Tag Archives: medicine

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.

Exhuming Ancient Celebrities

I wasn’t planning to post today on Tutankhamun.  Over the past twenty-four hours,  journalists have spilled a cargo tanker’s worth of ink on news that the famous young king suffered from a host of serious ailments.  I thought I would leave the story to the newspapers until I began browsing the coverage.   Some reporters derided the Egyptian king as “malarial and inbred,”  while others took lower aim.  One online rag, for example,   informed readers  that “King Tut was a wreck, but his penis was ‘well-developed’.”

If you ask me,  these exhumations and studies of ancient kings and other celebrities are  becoming media circuses.   All the high-tech poking and prodding quickly strips away the dignity and grandeur of great men and women,  baring their physical  frailties and secrets for all to see.  In recent years,  we’ve been subjected to several of these tawdry sideshows and I suspect there are more to come.  I posted recently on the proposal to exhume Leonardo da Vinci.  And two weeks ago, I spotted an article on a Danish team who will soon exhume a famous 17th century astronomer, Tycho Brahe.

None of the subjects,  I might add,  has given consent for such scientific study.  And I sometimes wonder about the motives of the researchers.  The scientists who propose to exhume Tycho Brahe, for example,  want to determine whether the famous astonomer was murdered or whether he died of natural cause.   This hardly seems reason enough to rifle through a tomb and disturb the sleep of the astonomer.

In future,  I’d like to see researchers and reporters alike treat the ancient dead in the same way we treat the recently deceased–with respect and decorum.   Few of us would consider prying open a recent grave and poring over newly buried remains  just to satisfy a point of  idle curiosity.  So why is it ok to do that to a 17th century astronomer?

When I was writing my book,  The Mummy Congress,  I was really struck by the highly professional way that serious mummy researchers treated the ancient dead. They never made  jokes at the expense of the dead or  talked lightly or unfeelingly about their ailments.  Indeed, during the examinations of the bodies,  they often spoke as if the mummies themselves could hear exactly what was said.

Poor Tutankhamun.  I’m glad he couldn’t hear what people were saying today.