By Dr. Joshua J. Mark
Professor of Philosophy
Disease has been a part of the human condition since the beginning of recorded history – and no doubt earlier – decimating populations and causing widespread social upheaval. Among the worst infections recorded is the plague which is fairly well documented in the West starting with the Plague of Justinian (541-542 CE) and continuing on through the Black Death (1347-1352 CE). Outbreaks of plague following the Black Death already had a body of literature to draw upon and so, in the West, are also well documented.
The same cannot be said for the plagues of the Near East which claimed millions of lives between 562-1486 CE throughout the regions now known as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt among others. The initial plague is thought to have been a continuation of Justinian’s Plague, although other theories as to origin have been suggested, and the epidemics which followed are considered either a resurgence of this plague or another strain brought to the region through trade or the return of troops from campaign. These outbreaks are sporadically mentioned in histories of the plague owing to a number of factors including:
- Reluctance of Near Eastern writers of primary sources to address the issue
- Terminology used by these writers which confused plague with cholera
- Tendency of Near East scribes to ignore affected regions beyond their own
- Religious interpretation of the outbreaks which ignored practical details
- Lack of translations of primary documents into Western languages
- Reliance of Western historians on earlier Western historians/travel writers
Although later Muslim Arab writers would attempt to chronicle the outbreaks, they were working with meager source material, which was often confusing, and their works are therefore incomplete. Most scholars in the modern-day, therefore, focus on periods within the plague years which are better documented, the most famous being the Plague of Sheroe of 627-628 CE which helped topple the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE) and contributed to the destabilization of the region. Even so, enough source material does exist to enable one to chart the plagues of the Near East through 1486 CE, by which time more complete records of the disease were being kept.
First Recorded Plague
Plague is defined as a contagious bacterial disease which, since the 19th century CE, is known to be caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis which was only localized and identified in 1894 CE. Prior to that date, no one knew what caused the plague and it was routinely attributed to the anger of the gods or God for the sins of humanity.
Symptoms of plague include fever, body aches, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and, with bubonic plague, the presence of buboes, swollen nodes of the lymph glands. The three types of plague are bubonic, septicemic (infecting the blood), and pneumonic (infecting the lungs), and all are usually fatal.
The first definitive outbreak of plague was the Plague of Justinian as recorded by the historian Procopius (l. 500-565 CE) which killed an estimated 50 million people. Although this plague is routinely dated to 541-542 CE – the period when it struck Constantinople the hardest – it continued until c. 750 CE. It takes its name from the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (527-565 CE) and Procopius blamed him for the disease, claiming he had angered God by his unjust and capricious actions.
In his work History of the Wars Volume II, Procopius describes the plague as originating in the East and traveling to Egypt before reaching the Byzantine capital of Constantinople from which it spread further. Procopius describes the disease as sparing no region and respecting no season:
It seemed to move by fixed arrangement and to tarry for a specified time in each country, basting its blight slightingly upon none, but spreading in either direction right out to the ends of the world, as if fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it. For it left neither island nor cave nor mountain ridge which had human inhabitants; and if it had passed by any land, either not affecting the men there or touching them in indifferent fashion, still at a later time it came back; then those who dwelt round about this land, whom formerly it had afflicted most sorely, it did not touch at all, but it did not remove from the place in question until it had given up its just and proper tale of dead, so as to correspond exactly to the number destroyed at the earlier time among those who dwelt round about. (II.xxii. 7-11,Lewis, 470)
Symptoms began with a fever – which Procopius describes as seeming light at first and barely discernible by doctors – and then fatigue followed by dehydration, the appearance of buboes, delirium or coma, and then death. He writes:
Death came in some cases immediately, in others after many days; and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil and these did not survive even one day, but all succumbed immediately. With many also a vomiting of blood ensued without visible cause and straightaway brought death. Moreover, I am able to declare this, that the most illustrious physicians predicted that many would die who unexpectedly escaped entirely from suffering shortly afterwards and that they declared that many would be saved who were destined to be carried off almost immediately. So it was that, in this disease, there was no cause which came within the province of human reasoning. (II.xxii.30-36, Lewis, 473)
This would be the paradigm that defined later outbreaks of the plague in the Near East. The disease seemed to descend upon a population swiftly, take many lives, and move on. Procopius makes clear that, when it left Constantinople, it traveled to the land of the Persians where it killed many more than it had in the Byzantine Empire.
