Inside a Leper Colony in Egypt

Dec 16, 2013 at 12:01 PM ET

Just 25 miles north of Cairo resides the largest leper colony in the Middle East: the Abou Zaabal Leprosarium. The institution, the last of its kind in Egypt, is home to some 750 patients.

Opened in 1932, the area was originally a containment zone at a time when the bacterial infection was still widely misunderstood. The police brought—often forcibly—anyone spotted with the symptoms for quarantine at Abou Zaabal, which was then effectively a prison.

Abdul Khalik al-Sayid, 56, was brought to the leprosarium when he was just 17. “It was awful in the beginning,” he says. “There was nothing here. There were just two nurses and more than 1,500 of us.”

Today Abou Zaabal is a self-sustainable haven for those afflicted by a disease that many people are unaware still exists. There are now 70 nurses who tend to the patients using modern drug treatments that have helped cure hundreds of their suffering.

On the grounds surrounding the main hospital building are dozens of patient wards nestled among the cultivated, leafy landscape. Each ward comes with 32 beds, two TVs, two kitchens, a fridge and freezer.

Abou Zaabal is more than just a hospital, it’s a community. Inside its gates is a mosque that can seat up to 150 people, a water treatment facility, a shoemaker, bakery, barber and even a prison.

Outside the walls of Abou Zaabal sit large agricultural fields, growing an assortment of fruits and vegetables. It is a source of great satisfaction for al-Sayid.

The vast majority of those at the leprosarium are “negative” or noncontagious, but the progressive nature of the infection means that if symptoms aren’t treated quickly, patients are often left with striking physical disfigurements.

Al-Sayid laments the stigma that continues to be attached to leprosy and the people who suffer from it. “Many people are still scared and disrespectful. They look at you like you’re contagious and won’t have anything to do with you.”

The residents stress the feeling of comfort and contentment they have in Abou Zaabal. It is one of the reasons why, even after many are cured, they continue to live and work on or near the grounds. Thousands of patients no longer suffering from leprosy reside in the neighboring Abdel Moneim Riyad village and work inside the leprosarium, many even building families within the community.

“In Abu Zaabal I married a fellow patient,” says al-Sayid. “We have a perfectly healthy son who is serving in the army.” Leaning back he smiles, “It is beautiful. Here I’m happy, here I’m comfortable.”