Affairs of Goat-herders and Goose-herders in Ancient Egypt

In later periods of ancient Egyptian history, papyri are found that are written in demotic, abnormal hieratic, or hieratic, and that record a variety of contracts – many documenting a loan.  During this time, associations were formed around  occupations, for example: goose-herders, goat-herders, donkey-drivers, ship-contractors. etc.  From earlier times,  guilds of mummifiers and undertakers, etc, are also known.

Members of these voluntary groups could stand up for one another and offered a form of joint,  non-hereditary grouping that is still found in Egypt today, called al-jamiyah al-khiriah – voluntary societies.

The following loan contracts are two examples of legal documents, the first pertaining to goat-herders and second to goose-herders:

  1. A manuscript featuring two goat-herders written in abnormal hieratic explains the new arrangement of a debt:

The goatherd Paiuiuhor son of Nesamun states to the goatherd Ityaâ that the latter has paid his (i.e. Paiuiuhor’s) debt to the goatherd Tjaynahebu and that he now owes this amount to Ityaâ.

If he tries to go back on this deal the amount owed by him will be doubled.

Source – K. Donker van Heel, ‘A day in the life of the ancient Egyptian goatherd Ityaa: abnormal hieratic P. Michaelides 1 and 2 (P. BM EA 10907 and 10906)’, in JEA 90 (2004), p.

Top half of the contract is shown below

K. Donker van Heel, ‘A day in the life of the ancient Egyptian goatherd Ityaa: abnormal hieratic P. Michaelides 1 and 2 (P. BM EA 10907 and 10906)’, in JEA 90 (2004), p. 153-166 and

Source – K. Donker van Heel, ‘A day in the life of the ancient Egyptian goatherd Ityaa:
abnormal hieratic P. Michaelides 1 and 2 (P. BM EA 10907 and 10906)’, in JEA 90 (2004), p.

2. The following manuscript details a money loan between two goose-herders. Of interest, are the various ways in which the contract identifies the two parties and also includes the signatures of four witnesses.

Pap. Hou 12, A Persian period loan of money written in demotic Egyptian.16 Year 35, 2d month of the shemu season (Payni) under Pharaoh [Darius].

Says the [Goose] herd [of the Domain of Amon, Petash] otmef, son of Inarou, his mother Te[te]tichy, to the Gooseherd of the Domain of Amon (2) [……….., son of In]arou, his mother Obastorer:

[I have received from you] 3 [kite silver] of the treasury of Ptah, [refined, which you gave] me; it is I who will give you 6 kite silver of the treasury of Ptah, refined17, (3) [because of] them, in year 36, 1st month of the peret season (Tybi).

If I fail [to give] you [these] 6 kite silver of the treasury [of Ptah, refined], in year 36, 1st month of the peret season (Tybi) they will bear (interest) against me, 1/10th of silver to (4) each (kite of silver), from year 36, 2d month of the peret season (Mecheir) onwards, while they don’t stop as interest [in any month (and) any year] that they will be with me, while interest (will) bear as interest against me (5) again, and also this interest which is (mentioned) above, till whatever ever they would reach; and I will give then [ to you and also their interests].

This(?) money which is (mentioned) above and also their interests [will] befall on me (6) (and) on my children, and also (on) the pledges that you will want [from me, all, all, (as) houses, slave, (female) slave, cow,] donkey, and cattle, barley, emmer, (7) silver, bronze, clothing, everything as chattels, and you will take them [to you] because of them, till [you have filled them with the above money and their interests].

[I shall not be able to say], ‘I have given to you money (or) interest among them, while (8) this document is in your hand.

In writing of Onnôfri, son of Tethotefônch. Four witnesses sign on the verso of the contract.

Sources – 

S.P. Vleeming, The Gooseherds of Hou (Pap. Hou). A Dossier Relating to Various Agricultural Affairs from Provincial Egypt of the Early Fifth Century BC (Leuven, 1991)

J.G.Manning, Coinage as ‘Code’ in Ptolemaic Egypt (Stanford University, 2006). 

Posted in Demotic, Egypt-Ancient | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ptolemaic Decrees and Administration from the Fayum

 An example of retrieved anuscript; Menches, kômogrammateus. (village scribe) of Kerkeosiris. Source - Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

An example of a retrieved manuscript; Menches, kômogrammateus. (village scribe) of Kerkeosiris. Source – Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Ptolemaic rulers in Egypt sought both to assure taxes for their own coffers, as well as to administer what were considered benevolent rulings.  We are fortunate to have an extremely large collection of manuscripts, many of which were administrative and were unearthed from ruins located in the Fayum, or retrieved from the cartonnage of both human and crocodile mummies in several sites in the Fayum and elsewhere in ancient Egypt.


An example of a retrieved manuscript; Menches, kômogrammateus. (village scribe) of Kerkeosiris. Source – Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Here are translations of two interesting examples of such manuscripts,  the first being a proclamation of amnesty conferred by the Ptolemaic rulers – King Ptolemaios and Queen Kleopatra the sister and Queen Kleopatra the wife – on subjects who were in specific  occupational categories,  and the second by a village scribe with its subjoined letter – about local smuggling activities involving castor and olive oils.

It has been noted that as the recent arrivals to Egypt of Thracians, most being military persons for Greece, were given land, they were often seen by indigenous persons as untrustworthy agents.  This is exemplified in the second letter, below, where even the name of the ‘Thracian’ was unknown – only his racial attribution.

1.  dd500_tra | 1 | 28th April 118 BCE

(lines 1-13) King Ptolemaios and Queen Kleopatra the sister and Queen Kleopatra the wife proclaim an amnesty to all their subjects for errors, crimes, accusations, condemnations and charges of all kinds up to the 9th of Pharmouthi of the 52nd year, except to persons guilty of wilful murder or sacrilege … And they have decreed that …

(Lines 168-177) The following classes, the Greeks serving in the army, the priests, the cultivators of Crown lands, the …, all the wool-weavers and clothmakers, the swineherds, the gooseherds, and makers of …, oil, castor-oil, honey, and beer, who pay the proper sums to the Crown, shall not have persons quartered in the one house in which each of them lives, and in the case of their other buildings which may be used for quarters, not more than half shall be occupied for that purpose…


2.  dd500_tra | 1 |

Menches, village scribe of Kerkeosiris in the division of Polemon, to Horos, greeting.

At the … of the land survey according to crops which took place in Ptolemais Euergetis [An Egyptian Village in the Ptolemaic Period] news reached me that Apollodoros, the seller of oil at the village, had found on the 11th of the month below written a certain Thracian* who had been selling oil in the house inhabited by Petesouchos, a leather-seller … handing this Thracian over to Apollonios, who is discharging the duties of Epistates at the said village, together with the contraband goods, to be brought up before the proper officials.

With reference to this case Apollodoros has presented to me the subjoined statement. I have therefore thought it right to communicate with you.


 An example of retrieved anuscript; Menches, kômogrammateus. (village scribe) of Kerkeosiris. Source - Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

An example of retrieved manuscript; Menches, kômogrammateus. (village scribe) of Kerkeosiris. Source – Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

The subjoined statement, referenced in the above letter:

The 4th year, Mecheir 14. From Apollodoros, the contractor for the disposal of and the tax upon oil in the said village for the 4th year.

