In the second millennium BCE, a series of catastrophes struck the Egyptian civilization during the period known as the New Kingdom. Talmudic and Biblical accounts of these catastrophes refer to them as the ten plagues of Egypt, which were visited upon the Pharaoh and his Egyptian subjects for enslaving the Israelites, led by Moses. The ten plagues of Egypt described in the Book of Exodus are the first example in an historical, written record of what today might be described as an “emerging infectious disease.”
Causes and interpretations of the plagues of Egypt have fascinated theologians, historians, Egyptologists, musical composers, scientists, and physicians for centuries. More recently, modern scientific disciplines—epidemiology, epizoology, entomology, microbiology and toxicology —have attempted to explain exact causes for one or more of these plagues. In recent years, re-interpretations of ancient texts as well as new information about environmental factors and disease causation, have allowed unique interpretations of this series of early public health catastrophes.
Yet, despite centuries of speculation and study,
fundamental questions remain.