Contagion and Quarantine, 18th Century BCE Style

Zimri-Lim, the king of the Mari people of 18th century BCE in part of what is now Syria, kept meticulous records in the form of stone tablets. One of these tablets records a lethal disease, which he called a simmum (lesions), that spread across his kingdom, and how he responded. It is a testament to how limited our abilities to respond to pandemics have remained these past 3,000-odd years. According to Carly Silver, writing at, it is the first documented instance of a quarantine:

He likely based his orders upon seeing this method work in the past. In another missive to Shibtu, Zimri-Lim provided more orders regarding yet another woman who was ill with simmum. In this case, Zimri-Lim ordered Shibtu to sequester this lady, who was named Summudum. “This woman should go stay in one separate building and nobody should go in to see her,” the king wrote. If no separate building was available, another room, as far away from the rest of the royal women as possible, would be the next best option. Distance was key. He exclaimed, “Whether she dies or lives, in either case [other] women might come down with that simmum. May just this woman die!”

In his letter regarding the woman named Nanna, the king noted that not only was she banned from socializing with the other ladies of the palace, but everything she had touched must be avoided as well.

“Give strict orders that no one drink from the cup she uses,” the king wrote to his queen, “and no one sit on the seat on which she sits, and no one lie on the bed on which she lies, so that it should not affect many women.” 

Another remarkable thing about this episode is how well they understood the concept of contagion several millennia before the germ theory of disease:

“It’s interesting that even though the mechanism for the spread of contagious disease was understood differently in Mari than it is today, the fact that a disease could be contagious was recognized,” says Dr. Al-Rashid.

One thing that regularly strikes me when I read ancient history is how we consistently underestimate the knowledge and capacities of ancient peoples. Given how little our pandemic response has improved over thousands of years we should assess our relative advancements with humility.

African Fashion: Underappreciated and Under-studied?

“They know about European dress. They might even be able to touch on East Asian dress and clothing,” she adds. “But they know nothing about the Americas or Africa or anything like how this affects people and why it affects people.”

That’s Teleica Kirkland on teaching Western fashion industry insiders about the the African diaspora’s fashion heritage, from this profile in okafrica. Kirkland is the founder of the London-based Costume Institute of the African Diaspora, the goal of which is to be a “‘growing resource hub’ for knowledge sharing around African clothing and dress.”.

One difference that Kirkland notes about the clothing of the African diaspora is how dynamically utilitarian it is:

“The history of clothing is not preserved the way history of clothing is preserved in a European context or in the American context,” says Kirkland. “Everything in the Caribbean is used until it can’t be used again, which means it’s disintegrated. But then, even that history is interesting: trying to explain how a dress becomes a skirt, a shirt becomes a baby’s nappy or a baby’s outfit, then becomes a rag, and then becomes something else until there’s nothing left of it—this explains the context of how people relate and engage with their clothing in that particular way.”

With Anti-Semites Like These…

Yesterday Tablet Magazine published an interview that David Samuels did with Kevin MacDonald, a racist and anti-semitic conspiracy theorist whose writing has apparently inspires a number of modern-day anti-semitic movements, including the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. The interview is fascinating for many reasons, one of which is how banal and poorly-thought-through MacDonald’s racial theories are.

Take this bit about MacDonald’s assertion that Jewish neoconservatives pushed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, duping Bush, Cheney and Rumsefeld into doing something they wouldn’t have wanted to do otherwise (Samuels’s comments are in bold, MacDonald’s responses not):

I’ve never met Paul Wolfowitz, so I have no idea. But I’ve interviewed Donald Rumsfeld at length. If I had to pick an outstanding personality trait of Donald Rumsfeld, from what I observed, I would say that he was one of the most supremely confident human beings I’ve ever met—


—with a very low tolerance for listening to other people’s stupidity, or listening to other people at all. He ran the Nixon White House when he was 30. Before that, he was a wrestler who flew fighter planes. Then he ran Searle, which was a huge drug company, and he became incredibly wealthy.

So the idea that Paul Wolfowitz or anybody else was telling Donald Rumsfeld what to do, and that Rumsfeld then robotically obeyed them, or was mesmerized by them, seems ridiculous.


Dick Cheney—also not a person who seems especially malleable, from what I can tell. Colin Powell—I interviewed him once. A very strong-minded guy. Those were the people who along with the president and Condoleezza Rice collectively decided to invade Iraq and impose their stupid Freedom Agenda. Not Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle. They were pikers.

That’s interesting. You know, I certainly didn’t take account of that, in my little section on Wolfowitz. I know he was a hero to the neocons, who was being idolized like some kind of a rockstar.

Or this, about just how powerful the Anti-Defamation League really is:

Compared to the American Association of Trial Lawyers or ATT? They don’t have much power.

Right, right. I get it. Well, two things. One is about the ADL, on things like immigration policy and refugees. I can’t think of any significant group of Jews that opposes the ADL’s position—

Stephen Miller is Jewish.

He’s a good example, yes. 

The whole interview is interesting, though MacDonald’s poorly-constructed notions get increasingly boring and sophomoric the more he talks. It’s a strong counterexample of de-platforming. In this case, the more platform this guy has, the flimsier and more absurd his ideas look.

Classical Music Post-COVID: Taiwan Edition

We have to check the temperatures of the whole audience and all the musicians. We have to collect contact information, just in case, and decide on the capacity of the audience in the hall. On stage, the strings can wear masks, so we can avoid social distancing greater than 1.5 meters. For the winds, we have transparent plastic guards to separate individuals.

Couples are still allowed to sit together, because we register all the names and contact information from the audience. The capacity of the auditorium is around 2,000, and we can have about 1,000 people in it right now.

That’s Wen-Chen Kuo, executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Taipei, interviewed in Van Magazine.

Meanwhile, in the US, the New York Philharmonic has cancelled its fall season, at a cost of about $9 million. Here’s Wen-Chen Kuo on his orchestra’s financial situation:

The government’s financial support for us is around 60 percent. So we still have to balance our budget, but things are working OK for us so far: financially we’re quite healthy.  It’s only been three months. We’ll be back to normal life in June.