Tim Mackintosh-Smith, trans.

Jun 21, 2021

A Physician on the Nile

A Description of Egypt and Journal of the Famine Years

NYU Press 2021

A Physician on the Nile: A Description of Egypt and Journal of the Famine Years (NYU Press, 2021) is a unique text that will fascinate specialists and general readers alike. Written by the polymath and physician ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī, and intended for the Abbasid caliph al-Nāṣir (r. 1180-1225 CE), the first part of the book offers detailed descriptions of Egypt’s geography, plants, animals, and local cuisine, including a recipe for a giant picnic pie made with three entire roast lambs and dozens of chickens. ʿAbd al-Laṭīf’s text is also a pioneering work of ancient Egyptology, with detailed observations of Pharaonic monuments, sculptures, and mummies. An early and ardent champion of archaeological conservation, ʿAbd al-Laṭīf condemns the vandalism wrought by tomb-robbers and notes with distaste that Egyptian grocers price their goods with labels written on recycled mummy-wrappings. The book’s second half relates his horrific eyewitness account of the great famine that afflicted Egypt in the years 597–598/1200–1202. ʿAbd al-Laṭīf was a keen observer of humanity, and he offers vivid first-hand depictions of starvation, cannibalism, and a society in moral free-fall.

At times funny and witty, at others poignant and harrowing, al-Baghdadi's voice is rendered through the expert translation of Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a travel writer and Arabist who has been based in Sana'a, Yemen, for four decades. In this interview we discuss the art of translating a text for a modern audience, and explore this fascinating text, published in a bilingual Arabic-English version by the Library of Arabic Literature (New York University Press, 2021), which is distinguished by the acute, humane, and ever-curious mind of its author.

Christopher S Rose is a social historian of medicine focusing on Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean in the 19th and 20th century based in Austin, Texas.

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Christopher Rose

Christopher S. Rose is a social historian of medicine focusing on Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean in the 19th and 20th century. He currently teaches History at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas and Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas.

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