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.