based and some animal- or mineral-based. The extensive collection includes folk medical tools and devices found throughout Israel.

Unlike the many similarities in ethnic remedies, a certain honey called “tazme” is unique to Ethiopian culture. This honey is produced by a type of bee that does not exist in Israel. Their hives are built underground, and locals expend much effort using sticks to extract the honey. This honey is used to treat throat and respiratory infections mostly during the winter season.

Ethiopians who immigrated to Israel in recent years are quickly adopting a modern lifestyle. Prof. Amar says that “other ethnicities took 30 to 50 years to acclimate and forget their old way of life, but among Ethiopians this is happening much faster. Working on this book provided an opportunity for me to meet with traditional folk healers, whose generation is gradually disappearing, and to preserve their legacy for generations to come.”