My enterprise has been made a complete failure owing to the smuggling into the village and illicit sale of smuggled oil and castor oil. Therefore on the 11th of Mecheir, when news had been brought to me that a certain Thracian* of Kerkesephis, whose name I do not know, had smuggled oil into the dwelling inhabited by Petesouchos, a leather-seller, and was selling it to Thaesis, who was living in the same house, and to N.N. a gooseherd, and his daughter, inhabitant of the same village,   I immediately took the Epistates** and the agent of the archiphylakites [police official]–as you were not present on the occasion– to the aforesaid dwelling of the leather-seller, where I found the Thracian indoors, but the contraband goods removed.

After a search for it with them I discovered … concealed in a hide and sheepskins belonging to the leather-seller. (Meanwhile the Thracian*?) took to flight, and the contraband oil … resulting in a loss to me amounting to 15 talents of copper.

I therefore present to you this statement in order that you may subscribe to my statements and forward a copy to the proper officials …

Farewell. (Addressed on the verso:) To Horos.

* Thrace, Thracian – a person originating from, or ethnically affiliated with, Thrace – situated in the Balkans.
** Epistates – any sort of overseer or superintendent

Source (for last 2 above) –

To learn more about ancient Thrace and its place in history, here is a very interesting Bulgarian documentary, with English subtitles –

Posted in Egypt-Ancient, Fayyum, Olive orchards | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Baking Holy Bread in the Coptic Monasteries of the Eastern Desert of Egypt [qurban; ‘urban]


Bread was the central element of cuisine and daily nourishment in Ancient Egypt, from the very poorest through the nobility. Today, bread is commonly known as ‘aysh in Egypt, meaning ‘life’ in Arabic.  In the Old Kingdom, so-called rectangular slab stelae regularly picture the deceased seated in front of a table laden with bread, while additional offerings are enumerated in the accompanied registers.  It is bread, however, that is always central:

Manuelian g 1201 Slab stela of Wepemnefret in Giza West Cemetery mastaba.  Wepemnefret seated in front of a presentation table of bread.  Source - Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, 6–19825. Photograph by Bruce White.  Future blogs will discuss slab stelae and other means of portraying and discussing bread.

Manuelian g 1201 Slab stela of Wepemnefret in Giza West Cemetery mastaba. Wepemnefret seated in front of a presentation table of bread. Source – Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, 6–19825. Photograph by Bruce White. Future blogs will discuss slab stelae and other means of portraying and discussing bread.

Several millennia later, along the Nile Valley, bread continued being the key dietary component – as antique and ancient Egyptian cuisines and life-styles were gradually replaced by Coptic orthodox churches and general Coptic  life-styles – a transformation that began in the late first century CE [Current Era].

In this blog I want to focus on the latter – on the role of holy bread – or qurbaan/’urbaan – which is the key culinary component of Coptic religious life and liturgy.  Then, in later blogs, I shall look at the production and consumption of bread in earlier periods of Egyptian history, beginning with the slab stelae of the Old Kingdom, and what these representations and accompanying texts might tell us about society, agriculture and cuisine of these periods and places along the Nile Valley.

This is a very enjoyable journey, for I have studied and have various levels of skill in all forms of language in Egypt – from earliest forms of hieroglyphic writing and syntax, through modern colloquial Egyptian, which I spoke fluently in Egypt during my years of doctoral research and later work; pretty rusty now, though.   I also want to thank William Rubel for suggesting such an interesting chance to pursue this venture – following the historical path of bread along the chain of grain and bread that is linked to the Nile Valley; great fun and a bit of a challenge!

First, however, let’s look at a bit of linguistic history regarding the words Copt/Coptic, Egypt and Gypsy – all of which are related and are derived from ancient Egyptian words – with the first two providing the central historical frame for the emergence and transformations of ‘bread’ during the long story of cuisine in the Nile Valley.  To help unravel the meanings of these words, here is some of the work by  A.K. Ayma on their etymology:

Egypt, Copt/Coptic, Gypsy

Egypt derives from Latin Aegyptus, which in turn goes back on the Greek name for the Nile country: Aiguptos. This name originally seems to have been one of the names of Memphis, the capital of the country, a name that later came to denote the entire land by pars pro toto.

For the Greek Aiguptos was derived from [ancient egyptian] Hy.t-k3-ptH (Haykuptah)(= “Mansion of the ka, i.e. life force, of Ptah”) – the name of the Ptah temple in Memphis, a name which first came to denote also the city area around the temple, and finally was extended to the whole city of Memphis; as such it appears in cuneiform records as name for the city: Khi-ku-up-ta-akh (Hekuptah).

Already in the Mycenean/Cretan Linear B tablets (13th c. BC), the personal name a-ku-pi-ti-yo (Aikupitiyo, i.e. Aiguptios, “the Egyptian”) is attested (Talanta XXVIII/XXIX, p.157). Note that Hy.t (*Hayit) is a variant of the more usual Hw.t or H.t (see Vycichl p. 5, 287, 519).

The Greek aiguptios (= “Egyptian”) was later borrowed, via a shortened form *gupti, into Arabic as qibti (in local Theban dialect also: qubti), and into the jewish Talmud as gifti (cf. Loprieno p. 241; Vycichl p.5). Because of this the native (non-Arabic and Christian) Egyptians were called Qibti or Qubti – from which derives our Copt.

The mysterious nomads who appeared in Europe in the late 15th c. AD, and in reality (i.e. linguistically) did stem from India, were associated with the far and mysterious Egypt, and therefore called Gyphtoi (in Greece) and Gypsies (in England, older form Gypcian, short for Egipcien “Egyptian”), names that are corruptions of Latin Aegypti (“Egyptians”).

Source:  A.K. Eyma – Egyptian Loan Words in English, version 17 (March ’07).

 A few words on the Coptic Alphabet, by Geoffrey Graham

So how is Coptic different from earlier forms of the ancient Egyptian language?  Here are some thoughts by Geoffrey Graham, and more details are to be found on the AEL site

[web addresses to follow – lots of internet problems today…]

Let me … introduce the Coptic Alphabet (yes it is an alphabet, much easier than ancient Egyptian!) and the pertinent phonology: The Coptic Alphabet was borrowed from Classical Greek, at some time before the development of Koine Greek, although the records of its early development have not yet been found. This means that the phonology of Coptic’s usage of the Greek alphabet reflects the kind of Greek spoken about 200 BC, rather than the period at which Coptic seems to first appear in our records, about 200 AD! …

… That is the Coptic Alphabet as it comes to us in the Sahidic Dialect. Other dialects have a few additional characters, but one generally begins with Sahidic, and this should suffice for now. The first section of letters are all borrowed from the Greek alphabet, and the last six were adopted from the Demotic Script, the native form of writing used in Egypt…

… I am offering a brief anecdote from the Apothegmata PatrumTales of the Desert Fathers“. It is very short, and possibly a little simplistic. I will try to explain what is going on so that people will have a taste of what the last stage of Egyptian sounded like… A coptic anecdote A Coptic anecdote

Here it goes:

  • “The devil transformed himself in an angelic costume of light.”
  • “He appeared to one of the brothers and he said to him; “I am
  • “But he said to him: “Look, you you must have been sent unto
    another one of the brothers,
  • “And, as for him, then he disappeared.”

 Source: <> A Coptic Anecdote, on AEL

As a short saying from The Desert Fathers, I think this is actually quite a pithy and multi-layered piece – not ‘simplistic’ as suggested by Graham; more on that later.

. . . . .

Okay, now that we’re in linguistic harmony with the substrate of our subject, let’s look at several pictures taken in or before 1930 that document  bread production in the monasteries of Saint Paul and Saint Anthony, located in the Red Sea Desert.  I have selected these to show not only the production of Coptic bread, which is highly ritualized, but also to depict some of the  more general features of monastery cuisine.  As far as I know, these are the earliest pictures of bread and food production in Coptic monasteries of Egypt.

