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That day, a few years ago, I was not knowing that I will be stung by scorpions! I was walking on the burning sand scattered of thousands of stone fragments, bricks and terra cotta (pottery) in the sacred ground of the fortress of Khasekhemwy the biggest enclosure of the royal cult built in Abydos, and for many, one of the most mysterious monuments in Egypt...
Here and there, I saw little balls of excrements from the well known beetles (scarabs), symbolising resurrection and immortality, and also more important “marks” from stray dogs and sand foxes. I was in the South of Egypt, approximately 1.6 km North West of Seti I’s temple and the city of Abydos, the ancient city of Abdju, in the middle of the desert, under a scorching sun only made worst by the sand reflecting its rays. I was aware how lucky I was, to set foot on this sacred place, even if it was not the first time. Authorisations to walk there are extremely rare, because the site dates back to the two early dynasties of Ancient Egypt, and even further back. The site is very fragile because of its extreme antiquity. It is not open for visits. It was always being excavated by professional teams trying to unravel the secret of the earlier dynasties, which are still very mysterious in the eyes of History.
The big empty and rectangular space of the enclosure had to contain something, originally. In 1998, O’Connor discovered a large square mound of sand and gravel covered with bricks. The mound was located approximately in the same place than in the original mastaba of the Djoser pyramid in the North of Egypt in the Saqqara enclosure, which leads some to say perhaps it was the site of a proto-pyramid, since the enclosures will always encircle a pyramid. The comparison with the Djoser complex in Saqqara (3rd dynasty) doesn’t end here. The Khasekhemwy enclosure is surrounded by walls with niches called “palace facades”. Its principal entrance is in the South East.
For others and me, this mound rather represents a sacred mound a representation of the mound of the origins from where the sacred falcon watched over the world from his perch. According to others, this fortress-enclosure of the Gods could very well be one of the first sites where the mysterious Sed celebration took place, this pharaoh’s jubilee during which the king had to run on a precise path inside a sacred enclosure for a whole day (by the way, the Sed celebration took place in Saqqara) to receive the mysterious forces of regeneration supposed to confirm another reigning cycle.
So that day I was there for the second time, to think about it again. After escalading a small dune, I could see the dark walls of the incredible enclosure of pharaoh Khasekhemwy, last king of the second dynasty (2686 BC) beside the impressive Pega Mount. Khasekhemwy’s enclosure has a volume of 10.395 m². It measures 124m on 56m. Its brick walls are 10 and 11m high, and 7m thick in some places…The sight of these double thick walls, so ancient, in the silence of the desert, is really moving.
I already wrote years ago long chapters about all the archaeologic facts of this amazing place and all what I discovered and think about it, but today, it is only the scenery of the story I wish to tell you.
So, that morning, I remember that at one moment I sat on a clear sand just under the brick wall to rest a moment. I was wearing jeans and shoes for the sand but without socks due to the big heat of that Sumer in the South of Egypt. There was just 1 cm of my skin visible between the end of my jeans and my shoes. After may be 15 mn, I felt like a bee sting at my feet but seeing nothing and feeling good, I did not do anything.
It was 11am, the day was magnificent, I walked a lot and I came back to Abydos around 4 pm. Then I talked with archaeology inspectors and villagers. I had all my time because my personal driver and factotum was called the day before for a family urgent problem and had to join Luxor and then Cairo. It was arranged for him to come back to pick me in Abydos the day after. I knew that I had to stay one night more in Abydos, I was alone and without the mini-bus, blocked there, for that reason I enjoyed the Khasekhemy site once more. After a light dinner I went to the room I rented in an old lady home.
My small room was very clean and isolated from the main flat where she was sleeping. I found in a corner 3 small bottles of the national beer Stella ( probably the remains of a foreigner who had been there before me), and garlic drying. I was tired but well, and I went to bed not too late around midnight.
