Leprosy in Mesopotamia

Document Type: Original Article


1 School of Human Life Sciences, University of Tasmania, Locked Bag 1320, Launceston, Tasmania 7250, Australia

2 Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health, Massey University, Private Bag 11222, Palmerston North, New Zealand


Leprosy is an ancient disease, known from South Asia since at least 2000 BCE. While there is no physical evidence of this disease in the region before about 50 CE, five different words are translated as “leprosy” in Mesopotamian texts and some of them occur frequently. Based on the texts, one word (garāṣu) is rarely used and there is evidence that the other four words relate to diseases that were treated, could be cured and, did not always require that affected individuals be permanently excluded from society. From this we conclude that the four commonly seen words do not describe modern leprosy. Three words (saḫarašubbû, epqu, garābu) also signify “scales” or “scabs”, which naturally prompts the speculation that they are skin diseases more serious than eczema. The final word (būšānu) has been associated with several modern diseases, but the common feature appears to be a bacterial infection affecting the skin, mouth and nose.