Forester Nigel FitzMaurice

        The preparation of complex compounds for medicinal or recreational purposes has a long history. It is the intention of this paper to present some examples of non-alcoholic preparations described by an Iraqi doctor of the 9th century CE. These preparations, arising out of a medicinal background, may be seen as steps along the way toward becoming non medicinal, recreational beverages. Three are technically electuaries, that is, syrups. One is a poultice, with ingredients very commonly found in later teas, cordials, and other similar drinks. The remainder is a tonic beverage already.
        The recipes under study are all taken from a translation of the Aqrabadhin (formulary) of al-Kindi. The original author was Abu Yusuf Ya'qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, a doctor living in Baghdad in the period c. 800-870 CE. Kindi's formulary became famous, and was widely distributed throughout the Muslim world, and even beyond. Most of the formulae presented in his work are typical of Mediaeval medical prescriptions, and involve salves, ointments, poultices, or internal medicines with ingredients of varying strengths and toxicity's. The following are, however, strongly reminiscent of similar recipes for herbal teas, cordials and the like:

3. Drug kneaded from an Indian electuary
It is the nosh-daru electuary, which is a pleasant drug and makes those happy who drink it, for it makes sadness disappear. It is pleasing to the heart and the spirit; it strengthens them both. It also strengthens the body, for it does away with a yellow complexion and improves the color. It strengthens the stomach and renders the body perspiration agreeable, improves the odor of the breath, and is good for the liver. It is harmless and is to be taken before or after meals. It is effective, if God wishes.

Red rose ... 6 Dirhams
Cyperus Longus L. ... 5 Dirhams
Clove ... 3 Dirhams
Mastic ... 3 Dirhams
Nard ... 3 Dirhams
Wild nard ... 3 Dirhams
Cinnamon ... 3 Dirhams
Ceylonese cinnamon ... 2 Dirhams
Yew ... 2 Dirhams
Saffron ... 2 Dirhams
Sebesten ... 1 Dirham
Cardamom ... 1 Dirham
Lesser Cardamom ... 1 Dirham
Walnut ... 1 Dirham

 These drugs are taken, after having been pounded and sieved with a silk cloth, according to those measured weights. They are mixed well during pulverization. Then a ratl of the best young, purified myrobalan is cooked with nine ratls of clear potable water, until three ratls of liquid remain. Then it is clarified and that liquid returned to the vessel. On it is thrown two ratls of Sijistan sugar candy. Then it is boiled gently until it becomes the consistency of a thick electuary. The vessel is removed from the fire and the ingredients are sprinkled in and stirred with an osier twig. The operation is repeated until it is thoroughly mixed. When it becomes cold, it is put in a glazed jar and its top closed with leather. Take between one and two mithqals of it on an empty stomach, if God wishes.

6. A strong poultice for the spleen.
Mint, Chamomile, Marjoram, and Thyme are cooked in vinegar and the fomentation is applied. It is removed before the meal to cool, then it is cut into 21 fomentations. If it remains hot at night, it is beneficial.

108. Syrups, electuaries, and others. The best resat jellies are taken in the winter for a stiff neck. It is useful, with God's help. Ten dawariq of the best juice from pulp of the grape is taken. A dawariq is 4 1/2 ratls. It is cooked over a low fire until its foam disappears. Then the best genuine honey is put in. The proportion is one ratl of honey for every five ratls. It is boiled over a low fire until its foam also disappears. 1/2 of it evaporates. Then 1 dirham each is taken of

Lesser cardamom
Ceylonese cinnamon
Long pepper

It is well pulverized and put into a fine linen cloth. Then it is thrown into the decoction after the froth has been removed. When the cooking is over, it is possible to introduce the hand into it. The powder is macerated into it strongly. It is taken out and 3 dirhams of Saffron put into (the liquid). It is put into flasks and the tops are stoppered. After a little sun is allowed on it, one may use it. The older it gets, the better, God willing.