Location of these two monasteries in the Red Sea Provance.  Source - aetravelstories.blogs

Location of these two monasteries in the Red Sea Provance. Source – aetravelstories.blogs

These (and other) Coptic monasteries in Egypt were generally self-sufficient both in the production of foods – both in the monastery walls and in plots that they may have farmed in the Nile Valley – as well as in the processing of these foods.

|St Paul (Deir Anbba Bula) mid 19th century or earlier. Source -

St Paul (Deir Anbba Bula) mid 19th century or earlier. Source –

General view of the Monastery of Saint Anthony

General view of the Monastery of Saint Anthony.  Source – Dumbarton Oaks

The Abbot in the library St.Paul

The Abbot in the library of St.Paul. I am intrigued by what appear to be quite modern, white tabs on which call numbers would be written.  Was this one of the introductions of Whittemore’s expedition?   Source – Dumbarton Oaks

St. Anthony’s Monastery mill room, source - ARCE

St. Anthony’s Monastery mill room.  I am unaware of any other working mills in Egypt – though there have been some excavations in the Fayum that I’ll talk about in a later blog. the mill and related components are being renewed by ARCE.   Source – The American Research Center, Egypt [ARCE]

Local men making bread St.Anthony

Local men making bread St.Anthony.  Difficult to explain the activities here, because of angle and lighting of the picture .  Source – Dumbarton Oaks

Monk stamping the Holy Bread St.Anthony

Monk stamping the Holy Bread, St.Anthony.  Coptic stamps are a key part of the production and baking process, having its own meanings that I’ll discuss later.  Source – Dumbarton Oaks

Monks baking the Holy Bread St.Anthony

Monks baking the Holy Bread, St.Anthony.  Source – Dumbarton Oaks

Baking the Holy Bread (Kurban) St.Paul

Baking the Holy Bread,  St.Paul.  Note similarity of the oven and also of the confirmation of the loaves and baking process with St. Anthony, in the above picture.  Source – Dumbarton Oaks

Monks sorting dried grapes,Monastery of St Anthony 1930 DBarton

Monks sorting dried grapes,Monastery of St Anthony 1930.  Important source of little ‘sweets.’ Source –  D.Barton Dumbarton Oaks

Monk roasting coffee St.Anthony

Monk roasting coffee, St.Anthony.  Source – Dumbarton Oaks

Olive oil mill St.Anthony

Olive oil mill, St.Anthony.  Similarly designed mills can be found in other parts of Egypt [excavations] and across North Africa.  Source – Dumbarton Oaks

Refectory St.Anthony

Refectory, St.Anthony.  During meals, readings were given.  Source – Dumbarton Oaks

Group portrait of monks St.Paul

Group portrait of monks, St.Paul.  Source – Dumbarton Oaks

Through adherence to precise rituals associated with making and baking, whether the preparation and baking is found in  Egypt or elsewhere, this holy bread transcends local environmental and cultural characteristics that are generally associated with specific breads and their production.

Just before baking each loaf is pierced five times around the center stamp.  Source -

Just before baking, each loaf is pierced five times around the center stamp, symbolizing the wounds on Christ – who on the loaf is symbolized by the central feature of the stamp.  Source –

Coptic qurban, source -

Coptic qurban, source –

Making qurbaan [Coptic holy bread] – طريقة عمل القربان

The following two videos are on the production of qurbaan. It is interesting that the process not only is highly ritualized, but also that it is conducted by men.  The first video has quite a good description and depiction of how the bread is made – spoken in colloquial Egyptian by a priest, with english subs.

A film of The Red Sea Monasteries of Egypt made during the expedition of Thomas Whittemore to these monasteries:

The first official project undertaken by the Byzantine Institute [Dumbarton Oaks] was the examination and documentation of wall paintings in the Red Sea Monasteries in Egypt, which occurred between 1929 and 1932. Filmed in 1930, the below film was likely recorded during the First Expedition (1929-1930) to the Red Sea Monasteries and it includes scenes from both monasteries of Saint Paul and Saint Anthony.

Source: Dumbarton Oaks

Two expeditions were organized and led by  Thomas Whittemore into the Eastern Desert of Egypt to study the two monasteries discussed in this blog.    I would like to do a later piece on this intriguing figure and his work.

A young Thomas Whittemore.  Source - Dumbarton Oaks

A young Thomas Whittemore. Source – Dumbarton Oaks

Whittemore about the time of the expeditions into the Eastern Desert.  Source - Dumbarton Oaks

Whittemore about the time of the expeditions into the Eastern Desert. Source – Dumbarton Oaks

Whittemore’s expedition, before leaving the Monastery of Saint Anthony, Egypt, 1930-1931

Whittemore’s expedition, before leaving the Monastery of Saint Anthony, Egypt, 1930-1931 .  Source –  Dumbarton Oaks.  I’m trying to put this picture in as the header image, but so far no luck.  Will keep trying….

Thomas Whittemore is perhaps best remembered for founding the Byzantine Institute [at Dumbarton Oaks], an organization that specialized in the study, restoration, and conservation of Byzantine art and architecture, in 1930. Overseeing the Institute’s fieldwork projects and publication efforts until his sudden death in 1950, Whittemore made a name for himself among Byzantinists and art historians alike when he initiated an unprecedented restoration and conservation project at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, in December of 1931.

How an English professor and amateur archaeologist from the United States convinced the Turkish government to permit an international team of fieldworkers to restore and conserve the building’s priceless mosaics—to convert what was at the time a mosque into a worksite and subsequently a museum—remains something of a mystery.

So, how did Whittemore make his way to Turkey? How did he, moreover, manage to create and sustain a complex organization like the Byzantine Institute in the midst of the Great Depression, a time in which introversion was the way of the West? Why, for that matter, did he turn his eyes toward Byzantium?

Source – Dumbarton Oaks


  • Film starts with general exterior views of the monastery of Saint Paul
  • Men preparing food and performing day-to-day activities
  • Thomas Whittemore [head of the expedition] and unidentified individuals on camels
  • General exterior views of the monastery and surrounding landscape
  • Men digging a waterway
  • Film ends with general views of the surrounding landscape

The Cave Church of St. Paul marks the spot where St. Anthony, “the Father of Monasticism,” and St. Paul, “the First Hermit,” are believed to have met. It is a sacred place representing the very beginning of Christian monasticism.

In 1997, work began at St. Paul’s Monastery to conserve the mill building, refectory and eighteenth-century enclosure wall. This site, visited by Coptic pilgrims as well as tourists interested in the historic attributes of the place, contains vestiges of its past life as a self-sufficient community.

The mill building has special significance as the source of the flour for the bread that is such an important part of the monks’ daily life.

Source Saint Pauls Monastery; Red Sea; ARCE

St_Paul_cover  ARCE

ARCE announces the publication of a new book, “The Cave Church of Paul the Hermit at the Monastery of St. Paul in Egypt,” which is available now through The volume is co-published by the American Research Center in Egypt and Yale University Press.

The collection of essays written by renowned specialists and edited by William Lyster presents different aspects of the Coptic Monastery of St. Paul on the Red Sea coast of Egypt and of its main church. The church evolved from a rock-cut hermit’s cave as early as the 4th century, and is richly decorated with wall paintings dating from the early 13th to the 18th century.

