Masterman, E. "Hygiene and Disease in Palestine in Modern and in Biblical Times."

              Palestine Exploration Quarterly 50 (1918): 13-20, 56-71, 112-19.

                  Public Domain.  Digitally prepared by Ted Hildebrandt (2004)




             AND IN BIBLICAL TIMES. (Part III)



                             By DR. E. W. G. MASTERMAN.


                            (Continued from Q.S., 1918, p. 71.)


CHAPTER IV.--The Ideas among the Natives of Palestine regarding the

Causes and Cure of Disease.


THE ideas of the modern fellah or bedawi regarding the causes

and cure of disease are derived from a number of traditions that

have survived from various successive ages. First of all, there is

a stratum of folklore belief which is universally respected to-day,

but which, from its wide distribution and quaint unreasoning nature,

is evidently extremely primitive; then there are beliefs connected

in some degree with the orthodox religions, especially with the

Kur’an and the official interpreters of these Scriptures; a later

stratum, which accounts for disease on rational grounds, belongs to

mediaeval medical lore; while in some parts of the land modern

ideas of sanitation and of medical and surgical treatment are slowly

coming to be recognized.

            Belonging, doubtless, to really primitive beliefs, we have the

cult of the Evil eye, an influence which is to-day considered

by the majority in the land as the most potent of all causes of

disease and death. “The eye fell on him and he died,” is the way

a mother will narrate the death of her firstborn. In the Orient the

most dreaded eye is a blue one; the owner of such may, quite

innocently, bring misfortune, disease, or death at any time. A look

or a word of admiration bestowed, however casually, may prove

disastrous unless the owner of the eye checks the influence by

muttering the name of God. Children and horses are particularly

liable to fall under this curse. It is to avoid the glance of the

evil eye that many a child is kept unwashed, or dressed in the

shabbiest clothes--often only in garments given by or begged from



            HYGIENE AND DISEASE IN PALESTINE.                      113


strangers. For fear of this or of a very similar malignant influence

not defined, children will be called by displeasing names, such as

"wolf," "jackal," “bear,” or "leopard," or given such names as

forsaken.” In other cases a child will be allowed to remain un-

named, being addressed as either “boy” or “girl,” as the case may

be. Sometimes the mother pretends to sell the child to another

woman, who gives her, perhaps, a sum equivalent to a farthing for

it. To guard against the evil eye, amulets are worn by most

children and by horses. In the latter case, bright blue beads are

considered sufficient; but around a child's neck there is frequently a

necklace of assorted charms--in some cases a veritable museum.

Thus, a large lump of alum is added to the collection because it is

a substance irritating to "the eye"; bright coins or beads are

employed because they attract “the eye” away from the child's

face; the bone of an owl because this bird's keen sight at night

invests its bone with peculiar virtue as a guardian; or we find such

objects as a hedgehog's hoof, the vertebra of a wolf or dog, or a

small dog's tail. Commonly, too, an amulet called a hajab, a small

metal or leather case containing an extract from the Kur'an, or a

cabbalistic charm, written by a kateb, is worn; in the Jerusalem

district it also often contains a piece of the black "stink stone" of

Nebi Musa. The Oriental Jews also frequently add small metal

plates with some Hebrew words, and metal, or other material,

moulded into the form of a hand--the "hand of might." Besides

the special amulets, the fellahin adorn a child for whose safety they

specially fear with a cap (tukeyeh) of some bright colour--red,

yellow, or green-while the Oriental Jews further ornament such

a cap with blue beads, often arranged in a Hebrew device. All

these things may be considered as part of the prophylaxis against


            When, on account of a child wasting away, it is suspected that

the "eye has fallen on him," various magical means are resorted

to in order to ascertain who is the guilty owner and to destroy his

power. Such a ceremony is called a rakweh. A "wise woman "

