Tag Archives: writing

Ancient Mesopotamian dental care

After Anu had created heaven,
Heaven had created the earth,
The earth had created the rivers,
The rivers had created the marsh,
And the marsh had created the worm –
The worm went, weeping, before Shamash,
His tears flowing before Ea:
“What will you give me for food?
What will you give me to suck on?”
“I will give you the ripe fig and the apricot.”
“What good is the ripe fig and the apricot?
Lift me up, and assign me to the teeth and the gums!
I will suck the blood of the tooth,
and I will gnaw its roots at the gum!”
Because you have said this, O worm,
May Ea strike you with the might of his hand!

– An incantation against toothache found on a cuneiform tablet in Nineveh

The ancient peoples of Mesopotamia were pretty big on dental health. Evidence suggests that starting with the Sumerians of the 5th and 4th millennia B.C., the Mesopotamians cared about the health of their teeth and gums and even the freshness of their breath.

Health in Mesopotamia was maintained through a combination of medicine and magic, and the same was also true of dental health specifically. The surviving records lay out hundreds of recipes and recommendations written by Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian physicians.

One of these physicians provides us with one of the first recorded recommendations of a gum massage to treat gingivitis:

If a man’s teeth are all loose and decay sets in… thou shalt rub… on his teeth until blood comes out, and he shall recover.

Another tablet gives us a method to dispel “mouth-trouble” (possibly referring to inflammation):

If a man’s mouth has mouth-trouble, with gall-apples, ammi, mustard he shall cleanse his mouth and drink them in kurunnu-beer and shall recover. (I wish my dentist would order me to drink beer as a part of my dental hygiene routine.)

But Mesopotamian dentists were also concerned with more cosmetic dental issues. The same records contain recipes for mouthwash and stain-removal mixtures that include such ingredients as salt, pine turpentine, honey, oil, beer, lupin and turmeric, plus a feather to induce vomiting at some point in the procedure.

Despite not having the benefits of Oral-B toothbrushes or Colgate, some people in Mesopotamia seem to have practiced dental hygiene on a regular basis. Archaeological searches have revealed toothpicks made of gold, silver and bronze, sometimes as parts of vanity kits.

The people of Mesopotamia kept their teeth clean even under the constant threat of getting their city sacked by a bloody-minded conquering king, so you have no excuse for not flossing every day.

The people of Mesopotamia kept their teeth clean even under the constant threat of getting their city sacked by a bloody-minded conquering king, so you have no excuse for not flossing every day.

As with most other facets of ancient Mesopotamian life, religion played an active role in medical practice. Certain incantations were sometimes prescribed to work alongside a medical remedy, the idea presumably being that one or more of the gods would help the medicine do its job.

The toothache-related text found at Nineveh in interesting in this respect. Many ancient and medieval peoples believed that toothaches were caused by a worm that ate at the gums and gnawed through the teeth, boring holes and causing decay. Recounting the story of the creation of the worm and asking Ea to smack him down with the might of his hand suggests a magical element to dental care that no longer exists in modern dentistry (depending on your dentist, anyway.)

Try it at home!

If you’re tempted to try out some ancient dental techniques, you can start with this toothache remedy, to be used together with the incantation against toothache copied above:

Second-grade beer, the plant sa-kil-bir and oil thou shalt mix together; the incantation thou shalt recite three times thereupon and put the medicine upon the tooth.

So if you have some second-grade beer and sa-kil-bir in the back of your fridge, this is always an option. It beats paying thousands of dollars to have your teeth drilled by a modern dentist, doesn’t it?

Forrai, Judit. “The Beginnings of Dental Caries and its Treatments.” Archives of Oral Research, May 2009. pp. 187-192.

Paulissian, Robert. “Dental Care in Ancient Assyria and Babylonia.” Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society, Nov. 1993. pp. 96-116.

Terra Nullius: Bir Tawil

Imagine a land unclaimed by any country in the world. I know what you’re thinking: Here’s the place to start the great empire I’ve always dreamed of building.

There’s some bad news. Several people/groups have already claimed this land, and one man has gone so far as to create a flag, travel to the land and stick that flag in the ground in the name of his new state. The worse news, however, is that Bir Tawil, the land in question, has nothing that anyone could possibly want.

bir-tawil-satellite

Pictured above, courtesy of Google Earth: the land in question. Bir Tawil (Arabic for “deep well”) is the trapezoid dotted out in the center of the photograph. It looks desolate from space, and indeed, it is; Bir Tawil is a patch of rocky desert about 2,000 square kilometers in area (about the area of a mid-sized US county) on the border between Egypt and Sudan. And it is unclaimed by both countries. In fact, each country claims that the other is Bir Tawil’s rightful administrator. What’s going on here?

To understand just why Bir Tawil is so unwanted, we have to look at early 20th century colonial African history. At the turn of the last century, Egypt and Sudan both were unofficially ruled by Britain. After a briefly successful Sudanese revolt against British rule in 1896, the British colonial administration recaptured Sudan alongside Egyptian forces and established a “condominium”, or joint rule, between Britain and Egypt over the reconquered country. This new arrangement required the drawing of a border between Egypt and Sudan, and the 1899 line cut straight through the 22nd parallel. A later map, however, shifted this line to better reflect the realities of the border between the two colonies, and Sudan gained the 20,000 square kilometer Hala’ib Triangle, a prime piece of Red Sea real estate, while the comparatively useless Bir Tawil south of the 1899 border went to Egypt.

The Hala'ib Triangle and Bir Tawil.  The 1899 border is the straight line, and the 1902 border is the one that creates the disputed territories.

The Hala’ib Triangle and Bir Tawil. The 1899 border is the straight line, and the 1902 border is the one that creates the disputed territories.

