Arabic: Naft, Batrul
Although few people are aware of it today, petroleum was once considered an effective natural remedy not only in the Middle East but in many parts of the world. Oil upwellings and gas vents were known anciently in present-day Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Natural deposits of thickened petroleum (also called “bitumen”) seeped from openings on land or floated to the surface of lakes. It was easy to gather and was used as a building material, waterproofing material, lubricant, adhesive, medicine, fuel, illuminant and fumigant, and even as a weapon.
In the kitchen: Petrolatum—a neutral, odorless, tasteless unguent distilled from petroleum and then purified—is sometimes used in bakery products as a release agent. Petrolatum meets modern us Food and Drug Administration requirements for medicinal, cosmetic-formula and animal-feed use, and is also approved for direct contact with food.
Remedies across Arabia: Descriptions of petroleum’s healing powers date from 2000 years ago, although its traditional medicinal use is probably much older. Oil-and-water baths were supposed to strengthen the body. Ointments of bitumen and other chemicals were often applied to sores or broken bones. Other petroleum preparations acted as antidotes to poison, fumigants, disinfectants or laxatives.
The Book of the Powers of Remedies, a medical text prepared by Masarjawah, a prominent physician living in Basra, Iraq, during the seventh century, described the benefits of ingesting oil for fighting disease and infection. Masarjawah wrote: “Warm naphtha, especially water-white naphtha, when ingested in small doses, is excellent for suppressing cough, for asthma, bladder discomfort and arthritis.”
The All-Encompassing Dictionary states, “The best grade of naphtha is the water-white. It is a good solvent, a diluent and an expectorant. Taken internally, it relieves cramps and aches of the belly, and, when applied topically, it can soothe skin rashes and infections.”
Vicks VapoRub, a nasal decongestant, cough suppressant and topical analgesic, contains petrolatum, and other salves, suppositories and cosmetic products also benefit from the consistency contributed by petrolatums.
Did you know?
- Akkadian clay tablets from about 2200 BC referred to crude oil as naptu, from which derives the root of the Arabic naft.
- William Rockefeller, father of John D. Rockefeller, sold bottles of raw petroleum to country folk as a cure for cancer.
- Petroleum is used today in homeopathic medicine to treat motion sickness, eczema and other skin problems, nausea and diarrhea.