|HERE BE CANNIBALS|
|CANNIBALISM IN EGYPT DURING THE FAMINE OF 1201|
There was no longer any hope that the Nile would rise; and as a result the cost of provisions had already gone up. The provinces were ravaged by drought. The inhabitants foresaw a state of dearth as inevitable, and fear of famine led to disturbances. Those who lived in villages and in the countryside left for the main provincial towns. A great number emigrated to Syria, the Maghreb, Hejaz and the Yemen....
A vast multitude sought refuge in Misr and Cairo, where they were to meet with frightful famine and appalling mortality; for, when the sun entered the sign of Aries, the air became corrupt, and pestilence and a deadly contagion began to take their toll, and the poor, under the pressure of ever-growing want, ate carrion, corpses, dogs, excrement, and animal dung. They went further, and reached the stage of eating little children. It was not unusual to find people [selling] little children, roasted or boiled. The commandant of the city guard ordered that those who committed this crime should be burned alive, as should those who ate such meats.
I myself saw a little roast child in a basket. It was brought to the commandant, and led in at the same time were a man and woman who were the child’s father and mother. The commandant condemned them to be burned alive.
In the month of Ramadan a corpse was found at Misr with all the flesh stripped off for food, and its legs tied like a sheep trussed for cooking....
When the poor first began to eat human flesh, the horror and astonishment that such extraordinary meals aroused were such that these crimes formed the topic of every conversation. No one could stop talking about them. But eventually people grew accustomed, and some conceived such a taste for these detestable meats that they made them their ordinary provender, eating them for enjoyment and even laying in supplies. They thought up a variety of preparation methods. And the custom being once introduced, it spread in the provinces so that there was no part of Egypt where one did not see examples of it. Then it no longer caused surprise. The horror people had felt at first vanished entirely; one spoke of it, and heard it spoken of, as a matter of everyday indifference.
I saw one day a woman with a head wound being dragged, by some labourers, through the market. They had seized her while she was eating a small roast child, which they also carried with them. The people in the market paid not the slightest attention to this sight, but went on with their business. I saw in them no sign of astonishment or horror – which surprised me rather more than the crime itself. Their indifference sprang, really, only from the fact that the sight of such cruelties had already struck them a great many times, so that it fell into the category of things they had become accustomed to and no longer had the power to startle them.
Two days before, I had seen a child nearing the age of puberty, who had been found roasted. The two young people who had been found with it confessed that it was they who had killed the child, cooked it, and eaten part of it.
It happened one night that a young slave girl was playing with a newly weaned infant, the child of a rich private citizen. While the child was by her side, a beggar-woman seized the very moment when the slave’s eyes were turned away, tore open the child’s stomach, and began to eat the flesh, quite raw. Many women have told me of people flinging themselves at them in order to snatch their children, and that they have had to use all their strength to save them.
Talking one day to a woman who carried a newly weaned and very chubby child, I admired it and recommended her to take good care of it. She then told me that, when she had walking on the canal bank, a sturdy ruffian had attacked her and tried to snatch the child from her; that she had found no other way of sheltering it than to throw herself to the ground, holding the child beneath her, until a horseman happened to pass by, which forced the man to retreat. She added that the rascal had watched avidly of the chance of getting a grip on any of the child’s limbs that might stray out from their shelter, so that he might eat it. The child was ill for some time afterwards as a result of the mauling he had suffered in the tug-of-war between the robber and herself, one trying to snatch him and the other to hold on to him.
The children of the poor, those who were young or already grown and had no one at all to care for them or look after them, were scattered though all parts of the town, even in the narrowest side streets, like locusts in the countryside. The poor, men and women alike, lay in wait for these unhappy children, carried them off and ate them. The guilty were rarely caught in the act, and only when they were careless. It was usually the women who were caught with the proof of their crime, a circumstance which in my opinion arose from the fact that women are less crafty than men and cannot so readily flee to escape pursuit. In only a few days, at Misr, thirty women were burned, among whom there was none who did not admit to having eaten several children. I saw one of them taken to the commandant with a roast child hung round her neck. She was given more than two hundred lashes to make her confess her crime, but they elicited no response from her. You would have said that she had lost all human faculties. Then someone pulled her roughly, to lead her away, and she expired on the spot.
