WTF Fun Fact 13539 – Male Menstruation in Egypt

While male menstruation sounds like an anomaly, accounts from Egypt painted a curious picture.

During the Napoleonic campaigns in the early 19th century, French soldiers noted a peculiar condition among the local Egyptian men: many reported blood in their urine, leading to the label “the land of the menstruating men.”

Deciphering Male Menstruation

The actual cause behind this perplexing phenomenon is a parasitic disease named schistosomiasis. It originates from Schistosoma worms.

When freshwater snails infected with these parasites release larvae, those larvae can penetrate the skin of humans who come into contact with the water.

Once the larvae invade a human host, they mature into adult worms that live in the blood vessels. The female worms lay eggs, some of which the body excretes through urine or feces, and some remain in the body.

It’s these eggs that can cause inflammation, tissue damage, and bleeding when they lodge in the bladder or intestine.

The presence of blood in urine, or hematuria, became a characteristic symptom among many Egyptian men. This sign of schistosomiasis was the source of the “male menstruation” confusion.

The disease not only caused physical distress but also carried a significant cultural and psychological burden given the societal perceptions of the symptoms.

French Soldiers and Schistosomiasis

In the late 18th century, under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, French ambitions extended beyond Europe, aiming to challenge the British Empire’s growing dominance.

The French campaign in Egypt, which began in 1798, was a strategic endeavor to disrupt British trade routes to India and spread revolutionary ideals. Napoleon, with an army of approximately 35,000 soldiers, invaded Egypt, capturing Alexandria and later Cairo.

This expedition was not purely military; it also included scholars and scientists who studied the ancient and contemporary culture of Egypt. Their presence led to significant discoveries, including the famed Rosetta Stone.

However, while the campaign had initial successes, it faced challenges, such as an encounter with schistosomiasis.

While the local Egyptians bore the “menstruating men” moniker, the French soldiers were not immune. Many who waded in the Nile for bathing or other activities also contracted the disease. However, the term likely stuck more with the Egyptians due to pre-existing observations.

Unraveling the Mystery of Menstruating Men

It took some time before medical professionals connected the dots. The visible blood in urine, a clear symptom of a severe schistosomiasis infection, was initially misunderstood. (However, both men and women suffered from this symptom.)

Eventually, with advancements in medical knowledge and further studies in parasitology, the real nature of the disease became apparent. Scientists and doctors recognized that the “male menstruation” was actually a manifestation of schistosomiasis.

Modern medicine offers effective treatments for schistosomiasis, primarily using the drug praziquantel. Efforts to control the disease also focus on reducing the population of infected snails and improving sanitation to prevent contamination of freshwater sources. Education campaigns aim to reduce human contact with infested water.

Today, the disease remains endemic in many parts of Africa, including Egypt, but global health initiatives strive to reduce its impact.

Recognizing the history and myths surrounding schistosomiasis can help in understanding its cultural implications and the importance of continued efforts to combat it.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “History of schistosomiasis (bilharziasis) in humans: from Egyptian medical papyri to molecular biology on mummies” — Pathogens and Global Health

WTF Fun Fact 13040 – The Oldest Toothpaste

We tend to think of ancient people as having horrible tooth decay. In fact, it’s often referred to went talking about their shorter lifespans. But it turns out that toothpaste (and teeth cleaning generally) is an ancient concept. The oldest toothpaste comes from Egypt.

Ancient toothpaste

Dental hygiene has always been of relative importance. People who lived thousands of years ago may not have had twice-yearly dental cleanings, but they did have bristled toothbrushes and toothpaste.

According to Open Culture (cited below): “not only did ancient people use toothbrushes, but it is believed that ‘Egyptians… started using a paste to clean their teeth around 5000 BC,’ even before toothbrushes were invented.”

The world’s oldest toothpaste recipe

According to The Telegraph, in 2003, the oldest toothpaste formula (so far) was found at a Viennese museum. It dates from the 4th century AD. The Egyptian papyrus (which is written in Greek) “describes a ‘powder for white and perfect teeth’ that, when mixed with saliva, makes a ‘clean tooth paste.'”

