Horrific histories: Egypt’s cannibal holocaust

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Human stew

A little known period of Egyptian history reveals almost unspeakable horrors of grotesque acts of cannibalism and vile murder.

Egypt suffered from a seven year famine which began around the year 1201 and resulted from the Nile running almost dry. During this time renowned Iraqi historian and Egyptologist Abdallatif al-Baghdadi (عبداللطيف البغدادي‎) was living in Cairo and chronicled the atrocities unfolding.

Abdallatif begins his account of those dreadful days explaining how those who had not fled Egypt were so desperate to eat that they began eating carrion and even excrement. But before long dead dogs were in small supply and people looked elsewhere for their meat. At first the stories of cannibalism shocked and appalled the citizens of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, but Abdallatif writes that eventually roasted children were sold in market places as if it were completely normal. The historian notes what he says is a trustworthy witness telling him of seeing five children’s heads bubbling in a cauldron along with the choicest spices.

“It was not unusual to find people [selling] little children, roasted or boiled” the scholar wrote.

Visitors to people’s homes were offered delicious stews, later to learn that they were eating carefully prepared human fricassee. One horrified midwife recounted to Abdallatif how she had been offered a tasty casserole at the home of a family she was working for, but she couldn’t make out what kind of meat had been used. When she enquired what the stew was made from the daughter of the family revealed they were consuming a fat lady who had visited her father, the rest of her was in the pantry, “jointed and hung.”

Unscrupulous rascals began snatching children off the streets to eat them, some people were lured to abandoned houses only to end up dismembered and served in curries. Another historian, Stanley Lane-Poole once wrote about how travellers through Cairo were caught like fish.

“Passengers were caught in the streets by hooks let down from windows, drawn up, killed, and cooked”

Baby casserole

Baby casserole

Some starving famine victims didn’t even bother cooking the infants they devoured. In Abdallatif’s writing it tells of a young nanny caring for a rich family’s toddler, whilst the nanny was otherwise distracted a beggar-woman simply cut the child’s belly open right there in the street and began eating its innards raw.

On another occasion a witness stumbled across a woman eating the flesh from a bloated corpse, when confronted the cannibal-woman explained that the cadaver was that of her dead husband, which somehow excused her ghoulishness. In fact Abdallatif explains that many of the cannibals excused their behaviour by eating their own kin, as that was better than murdering and eating strangers.

Of course, even in medieval Egypt murder and cannibalism were not allowed. Anyone, particularly at the start of the dreadful famine who were caught with a roasted baby, or human flesh on their lips, was put to death by immolation, burned alive at the stake. But such was the need for food, and the popularity of cannibalism, that no sooner had the apprehended cannibals been burnt they would be devoured by more famine victims like freshly cooked human kebabs.

The full extent of the cannibal holocaust at that time is not properly recorded, but Abdallatif claimed it was extremely widespread, right across Egypt, and claiming many hundreds if not thousands were eaten by the cannibals. In just one house the scholar claims four hundred skulls were discovered. One enterprising grocer stockpiled human flesh pickled in jars. When he was asked why he had so much meat he explained that he was concerned if the famine continued for much longer even the men would be too lean to eat.

Eventually after seven long years the Nile rose once more and prosperity returned to Egypt. Abdallatif’s full account appears in the book Flesh and Blood: A History of the Cannibal Complex written by Reay Tannahill and published in 1974.

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