Source;  The Cave Church of Saint Paul the Hermit

Posted in Bread, Coptic, Cuisine, Egypt-Ancient, Egypt-Recent, Food, Qurbana, St. Anthony, St. Paul | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

A Pickled Goose and Two Pillows – Cuisine and Comfort in Ptolemaic Egypt, 9 May 137 B.C.

Geese were very popular in ancient Egypt as food and also for the use of their grease and feathers.  As well, the Egyptian god Geb – called also ‘The Great Cackler’ figured centrally in ancient Egyptian religion:

'The Great Cackler,' Geb source - Budge

‘The Great Cackler,’ Geb   source – Budge

pl9_22268 -source - waltersgallery-greco-roman ca. 304-145 bc

pl9_22268 -source – waltersgallery-greco-roman ca. 304-145 bc

Notables and those with enough resources could build up a gooseherd, as depicted in the banner photo above; apparently quite an honourable task.  Hence, robbery of a goose and/or its outputs was considered worthy of  writing about, as is the case of the letter being examined in this blog, which was written by a village bureaucrat to his superiors.

Title:              Official letter, [9 May 137 B.C.]
Author:       Phanesis, Village scribe
Subjects:    Tenant farmers [of royal land in the area]
Police Larceny 
Unlawful entry
Officials and employees 
Official letter Year 33 Pharmouthi 17 [148 B.C. May 13 or 137 B.C. May 10

Official letter Year 33 Pharmouthi 17 [148 B.C. May 13 or 137 B.C. May 10

P.Duk.inv. 599 [above]  A Papyrus copy of a letter written by Phanesis, a village scribe in the Herakleopolites (Heracleopolite Nome, see below map), Egypt.  Written to Amenneus and sent with a cover letter by two people.

map of the Nile valley, Ptolemaic era.

map of the Nile valley, Ptolemaic era.

Letter reports that one of the tenants of royal land, Horion, sent the guards or police of the island of Rhodon to Heracleopolis Magna [a large town in the southern Fayuum] to meet Komanos, the epistates [chief of police.]

That same day Agathinos and Philammon and others with them sealed the house of  Ababikis.

Thereafter, Horion and one of the other tenants of royal land, Petesouchos, and their  accomplices broke into the house and stole a pickled goose and two pillows.

One can imagine that the two pillows were stuffed with the feathers and down of the pickled goose.

The farewell of the cover letter reads, “be of good health.”

Dated to Pharmouthi 17, year 33 (9 May 137 B.C.), the same day as the cover letter.  The above image of a goose, now in the Walters Gallery, is approximately the same date as this letter.

‘…one of three texts detailing a home invasion by agents of an archiphylakites*  who made off with (among other things) a pickled goose and two pillows.’

In another blog I will provide a little background on letters composed during the Ptolemaic period in Egypt.

*Head of local police

What is left today of herakleopolis  source -

What is left today of herakleopolis source –

Source – www.papyri.info_apis_duke.apis 31194729
Posted in Egypt, Egyptology, Fayyum, Giza, Heracleopolis, Keeping the peace, Ptolemaic era | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Magicality of Cuisine 4: A Special Dish for a Woman Cultivator, 19th Century Liberia, West Africa

As with other ‘magical dishes’ in this series, it is the context and activities associated with the dish that render it effective – not merely the specified ingredients:

Pre-modern cuisine in many parts of the world can be more fully understood not simply as a technical  ‘recipe’ to be constructed – but also in relation to the context in which it is situated.  Hence, there may be social, sexual, political, religious or other aspects that figure in the total recipe as presented in the finished product.  It is our Western proclivity to disassociate fact from context that may create difficulties in understanding a given cuisine in its totality.

Source –   The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa

Ogowe watershed and surrounding areas in which Dr. Nassau lived and worked.  Source - Wiki

Ogowe watershed and surrounding areas in which Dr. Nassau lived and worked. Source – Wiki

Dr. Robert Nassau, who served as missionary, doctor and ethnologist throughout the Ogowe watershed and surrounding areas of west Africa in the late 19th century provides us with this recipe, which guarantees a successful food harvest for women cultivators. [Previous entries on ‘Magicality of Cuisine’ can be found at the end of this Blog.]

… Planting is done almost entirely by women. If a woman says to herself,

” I want to have plenty of food! I will make medicine for it! “

… she proceeds to gather the necessary ingredients.

She takes her ukwala (machete), pavo (knife), short hoe (like a trowel), and elinga (basket), and goes to the forest. She must go very early in the morning, and alone. She gathers a leaf called “tubg,” another called ” in jenji, ” the bark of a tree called ” bohamba, ” the bark also of elamba, and leaves of bokuda.

Hiding them in a safe place, she goes back to her village to get her earthen pot. Returning with it to the forest, she makes a fire, not with coals from the village, but with new, clean fire made by the two fire-sticks. These, used by natives before steel and flint were introduced, require often an hour’s twirling before friction develops sufficient heat to cause a spark. The sparks are caught on thoroughly dried plantain fibre.

Then she builds her fire. She goes to some spring or stream for water to put in the pot with the leaves and barks, and sets it on the fire. All this while she is not to be seen by other people.

When the water has boiled, she sets the pot in the middle of the acre of ground which she intends to clear for her garden until its contents cool.

In the meanwhile she goes to some creek and gets “chalk” (a white clay is found in  places in the beds of streams). She washes it clean of mud and rubs it on her breast. Then she takes the pot, and empties its decoction by sprinkling it, with a bunch of leaves, over the groujid, saying,

The area being discussed is characterized by tropical overgrowth.  Source - kangou-falls-ogooue

The area being discussed is characterized by  dense tropical overgrowth together with some savanna areas. Source – kangou-falls-ogooue

“My forefathers! now in the land of spirits, give me food ! Let me have food more abundantly than all other people! “

Then she again sets the pot in the middle of the proposed plantation. She takes from it the tube leaves and puts them into four little cornucopia (ehongo), which she rolls from another large leaf of the elende tree. She sets these in the four corners of the garden.

Whenever she comes on any other day to work in the garden, she pulls a succulent plant, squeezes its juice into the ehongo; and this juice she drops into her eye. To be efficient, this
medicine has a prohibition connected with it, viz.^ that during the days of her menses she shall not go to the garden.

When her plants have grown, and she has eaten of them, she must break the pot. Having done so, she makes a large fire at an end of the garden, and burns the pieces of earthenware
so that they shall be utterly calcined.

It is not required that she shall stay by the fire awaiting that result. She may, if she wishes, in the meanwhile go back to her village. She takes the ashes of the pot, mixes them with chalk in a jomba (bundle) of leaves, which she ties to a tree of her garden in a hidden spot where people will not see it.

Another strict prohibition is required of her by the medicine, viz., that she is not to steal from another woman’s garden If she break this law, her own garden will not produce.

In our gardens, women fertilize plants with a goat dung slurry; some may also beseach a kindly spirit to help her gain a good harvest.  Source - dianabuja

In our gardens, women fertilize plants with a goat dung slurry; some may also beseech a kindly spirit to help her gain a good harvest. Source – dianabuja

The jomba is kept for years, or as long as she plants at that place, and the chalk mixture is rubbed on her breast at each planting season.

From time to tune also, as the leaves of the jomba decay or break away, she puts fresh ones about it, to prevent the wetting of its contents by rain or its injury in any other way.

Text source – Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau. University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A. 1904.

