A HERITAGE OF HERBS

LIFESTYLE FEATURE

for the Four Seasons Hotel

A captivating look at the healing herbs of history, this full-length feature reveals how much of our current medical knowledge is based on inherited wisdom.

Quiet sanctuaries, some centuries old, the monasteries of Cyprus have long been the seat of religious study in a country which was the first in the world to convert to Christianity. But they’re also the source of incredible wisdom when it comes to the healing power of herbs.

 

Machairas Monastery is, quite possibly, the best known in this respect; even today, pilgrims in search of medical knowledge flock to the sprawling hermitage perched atop a single mountain rising from the plain. But perhaps its greatest treasure is hidden away in the monastery’s ancient library: a time-worn manuscript which has become the bible for herbalists and naturopaths all over the world. The Iatrosophikon.

Loosely translating as the ‘Book of Medical Wisdom’ and also known as the Codex Machairas, The Iatrosophikon was compiled by Philotheos – a well-known healer and monk of the 1800s. A collection of folk recipes and remedies – many of which utilise indigenous herbs – it’s considered to be a significant contribution to our knowledge of ancient medicinal practice. While the original manuscript is handwritten in the Cypriot dialect, the English translation (by Kyriacos Demetriades and Andreas K Demetriades, with indispensable commentary renowned horticultural expert, Giorgiois N Hadjikyriakou) is known far and wide. And revered the world over...

“To this day, The Iatrosophikon informs both herbalists and naturopaths, not just in Cyprus but around the world,” reveals Alexander McCowan, both a historian and an authority on the island’s flora. This herbal expert describes the tome as “probably the world’s foremost historical work on the medical usage of herbs through the ages,” while agreeing that some of its treatments – a cure for baldness, for example – may be slightly outmoded!

 

A HERBAL HISTORY

Nevertheless, the manuscript is a mine of information that proves Plini’s adage. One of the best-known herbalists on the island, George Ellinas, suggests that it’s the climate which make the herbs of Cyprus unique, along with the wealth of knowledge passed down from generation to generation. “Every village had a herbal doctor, but it’s the monks – scribes at a time when few could read or write – who curated and documented this information,” he reveals. “As we moved into the twentieth century, and people began to rely on chemicals and doctors, much of this traditional herblore was lost: so The Iatrosophikon has become most valuable.”

Amongst the herbal cures which still stand are milk thistle, known to repair and detox the liver, as well as a mixture of honey, garlic, and cayenne pepper for sore throats. Hawthorn is referenced in The Iatrosophikon as good for the heart and for balancing blood pressure – properties for which it is now commercially prized. And sage, George explains, has long been utilised both to clear the mind and to treat snakebites. “In fact,” he adds, “if you’re bitten while out in the fields, a poultice of sage will give you time to get to the hospital!

“Granted,” he adds, “there are a few slightly alarming remedies” – mercury to reduce blood clots, for example – “which we now know are extremely detrimental to the health. But much of the herblore handed down to us through history and described by the monks of old still stands. And, as more and more people return to holistic medicine, we’re rediscovering the ancient uses of herbs such as sage, thyme, and wild oregano.” Which last, he adds, was shipped in bulk to Alexander the Great as he battled his way across the known world, and was used to heal his soldiers’ wounds... Today, we know the herb is a powerful antiseptic.

“More than 1000 herbs grow wild on the island, and these varieties are always particularly potent,” he explains. “If a plant has survived the heat, the cold, and the lack of water, it tends to have a stronger medicinal value; plus herbs which have grown without fertiliser, chemicals, and sprays, in an area of biodiversity are particularly valuable.”

THERAPEUTIC TRADITIONS

This ancient understanding of herblore is also employed by Inna Orlova and Elena Elraie in their award-winning premium wellbeing brand, Kypwell. The product line – which features high-performance skincare essentials, herbal teas, and personalised wellbeing programmes and services – is the first based solely on organic, locally-grown herbs... for good reason!

“In Kypwell, we’ve combined ancient knowledge with the most innovative approaches to natural skin care developments today: a combination of heritage and modern formulations,” Inna explains. With no need for synthetic chemicals – “the essential oils in the herbs act as preservatives, a fact the monks of old applied to food preservation,” Elena clarifies – Kypwell employs a medley of indigenous flora.

“Damascan rose, elder, chamomile, and geranium are our holy herbs, contained in almost every product in our skincare line. Rose, for example, is an antiseptic, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory which relieves, nourishes, and moisturises, and is referenced in The Iatrosophikon as a remedy for infections of the ears, eyes and gums as well as an aid to both health and beauty”... Properties which have no doubt made the duo’s Signature Flower Mist Toner a global award-winner!

TEA TIME

As modern herbalists build on the monastic musings of The Iatrosophikon, this valuable ancient knowledge is once more being appreciated around the world. Even here, at The Four Seasons, the distilled wisdom of the ages can be found in both the ‘Cyprus Mountain Mixed Herbal’ and ‘Chamomile Flower’ tea blends (based on ancient remedies from the Monastery of Mesa Potamos) at the Colors Café. One can almost imagine Philotheos himself savouring each restorative sip, at home in a sanctuary which – if not quite monastic! – certainly resembles the retreat where, centuries ago, he began to document the incredible healing powers of the herbs of Cyprus.