“My lord!” The call echoed down the long hallway, accompanied by the sounds of wheezing breaths and sandals slapping against the floor. Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, exhaled gustily. He had recently embarked on his royal tour of the kingdom. Just an hour earlier, he had marched through the city walls of Terqa with his entourage. He had barely even had a chance to offer sacrifices to Dagan, a patron god of the city. But as he took a deep sip from his goblet, he turned to see the messenger hurtling through the doorway. The man pressed his forehead to the ground, clutching in one hand two clay tablets, both crammed full of angular cuneiform text.
“Yes?” Zimri-Lim glanced down.
“Queen Shibtu sent me.” The man rocked back onto his heels and met King Zimri-Lim’s eyes. “My king, there is simmum in the palace.”
Zimri-Lim took a deep breath. Anyone who fell ill with simmum, a mysterious disease that could leave seeping sores upon the skin, had offended the gods and was struck down by the divine. And the victims’ own cursed touch could spread to others, sickening them.
“Who?” the king croaked.
“Two women,” the messenger said. He began to read. “‘Your servant, the maid of Hussutum, filled up with the punishment of the god, and I evicted that woman from the palace. Senior cantors must come and cleanse the palace.’”
Zimri-Lim expelled a harsh breath and nodded. The messenger brandished the other tablet and continued, “The first is called Attuzar. Attuzar has been evicted from the palace. She is now gone. The second is Astakka.”
Zimri-Lim’s heart plummeted; he felt his hand tremble as he fingered the pendant at his neck — carved from lapis and adorned by a golden lion with the wings of an eagle, it was a gift from the king of Ur. He often visited the women’s quarters, where his wives and concubines resided. What if the gods’ wrath could now be in him, on him? What if Dagan grew angry with him, despite all of his prayers, offerings and sacrifices? He knew there were no scars or oozing, open wounds on his body, but still…
“What does the queen plan to do with Astakka?” Zimri-Lim muttered.
“‘Right now I have made her dwell in the new quarters.’” The messenger recited from Shibtu’s tablet. “‘Table and meal have been separated. Nobody will go near her bed or chair.’”
Zimri-Lim heaved a sigh; born a princess in her own right, his savvy wife knew her duty. The sick woman must be shut away, her possessions sequestered, to prevent Dagan’s fury from spreading.
“Astakka now resides in an unused building, my lord,” the messenger continued. “Her quarters will be cleansed. What message shall I take back to the queen?”
Striding out into the hallway, the king called back over his shoulder: “Tell her to continue her efforts. Burn everything belonging to them both.”
Frantically checking your own condition against the known symptoms of a contagious disease will sound familiar to pretty much everyone in the world right now. And this very type of panic once consumed the ancient realm of Mari. Located in the northeast of what is now Syria, Mari was one of the most prosperous city-states of the 18th century BCE. Its greatest king, Zimri-Lim, extended Mari’s sphere of influence by military and marital alliances, built an architectural marvel in his grand palace, and kept the peace along his trade routes.
Zimri-Lim also preserved his military, diplomatic and personal correspondence in a massive archive. More than 20,000 of these tablets — written mostly in Akkadian, the diplomatic lingua franca of the day — were excavated in the 1930s. A number of these letters dealt with the spread and subsequent containment of simmum. Zimri-Lim and his chief wife, Shibtu, exchanged correspondence about how to stop the sickness afflicting their courtiers from spreading. (Of course, some of the details in the scene above are assumed — we can’t know exactly what the king said or did at any exact moment that took place nearly 4,000 years ago, and we don’t know Astakka’s exact role in the court — but the crux of the story is told in these surviving ancient tablets. The pendant mentioned, the gift from Ur to Mari, resided at last report in the National Museum in Damascus.)
According to Assyriologist Dr. Markham J. Geller of University College London, simmum, best translated as “lesion,” may refer to a contagious skin condition. Assyriologist Dr. Moudhy Al-Rashid observes that simmum could serve “as a label for multiple related illnesses, and as a metonym for such illnesses and/or their symptoms.” The Mesopotamians might not have understood “contagion” in the sense of transmission of germs, but they knew it could spread.
“It’s interesting that even though the mechanism for the spread of contagious disease was understood differently in Mari than it is today, the fact that a disease could be contagious was recognized,” says Dr. Al-Rashid.
And the Mesopotamians also knew the way to stop the spread of the disease was by isolating the people who had it. In his correspondence, Zimri-Lim discussed how to handle sick women in his palace and how to stop them from infecting others. Saving the majority necessitated sacrificing the few, casting out those ill with the gods’ fury from their chambers or, in some cases, from the palace entirely.
In one letter, the king ranted that he heard rumors that a woman named Nanna had fallen ill with simmum. Rather than isolate herself, Nanna still “frequent[ed] the palace” and mingled with the other women residing there. Such reckless action, the king raged, “will infect many other women,” as this disease “is contagious.”
If the Mesopotamians did not understand the disease’s transmission in terms of germs, then how did they comprehend its spread? Presumably because they had seen it happen before. As Mesopotamian historian Edward Neufeld observed in a 1986 essay, Zimri-Lim’s instructions are “matter-of-fact” and contain no explanation, which implies the spread of such diseases — and measures to contain it — were already well-known. Just because this is the earliest reference to contagious disease doesn’t mean it was the first time such an incident was observed; in fact, far from it.
Zimri-Lim’s letters also provide the first verifiable evidence of enforced quarantine. He likely based his orders upon seeing this method work in the past. In another missive to Shibtu, Zimri-Lim provided more orders regarding yet another woman who was ill with simmum. In this case, Zimri-Lim ordered Shibtu to sequester this lady, who was named Summudum. “This woman should go stay in one separate building and nobody should go in to see her,” the king wrote. If no separate building was available, another room, as far away from the rest of the royal women as possible, would be the next best option. Distance was key. He exclaimed, “Whether she dies or lives, in either case [other] women might come down with that simmum. May just this woman die!”
In his letter regarding the woman named Nanna, the king noted that not only was she banned from socializing with the other ladies of the palace, but everything she had touched must be avoided as well.
“Give strict orders that no one drink from the cup she uses,” the king wrote to his queen, “and no one sit on the seat on which she sits, and no one lie on the bed on which she lies, so that it should not affect many women.”
These items would need to be ritually purified before they could be used again, undergoing sort of a spiritual disinfecting process. Think Lysol, but with added oxen sacrifices and studying of entrails.
It seems, though, that the spreading of the illness could not be easily stopped. In one letter to the king, the author wrote of the increasing number of sick people, lamenting, “I am afraid they will infect the land, all of it.”
Another letter from the archive, directed to Zimri-Lim’s predecessor Yasmah-Addu, recalls that the city of Dunnum had been stricken with illness, and refers to “a corpse heap” in the city.
“Within two days about 20 men of the troops died,” the letter says, adding that the citizens of Dunnum “left the city and went to the mountain of Laqsum,” a more isolated location — not unlike people fleeing New York City and other dense virus hot spots this year.
Eventually King Zimri-Lim was able to contain the virus. His surviving letters do not record the exact number of casualties from this epidemic, but at some point simmum ceased to be mentioned in his correspondence with Queen Shibtu — which makes historians believe that he effectively flattened the curve and was able to lift the quarantine.
Today’s pandemic is hardly the first time humans have found ourselves in such a situation. Ancient history shows that the key to survival is quarantining, social distancing and being willing to play the waiting game.