Ancient Egypt — 3500 BC to 100 BC


The beginnings of ancient Egypt recorded is dated to be around the same time as that of Mesopotamia—3500 BC. In its earliest days, a kingship developed that was to be the means of governmental for its next 3000 years. Around 3150 its first king Menes unified two separate states, upper and lower Egypt. Egyptian medicine, art, architecture, social structure and customs that existed at the time of Menes’s remained relatively stable over the next 3000 years and through its 31 dynasties each with several kingships.

Medicine and disease in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt was one of the largest and most advanced centers of health and healing in the ancient world. The Egyptians had an elaborate health care system. The first medical school opened there in the first dynasty, and many others followed.

Egyptian medical practices have been determined through study of hieroglyphic material, pictures in tombs, and body remains, especially from mummies. One can find in ancient papyruses, such as (e.g., Edwin Smith papyrus (2800 BC) descriptions of diseases such as arthritis, tuberculosis, and urinary stones. The ancient remains also show different therapeutic procedures.

Many diseases in Ancient Egypt originated from the environmental conditions. Sand blown by the wind caused lung and breathing diseases as well as dental problems arising from eating sand in the food. Also, insects and parasites from the Nile River led to infections and lifelong illnesses.

Egyptians viewed the body as consisting of a network of tubes, including blood vessels, ducts, nerves, tendons, and muscles. The tubes ran between the heart and the anus and then went to various parts of the body. In the medical texts the physician often started by specifying the contents that a particular tube was carrying, such as blood, air, mucus, urine, semen, water, feces and good or evil spirits.

The Elbers Papyrus (1500 BC) offers an idea of how the tube network was theorized by the Egyptians:

Forty-six vessels go from the heart to every limb. If a doctor, priest of Sekhmet, or magician, places his hand of fingers on the back of the head, hands, stomach, arms of feet, then he hears the heart. The heart speaks out of limb. There are four vessels in his nostrils, two give mucus and two give blood.

There are four vessels to his two ears. The breath of life enters into the right ear, and the breath of death enters into the left ear.

There are four vessels to the liver; it is they which give it fluid and air, which afterwards cause all diseases to arise in it by overfilling with blood.

There are four vessels to the lung and to the spleen. It is they which give fluid and air to it.

Diagnoses were made through careful observation, involving touching, seeing, and smelling the patient and taking a pulse. Physicians observed the course and theorized about the causes of specific diseases.

Some healers in Ancient Egypt appealed to religion for their treatments. For example, people prayed and made offerings to Sekhmet, the goddess of healing. Other healers treated the symptoms.

People prayed to gods, also, to scare away demons. Bes, for example, was a popular household god throughout Egypt who served to protect women from demons during childbirth. These demons, they feared, would put a curse on the child or mother. Bes also drove away mischievous beings that caused minor problems like falling down or getting sick from bad food. Many people would keep a statue of Bes near the front door to keep demons from entering the household.

Egyptian physicians were best known for their creation and dispensation of medicines. They made medicines from animals, minerals, and plants. Animal products included animal fats such as fat from the hippopotamus, as well as ox spleen, pig’s brain and tortoise gall (with honey). Minerals such as antimony and copper were used as astringents or antiseptics.

Plant materials included tree resins such as frankincense, myrrh, and manna. Extracts of plants were used as purgatives and tannins from plants were used for the treatment of burns. Other examples of specific uses of plants for particular illnesses and physical problems were:

Surgery in Ancient Egyptian was elaborate, and, judging from the remains of bodies, was often successful. Several examples exist of cranial surgery, probably to repair skulls smashed during battle. There are a few examples of trephining (cutting a hole in the skull) and evidence of bone setting, draining cysts, pulling teeth and removal of growths. One female mummy, found in the city of Thebes, in southern Egypt, had a wooden prosthetic toe, including a carved toenail, that was attached to a foot serving as a replacement for her amputated toe. In later periods judging from pictures found in tomb paintings, caesarian sections were done.

Copper salts, wine and frankincense were used as antiseptics for surgery. Wounds were treated with willow bark (the original source of aspirin), and moldy bread compresses (known to contain antibiotics). The wound was kept clean through ritual bathing and was kept infection free through the regular application of honey. Before operations, patients were given numbing agents including opium and belladonna. The surgical tools were heated to cauterize wounds to stop bleeding.