Other entries in this series are:

  1.  The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
  2.  The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon
  3. The Magicality of Cuisine 3: A Dish of Fish and Plantains to Guarantee Successful Fishing, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
  4. The Magicality of Cuisine 4: A Special Dish for a Woman Cultivator, 19th Century Liberia, West Africa
  1.   The Magicality of Cuisine 5 – A Spicy Warriors’ Stew, Gabon West Africa


Posted in Africa-West, Agriculture, Cuisine, European colonizers, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Organic Gardenig, Robert Nassau | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

An Account of the Plague in Barbary, North Africa, 1799 – Part II

Some Account of a peculiar Species of Plague which depopulated West Barbary in 1799
and 1800, and to the Effects of which the Author was an eyewitness. By James G. Jackson, Mogodor/ Essaouira

Mogador-UNESCO-world-heritage-site-morocco.  Source - UNESCO

Mogador-UNESCO-world-heritage-site-morocco. Source – UNESCO

Part I, can be found here.

From various circumstances and appearances, and from the character of the epidemical
distemper which raged lately in the south of Spain, there is every reason to suppose, it
was similar to that distemper or plague which depopulated West Barbary; for, whether
we call it by the more reconcilable appellation of the epidemy [sic], or yellow fever, it was
undoubtedly a plague, and a most destructive one; for wherever it prevailed, it invariably carried off, in a few months, onehalf, or onethird, of the population…

… It does not appear how the plague originated in Fas in the year 1799*. Some persons,
who were there at the time it broke out, have confidently ascribed it to infected merchandise imported into that place from the East; whilst others, of equal veracity and judgment, have not scrupled to ascribe it to the locusts which had infested West Barbary during the seven preceding years, the destruction of which was followed by the (jedrie) smallpox, which pervaded the country, and was generally fatal. The jedrie is supposed to be the forerunner of this species of epidemy, as appears by an ancient Arabic
manuscript, which gives an account of the same disorder having carried off two-thirds of the inhabitants of West Barbary about four centuries since.

* See the Author’s observations, in a letter to Mr. Willis, in Gentleman’s Magazine, February, 1805.

In the month of April, 1799, a dreadful plague, of a most destructive nature, manifested itself in the city of Old Fas, which soon after communicated itself to the new city. This unparalleled calamity, carried off one or two the first day, three or four the second day, six or eight the third day, and increasing progressively, until the mortality amounted to
two in the hundred of the aggregate population, continuing with unabating violence, ten, fifteen, or twenty days; being of longer duration in old than in new towns; then diminishing in a progressive proportion from one thousand a day to nine hundred, then to eight hundred, and so on until it disappeared.

Whatever recourse was had to medicine and to physicians was unavailing; so that such expedients were at length totally relinquished, and the people, overpowered by this terrible scourge, lost all hopes of surviving it…

The Dress of a doctor during the London plague.  Source - Wiki

The Dress of a doctor during the London plagues of the 17th century. Similar strategies by doctors  in the current  west Africa plague – but for different reasons.  Source – Wiki

The mask [of the above costume] had glass openings for the eyes and a curved beak shaped like that of a bird. Straps held the beak in front of the doctor’s nose.[3] The mask had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator which contained aromatic items.  The beak could hold dried flowers (including roses and carnations), herbs (including mint), spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge. The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells, which were thought to be the principal cause of the disease in the miasma theory of infection, before it was disproved by germ theory. Doctors believed the herbs would counter the “evil” smells of the plague and prevent them from becoming infected.

The beak doctor costume worn by plague doctors had a wide-brimmed leather hat to indicate their profession. They used wooden canes to point out areas needing attention and to examine patients without touching them. The canes were also used to keep people away, to remove clothing from plague victims without having to touch them, and to take a patient’s pulse

… Travelling through this province [Shelluh province of Haha] shortly after the
plague had exhausted itself, I saw many uninhabited ruins, which I had before
witnessed as flourishing villages; on making enquiry concerning the population of these
dismal remains, I was informed that in one village, which contained six hundred
inhabitants, four persons only had escaped the ravage. Other villages, which had
contained four or five hundred, had only seven or eight survivors left to relate the
calamities they had suffered…

… During the existence of the plague, I had been in the chambers of men on their deathbed: I had had Europeans at my table, who were infected, as well as Moors,  who actually had buboes on them; I took no other precaution than that of  separation, carefully avoiding to touch the hand, or inhale the breath; and, notwithstanding what may have been said, I am decidedly of opinion that the plague, at least this peculiar species of it, is not produced by any infectious principle in the atmosphere, but caught solely by touching infected substances, or inhaling the breath of those who are diseased…

...and that it must not be confounded with the common plague of Egypt, or Constantinople, being a malady of a much more desperate and destructive kind. It has been said, by persons who have discussed the nature and character of the plague, that the cultivation of a country, the draining of the lands, and other agricultural improvements, tend to eradicate or diminish it; but, at the same time, we have seen countries depopulated where there was no morass, or stagnate water for many days’ Journey …

Old ramparts of Mogador; old island.  Source -

Old ramparts of Mogador; old island. Source –

… All regulations in matters of sepulture before observed were now no longer regarded; things sacred and things prophane had now lost their distinction, and universal despair pervaded mankind. Young, healthy, and robust persons of full stamina, were, for the most part, attacked first, then women and children, and lastly, thin, sickly, emaciated, and old people.

… I have been informed that there are still at Marocco, apartments wherein the dead were placed; and that after the whole family was swept away the doors were built up, and remain so to this day.

…  There died, during the whole of the above periods, in the city of Marocco, 50,000; in Fas, 65,000; in Mogodor, 4500; and in Saffy, 5000; in all 124,500 souls!

After this violent and deadly calamity had subsided, we beheld a general alteration in
the fortunes and circumstances of men; we saw persons who before the plague were
common labourers, now in possession of thousands, and keeping horses without
knowing how to ride them. Parties of this description were met wherever we went, and
the men of family called them in derision el wuratu, the inheritors [Des gens parvenus, as the French express it; or upstarts].

Provisions also became extremely cheap and abundant; the flocks and herds had been left in the fields,and there was now no one to own them; and the propensity to plunder, so notoriously attached to the character of the Arab, as well as to the Shelluh and Moor, was
superseded by a conscientious regard to justice, originating from a continual apprehension of dissolution, and that the el khere [The good, or benediction], as the plague as now called,
was a judgment of the Omnipotent on the disobedience of man, and that it behoved every individual to amend his conduct, as a preparation to his departure for paradise..

The expense of labour at the same time increased enormously, and never was
equality in the human species more conspicuous than at this time; when corn was to be
ground, or bread baked, both were performed in the houses of the affluent, and prepared
by themselves, for the very few people whom the plague had spared, were insufficient
to administer to the wants of the rich and independent, and they were accordingly
compelled to work for themselves, performing personally the menial offices of their
respective families.

The country being now depopulated, and much of the territory without owners, vast
tribes of Arabs emigrated from their abodes in the interior of Sahara, and took
possession of the country contiguous to the river Draha, as well as many districts in
Suse; and, in short, settling themselves, and pitching their tents wherever they found a
fertile country with little or no population.

The symptoms of this plague varied in different patients, the variety of age and constitution gave it a like variety of appearance and character. Those who enjoyed perfect health were suddenly seized with headaches and inflammations; the tongue and throat became of a vivid red, the breath was drawn with difficulty, and was succeeded by sneezing and hoarseness; when once settled in the stomach, it excited vomitings of black bile, attended with excessive torture, weakness, hiccough, and convulsion. Some were seized with sudden shivering, or delirium, and had a sensation of such intense inward heat, that they threw off their clothes, and would have walked about naked in quest of water wherein to plunge themselves. Cold water was eagerly resorted to by the unwary and imprudent, and proved fatal to those who indulged in its momentary relief.

