GALBANUM (Pers. bārīja, bārzad), a slightly bitter odorous gum resin obtained from several Asian umbelliferous plants (especially the genera Ferula L. and Dorema Don), for which numerous medicinal uses have been recorded.

History. Galbanum, sometimes confused with similar resins, has been known and used since ancient times. The etymology of the word (< Gk. khalbánè < Bibl. Heb. ḥelbĕna, cognate with Syr. Halbĕniṯā, Sum. ḪAL and Akk. baluḫu; see Ebn Maymūn, Meyerhof’s comm., no. 339, p. 170, and Levey’s note 30 in Kendī, pp. 239-40) rightly points to the Near Eastern and Middle Eastern provenience of galbanum-yielding plants. Galbanum is mentioned in the Bible (Exodus 30.34-35), not as a medicinal drug, but as an ingredient of a sacred incense (also including frankincense, onycha, etc.) destined to be burned in the “Tabernacle of the Congregation.” Pliny and Dioscorides refer to ancient Syria as the habitat of the galbanum plant. Galbanum was widely used in ancient Mesopotamia for medicinal purposes (Levey, ibid.). There remains no direct evidence of its use in pre-Islamic Persia; however, the Chinese loan-word p’i-ts’i (which may be transcribed as *bit-dzi, bir-zi or bir-zai) is believed to represent Mid. Pers. bīrzay “galbanum,” which was imported in Sasanian times to India and thence to China (Laufer, p. 363; cf. Hind. berīja < Pers. bārīja, still the most common name of this substance in Persia).

Galbanum plants and their distribution. There has been confusion or uncertainty about the nature (color, taste, odor, medicinal properties) of galbanum, about the plants involved, and the latter’s habitats. The confusion has resulted mainly from the more or less similarity of galbanum to other resins yielded by some other umbelliferous plants, e.g., sagapenum (from Ferula persica Willd.; sagbīnaj), asafetida (from F. assa-foetida L.; ang/jodān or anqoza), opopanax (from Opopanax chironium Koch; gāv-šīr/jāvšīr), and komā (from F. oopoda Boiss. et Buhse).

The Dutch physician Johann L. Schlimmer, who practiced and taught medicine for about fifteen years in Persia in the second half of the 19th century, identified the galbanum and its plants in Persia. His authoritative remarks are worth quoting: “Galbanum is known to Persian druggists under the various names qāsnī, bārzad, bārīja, and vašā, but under these names are confused two different kinds of galbanum yielded by two very distinct plants: The first three names are synonyms…for the brown product of Ferula galbaniflua Buhse [=F. gummosa Boiss.] found, among other places, in Deh Gardon [Deh-e Gerdū] (on the road to Shiraz), on the mountains of Sāvoj Bolāḡ (between Tehran and Qazvīn), of Ḵaraqān and Sāva (where villagers collect it [i.e., the sap] with the name bālanbū), and in Lār valley (in the Alborz [range]); and vašā, on the contrary, is the yellowish white product of [the umbelliferous] Dorema Ancheri Boiss., which Dr. [J.] Buhse [of Riga] encountered on low mountains near Rašm [in Šāhrūd šahrestān]” (Schlimmer, pp. 295-96; for detailed up-to-date geographical distribution of these species of the genera Ferula L. and Dorema Don in the large floristic area covered by Rechinger’s Flora Iranica, including Afghanistan, see Rechinger et al., pp. 379-85, 387-426). As to ancient Syria as the provenience of galbanum in Classical authors, Meyerhof remarks (ibid.) that “most of these [galbanum-yielding] plants grow in central and eastern Persia, in Afghanistan, etc., whence they were imported into Syria and Palestine.”

Persian and vernacular names. In addition to bārīja, the typical name, vernacular names such as qāsnī (Azeri Turkish) and bālanbū are still recorded in modern sources (e.g., Hooper, pp. 118-19, Parsa, p. 81). Older names, now obsolete, include bārzad with the variants bīrzad, bīrza(y) (the author of the Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, ed. Moʿīn, I, p. 334, wrongly declares bārzad to be the arabicized form of bīrzad).