109. Sweet, pleasant, good, delicious honey syrup.
Pure water of the tamarisk seed is cooked until it is diminished by a fourth. Then the best honey and crystalline sugar, of each one a part equal to half of the water which had been cooked, is thrown on it. Its froth is removed. In it is put a linen bag which contains one ratl each of Cardamom, Chinese cinnamon, Walnut, and Ginger, and one daniq each of honey and sugar. (This mixture) is boiled until a syrup remains. The bag is squeezed, kneaded in it, and then taken out. The mixture is put into flasks and the tops stoppered. It is drunk like oxymel.

114. Electuary of Fennel. It is effective, with God's help.
It is good for obstruction of the liver and what is between the liver and the stomach, and it increases the urine. It is useful for pain in the sides, kidneys, bladder. It unblocks the opening of the stomach and is effective for fever heat penetrating to the bones.

Fennel root 1 ratl
Celery root 1 ratl
Fennel seed 1/3 awqiya
Celery seed 1 awqiya
 Anise 2 awqiyas

All are cooked and the solution clarified. Sijistan sweetmeat, i 1/4 ratls is cooked with the concoction until it becomes a syrupy electuary. The dose is from two to five dirhams according to his strength and it is preferable on an empty stomach. It is useful with God's help.

Commentary and conclusions: The preparation of medicinal compounds is of very old date. Throughout history doctors and others have regarded fruits, spices, and herbs as having curative or restorative value. The line between medicinal potions and recreational beverages is quite vague though, and a variety of tonics can be used both for health and for pleasure. The present study was motivated by an interest in discovering within early medical formularies references to compounds which sit on the fence, as it were, between the two realms. A 9th century Iraqi formulary was looked into, and a number of medicines described therein seemed to fit the criteria of tonics or restoratives which also were tasty and interesting in and of themselves. Coming out of a Muslim background, none of the preparations is specifically alcoholic in nature, although it can readily be seen that #108 (the third in this paper) would rapidly begin to ferment under the conditions described.
        It remains to see how influential this, or other similar formularies, might have been on the development of cordial and tonic waters elsewhere. At the present, there is no clear and unambiguous connection between al-Kindi's Formulary and similar works written later. Nevertheless, the author, Abu Yusuf Ya'qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, was a very well-known philosopher and scientist in his era. He wrote a great many treatises on a broad number of topics, from sorcery and astrology, to medicine and cooking, to mathematics and swordsmithing, to name just a few. Many of these works survive today, and have been re-written, commented on, and re-published through succeeding generations over the past 1100 years. It is not at all implausible to imagine copies of his formulary being introduced to crusaders, and thence being carried back to Europe. Therefore, it is the surmise of this paper that the Aqrabadhin is one source which influenced European medical practitioners in the development tonics that, over time, evolved into non-medicinal cordials and strong waters.

Materia: Here are notes on the substances mentioned in each of the above recipes.