Some had one, two, or more buboes, which formed themselves, and became often as large as a walnut, in the course of a day; others had a similar number of carbuncles; others had both buboes and carbuncles, which generally appeared in the groin, under the arm, or near the breast. Those who were affected with a shivering, having no buboe, carbuncle, spots, or any other exterior disfiguration, were invariably carried off in less than twenty four hours, and the body of the deceased became quickly putrified, so that it was  indispensably necessary to bury it a few hours after dissolution.

It is remarkable, that the birds of the air fled away from the abode of men, for none were to be seen during this calamitous period; the hyænas, on the contrary, visited the cemeteries, and sought the dead bodies to devour them. I recommended Mr. Baldwin’s invaluable remedy of olive oil, applied according to his directions; several Jews, and some Muselmin, were induced to try it, and I was afterwards visited by many, to whom I had recommended it, and had given them written directions in Arabic how to apply it: and I do not know any instance of its  failing when persevered in, even after the infection had manifested itself….

… We have been credibly informed, that it was communicated originally to Spain, by two infected persons, who went from Tangier to Estapona, a small village on the opposite shore; who, after eluding the vigilance of the guards, reached Cadiz. We have also been assured that it was communicated by some infected persons who landed in Spain, from a vessel that had loaded produce at L’Araiche in West Barbary. Another account was, that a Spanish privateer, which had occasion to land its crew for the purpose of procuring water in some part of West Barbary, caught the infection from communicating with the natives, and afterwards proceeding to Cadiz, and spread it in that town and the adjacent country…

… It should be observed, for the information of those who may be desirous of investigating the nature of this extraordinary distemper, that, from its character and its symptoms, approximating to the peculiar plague, which (according to the before mentioned Arabic record) ravaged and depopulated West Barbary four centuries since, the Arabs and Moors were of opinion it would subside after the first year, and not appear again the next, as the Egyptian plague does; and agreeably to this opinion, it did not reappear the second year…

Traditional medicine was tried by many.  mcclusky Sande masker, ndoli jowei,

As we see in plague areas of west Africa  today, traditional medicine was tried by many. mcclusky Sande masker, ndoli jowei,

… The old men seemed to indulge in a superstitious tradition, that when this peculiar kind of epidemy attacks a country, it does not return or continue for three or more years,  but  disappears altogether, (after the first year,) and is followed the seventh year by
contagious rheums and expectoration, the violence of which lasts from three to seven days, but is not fatal. Whether this opinion be in general founded in truth I cannot determine; but in the spring of the year 1806, which was the seventh year from the appearance of the plague at Fas in 1799, a species of influenza pervaded the whole country; the patient going to bed well, and, on rising in the morning, a thick phlegm was expectorated, accompanied by a distressing rheum, or cold in the head, with a cough, which quickly reduced those affected to extreme weakness, but was seldom fatal, continuing from three to seven days, with more or less violence, and then gradually disappearing.

During the plague at Mogodor, the European merchants shut themselves up in their
respective houses, as is the practice in the Levant; I did not take this precaution, but
occasionally rode out to take exercise on horseback. Riding one day out of the town, I
met the Governor’s brother, who asked me where I was going, when every other
European was shut up? “To the garden,” I answered.” And are you not aware that the
garden and the adjacent country is full of (Jinune) departed souls, who are busy in smiting with the plague every one they meet?”

Vaccinations for chicken pox began in England.   Source - Wikipedia

Vaccinations for chicken pox began in England. Source – Wikipedia


A trading family in the Jewish quarter/The Afriat fmly ca.1903 books.openedition.orger.

A trading family in the Jewish quarter/The Afriat family Members of this family were part of the Jewish merchant quarter during the time of Jackson.. Source –  books.openedition.orger.

Mogodor was covered with biers. My daily observations convinced me that the epidemy was not caught by approach, unless that approach was accompanied by an inhaling of the breath, or by touching the infected person; I therefore had a separation made across the gallery, inside of my house, between the kitchen and dining parlour, of the width of three feet, which is sufficiently wide to prevent the inhaling the breath of a person.

From this partition or table of separation I took the dishes, and after dinner returned them to the same place, suffering none of the servants to come near me; and in the counting house, I had a partition made to prevent the too near approach of any person who might call on business; and this precaution I firmly believe to be all that is necessary, added to that of receiving money through vinegar, and taking care not to touch or smell infectious substances.

Plaisters of gum ammoniac, and the juice of the leaves of the opuntia, or kermuse ensarrah, i.e. prickly pear, were universally applied to the carbuncles, as well as to the buboes, which quickly brought them to suppuration: many of the people of property took copious draughts of coffee and Peruvian bark. The Vinaigre de quatre voleurs, was used by many, also camphor, smoking tobacco, or fumigations of gum Sandrac; straw was also burned by some, who were of opinion, that any thing which produced abundance of smoke, was sufficient to purify the air of pestilential effluvia.

During the existence of the plague, I had been in the chambers of men on their deathbed: I had had Europeans at my table, who were infected, as well as Moors, who actually had  buboes on them; I took no other precaution than that of separation, carefully avoiding to touch the hand, or inhale the breath; and, notwithstanding what may have been said, I am decidedly of opinion that the plague, at least this peculiar species of it, is not produced by any infectious principle in the atmosphere, but caught solely by touching infected substances, or inhaling the breath of those who are diseased; and that it must not be confounded with the common plague of Egypt, or Constantinople, being a malady of a much more desperate and destructive kind.

It has been said, by persons who have discussed the nature and character of the plague, that the cultivation of a country, the draining of the lands, and other agricultural improvements, tend to eradicate or diminish it; but, at the same time, we have seen countries depopulated where there was no morass, or stagnate water for many days’ Journey…

… I shall now subjoin a few cases for the further elucidation of this distemper,hoping that the medical reader will pardon any inaccuracy originating from my not being a  professional man.

[NB – I have selected a few examples for this blog; more can be found in his book.]

Case. III.

Hamed ben A was smitten with the plague, which he compared to the sensation of two musket balls fired at him, one in each thigh; a giddiness and delirium succeeded, and immediately afterwards a green vomiting, and he fell senseless to the ground; a short time afterwards, on the two places where he had felt as if shot, biles or buboes formed, and on suppurating, discharged a foetid black pus; a (jimmera) carbuncle on the joint of the arm near the elbow was full of thin ichor, contained in an elevated skin, surrounded by a burning red colour; after three months’ confinement, being reduced to a skeleton, the disorder appeared to have exhausted itself, and he began to recover his strength, which in another month was fully reestablished.

Case IV.

It was reported that the Sultan had the plague twice during the season, as many others had; so that the idea of its attacking like the smallpox, a person but once in his life, is refuted: the Sultan was cured by large doses of Peruvian bark frequently repeated, and it was said that he found such infinite benefit from it, that he advised his brothers never to travel without having a good supply. The Emperor, since the plague, always has by him a sufficient quantity of quill bark to supply his emergency…

Case V.

V.H.L. was smitten with the plague, which affected him by a pain similar to that of a long needle (as he expressed himself) repeatedly plunged into his groin. In an hour or two afterwards, a (jimmera) carbuncle appeared in the groin, which continued enlarging three days, at the expiration of which period he could neither support the pain, nor conceal his sensations; he laid himself down on a couch; an Arabian doctor, applied to the carbuncles the testicles of a ram cut in half, whilst the vital warmth was still in them; the carbuncle on the third day was encreased to the size of a small orange; the beforementioned remedy was daily applied during thirty days, after which he resorted to cataplasms of the juice of the (opuntia) prickly peartree, (feshook) gum ammoniac, and (zite el aud) oil of olives, of each one third; this was intended to promote suppuration, which was soon effected; there remained after the suppuration a large vacuity, which was daily filled with fine hemp dipped in honey; by means of this application the wound filled up, and the whole was well in thirty nine days.