Suddenly at 2 am I woke up feeling very, very bad :
I was hyper sweating, I had nausea and my heart was pounding. I waited for a moment in bed but nothing was calming, and the very idea of having to get out of bed was unbearable for me … I felt within myself incapable of moving. But I had left my water bottle on a small table in the room, so I forced myself to get up to go to take it. During the moving I felt dizzy and felt a stabbing pain at my right ankle. My surpise was that my ankle had almost tripled in size!
I collapsed into bed: I had to think fast and well. What worried me the most were the frantic beating of my heart. The state of my ankle reminded me that I had been bitten by something. More than 15 hours after the slight sting feeling I had felt in the morning, it could not be a bee sting. Looking better, I saw that it was not the typical bite of a snake either. So there were only two options: spider or scorpion. I watched my ankle and saw that there were probably several bites. I quickly excluded the spider option for various reasons that would take too long to explain here.
So, unfortunately the only remaining possibility was: one or more scorpions that has stung me! I had in mind that in about 1,500 species of scorpions 120 are identified as deadly species ! And that the worst species are precisely in the Sahara where I was! One of these species has the same toxicity as a cobra and kills a dog in 7 seconds, the man within hours!
Already I was sweating profusely but this was worse! I was just surprised to not feel severe pain in my ankle until I remembered that dangerous species for humans have a venom devoid of enzymes which is why their sting is strangely painless.
What to do?!
I quickly tried a clinical picture: sweating, probably high blood pressure, crazy beat of my heart, pelvic pain, nausea, and I was feverish with phases of cold chills … I was probably in stage II, I had not yet breathing problems but then I would have reached the stage III. What to do ? This question turned constantly in my terrified head.
Wake my landlady? It would have taken me to cross the two courses and the stairs separating me from her apartment. I had not the strength. And what more could have done this old lady who had trouble walking? Calling someone in the night to take me to a poor dispensary? It would have taken hours and also to call a doctor even urgently. I was away from everything and Abydos is more a large remote village in the desert than a city with all infrastructure.
And taking injections to support the heart may have the opposite effect. The interaction with the poison can duplicate its strength, I had heard terrible stories about it. I needed a true specialist with good analysis done, but the first big city with everything needed was more than 200 km away, 3 hours by car was needed. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, away from everything …
And if I phoned to Luxor for an ambulance (If I was able to find the number… and there was no internet where I was), time that it happens and to take me back over there: more than 6 hours will passed, and I do not know if I would live so far ! And I felt that I had not the strength to be transported in that real moment…
Moreover scorpions anti serums are often inefficient and highly discussed and I did not know what kind of scorpion had stung me and it was a little late for a serum. (In fact, I was going to remember the kind the next day because it was an image I had repressed strangely: a small transparent scorpion that I had time to see a split second and then immediately strangely repressed.)
I thought also to call the barracks nearby: I knew that police or military would have helped me faster, gaining 3 hours … but when I understood all the long explanations that I should give, the time one sends me a vehicle with permissions and wake some people … hours would have passed … I would have been anywhere else in Egypt, my friends would have carried me away fast, but I was in the only place where I did not get the time to make friends … Calling my health assistance in France? They would have advised me but they needed 24 hours to repatriate me, even if they had a correspondent in Luxor. And I was not really sure if my condition was really serious, I had my super swollen ankle and symptoms but I was bathing like in a cloud of unreality! I was not able to understand how I got symptoms after 15h of the stings!
One thing was certain: my driver was going to take me at 7:30 am the next morning as agreed … I had to hold until then, until my trusted man was back and will do everything for me. I looked at the time: It was 3 am … I had to hold 4:30 + 3 hours to get to a hospital in Luxor!
But I was aware that the biggest danger for the moment was the heart, heart attack is the greatest danger when poisoned by venom … I was desperately looking for solutions when my eyes landed on a bottle of aspirin and my pile of books I carried everywhere to study. I hesitated to take aspirin but I think (perhaps wrongly) that for tissue oxygenation, it could be good, and I took one with plenty of water, and my eyes landed again on the books.