Anise (Pimpinella anisum) An annual herb, widely cultivated, with a distinctively pungent flavour and odour
Chamomile (Anthemus nobilis) A perennial found in dry ground, especially fields,  gardens, and near cultivation. It has a very distinctive odor and taste, and has long been used  as a muscle relaxant.
Cardamom, Lesser Cardamom  (Elettaria cardamomum) A perenniel herb, native to southern India but widely cultivated in tropical regions as a spice.
Celery root, seed (Apium graveolens) A biennial plant native to North Africa and Europe, long used as a salad vegetable and as a flavouring agent.
Cinnamon, Ceylonese cinnamon, Chinese Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) A bushy evergreen native to southern India, Ceylon, and Burma. The well-known spice is derived from the powdered inner layer of bark.
Clove (Caryophyllus aromaticus) a spice, native to Indonesia and the Philippines, used extensively throughout the Muslim world and beyond in the Middle Ages.
Fennel root, seed (Foeniculum officinale) A biennial or perennial native to Asia Minor  and the Mediterranean, but cultivated as far north as Britain from an early date. The  roots and the seeds are of use.
Ginger (Zinziber officinale) A perennial native to tropical Asia, but known in the west  from an early date. The root provides the well-known spice.
Grape juice (Vitis Vinifera) As regards the recipe in which this appears (# 108 (the third)), it is important to recognize that grape skins provide one of the richest environments for naturally occurring yeast.
Honey This natural source of sugar has been known from the very beginning of  human experience. I recommend using inexpensive generic grades of honey, not only to  control cost but also for the fact that the generics are blends from several different pollen  sources, just as Mediaeval honey most likely would have been. Single source honeys,  particularly the clovers, have a tendency to overwhelm other flavors with their own  distinctive essence.
Long Pepper (Piper retrofractum) A pepper variety from Java; P. longum, from India, is also referenced by this name on occasion.
Marjoram (Origanum officale) A perennial spice native to the Mediterranean and Asia.
Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus). An aromatic tree of the pistachio family, providing a gum  resin often used in folk medicines.
Mint (Mentha) It is not indicated in the recipe whether Peppermint or Spearmint is meant; my feeling is that Spearmint is the reference, since that subspecies (M. spicata) tends to be more southerly in native clime.
Myrobalan An unguent compounded from the dried fruit of a variety of tropical trees, high in tannin content and used, in fact, in the tanning industry
Nard, Wild nard (Aralia) Any of a variety of species of this perennial bush, normally known in Europe as Spikenard.
Red Rose  (Rosa) Many species and varieties go toward making up this nearly  ubiquitous flowering shrub; it is impossible to know just exactly which red rose the authors  meant.
Saffron (Crocus sativus) A small, somewhat toxic perennial found in the Mediterranean and Iran.
Sebesten (Cordia) The nuts of either C. mysa or C. latifolia, shrubs of the Borage family found in Egypt and India.
Sedge (Cyperus Longus L.) A species of wetland reed, grass like in appearance, and related to Egyptian Papyrus.
Sijistan sugar candy,  Sij. sweetmeats; crystallized sugar These are referred to in off-hand fashion in several recipes, with little indication as to exact composition. Sijistan was a region in south-central Iran, adjacent to the Fars district.
Tamarisk seed (Tamarix) Any of several closely related species of this shrub found in semi-arid and salt desert regions.
Thyme (Thymus Serpyllum). Wild thyme, and closely related to the common kitchen herb.
Vinegar (Acetic acid (CH3COOH)) Any of a variety of distilled vinegars.
Walnut (Juglans regia) This is the Iranian variety of this well-known nut tree.
Yew (Taxus) Any of several species of this evergreen tree. It is unclear from the recipe what part of the plant is intended, the foliage and seeds (but not the arils) are toxic.

A note on measurements: The units of measure used throughout these recipes are standard Baghdad  weights of the 9th century. Here are equivalents in metric and sterling:

1 dirham     =      3.125 grams      =       .11 ounce (avoir.)
1 mithqal    =      4.46 grams        =       .157 ounce
1 awqiya    =    33.8 grams          =     1.19 ounces
1 ratl          =  406.25 grams        =   14.328 ounces (.8955 pound) (Technically, a ratl = 144 dirham (drachms), but in practice these measures often varied in the marketplace.)


Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1974. Many articles to confirm botanical names (which change more frequently than one might imagine) where ambiguity was found in other  sources.
Gibb H. A. R., Kramers J. H., Levi-Provencal E., Schacht J. (Editors). The Encyclopedia of Islam (8 Vols.). E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1979
Humbarger, Grant. Period Metrology. in The Compleat Anachronist, Vol. 82, Nov. 1995
Levey, Martin.The Medical Formulary, or Aqrabadhin, of al-Kindi. Univ.of Wisconsin Press, 1966. This version contains, aside from explanatory notes and indices of materia and foreign terms, the complete text of the original. A translation is presented on each page, and the facing page contains a photograph of the original document, showing the Arabic.
Lust, John. The Herb Book. Bantam Books, New York. 1974. A detailed reference guide to a wide  variety of medicinal herbs and botanicals.

This Version: 15 Nov. 2000

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Sakanjubins and Oxymels A short review of these non-alcoholic preparations found throughout the Middle East. This paper is the basis for a class I teach on the topic.

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