It requires:
1 drachma of rock salt (about one-hundredth of an ounce)
2 drachmas of mint
1 drachma of dried iris flower
20 grains of pepper

The ingredients are to be crushed and mixed together.

Dental hygiene surprises

Rock salt, mint, and pepper are probably not a recipe for the most pleasant experience for your gums, but it would be refreshing.

Once we get into the middle ages, we start to see things like charms and amulets used for dental health – so at least ancient Egyptian toothpaste would remove some germs.

Dental health care is also described in Gilbertus Anglicus’ 13th-century Compendium of Medicine. It advises rubbing teeth with a cloth to remove “corrupt matter.”

It’s pretty clear that people have long understood the importance of dental hygiene for health.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Try the Oldest Known Recipe For Toothpaste: From Ancient Egypt, Circa the 4th Century BC” — Open Culture

WTF Fun Fact 12754 – Sudan Pyramids Outnumber Egypt’s

Interested in ancient civilizations? Want to see pyramids without all the tourists? Then you may want to consider visiting the Meroe region in Sudan. In Sudan, pyramids outnumber the Egyptian kind by nearly 2:1.

Nubian pyramids in Sudan

The pyramids belong to the ancient Nubian kings, who lived in the northern part of present-day Sudan. Meroe was the capital city of the Kingdom of Kush. The structures themselves are nearly 5000 years old and are largely untouched these days.

The main source of destruction to the pyramids was an Italian “explorer” named Giuseppe Ferlini. He blew up quite a few and destroyed the tops of many structures in his hunt for the kings’ treasures in the 1880s.

What’s inside Sudan’s pyramids

These little-known Nubian tombs have paintings on the inside celebrating the kings buried inside. And since the Nubians did business with other ancient civilizations, you can see Greek and Roman, influences in the artwork.

Since the Kushite kingdom is part of the Nile River Valley, the most prominent influence is that of the Egyptians. (Of course, Egypt’s pyramids are much older, dating back to the era of the New Kingdom from the 16th century BC to the 11th century BC).

Of course, many of the tombs were raided by Ferlini during his destructive episode, and the “loot” now resides in many European museums. But they had been plundered in ancient times as well.

Preserving the past

Luckily, the Nubian pyramids are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are generally protected from more harm. Until 2019, National Geographic funded further excavations of the site to learn more about the ancient kings and their civilization.

Much of the excavations require researchers to dive underwater to enter the structures.

According to NatGeo, “The largest and oldest pyramid at Nuri belongs to its most famous resident: the pharaoh Taharqa, a Kushite king who in the seventh century B.C. rallied his troops to the northern edges of his empire to defend Jerusalem from the Assyrians, earning him a mention in the Old Testament.”  WTF fun facts

Source: “Dive beneath the pyramids of Sudan’s black pharaohs” — National Geographic

WTF Fun Fact 12725 – Ancient Stone Pillows

It’s hard to find a good pillow. And while some of us like our pillow firm, it would take a major adjustment to sleep like ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians (well, in more ways than one, I suppose).

Here’s one of the most famous pillows in history, brought to you from Egypt King Tut’s tomb:

One of 8 headrests found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The god of air, Shu, is carved in ivory. The piece resides in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

It’s beautiful, but it lacks the kind of functionality we typically look for today.

Until the Industrial Revolution, pillows weren’t even a household object. Yes, some ancient Greeks and Romans did stuff straw in cloth to lay their heads on, but a pillow is also a symbol of having excess lying around to use for more practical purposes. However, we can credit the Greeks with bringing us closer to the era of the soft pillow.

However, in ancient Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt, wealthy people would elevate their heads on “pillow” made of stone (or ivory – or another luxury material). They were designed to keep insects out of their ears, noses, and mouths – and probably to maintain a good hairstyle every now and then.

We’ve also found some pillows that are beautifully engraved with messages about keeping away bad spirits as well, but it’s unclear how those would be fooled by an elevated head. Still, it gives us a good idea of what ancient people were concerned about when they laid down their heads at night.  WTF fun facts


WTF Fun Fact 12700 – Dr. “Mummy” Pettigrew

During England’s Victorian period, people were obsessed with ancient Egypt. But this fascination led them to plunder pyramids, disturb the dead, and desecrate sacred artifacts. Of course, they didn’t see it this way, they were just having a good time.

