From the Nile to the Mediterranean: Tracing Egypt’s Footprint in Ancient Plague Outbreaks
While it’s challenging to establish universally, there’s compelling evidence suggesting that ancient Egypt played a role in spreading infectious diseases throughout the Mediterranean. Numerous ancient reports on plague outbreaks point to Egypt as the source of pestilence that reached the Mediterranean.
Researchers from the University of Basel are critically analyzing ancient written and documentary evidence with archaeogenetic findings to contextualize the traditional perspective.
Red and inflamed eyes, foul breath, fever, violent convulsions, boils, and blisters all over the body—these symptoms were mentioned by historian Thucydides in connection with the “Plague of Athens,” lasting from 430 to 426 B.C. He suspected the epidemic originated in Ethiopia. “This area shouldn’t be confused with the country we now know as Ethiopia but was a more general term used at that time to refer to the region south of Egypt,” explains Professor Sabine Huebner, an Ancient History professor at the University of Basel.
The Plague of Athens and Other Ancient Epidemics: Did Egypt Play a Role?
Contemporary accounts suggest that later epidemics in the Mediterranean also began in Egypt and Ethiopia, such as the Antonine Plague, the Cyprian Plague, and the Justinian Plague, which ravaged the ancient world between the 2nd and 6th centuries. As part of a project supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, Huebner and her team combed through all available ancient sources, particularly papyri, for information on epidemics associated with Egypt. Their findings were recently published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History.
Regarding the Justinian Plague (541 to 544 A.D.), references indicate that the epidemic initially entered the Mediterranean through Egypt before spreading further. However, the situation was markedly different with the Antonine Plague (165 to at least 180 A.D.) and the Cyprian Plague (251 to 270 A.D.). “There is no clear evidence that these two epidemics spread from Africa,” asserts Sabine Huebner. While it’s impossible to demonstrate Egypt’s responsibility in all cases, evidence suggests that Egypt facilitated the spread of some infectious diseases in the Mediterranean.
Sabine Huebner explains, “Credible reports from Roman-era medical writers describe disease outbreaks, likely bubonic plague, in Libya, Egypt, and Syria of ancient Rome.” Several factors were at play, beneficial for both the emergence and spread of pathogens. One major factor in the rapid and widespread transmission of diseases was trade. For centuries, Egypt was the “granary of Rome,” cultivating and exporting cereals abundantly.
Goods from Central and South Asia arrived in the Mediterranean through the Nile and the Red Sea and were loaded onto ships at Egyptian ports like Alexandria and Pelusium. This brought together people from different regions. Pathogens also tended to develop along the Nile rather than in the warm and dry desert climate, with fewer virus and bacteria hosts.
“Climate changes were also beneficial for the emergence and spread of epidemics,” co-author and postdoctoral student Brandon McDonald explains. The study indicates that milder Nile floods, or even no flooding, might have caused poor harvests and food shortages, likely leading to malnourished populations—favorable conditions for disease outbreaks.
“Climate changes themselves have a significant effect on disease carriers such as fleas and mosquitoes,” says McDonald. Hence, there may be a connection between climate change and the outbreak of ancient epidemics, but specific interactions need further detailed study. Additional archaeogenetic studies are currently underway as part of the aforementioned project, providing new information on ancient pathogens and the societies affected by them.
Why Egypt and Ethiopia Were Blamed for the Origin of Plagues by Greek and Roman Sources
So, why do Greek and Roman accounts mention Egypt and Ethiopia as the origin of plagues if that wasn’t the case? Sabine Huebner says, “On the one hand, the idea of Egypt as the origin of epidemics is steeped in tradition; neighboring societies like the Hittites, Israelites, and Greeks considered Egypt plagued by diseases. Descriptions of these epidemics in Hittite or Egyptian sources or in the Old Testament resemble smallpox or bubonic plague.”
In this article, we have explored how Egypt played a role in the emergence and spread of some infectious diseases in the ancient Mediterranean and how it was unfairly blamed for others. We have seen how trade, climate change, and historical prejudice influenced the perception and transmission of epidemics. We have also learned how modern research, especially archaeogenetics, can shed new light on the ancient pathogens and the societies affected by them.
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