Tag Archives: Disease

ER, Ancient Egypt Style

I’ve  spent many hours over the past week on a cardiac ward in a large urban hospital, visiting my father who is suffering from heart trouble.  Over the last few days, as he and I have taken to strolling the corridors–he leaning on his walker,  and I beside him–I have begun to notice all the many gifts and tributes that grateful heart patients and their families have left behind  for nurses and doctors on the ward.

I’ve never seen so many tokens of gratitude–large engraved plaques;  framed homemade quilts;  original etchings and paintings;  an inscribed and signed moose antler; and a framed eagle feather. All are intended as permanent testaments,  and seem to bear the same phrase, “with heartfelt thanks,”  a mantra,  it seems,  from those who have survived a near-death experience and whose hearts have been healed.

As I walk these corridors,  my thoughts occasionally wander and I am reminded of similar places in the ancient world.  In the Nile Valley,  ancient Egyptians searched for relief from their ailments in sanatoriums in two major temples.   The first of these was in Dendera.   There, according to Bruno Halioua and Bernard Ziskind’s wonderful book, Medicine in the Days of the Pharoahs,  the ill took medicinal waters in a temple dedicated to Hathor, bathing in a series of stone tanks in hopes of  a cure–an approach favored even today by those visiting traditional spas.

And if the waters at Dendera offered little relief,   Egyptian patients had a second recourse.   They could journey to the great temple in Deir el-Bahri,   dedicated to Imhotep and Amenhotep.  There priests conducted the sick into a dark chapel:  as they waited hopefully,  a god-like voice suddenly boomed,  reassuring them that they would be cured.  In other chambers,  priests induced dream states in their patients,  allowing them to talk directly to the gods and plead their cases.

Did any of this succeed in curing the hopefuls?  Well,  the ancient Egyptians,  too, left permanent tokens of their gratitude.   Along the walls of one shrine, Egyptologists have found inscribed testimonials.  One reads:  “Andromachus, a Macedonian, a laborer, came to the good god Amenhotep; he was sick and the god cured him the same day.”

The nurses and doctors on Ward 2a,  where my father now is,  would recognize the sentiment immediately.

Today’s photo shows the Hathor capitals in the First Hypostyle Hall of Dendera temple. The photo was taken by Jaakko Anttila in  January 2005.

Smallpox Blankets

Over the years,  I have come across numerous references to an insidious  form of germ warfare that some Europeans  employed to defeat Native Americans:  smallpox blankets.  Historians suggest that the practice may have begun as early as the 1530s,  when  Spanish conquistador Francesco Pizarro handed out bedding of smallpox victims to the Inca inhabitants of Peru,  believing that the “miasma”  that caused the disease still clung to the fabric.

One of the most clearly documented conspiracies to employ this weapon comes from the letters and papers of Lord Jeffery Amherst,  the British commander-in-chief for America in 1763.  His hardliner policies against Native Americans in the Great Lakes region had sparked  Pontiac, the chief  of the Ottawa tribe,  to rise up against the British troops.   Amherst wanted victory at any cost.  To defeat the tribes,  he approved the use of smallpox blankets to,  as he said,  “Extirpate this Execrable Race.”

Some historians have questioned whether smallpox can indeed be spread from blankets. But some studies clearly suggest that it can.  In Vectors of Death: The Archaeology of European Contact,  University of New Mexico anthropologist Ann Ramenofsky notes that “although the virus is most frequently transmitted through droplet infection, it can survive a number of years outside human hosts in a dried state.”

All this comes to mind thanks to a fascinating recent post on the Northwest Coast Archaeology blog.  There you will find a partial transcript of an interview that CBC radio interviewer Imbert Orchard conducted in 1969 with Solomon Wilson,  a Haida elder from Maude Island Village on Haida Gwaii  in northern British Columbia.   In this interview,  Mr. Wilson recounts a story he had heard from an elder about smallpox blankets and the spread of disease on the Northwest Coast.   It’s definitely worth checking out.