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Book Review: Egypt in the thirteenth century

25th Feb 2022
Book Review: Egypt in the thirteenth century

A Physician on the Nile: A Description of Egypt and Journal of the Famine Years. By Abd Al-Latif Al-Baghdadi. Edited and translated by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Pp 256. Hardback. NYU Press. 2019. $30

The book, is a report on Egypt, written in 1204 by the polymath and physician Abd Al-Latif Al-Baghdadi for Abbasid Caliph Al-Nasir in Iraq.

Al-Baghdadi was a physician and scientist who wrote books on a wide range of topics including medicine, philology, mathematics and philosophy.

He was also “an early and ardent champion of archaeological conservation, who accused monument robbers of ‘the heights of avarice and the depths of rascality’”. (pxii)

His text is also a pioneering work in ancient Egyptology, with detailed observations of Pharaonic monuments, sculptures, and mummies.

In addition to the chapter on antiquities, he also writes on contemporary buildings and boats, on food, including a detailed recipe for a sultanic picnic pie made with three entire roast lambs and dozens of chickens.

He also gives an account of the famine and plague that afflicted Egypt in the years 1200-1202.
Abd al-Latif was a keen observer of humanity, and he offers vivid first-hand depictions of starvation, cannibalism, and society in moral free-fall.
The book is in two parts. Part one consists of six chapters.

Chapter one outlines the general characteristics of Egypt, while Chapter two discusses the characteristic plants and trees of Egypt.

Chapter three is devoted to the characteristics of the animal world in Egypt, four provides a description of the ancient Egyptian monuments examined by the author and five is on the unusual Egyptian buildings and boats examined by the author and chapter six is on unusual Egyptian foods.

Part two consists of three chapters. Chapter one is on the Nile and the manner of its annual rises, with an explanation of the causes of this phenomenon and the laws of nature governing it. Chapter two is on the events of the year 1200-1 and chapter three is on the events of the year 1201-2.

A Physician on the Nile contains a wide diversity in a small compass, distinguished by the acute, humane, and ever-curious mind of its author. It is rare to be able to hear the voice of such a man responding so directly to novelty, beauty, and tragedy.

A Physician on the Nile is a bilingual Arabic-English edition easy to read, thanks to the translator and editor, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a noted British travel author.

Ahmed J Versi

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