Edwin Smith surgical Papyrus, written by Egyptian physicians around 1700 BC, contained a description of 48 medical cases. Twenty-seven of the 48 were cases of head trauma, some of which resulted in “speechlessness” (e.g., case 20). The cases differed in severity and in treatments. Cases were grouped into those where treatments would provide good outcomes, treatments whose outcome is uncertain, and “ailments not to be treated”. All treatments were focused on healing the wound, with none focused on rehabilitation of the speech. They included the use of plasters, stitching, cauterization and splints, and surgical dressings, e.g. honey, grease and lint.

The heart in ancient Egypt was considered to be the seat of the soul. Egyptian mythology portrayed the heart as a place to record all of the good and evil deeds of individuals, and at the end of a person’s life the heart was weighed to determine the degree to which the person had sinned. Extracting a heart from the body and weighing it on a balance scale against a feather was part of that person’s right of passage to an afterlife. If a person’s heart was heavier than the feather, it would be fed to Ammut, a god, who has a head of a crocodile and legs of both a hippopotamus (back legs) and a lion (front legs). A person whose heart is devoured by Ammut was destined to live in oblivion for all eternity.

Oratory and rhetoric in ancient Egypt

The Egyptians considered eloquence to be an innate yet teachable faculty. Ptahhotep, in his book of wisdom, says eloquence is rarer than emeralds, yet can be found among maids at the mill stones. Ptahhotep continues:

If you want to endure in the mouth of those who hear (you), (i.e., to make a lasting reputation), then listen, and speak (only) after you have become a craftsman. If you speak to perfection, every project of yours will attain its goal” (para. 43 = 11.613-617).

Egyptians subscribed to conversational rules or cannons of rhetoric that included: (1) keeping silent, (2) waiting for the right moment to speak, (3) restraining passionate words, (4) speaking fluently but with great deliberation, and (5) keeping your tongue at one with your heart so that you speak the truth (Fox, 1983).

Disability in ancient Egypt

Wisdom writings and moral teachings in ancient Egypt commanded respect for people with disabilities. In a papyrus now located in the British Museum in London (Papyrus # 10474) the following instructions are found:

Beware of robbing a wretch or attacking a cripple.

Do not laugh at a blind man, nor tease a dwarf, nor cause hardship for the lame.

Don't tease a man who is in the hand of the god (i.e. ill or insane)..." (Lichtheim, 1976)

Dwarves were especially well regarded in ancient Egypt. They attained high rank in the dynasties as is indicated by their elaborate burials close to the pyramids of the kings. A very precious and prevalent household god, Bes, was a dwarf assigned the job of protecting the mother and child in childbearing. During birth Bes would be imagined dancing about the room to scare away evil spirits who might put a curse on the child. Once the child was born, Bes would entertain the child. When a baby laughed or smiled for no apparent reason, it was believed that Bes was somewhere in the room making funny faces. Thus, many houses would keep a statue of Bes near the door to protect the household and entertain the children.

Education and rehabilitation in ancient Egypt

Schooling in ancient Egypt was mostly vocational, in which children learned from their family members how to farm or work in various trades or crafts. There was very little formal schooling. The exception was for those learning to be scribes or priests or to work in civil administration in royal courts.

Schools for scribes were attended by boys, beginning at around nine years of age. The schools were usually attached to government buildings and temples and the teachers were men who were experienced in government affairs having served as scribes or temple priests. The students lived at home and attended schools on a daily basis. The school day started in the morning, broke at noon for a meal and a siesta, and continued later in the afternoon.

There was a big emphasis in the curriculum on learning to write with hieroglyphs. Students practiced copying hieroglyphs on wooden tablets that were covered in white plaster. Older students were allowed to use paper (papyrus). Other school subjects included basic mathematics, reading, history, astronomy, music, geography, science and medicine.

Children used books of instruction that contained moral codes for how to live a well-ordered life. The texts also contained rules of moral justice, wisdom, obedience, and moral restraint. For example, The Loyalist Teaching, an ancient Egyptian text, was made up of approximately 145 verses. In the first section a teacher instructs his children that they must always respect and obey the pharaoh of Egypt. In the second section children are instructed to be dutiful and respectful.