World Epidemic Unearthed in Egypt - Plague in Rome

Victims of End of the World Epidemic Unearthed in Egypt

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Archaeologists in Egypt have uncovered the remains of victims of an ancient epidemic that occurred nearly two millennia ago, believed at the time to be the end of the world, according to a report in Live Science .

The discovery was made at the funerary complex of Harwa and Akhimenru in the ancient city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor), and includes a giant bonfire containing human remains, where victims of the ancient epidemic were incinerated, as well as bodies covered in a thick layer of lime, and three kilns where lime was produced. In ancient times, lime was used to subdue the stench of rotting corpses and as a disinfectant.  

Lime kiln disinfectant - Egypt

A lime kiln built to produce lime disinfectant. Credit: Photo by N. Cijan © Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dell’Egitto e del Sudan ONLUS.

The remains have been dated to the third century AD, which corresponds to a series of epidemics known as the Plague of Cyprian, which occurred roughly between 250 and 271 AD.  The Plague of Cyprian, which may have been some form of smallpox or measles, ravaged the Roman Empire, which included Egypt at the time, and caused widespread manpower shortages in agriculture and the Roman army. The epidemic was name after Saint Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage, who described the plague as signalling the end of the world.

Bonfire - Epidemic Egypt

A bonfire where many of the victims of an ancient epidemic were incinerated. Credit: Photo by N. Cijan © Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dell’Egitto e del Sudan ONLUS.

Cyprian drew moralizing analogies in his sermons to the Christian community and drew a word picture of the plague's symptoms in his essay De mortalitate ("On the Plague"):

This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened;—is profitable as a proof of faith. What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion.”

Cyprian believed that the world was coming to an end:

The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world …

(translation by Philip Schaff, from the book "Ante-Nicene Fathers", volume 5, 1885).

The world did not come to an end as Saint Cyprian of Carthage feared, but the Cyprian Plague killed thousands of people including at least two Roman Emperors, Hostilian in A.D. 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in A.D. 270. At its height, the disease killed over 5,000 a day in Rome alone, however, there is no way to know the true number of victims.

The epidemic added to the misery of the third century CE, a time when barbarian peoples kept attacking the frontiers of the Roman Empire, when numerous military usurpers claimed the position of emperor, and when citizens were burdened with heavy taxes intended to maintain the imperial army. The sufferings to which the epidemic contributed also encouraged mass conversions to Christianity, a fact celebrated by Saint Cyprian.

Featured image: Plague in Rome by Jules-Élie Delaunay

By April Holloway

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