National Geographic : 1917 Jul
FEARFUL FAMINES OF THE PAST Tacitus left grim pictures of the dis tress and suffering which afflicted the civilized world in that era, when houses were filled with dead bodies and the streets with funerals. A peculiar feature of the famine and pestilence which visited the Roman prov ince of Apulia a hundred years later was the amazing swarm of locusts which filled the air and covered the ground. Sicinius was dispatched with an army to try to battle with the winged pests. Thou sands of peasants lay down to die on the highroads, and so dire was the pestilence which accompanied the famine that even the vultures refused to feed upon the fallen. This scourge of starvation and pesti lence extended as far west as England. During a brief period 5,000 people died daily in Rome, where the only method of combatting disease was, the practice of "filling the noses and ears with sweet smelling ointments to keep out the con tagion." It is not improbable that the suffering of this time was a "flareback" from the pestilence of 166 A. D., which had been borne to Rome from Arabia, where, ac cording to Ammianus Marcellinus, it had emanated from the foul air which es caped from "a small box opened by a Roman soldier, Pandora-like, at the cap ture of Seleucia." Not only did famine and pestilence spread from Arabia to the banks of the Rhine, but also "inundations, caterpillars, vapors, and insects," leaving in their wake decayed and deserted villages through out Gaul. EGYPTIAN FAMINES UNDER MOHAMME DAN RULE Probably in no other country in the world has a people been brought to such a low ebb of morality or become so com pletely lost to all semblance of rational humanity as in the series of famines which swept over Egypt during the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, under Mohammedan rule. A low Nile in 967 A. D. resulted in a famine the following year, which swept away 6oo00,ooo people in the vicinity of the city of Fustat. G'awhar, a Mohammedan Joseph, founded a new city (the Cairo of today) a short distance from the stricken town and immediately organized relief measures. The Caliph Mo'izz lent every assistance to his lieutenant, sending many ships laden with grain; but the price of bread still remained high, and G'awhar, being a food controller who had no patience with persuasive methods, ordered his sol diers to seize all the millers and grain dealers and flog them in the public mar ket place. The administrator then estab lished central grain depots and corn was sold throughout the two years of the famine under the eyes of a government inspector. In taking these steps to mitigate the suffering of the Egyptians the Moham medan viceroy was far in advance of the European rulers of his day, but in allow ing the natives to cast their hundreds of unburied dead into the Nile, thereby tainting the waters all the way to the sea, he failed to evince any glimmer of under standing of the laws of sanitation. TERRIBLE PUNISHMENT FOR A REBEL During this famine and the subsequent plague a petty official of lower Egypt re volted against G'awhar. The rebellion was suppressed with some difficulty, but the leader was finally captured in Syria. As an example of the fate which would befall all rebel leaders in times of na tional calamity, G'awhar made the un happy captive drink sesame oil for a month, after which his skin was stripped from him and stuffed with straw, then hung upon a bean and displayed through out the country. There was no G'awhar to conduct the relief work during the next Egyptian famine, which came in 1025, during the Caliphate of Zahir. The suffering, there fore, was much more wide-spread. It became necessary to prohibit the slaugh ter of cattle, and there was no meat to be had anywhere, as fowls, the common meat of Egypt, had quickly disappeared. The stronger among the population turned brigand and began to prey upon the weaker members of society. Cara vans and pilgrims were attacked and Syr ian bands began to invade border towns.