FWD 2 HerbalGram: Aromatic Herbal Baths of the Ancients

Issue: 57 Page: 40-49

Aromatic Herbal Baths of the Ancients

by Farid U. Alakbarov

HerbalGram. 200357:40-49 American Botanical Council

From ancient times through the Middle Ages, different nations of the Mediterranean and Near East used aromatic herbal baths widely for medical purposes. Over time this practice, which began in Ancient Egypt and Babylon and was further developed by famous Greek scholars and practitioners, spread throughout Southern Europe and the Near East and, later, influenced medical practices in Western Europe.

Herbal baths, which were highly valued by the ancients, are not completely forgotten today. Modern science proves that bathing can relieve muscle tension, dilate blood vessels, and slow the heart rate.1 Herbs can contribute to these benefits. Bathing with infusions of fragrant herbs is used traditionally to treat many diseases, may eliminate physical and mental tiredness, and is beneficial for the skin and hair.2

Since the late 1960s, owing to the widespread use of phytotherapy in the United States and Europe, herbal baths have become even more popular. Many unique methods of application of herbs in our daily life have been developed, and today a number of medicinal preparations and cosmetics are produced with herbs and sold throughout the world. Soaps, shampoos, and shower gels containing various herbs and other plant-derived aromatic substances are now widely available for bathing or hand washing.3

However, volatile oils are not the only agents working in an aromatic bath. Fragrant plants contain numerous other constituents (tannins, flavonoids, alkaloids, etc.) that are also therapeutic in an herbal bath. The infusion of a whole fragrant herb is often considered to be more effective than its pure volatile oil.4

Despite the number of modern works on phytotherapy,5 compared with the ancient medical manuscripts, they contain limited information about aromatic baths. Many ancient recipes have been forgotten. To revive them, one must refer to the ancient books on medicine and pharmacy. These sources contain numerous recommendations that might be of interest to modern physicians and could enrich modern herbal medicine.

The author of this article is engaged in the study of the ancient practice of phytotherapy in the Near East. For these purposes, information from manuscripts dating from 9th—18th centuries c.e. and written in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Azerbaijani, Turkish, and Persian has been analyzed. All these sources are kept at the Institute of Manuscripts of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences in Baku. As a result, some forgotten ancient recipes have been deciphered.6 Some of these medieval and earlier recommendations are cited and analyzed in this article. This author believes that they may enrich modern phytotherapy, once they have been experimentally and clinically tested.


The earliest written information about therapy by bathing with decoctions of aromatic herbs is contained in the Indian Vedas dating back to 1500 b.c.e. Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hebrews widely applied this practice for hygienic and medicinal purposes. For example, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt (69—30 b.c.e.), bathed with rose (Rosa spp., Rosaceae) petals.7 After bathing, Egyptians would apply perfumes and ointments from cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum J. Presl, Lauraceae), peppermint (Mentha x piperita L., Lamiaceae), white lily (Lilium candidum L., Liliaceae), sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana L., Lamiaceae), Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata Roxb., Burseraceae), and oils derived from almond (Prunus dulcis (Mill.) D.A. Webb., syn. P. amygdalus Batsch., Rosaceae), castor (Ricinus communis L., Euphorbiaceae), olive (Olea europaea L., Oleaceae), and sesame (Sesamum indicum L., Pedaliaceae).7

The Greek physician Hippocrates (circa 460—377 b.c.e.), known as the Father of Medicine, learned about the healing properties of aromatic baths from the ancient Egyptians. He subsequently developed teachings about using water as a form of treatment, which he called hydropathy. Medicinal bathing also was called thalassotherapy or hydrotherapy (water cure). The name thalassotherapy may come from ancient Greek thalassa (small sea) or from the Greek philosopher Thales (circa 636—546 b.c.e.), who believed that the physical world derives from a single underlying substance: water.1

This treatment method was later adopted by Roman physicians and gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean. The bathhouses (thermae) of ancient Rome became famous, owing to their fragrant decoctions and balmy ointments. Such scholars as Dioscorides (1st century c.e.) and Galen (circa 130—200 c.e.) recommended aromatic baths for urological and genital disorders, as well as for tumors, wounds, colds, bad mood, and fatigue.8 Galen treated patients for fever in the famous Hadrian baths. Some public thermae in Rome were huge, magnificent buildings having separate rooms with hot, warm, or cold water, and special sections for massage, sports, and physical exercises. The Caracalla Baths in Rome were especially impressive and famous during the 3rd century c.e. People not only bathed there, but also were treated with water, massage, and aromatic herbs, they also relaxed, visited with friends, and entertained.

