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The Ebers papyrus: Unveiling the Secrets of Ancient Egyptian Medical Knowledge

In ancient Egypt, it was a commonly shared belief that medicine and religious worship were one and the same. From a holistic standpoint, the ancient Egyptians considered that health and illness were directly linked to an incessant battle between good and evil. Although they formulated a plethora of natural remedies, both herbal and animal-based, and relied on some rudimentary surgical knowledge, their main form of treatment often relied heavily on the mystique surrounding the supernatural world and on prayers sent to the designated gods responsible for healing such as Heka and Serket, amongst the most noteworthy ones. As seen in this line taken from the Ebers papyrus, a large portion of their medical practices actually revolved around magic and spirituality if practical measures failed, which was characteristic of their culture:

“Flow out, fetid nose, flow out, son of fetid nose! Flow out, you who break bones, destroy the skull and make ill the seven holes of the head!” (Ebers Papyrus, line 763)

The pioneer of medicine in ancient Egypt is considered to be Imhotep, who is thought to have been alive at around 2630 BCE. Progenitor and architect of the first ever built step pyramid, amongst his other extraordinary roles include high priest to the sun god Ra, chancellor to the pharaoh, and it is also probable that he was in control of directing a team of physicians. His remarkable intellect and prowess in the medical world and in various other fields rapidly conferred him a senior rank in society, and it was even believed that he was the son of the distinguished goddess of healing Sekhmet and of Ptah, creator of the universe.

Imhotep paved the way for the evolution of significant discoveries related to the function and basic structure of the human body. For instance, his theories enabled his followers to draw fundamental conclusions regarding the body’s arteries, veins and intestines, which they accurately perceived as channels through which life-sustaining “flow” processes occurred and which they compared to the waterway passages in the Nile River. The name that they gave to this theory is famously known as “Channel theory”. These mediums were thought to be obstructed by evil entities that would ultimately lead to illness, so effective measures including the intake of laxatives and the donation of prayers would have needed to be taken.

From medicinal herbal drugs to diversely fascinating animal products, the ancient Egyptians also possessed a highly sophisticated understanding of anatomy which, blended together, enabled them to extrapolate medical knowledge that was way ahead of their time and which enabled them to lead a particularly strong and thriving life. For instance, one commonly used remedy included in the Edwin Smith papyrus that was believed to hamper bleeding was the application of raw meat on the wound, whilst honey was used to reverse infection. 

This quote from the Edwin Smith papyrus describes a remedy for a dislocated rib, dating back to approximately 1600 BCE:

Bandage him with alum and treat him afterward with honey everyday until he gets well.”

Their astonishing intellect truly goes above and beyond with their ingenious “do it yourself” pregnancy test. Written approximately in 1350 BCE, The Berlin papyrus states that for a woman to discover whether she was pregnant or not, the steps were quite simple: all she had to do was urinate on a bag filled with barley and on another one that was filled with wheat. If either one of the bags sprouted, then it was definitive that she was pregnant. Surprisingly, a study conducted in the 1960s found that this method of determining pregnancy was accurate by approximately 80%!

Amongst the countless motives for making them one of the most eminent and notable ancient civilizations is their tendency to document every minute detail of their habitual occurrences. Thanks to this valuable tendency, we now possess a profuse understanding of some of the most groundbreaking medical knowledge of their time.

Ranging from natural antidotes to treat skin rashes to diagnosing cancer and diabetes, the majority of the medical knowledge of ancient Egypt stems from the remarkable papyruses, which were successfully deciphered thanks to the translation of the Rosetta stone in the early 1820s.

From magical spellworks to herbal and mineral antidotes used to treat a span of different illnesses, only 13 of these precious volumes have been currently unearthed and preserved. Named after the place in which it was discovered or after the person responsible for acquiring or interpreting the manuscript, the Kahun, Edwin Smith, Hearst, Ebers and London papyri are arguably amongst the most crucial and noteworthy ones to have been found. 

Ebers Papyrus

Measuring 21 metres long and 20 cm wide, the Ebers papyrus is the oldest and longest manuscript delineating Egyptian medicine to have been found, dating back its creation to around 1550 BCE and constituting information from diverse origins preceding as far as 3400 BCE. This extensive volume containing around 330 different ingredients and 876 prescriptions, albeit incorporating a spiritual and magical outlook that is characteristic of the ancient Egyptians, follows a relatively more logical and systematic approach in comparison to its other counterparts. Containing an avalanche of information, this volume tackles a large range of illnesses and a detailed course of action concerning dermatology, ophthalmology, gynaecology, dentistry and even psychiatry.

However, what truly makes this volume individual and deeply exceptional is that it validates that they were the first civilization to officially record that the heart laid at the centre of numerous body operations. What’s more, they even dedicated an entire section of the manuscript which they named “The Book of Hearts” which offers a detailed description of the body’s blood vessels and blood supply as well as how certain disorders including dementia and depression increased the risk of cardiovascular diseases. In addition to this, they also supposed that the heart played a role in the transportation and stabilisation of blood, urine, and other substances.

This quote taken from “The Book of Hearts” hints at their understanding of how certain disorders such as depression and heart health are interlinked: 

When his heart is afflicted and has tasted sadness, behold his heart is closed in and darkness is in his body because of anger which is eating up his heart.

Another quote, taken directly from a section of the volume attests to their basic understanding of the circulatory system:

(The heart) speaks at the tips of the vessels in all body parts.” (Ebers Papyrus, 1550 BCE).

Besides devoting additional sections to issues regarding contraceptives, eye issues, 

gastritis, gynaecology, surgical operations for cancerous tumours and others, a specific passage gives academics a valid reason for believing that they knew how to recognize diabetes:

“If you examine someone sick (in) the centre of his being (and) is his body shrunken with disease at its limit; if you examine him not and you do find disease in (his body except for the surface of his ribs of which the members are like a pill you should then recite -a spell- against disease this in your house; you should also then prepare for him ingredients for treating it: bloodstone of Elephantine, ground; red grain; carob; cook in oil and honey; it should be eaten by him over mornings four for the suppression of his thirst and for curing his mortal illness.” (Ebers Papyrus, Rubric No. 197, Column 39, Line 7).

The ancient Egyptians were undoubtedly ahead of their time with their advanced medical care, effective treatments and outstanding prognosis considering their lack of contemporary and sanitised medical equipment.  Blended with their powerful belief in their gods and their outstanding comprehension of the human anatomy as well as their effective herbal cures for a range of diseases, the ancient Egyptians still manage to astonish us to the present day. Their remarkable discoveries have certainly paved the way for some of the medical knowledge that is used today in modern medicine, especially in the fabrication of medical remedies, therefore leaving behind a long-lasting legacy that will forever impact the course of medicine.

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