The striking physical abnormality that afflicted one ancient Egyptian pharaoh would have set him apart from his peers. Relatively little is known about his actual reign, but a group of scientists have now confirmed that he suffered from a rare medical condition. And they believe it is the oldest such case ever identified.
Published in the medical journal The Lancet in August 2017, their findings are based on a forensic analysis of what are believed to be the pharaoh’s malformed bones. The study appears to have settled a long-running debate among Egyptologists and experts in ancient diseases.
In fact, the findings not only offer fascinating historical insights, but may have important therapeutic implications. “Studying the evolutionary development of diseases is of importance for today’s medicine,” one of the study’s authors, Michael Habicht of the University of Zurich, told the website Live Science.
The pharaoh, known as Sanakht, is believed to have reigned during Egypt’s Third Dynasty, around 2700 B.C. This period marked the dawn of high civilization in the lower Nile Valley – a 500-year era known to Egyptologists as the Old Kingdom or “the Age of the Pyramids”. It was characterized by dramatic transformations in architecture and economy.
However, Sanakht’s exact place in the Dynasty is disputed. Some Egyptologists say he actually founded the Third Dynasty, citing claims by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived during the third century B.C. Others point to recently unearthed evidence that strongly suggests Sanakht reigned during the Dynasty’s later period.
Likewise, the duration of Sanakht’s rule is strongly contested. Manetho’s claim that he ruled for 18 years seems dubious because few relics survived from his reign, unlike some other pharaohs of the same period. Of course, Manetho lived some two thousand years after Sanakht, meaning his account is unlikely to be entirely reliable.
In fact, the entire reign of Sanakht is something of a mystery. Depictions of the pharaoh have been identified at the archeological site of Wadi Maghareh in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, suggesting important connections with that place. The acquisition of mineral wealth, especially turquoise, was probably one of his chief concerns.
Meanwhile, even Sanakht’s burial site is disputed. In 1901 scientists identified a tomb near the site of Beit Khallaf which contained an abnormal skeleton. Many researchers think it is Sanakht. However, others believe that the tomb belonged to some other person of importance – a prince, queen or high official.
But assuming the skeleton does belong to Sanakht, it is doubtful that his abnormalities carried any social stigma in ancient Egypt. Generally speaking, physical malformations of the kind he suffered were widely tolerated. “Man is clay and straw, the God is his builder,” wrote an ancient Egyptian called Amenemope. “The Wise Man should respect people affected by reversal of fortune.”
In fact, some conditions – including those which might be considered handicaps by modern society – were actually revered by the Egyptians. One example is dwarfism. Dwarves are depicted on at least 50 tombs in Giza and Saqqara. And they apparently fulfilled a wide variety of occupations, from fishermen to royal servants.
Indeed, dwarves were so respected in ancient Egypt that they were even elevated to divine status. Ptah, a god of rebirth and creation, was occasionally depicted as a dwarf; as was Bes, a god of sexuality and love. However, Sanakht was not a dwarf. In fact, he experienced an entirely different condition.
“The alleged Sa-Nakht probably had gigantism,” wrote the scientists in The Lancet, “truly being the oldest known palaeopathological case in the world… the fact that he was buried with honours in an elite mastaba-tomb… suggests that gigantism at the time was probably not associated with social margination.”
In fact, their analysis of Sanakht’s bones revealed that the pharaoh had a height of just over 6 feet 1 inch. Sanakht was therefore tall by modern standards but by no means “a giant” (after all, the average height of American men is 5 feet 10 inches). By ancient Egyptian standards, however, Sanakht was relatively colossal.
According to Habicht, the average height of Egyptian men during that period was 5 feet 6 inches. Since pharaohs enjoyed better diets than commoners, one might expect them to be taller than average. However, Sanakht was in a league of his own. The next tallest pharaoh was Ramessess II at 5 feet 9 inches. He ruled a thousand years after Sanakht.
While Sanakht would have certainly cut an intimidating figure, there is no indication that his height conferred any unique privileges. “While short people were much preferred in ancient Egypt, especially in the early dynastic period,” wrote the authors of the study, “we have no records that very tall people had any special social preference or disadvantage.”
Gigantism is caused by an excess of growth hormone and it can result in body heights of up to 9 feet. Though its origin is sometimes genetic, it is usually caused by a tumor in the brain’s pituitary gland. Gigantism starts in childhood, while acromegaly – a related disease which also causes excessive growth – begins after puberty.
In fact, Habicht’s study resolves a long-running debate as to whether Sanakht suffered from gigantism or acromegaly. Indeed, the oldest known evidence of acromegaly significantly predates Sanakht. Discovered in New Mexico, the remains of a person who lived around 10,000 years ago showed signs of acromegaly.
Sadly, gigantism and acromegaly can cause a range of associated health problems. The effort required in moving a large, heavy body places particular stress on the bones and heart. However, in ancient Egypt, there would have been no effective treatments available to Sanakht, either surgical or pharmacological.
Meanwhile, giants have featured in a number of ancient legends around the world. The archetypal giant known as Gigantus – from which the word “giant” is derived – is one of many in Greek mythology. In the Bible, Goliath was a giant and Philistine warrior, famously slain by David the Israelite.
Sanakht may not have been a giant by modern standards, but his place in ancient history confers him a kind of mythological mystique. Presently we know very little about Sanakht “the giant”. But with any luck, archaeologists may be able to tell us more about the mysterious pharaoh in the not-too-distant future.