Wellcome Library, London

Modern plagues & ancient diseases

In his 1821 play Almansor, Heinrich Heine wrote that wherever books are burned, eventually they will also burn people. This eerily prophetic quotation is now emblazoned on the site of the infamous Nazi book-burnings at the Bebelplatz in Berlin.

If we have come to accept that those with no respect for human accomplishments will in the end become equally disdainful of human life, it should come as no surprise that the reverse also holds true. Cue this week’s unhinged destruction of a museum at the historic Iraqi site of Nineveh by the ongoing jihadist frat party that calls itself Islamic State.

Among the priceless artefacts that were put to the sledgehammer and electric drill were two statues of human-headed bulls dedicated to the Mesopotamian God Nergal, built around 700 BC.


Among many other things, Nergal is known today as the Sumerian God of Sickness and Death, and the study of his worship therefore offers fascinating insights into the spread of infectious diseases across the ancient Near East.

One particularly interesting case is that of the Hittite Plague, which ravaged the region in the late 14th Century BCE and whose recurrence in Egypt a few generations later is sometimes used to explain the smiting of the first-born mentioned in the book of Exodus. The damage wrought was so extensive that King Mursili II of the Hittites, succeeding to the throne after his father succumbed to the disease, wrote the celebrated Plague Prayers to Nergal in a bid to appease his divine wrath.

According to former microbiologist Siro Trevisanato, the Hittite Plague may in fact have been an epidemic of tularaemia, sometimes called the rabbit disease and easily spread by livestock. In a 2007 research paper Trevisanato actually went further and suggested that the outbreak was the first known instance of biological warfare, citing the Hittites’ use of infected rams as a means of staving off opportunistic invaders.

Although the English classicist HFW Saggs believed that ‘Nergal’s pestilence’ referred to a single condition, Nergal is also thought by some to have been associated with malaria, jaundice and even early forms of the bubonic plague. According to the reference work Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine, the presence of malaria in ancient Mesopotamia can be established by the clear description of its symptoms in ancient texts. Most notable are references to a fever spiking every other day, still a distinctive feature of Plasmodium vivax, the most frequent cause of recurring malarial infections.

Diseases such as tularaemia, malaria and plague are now all eminently curable, although without the proper medication they can still pose a deadly menace. Given the current situation in Iraq, a vengeful Mesopotamian God of the Dead would form an extremely useful military ally.

Gilead Amit is wary of committing his own particular brand of cultural vandalism, and implores Nergal to pardon on any misrepresentations of Babylonian mythography above. All corrections can be directed to him through the medium of plague or via Twitter @gileadamit.

Leave a Reply