The word “asbestos" originates from ancient Greece, from a term meaning “inextinguishable.” While the mineral fiber is now known to be dangerous – it is the only known cause of the deadly cancer, mesothelioma – it had previously been used for centuries because of its extraordinary qualities. It is soft, flexible, and resistant to fire. In fact, asbestos’ attributes were considered so miraculous, it was hailed as the “silk of a magic mineral world.” Among the historical uses for asbestos, none is considered more fascinating than the role asbestos played in ancient Egypt.
Asbestos Beneath the Pyramids of Giza
Buried deep below the great pyramids of Giza (originally called pyramids at Memphis), lies an intricate labyrinth of passageways, caverns, lakes, and chambers. Designed to protect hidden scrolls, Greek historian Herodotus spoke in awe of the complex subterranean complex:
“There I saw twelve palaces regularly disposed, which had communication with each other, interspersed with terraces and arranged around twelve halls. It is hard to believe they are the work of man.”
One of the biggest questions surrounding the underground territory: How were the chambers and passageways lit? Historians agree flaming torches could not have been used because there were no signs of soot or dark smoke residue.
So how was light produced?
The answer: asbestos.
Historic study by Egyptologists as well as Greek and Roman historians provides scientific evidence that lamps were burning when the underground tombs of the dead were sealed. Later, witnesses reported that lamps were still burning when the chambers were opened hundreds of years later. Remarkably, these ever-burning lamps – or, “perpetual lamps” – were made possible by their asbestos wicks. When soaked in oil, they could burn for centuries - or perhaps forever - without a restock of fuel.
Famed theologian H.P. Blavatsky was one of many authors who recorded ways to make the inextinguishable fuel. In Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky wrote of the fuel, “...when made and lighted, [they] will burn with a perpetual flame and you may set this lamp in any place where you please.”
More Ancient Uses for Asbestos
Uses for asbestos extend into other ancient civilizations as well. In Greece, one of the very first citations about asbestos came from Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle. In One Stones, written in 300 B.C., Theophrastus referred to a substance that, when doused in oil, would burn continuously.
In the first century, Greek physician Dioscorides wrote about asbestos-made handkerchiefs that were “cleaned and whitened with fire” as a way to reuse and sell them to theater patrons. Dioscorides also described an asbestos quarry on Mount Olympus; one of many such quarries identified in Greece. Many of these quarries were mined of their “fibrous stone threads” which were later spun into flame-resistant cloth materials, like cloaks, tablecloths, and curtains.
Present Day Asbestos Use
While the wonder surrounding asbestos has long since diminished, its associated health risks are now at the forefront of news headlines around the world. Ancient civilizations did not know of the related health issues associated with asbestos. Today, however, government health officials report exposure to the fiber can cause cancer, including mesothelioma – a rare cancer of the mesothelium, the thin membrane that lines the lungs.
Despite the health risks associated with asbestos, and a massive effort to regulate and remove the mineral from structures and products across the U.S., the mineral is not banned. In fact, it is still legal to make products with less than 1% asbestos. According to the Center for Disease Control, recent uses for asbestos in the U.S. include:
- Automobile clutches
- Brake pads
- Corrugated sheeting
- Imported cement pipe
- Roofing materials
- Vinyl tile