On those who survived pandemics: A very Egyptian perspective

Amira Noshokaty , Tuesday 7 Apr 2020


“Today my wife and I made a vow to bake maltoot bread and rice pudding, and serve it for free on the first day people are allowed to pray in the mosque again,” explained Medhat Abbas, deputy head of the Upper Egypt union for transportation and tourism.

Abbas is from Al-Nazla village in Naga Hamaadi. Al-Nazla may be the only village that still celebrates getting rid of the cholera epidemic that hit Egypt in 1947, having done so every year since.

“For over 70 years, on the last Friday of November, after Friday prayers, every family shares a big round tray full of its finest food with the poor,” he explained.

The village made a pledge at the time of the epidemic that when God saved them from cholera they would make an annual feast and feed the poor as an act of humility and gratitude.

“During the cholera epidemic lots of people died, and it was Sheikh Mohamed Ewis who first slaughtered a big cow and distributed it on the poor; then all the people joined in and we have been doing this ever since,” Abbas told Ahram Online, concluding with the Arabic expression “Al-loqam tozil el-neqam” (“Providing food for the needy relieves adversity”).

Indeed, this proverb sums up the Egyptian perspective when it comes to fatal epidemics such as the plague and cholera.

While following the hygiene and medical prescriptions, Egyptians also believe that prayers and pious behaviour are an essential part of the equation.

“This goes back to the ancient Egyptian belief in the triple essence of medicine: the doctor, the medicine and spiritual rituals,” explained Maissa Moustafa, heritage consultant at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

There is an interlacing relationship between spiritual rituals and medicine in ancient Egypt, because like all ancient civilizations, ancient Egyptians viewed the human body from a holistic approach and could not address the body without putting the spirit into perspective, she noted.

Moustafa added that Imhotep, who the Pyramid of Djoser, was also a great doctor who was referred to as the deity of medicine and wisdom.

“There are no clear evidence on how ancient Egyptians have faced epidemics in general, despite an incomplete, slight reference to a spell to clear the air from the plague that was found in the Edwin Smith papyrus; however, Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, mentioned that Egyptians were by far one of the most healthiest of nations due to the monthly detox technique they used,” she said.

Throughout history, in time of pandemics, piety and medicine have always been the main refuge of humanity. According to The Black Death by Robert Gottfried (Arabic translated edition), the world’s most famous encounter with the plague was in the Middle Ages around the 13th century.

It was transmitted by fleas who lived on rats. Since rats live in tunnels, plague boomed in damp and high humidity environments, and died between 15 to 20 degrees, because the cold contained the virus and humidity below 70 degrees kills it.

So it boomed at the end of summer and beginning of fall in Europe in general. Sadly it spread around the world via the trade movement be it ships or carriages that carried along its own rodents the main carriers. 

However, the book reveals that the first plague to be documented was the Justinian plague in 541 AD, named after the ruling Byzantine emperor.

“The first infection was probably transmitted through the Nile from Upper Egypt to the whole East Mediterranean. In Egypt, at that time, the plague started off in Pelusium (Al-Farama, near Port Said) then to Alexandria and then to the whole of Egypt,” writes Gottfried.

The plague hit the world again in the Middle Ages. By the end of 1351, it had nearly come to an end, while changing the world after taking with it one third of the global population

As for those who lived through the plague, they got to see a brave new world.

Food was affected – as a precaution, people used to burn incense. They avoided food such as meat, milk and fish because they would easily go bad. They replaced it with bread, eggs vegetables and fruits. In moderation they ate onions and garlic. Figs and hazelnuts, and as for spices, they used myrrh, saffron and pepper. 

The economy was also majorly impacted. The Black Death had an interesting impact on people’s relationship with time.

For the merchants, time was money, so workers worked day and night. In 1349, after the Black Death ended, textile workers in Flanders in Belgium, such as those in the village of Ghent, demanded fixed labour hours, and the governor of Artois even asked for a special bell tower to be added to the church so that workers would tell time from the sound of bells. 

In England, the peasants started an uprising against the agrarian law and managed to change the law. The economy was transformed by the ending of the estate system in agriculture, because peasants had either died or fled the countryside for better working opportunities in the cities. So peasants became freer and could work in any county they wished.

On the medical front, the plague opened up the door for surgery and anatomy, sciences that were tiptoeing then, amid the medical legacy of Hippocrates and Avicenna and many others, whose knowledge did not extend to the plague.

Medical references and teachings started to be taught in more common language as the medical profession became more popular and not limited to the elite. This was a breakthrough in medicine, which was much more prepared to face the second rise of the plague a few centuries later in the 16th century.

Beliefs and ideas also changed. In reaction to all such death, Epicureanism took over among the cultured elites and the aristocrats. There was also a rise in humanism and Sufism at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century. 

Could the coronavirus have a similar impact on those who survive it? From an authentic Egyptian perspective, it’s only a question of keeping the faith in all its forms.

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