How Middle Eastern Cultures used herbs
The Middle East is a diverse territory, with a rich history and culture. It was home to the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, and includes Persian, Arabic and Turkish cultures who were very important players in the ancient trades of herbs, spices and incense.
The Middle East was responsible for some of the biggest scientific advances while Europe was languishing in the dark ages and developed what we would now call modern science. They made huge strides in trigonometry in the 8th century, were responsible for pioneering algebra and geometry, physics, chemistry and more.
Herbs and Spices in Middle Eastern Cooking
The Middle East produced and traded many exotic and valuable herbs, spices and incense and the region was key in the development of the spice routes over land and sea. Arabian spice traders controlled the passage of spices from Asia and India into Europe and this has left a legacy of delicious cuisine which are heavily spiced and fragrant.
The most popular spices and herbs which you can see today in Middle Eastern cuisine include cumin, coriander, rose water, cardamom, fenugreek, saffron, sumac, cloves and more. Although few of these herbs are originally from the region, because the Arabian traders were so familiar with the herbs, they have developed their own spice blends to make unmistakable Middle Eastern flavours.
These include mixes such as Za’atar made from sesame, sumac and thyme with olive oil and the Ras el Hanout blend which includes nutmeg, coriander, cumin, ginger, turmeric, salt, cinnamon, sugar, paprika, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cardamom, allspice and cloves. This mix of savoury and sweet flavours is crucial to an authentic middle eastern flavour.
Medicinal Herbs used in the Middle East
The Middle East and the Arab and Muslim world has a vibrant healing tradition stretching back in history. According to research by Sara Al-Rawi and Michael D Fetters on Traditional Arabic & Islamic Medicine it tends to combine the use of medicinal herbs, dietary practices, mind-body therapy and spiritual healing.
Medicine flourished in the Arab world as far back as the 8th century, and scholars Rhazes and Avicenna led the way in the development of medicine, which when translated dominated medical teachings in Europe until the 16th century.
They believed in the healing power of nature alongside scriptures and therefore medicinal herbs and remedies were closely linked to prayer and ritual. Medicinal herbs such as chamomile and milk thistle were taken alongside fasting, drinking holy water and prayer. Chanting also accompanied these rituals.
There are around 250 plant species used in Arabic traditional medicine as well as in the form of teas, syrups, infusions and ointments.
Many of these medicinal herbs and plants can be found in many herbal medicine shops, which you’ll see particularly in the markets or suqs across the Middle East. Often imported along the ancient trade routes and sold alongside native remedies, herbs, spices and plants are still popular today as part of natural healing practices.
According to a fascinating article about the Natural Remedies of Arabia, popular herbs and spices for healing include:
anise for abdominal pain, indigestion, coughs and headaches
asafoetida for digestion, pain and coughs
cardamon for indigestion and gas
camomile for relaxation, digestion and as a general tonic
Sage symbolises purity and justice in Israel and Palestine and has an important role in daily rituals in Muslim life in Israel. It is used as a ritual plant at births, weddings and funerals.
Incense in the Middle East
Incense, particularly Frankincense and Myrrh, are native to the Middle East, particularly Southern Arabia, as well as the African countries of Ethiopia and Somalia. The Three Wise Men presented these gifts to Jesus in the Bible and Arab merchants and traders brought these goods to the ancient Egyptians and Roman empire via the Incense route.
They used camels to transport these precious resins, along with spices, precious metals and stones and textiles from Hadhramaut, to Gaza, crossing the deserts of Arabia to reach Europe.
The Middle East is an important producer of frankincense, with the very best produced in the Dhofar region of Oman and Yemen. In fact, it was so important to Yemen in ancient times, that it largely supported its economy.
In the Middle East, frankincense is used as incense, but not in a religious capacity. It is frequently chewed as a gum to fight bad breath, or used as an essential oil. It is known to have anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and astringent properties. Persian healers recommended using frankincense for its medicinal purposes as early as the 10th Century for tumours, ulcers, vomiting, dysentery and fever.
Myrrh is also produced in Southern Arabia and is prized both as an incense and also one of nature’s best antiseptics. In the Middle East, myrrh is burned to release its healing properties as well as infused into water and drank. It is used to alleviate inflammation, as a mouthwash for ulcers or sore throats and soaked in water to apply to burns and cuts.
Ancient Egyptians used it as a moisturiser and insect repellent and the highly venerated medieval doctor Rhazes used it to treat ailments of the kidneys, bladder, swelling in the stomach and colic. Modern investigations have shown it does indeed have significant antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Sirius Herbal’s Sacred herbs and incense
We are passionate about sourcing the very best sacred herbs and incense for our customers, many of which come from the Middle East. Our selection of incense includes Frankincense, Myrrh and many other fragrant resins, powders and herbs, which are wonderful at calming, purifying, clearing the mind and energising body and soul.
We can advise you on what incense is best suited to your requirements so please don’t hesitate to ask. Alongside our range of incense, we have sacred herbs which make wonderful natural dyes and are used as part of shamanic and healing rituals. Please contact us to find out more about the range and their properties, or browse our online shop.