--the modern survival of the "witch"--is called in; she takes1 a

little barley, salt, alum, meriamiyeh (an aromatic plant), and olive

leaves, and, placing them together in an earthenware dish over a

fire, she allows the fumes to come over the sick patient, while she


            1 This is the account of one ceremonial--the details vary in different

localities and religions.




mutters: "O God! prayer in the name of the Prophet, from every

blue eye and from all divided teeth.1 The Prophet has charmed his

female camel and followed his companions. O God! prayer in the

name of our Lord Muhammad. Let there be fire in the eye of the

neighbour; let there be a khisht2 in the eye of the maiden; let there

be a sword in the eye of the guest; and let there be a shurshura3 in

the eye of the woman and in the eyes of all that saw you and made

no prayer to the Prophet." The lump of alum by this time has

melted in the heat, and the woman exclaims that the crackling

sound that it makes means the destruction of the offending eye;

while she professes to recognize in its shape, as it hardens, the

features of the individual who has bewitched the child. The next

step is to destroy his or her influence. To do this it is necessary

to secure part of his clothes or other personal property, and to burn

it before the afflicted child. Pieces of the straw mat from the

room--preferably taken from the four corners--or a fragment of

the palm leaf carried on Palm Sunday, may also be burnt as curative

fumigators. For this purpose the Oriental Christians cherish these

leaves from one Palm Sunday to another.

            A child wasting away is sometimes declared to be a changeling,

and a "wise woman" recommends various remedies to right matters

for example, letting the child down a well, or burying it up to its

neck in a dungheap.

            Another common cause of disease, according to native medical

lore, is fright. A sleeping person must be very gently and slowly

aroused, lest the start of a sudden awakening should cause disease.

For one who has undergone a severe shock of any kind, the popular

remedy is to make him drink for seven days--a mouthful at sunrise

and sunset--from the tasat er-ra'beh (lit. "cup of fear"). This cup

must be kept all night in the rays of the moon; no sunlight must

fall upon the liquid. The ritual must commence with the appearance

of the new moon: The cup is properly made from the vault of the

skull of a murdered man, and is lined with silver or copper, and

such cups are brought to the villages by the pilgrims from Mecca.

But, failing that, a copper cup may be used. Among some of the

villagers, an elaborate ceremony is substituted, in which the patient


            1 Divided teeth are a secondary characteristic of the bearer of the evil eye.

            2 Khisht, a long splinter of wood used by the fellahin to close a sack when

they have nothing wherewith to sew it up.

            3 A small sickle used for cutting grass.


            HYGIENE AND DISEASE IN PALESTINE.                      115


is steamed in a vapour arising from a cooked fowl stuffed with some

forty different herbs.

            Of the peculiar ideas regarding the causes of special diseases, a

few selected examples may be given here. Leprosy is considered

to be due to contact with the gecko, which, in consequence, is

known as Abu baras ("the father of leprosy"). Sore heads (ring-

worm, etc.) are ascribed to the excrement of bats falling upon them

in the dark. Enlarged spleen is often due to swallowing fragments

of the finger nails, and this disease--known as tahal--is in turn con-

sidered a cause of hernia. Warts are said to be the result of trying

to count the stars. Haemorrhoids, or “piles,” called bowaser, are

considered as the source of troubles all over the body; for example,

a Druze woman under the writer's care asked whether her nasal

polypus was not due to reh bowaser (lit. "the breath of piles").

Rheumatism is called reh (lit. “wind”) in the joints. Tetanus,

epilepsy, and all forms of lunacy are ascribed to possession by evil

spirits. A person must never step across a child lying on the floor,

or it will cease to grow; if this has been done by accident, the

individual must carefully retrace his steps.

