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Temple of Sais: African medical school 3000 – 525 BCE

Written by Oadeye

During 3,000 BC – 525 BC, there was a medical school in Egypt that trained both male and female physicians. The leading physicians of this institution, the Temple of Sais, were sometimes special advisers to the House of Pharoah. Discover the story of Pesehet, Lady Overseer of Female Physicians 2,500 BCE, and the function of the Temple of Sais.

temple of sais pic 1 - map

Map of the ancient cities of Egypt showing the location of Sais

Some millennia ago, in ancient Egypt, the Western Nile Delta on the Canopic branch of the Nile was the location of the ancient and mystic city of Sa, from the Greek name “Sais” (the modern day governorate of Gharbiyah). On the archaeological site of the city, there is a village called Sa-el-Hagar, translating from Arabic into (Sa the stone), which indicates that in this location, there was once an impressive city filled with magnificent stone structures and buildings.

Around 3000 BC when the Pharaonic era was starting, the city was the cult centre of the war goddess and creator, Neith.  Neith was the goddess of Sais, a great protector of the people of the land and an accomplished mediator between humanity and the gods. This is quite rare in Egypt because usually, creation gods and deities are males. She is depicted wearing the Deshret red crown (which bears the cobra of Wadjet), of Lower Egypt indicating that she was of great importance to the entire northern region of Egypt. From 1000 BC and onwards, the Neith temple was a centre of pilgrimage.

temple of sais pic 2 - neith

Gilded bronze statuette of the Egyptian Goddess of War, Neith

Some centuries later during the years 664-525 BC, the city was famed as Egypt’s Pharaonic capital and centre for ceremonial events of the 26th Dynasty kings. About 150 years later, the Greek historian, Herodotus described Sais as a great city, filled with grand temples, colossal statues, and splendid royal tombs.  He also describes the Sacred Lake at Sais, where rituals were performed and water from the lake was used for washing in the temple of Sais. Herodotus also describes witnessing the ceremony of the Lighted Lamps Festival performed on the lake, where the light lamps were saucers filled with salt and oil with the wick floating thereon and burning all night. The festival was celebrated on the 13th day of the 3rd month of summer in honour of the goddess, Neith.

Other ancient Greek historian and scholars including Plato, Aristotle and Diodorus Siculus identified Neith with the greek goddess Athena and suggested an ancient link to the city of Athens. Diodorus formed a theory which says that goddess Athena built Sais before the flood that supposedly destroyed the two cities, Athens and Atlantis. While all Greek cities were destroyed during the catastrophe, the Egyptian cities including the city of Sais survived.

temple of sais pic 3 - pesehet

Pesehet, Lady Overseer of Female Physicians (2500 BC)

The ancient city of Sais is renowned of having a medical school that was associated with the temple. The medical school of Sais had many female attendees and participants, both as students and as faculty members, focusing mainly on the fields of gynaecology and obstetrics. A name that has been associated with the temple school of Sais is, Pesehet (2500 BC). She is the second recorded female physician in all of history after Merit-Ptah (2700 BC).  It is recorded that Pesehet oversaw the training of the midwives, that fact, along with her given title “Lady Overseer of Female Physicians’ indicate that not only was she a physician but that she was the supervisor of a group of other female physicians. She also held another title, “King’s Associate” and this indicates that she was possibly the personal physician of the monarch. Her advancing in the field of medicine was through teaching it and influencing her society. When taking into account the collected archaeological data, it is concluded that Pesehet is the first woman known to have had a high professional status in an ancient civilization.

temple of sais pic 4 - female physician

Depiction of a Pharaoinc female physician

In Plato’s well-known dialogues Timaeus and Critias, were he speculates on the nature of the physical world and human beings, he wrote that; when the Greek legislator Solon visited the city of Sais in 590 BC, he received the story of the city of Atlantis, including its military antagonism against both Greece and Egypt, its eventual defeat and its destruction by the catastrophe that fell upon it as a result of the gods’ anger and punishment.

Sais was ruled by many clever kings; among them was king Nekau who ruled for 15 years during the 26th Dynasty. He despatched an expedition that circumnavigated Africa, and he initiated the construction of a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea. The construction of the canal was finally completed under the ruling of the Achaemenid king, Darius I.

Psamtek (Psammetichus III) was another ruler of Sais who was considered Persia’s constant rival and enemy. Just after he became king, the Persians invaded Egypt in 525 BC. It is documented that the Persian king, Cambyses destroyed many monuments and buildings in Egypt, including several temples at Sais.

Up until the mid-19th century, western explorers recorded a massive brick enclosure wall and a Citadel in the location of Sais. Alas, by the end of the 19th century, most of the structures had been removed by European treasure hunters and local builders leaving practically nothing of this once great city.

An excavation held in 1993 uncovered the location of the capital city of Sais, including an industrial area. They also found Greek trading amphorae and cups and Syro-Palestinian wine jars, which indicate that the city of Sais was actively engaged in trading with the surrounding areas and lands. Upon further searching, objects and material from around 1100 BC were revealed. They indicate that Sais was a wealthy farm town at the time, for houses were found to contain ovens, storerooms, reception rooms and courtyards. Evidence was also found that at the time, they worshiped a local cobra goddess by the name of Wadjet (the same cobra on the Deshret crown of Lower Egypt worn by Neith) .

temple of Sais (Sa el-Hagar) - reconstruction of the great

Reconstruction of the temple of Sais

temple of sais pic 6 - ruins of sais

It is thought that all the kings of Sais were buried in the city; however, their tombs have not been discovered yet. The Egypt Exploration Society is sponsoring a survey and an archaeological assessment of the site. Even though the site currently lacks of things to see, evidences and clues are promising that there is still much to be discovered and secrets waiting to be unravelled in the location of the ancient and royal city of Sais.

temple of sais pic 7 - excavated site

The modern day excavated site of the ancient city of Sais

Bibliography

  • The Gods of the Egyptians: Vol 2″, E. A. Wallis Budge, p. 220-221, Dover ed 1969, org pub 1904, ISBN: 0-486-22056-7
  • Medicine in the Days of the Pharaohs, Bruno Halioua, Bernard Ziskin, M.B.DeBevoise. ISBN: 978-0674017023
  • Penelope Wilson, The Survey of Sais (Sa el-Hagar), 1997-2002 (Excavation Memoir 77, Egypt Exploration Society, London 2006). ISBN: 978-0856981753

 

 

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Oadeye

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