When some unfortunate who had been convicted of eating human flesh was burned alive, the corpse was always found to have been devoured by the following morning. People ate it the more willingly, for the flesh, being fully roasted, did not need to be cooked.
This mania for eating other people became so common among the poor that the majority of them perished that way. Some rich people, in decent circumstances, also shared in this detestable barbarism. Among them, some were reduced to it by need, others did it out of greed and to satisfy a taste for it. One man told me he had a friend who had been reduced to poverty by the calamities of that year, but that the friend one day invited him to come and eat with him as he had often done in former times. When he arrived at the house, he found assembled there a set of people whose appearance was wholly wretched. Before them was a fricassée containing a great deal of meat, but there was no bread at all to eat with it. This made him suspicious, and when he went to relieve himself and noticed a storeroom full of human bones and fresh flesh, he was seized with terror and took to his heels.
Among these rascals there were some who used all kinds of tricks and pretexts to entice men, unsuspectingly, to their homes. This was what happened to three of the doctors I was associated with. One told me that his father had gone out one day and never reappeared. Another was asked by a woman, who gave him two pieces of silver, to come with her to see an invalid for whom she was responsible. This woman having led him through several narrow alleys, the doctor became uneasy and refused to follow further. When he remonstrated strongly with her, she departed hurriedly without reclaiming her two pieces of silver.
The third doctor was approached by a man to accompany him to the home of an invalid who lived, he said, on the city’s main thoroughfare. As they walked along, the man distributed some small coins as alms, saying each time ‘Today is the day of retribution, and a recompense double the good that has been done; let those who act, act with a view to such a reckoning.’ This was repeated so often that the doctor began to suspect the man of being up to something. However, the good opinion he had formed of him outweighed his alarms; moreover, the desire for profit urged him on. He allowed himself to be taken into the entry of a half-ruined apartment block. The look of the place kindled his fears again, and he stopped on the stairs while his companion went ahead to open the door. Then the man’s crony came to meet him and said: ‘After taking so long about it, have you at least brought some good game?’ These words struck terror into the doctor’s heart. He hurled himself through a window which, by good fortune, he chanced to see, and landed in a stable. The master of the stable came to him and asked what was going on, but the doctor was wary of telling him, as he did not dare trust him. Then this man said: ‘I know what has happened to you. The people who lodge there entrap men and kill them.’
At Atfih, a grocery store was found to contain jars full of human flesh pickled in water and salt. The man was asked why he had amassed such a large quantity, and replied that he had thought that, if the dearth continued, men in future would become too skinny to eat.
A great many of the poor had retreated to the Isle of Raudha, where they remained hidden in earthen huts and watched out for passers-by whom they could kidnap. The authorities were warned of this and decided to wipe them out, but they fled. In their huts were found an enormous number of human bones. I have it from a trustworthy source that four hundred skulls were counted.
The following story, which was recounted by the commandant himself, received at the time great publicity. A woman came one day to see him; she had her face uncovered and appeared to be in the grip of extreme horror. She told him that she was a midwife and had been invited in her professional capacity to the home of certain women. There, someone had given her a place of sicbadj, very well made and perfectly seasoned. She had noticed that, in it, there was a lot of meat different from the kind usually used in a sicbadj, and this had given her a distinct distaste for it. Contriving to draw a little girl aside, she asked her what kind of meat it was, and the child said: ‘Miss So-and-so – the very fat one – came to pay us a visit and my father killed her; she is in here, jointed and hung.’ She then entered a storeroom and found stocks of meat. When the commandant heard what the woman had to say, he sent some men with her to raid the house and arrest everyone they found there. But the master of the house saved himself, and eventually did so well that he won pardon by secretly donating three hundred pieces of gold.
