The evidence of cannabis use in Ancient Egypt starts with the word shemshemet. In 1934, Warren Dawson translated the Egyptian shemshemet as Cannabis Sativa.

Some scholars like Benson Harer argue against this assumption. Harer claims there is no evidence that shemshemet was cannabis, rather than some other plant. Others like Ethan Russo point to at least six supporting experts who claim evidence of cannabis in ancient Egypt (pre-Arab conquest).

Was Shemshemet Cannabis?

However, the actual evidence still seems to rely heavily on Dawson’s translation of shemshemet. Dawson found a biblical reference in the Old Testament that referred to a hemp rope made from shemshemet. He then tied this word to a pyramid text that translates as “the King has tied the cords of the sˆmsˆmt-plant.” Dawson decided that this plant was “Cannabis sativa, much more likely” (Russo). Following Dawson’s translation, many associate the word shemshemet with cannabis. However, no ancient Egyptian rope made of cannabis fibres has been found.

Egyptians used flax, raffia, palm, and camel hair to name a few (2). Since “hemp” can refer to ropes made from any type of plant, Dawson’s translation seems more like a guess than a factual conclusion. Whether this hemp was referring to cannabis or not is debatable. Many articles are speculative about cannabis use in ancient Egypt, although historians doubt the validity of these claims.

Extrapolating from Egyptian papyrus, the supposed uses for cannabis in ancient Egypt are to treat inflammation and pain. Some uses for the plant also include vaginally with honey to decrease inflammation, a poultice for an injured toe or finger, and a wash for the eyes. Cannabis is the assumed plant for these treatments, based on Dawson’s translation.

According to Harer, the use of cannabis in Egypt only dates back to the seventh century AD, after the Arab conquest. Egyptians would have eventually been exposed to hashish, an Islamic cannabis concentrate. In modern-day Egypt, cannabis is quite popular but it is still illegal.

Footnote(s)

1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17712811/
2. https://www.jstor.org/stable/e26580626