According to Greek historians, native inhabitants of Central, Northern, and Western Europe also used primitive herbal baths. For example, the Greek historian Herodotus (circa 484—425 b.c.e.) mentions that the Scythians, a nomadic tribe of the Ukraine region, used hempseed to medicate a vapor bath: "The Scythians take some of this hempseed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives off such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed."9

After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century c.e., Western Europe plunged into the Middle Ages, a dark era of ignorance (circa 400—1450 c.e.), which in some countries continued up to the Renaissance and Reformation (circa 1450—1700 c.e.). However, during the Renaissance and Reformation, the Church forced the demise of saunas and nearly rendered the European bathhouse extinct. Only Finnish, Russian, and Scandinavian peoples continued their traditions of herbal bathing. In Russia, people bathed in special wooden houses (bania) with hot water and steam. Before the 18th century c.e., these bania were common, and men and women bathed together. Russians applied a kind of herbal therapy in their bathhouses: they vigorously thrashed each other with switches of green birch twigs (so-called Birch Broom). It was believed that such "birching" in a bath improves circulation and rejuvenates an organism.10 Birch leaves were also placed over the hot rocks to expel cleansing vapors.

The Finnish bath (sauna) resembled the traditional Russian bath, but its principal therapeutic effect was associated not with hot water, but with steam. An old Finnish proverb says, "The sauna is the poor man's apothecary."8 Compared to the ancient Greeks, the peoples of Northern and Eastern Europe used fewer herbs in bathhouses and their bathing traditions were much simpler.

During the Middle Ages, the Greco-Roman culture of hygiene, bathing, and treatment by aromatic plants survived and continued to develop in the Byzantine Empire, Middle East, and Central Asia, where Greek medical traditions were influenced by Middle Eastern and Indian phytomedicine. Bath pavilions were a common and well-attended feature of hospitals in Constantinople. After the 7th century c.e., aromatic baths were added to the armamentarium of Muslim physicians, including the great Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna, 980—1037 c.e.), who believed that bathing in a decoction of dill (Anethum graveolens L., Apiaceae) is good for intestinal colic and stops congestion of sperm, while a bath with leaves of bay (Laurus nobilis L., Lauraceae) is effective against urinary diseases.11

During the Middle Ages, a cult of bathing was formed in Persia, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Contemporary sources attribute great healing properties to bathing. An 11th century Iranian writer, Keykavus Ziyari, wrote, "Since architects began to raise buildings, they created nothing better than a bathhouse."12 In order to maintain health, it was recommended that a person visit a bathhouse at least two or three times each week. Bathhouses served as both beauty parlors and health clinics.12 Medieval Middle Eastern bathhouses usually offered services such as bathing and massage with the application of aromatic oils. Many large public bathhouses had a staff of masseurs for this purpose, because it was believed that massage alleviates physical and mental tiredness, and improves circulation.13,14 Aromatic oils were also used to treat various diseases. For example, thyme ointment (Thymus spp., Lamiaceae) was applied for rheumatism, and an ointment with henna (Lawsonia inermis L., Lythraceae) or onion (Allium cepa L., Liliaceae & Alliaceae) was used for herpes.13,15 The staff of many bathhouses included a barber who cut hair and shaved the customers, and then applied henna (Lawsonia inermis L., Lythraceae), dyer's woad (Isatis tinctoria L., Brassicaceae), or other dyes to their hair.13

After a bath and a massage, visitors to the bathhouse could rest and relax in a special room where they would drink coffee or tea with fragrant herbs that included peppermint, thyme, sweet marjoram, rose petals, cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum (L.) Maton var. cardamomum, Zingiberaceae) or cloves (Syzygium aromaticum (L.) Merr. & L.M. Perry, Myrtaceae ).16 In Azerbaijan, customers could also order sweets, dinner, or a pipe. Stays in the bathhouse were so pleasant that some people would spend all their free time there; some even slept there. As a rule, after a visit to the bathhouse, people felt rejuvenated, attractive, healthy, strong, and energetic.12