Case VI.

El…Hte, a trading Jew of Mogodor, was sorely afflicted; he called upon me, and requested some remedy; I advised him to use oil of olives, and having Mr. Baldwin’s mode of administering it*, I transcribed it in the Arabic language, and gave it to him; he followed the prescription, and assured me, about six weeks afterwards, that (with the blessing of God) he had preserved his life by that remedy only; he said, that after having been anointed with oil, his skin became harsh and dry like the scales of a fish, but that in half an hour more, a profuse perspiration came on, and continued for another half hour, after which he experienced relief: this he repeated forty days, when, he was quite recovered.

* Mr. Baldwin observed, that, whilst the plague ravaged Egypt, the dealers in oil were not affected with the epidemy; and he accordingly recommended people to anoint themselves with oil every day as a remedy.

Case VII.

Mohm’d ben A fell – suddenly down in the street; he was conveyed home; three carbuncles and five buboes appeared soon after in his groin, under the joint of his knee, and armpits, and inside the elbow; he died in three hours after the attack.

Case VIII.

L.R. was suddenly smitten with this dreadful calamity, whilst looking over some Marocco leather; he fell instantaneously; afterwards, when he had recovered his senses, he described the sensation as that of the pricking of needles, at every part wherein the carbuncles afterwards appeared: he died the same day in defiance of medicine.

General Observation*

The plague appears to visit this country about once in every twenty years 139: the last visitation was in 1799 and 1800, being more fatal than any ever before known.This opinion is confirmed by the plague, being now (1820) in Marocco just twenty years since the last plague. 65,000 persons have been lately carried off by this disease in the cities of Old and New Fas.

*Observations respecting the Plague that prevailed last Year in West Barbary, and which was imported from Egypt; communicated by the Author to the Editor of The Quarterly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Arts, edited at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, No, 15, published in October, 1819.

His Majesty’s ship, which was lying in the port of Alexandria, when Colonel Fitzclarence passed through Egypt, from India, on his way to England, convoyed to Tangier a vessel which had on board two of the sons of Muley Soliman, emperor of Marocco; on their arrival at Tangier, the princes immediately landed and proceeded to their father at Fas; but it was discovered by the governor or alkaid of Tangier, that during the passage some persons had died; and accordingly the alkaid would not suffer any of the passengers to land, except the princes, until he should have received orders from the Emperor how to act; he accordingly wrote to Fas, for the imperial orders, and in the mean time the princes arrived, and presented themselves to the emperor: the latter wrote to the alkaid, that as the princes had been suffered to land, it would be unjust to prohibit the other passengers from coming ashore also. He therefore ordered the alkaid to suffer all the passengers, together with their baggage, to be landed, and soon afterwards the plague appeared at Fas, and at Tangier.

Thus the contagion which is now ravaging West Barbary was imported from Egypt. It does not appear that the mortality is, or has been, during its acme at Fas, any thing comparable to what it was during the plague that ravaged this country in 1799*,  and which carried off more than two-thirds of the population of the empire.

*It has been asserted by a physician who has lately written, Observations on contagion, as it relates to the plague and other epidemical diseases…

For the rest, such persons as are not compelled to associate with the infected, may effectually avoid the contagion, however violent and deadly it may be, by avoiding contact. I am so perfectly convinced of this fact, from the experience and observation I have made during my residence at Mogodor, whilst the plague raged there in 1799, that I would not  object to go to any country, although it were rotten with the plague, provided my going  ould benefit mankind, or serve any useful purpose; and I would use no fumigation, or any
other remedy but what I actually used at Mogodor in 1799.

I am so convinced from my own repeated and daily experience, that the most deadly plague is as easy to be avoided :


  • that I would ride or  walk through the most populous and deeply-infected city, as I have done before, without any other precaution than that of a segar in my mouth, when, by avoiding contact and inhalation, I should most assuredly be free from the danger of infection!!

[In addition],Mr. Colaço, having lately observed that oil was used externally to
anoint the body, as a preservative against the plague; conceived the idea of  administering this simple remedy internally to persons already infected; numerous experiments were made by this gentleman, who administered from four to eight oz. olive oil at a dose; and out of 300 individuals already infected, who resorted to this remedy, only twelve died.

When these precautions are strictly observed, I maintain, (in opposition to all the theoretical dogmas that have lately been propagated) that there is no more danger of
infection with the plague, than there is of infection from any common cold or rheum.

A few links about plagues:

The great plague of London

The Plague of 1665

The Great Plague of London, 1665

Contagion: Historical views of Diseases and Epidemics




Posted in Africa-North, Africa-West, Colonialism, Ebola, European colonizers, European explorers, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Sahel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Account of the Plague in Barbary, North Africa, 1799 – Part I

Plagues have been important – and often deadly – aspect of long distance trade and travel for millennia.   As we enter into the 21st century plague that is now gripping West Africa, what can be learned from reports of ‘the plague’ in these past times?

To address this question I am extracting relevant portions of a manuscript on ‘the plague’ as experienced  in 1799 in northwest Africa.   The manuscript is by James G. Jackson, whom we have met before.

I will be posting Part II of this blog tomorrow, and addressing several key issues thereafter.

Historic routes of camel caravans across the Sahara.  Source - Wikipedia

Historic routes of camel and donkey caravans across the Sahara. Source – Wikipedia

That ravaged Barbary in 1799;
EPIDEMY [sic].

When the Emperor’s army proceeded from Fas [Fez] to Marocco [Morocco] in the summer of 1799, a detachment of which passed by Mogodor [Mogador/Essaouira]*, consisting of 20,000 horse and 10,000 foot, it had the plague with it; so that, wherever it passed, the plague uniformly appeared three days after its arrival at the respective douars near which it encamped; those who died were  buried in the tents, and the people of the provinces knew little about it.

* Mogodor/Mogador/Essaouira – the city in which the author was residing; an important caravan depot as well as a harbour linked to international trade, see below two  pictures:

The old Kayaky

The old Ramparts_of_Essaouira/Mogodor,.by Kayaky

Shows the location of Mogador/Ess  , as an important part of trade with both Europe an the Americas.  source:

Shows the location of Mogador/Essaouira , as an important part of trade with both Europe an the Americas. Essaouira is represented by the large, black dot in N.W. Africa.  Source:

A large akkaba*, consisting of upwards of 1700 camels, arrived 23d August, 1799, at Akka from Timbuctoo, laden with gumsudan, ostrichfeathers, and gold dust, which had brought also many slaves; this akkaba had deposited its merchandize at Akka** , till the plague should disappear and the country become healthy; as the people of that territory, unlike Muhamedans in general, will hold no communication with the infected, nor will they admit any one from these parts.

* An akkaba is an accumulated caravan as pictured below; merchants and others wishing to travel in the same direction could join or disband from an akkaba:

Caravan travelling in the region of Algeria.  Source -

Caravan on the march in the region of Algeria, 1896. Source – Royal Geographical Society

** Akka in southern Morocco was an important stop-over for caravans travelling through the long north-south caravan routes :

Akka  Oasis in southern Morocco.  Source -

Akka Oasis in southern Morocco. an important waylay for long distance caravans traversing the Sahel/Sahara.  Source –

A violent fever now rages at Fas [Fez]: some assert it to be the plague, but that is [a] Moorish report, and little to be depended on; the European consuls at Tangier [northern Morocco], and the Spanish ambassador, who, having terminated his embassy, has lately left Mequinas, mention it as an epidemical disorder.