I realized that after my logical reasoning and also prayers to heaven that came to me from the start, I had to use all means including supernatural. And the pile of books reminded me of the knowledge of the ancients. I was a specialist of Egypt and I was in Egypt, so in despair why not to appeal to the knowledge of the ancients? To the point where I was with my heart beating wildly by periods, the pain growing in my belly, I did not hesitated long. The only thing is that I did not know how long my physical condition will allow myself to think … I had already a lot of difficulties to do it !
I gathered my thoughts somehow, “Look at what would do an ancient Egyptian in my case ? ” And immediately, the answer came in my fevered brain: he would go in front of a” Cippi” Horus stele that protected people from the poison of snakes, scorpions and from crocodiles bites! I could not move to one of these stelae but I had the representation of the best known of them, that of Metternich in one of my books. I will not be able to make libations of water on the carved hieroglyphics and formulas of this stele, and I will not be able then to drink that water of healing but but I will read at least the text on the stele… at the same time, I wondering if I was delirious watching the young Horus holding scorpions prisoners in his hands … .Then I remembered that the beer was for the Ancient Egyptians a healing drink because it purge the stomach, provided to spit some of it. I had beers and even if I hated it, I opened one and drank some. Then I also remembered a custom of the ancient Egyptians to do 7 knots in a cloth around the wound: I took my scarf and once the knots done, I applied it around my ankle. I felt curiously immediately, an increase of the pain in my ankle but on the other hand my perspiration was lesser.
I had also read in the papyrus of Leyden that garlic was “silencing the venom of scorpions”: I placed garlic all around my ankle and on my heart and felt soon as the victim of a Dracula! (Indeed may be the tradition of garlic against the vampires and demons just might be of ancient Egypt where poisons were considered as demons).
There were many other things to do but exhausted, I ended up falling into sleep to wake up on repeated blows to my door. I was hanging me up to the door. There, seeing my condition: my faithful driver quickly understood the situation and I soon found myself in the mini bus with him leading me at full speed towards Luxor.
Then some mixed images remained to me: the face in shock of the first doctor who examined my ankle, telling me that I had at least five stings and his insistence on asking me for how many hours I was stung without believing my answers and his insistence to ask me the size of my assailants. That’s when I saw briefly the repressed image of a small transparent yellow scorpion emerging from my subconscious but I could not tell if it was more than 5 cm long or less …
I realized later that his unpleasant insistence was important, because if the scorpion was less than 5 cm long my prognosis was no longer in danger but if …anyway he preferred me to be repatriated because he was afraid for my blood pressure and dared not to give me anything … The time waiting my transportation to France, I saw all the hospital service in my room watching the head of the one who had survived 5 scorpion stings, admittedly small, but still … Someone told me that the scorpions must have been very thirsty because they sting to hydrate themselves. At the time to let me go I saw the doctor approaching me and greeting me with both fear and respect as if I had emerged from the distant past! (That’s what he told me later).
Then Paris, where I fell in the greatest rationalism at the hospital where professionals did not believed a word of what I said (fortunately I had the report of the Egyptian doctor and health insurance). Only at the tests results I finally get listened by the doctors who found that my story was true from beginning to end and they could not understood how I have resisted.
The only two things favorable to my incredible healing, according the doctors, have been the fact that I had been stung in the lower body (not near the heart) and that we suppose that “my” scorpions were less than 5 cm long, but it did not include the number of stings! I do not know if aspirin, size of scorpions … played in my favor but anyway I kept my twice volume ankle for a month, then everything disappeared.
But above all I can say that since, I keep a great connivance with Ancient Egyptians because I was in their close company during very difficult times and because they contributed in one way or another in my recovery!
References: Budge, E.A. Wallis. "Magical Pictures, and Formlae, Spells, Etc." Egyptian Magic. London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner & Co. Ltd., 1901. 3 March 2004. Grajetzki, Wolfram. "Horus Stelae." University College London. 2003. 3 March 2004. Borghouts J.F., Textes et Langages de l’Egypte pharaonique » LdA III, 1137-1162 C.EGriffith F.-Thompson H., « The Leyden papyrus. » New York, 1974 Sander-Hansen : Die Texte der Metternichstele, Copenhague,1956
Text and Photos by Gigal
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This post is also available in: French