Djazirah Outbreak of 562 CE
The plague had been present in the East before it arrived at Constantinople, however. Scholar Michael G. Morony, citing the historian John of Ephesus (l. c. 507 – c. 588 CE), notes:
Whenever it invaded a city or village, it fell furiously and quickly upon it and its suburbs as far as three miles. It would not move on until it had run its course in one place. After becoming firmly rooted, it moved along slowly. This allowed word of the plague to precede its arrival. The people of Constantinople learned about the progress of the plague by hearsay over a period of one or two years. (Little, 64)
The Byzantines of Constantinople seem to have felt the plague of the East had nothing to do with them, however, and only found they were in error after it was too late. When it left Constantinople, it returned to the East – following the course described by Procopius – and struck at Mesopotamia, although precisely where is unknown. The later Arab writers describe this as the Plague of Djazirah (also given as Jazeera, “island”) which was their name for Mesopotamia (“the land between two rivers”). Where it first struck and how long it lingered is unknown but, in 562 CE, it killed 30,000 people in the city of Amida (present-day Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey) and struck again in 599 CE. Morony notes how “there was another outbreak of bubonic plague in 600 CE when many houses were left without inhabitants and fields went unharvested, but we are not told where” (Little, 65). This is characteristic of the reports of plagues in the East because many writers recorded news of the plague without specifying where it had struck unless it was close at hand.
It is for this reason that most discussions of the plague in the Near East focus on Sheroe’s Plague because, even though the details of the epidemic itself are often unclear, its effects are certain.
Sheroe’s Plague of 627-628 CE
The Plague of Sheroe takes its name from the Sassanian monarch Kavad II (r. 628 CE) whose birth name was Sheroe (also given as Shiroe). Kavad II came to power following the disastrous wars of his father Kosrau II (r. 590-628 CE) who drained Sassanian resources in his efforts to destroy the Byzantine Empire. The Sassanian nobility finally overthrew Kosrau II and crowned the prince Sheroe as Kavad II in his place.
Kavad II had all his brothers, half-brothers, and stepbrothers killed so they could not challenge his claim to the throne and then initiated peace talks with the Byzantines and reconstruction of the many cities damaged or ruined during Kosrau II’s wars. He did not have the time to complete any of his plans, however, as the plague – which had been sweeping the region since 627 CE – killed him in the fall of 628 CE, only a few months into his reign. Having executed all the legitimate male heirs who could have then taken the throne, he was succeeded by his seven-year-old son Ardashir III (r. 628-629 CE) whose reign was administered by the vizier Mah-Adur Gushnasp who was quickly overthrown and both he and the young emperor assassinated.
The death of Kavad II, and the aftermath, destabilized the Sassanian Empire which was still trying to recover from the losses incurred by Kosrau II’s wars and the plague. When the Arab Muslims invaded during the reign of Yazdegerd III (632-652 CE), the Sassanian Empire had no strength to repel them and so the plague is recognized as contributing to the empire’s decline and fall.
Later Plagues as Prelude to Black Death
The plague continued to prowl Mesopotamia afterwards and flared up again in 688-689 CE when the city of Basra alone lost 200,000 people in three days. In 698-699 CE the plague swept through Syria and in 704-705 CE it returned to northwestern Mesopotamia. This trend continued throughout the century until the Great Outbreak of 749-750 CE when the bubonic plague killed millions.
Unfortunately, the specifics of where these plagues struck is not always given nor are the death tolls other than a vague reference to “many” or “the whole city” or “the region” which do not always define which city or region or how many people were lost. There was a flare-up of bubonic plague between 746-749 CE – referred to as the Great Outbreak – in Constantinople, Greece, and Italy, with a death toll of upwards of 200,000, but in 750 CE the disease seemed to vanish; it is for this reason that 750 CE is usually given as the end of the plague but it is now believed that it only lay dormant before resurfacing again as the infamous Black Death. The last date given for plagues in Persia and the Near East, however, is 689 CE. Scholar Ehsan Mostafavi writes:
To the best of our knowledge, there is not any concrete documentation about plague outbreaks and plague’s impact on Persia between 689 and 1270 CE; it seems, though, that plague continued to spread throughout Persia, remaining endemic after the outbreaks of 689 CE, until the middle of the thirteenth century. (5)
Why the plague went dormant c. 689 CE in the East and 750 CE in the West is unknown. Theories concerning the effects of weather conditions on the rat population and how or if they were transported to more or less places seem untenable since Procopius clearly states the plague was unaffected by the weather or by any human action.
Black Death of 1346 – c. 1360 CE
For whatever reason, the plague slept until 1218 CE when there was an outbreak in Egypt that claimed 67,000 people before vanishing away again (Ben-Menahem, 663). When the plague returned in 1332 CE it struck in isolated areas at first and then gained momentum to engulf the East beginning in 1346 CE and spread to Europe by 1347 CE. This was the bubonic plague but the epidemic – which became a pandemic – also carried with it the other two types, septicemic and pneumonic, and came from Central Asia, most likely China.
