Egypt by Simon Matzinger
Mental Health and Wellness

Mental Health in Pre-colonial Egypt

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Pyramids of Egypt, photo courtesy

  • During pharaonic times, opium was used to treat mental illness
  • First mental health hospital opened in Baghdad in 705 AD
  • Community involvement in mental health                   

“The whole manner of life of the Egyptians was so wholesome, that it would appear as though it had been arranged according to the rules of a learned physician rather than those of a legislator…” – Diodorus Siculus.

A great Greek historian, living in 1st century BC, Siculus’ description of Egyptian life as not only spoke on day to day life but encompassed physical as well as mental health.  

Yet when we think of Egypt and it’s history, our minds often wonder to the towering pyramids and great pharaohs but not mental health practices.

One man interested on illuminating these incredible practices has been Professor Ahmed Okasha. As a renowned Egyptian psychiatrist and scholar, he has published several articles on the history and concept of mental health in Egypt.

In Egyptian Contribution to the Concept of Mental Health (2001), he describes in detail how changes in governance, religion and culture have influenced Egypt’s mental health services over time.

Okasha begins by taking us back to 2980 BC when Pharaohs were still at the helm of power and Egyptians worshipped and received treatment through psychotherapeutic methods such as ‘incubation’ and ‘temple sleep’ within temple walls.

Associated with the earliest known physician in history, Imhotep, temple sleep was a popular form of treatment for most Egyptians.

Through herbs believed to be opium, the course of treatment varied depending on the content of dreams, confidence in the supernatural powers of the deity or on the suggestive procedures carried out by the divine healers.

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Once asleep in the temple, the Egyptian could try and contact the gods through magic and interrogate them with the principal aim of knowing her future, dangers that threatened her, evil spells that followed her as well as a cure for her ailments.

Patients reported feeling better after the treatments, whether the treatment actually worked or it was the effect of the herbs on bodily senses of the body, particularly opium, is not clear.

A few centuries later in 7th century AD, within a space of two years, the Arabs conquered the land of Egypt from the Eastern Roman Empire bringing their culture and religion Islam, effectively changing the course of mental health in Egypt.

During the Islamic era, Okasha establishes that it is imperative to give a clear distinction between the concept of demonic possession in the middle ages in the west and the Islamic concept of jinn possessing an insane individual.

Egyptian scholar and psychiatrist, Professor Ahmed Okasha, photo courtesy

In Islam, he says, jinn are not necessarily evil spirits but supernatural beings who could be good or bad. Although a person may be perceived as being possessed, the possession may be by a bad or good spirit. Consequently, one cannot generalize punishment or condemn unconditionally.

The Islamic world at the time was quite forward thinking in their ways of handling mentally ill patients thus it should not come as a surprise that the first mental hospital was built in Baghdad, Iraq in 705 AD.

Hospitals in Cairo (800 AD) and Damascus (1270 AD) came up a few years later. At the same time in Europe, demonology and superstition gained renewed importance in the explanation of abnormal behaviour.

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Many strongly believed in casting out of evil spirits from the body of an afflicted person offering relief to the person.

However, the most famous of these hospitals was Kalaoon Hospital built in Cairo in the 14th century.

Kalaoon was popular for it’s time because it offered mental health services alongside ophthalmology and surgery, a concept considered revolutionary as it would not be seen in the west until much later.

A key highlight of the hospital was community involvement in the care of the mentally ill. The wealthy would contribute to the mental health department and patient’s upkeep until they could stand on their own two feet, leaving no room for stigma to take root.

Many countries today, including Egypt, have adopted modern methods of treating mental health patients but as we can see from the history of Egypt’s mental health practices, proper treatment methods was not exclusive to western cultures.

Egypt continued to be a pioneer in the field of mental health enacting a mental health act in 1944, considered a rarity at the time for many Arab and African states.

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