Disability in Ancient Egypt and the disabled Pharaoh

The face of the boy king Tutankhamen is one of the most famous in the world, or at least, the death mask of his sarcophagus is. This is by no means a real depiction of the face of the king however. The handsome face of the golden death mask was the face of a king, of the office, not of the 19 year old boy that resided beneath it for over 3000 years. His was one affected both by disease and disability. DNA testing of his mummy sparked conversations amongst academics about how disability was treated in the ancient world, exposing an interesting comparison between Egypt and other ancient societies such as Rome and Greece.

Traditional depictions of the Pharaoh are not portraits of the person who wears the crown, but rather portrayals of the office, displaying an ideal type rather than a real person. The identity of the king is usually only discernible by the context of the picture, either the writing or surrounding images, especially if the name is no longer readable. The real Tutankhamen was not the chariot riding battle fighting pharaoh that most would suspect, but was frail and reliant on a cane to walk. This was likely the result of a bone disorder that had caused necrosis of the bone tissue in his foot and leg, giving him a clubbed foot.

Statue of an Egyptian scribe with dwarfism and his wife and children (depicted below the two)

This would have been very painful and kept him from many of the traditional kingly activities, but it would not have been life threatening. Malaria however would have been. The DNA tests carried out also showed that Tutankhamen’s body was riddled with the deadly disease carried by mosquitoes. Scientists found more than one strain, suggesting that the young king Tut contracted the illness several times during his life. It would have greatly weakened his immune system and interfered with the healing of his foot. Some now even theorise that it may have been malaria coupled with the necrosis in his bones that killed him.

The dwarf god Bes, god of childbirth

Despite the very physical nature of his disability contemporary art displayed him as it displayed all royal kings; strong, fit and healthy. This was not an attempt to erase disability from society however, merely in keeping with the depiction of the Pharaonic ideal type. Despite the lack of art showing Tut’s disabilities, depiction of disabilities within the wider population were common, enough so that it marks Egypt out from other societies such as Greece and Rome. Societies such as these linked the purity of the soul to that of the body, ie a pure soul is housed in a beautiful body. For this reason, disability was considered a sign of the gods’ displeasure. As such depictions of disability in Greek or Roman art is extremely rare. In Egypt the opposite was true. Egypt is considered to have been one of the more enlightened of the ancient civilisations. As such their outlook on the disabled was markedly different to that of their contemporaries. They considered physical disabilities as divine attributes granted to humans by the gods. This is expressed through the representation of certain gods with misshapen bodies or as dwarfs, such as the patron god of childbirth, the dwarf god Bes. Moral teachings also stressed that people with disabilities should be respected. Teachers and philosophers warned against robbing or harming disabled peoples, and taught that they should not be laughed at or caused unnecessary hardship. Far from looked down on, people with disabilities were respected and cared for by society, showing a remarkably modern and enlightened attitude towards them.

Workers depicted, one with a hunched back and one using a crutch to walk