Medicinal uses. The numerous medicinal uses mentioned for galbanum in the Islamic sources (e.g., Abū Manṣūr Mowaffaq Heravī, s.v. qenna, p. 256; Ebn Sīnā, bk. 2, pp. 706-707, s.v. qenna; Tonokābonī, p. 140) go back mainly to the Greek physician and herbalist Dioscorides (bk. 3, Ar. tr., no. 78, pp. 279-80, Eng. tr., no. 97, pp. 330-31), with some minor additions or explanations. These may be summarized as follows: Used externally (by application, inhaling, fumigation, etc.), it is an emmenagogue and abortifacient; it is good for epilepsy, hysteria, giddiness, toothache due to caries, furuncles, freckles, serofula, piles; and (by fumigation) it is an insect repellent. Used internally, it is good for chronic cough, dyspnea, asthma, convulsions; (with vinegar and myrrh) as an alexipharmic; (with honey) as a lithontryptic and renal deobstruent; it is also good for weak stomach, liver, and spleen. Substitutes for galbanum are sagapenum (“five times the weight of galbanum”) or opopanax (“1/4 of its weight,” Tonokābonī, p 140).

Modern exploitation and export. In 1364 Š./1985, Ḥasan Karīmī Alīzaʾī and Moḥammad-Reżā Maḥjūb pointed out regretfully that “[although] bārīja is a tonic/stimulant, anticatarrhal and antispasmodic, nowadays [in Persia] its use in internal medicine has been forgotten.” According to them, galbanum plants are/were used as forage for cattle (“because cattle husbandmen believe that these plants raise the quantity and quality of the cattle’s milk”) and the gum is exported to some foreign countries, where it is employed mainly in perfumery and a little in jewelry (to make a special colorless glue for fixing precious stones).

The gradual decrease in galbanum export (see Table 1) may be due to the following causes (according to a private communication to the present writer): Stricter governmental control on local irrational exploitation of galbanum plants (incidentally, this irresponsible exploitation has been severely disturbing the ecosystem in the affected areas); exporting galbanum in crude, non-standardized form, thus depriving the government of the economic added value thereof (no factory still exists for processing galbanum and tragacanth); and mismanagement of the leases granted to local people and entrepreneurs for collecting galbanum in specific areas of the country.

Bibliography: Abū Manṣūr Mowaffaq Heravī, al-Abnīa ʿan ḥaqāyeq al-adwīa, ed. A. Bahmanyār and Ḥ. Maḥbūbī Ardakānī, Tehran, 1346 Š./ 1968. Ebn Maymūn (Maimonides), Šarḥ asmāʾ al-ʿoqqār, ed. and tr. M. Meyerhof as L’explication des noms de drogues…, Cairo, 1940. Ebn Sīnā (Avicenna), al-Qānūn fi’l-ṭebb, ed. E. Qaš and ʿA. Zayʿūr, 4 vols., Beirut, 1408/1987. Pedanios Dioscorides, La ‘Materia Médica’ de Dioscorides; transmisión Medieveal y Renacentista, 6 vols., Barcelona, 1952-59, II, ed. C. E. Dubler and E. Terés; Ar. text, tr. by Eṣṭefan b. Basīl, with Ḥonayn b. Esḥāq’s correction; tr. J. Goodyer (1655) as The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, ed. R. T. Gunther, Oxford, 1934. D. Hooper, Useful Plants and Drugs of Iran and Iraq, with notes by H. Field, Chicago, 1937. Ḥ. Karīmī Alīzaʾī and M.-R. Maḥjūb, “Šenāḵt-e vīžagīhā-ye gīāh-e bārīja,” in Wezārat-e kešāvarzī, Sāzmān-e jangalhā wa marāteʿ-e kešvar, Maqālāt o gozārešāt-e erāʾa šoda dar semīnār-e modīrīyat-e ṭabīʿī-e…manṭaqa-ye Zāgros, Tīr 1364, Yāsūj, 2 vols., Tehran, n.d. (irregularly paginated mimeographed publication). Abū Yūsof Yaʿqūb b. Esḥāq Kendī, al-Aqrābāḏīn, tr. M. Levey as The Medical Formulary or Aqrābādhīn of al-Kindī, Madison, 1966 (facsimile Ar. text with copious notes). Laufer, Sino-Iranica, repr. Taipei, 1973, pp. 263-66. A. Parsa, Flore de l’Iran VIII, Tehran, 1960. K. H. Rechinger, Flora Iranica: Flora des iranischen Hochlandes und der umrahmenden Gebrige…, Graz, 1963-, no. 162. K. H. Rechinger et al., Umbelliferae, Graz, 1987. J. R. Schlimmer, Terminologie médico-pharmaceutique et anthropologique française-persane, repr., Tehran, 1970. Moḥammad Moʾmen Ḥosaynī Tonokābonī (Ḥakīm Moʾmen), Toḥfat al-moʾmenīn (Toḥfa-ye Ḥakīm Moʾmen), Tehran, n.d.

(Hushang Aʿlam)

Originally Published: December 15, 2000

Last Updated: February 2, 2012

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