Peter Lapsley: Eat your heart out, Hippocrates

Peter LapsleyHippocrates (c.460 BC–370 BC) is often described as “the father of modern medicine.” Wise and knowledgeable though he was, he was, in truth, a late-comer.

The medicine of the ancient Egyptians dates from the beginnings of the civilization in about the 3rd century BC to the Persian invasion of 525 BC and was remarkably sophisticated for its time. Ancient Egyptian doctors undertook simple surgery, were able to set bones, gave careful attention to safety in childbirth, and developed a comprehensive pharmacopoeia, based largely on herbal and other natural treatments—in truth, some of them inherently dangerous. They also understood the importance of personal hygiene and diet. They enjoyed an excellent international reputation, and rulers of other empires would ask Egyptian pharaohs to send them their best physicians to treat themselves, family members, or favoured friends.

Although the ancient Egyptians’ understanding of human anatomy was inevitably incomplete, it was more than rudimentary as was demonstrated in the mummification process. Egyptian physicians knew of the existence of the pulse and of a relationship between the pulse and the heart, and they had an elementary understanding of the cardiac system.

Most of the temples on the Nile had clinics associated with them, and there appears to have been a medical school at the remarkable twin temple at Kom Ombo (c 180 BC), between Luxor and Aswan, dedicated jointly to the crocodile god Sobek and to the falcon-headed god, Horus or Haroeris, the “Good Doctor.” On the rear wall, where the clinic once stood, are engraved depictions of surgical equipment and instruments—including two birthing stools, dosing spoons, enemas, forceps, pliers, scales, and what appear to be ladles.

How did I discover all this? On a wonderful ten-day holiday in Egypt in the second half of February this year. While one must be concerned for the many people there who rely on the tourism for their livelihoods, from our point of view it was a dream. There were almost no other tourists at all. We spent three days based at the Oberoi Mena House Hotel in Giza, 20 minutes from Cairo, and then flew to Luxor to board an immaculately clean and comfortable dahabiyya—a shallow-draft motor-sailing boat with only six double cabins—on which we spent five days, visiting the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, Queen Hatshepsut’s temple on the east bank of the Nile and the vast temple complexes at Luxor and Karnak, and cruising to Aswan, calling at Edfu and Kom Ombo on the way.

It was a great privilege to have the Egyptian Museum in Cairo almost to ourselves, be able to stand, gazing at that iconic golden death mask of Tutankhamun for minutes on end with no one else around; to be able to stroll around the Citadel, the Mohammed Ali Mosque and the Hanging Church in complete peace; to examine in detail and entirely un-jostled the 4,600 year-old, cedar wood “solar boat,” perfectly preserved in its air-tight and waterproof pit on the southern side of the Great Pyramid until it was discovered, disassembled in 1954, and then painstakingly re-assembled in its own museum; to see the Sphinx, the pyramids at Giza, the 5,000 year-old Step Pyramid at Saqqara (the oldest of all the pyramids), and the open-air museum at Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt, with no crowds around them.

Later, as we pottered up the Nile, sailing close enough to the river bank to feel a part of it, watching local people going about their business and the remarkable array of bird life, we saw almost no other cruise ships. They were all tied up in Luxor and Aswan. The great majority of the boats that take tourists out to the beautiful temple of Philae, dismantled and relocated to Agilkia Island as a UNESCO project during the building of the Aswan High Dam, which would have flooded it, were moored of-shore.

In answer to the unasked question, we saw not the slightest sign of trouble. The many Egyptians we met were friendly, warm, apparently confident and relaxed, and very pleased to see us. In Tahrir Square, by which stands the Egyptian Museum, the few tents that remained were nothing compared with the recent nonsense outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The only thing that remains a little alarming is the traffic in Cairo. There is no point in asking Egyptians which side of the road they drive on; none of them has the faintest idea.

A truly magical trip. If you want to go, go now. For the moment, you will have the place to yourselves, you will be made most welcome and you will be doing the Egyptians a service.

Peter Lapsley is patient editor of the BMJ.