A Brief History of Herbal, Naturopathic, and Holistic Medicine in Iran

By Dr.Ashraf Girgis ND


  I grew up in Iran believing not only Iran is the cradle of civilization but also knowing how strong the Iranian contribution has been to the world of medicine. Herbal medicine in particular has been in Iran for thousands of years. My mother use to advise us on what to eat so our brain can grow, and told us about how the food we eat can make us smart. She warned us to be careful when we eat foods that are considered cold with foods that are considered warm at the same time (similar to Chinese Ying and Yang).

Many Iranian women at home skillfully treat their kids according to their ancient traditions at the first signs of the disease. They skillfully use a variety of herbs and spices as homemade remedies. The last time I visited Iran I was told that there are herbalists who have learned traditional remedies from the many generations before them, and how sometimes their medicine seems much more effective than the current allopathic medicine. So it was a very rude awakening when I landed in the United States and started to study Naturopathic Medicine, realizing how little Americans’ knowledge is about the Iranian contributions to the field of allopathic medicine and Naturopathic in particular. Everything in the west is attributed to Greeks ignoring the fact that Iran conquered most of Greece for two hundred years. When Alexander of Macedonia conquered Iran, he was so impressed with Iranian culture that he not only adopted the culture of Iran and married an Iranian woman from the noble family; he also had all his generals do the same. Iran continued to impact Greek culture for another one hundred years.

Many Iranians believe Iranian literature taken from Iranian territories helped Greece to reach its advances that Western culture seems to have inherited. In the article below I have gathered, from many sites, information that can hopefully clarify the Iranian role in medicine—specifically naturopathic medicine as it known in the United States.

Iran, on at least three different occasions, was an empire that encompassed many countries, and therefore medicine in ancient Iran has a multitude of roots. Many Iranian contributions and advancements of the time are attributed to other nations, as they are no longer a part of Iran. Unfortunately, each time Iran was attacked the opposing armies burned libraries and destroyed many historic sites. The recent discovery of a young woman who had a golden eye transplanted was found in the ancient Burnt City, dated 3200 BCE is testifying to this fact.



Reconstruction of the Face of a 5000-year old Woman in Iran

The face of a 5000 year old Iranian woman has been recently reconstructed with the latest scientific archaeology methods of by Iranian researchers (see Persian-languiage article sourced from Tabnak News-see also English-language posting in Afarensis: Anthropology, Evolution & Science).


  The body of a thirteen year old who seemed to have had Hydrocephalus and underwent surgery in her skull was also found at the same location of the Burnt city (3200 to 2800 BCE), attesting to the advances in medicine in Iran. In the Burnt city, archeologists also found garlic buried next to the body, making one wonder if the belief that garlic wards off evil had originated from ancient Iran. Garlic was used very widely to combat infection among many other ailments (Pro ElamDynasty 3200–2700 BCE Before the Persian Empire).


During the Persian Empire, The Vendidad (book of Zoroastrian religion laws) tells of three kinds of medicine practiced; medicine by the knife (surgery), medicine by herbs, and medicine by divine words, which according to the sacred text, is the best form of the three.

  Persians (Iranians) were using natural remedies and natural products to cure ailments. In the Avesta, science and medicine rise above class, ethnicity, nationality, race, gender and religion. The twenty-one books of Avesta, encompassing 815 chapters, were an encyclopedia of science consisting of medicine, astronomy, law, social science, philosophy, general knowledge, logic and biology. Zoroastrians placed great importance on personal hygiene, public health and the prevention of contagious diseases.

The best teachers of medicine and astrology were the Iranian Magi and Mobeds (Zoroastrian priests), who passed their knowledge on to their pupils from one generation to the next. Many around the world believe the three wise men to be of Iranian origin because of the fact that Iranians were the most advanced in astrology and religiously believed in one God. They were not idle worshipers, as was very common during this era.


The three wise men in the Bible are believed to have been from Persia.


  According to Avestan texts, King Jamshid was the physician who initiated the custom of bathing with hot and cold water (a very important technique in Naturopathic medicine for healing of the body and mind).




 Ancient Persian public bath, where a paid bath giver is giving a massage and clean.


Iranians were advised to refrain from polluting or harming the four elements (air, water, fire, earth). They were not supposed to bathe, urinate, or wash any dirty objects in flowing water. Even spitting into the flowing water was considered a sin (Zoroastrian religion). Any stingy, smelly materials could not be thrown into a fire. Wild rue and frankincense were always burned inside houses to kill insects and bacteria, a custom that continues to this day.