A surgeon and Egyptologist (back in the days when you could be both), Thomas Pettigrew, took advantage of this “Egyptomania” to aid in his research on mummies.

According to Tasha Dobbin-Bennett on behalf of Yale’s Peabody Museum:

“…During the spring and summer of 1833, Pettigrew conducted his research for this manuscript while leading three mummy “unwrapping” parties, where members of the British social elite would gather to observe the unwrapping of ancient Egyptian mummies. Although no longer under the employ of the Duke of Sussex, Pettigrew effectively parlayed his introduction to the social elite into patronage, riding on the wave of Egyptomania sweeping the British Isles. While the majority of these private parties were produced for entertainment value alone, Pettigrew utilized these events as another line of investigation complementing his education and access to extensive libraries. The material included within the manuscript testifies to his detailed and serious methodology, particularly in the chapters concerning the mummy as a drug, the embalming procedure and paraphernalia, and the comparison of classical authors with his research. Ten illustrated plates by the satirist George Cruikshank, the result of careful observation, complement the extensive text.”

Tomb-raiding was so common that Egyptian mummies could be procured by wealthy people for just about any purpose.

Apparently, mummy unwrapping parties sometimes involved the hosts giving away the objects people were buried with as party favors. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Mummy-Mania” – Yale Peabody Museum

WTF Fun Fact 12689 – The World’s First Gardens

While the practice of growing plants and flowers for aesthetic pleasure hasn’t been a characteristic of all times and places, gardening goes back thousands of years. There is evidence of Egyptian palace gardens in the second millennium BCE! And they were so large it was said that oarsmen could row their boats through their water features.

Of course, agriculture existed long before that, but gardening (or ornamental horticulture), was designed purely for pleasure (not for medicinal purposes alone) once people settled down.

While some trace the oldest gardens to China, those acted more as hunting lands. Other ancient references to “gardens” (such as in the Epic of Gilgamesh) were likely patches of trees and not purely ornamental agriculture.

In the 6th century BCE, gardening was in full bloom. The Babylonians had the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which the Hellenistic Greeks referred to as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

There were gardens at the schools of ancient Greece (Aristotle kept one) and all over Rome. In fact, the Romans were obsessed with gardening. The architectural author Vitruvius wrote the first book on landscaping.

After the decline of Rome, the Moors kept the tradition alive in the West (along with much of Western intellectual tradition) while a separate culture of gardening developed in China and spread to Japan. Monks also copied Roman gardening manuscripts and kept gardens of their own, penning some original gardening manuals as well.

Purely ornamental gardening fell out of fashion (or, well, people didn’t quite have time for it) in the middle ages. But it was revived again in France in the 13th century to some extent and boomed again in the Renaissance period.

In the 16th century, the Spanish were the first to build public parks. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Where was the world’s first garden made?” — Garden Visit

WTF Fun Fact 12423 – The Hebrew Hobbit

In 1970, ten Israeli Air Force pilots and their comrades were captured during the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and their allies. The conflict lasted from 1967 to 1970, but the POWs were not released until 1973.

While in captivity, the men were eventually allowed to spend time together, albeit in a cramped cell. One distraction from their years-long nightmare came in the form of a book that one of the pilots was carrying. Yitzchak Fir’s brother had sent him a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again. However, the book was in English, and not all captives could read it.

That’s when four of the pilots who could read English decided to translate the book for their fellow captives. Avinoam Kaldes, Rami Harpaz, Menachem Eini, and Yitzchak Fir first translated select parts and expressions. But once they realized it gave them a sense of purpose and a means of distraction. So they decided to translate the entire book from beginning to end.

It was a difficult task (and if you’ve read The Hobbit, you know that the poems in the book make translation particularly difficult). But working in pairs and editing the final draft, they finally got it done in four months.

It’s by no means the best Hebrew translation of The Hobbit, but it has the most remarkable story behind it. Their translation was formally published in 1977 by Zmora Bitan Publishers (in part with funding from the Israeli Air Force). – WTF Fun Facts

Source: “Translating “The Hobbit” in Captivity” — The Librarians