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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

12/2015 manuscript  of the month


An Inconspicuous Manuscript That Is a Treasure Trove of Knowledge:

Armenian Folk Medicine from the Ottoman Empire

Hundreds of folk remedies that were once part of Ottoman Armenian culture were written down in this standard school exercise book in 1943. The notebook contains specific knowledge about ancient methods of healing the body used by Armenians from Ayntab (now known as Gaziantep), a city in south-east Turkey close to the Syrian border (approx. 120 km from Aleppo). What is the story behind this very personal manuscript made in the Armenian diaspora?


Fig. 1: The recipes were written down in
this standard Argentinian school exercise
book. > Enlarge

This paper manuscript (Fig. 1) contains 130 pages filled with a total of 342 folk remedies written in Armeno-Turkish (the Ottoman language written in Armenian script with an admixture of Armenian words). In addition to this, it contains some standard pages with recommendations on how to be a good pupil and Argentinian citizen. The handwriting is largely clear and regular, although a few of the last pages seem to have been written in a hurry. The notebook does not contain any illuminations or illustrations. Page numbers were written at the top of each page. Additionally, each recipe bears a number of its own (Figs. 2–3).

The recipes are divided into groups according to different parts of the human body. An incredibly detailed list of possible ailments is provided in each part, followed by a recipe for an appropriate remedy. We find 64 recipes for healing the eyes alone, for instance, including the following:

  • Eye-refreshing recipe: sugar lumps for tea, ulex, potassium bitartrate, long pepper
  • Eye-refreshing recipe: citric acid, starch, clove, rock sugar Polad
  • Recipe to cure watery eyes: cypress, black cumin, alum, nigella sativa
  • Recipe for eye herpes: sugar lumps for tea, black chickpeas, galga nux, clove
  • Recipe for black eyes irritated by smoke: galga nux, long pepper, clove, sugar lumps for tea, copper sulphate, ammoniac
  • Special recipe for acute eye pain: cotton, rose water, Syrian rue, white chickpeas
  • Recipe to cure styes: sugar lumps for tea, alum, clove
  • Recipe for eye sores: anzarot, clove, auraga, sea foam, alum, rock sugar Polad
  • Herbal ointment for black eyes: long pepper, goldenrod, galga nux, rock sugar Polad, almonds, olives and honey ointment
  • Recipe for eyes irritated by dust or smoke: shellac, ivory powder, pearl powder, egg yolk


Fig. 2: Notebook with recipes
(nos. 1–4), p. 1 > Enlarge

The knowledge transmitted in this manuscript was used by so-called folk or herbal doctors in and around the town of Ayntab. Up to the early 20th century, the region belonged to the Ottoman province of Haleb (now Aleppo). The herbal doctors cured a myriad of diseases with folk medicine and practices they had learnt by experience. Their role was essential, as there were no doctors in many areas.

Folk medicine in Ayntab profited particularly from traditional Armenian medicine practised in Cilicia. This is not surprising given the fact that Ayntab, which was within the borders of mediaeval Cilicia with its various monasteries and seminaries, was not disconnected from the medical progress made during the period; the medical treatises written in the monasteries of the area would certainly have been known to the folk doctors of Ayntab. It is reported that knowledge of herbal medicine was written down in the neighbouring city of Marash as recipes for remedies listed in books that belonged to certain families.


Fig. 3: Pages 2–3 showing further remedies (nos. 5–10). > Enlarge

In the case of the notebook in question here, it is not clear where the knowledge exactly came from in Ayntab. In any case, it was taken from Ayntab to Aleppo and then into exile in Argentina, where it was written down by an Armenian woman called Hripsime Tobdjian (Fig. 4). This knowledgeable woman was born in Ayntab in 1883. Her husband, Nazareth, was a merchant who never returned from one of his business trips. The family supposed he fell victim to the pillaging carried out by Kurdish tribes – a widespread phenomenon at that time. The young widow started working as a teacher of Armenian. Due to the hostility that affected the Armenian population in the late Ottoman Empire, she left her home town of Ayntab around 1920 and settled in Aleppo, where she again worked as a teacher. In 1926, she moved to Latin America with her two teenage sons. She found shelter in Córdoba, Argentina, a province in the centre of the country. Hripsime was the founder of the Armenian Red Cross of Córdoba and devoted herself to various social activities and charity work for the rest of her life.


Fig. 4: Hripsime Tobdjian
> Enlarge

It is likely that at least some of the knowledge that she wrote down in the notebook was gleaned from other members of her family. Within the family, Hripsime is said to have got a recipe from her sister Nouritza, who had a recurring dream for several days in which an angel gave her a remedy for curing eye infections.

Hripsime had probably brought some personal notes with her from Ayntab and wanted to write them down more clearly und understandably in a single notebook before she died. Alternatively, she may have known all the recipes by heart before writing them down in peace while in diaspora.

On the first page of the manuscript, Hripsime left a note dedicating it to the Tobdjian family, which therefore makes it a very personal item. The notebook is testimony to the fact that Hripsime must have felt the need to preserve this specific medical knowledge. She herself had used the recipes in Córdoba, helping friends and neighbours. The recipe she had learnt from her sister, for instance, was still in use until the 1960s. All this knowledge makes her manuscript a treasure trove that contains personal memories as well as parts of the Armenian heritage that survived in diaspora.



References

DER-MEGUERDITCHIAN, Silvina: www.silvina-der-meguerditchian.de

HOFFMANN, Jule (2015): Armenische Rezepte der Uroma im Biennale-Pavillon, interview in German with Silvina Der-Meguerditchian

KESHISHIAN, Varty (2013): Marash Folk Medicine

LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA, The National Pavilion of The Republic of Armenia, 56th Biennale di Venezia 2015

MANOUKIAN, Jennifer (2014): The Legacy of Turkish in the Armenian Diaspora


Description

Private collection
Material: paper
Dimensions: 17 cm (wide) x 21.5 cm (high) x 1 cm (thick)
Provenance: Córdoba, Argentina, 1943


Text by Silvina Der-Meguerditchian
© for all images: Silvina Der-Meguerditchian
Reference note:
Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, “An Inconspicuous Manuscript That Is a Treasure Trove of Knowledge”
In: Andreas Janke (Ed.): Manuscript of the Month 2015.12, SFB 950: Hamburg,
http://www.manuscript-cultures.uni-hamburg.de/mom/2015_12_mom_e.html