The Persians lived in an empire stretching from the Indus valley in the east to the Aegean Sea in the west and had considerable variation in climate and vegetation. Because of this, they became familiar with a vast range of medicinal plants. The Avesta mentions several medicinal herbs including basil, chicory, sweet violet, and peppermint. Avestan texts not only list the various parts of plants such as roots, stems, scales, leaves, fruit and seeds used for treatment but also indicate which plant is the remedy for each disease.



Basil, chicory, sweet violet, and peppermint are among many herbs noted for their medicinal uses in the Avesta texts in Persia (559-330 BCE)



 Iran during Persian Empire (550BC )


  The Persian Empire promoted the development of culture and science extensively. The great scholars such as the philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, the Babylonian astronomer Kidinnu and even the historian Herodotus were all Persian subjects. Texts also show lists of plants, herbs and other substances used for medicinal purposes. Drugs used internally, including mercury, antimony, arsenic, sulfur, and animal fats, are also prescribed.




Mercury, antimony, arsenic, sulfur, and animal fats were also prescribed for medicinal purposes according to the Avesta texts dating back 550 BC.




Iranian Medicine during the Sassanian Empire( 224CE-651CE)


Iran during the Sassanian Empire (224 CE to 651 CE)

  The Academy of Gondishapur was one of the three Sasanian Empire centers for education and learning. It offered training in medicine, philosophy, theology and science. According to The Cambridge History of Iran, it was the most important medical center of the ancient world during the sixth and seventh centuries.

Gundishapur physicians were required to pass special examinations to obtain a license for practicing medicine. A director, medical staff, pharmacists, and servants operated this well-organized medical institute. Upon its entrance was engraved, “knowledge and virtue are superior to sword and strength”. The Nestorian physician Jabrail ibn Bakhtishu was the head of the Jundaishapur University. He was later charged with building the first hospital (Bimarestan or Maristan) in the city based on the Syro-Persian model already established at Jundaishapur.


During the Sassanid Empire's traditional territory included all of today's Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Syria, Lebanon Pakistan, Caucasia, Central Asia and Arabia.

Persia influenced Roman civilization considerably during the Sassanid’s' times. Persian cultural influence continued to extended far beyond the empire's territorial borders during the Sassanid Empire as well, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India and played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asiatic medieval art.

This influence carried forward to the early Islamic world. Iranian dynasty's unique, aristocratic culture transformed the Islamic conquest of Iran into a Persian renaissance. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture, architecture, writing and other skills were borrowed mainly from the Sassanid Persians and propagated throughout the broader Muslim world.

  One of the most notable scientists during the Islamic era was Muhammad ibn Zakariy Razi also known by his Latinized name Rhazes or Rasis) (854 CE – 925 CE). He was a Persian polymath, physician, alchemist and chemist, philosopher, and important figure in the history of medicine. He is discoverer of alcohol and vitriol (sulfuric acid) and is well known. Razi was possibly the first Persian doctor to deliberately write a home medical manual directed at the general public. He dedicated it to the poor, ordinary citizen who could consult it for treatment of common ailments when a doctor was not available. This book, of course, is of special interest to the history of pharmacy since similar books were not very popular until the 20th century. In its 36 chapters, Razi described diets and drug components that can be found in either an apothecary, a market place, in well-equipped kitchens, or in military camps. Thus, every intelligent person could follow its instructions and prepare the proper recipes with good results (a concept that is currently used in naturopathic medicine patients). Some of the illnesses treated were headaches, colds, coughing, melancholy and diseases of the eye, ear, and stomach.

 Muhammad ibn Zakariy Razi( 854CE-925CE)

For example:

Treatment of Feverish headache: “parts of duhn (oily extract) of rose, to be mixed with 1 part of vinegar, in which a piece of linen cloth is dipped and compressed on the forehead".

 As a Laxative: "7 drams of dried violet flowers with 20 pears, macerated and well mixed, then strained. Add to this filtrate, 20 drams of sugar for a drink”.

In cases of melancholy, Razi invariably recommended prescriptions, which included either poppies or its juice (opium), Cuscuta epithymum (clover dodder) or both.


                      Poppies                                                        Opium flowers



For an eye remedy, he advised myrrh, saffron, and frankincense, 2 drams each, to be mixed with 1 dram of yellow arsenic formed into tablets. Each tablet was to be dissolved in a sufficient quantity of coriander water and used as eye drops.


      Saffron                                     Frankincense                   Yellow arsenic                 Coriander Juice


As a practicing physician, Razi wrote a pioneering book about smallpox and measles, providing clinical characterization of the diseases, and was said to be compassionate and devoted to the service of his patients, whether rich or poor. On a professional level, Razi introduced many practical, progressive, medical and psychological ideas. He attacked charlatans and fake doctors who roamed the cities and countryside selling their nostrums and "cures". At the same time, he warned that even highly educated doctors did not have the answers to all medical problems and could not cure all sicknesses or heal every disease.

