With scant and imprecise records, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to how developed in the science of medicine and health some of the advanced ancient civilizations were around the world. One such mystery lies in the elegant travel wonder, the Temple of Kom Ombo, built on a bend in the Nile just over two thousand years ago.
Most visitors to Egypt split their time between the seething pandemonium of Cairo with its world-famous Pyramids, Sphinx and museum and enjoying a few days cruising the snaking Nile between Luxor and Aswan (or vice versa). Between restful scenes of farm and rural life along the banks and the gentle flutter of white sails on the feluccas as they exploit the subtle breezes, the cruises stop off at various temples. These remarkable feats of engineering on an immense scale are richly inscribed and delicately decorated in hieroglyphics detailing the deep sense of the importance of religion and culture in Egyptian life at the time.
Strolling around the dual temple at Kom Ombo, unusually dedicated to both Sobek (the crocodile-headed god of creation and fertility) and Horus the Elder (the falcon-headed god of protection) there is a sense of familiarity with the towering symmetric columns of the hypostyle halls and the remains of the various rooms, halls, chambers and sanctuaries. The flecks of paint that have survived the test of time serve as a reminder of what an extraordinary sight these striking structures must have been in full vivid colour back in ancient times. A small crypt off to one side houses a handful of mummified crocodiles.
However, along the back wall in among the hieroglyphics is a surprise. The wall contains engravings of scalpels, forceps, small bottles, scissors, scales, hooks, probes, dilators and various other pieces of medical supplies – the first known depictions of surgical equipment and surely an indicator of advanced medical expertise. Despite the ancient Egyptian’s remarkable skills in dealing with mummies, is it feasible that such medical practices were available over two thousand years ago and numerous centuries before most of these procedures are generally accepted to have been performed?
Another wall shows what appears to be a stethoscope complete with its two cords for the ears and cup for placing against the patient’s chest. Yet, the invention for this instrument is credited to a Frenchman, René Laennec around twenty centuries later in 1816. While opinion among Egyptologists vary as to whether this is a stethoscope, it is difficult to come up with another sensible view on what we may be.
As the small boats paddle for home silhouetted by the reds and oranges of the setting sun painted on the Nile and the floodlights start to dominate the Ptolemaic temple, it is interesting to contemplate on whether Kom Ombo will ever yield its medical secrets to the modern world. Irrespective, it is interesting to hear the stories of the guides around the Egyptian travel wonders and to speculate on the skills of this extraordinary ancient civilisation.