After independence, both Egypt and Sudan claimed Hala’ib, with Egypt upholding the 1899 border and Sudan pushing the 1902 border in opposition. As a strange quirk of this argument, neither country had any basis to claim Bir Tawil – so neither claimed it. Bir Tawil, as a result, is officially terra nullius. Nobody wants it. Which means you can go there and do whatever you want, right?

Well, that’s just the problem – there probably isn’t anything to do in Bir Tawil. There are good reasons Egypt and Sudan both prefer Hala’ib, which has actual settlements and a coastline, to Bir Tawil, which has no settlements, no natural resources, and no access to water. It’s a rocky desert withpatches of shrubs and stuff like that. Herders have used the land in the past, but nobody lives there and, again, there are good reasons for that.

This scene is from near Marrakesh, but it's probably pretty close to what Bir Tawil looks like. (Source: Johntarantino1, Creative Commons)

This scene is from near Marrakesh, but it’s probably pretty close to what Bir Tawil looks like. (Source: Johntarantino1, Creative Commons)

Naturally, the fact of Bir Tawil’s inaccessibility and hostility has not stopped idiots in other countries from claiming the land for themselves. Most recently, an American traveled to Bir Tawil and planted a flag there, declaring it the Kingdom of North Sudan and his seven year-old daughter the princess of it. It’s admirable that a parent would go so far to make his kid happy, but declaring your kids royalty of new made-up countries borders on spoiling them, doesn’t it?

In any case, neither Egypt nor Sudan have commented on Mr. Heaton’s claim on Bir Tawil, and it’s unlikely that they will ever countenance a third-party claim on the land, considering that a final agreement between the countries will require one of them to end up holding Bir Tawil anyway. And it’s just as well, because there is no reason to go to this patch of rock and sand. If you want to declare your own country, declare it in your own backyard or in your apartment. Nobody will stop you unless you do something dumb like declare war on your neighbors and lob projectiles into their yards. Bir Tawil is interesting as a question of international law, but that’s all it has going for it.

Exploring Panama City: Historic Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo de Panama) sits at the center of old Panama. After the original 16th century settlement of Panama Viejo was burned to the ground by the famous English pirate Henry Morgan, this second town was built several miles away. The 17th century Casco Viejo contains many of the city’s historical treasures and most interesting architecture (especially if you’re a fan of the Spanish baroque style, which it’s full of – Casco Viejo itself was built by the Spanish settlers around that period.)

casco-viejo-1

The baroque district of the city is filled with plazas like you see in the picture above. The monument in the center is dedicated to Simon Bolivar and the revolutions that tore most of the Americas away from Spanish royal rule in the early 19th century.

casco-viejo-2

Despite all that, a lot of the architecture in Casco Viejo is a result of Spanish influence. This skeleton of a structure used to be the Church of the Society of Jesus, a.k.a. the Jesuit order. It was devastated by a fire and a later earthquake, but its frame still stands. It’s now a home for old Panama’s stray cats.

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This guy didn’t seem to mind having his picture taken. He must be used to tourists.

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One of the most remarkable places in the old city is hidden away in a narrow alley. The Church of San Jose is hard to find (just like everything else in Casco Viejo, in fact.) But it’s well worth finding.

Source: María Elena Huerta, Creative Commons

Source: María Elena Huerta, Creative Commons

The golden altar of the Church of San Jose does involve some real gold – it’s covered in gold leaf. It’s also unique for its history. This altar first stood in the original 16th century city of Panama Viejo. The settlement was plundered and put to the torch in 1671 by the aforementioned Henry Morgan, but he didn’t bother to carry off this priceless piece. To disguise its value, the Jesuit brothers of the church painted the whole thing black. Once the coast was clear, they removed it and sent it along to the new capital of Panama – the district now know as Casco Viejo – and built a church around it.

Casco has a few major plazas lined with cafes and restaurants. Most of them have free wireless, but there’s no reason not to stop by one of the neighborhood’s many locales. Panama has a lot of good coffee and cheap beer to offer, and a lot of it’s served in Casco Viejo.

The French embassy in Casco Viejo really stands out.

The French embassy in Casco Viejo really stands out.

The Plaza de Francia is situated right on the tip of Casco Viejo facing out towards the Pacific Ocean. The French plaza was built in the 19th century to commemorate the original French effort to build the Panama Canal, and it still hosts the French mission to Panama. I really liked this part of the neighborhood. The monument itself (below) was off limits for some kind of construction or maintenance, though.

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Casco Viejo is a grid of narrow alleys broken up by a few plazas. Pictured below is the Plaza de la Independencia, seemingly the central square of the old city. Casco Viejo feels a little bit like a scaled-down version of old Madrid – there’s nothing nearly as grand as the Puerta del Sol or the Plaza Mayor, but it has a similar atmosphere. The biggest difference is that while Madrid’s old city lies right in the center of the modern metropolis, the true center of Panama City has long since shifted away from Casco, so Panama’s old city feels a little bit deserted – especially on a weekday.

casco-viejo-8

If you ever stop by Panama City, you can’t afford to miss Casco Viejo. It’s just a $3-4 taxi ride from the center of town (cheap compared to taxis in the US, but from what I heard later I might have been overcharged.) The neighborhood has plenty of nice cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs and has an active nightlife.

Be sure to visit the Canal Museum during a daytime trip to Casco Viejo. The Miraflores Locks, situated at the Canal near Panama City, is a must-see, but the museum in Casco has all of the actual documents and mementos associated with the Canal itself. It’s cheap to visit and the building is air-conditioned. I’ve said that before, but it’s worth repeating. You’ll really want to get out of the heat for a while.