Symptoms began, as with the Plague of Justinian, with a fever, body aches, and fatigue before the buboes emerged in the groin, armpits, and around the infected person’s ears. The plague also struck dogs, cats, and other animals – even mice – as was also reported of Justinian’s Plague. The mortality rate was astonishing with daily numbers given of 20,000 or more dead and final tallies of between 20-30 million people. Morony comments on the numbers given:
Can we take the numbers recorded in the [primary] sources literally? One cannot discount the presence of rhetorical hyperbole in these accounts, or the fact that the large round numbers they give can only have been estimates at best. There are at least two considerations to remember in dealing with this kind of information. One is that recording the number of fatalities was one of the ways these authors attempted to express the magnitude of the disaster. The other is that the number of fatalities is meaningless in demographic terms without knowing the size of the total population. (Little, 72)
While this observation has merit, it does nothing to diminish the widespread devastation of the human population of the Near East. People died so quickly, and in such large numbers, that proper mortuary rituals had to be abandoned and the dead disposed of as quickly as possible. Even so, as the death toll rose, bodies were simply thrown out of doors, tucked into the corners of buildings or left in alleys, on the porches of churches and mosques, or dragged into fields. Those who died in the street were left there because others were too afraid to go near them. Corpses that were dumped by streams or irrigation canals infected the water which then spread the disease downstream. The stench of the decaying bodies, and the fear of imminent death, made any semblance of returning to one’s former daily routine impossible and people tended to avoid the streets of any given city as well as each other.
The plague traveled from the East to the West in 1347 CE to ravage Europe via Genoese ships from the port city of Caffa (also given as Kaffa) on the Black Sea (modern-day Feodosia in Crimea). Caffa had been under siege by the Mongol Golden Horde, who had brought the plague with them, under the command of Khan Djanibek (also given as Jani Beg, r. 1342-1357 CE). As Mongol soldiers began dying of the plague, Djanibek ordered their corpses catapulted over Caffa’s walls, infecting the city’s population. Merchant ships from Caffa then fled the city for Italy, stopping at Sicily, then Marseilles, and Valencia, from whence the plague spread throughout Europe.
The disease is also thought to have arrived in Europe via the Silk Road with merchants coming from the East and this theory on point-of-origin, along with the Genoese ship account, provided European chroniclers with the starting point for their narratives on the Black Death. There was no need for the author of the Chronicle of the Black Death (c. 1350 CE), for example, to expend effort in researching the origin of the plague in Europe since it was clear it had come “from the east” and any further details were considered irrelevant as the authors focused on the plague’s effects. European writers also based their point-of-origin theories on earlier travel writers who reported regions such as Iran as plague free. The work of the Moroccan traveler and writer Ibn Battuta (l. 1304-1368/69 CE) – who reported on the plague in the East – was not available to Western writers.
Even if medieval and Renaissance European writers had made the effort to research plagues in the East, it is doubtful they would have had much success owing to the reasons cited above. As noted, primary documents of the Near East do not always mention the outbreaks and, sometimes, information on the devastation of a region only comes from town or city records or accounts by Muslim writers many centuries later. According to scholars Ahmad Fazlinejad and Farajollah Ahmadi, one difficulty in determining where and when the plague struck in the East is the terminology used:
Early historians used the word ‘plague’ to refer to any epidemic illness with a large death toll. Muslim writers generally use the Arabic word “ta`un” for “plague” but it seems that they were unable to distinguish plague from cholera because, in many cases describing the Black Death, the term is used interchangeably with the Arabic word “vaba” (cholera). (56-57)
Another difficulty in defining where and when the plague struck, as noted, is simply a scribe’s tendency to ignore areas beyond their own town, city, or surrounding region. The religious interpretation of the plague also affected how it was recorded in the Near East since, because it was thought to have been sent by God, scribes tended to focus on how one should respond on the spiritual, rather than physical plane, and precisely where the plague struck, or for how long, was considered less important than discussing how a believer should behave in the face of it. The question of whether God would want one to flee a land stricken by plague or remain, for example, is dealt with at length while what one should do on a practical level to avoid the disease is ignored and, it seems, was not even considered since the plague was supernatural in origin, sent by divine will.
The plague continued through 1486 CE, though on a much smaller scale (except for periodic flare-ups) than in 1346 – c. 1360 CE, and would continue to make appearances in the Near East up into the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries CE before its cause was understood and steps could be taken to control it. Even so, and contrary to popular opinion, the plague continues to significantly affect populations around the world in the present day, many of whom continue to attribute the disease to the will of God and ignore practical measures which would save lives.
- Iran’s Coronavirus Outbreak Bizarrely Resembles the Black Death by Robert FiskAccessed 26 Mar 2020.
- Ahmad Fazlinejad and Farajollah Ahmadi. “The Black Death in Iran According to Iranian Historical Accounts from the 14th through 15th Centuries.” Journal of Persianate Studies, Volume 11; 2018, pp. 56-71.
- Ben-Menahem, A. Historical Encyclopedia of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. Springer, 2009.
- Christensen, P. The Decline of Iranshahr. I.B. Tauris, 2016.
- Ehsan Mostafavi. “Plague in Iran: Past and Current Situation.” Department of Epidemiology, Pasteur Institute of Iran, Tehran, Iran, 2020, pp. 1-22.
- Farrokh, K. Shadows in the Desert. Osprey Publishing, 2009.
- Lewis, J. E. The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness Ancient Rome. Running Press, 2003.
- Little, L. K. Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Olmstead, A. T. History of the Persian Empire. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
- Van De Mieroop, M. A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 – 323 BC, 2nd Edition. Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 03.30.2020, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.