The medieval Middle Eastern bathhouse was a very beautiful architectural object, usually a stone building with arches, domes, and beautiful gates. In Azerbaijan, the inner part of the public bathhouse consisted of the entrance hall and one or several large bathing halls with pools. There was also a cloakroom and rooms for rest. Bathhouses were heated by hot steam circulated in pipes under floor and walls. Several large medieval bathhouses are still preserved in Baku, including the Haji Gayib Bathhouse (built during the 15th century c.e.) and the Gasim bey Bathhouse (built during the 17th century c.e.), which now houses a museum of medieval pharmacy. In medieval times, the bathhouses would serve men one day, and women the next.

The Near Eastern authors of the Middle Ages suggest numerous plants to use in one's bath, including grape leaves (Vitis vinifera L., Vitaceae), chamomile (Matricaria recutita L., Asteraceae), pomegranate (Punica granatum L., Lythraceae & Punicaceae), basil (Ocimum basilicum L., Lamiaceae), anise (Pimpinella anisum L., Apiaceae), violet (Viola sororia Willd., Violaceae), almond oil, garlic (Allium sativum L., Liliaceae & Alliaceae), and barley (Hordeum vulgare L., Poaceae). Ancient manuscripts provide evidence that during the 9th—14th centuries the aromatic oils of about 50 species of herbs and flowers were used for treatment through bathing and external application. Medieval sources provide information about methods of preparation and the curative properties of these baths.16

Near Eastern bathhouses used fragrant substances in several ways, including:

1. Aromatic decoctions or infusions were added to the water in a bath. For example, Mu'min (d. 1697) wrote that bathing in a decoction of pine needles (Pinus spp., Pinaceae) is good against diseases of the uterus and rectum.17

2. Ointments containing aromatic herbal oils were applied to patients' bodies after or before bathing. For example, it was recommended to massage a patient's body with the ointment of pine pitch, euphorbium juice (from Euphorbia spp., Euphorbiaceae) and guggul (resin of Commiphora wightii (Arn.) Bhandari, Burseraceae), which was considered a good cure for stones in the bladder if applied after bathing with a special decoction.13 Some caution must be taken when using euphorbium juice, which is caustic.5

3. Usually, fragrant fruits or perfumes were placed near a bathing person. It was believed that aromatic substances strengthen the heart and have a sedative effect. "[Hot] water in a bath should not cover the patient's breast and heart," wrote Ibn Sina.13 It was recommended to bathe as long as the skin continues to redden and swell. However, one was advised to stop bathing after the skin began to pale.14

According to the folk medicine of Azerbaijan, after a hot bath or nap, one was advised to apply rose, narcissus (Narcissus spp., Liliaceae & Amaryllidaceae), or violet aromatic oil to the face and body. Women especially liked these oils since they make the skin tender and silky when applied after bathing.

Reproductive, Urinary and Intestinal Disorders

In addition to the ancient manuscripts, cultural memory has retained the secrets of ancient therapy from aromatic plants. The author has collected some of these recommendations from native residents in various districts in Azerbaijan and listed them below. Such information is indicated by the words "Pers. comm." (personal communication). Data on when, where, how, and from whom this information was collected are shown as well.

Cancer of the uterus

The herbs mentioned below were recommended not to treat cancer itself, but as analgesic remedies. For example, the 15th century Iranian author Mansur bin Mohammed wrote in his book Kifayayi-Mansuri (Sufficient from Mansur), "As to the cancer, it is a very dangerous disease and scarcely may be cured."18

Mansur recommends an analgesic bath containing dill seed, chamomile flower, yellow sweetclover or yellow melilot herb (Melilotus officinalis (L.) Pall., Fabaceae), mallow leaves (Malva neglecta Wallr., Malvaceae), cabbage leaves (Brassica oleracea L. var. capitata L., Brassicaceae), beetroot (Beta spp., Chenopodiaceae), and flax seed (Linum usitatissimum L., Linaceae). These were boiled and added to the bathtub.18

