"My lord!"

The call echoed down the long hallway, accompanied by the sounds of wheezing breaths and sandals slapping against the floor. Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, exhaled gustily. He had recently embarked on his royal tour of the kingdom. Just an hour earlier, he had marched through the city walls of Terqa with his entourage. He had barely even had a chance to offer sacrifices to Dagan, a patron god of the city. But as he took a deep sip from his goblet, he turned to see the messenger hurtling through the doorway. The man pressed his forehead to the ground, clutching in one hand two clay tablets, both crammed full of angular cuneiform text.

"Yes?" Zimri-Lim glanced down.

"Queen Shibtu sent me." The man rocked back onto his heels and met King Zimri-Lim's eyes. "My king, there is simmum in the palace."

Zimri-Lim took a deep breath. Anyone who fell ill with simmum, a mysterious disease that could leave seeping sores upon the skin, had offended the gods and was struck down by the divine. And the victims' own cursed touch could spread to others, sickening them.

"Who?" the king croaked.

"Two women," the messenger said. He began to read. "'Your servant, the maid of Hussutum, filled up with the punishment of the god, and I evicted that woman from the palace. Senior cantors must come and cleanse the palace.'"

Zimri-Lim expelled a harsh breath and nodded. The messenger brandished the other tablet and continued, "The first is called Attuzar. Attuzar has been evicted from the palace. She is now gone. The second is Astakka."

Zimri-Lim's heart plummeted; he felt his hand tremble as he fingered the pendant at his neck — carved from lapis and adorned by a golden lion with the wings of an eagle, it was a gift from the king of Ur. He often visited the women's quarters, where his wives and concubines resided. What if the gods' wrath could now be in him, on him? What if Dagan grew angry with him, despite all of his prayers, offerings, and sacrifices? He knew there were no scars or oozing, open wounds on his body, but still…

"What does the queen plan to do with Astakka?" Zimri-Lim muttered.

"'Right now I have made her dwell in the new quarters.'" The messenger recited from Shibtu's tablet. "'Table and meal have been separated. Nobody will go near her bed or chair.'"

Zimri-Lim heaved a sigh; born a princess in her own right, his savvy wife knew her duty. The sick woman must be shut away, her possessions sequestered, to prevent Dagan's fury from spreading.

"Astakka now resides in an unused building, my lord," the messenger continued. "Her quarters will be cleansed. What message shall I take back to the queen?"

Striding out into the hallway, the king called back over his shoulder: "Tell her to continue her efforts. Burn everything belonging to them both."

Frantically checking your own condition against the known symptoms of a contagious disease will sound familiar to pretty much everyone in the world right now. And this very type of panic once consumed the ancient realm of Mari. Located in the northeast of what is now Syria, Mari was one of the most prosperous city-states of the 18th century BCE. Its greatest king, Zimri-Lim, extended Mari's sphere of influence by military and marital alliances, built an architectural marvel in his grand palace, and kept the peace along his trade routes.

Zimri-Lim also preserved his military, diplomatic, and personal correspondence in a massive archive. More than 20,000 of these tablets — written mostly in Akkadian, the diplomatic lingua franca of the day — were excavated in the 1930s. A number of these letters dealt with the spread and subsequent containment of simmum. Zimri-Lim and his chief wife, Shibtu, exchanged correspondence about how to stop the sickness afflicting their courtiers from spreading. (Of course, some of the details in the scene above are assumed — we can't know exactly what the king said or did at any exact moment that took place nearly 4,000 years ago, and we don't know Astakka's exact role in the court — but the crux of the story is told in these surviving ancient tablets. The pendant mentioned, the gift from Ur to Mari, resided at last report in the National Museum in Damascus.)

According to Assyriologist Dr. Markham J. Geller of University College London, simmum, best translated as "lesion," may refer to a contagious skin condition. Assyriologist Dr. Moudhy Al-Rashid observes that simmum could serve "as a label for multiple related illnesses, and as a metonym for such illnesses and/or their symptoms." The Mesopotamians might not have understood "contagion" in the sense of transmission of germs, but they knew it could spread.

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