Here again is another example of these barbarities. The wife of a military man who was rich and enjoyed all the comforts of life was pregnant, and her husband was away on service. Her neighbours were worthless creatures, but having sniffed the aroma of a fricassée which was coming from their house she asked to eat some of it – because of one of those craving women are subject to during pregnancy. Finding it very agreeable she asked for more, but they told her it had all been eaten. Then she wanted to know how the dish was made, and they confessed that it was with human flesh. She then settled with them that they should try to kidnap little children for her, promising generous recognition of their efforts. A constant diet of such food made her quite ferocious and roused in her the instincts of a carnivorous beast, until her servants, who feared she might make an attempt on their lives, denounced her. As a result, the law descended on her house and found there a quantity of flesh and bones that proved the truth of the accusations. She was put in irons and thrown into prison; but capital punishment was deferred, as much out of regard for her husband as to save the child she was carrying.
If I were to record all the acts of this kind that I have heard of, or seen with my own eyes, I would risk being suspected of exaggeration or taxed with chattering too much. All the facts I have reported being an eye-witness to came under my eye without any design on my part, and without my having intentionally frequented places where such things might be expected to occur. Chance alone was responsible. Far from looking for such sights, I most often avoided them, so great was the horror they inspired in me. People who, in contrast, stayed on duty at the commandant’s headquarters, saw all kinds of tragic scenes throughout the day and night. Two or three children, even more, would be found in a single cooking pot. One day, they found a pot with ten hands cooking in it, prepared like sheep’s trotters. Another time, they discovered a large cauldron with an adult’s head and some of his limbs simmering with wheat grains. There were parallels without number.
Near the mosque of Ahmad ibn Touloun there were people who kidnapped men. One bookseller with whom I dealt, an elderly and corpulent man, fell into their net and escaped with great difficulty and almost at his last gasp.
One of the officials of the Misr mosque similarly fell into the hands of another bunch of rascals at Karafa. Other people happening to come on the scene, he escaped and ran for his life. But there were many others who, having left their family to go out, never returned home again.
One person whom I know to be scrupulously truthful has assured me that, passing a forsaken spot, she saw a woman with a bloated and decomposing corpse in front of her; that the woman was eating flesh from the thighs of the corpse; and that when she reproached the woman with the horror of such a deed, she replied that the corpse was that of her husband. Nothing was more commonplace than to hear people who were eating human flesh say that it was the body of their son, their husband, or some other close relative. An old woman eating a tiny child would excuse herself by saying that it was her daughter’s son, not an infant she did not know, and this it was better that she should eat him than that someone else should do so.
Nothing was more common than this kind of thing, and it would be difficult to find in the length and breadth of Egypt, even among people who live cloistered in monasteries, or women who spend their lives in the zenana, anyone who has not been eye-witness to such atrocities. Moreover, everybody knows that there were grave-robbers who ate or sold the bodies they dug up.
This hideous calamity I have just described struck the whole of Egypt. There was not a single inhabited spot where eating people was not extremely common. Syene, Kush, Fayum, Mahalleh, Alexandria, Damietta, and every other part of Egypt witnessed these scenes of horror.
A merchant friend of mine, a man you can count on, came from Alexandria and told me of a great many events of this kind that he had seen for himself. Most remarkable of what he told me was that he had seen five children’s heads in a single cauldron, cooked with the choicest spices.
But that is enough of this subject, on which – though I have dwelt on it at length – I have still been too brief.
Dr. Abd al-Latif, Relation de l’Égypte par Abd-Allatif, Médecin arabe de Bagdad, Paris, 1810 (written 1201-1207). In Reay Tannahill, Flesh and Blood: A History of the Cannibal Complex, London, 1975.