Poor urination

Garlic (Allium sativum L., Liliaceae & Alliaceae). According to Ibn Sina, "Sitting in the decoction of stems and leaves of garlic causes a diuretic effect É ."11 Garlic baths may have a therapeutic value since this plant has anti-spasmodic properties and substantial effects against bacteria, fungi, viruses, and even worms.4,19 In veterinary medicine, garlic is often added to otitic herbal mixtures for its antibiotic properties.20 Since boiling garlic inactivates some of its beneficial effects, garlic baths may be less effective for inflammatory diseases than an ointment of fresh chopped garlic.21

Stones in the bladder and kidneys

In order to crush and remove stones from the urinary bladder, Ibn Sina recommends bathing with an herbal mixture containing the following ingredients: chaste tree berry (Vitex agnus-castus L., Lamiaceae), maidenhair fern herb (Adiantum capillus-veneris L., Adiantaceae), mugwort herb (Artemisia vulgaris L., Asteraceae), rose petals (Rosa spp., Rosaceae), and other herbs with astringent properties.13 Supposedly, the astringent remedies may be pomegranate skin, barberry fruits (Berberis vulgaris L., Berberidaceae), or cornelian cherries (Cornus mas L., Cornaceae). Nowadays, in Azerbaijan, these herbs are widely used in the preparation of herbal baths.

Tumors and pains in the uterus

Anti-spasmodic, analgesic, and antiseptic herbs were applied for uterine dysfunction. To dilate blood vessels and release muscle tension, it was recommended to use hot water.15

Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus L., Verbenaceae). According to Ibn Sina, "Sitting in decoction of chaste tree seed is effective against pains and tumors in the uterus."11 The anonymous author of Tibbname (Book of Medicine), which was compiled in Azerbaijan in 1712, also writes that chaste tree seed has analgesic properties.22 In his book Jamiye Baghdadi (Baghdad's Collection, 1311 c.e.), the medieval Azerbaijani author Yusif bin Ismail Khoyi writes about anti-inflammatory properties of chaste tree baths.23

Uterine hemorrhage

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita L., Lamiaceae). The 18th century c.e. Azerbaijani author Abulhasan Maragayi writes in his treatise Mualijati-munfarida (Treatment with Simple Remedies) that a woman with uterine hemorrhage should bathe in a decoction of seeds and leaves of peppermint.24 The menthol in peppermint oil has a local vaso-constrictive effect and can relieve hemorrhage.4


Skin Diseases and Allergies

Since antiquity, the unguents, powders, and baths with decoctions and infusions from aromatic plants were widely used to treat skin diseases and allergies. Modern research now shows that the chemical composition of many aromatic plants contains ethereal oils with anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and analgesic properties.4

Allergic itch of the skin

These remedies were used not to cure the allergy itself, but only to relieve the allergic itch. Numerous representatives of two genera of conifers were applied for these purposes.

Juniper (Juniperus spp., Cupressaceae). Yusif Khoyi in 1311 c.e. prescribed bathing with juniper cones to ease allergic itch of the skin.23 According to Azerbaijani folk medicine, juniper baths are effective against allergic itch of the skin. It was recommended to carefully boil 50 juniper cones in 8 glasses (approximately 2 liters) of water and add the decoction to the bathtub (Pers. comm. M. Akhundov, conversation, 1989 December in Baku, Azerbaijan). These properties of the juniper baths may depend on counter-irritant and anti-inflammatory activities of the juniper oil. 25

Pine needle (Pinus spp., Pinaceae). Mu'min recommended bathing in a decoction of pine needles to cure allergic itch.17 In Azerbaijan, baths prepared with a 10 percent decoction of needles, cones, and branches of pine are considered a cure for allergic itch of the skin. Owing to counter-irritant and anti-inflammatory properties of the pine needle baths, they may relieve allergic itch.25

Irritation and inflammation of the skin

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita L., Asteraceae). The 18th century c.e. manuscript, Tibbname, recommends bathing with a decoction of chamomile flowers to ease pimples and inflammation of the skin.22 According to Azerbaijani folk medicine, bathing in a chamomile decoction soothes skin irritation and inflammation. It is recommended to add a handful of dried chamomile flowers to five glasses (approximately 1 liter) of boiling water and infuse for half an hour. Then, filter the infusion through a cloth or tea strainer and add to the bath water. The optimal temperature of the water must be similar to the temperature of the human body (Pers. comm. A. Muradov, conversation, 1988 July, in Baku, Azerbaijan).