            Of the extraordinary number of remedies recommended for

various diseases, only a few specimens, carefully verified, can be

given here. Of the nature of charms we have : the hyoid bone, or

canine tooth of a wolf, worn as a sure protection against whooping-

cough; a small metal frog, a charm against the "evil eye" in

general, is worn particularly against ranula, a cystic swelling be-

neath the tongue; the fat from the neck of an ostrich is a potent

application in rheumatism; a particular rounded red stone, called

bazleh, is constantly worn suspended from the headdress over the

eyebrow of a chronically reddened eye--when the eye gets better,

the stone is believed by some to turn white. Red appears to have

peculiar healing virtues, because the wearing of a red coral necklace

is a remedy against fever, and this, too, is said to become white when

it has worked its cure. A calcined calf's foot, powdered and applied

in a piece of red material, is a good .local remedy for prolapsus ani.

The urine of a fasting boy, and fasting saliva--a well known remedy

--are recommended as cures of ophthalmia. Ear wax is used for

ringworm. The hairs taken from the forehead, between the eyes, of

a perfectly black donkey, if burnt, are a remedy for eye and other

diseases. The hoof of a mule, charred, powdered and mixed with

fat is useful in baldness, as is also the gall of an old he-goat. For




"shock"--due to a fall or other accident--a remedy much believed

in is quickly to kill and skin a sheep and wrap the patient in the

smoking hot skin, while the meat is distributed to the poor; for

enlarged spleen, goat's dung, dried and dissolved in vinegar, is

applied locally; a fever patient may be strengthened if fed on

camel's milk which has been stirred with the camel's tail until the

milk is dark in colour. For barrenness there are, naturally, many

remedies, among which may be mentioned the claws of a hoopoe

burnt and dissolved in syrup, or a diet of donkey's brains. The

eye of an owl enclosed in a piece of the skin of a wolf will drive

off poisonous insects, the penis of a fallow deer is a protection against

serpents, and boiled Egyptian vulture is thought (by the bedawin

of Sinai) to be a remedy for snake-bite. Ointment of crabs is, in

some districts, a favourite remedy for lumbago. For this disease

it is also considered good to pull up a mandrake from the roots (a

feat requiring considerable exertion); when the last fibres give way,

the root emits a shriek, but the man who does this will be childless,

and so it is a remedy only to be recommended to the old. To cure

a "stye" in the eye, some dough must, be begged from three

Fatmehs or three Miriams, and the eye poulticed with it. For

fever, a piece of bread and some bits of candle are taken to the

centre of cross roads, a rough enclosure of stones is built over the

bread, and the candles are lighted; when a dog comes and knocks

over the construction the fever will be cured. Should a woman

have a miscarriage or premature delivery, the dead child must be

buried below the threshold of the door to prevent the recurrence

of such a misfortune.1

            Belonging to another class are the "charms" made for particular

diseases, written by the sheikhs in a decoction of saffron or in ink.

The majority of these consist of little more than sentences of the

Kur’an, especially the fathah (opening sentences), repeated over and

over again, the spaces between the sentences being filled up with

scrawled Arabic letters with no meaning. In some cases the patient

is directed either to wear the charm in the cap (e.g., in a case of

headache), or to wash off the ink and drink the liquid, to dissolve

the paper and swallow it, or, in yet other instances, to burn the

paper and inhale the smoke. Occasionally, the directions are to

dissolve one half and drink it, and to fumigate with the other half.


            1 An account of many more such remedies will be found in the Q.S., 1906,

pp. 97-102.


            HYGIENE AND DISEASE IN PALESTINE.                      117


One patient was directed to cut his "charm" into strips to put

daily one strip into a cup and leave it outside the house that the

"dews" of night might fall upon it; he was to drink the water so

collected, using a new strip every night for a week, after which he

would be cured of his cough. Other charms consist of strings

knotted in a particular way, a verse of the Kur’an being recited as

each knot is tied.

The sheikhs are very specially consulted for the exorcism of

spirits, for which they profess to have great gifts; they pretend,

before the assembled patient's friends, to concentrate the demoniacal

power gradually into one limb, say a leg, and then gradually make

it leave by a particular toe. There is no question that some

hysterical cases are "cured" by psychical influence. There is

an elaborate ritual for the exorcism of demons called indulca, which

is well known among the Spanish Jews of Jerusalem. It is per-

formed by a "witch."

