Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi Describes Plague, Famine and Cannibalism – Egypt 1200 A.D.

Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (1162-1231) was a physician and philosopher. He studied at one stage with Maimonides and Saladin was his patron. A prolific writer, primarily on medicine, his Account of Egypt is his best-known work in the West and the following is part of his account of the plague and famine he witnessed there in the year 1200, when the Nile failed to rise.

In this state of affairs, the year 597 A.H. arrived like a monster, whose rage was to wipe out everything that supports life. There was no longer any hope that the Nile would rise; food prices were already high, the provinces made desperate by drought, everyone foresaw food shortages and the fear of famine led to riots and disturbances. The inhabitants of the countryside and the villages fled into the main provincial towns. A large number of people emigrated to Syria, the Maghreb, the Hejaz and Yemen, where they scattered this way and that, like the people of Saba long ago. An infinite number also sought shelter in the cities of Misr and Cairo, where they suffered a terrible famine with an appalling mortality rate. This was because when the sun entered the sign of Capricorn, the air became infected and plague and a mortal disease began to spread. The poor, assailed by ever increasing famine, ate carrion, corpses, dogs, excrement and animal droppings. They even went further – so far as to eat little children. It was not unusual to catch people with little children that had been boiled or roasted. The Captain of the Guard of the town had those who committed this crime, or shared in such dishes, burned alive.

I, myself, saw a small child roasted in a basket. It was brought before the Provost, together with a man and a woman, who were said to be the father and mother of the child. He condemned them to be burned alive.

In the month of Ramadan, a corpse came to light in Misr, with all the flesh stripped away to be eaten and the legs tied exactly as cooks tie a sheep before cooking it. Galen* longed, but in vain, for the sight of such a skeleton and he tried everything possible to get his wish. All those who have made a study of anatomy have shared this desire.

When the poor first began to eat human flesh, the shock and horror caused by such extraordinary nourishment was so great that these crimes were the subject of every conversation and no-one tired of discussing it. But later, people became so used to it and even got a taste for such horrifying food, so that there were those who ate it from choice and even found means to store it. They thought up different ways of preparing the flesh and, once this behaviour became established, it spread throughout the provinces and there was no part of Egypt where it was not seen. Then, it no longer caused any surprise and the horror that was shown at first vanished completely. It was talked of and one heard it mentioned as something ordinary and unimportant.

One day, I saw a woman with a head wound, being dragged across a market by some working men. They had caught her when she was eating a small child, whose roasted body they had seized at the same time. The people who were in the market paid absolutely no attention to this, but went about their business and I did not see a single sign of shock or horror. This astonished me much more than the crime itself. To tell the truth, this indifference was simply the result of their senses having been assailed so many times by such examples of cruelty, that it had become part of the range of things accepted as normal and no longer apt to arouse a sense of astonishment.

One day, there was a woman with a child who had been recently weaned and was nice and chubby. I admired the child and warned the woman to be very careful of it. A propos of which, she told me that as she was walking along the edge of a canal, a strong powerful man threw himself on her and tried to snatch her child. She couldn’t think of any way to protect it except by throwing it on the ground with herself on top of it. until a man on horseback who happened to be passing, forced the man to leave her alone. She added that the evil wretch had watched avidly for any one of the child’s limbs that might appear from beneath her, in order to drag it out and eat it. She said that the child had been ill for a long time as a result of being torn between them, as the she and the ferocious abductor fought, one to seize and one to keep him.

Abd al-Latif tells horror story after horror story that either he had witnessed personally or that were reported in the tribunals or by reliable friends.

When they burnt some wretch convicted of eating human flesh, next morning they found the corpse devoured – it was eaten all the more willingly, since it was already roasted and there was no need to cook it.

He is particularly appalled that the habit passed from the starving populace to the wealthier classes, becoming a choice, not a desperate bid for survival.

If we were to report all the stories of this kind that we have heard tell or witnessed with our own eyes, we would run the risk of being suspected of exaggeration or accused of pointless chattering. Everything that we have said that we saw for ourselves, were things that we happened to witness. We did not go and seek out places where such things might be seen – we witnessed them by pure chance, because far from seeking them out, we avoided them as often as possible, because the sight filled us with the greatest horror. Those, on the other hand, who were at the Provost’s house and hence present at these tragic events, saw every kind of example, all day and all night long…..

Near the Mosque of Ahmed ibn Tulun, there were people who kidnapped men. A bookseller, an elderly man, somewhat overweight, was one of those who used to sell us books. He fell into their trap and had the greatest difficulty in escaping, more dead than alive.

The dead were everywhere – in Cairo, Abd al-Latif calculates the mortality as being between a hundred and five hundred a day – and, as elsewhere, burial was a terrible problem with the corpses being abandoned or simply dumped on open ground. Things were no better in the countryside and the Nile itself was choked with bodies.

Often a traveller would pass a large village without finding a single living inhabitant. He would see houses wide open and the bodies of those who had lived there stretched out opposite each other, some already decayed, some quite fresh. Often, he would find all the furnishings of the house with no one left to take possession of them. What I am saying was told me by several different people, whose accounts confirm each other. One of them said:

“We entered a village and we did not find a single living creature on the earth below, or in the air above. Having gone into the houses, the people there appeared in a scene exactly as Allah says in the Qur’an: ‘We harvested them and they were exterminated.’ We saw the inhabitants of each house stretched out dead, husband, wife and children. From there we went on to another village, where we were told there used to be four hundred weaving workshops and saw the same desolate sight as in the first place. We saw a weaver dead beside his loom, with all his family around him, lifeless. This reminded me of another text from the Qur’an: ‘One cry was heard and they all perished.’ We went on again,” said the same person, “to another village and found things in the same state: not one living soul and all the inhabitants victims of death. As we had to stay there in order to sow the land, we had to hire people to remove the bodies that were all around us and throw them into the Nile. We paid one piece of silver for ten bodies. In the end”, this person added, “the people of this place were replaced by wolves and hyenas, who fed on their corpses.”

He describes the countless dead along the routes used to flee the plague and famine, and describes yet a new tragedy: the seizing and enslaving of free men and women in the general chaos, besides young people being sold in the hope they would at least be fed. Cities as well as the countryside were abandoned.

Even in Cairo, the palaces, houses and shops in the center of the city and in the best quarters were for the most part empty and abandoned. So much so, that in the busiest part of town a residence with fifty rooms stood empty. Only four were in use by people left there to guard the place. Today, the people of Cairo still use roof beams, doors and other woodwork to feed their hearths and ovens.

There is, however, one remarkable thing: among those people who had always, up to this time, been unfortunate, some have made their fortunes this year. Some heaped up wealth by trading in grain, others by rich inheritances. Others became wealthy without anyone understanding the cause or source of their good fortune. Blessed be He who gives or withholds His blessings according to His wishes and who distributes His favour to all creatures.

*Dissection was absolutely forbidden in Islam, as it was in the Roman Empire at the time of Galen, to the great frustration of medical men. It was equally prohibited in Christendom, but during the Black Death, a few years later, Pope Clement VI gave permission for dissection as part of an effort to try and understand and control the plague.

From Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, Relation de l’Egypte, tr. Silvestre de Sacy, Paris 1810, Book II, Ch.2, pp.360-376. Available online, together with the Arabic text at www.archive.org

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