The chief constituent of chamomile has anti-inflammatory properties, owing primarily to such compounds as chamazulene and (-)-alpha- bisabolol.3 Even though a decoction of the plant contains only about 10—15 percent of the volatile oil present in the plant material, it has very strong anti-inflammatory properties.5

Juniper (Juniperus spp., Cupressaceae). The 15th c.e. author Mansur recommended applying a juniper decoction externally to treat infectious wounds of the skin.18 In Azerbaijani folk medicine, juniper baths are used to treat rash, inflammation and itch of the skin (Pers. comm. A. Muradov, conversation, 1989 July, in Baku, Azerbaijan). Baths and unguents containing the infused oil of Zeravshan juniper (J. polycarpos K. Koch., syn. J. seravschanica Kom.) have shown a bacteriostatic effect in pathogenic microorganisms. Further, these baths promote regeneration and granulation of damaged tissues.26 In Cuba, juniper decoctions are used for patients affected by skin and urinary infections.27 Juniper tar is a principal constituent of Vishnevski Unguentum®, which is used in Russia for wounds. Martinez et al. have reported on the activity of J. barbadensis L. var. lucayana (Britt.) R.P. Adams bis against Staphylococcus aureus.28

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris L., Asteraceae). Tibbname reported antiseptic properties of mugwort decoctions when applied externally.22 Folk healers in Azerbaijan use mugwort to prepare baths for infectious diseases of the skin (Pers. comm. K. Baghirov, conversation, 1992 May in Barda, Azerbaijan). Such applications of mugwort are typical also to Bulgarian folk medicine, where bathing in a mugwort decoction is recommended to treat pyoderma (bacterial skin infection), infected wounds of the skin, etc.4 The volatile oil contained in mugwort baths has antimicrobial properties. At a concentration of 1:10, it depresses development of the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and S. aureus.3 However, the volatile oil did not show any antimycotic effect against the yeast, Candida albicans.29 According to the data of Lambrev et al., an alcoholic infusion of mugwort leaves shows antibacterial effects against Shigella sonnei and Bacillus subtilis.30 To treat tired feet, Gardner recommends a soothing footbath with mugwort, comfrey (Symphytum spp., Boraginaceae) and mint (Mentha spp., Lamiaceae).31 The German Commission E warns that some sensitive subjects may have an allergic reaction to mugwort.32

Oregano (Origanum vulgare L. Lamiaceae). The Tibbname discusses antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties of oregano decoctions and juice applied externally or used as a local bath.22 According to Azerbaijan folk medicine, bathing in an infusion or decoction of oregano is good for many skin diseases. This treatment was prescribed for pimples and scrophuloderma (Pers. comm. D. Turabov, conversation, 1988 July, Shaki, Azerbaijan). Water infusions of this herb have shown antiviral effect in vitro.4 An aromatic bath with oregano oil is prescribed to ease various pains and colic.4

Pine needle (Pinus spp., Pinaceae). According to Mu'min, pine needle decoctions show anti-inflammatory effects when used externally in a bath.17 Azerbaijan folk medicine recommends baths of needles, cones, and branches of pine for rash, pimples, and inflammation of the skin. The oil of the endemic eldar pine (P. brutia Ten. var. eldarica (Medw.) Silba) is considered especially effective. This pine grows in the mountains of the Major Caucasus and is cultivated throughout the Azerbaijan Republic.25 Anti-inflammatory properties are associated with pine oil, which has strong antiseptic and diuretic properties, promotes granulation of wounds, and is used as disinfectant and deodorant.21 Ritch-Krc et al. have revealed that pitch preparations of P. contorta Douglas ex Loudon have antimicrobial activity against known human pathogens: Escherichia coli, S. aureus, P. aeruginosa, C. albicans, and Aspergillus fumigatus.33 Pharmacological effects of pine baths may depend on oils and terpenoids, many of which have antibiotic properties.5


Stings of Poisonous Animals

Usually, stings and bites of poisonous animals were treated with external remedies: fresh juices, decoctions, and infusions of different plants. In most cases, these plants had only analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, but did not inactivate the poison itself. An example is fresh juice of basil (Oimum basilicum L., Lamiaceae), which is used today in Azerbaijani folk medicine against bee stings. However, some other plants are known as antidotes.