Among other notable Iranian physicians is Pur Sina, or "son of Sina” (August c. 980 – June 1037), his Latinized name being Avicenna. Pur Sina was described as a polymath. He wrote almost 450 works on a wide range of subjects; 240 have survived. 150 of his surviving works concentrate on philosophy and 40 of them concentrate on medicine.



Avicenna,Pur Sina, or "son of Sina” (August c. 980 – June 1037)


His most famous works are The Book of Healing, a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopedia, and The Canon of Medicine, which was a standard medical text at many medieval universities. TheCanon of Medicine was used as a text-book in the universities of Montpellier and Leuven as late as 1650. Sina Canon of Medicine provides a complete system of medicine according to the principles of Galen and Hippocrates. His corpus also includes writing on philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, geology, psychology, Islamic theology, logic, mathematics, physics, as well as poetry. He is regarded as the most famous and influential polymath of the Islamic Golden Age.

Sina’s magnum opus is one of the classics of medicine. He extensively studied herbal for medicinal use from all over, including China and India. Sina, like his predecessor Farabi (another well-known Iranian Scientist), was an outspoken empiricist and insisted that all theories must be confirmed by experience. He argued against the blind acceptance of any authority and improved distillation techniques. Today, there are many practitioners of herbal and holistic medicine in Iran who follow the same traditions of their predecessors.


To describe current herbal medicine in Iran, below is an article by Lisa Barger at Yahoo:


    Lisa Barger is an alternative medicine expert specializing in debunking bogus therapies, exposing natural health scams, and helping users of alternative medicine sort the facts from the hocus-pocus. Lisa is the author of three books.


         While Iran today is only a bit larger than the state of Alaska, Iran is among the most geographically diverse countries in the world. This ancient nation can be divided into 12 separate geographic environments and boasts 5 major climates. No wonder Iran is so diverse when it comes to the natural herbal remedies it produces.

This astounding diversity in Iran's geography allows Iran to host more than 7500 species of plants--around 1800 of which are used in medicine. Many of Iran's most precious herbal treasures are plants found nowhere else in the world. The World Health Organization tells us that there are currently 30 companies producing natural herbal remedies in Iran. The government of Iran, in contrast to the regulatory agencies here in the U.S., requires all herbal remedies to be manufactured to the same quality standards as pharmaceutical drugs.



Its Persian name is kondor but you know it as frankincense. Many of the world's major religions include frankincense in their rituals but frankincense is also considered a medicinal plant. Traditional Iranian herbalists regarded frankincense as "disinfectant" and science is proving them correct. Frankincense has proven itself anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and chemopreventive.



Also known simply as sandal, sandalwood was once equally respected as a religious aromatic and a medicinal disinfectant. Today, sandalwood is still considered a sacred herb and still prized for its potential use in natural medicine. A 2007 study found sandalwood essential oil effective against herpes simplex virus type 1.


You can hardly open a magazine these days without seeing at least one story on calendula. Also known simply as marigold, calendula is a tremendously significant herb that traditional Iranian physicians used extensively for various skin conditions. And this use continues today. Calendula is among the most popular herbal remedies for acne,   eczema, rashes and other skin problems.



High in antioxidants, pomegranate--or anar, as Persian physicans referred to it--has been the subject of numerous scientific studies in recent years. Traditional Iranian healers regarded pomegranate mainly as a disinfectant; today, we know that this "apple of many seeds" has both antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Pomegranate is also antimalarial and may even help some men reduce their need for prostate medications.


Iran's Culinary Herbs

In addition to its medicinal herbs, Iran is also a country rich in culinary herbs like basil, thyme and lemon balm. Of course, many of Iran's culinary herbs were used for medicinal purposes, too. Basil and thyme both have long histories as digestive aids and lemon balm is widely believed to be a safe herbal sedative.

Truly, Iran is an herbal gift to all of mankind. Who knows what potential healing plants are yet to be discovered in this ancient land so full of history.



  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pour_Sina
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_ibn_Zakariya_al-Razi
  • http://www.irandiscovery.com
  • http://irandiscovery.blogspot.com/2010/12/worlds-first-artificial-eye.html
  • http://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/ancient_medicine_mesopotamia_iran.php#sthash.yTWYUKNC.dpuf
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_of_Gondishapur
  • http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Archaeology/Pre-History/burnt_city.htm
  • http://contributor.yahoo.com/user/6153/lisa_barger.html

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