Healing Herbs of the Arab World
By: Mariam Alyakoob / Arab America Contributing Writer
There are many indigenous herbs within Southwest Asia and North Africa that have been used in many of the cuisines of that region, but did you know that many of them are used medicinally as well? Herbs such as sage, black seed, and mint are a few that have been used as treatments for various ailments, as well as ingredients within various Arab foods.
Mint is the common name associating the various herbaceous plants which comprise the genus Mentha. Common mint species examples are peppermint (Mentha piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata), which are the varieties typically used in Arab culture. The Mentha genus is also a part of the Lamiaceae family, whose plants are some of the most fragrant in the world, which is why mint is commonly used in toothpaste and gum.
Mint has been used in history to help alleviate medical problems and has been proven to be medically beneficial in modern day science as well. According to biology professors Majid Tafrihi et al, they analyzed the effects following preclinical trials using mint, and saw that there was evidence signifying that the benefits of mint included antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-yeast, antiviral, and anticancer activity.
Scientists have also been able to analyze the herb with a scanning electron microscope and found that mint leaves and its hairs have essential oils, such as menthol which is responsible for its distinct fragrance as well as the source of the herbal healing properties.
Mint has had a long history in the Middle Eastern region in terms of being used to alleviate medical issues. In fact, mint was referenced in one of the oldest Egyptian medical texts found in the world, called the Ebers Papyrus. This text dates back to 1550 BC and included beliefs regarding herbal medicine. The text cites mint as a treatment for indigestion and other digestive problems as well as helping with flatulence.
In the modern day Middle East, mint tea is incredibly popular, usually consumed after dinner and as an essential drink to be served during gatherings, it is used to help with indigestion and to help strengthen the immune system.
Black Cumin/Black Seed, or Nigella sativa (N. sativa) when referring to its scientific name, is a medicinal herb that is used throughout the world but is particularly popular in Southwest Asia, North Africa, and Southern Europe. Black cumin has been used for many centuries as a healing herb effective in alleviating many different ailments.
In the Arab world, Black Cumin is referred to as ‘Habbatul barakah’, meaning ‘seeds of blessing’ in Arabic. Black cumin is indigenous and cultivated in Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Palestine. It is said that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stated that “the black seeds are a remedy for every disease except death”.
Black cumin is beneficial in helping alleviate many ailments such as back pain, diabetes, infection, inflammation, hypertension, digestive problems, and more.
Black seeds are also used in cooking as well. It is commonly added in bread and cheese and in Palestine, where it is indigenous, Black cumin is roasted and ground alongside sesame seeds to create a paste used in making Qizha Pie.
Sage, or Salvia officinalis, is actually a woody perennial shrub that is part of the mint family: Lamiaceae. Sage, like our other herbs, has many medicinal benefits and can help reduce blood sugar levels, help support memory and brain health, aid with oral health, ease menopause symptoms as well as a plethora of other benefits. Similar to mint, sage is consumed in tea in many countries in the Middle East.
In English, the word ‘Sage’ is believed to mean ‘wise’ or ‘wise or learned person’. In Arabic, the word for sage is ‘Maramia’ and is believed to have a more biblical derivation.
According to Mariana Nofal on TikTok, she released a video stating the origin of the name as well as its importance in Palestinian culture. Below is the English translation of the video:
“If you decide to visit Palestine, and happen to be sick, they will serve you sage.
Even in school, all of our illnesses were healed with a cup of sage from my Aunt. So, what is the story of sage and the love for this herb by Palestinian women? Join me to understand why.
It is said that the reason behind the name came after the Holy Mary escaped from King Herod to Egypt with her young son, Jesus Christ.
She sat to rest underneath the branches of a tree for shade, and grabbed one of the leaves to wipe her face. Afterwards, she felt more relaxed because of its aromatic smell. She then said to the plant “may you be a blessing forever”. And since that time, the name of this plant became known to be ‘Maryamia’ (sage in Arabic), in association with the Holy Mary. The plant is truly a blessing to the Palestinian women who have used the herb to benefit from its many health benefits.
It was mentioned in some older sources that the name ‘Maryamia’ came after stories were told about the Holy Mary. And it is said that the Holy Mary has used this herb to calm baby Jesus when he would be crying in the evening hours. And that is how the name of this herb came to be known as ‘Maryamia’, eventually evolving to be called ‘Maramia’ (modern day Arabic word for sage), the herb of Mary, that sprouts in Palestine and around the Mediterranean sea.”
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