Scorpion stings

Ajowan (Trachyspermum ammi (L.) Sprague ex Turrill, Apiaceae). Ibn Sina recommended using a local bath of ajowan seeds against scorpion stings.11 Other medieval authors also confirm analgesic and antidotal properties of this bath 15,17,34

According to Azerbaijani folk medicine, decoctions of ajowan seeds have antidotal and analgesic properties, when applied externally. Taking a bath with this decoction causes the same effect (Pers. comm. B. Samadova, conversation, 1988 June in Lachin, Azerbaijan). This plant does not grow in Azerbaijan, but is imported.

Soft Tissue Damage

Traditional medicine often cures soft tissue injuries and ailments with the help of local baths. Juices, infusions, and decoctions of aromatic plants are applied externally to the wounded parts of the body. This practice is still widespread in the folk medicine of Caucasus.

Wounds, tumors and ulcers

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum J. Presl, Lauraceae). Khoyi in 1311 c.e. pointed out that cinnamon has antiseptic and healing properties.23 According to Azerbaijani folk medicine, cinnamon baths are good for external tumors (Pers. comm. Y. Garayev, conversation, 1990 July in Shamakhi, Azerbaijan). In many eastern countries, cinnamon is used externally for boils and abscesses.35 The pharmacological effects of cinnamon baths depend on antiseptic properties of this plant.36

White lily (Lilium candidum L., Liliaceae). Medieval medical manuscripts of Tibet recommended lily baths to cure wounds and ulcers of the body.37 Both infusions and decoctions of the bulb promote healing of experimentally induced wounds in rats.3 The infusion of the bulb eases pains, removes rash and blisters, and promotes epithelization of the skin when applied externally.38

Birch (Betula spp., Betulaceae). In the Caucasus and Central Asia, birch baths of European white birch (B. pendula Roth.) are used for external ulcers and wounds.25 To prepare a bath, it is recommended to infuse a teaspoon of the budding leaves in 100 ml of boiling water (Pers. comm. A. Muradov, conversation, 1993 January in Baku, Azerbaijan). In Himalayan regions, a decoction of the bark of Himalayan birch (B. utilis D. Don) is used to wash wounds.39 Birch preparations were used successfully in the Central Clinic of the First Moscow University against erosion of the skin and conditions when the wound does not heal for a long time.40

Calamus or sweetflag (Acorus calamus L., Acoraceae). Mu'min wrote about the anti-inflammatory and healing properties of the juice and decoctions of sweetflag.17 In modern Russia, alcoholic infusions of the dried rhizome is diluted with water (3:1) and applied on festering wounds and ulcers as a local bath.41

Rheumatic and neuralgic pain

For many centuries, medical baths were successfully used to treat rheumatic and neuralgic pain. Many recipes of these bath solutions are found in ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Arabic medical sources. In modern Azerbaijan, this practice is applied in the Naftalan health resort, where patients take baths with aromatic plants and unique healing Naftalan mineral oil. Baths with mustard oil are extremely popular in the folk medicine of Caucasus.


Mustard (Brassica nigra (L.) W.D.J. Koch., B. juncea (L.) Czern., Sinapis alba L. syn. B. alba Rabenh., Brassicaceae). The Tibbname recommends external application of mustard water in the form of baths or compresses to relieve pains in radiculitis (inflammation of the root of a nerve).22 In Azerbaijan, bathing in mustard water is prescribed for those who suffer from chronic radiculitis. It is recommended to add 10—15 tablespoons of mustard powder to a pot containing 2—3 glasses (400—600 ml) of water. The powder should be vigorously ground until the sharp smell of mustard becomes apparent. The powder is added and carefully mixed to a bath containing 20 buckets of water (approximately 200—250 liters). The temperature of the water must be similar to the temperature of the human body. After bathing, it is advised to put on a bathrobe and take a nap (Pers. comm. T. Aydinov, conversation, 1992 December in Baku, Azerbaijan). Mustard oils are contraindicated when kidney disorders exist, and prolonged applications may result in skin and nerve damage.32

The analgesic properties of mustard baths are thought to depend on the sinigrin content and the volatile oil contained in these plants. Externally, mustard is a local irritant applied against rheumatic pains, rubefacient, and vesicant in over-the-counter drugs, such as Musterole®.5


Nervous and Cardiovascular Diseases

Many aromatic herbs are used to treat various nervous and cardiovascular diseases. The derived benefits are associated with the sedative effect of some volatile oils contained in these herbs.