For all diseases the weltys and other sacred shrines are visited.

Vows and sacrifices are made for the recovery of the sick. The

plants from such shrines are considered valuable for fumigation of

the sick, and the dry earth from the neighbourhood is curative of

many diseases (cf. Numb. v, 17). Many springs and wells are

credited with healing properties. Some, like 'Ain es-Sultan (Elisha's

fountain) at Jericho, are beneficial to all diseases; some are useful

for the cure of special diseases. Naturally, the hot springs at

Tiberias and at el-Hammeh are much resorted to: that there is a

supernatural influence believed to be present is shown by the fact

that the name of God must not, so it is taught, be uttered while


Some shrines, particularly those devoted to el-Khuder, are

credited with special virtues for the cure of insanity. Here, too,

there is plenty of evidence that "cures" of certain functional

nervous affections do actually take place.

To a different class of treatment belong the bleedings, cauterizings,

and issues which are universally used; they are, no doubt, survivals

of the orthodox treatment of a past age. Bleeding is commonly

done by barbers for fever, and some of the Syrians are accustomed

to be bled every spring--a habit to the omission of which in some

special year the writer has frequently heard many ills ascribed.

The cautery is a constant and universal remedy. The usual spots

chosen are the centre of the cranial vault for headache, between the




breasts for cough, over the epigastrium for dyspepsia and enlarged

spleen, over the throat for diphtheria, and so on. For other pains,

such as lumbago, a number of small cauterizations, in sometimes

quite an elaborate pattern, are made; or the part is tattooed. Issues,

kept open for years by inserting a pea, are exceedingly common on

the arm for chronic trachoma; and other issues are made in the

neighbourhood of painful joints.

With regard to vegetable remedies, a number of indigenous

herbs are credited with curative virtues, but are of quite secondary

importance to amulets and the magic of the sheikhs. In the towns

a number of old prescriptions are used, by which such substances

as pepper, ginger, saffron, honey, and garlic are mingled in varying

proportions. More effective than these prescriptions is the method

of treatment known as el-‘ushbeh, which is used for Syphilis. The

patient is isolated for forty days in a tent or room, fed on un-

leavened bread (without salt), honey and raisins, and is made to

drink great quantities of a decoction of sarsparilla, with which he

is also steamed. The method is also tried for other diseases which

have failed to yield to treatment.

In connection with childbirth there are many customs. The

most noticeable is that firmly and universally held in belief by Oriental

Jews of the danger threatening mother and child from the malignant

influence of Lilith, a female demon about whom there are in-

numerable tales. To protect against her influences, mother and

child must not for a moment be left alone, but be watched night

and day, preferably, it would seem, by a noisy crowd of relations

and friends; copies of an amulet printed in Hebrew are hung on

the bed and about the room; a bunch of garlic, one of rue, a Pass-

over cake shaped like a hand, and some bright blue beads are also

commonly hung on the bed. Among the fellahin the midwife is

usually responsible for the child the first forty days of its life.

When she cuts the navel cord the infant receives its name and,

with boys, in many cases the name of his future bride (the "daughter

of So-and-so") is also mentioned, such a betrothal being binding.

Hence the proverb "Your navel was not cut in my name" means

"I am not bound to do this or that thing." As soon as the navel

is cut the midwife rubs the child all over with salt, water, and oil,

and tightly swathes it in clothes for seven days; at the end of that

time she removes the dirty clothes, washes the child and anoints it,

and then wraps it up again for seven days--and so on till the


            HYGIENE AND DISEASE IN PALESTINE.                      119


fortieth day (cf. Ezek. xvi, 4). Among the bedawin of Sinai a

male child is often made to swallow the ashes of a scorpion mixed

with milk, or the finely-chopped feather of the long eared owl; the

former is considered to be a protection against scorpion bites; the

latter brings luck. Both must be taken before the mother's milk

is first tasted.






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