ʿANBAR (ambergris), a waxy, aromatic substance produced in the intestines of stomach of the sperm whale and used in perfumery. It is often mentioned in Persian literary and medical sources. In the Bundahišn (24.21), ambergris (Pahl. ambar) is considered the dung of the three-legged ass, whose urine purifies the seas. Medieval medical texts describe the best ambergris as yellowish-grey and unstreaked; inferior varieties, excreted by the whale and found floating in the water, were black and streaked. Amber (kahrobā), a brittle, yellowish gum secreted by a tree of the pine genus, was thought to be a variety of ambergris. Ambergris was melted, refined, compressed into pellets (šamāma), and burned on a fire to sweeten and purify the air; it was also compounded in wax candles with aloes and musk. An aromatic powder called ʿanbar-e mortafeʿ (rising ambergris), made from ambergris, tree moss, rose water, aloe s leaves, and aloes wood, was kept in clothing or in lockets (ʿanbaṛča or ʿanbarīna). Ambergris was used in the treatment of catarrhal colds, chest diseases, and mental illness; it was compounded with musk in the preparation of ḡālīa, and was used to reinforce ḥašīš and opium and to prepare antidotes to poison. Small doses of fresh ambergris, which was scarce and expensive, were thought to enhance body temperature and sexual potency and to help one gain weight (Abu’l-Qāsem Kāšānī, ʿArāʾes al-ǰawāher wa nafāʾes al-aṭāʾeb, ed. Ī. Afšār, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966, pp. 254, 309; Mīr Moḥammad Ḥosayn Ḵorāsānī, Maḵzan al-adwīa [lithograph], Bombay, 1273/1856, p. 402). Royal scribes perfumed letters by mixing powedered ambergris or musk with ink or by affixing an ambergris-smeared seal (Šāh-nāma [Moscow] II, p. 125; III, pp. 44, 74, 244), and ambergris was thrown to the crowd in ceremonies of royal largesse, together with gold dinars and other valuables (ibid., III, p. 11).

In Persian lyric poetry, powdered ambergris is strewn before the beloved, whose hair is called ʿanbar-e larzān (quivering ambergris) or arzān (precious ambergris); and her breath, words, sighs and physical features are “ambergris-like” (ʿanbarīn). Breezes are called ʿanbar-sūz, ʿanbar-fešān, or ʿanbar-ḡobār for their fragrance; the gardens of springtime exhale the “ambergris-like perfume of the beloved’s street,” and the blossoming of the “ambergris-strewing” flowers and boughs is the envy of “ambergris-natured” paradise. Negro slaves were often called ʿAnbar for their dark complexion, and one of the ancestors of the Arab tribe of the Banū Tamīm bore the name.


See also Ḥāǰǰ Moḥammad Karīm Khan Kermānī, Maǰmaʿ al-rasāʾel, Kermān, n.d., pp. 38, 41-77.

Dehḵodā, s.v. ʿAnbar.

(Ž. Mottaḥedīn)

Originally Published: December 15, 1985

Last Updated: August 3, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. II, Fasc. 1, pp. 4-5

Cite this entry:

Ž. Mottaḥedīn, “ʿANBAR,” Encyclopædia Iranica, II/1, pp. 4-5, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/anbar-ambergris (accessed on 30 December 2012).