Low blood pressure

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L., Lamiaceae). In Azerbaijan, rosemary baths are recommended to people with low blood pressure. Since medieval times, it has been thought that this fragrant plant stimulates circulation of the blood and is a good tonic.22 Four glasses of boiling water are added to a pot containing five tablespoons of rosemary leaves, and the mixture infused for a half an hour. The infusion is then filtered and added to the warm water in the bath. The optimal duration of the procedure is half an hour (Pers. comm. T. Aydinov, conversation, 1992 December in Baku, Azerbaijan).

Stewart recommends a rosemary bath for tension and stiffness.42 This bath may have a pharmacological effect since the hot infusion of rosemary is known as a tonic,38 and an anti-spasmodic,43,44 and antiviral agent.5

Neurasthenia and tachycardia

English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia Mill., Lamiaceae). Ancient Greek scholars such as Galen and Dioscorides, as well as medieval pharmacists, report the strong calmative properties of lavender.11,17 According to Azerbaijani folk medicine, bathing in a lavender decoction has anti-spasmodic and calmative effects and is used for tachycardia (rapid heart beat) and neurasthenia (Pers. comm. A. Muradov, conversation, 1988 December in Baku, Azerbaijan).

Stewart recommends lavender baths for tension and stiffness.42 This bath contains lavender oil, which is applied for neurasthenia, migraine, and heart neurosis with tachycardia.45 Baths with lavender may relax the patient since isolation of a smooth muscle relaxant principle identified as 7-methoxycoumarin also has been reported.36 The bath may be taken before sleeping because lavender oil is effective for insomnia. 46,47

Sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana L., Lamiaceae). Dioscorides and Ibn Sina considered this plant to be good medicine against different nervous diseases.11,17 According to Azerbaijani folk medicine, taking a bath with a marjoram decoction is helpful against flatulence and nervousness, and causes a diuretic effect (Pers. comm. F. Safarov, conversation, 1993 August in Shamakhi, Azerbaijan). The healing properties of marjoram baths may depend on the sedative properties of the volatile oil (0.7 to 3.5 percent) contained in this plant.40

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L., Lamiaceae). The Tibbname recommended external and internal application of lemon balm to relieve excessive nervousness and irritability.22 According to Azerbaijani folk medicine, bathing in a lemon balm decoction is useful for heart disease, relieves tachycardia, eliminates pains in the heart, and lowers blood pressure. Further, lemon balm baths are applied for furunculosis. The water in a bath must be warm, but not hot (Pers. comm. S. Valibeyov, conversation, 1987 April in Shusha, Azerbaijan).

Information about the healing properties of lemon balm baths may be confirmed by data of Leclerc, who reports that lemon balm has anti-arrhythmic activity and is successfully used to treat different types of arrhythmia and high blood pressure.38



To study the ancient recipes of herbal decoctions used in bathing during the Middle Ages and earlier, 18 medieval manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Greek, and Latin were investigated. These medieval sources contain information about more than 50 aromatic herbs that were used in the preparation of medicinal baths. Some of these plants are listed and discussed above.

As a result, a number of forgotten medieval recipes have been revealed and deciphered. It has been established that aromatic baths were used to treat reproductive, urinary and intestinal disorders, skin diseases and allergies, stings of poisonous animals, damage of soft tissues, rheumatic and neuralgic pains, nervous and cardiovascular diseases, and more. Some modern scientific literature on aromatic plants has been analyzed as well. Comparative analysis of medieval and modern sources shows that recent investigations support the possible medicinal effect of some ancient recipes. Sometimes the healing effects of herbal baths may be associated with known medicinal properties of the constituents of aromatic herbs.

Medical manuscripts of the ancients contain descriptions and recipes of many herbal baths. Some of them also are used by modern folk medicine in different countries of the world. Modern research on the chemistry and pharmacology of these herbs and their constituents suggest that these ancient and traditional folk ideas continue to be relevant.


Farid U. Alakbarov, Ph.D., graduated from the Biological Department of the Baku State University and holds degrees of Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Sciences. As the Head Scientific Officer at Baku's Institute of Manuscripts, his main fields of research focus upon the history of medicine, and traditional and folk medicine and pharmacy. He has authored 78 scientific and educational articles.



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