Imhotep and the “Stinking Ones” of the Nile

In 1874, in the Valley of the Tombs near Luxor, the German Egyptologist Georg Ebers discovered the world’s oldest surviving medical text, a 65-foot papyrus dating from shortly after the time of Joseph, around 1500 B.C. The Ebers Papyrus listed 876 herbal formulas from more than 500 plants, including aloe, caraway, cardamom, castor, chamomile, cinnamon, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, gentian, ginger, juniper, mint, myrrh, onion, opium poppy, saffron, sage, sesame, and thyme. This represents about one-third of the herbs in today’s Western herbal pharmacopeia.

PapyrusWestcar_photomerge-AltesMuseum-Berlin-3Some Ebers formulas strike the modern reader as bizarre, such as a shampoo made from a dog’s paw, decayed palm leaves, and a donkey hoof, all boiled in oil and then rubbed on the head. Others sound surprisingly contemporary, such as the recommendation to bandage moldy bread over wounds to prevent infection. Modern antibiotics were originally derived from molds.

In Egyptian mythology, medicine was created by Thoth, the god of knowledge. Thoth also invented writing and the arts and sciences. The most notable Egyptian physician was Imhotep, who was also the architect to Pharaoh Zoser {3000 B.C.}

Imhotep is credited with designing one of the first pyramids, but as time passed, he was remembered mostly as a healer. Imhotep became deified, and around 700 B.C., Egypt’s medical school at Memphis was dedicated to him, as was a nearby school for midwives.

The Egyptians imported enormous quantities of herbs for perfumes, embalming mixtures, and medicines. They also considered plants important spoils of war. In 1475 B.C., when Pharaoh Thutmose lll conquered what is now Syria, he demanded as tribute specimens of all Syrian plants not found in Egypt.

The Egyptians loved aromatic herbs. The ancient kingdom’s access to both the Mediterranean and Arabian seas allowed them to import aromatics from as far away as Spain to the west and the Spice Islands {Indonesia} to the east.

However, the Egyptian’s affection for fragrant herbs paled next to their obsession with two herbs that many ancients considered foul-smelling: garlic and onion. The Egyptians believed that garlic and onion strengthened the body and prevented disease {a view supported by modern science}. They ate so much that the Greek historian Herodotus called them “the stinking ones.” Six cloves of garlic were found in the tomb of King Tut.

The Egyptians also gave their slaves daily rations of garlic and onions to keep them strong and healthy. In 450 B.C., Herodotus wrote of an inscription inside the Cheops Pyramid at Giza {built in 2900 B.C.} that said “1,600 talents of silver” {about $4 million} had been spent on garlic and onions for its builders.

According to legend, a garlic shortage once forced the Egyptians to cut their slave’s rations. The slaves were so incensed that they refused to work. If this story is true, it would be the world’s earliest recorded strike.

Egyptian farmers could not satisfy the demand for garlic and onions, so the Egyptians turned to the Philistine city of Askelon, in Gaza, became a major garlic and onion trading center, not only for the Egyptians but also for the Greeks and Romans. The Romans favored the Philistine’s small green onions, calling them ascalonia after Askelon. The word evolved into escallon, and finally into our scallion.

Middle Eastern herbalists also used opium. Recent excavations of ancient tombs in Israel dating to 1400 B.C. have turned up distinctive pottery vessels shaped like opium poppy pods and containing residues of opium, the narcotic that’s still used today, typically as morphine.

By about 500 B.C., Egyptian herbalists were considered the finest in the Mediterranean, and rulers from Rome to Babylon recruited them as court physicians. Aspiring physicians- Rome’s Galen among them went to Egypt to study with the medical masters of the Nile.