May 20. The smallpox rages violently throughout this country, and is of a most virulent kind: its origin is ascribed to the famine that has of late pervaded this country, and which was produced by the incredible devastation of the devouring locusts; the dregs of olives, after the oil had been extracted, has been the only food that could be procured by many thousands.

July 25. We are so much engaged in making arrangements against the epidemy [sic], which is now confidently reported to us to be the plague, of a most deadly species, that we have only time to refer you to the captain of the Aurora, to whom we have communicated every particular, and who is extremely anxious to be off for England. The deaths in this town, which contained a population of 10,000, according to the imperial register, are from forty to fifty each day.

Aug. 1. As the plague now rages violently here, no one thinks of business or the affairs of this world; but each individual anticipates that he will be next called away. I send the inclosed, to be forwarded to Mr. Andrea de Christo, at Amsterdam, to announce to him the sudden death of his partner, Mr. J. Pacifico, who is lately dead of the plague. I paid him a visit a few hours before his death;

I met there Don Pedro de Victoria, who was smoking a segar [cigar]; he offered me one, and urged me to smoke it. I believe that the smoke of tobacco is antipestilential; this, added to the precaution of avoiding contact, and inhalation of the breath of the person infected, appears to be quite sufficient to secure a person from infection.

August 23. The best gum is selling at Akka for six dollars a quintal*: they will not bring
it here, fearing the infection. … The plague is rapidly diminishing from 100 deaths to 20 or 30 per day. Meeman Corcoes is dead, as well as most of the principal tradesmen of Marocco and Fas; whole families have been swept off, and there is none left to inherit their property.
Immense droves of horses, mules, and cattle of every description stray in the plains without owners. September 5.

* The quintal or centner, from Latin centenarius (“hundredlike”), is a historical unit of mass in many countries, which is usually defined as 100 base units of either pounds or kilograms.

The plague continues to decrease; and in another month we expect  to be quite free from it. Signor Conton died this morning of the epidemy; yesterday afternoon he was apparently quite well, and paid me a visit. He wished me to shake hands with him, which I declined, alleging as an excuse, that I would dispense with that custom till the plague should pass over. He drank a glass of wine, and appeared cheerful and in good health.

I have had fixed in my dining room, a table that extends from one end to the other. I walk or sit on one side of the table, my visitors on the other. I am only cautious to avoid personal contact. All the houses of the other merchants are closely barricaded or bolted. A fumigating pot of gum sandrac* stands at the entrance of my house, continually burning, which diffuses an agreeable perfume, but is not, as I apprehend, an antidote to the epidemy.

* Gum sandrac – Although it is not very strongly aromatic, sandarac resin was and is also used as an incense. The aroma has been compared to balsam.

Sandarac 'tears' - Historically sandarac was also used as a remedy for diarrhea, particularly in the Middle East, but today this has no medicinal advantage over various other therapies. Furthermore, calligraphers may sprinkle powdered sandarac gum on paper or vellum to help writing thinner lines. Source - Wikipedia

Sandarac ‘tears’ – Historically sandarac was also used as a remedy for diarrhea, particularly in the Middle East, but today this has no medicinal advantage over various other therapies. Furthermore, calligraphers may sprinkle powdered sandarac gum on paper or vellum to help writing thinner lines. Source – Wikipedia

October 1. We have to apprise you of the decease of L’Hage Abdallah El Hareishy, most of whose relations are dead. His brother is the only one of the family besides himself that remains: he has inherited considerable property, and thence will be enabled to pay your bill on him in our favour.

October 29. The plague appears to have ceased in this town. All the merchants have opened their houses; but the disorder continues in the provinces, from whence there is little or no communication with the town. The kabyls seem to be wholly engaged in burying their dead, in arranging the affairs of their respective families, in dividing the property inherited by them, and in administering consolation to the sick.

Nov. 11. The plague having committed incalculable ravages throughout this country, had put a stop to all commerce, which now begins to revive, in proportion as that calamity subsides. Linens are selling to great advantage, a cargo would now render 60 per cent. profit, clear of all charges.

Nov. 29. The deadly epidemy that has lately visited us, and which at one period carried off above 100 each day, has now confined its daily mortality to two or three; some days none. When, however, the Arabs of Shedma, and the Shelluhs of Haha come to town, and bring the clothes of their deceased relations for sale, the epidemy increases to three, four, and five a day; then, in three or four days, it declines again to its former number, one, two, or three. We have reason to expect, that, before the vessels which we expect from London shall arrive, the plague will have subsided entirely

Letter from His Excellency James M. Matra to Mr. Jackson


Gibraltar, 28th Oct. 1799.

I never could understand the drift of the people either at Tangier or Mogodor, in asserting that my report of the plague was political.

God knows, that our politics in Barbary are never remarkable for refinement: they are, if any thing, rather too much in the John Bull style; and the finesse they gave me such credit for, was absolutely beyond my comprehension, as I never could discover what advantage a genuine well-established plague in Barbary could be to our country.

Of its existence I had not the shadow of doubt, for more than eight months before it was talked of; and when Doctor Bell was going that way, I begged of him to be particular in his enquiries, which he, as usual, neglected.

When John Salmon* was up, he was very particular, and I of course was laughed at. Here I saw politics, and told all the  gentlemen, that when Salmon** arrived at Tariffa, then, and not till then, we should have the plague in Barbary; and just so it turned out.

*John Salmon was Spanish envoy to the emperor of Marocco, and was at this time up at      Fas, i.e. on his embassy.

** Arrived at Tariffa, and so secured his admission into Spain on his return from his embassy. …

Ever truly thine,

Trade of Essaouira [Mogodor]:

Important Jewish merchant families:

Important Moroccan Jewish merchant families *: were recruited by the sultan to take charge of developing trade and relations in Mogador in relation to Europe.

* The Sultan´s merchants: “tujjar as-sultan”

The extraordinary and privileged Jewish tujjar elite controlled all of the major imports of Mogador and other Moroccan trade centers where their influence was gradually extended. These included sugar, tea, metals, gunpowder, and tobacco. The tujjar also managed such vital exports as wheat, hides, cereals, and wool, items which became government monopolies at the time.

The one exception was all artisan work connected to wood, directly linked to the vast forests around the town.

Tujjar – Merchants:

The tujjar declined in influence after the 1890s with the aggressive penetration of the European powers into the Sharifian Empire of Morocco. By the early part of the 20th century, and certainly following the formation of the French protectorate (1912), they disappeared from the scene.

A new elite of Jewish entrepreneurs, recruited by the French, Spaniards, Italians, and British commercial houses replaced them, as did foreign merchants who settled in Mogador and other parts of the country, controlling commerce until Moroccan independence in 1956.

“The port of Timbuktu”

From the Middle Ages to the 17th century there were sugar-cane refineries in the province of Mogador. Other local products were fish and cereals but Mogador exported also items coming from Africa with the caravan trade.

The merchants of the souk traded salt, camel skins,
gold, slaves……..for European cloth and Chinese tea.

Essaouira attracted pirates and the inhabitants of Diabet lived close to the sea and the bay and was used by the Sultan to fight the pirates.
For this task they were supplied with goods and military services.

See also:


Barbary Corsairs

The Sugar Refinery

The Consulates of the Medina

The Port

The Jews



Source: Essaouira, on Trade


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