Three Historical Outbreaks of the Plague

Written By A.R. Arthur

A.R. Arthur (formerly A.R. Salandy) is a Black Mixed-race poet & writer who has spent most of his life in Kuwait jostling between the UK & America. He is the EIC of Fahmidan Journal/Publishing & Co, Reviews Editor at Full House Literary & Poetry Editor at Chestnut Review. Twitter/Instagram: @ararthurwriter

The Bubonic Plague has been known by a variety of names from the Black Death to the Great Mortality. This disease has been with humanity for thousands of years and continues to exist in minute outposts all over the world. The first evidence of the Plague bacteria—Yersinia pestis—was found through archeological finds from the late bronze period with secondary bacterial finds in human remains ranging from 2800 to 5000 years old. From Buboes to rotting flesh and high fevers, this disease was a brutal fate.

For our American readers, you only have to look to the south west where a handful of cases still emerge yearly. Thankfully, with decades of scientific development and painstaking medical work, this disease can now be treated and has a mortality rate of just 10% with treatment. Let’s explore three historical outbreaks of the Plague.

Persia & The Gulf

Historical records suggest that the plague was first encountered in what is now modern-day Iran around 543 CE through its spread from Italy and the Roman Empire’s army before spreading to  the Persian Empire when the two were at war. Subsequent outbreaks in the following century saw tens of thousands die with over 100,000 dying near the Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon, close to the  modern day Iraqi capital of Baghdad. For centuries to come, several notable waves of the Plague ravaged the area. The plague reemergence of 688-689 CE saw over 70,000 people become victims of this invasive disease. Interestingly, the Plague was responsible for the eventual immobilization of Persian armies for generations which ultimately allowed for the swift conquest of Persia by the Muslims during the seventh century.

Notable instances throughout the Gulf in the last 500 years illustrate that the threat lingers even if presumably out of sight, but most certainly not out of mind. The Plague outbreak of 1773 in Kuwait affirms this and the 1831 outbreak saw over 60% of the Kuwaiti population lost. As recently as the 1990s, a handful of cases in Jordan and Saudi Arabia arose, with the consumption of camel meat cited as a factor in both cases.

Western Asia & North Africa

The “Black Death” pandemic emerged in Asia through the Silk-road trade route beginning in the far east. Modern theories are centered around changing climate influences which forced rodents, and the fleas that spread this toxic bacterium, to migrate farther west. Although no singular explanation is universally accepted, virologists, epidemiologists, and other scientific professionals, tend to agree on this theory due to biological evidence and the length and heavy usage of the trade route both to and from Asia.

In Asia, this disease also spread through warfare. The Mongol Horde, who was suffering from the disease, would catapult corpses over the besieged city of Crimea 1346-47 in an effort to take the city through the infecting of its population. Unfortunately, this meant that many would ultimately spread the disease farther.

Warfare and trade were arguably the sole driving causes of this contagion reaching Alexandria by the fall of 1347. The plague swiftly spread throughout the Islamic world and despite the great deal of medicinal action, medieval hospitals, and policy used to contain the Plague, the disease could not be contained and eventually decimated the populations of the Eastern Roman Empire and those throughout the Levant.

Modern day Tunisia and Morocco also suffered greatly with the plague reaching these areas by the spring of 1348.


Medieval Europe faced an onslaught of Plague waves over 1347-1353 with successive waves reaching ever farther into the continent and its isolated areas. From Alpine villages to seldom explored areas of the Baltic region, and the furthest vestiges of modern-day Great Britain, the Plague left no home unscarred. The worst wave of the Plague is said to have originated from the Italian island of Sicily through merchants traveling by boat; by the summer of 1348, few areas of the continent, bar much of modern-day northern Russia, had not been ruthlessly attacked. By 1351, even the most northerly bastions of Europe had been overrun.

Notably, English depictions of the Black Death have been preserved well with examples of some of the healing remedies used at the time including the use of sweet spices and herbs used to block the Plague’s transmission through the air. The belief that the Plague was transmissible by “Bad Air” is particularly intriguing as it highlights the shift in human thinking as to what is transmissible. An estimated 50 million lost their lives throughout the Black Death period in medieval Europe.

[image: chromolithograph of flagellants in Netherlands 1349.]